Diana de Vegh's seduction by the future president of the United States began in 1958 in the front seat of his driver's car.
There she was, a Radcliffe College junior, sitting next to John F. Kennedy. It all seemed so astonishing — so heart-flutteringly improbable — to de Vegh. A self-described "nice WASP girl" from New York City, de Vegh, at 20 years old, was realizing she wasn't so sure she wanted the future she was expected to embrace: "a nice marriage to a nice young man and we would live a nice life."
"I literally could not conceive of alternatives," she says now, remembering. "See, that's what I think is so sad. I did not have any idea of something that would be literally fulfilling."
Until, one night in 1958, de Vegh caught Kennedy's eye at a political dinner ahead of his Senate re-election, where he dazzled the room before turning his attention on her. "It was this kind of high-energy sparkle, and then it got focused on me," she says. "It's a tremendous trick to, I think, be lively and energetic and charming everybody all over the place. And then you make one person feel, oh, very special."
Hank Walker/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock; Courtesy Diana de vegh From left: John F. Kennedy in 1957 and Diana de Vegh circa 1963
She leapt at Kennedy's invitation to come to another of his appearances the following week — this time, escorted by his driver. She was charmed by his humor ("I'm really working hard to get one single vote here," he'd quip) and that grin.
"He would put his arm across the back of the seat and I'd think, 'Ooh, I wonder what that means,' " she says. " 'Maybe he was just going to put his arm across the seat, but maybe he meant…' "
Looking back all these years later, de Vegh says, "I'd been caught up in the whirlwind."
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That chance meeting ignited a roughly four-year-long affair — whose ending, after a family tragedy, upended her life even as she kept the relationship a secret for decades (and even as other women came forward to say they had been mistresses as well).
For most of her life, de Vegh remained in the margins: She spoke anonymously for a '90s book on the "dark side of Camelot," the Kennedy mythos; and spoke (but wasn't named) in a Kennedy documentary. Her name appeared in a 2004 book and in anecdotes by an editor boyfriend who had learned of the affair. Still, she held back.
A few years ago, at a workshop, she was encouraged to channel her memories of the affair into a personal essay. She began writing, writing, rewriting.
Now an 83-year-old grandmother of two, de Vegh, a psychotherapist — she tells her clients, "It's all about clarifying the vision and clarifying what gets in the way of the vision and what reinforces it" — is telling her own story in her own words for the first time: in an essay for the digital weekly Air Mail and in a series of interviews with PEOPLE.
In describing the swooping highs of that affair (not, she notes, a love story) she is also accounting for what it cost her, what it taught her about herself.
"I began eventually to question the culture," de Vegh says.
"This was a culture that concretized the gap between 'accomplished men' and young women who can be brought in and out, a conveyor belt of young women," she goes on. "I'm not here to throw dirt at a dead man, but I am here to say the culture is incredibly problematic."
Getty John F. Kennedy leaving the Carlyle Hotel in New York City in 1960
'It Wasn't Just Grab and Push Me Down'
A routine developed in the early days of their relationship: Kennedy led and de Vegh followed. First she attended his campaign rallies, where he would join her on the car ride back to her dorm at Radcliffe in Massachusetts; and, ultimately, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked as an assistant on the National Security Council (a job Kennedy arranged and which she hated, except for the proximity to the president)
De Vegh knew he was married but "I considered myself madly in love," she says. "John Kennedy knew how to make moves, right? I was taken from one situation to another in which he was the star of the show."
(Memory fades, de Vegh admits, and there are some details on which she is shaky. There is also one question she will not answer: Did Kennedy ever kiss her?)
She says they were together, off and on, with rendezvous at his apartment in Boston or the Carlyle Hotel in New York City or, sometimes, the White House. They never, ever mentioned First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy; he never said he loved her.
"What I considered love then was adrenaline, was excitement, was exhilaration," de Vegh says. "Would the telephone ring? Would he call? Oh my God."
President Kennedy, she says, was a courteous, scrupulous figure: "Drinks, dinner" — "between the two of us and maybe one or two of the inside gang" — and "conversation, listen to Johnny Mathis. It wasn't just grab and push me down on the bed."
But theirs was not a burgeoning bond. "Guess who did most of the talking? Let me think. Can we possibly guess? I mean, every now and then he'd say, 'Well, you're smart. Tell me what you think,' " de Vegh says, adding, "If he asked me, he politely listened to what I had to say, but I didn't have very tremendously evolved opinions on any subject."
Things cooled after Kennedy realized, just before his 1961 inauguration, that her father, an economist, was something of a peer in political circles. That seemed to disarm or disorient him — and de Vegh realized he had not considered her deeply enough (or her last name) to make the connection.
By the end of the affair, in 1962, they were seeing each other only every two or three months. The diet of Kennedy's attention, on which de Vegh fed, grew more and more sparse.
"It was the answer to my dreams: I was going to be special, and a special man found me special — and then whoop, we began on the downhill slide and I became less special and I was deflated and I became, oh, not so great at all," de Vegh says.
She had also begun to closely follow the gossip about other women in his life, like Helen Chavchavadze and Mary Meyer.
The young woman who, at 20, "did not have any idea of something that would be literally fulfilling," was consumed by the affair. It all might have kept going as it had until de Vegh's father, Imrie, died in back home in New York in February 1962.
The man whose bright, enormous presence had so shaped her — snuffed out. It was a wake-up. Her life in D.C. would no longer do.
'I Went to Say Goodbye'
De Vegh and the president shared a final, perfunctory conversation in the White House. She takes a measure of satisfaction from her choices then: "I left, so I had some self-respect. In other words, when I went to say goodbye to him, it was me saying goodbye."
It's been many years now. De Vegh, a noted figure in certain New York art and social circles, moved to Paris after D.C. and then returned home. She married and had two daughters. She studied at the Yale Drama School. She acted; got a master's degree in social work; ran a think tank. At 60, she began her psychotherapy practice.
Kelly Tsai Diana de Vegh in 2020
"As women, we have to do the work of self-knowledge so that we are not so vulnerable to these bad guys," she says.
"John Kennedy did not have his womanizing life all by himself," she says. "He had it thanks to many, many, many other men."
De Vegh, though, says she has no regrets. She has lived a whole life.
"I've been engaged for 20 years to my partner. And one of the things that is, to me, so key is that he wants me to do my best and be my best," she says.
"Now I know what love is."