By Jeff Leen
One of President Clinton's closest confidants says Lewinsky's drive, ambition and personality were "impressive." But White House aides say she was distracted in her job and had a conspicuous crush on the president. Her former boss at the Pentagon calls her competent, reliable and energetic. But others there fault her for making sexually explicit jokes and time-wasting phone calls. She is described by some as "sweet," "polite" and "intelligent"; by others as "arrogant," "spoiled" and "immature."
A government official who interviewed Lewinsky when she first applied for her ill-fated White House internship experienced first-hand what might be called the problem of the two Monicas. The FBI had found nothing derogatory in Lewinsky's background. But then there were the intangibles.
"There goes trouble," the official said he thought to himself after the interview, "or there goes something special."
This account of Lewinsky is based on dozens of interviews with people who knew her in California, Oregon and Washington, D.C., including neighbors, teachers, fellow students, and co-workers. Some information was also culled from court records and other documents obtained by The Washington Post.
What emerges is the story of a strange collision of Beltway power and L.A. glitz, willfulness and hard work, coursing ambition and careening naivete, and perhaps that explains why so many people disagree so strongly about the woman at the center of it.
To some, it was an accident waiting to happen. Not three years removed from her undergraduate days, Lewinsky claimed to have received gifts from the president -- she bragged to a Washington Post reporter a year ago that she gave him a tie -- and she got career help from Washington lawyer Vernon E. Jordan Jr.
All this from someone who started the 1990s as a high school student in Beverly Hills, 90210. Whose mother wrote a salacious book about opera singers. Who once gave the Los Angeles Times an admiring quote about a soap opera: " 'Days of Our Lives' adds spice to life," Lewinsky told a reporter in a 1991 interview.
Now her life has become the ultimate soap opera, far more salacious than anything her mother could write.
"She is at the vortex of a storm involving probably the three most powerful men in the United States -- the president, Vernon Jordan and the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr," Lewinsky's lawyer, William Ginsburg, told CNN yesterday. "She's devastated."
So far the young life of Monica Samille Lewinsky, 24, doctor's daughter, psychology major, White House intern, Pentagon assistant, neatly divides into West Coast and East Coast. In both places she was bubbly, vivacious and ambitious, many say. On the West Coast she prospered. On the East Coast, armed with a high-level security clearance and access to the West Wing of the White House, she has begun to pay the price.
Her painful predicament comes through in conversations that were secretly taped by her friend and confidante, Linda R. Tripp. One of those conversations was described by Newsweek magazine this way:
"Look, maybe we should just tell the creep," Lewinsky says to Tripp. "Maybe we should just say, don't ever talk to me again, I [expletive] you over [by telling others about the affair], now you have this information, do whatever you want with it."
The demarcation between her two lives occurred in the summer of 1995 when Lewinsky rode family connections into a job at the White House, fresh from a typical student existence at Lewis & Clark College, set among the tall firs outside Portland, Ore.
Within a few months, in the hallowed hush of America's most historic residence, Lewinsky would later claim to her friend Tripp that she began a sexual relationship with the president of the United States.
Before then, she was an ordinary twentysomething Gen Xer, unremarkable except for her family's money and her own drive to make something of herself.
Her neighbors in Portland remember her with upbeat phrases: nice, pretty, amiable, sweet, energetic, vibrant. She baby-sat for her young married neighbors. She invited some elderly neighbors to a backyard barbecue. "It was all very decorous," recalled Carl Pape, 84. "We liked her."
To be sure, she was not the shy, retiring type. She had an L.A. quality about her, a bit of flash, according to friends and old neighbors. Underneath the effervescent sugarplum exterior, evidence of a slight edge emerges. When a couple looking to buy a house showed up unexpectedly to tour the rental group home Lewinsky occupied, she met them at the door with sweetness and light. Later she complained to the real estate agent about the invasion of her privacy.
