Before law school, politics and the White House, and long before he met Michelle, Barack Obama was a smart, soul-searching college student in New York — and one of those maddening, emotionally-distant dudes you remember from your early 20s.
Yes, our colleague David Maraniss, in researching his forthcoming bio “Barack Obama: The Story,” managed to track down the future president’s ex-girlfriends. And they turned over their letters and journals from that vaguely embarrassing time of one’s life.
In an excerpt in the new Vanity Fair, the youthful Obama is pretty much what you’d expect from any 20-something introvert: Self-contained, self-absorbed, and prone to overwrought prose. POTUS may be cringing right now, as any of us would. But Maraniss told us Wednesday he had no qualms about publishing details about the young lovers: “The book is, after all, biography,” he said. “The letters and diary entries are more perceptive than salacious.”
Obama’s first college crush was the brainy Alex McNear, a literary type he met at Occidental College before transferring to Columbia for his junior year. The two reconnected when she came to New York in 1982 and had one of those dark-restaurant-talk-all-night summer romances.
The long-distance relationship eventually ended, but first they exchanged passionate letters with literary name-dropping: “Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats,” Obama wrote her. “You seem surprised at Eliot’s irreconcilable ambivalence; don’t you share this ambivalence yourself, Alex?” [Read also: Lit prof analyzes Obama’s take on T.S. Eliot, 5/3/12]
Obama’s first serious girlfriend came the following year, in 1983, when the 22-year-old fell for an older woman at a Christmas party in the East Village: Genevieve Cook, 25, an Australian elementary school teacher. A few days later he made her dinner and she spent the night. “It all felt very inevitable,” she told Maraniss.
The two bonded quickly, he writes: “She kept a journal, as he did, and thought of herself as an observer, as he did, and brooded about her identity, as he did, and had an energetic, independent, and at times exasperating mother, as he did, and burned with an idealism to right the wrongs of the world, as he did.”
Throughout their 18-month romance, Cook recorded her thoughts about her oh-so-elusive lover:
• “How is he so old already, at the age of 22?”
• “The sexual warmth is definitely there — but the rest of it has sharp edges. . . Tho he speaks sweet words and can be open and trusting, there is also that coolness — and I begin to have an inkling of some things about him that could get to me.”
• “Barack — still intrigues me, but so much going on beneath the surface, out of reach. Guarded, controlled.”
The young couple spent a lot of time cooking: He loved to make ginger beef and tuna-fish sandwiches made the way his grandfather had taught him, with finely chopped dill pickles, writes Maraniss. They read books — Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, and Ntozake Shange — and talked about them. But it was a lopsided affair: “When she told him that she loved him, his response was not “I love you, too” but “thank you”—as though he appreciated that someone loved him.”
By May 1985, it was over. “I read back over the past year in my journals,” wrote Cook. “I guess I hoped time would change things and he’d let go and ‘fall in love’ with me. Now, at this point, 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.”
Early in their relationship, Obama told Cook (who was white) about his “perfect ideal woman” — whom Cook imagined would be “very strong, very upright, a fighter, a laugher, well-experienced — a black woman I keep seeing her as.”
Maraniss tells us Cook was not Obama’s last serious relationship before he met Michelle in 1989 — but didn’t reveal any more details. The book hits stores June 19.
Read David Maraniss’s series of essays about the lives of Obama and other 2012 candidates: