Mar 5, 2014
07:05 AM
Connecticut Today

In Connecticut on Minimum Wage, Will Obama Recall Long-Ago Norfolk Visit With a Girlfriend?

 
In Connecticut on Minimum Wage, Will Obama Recall Long-Ago Norfolk Visit With a Girlfriend?

An official White House portrait of President Barack Obama.

Editor's note: With President Barack Obama visiting Connecticut today to discuss efforts to increase the minimum wage nationally, we were reminded of a another, long-ago and much different connection between the president and the state, his visit to tiny, rural Norfolk in Litchfield County three decades ago with his then-girlfriend. Below is a story about that visit, and the book that chronicled it, which originally appeared in a sister publication, The Litchfield County Times, in June 2012.
Meanwhile, the president is expected to arrive at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain at 2:30 p.m. today. Follow Mary O'Leary @nhrmoleary, our Connecticut Magazine political reporterJen Swift, @byjenniferswift, and Shahid Abdul-Karim, @Shahid_Akarim for updates during his speech.
According to a New Haven Register story, a Quinnipiac Poll released Tuesday morning found that 71 percent of registered voters favor boosting the state minimum wage to $10.10 by 2017, matching Obama’s proposal at the federal level.

 

NORFOLK—News that President Barack Obama once had a girlfriend whose family owns a home in Norfolk has run rampant across the Internet, with everything from an eight-page extract in Vanity Fair of Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss’ biography, “Barack Obama: The Story,” to commentary on the Vanity Fair piece by New Yorker magazine, to snippy bloggers with political agendas taking their bites out of the story.

The national obsession with the story is, of course, not so much that Genevieve Cook, daughter of Helen Jessup and step-daughter of Philip Jessup, brought the future president home for a weekend visit to a rural community some 29 years ago. It centers on Ms. Cook’s revelations about her young beau, as entered into her diaries of the time—diaries that detail her impressions of a young man struggling to define himself and his place in society.

The fact of her existence—but not her name—had been known before, as they were revealed in the president’s own book, “Dreams of My Father.” He cautioned in his introduction to the book that he had “compressed” the identities of some people who appeared in his book—melding characteristics of several girlfriends into one—and that he had changed the chronology of some events, but interest was piqued about the mystery woman of his New York years.

“There was a woman in New York that I loved,” he wrote guardedly in his book. “She was white. She had dark hair, and specks of green in her eyes. Her voice sounded like a wind chime. We saw each other for almost a year. On the weekends, mostly. Sometimes in her apartment, sometimes in mine. You know how you can fall into your own private world? Just two people, hidden and warm. Your own language. Your own customs. That’s how it was.”

Mr. Obama referred to her only as “a woman” or “my friend.” It was not until the publication of Mr. Maraniss’ book that her identity was revealed and the details of that long-ago liaison were explored. In the president’s own account, Ms. Cook is introduced to reflect the search of his post-college years as he sought to define his place in society and his racial identity. But in her words, the relationship sounds much like all those lovely, yearning young love affairs that seekers after truth and beauty engage in.

It is a tale of shared experience—she, the daughter of Michael Cook, a prominent Australian diplomat, and art historian Helen Ibbitson, had spent years in Jakarta that overlapped with Obama’s own stay there. Her Australian accent was familiar to his ears because of his life in Indonesia. “They talked nonstop, moving from one subject to another, sharing an intense and immediate affinity, enthralled by the randomness of their meeting and how much they had in common,” Mr. Maraniss wrote. “They had lived many places but never felt at home.”

Indeed, he reports that Ms. Cook felt much affinity for the brilliant young man, finding a sanctuary from her parents’ and her step-father’s prominent social circles in his rent-controlled apartment. Mr. Maraniss quotes her as saying, “That wasn’t my world. I was through and through infused with the sense of being an outsider, like Barack was.”

“She remembered how on Sundays Obama would lounge around, drinking coffee and solving the New York Times crossword puzzle, bare-chested, wearing a blue and white sarong,” Mr. Maraniss wrote. “His bedroom was closest to the front door, offering a sense of privacy and coziness.”