Her sweetness and edge developed in two of the nation's plushest neighborhoods, Brentwood and Beverly Hills. Born in San Francisco on July 23, 1973, Monica Lewinsky moved with her family when she was a young girl to the fashionable suburb of Brentwood, where her father is a prominent radiation oncologist who practices in nearby Van Nuys at the Western Tumor Medical Group and teaches at UCLA. His office told a Post reporter that he was out of town and could not be reached.
Her parents endured an acrimonious divorce in 1987, according to court records in Los Angeles. In the documents, the Lewinskys' lifestyle is described as "extravagant," including vacations that cost more than $20,000, a 1987 Mercedes 560 SEL and a Cadillac Allante. They split property that included a $1.6 million Beverly Hills home. Lewinsky's mother demanded $760 a month for psychiatric care for Monica and her brother, alleging the children were "totally inhibited and in fear" of their father's verbal assaults. Bernard Lewinsky denied his wife's account in court papers. "This is an absolutely ludicrous statement without any factual basis," he responded.
From 1988 to 1990, Lewinsky attended famed Beverly Hills High School. Unafraid to speak up in class, she was known among classmates and teachers for her spunk. "She was very, very nice, very social, extra outgoing," a fellow student said. "A very sweet person."
"This girl was a hard, hard worker who put in long, long hours in the theater department working on the technical crews," a former teacher said. "She was working in the trenches. She was not one of those 'Beverly Hills, 90210' girls."
Lewinsky transferred out of Beverly Hills High with a year to go before her graduation. She entered Bel Air Prep School, an exclusive, 200-student private school where tuition is $12,000 a year. She was graduated from Bel Air Prep, since renamed Pacific Hills School, in 1991.
After graduation, Lewinsky attended Santa Monica College, a two-year community college. But she kept a link with Beverly Hills High, working as an assistant to the costume designer in the school drama department.
In 1993, she transferred for her final two years to Lewis & Clark College, a 3,400-student liberal arts school. Citing Oregon's educational privacy law, faculty members at Lewis & Clark declined to talk about Lewinsky. "I choose not to add to the fracas," said psychology professor Erik Nilsen.
But Jean Kempe-Ware, college spokeswoman, said Lewinsky made the dean's list one term in 1994. She was one of about 40 psychology majors in a graduating class of 362 in 1995.
Lewinsky lived off campus in a house she shared with four other students on Hassalo Street in Northeast Portland for nearly two years. The house, a two-story, four-bedroom bungalow built in 1915, has hardwood floors and a distinctive fireplace.
Brian Larson, who purchased the house and moved in after Lewinsky and her friends moved out, said it appeared to be a typical student rental with cheap furniture and poor upkeep.
"She seemed at the time a typical college student," said Larson, recalling the day he and his wife toured the house. "I do remember she was very friendly while we were here but after we left she was real upset that we came by. She didn't like her privacy being violated."
Her less flattering side came through to a man who described himself as a college friend. Appearing on Nightline Thursday, Stephen Enghouse questioned Lewinsky's credibility, saying she was "kind of young, seeks attention, and I believe, would be prone to sensationalize or overdramatize or exaggerate specific areas or instances in her life that would cause her to gain more attention."
But Enghouse did not cite specifics and said he had not talked to Lewinsky in three years.
On one of the tapes, Lewinsky reportedly said, "I have lied my entire life."
If so, it did not create problems for her until recently.
Monica Lewinsky got from Lewis & Clark to the White House through the intervention of retired New York insurance magnate Walter Kaye, a friend of Hillary Clinton and Lewinsky's family, according to a government investigator. Kaye also is a large contributor to the Democratic Party and was once an overnight guest at the White House.
Kaye and his wife, Selma, have given at least $388,000 to the Democratic National Committee since Clinton was elected in 1992, and about $80,000 more to other Democratic committees and candidates, including Clinton, according to federal campaign records.
Kaye did not return a reporter's call seeking comment.
Kaye is friends with Lewinsky's mother, Marcia Lewis, 49, a writer. In 1996, Lewis published "The Private Lives of the Three Tenors: Behind the Scenes With Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras."
In the publicity for the book, Lewis teases the reader with the idea that she had an affair with Domingo.
