YOU’RE a smart-looking dude fresh out of college with the whole of New York to romance.
You’ve just broken up with a chick from California – it was a long-distance thing and she was a serious literary type who made you write to her about T.S. Eliot.
But then you meet a hot young primary school teacher in a kitchen at some party. You’re wearing jeans, a T-shirt and cool leather jacket. She has an accent and it turns out she’s the daughter of a diplomat. From Australia. A week later she spends the night with you. Score.
She’s comfortable with you lounging around bare-chested in a blue and white sarong – hey, she grew up in Indonesia too – and doesn’t mind that you wear Brut, smoke and eat raisins.
For some reason you break up and years later, while you’re making a name for yourself in politics, you decide to write an autobiography.
Except, you don’t talk about the raisins, the sarong or the fact she’s an Aussie. You just refer to her as “woman in New York that I loved”. And then you start making stuff up.
Which would be fine, if you didn’t go on to become the President of the United States.
Normally, when trouble comes Barack Obama’s way, it’s more of the “North Korea threatens nuclear war” variety. Ex-girlfriend stuff rarely comes up. That’s more Bill Clinton’s patch.
But a new biography threatens to bog down the President by revealing intimate details of his past loves that raise questions about why his memory of the ’80s in New York was so fuzzy.
Obama admitted to David Maraniss, author of Barack Obama: The Story, that “woman in New York” was a “compression” of several girlfriends he had in New York and Chicago.
But there was only one woman he dated in New York and she was Australian Genevieve Cook.
Maraniss had access to Cook’s diaries and they shed light on the character and personality of the young Obama.
“I’m left wondering if Barack’s reserve, etc is not just the time in his life, but, after all, emotional scarring that will make it difficult for him to get involved even after he’s sorted his life through with age and experience,” Cook wrote after breaking up with Obama in 1985. “Hard to say, as obviously I was not the person that brought infatuation. (That lithe, bubbly, strong black lady is waiting somewhere!)”
The diaries, extracts of which appear in the new issue of Vanity Fair, also recall their first night together and what it was about Obama that made him so attractive.
“I’m pretty sure we had dinner maybe the Wednesday after. I think maybe he cooked me dinner. Then we went and talked in his bedroom. And then I spent the night. It all felt very inevitable.”
“I open the door, that Barack keeps closed, to his room, and enter into a warm, private space pervaded by a mixture of smells that so strongly speak of his presence, his liveliness, his habits – running sweat, Brut spray deodorant, smoking, eating raisins, sleeping, breathing.”
She also recalls how Obama would spend Sundays lounging around bare-chested in a blue and white sarong, while drinking coffee and solving The New York Times crossword puzzle. She also talks about his great sexual warmth.
Obama chose to remember things differently for his autobiography, Dreams of My Father.
In one passage he writes about taking his New York girlfriend to see a play by a black playwright:
“It was a very angry play, but very funny. Typical black American humour. The audience was mostly black, and everybody was laughing and clapping and hollering like they were in church. After the play was over, my friend started talking about why black people were so angry all the time. I said it was a matter of remembering – nobody asks why Jews remember the Holocaust, I think I said – and she said that’s different, and I said it wasn’t, and she said that anger was just a dead end. We had a big fight, right in front of the theatre. When we got back to the car she started crying. She couldn’t be black, she said. She would if she could, but she couldn’t. She could only be herself, and wasn’t that enough.”
Maraniss says “none of this none of this happened with Genevieve. She remembered going to the theatre only once with Barack, and it was not to see a work by a black playwright.”
The author put this detail to the President, to which Obama replied: “It is an incident that happened. But not with her. He would not be more specific, but the likelihood is that it happened later, when he lived in Chicago. I was very sensitive in my book not to write about my girlfriends, partly out of respect for them.”
Obama’s autobiography does say in the introduction to Dreams of My Father that “some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known”. But his description of his white New York girlfriend is touching and feels genuine.
“She had dark hair, and specks of green in her eyes. Her voice sounded like a wind chime.” Reading T.S. Eliot paid off.