But the sense of alienation and the accompanying caution that he felt eventually led to the demise of the relationship. Mr. Maraniss quotes from her diary for March 9, 1984: “It’s not a question of my wanting to probe ancient pools of emotional trauma … but more a sense of you [Obama] biding your time and drawing others’ cards out of their hands for careful inspection—without giving too much of your own away—played with a good poker face. ...”

Her diary describes him as “guarded, controlled,” and “so wary, wary.” She told Mr. Maraniss that when she articulated her love for Mr. Obama, “his response was not ‘I love you, too,’ but ‘thank you.’”

They spent their time cooking, reading and talking about what they read, Mr. Maraniss wrote. If they went out as a couple, it was almost always with Mr. Obama’s Pakistani friends, “losing themselves in food and conversation.” But even as they enjoyed the camaraderie, he was moving away from both her and his friends.

President Obama acknowledged his insularity during that period when he granted an interview to the author. He recalled that he was then “deep inside my own head … in a way that in retrospect I don’t think was real healthy,” according to Mr. Maraniss. Ms. Cook’s diary entry for Jan. 22, 1984, describes, “A sadness, in a way, that we are both so questioning that original bliss is dissipated—but feels really good not to be faltering behind some façade—to not feel that doubt must be silenced and transmuted into distance.”

Still the relationship struggled on, morphing as it went into President Obama’s own dissertation on the racial and cultural gap between himself and Ms. Cook. In “Dreams of My Father,” he illustrates this growing discomfort in a scene that described his visit to Norfolk: “The parents were there, and they were very nice, very gracious. It was autumn, beautiful, with woods all around us, and we paddled a canoe across this round, icy lake full of small gold leaves that collected along the shore. The family knew every inch of the land. They knew how the hills had formed, how the glacial drifts had created the lake, the names of the earliest white settlers—their ancestors—and before that, the names of the Indians who’d once hunted the land. The house was very old, her grandfather’s house. He had inherited it from his grandfather. The library was filled with old books and pictures of the grandfather with famous people he had known—presidents, diplomats, industrialists. There was this tremendous gravity to the room. Standing in that room, I realized that our two worlds, my friend’s and mine, were as distant from each other as Kenya is from Germany. And I knew that if we stayed together I’d eventually live in hers. After all, I’d been doing it most of my life. Between the two of us, I was the one who knew how to live as an outsider.”

Looking back, Ms. Cook remarked to Mr. Maraniss about the irony of his description. The couple had arrived in Norfolk’s center via Bonanza bus. The Jessup property was, indeed, a 14-acre estate, with woods, brook, and pond and the library was exactly as he described it, cluttered with photographs and memorabilia of the grandfather’s distinguished career, but the family mostly watched the evening news in there, and played charades. What struck her as most ironic, however, was that while she eschewed the “gravity” of her parents’ world, Obama raced forward to embrace the world of diplomats, presidents and industrialists.

In the end, each partner in the relationship concluded he or she had pushed the other away. By the middle of May, 1985, the relationship was over. “Barack leaving my life—at least as far as being lovers goes,” she wrote in her diary on May 23. “In the same way that the relationship was founded on calculated boundaries and carefully, rationally considered developments, it seems to be ending along coolly considered lines.”

The identification of Genevieve Cook as the mysterious New York lover in Mr. Obama’s life caused few ripples in Norfolk, according to First Selectman Sue Dyer. “I haven’t heard anyone say anything other than ‘Oh, isn’t that something,’” she said. Maybe that cool reserve comes from Norfolk’s long history as a haven for the rich and influential. And he is not, after all, the first president to rest within its borders. A century ago William Howard Taft was a guest at another Norfolk estate—and he was already president.

 

In Connecticut on Minimum Wage, Will Obama Recall Long-Ago Norfolk Visit With a Girlfriend?

Reader Comments

comments powered by Disqus