"How did the reporter, a glamorous Beverly Hills writer . . . get all the inside dope? She denies rumors she and Domingo were more than friends in the '80s but read the book and see what you think."
For at least part of her tenure as an intern in Washington, Lewinsky has lived with her mother in a family apartment at the Watergate Hotel.
As one of about 1,000 unpaid interns taken on by the White House each year, Lewinsky began work in June 1995 in the office of then-Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta. One White House intern, who worked near Lewinsky during the summer of 1995, recalled that she seemed obsessed with Clinton and portrayed herself as having an uncommon amount of interaction with him.
"She would come into our office . . . and tell stories," said the intern, who asked not be identified. "It would be things like, she got a message from the president, and he needed to see her as soon as possible, or the flowers she got on her desk were from the president."
The intern scoffed. "I would think, 'Right. Well, I just got a call from the Kremlin.' It just seemed rather unlikely. After a while, I just couldn't believe her any more."
The day Clinton posed for a group picture with that summer's crop of interns, the intern recalled, Lewinsky "was fixing her hair and jumping up and down."
But another former intern, Shannon Joyce, a 22-year-old George Washington University senior who worked in the same office as Lewinsky during the fall of 1995, remembers her co-worker merely as extroverted, hard-working and ambitious. "Obviously, to work in the White House for nothing, you have to admire the president and believe in his policies, but [Lewinsky said] nothing out of the ordinary," Joyce recalled.
Lewinsky moved from her unpaid position in the chief of staff's office to a paid position handling letters for the Office of Legislative Affairs in December 1995, a month after the time she later claimed to Tripp that she began the relationship with the president.
In April 1996, she went to the Pentagon as a $30,658-a-year assistant to chief Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon. White House officials say they engineered the move because Lewinsky appeared to be infatuated with Clinton.
Lewinsky stuck out in the staid Pentagon because she was much younger and more colorful than everyone else.
During a bus ride with a Washington Post reporter around Budapest last July, Lewinsky cheerfully, and casually, mentioned that she had given President Clinton a tie, which she said he had worn during the State of the Union address.
Lewinsky said she was good at picking out ties, and on more than one occasion she was known to grab and comment on the tie of a defense official. Some found the action outright flirtatious, others said it was just the kind of forward type of thing she did, seemingly oblivious to how others around her might view it.
More than one defense official well beyond her age and stature -- as nearly all of them in the Pentagon were -- noticed her flirtations. She had a romantic relationship with one high-ranking civilian and she talked about it to a colleague she barely knew, according to that colleague.
As the two women walked down the wide, white linoleum hallways of the Pentagon, Lewinsky blurted out the name of the man and confided that she liked him a lot but that he had stopped calling her. "What should I do?" she asked the colleague, mortifying a woman nearly twice her age. The woman made a point of avoiding Lewinsky from then on.
In an interview this week, the high-ranking official said he could not comment on the matter "under the circumstances," but reminded the reporter that he is not married.
Still, despite her frivolity, Lewinsky was known as a hard worker. She usually worked well past 7 p.m., sometimes until 4 a.m. when she was on overseas assignment.
Her boss, Bacon, said, "I certainly found her able to do her job and I found her reliable." Bacon appreciated her youthful attitude and said he hired her -- without pressure from the White House -- because he liked her energy.
"She had a lot of imagination. She liked to talk to people and had a good sense of humor. She liked to orchestrate birthday parties."
The tapes Tripp recorded make clear that Lewinsky had recently lost some of that youthful exuberance.
"I was thinking about the fact that I sent a note to Nancy [Hernreich, an assistant to the president], a note to Betty [Currie, the president's personal secretary], and a note to creep to thank them all for when my family came for the radio address. The note I sent to him, 'Dear Schmucko, thank you for being, as my little nephew said, it was great to meet the principal of the United States.' "
Staff writers Charles R. Babcock, Ceci Connolly, Ira Chinoy, William Claiborne, Amy Goldstein, Dana Priest and Bob Woodward, special correspondent Cassandra Stern and staff researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company