By Amy Goldstein and Lorraine Adams
Before she became one of the most recognized names in America, before she began a cloistered existence under her lawyers' constant guard, Monica Samille Lewinsky already seemed out of step with Washington. But she also does not fit comfortably within the stereotypes that have come to define her public image in the three months since a special prosecutor began exploring a sexual relationship she is alleged to have shared with President Clinton.
Monica Lewinsky's life in Washington was not merely that of the spoiled rich girl transplanted from Beverly Hills, though her Georgetown hairdresser made house calls to her apartment once a week. Nor was she incompetent, although young co-workers at the White House noticed her overblown fluster whenever her computer froze.
In fact, she was struggling through the unfamiliar waltz of a city she only partly understood. Lewinsky could seem extroverted, brash, giddy at proximity to power. She could be tough enough that, when she found herself in an FBI sting in January at the Pentagon City shopping mall, she withstood 10 hours of questioning without yielding. Yet her insecurities were near the surface -- a longing for acceptance, an uncomfortable self-image, a tendency to be drawn more easily to older men and women than to her peers.
She had an air of sophistication, but remained deep under her family's wing. When she turned 23 in July 1996, her birthday party was at The Palm, the city's seat of power dining. It was her mother, Marcia Lewis, who organized the party and seemed to have the best time. Lewinsky drove a Mercedes and went home to an elegant duplex at the Watergate. Both belonged to her mother.
It is, then, a complicated, vulnerable woman still reaching toward adulthood who is the star of a sexual melodrama that has caused Pennsylvania Avenue to tremble. If her own tape-recorded words are to be believed, Lewinsky had an 18-month affair with the president while working as an intern and clerk at the White House and, later, as an executive assistant at the Pentagon.
Because of her, at least three dozen witnesses -- including several of Clinton's closest aides and friends -- have been forced to file into the federal courthouse here, as independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr leads a grand jury through evidence of whether Clinton obstructed justice. Starr is exploring the possibility that the president enlisted help last year in finding Lewinsky a corporate public relations job in New York in gratitude for her willingness to lie about their relationship.
For most of the last two months, the kaleidoscope of Starr's inquiry has been bringing other people into focus: the secretaries, stewards and Secret Service officers in the Oval Office, the other women rumored to have had sexual encounters with the president.
Now Lewinsky is back squarely in the center. U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson has decided that Lewinsky's lawyers did not reach a binding agreement with Starr that would allow her to testify without fear of prosecution. The judge's written order, made public last week, means that Starr is free to decide whether to give Lewinsky such immunity, compel her to testify without it, or indict her for perjury.
Even if Lewinsky does tell the grand jury about her interactions with Clinton, what she says may not resolve the most intriguing question that lingers despite all of Starr's work: Did the alleged affair really exist? Her own statements have conflicted at times. And her close friends and co-workers cannot say for sure. Some believe it happened. Others do not. What those who know her can do is help explain whether she might be capable of such an affair, and to help explain the real person behind the now-ubiquitous images of the young woman with the shiny hair and dark beret.
This story is based on interviews with two dozen people who have known Lewinsky during her nearly three years in Washington, her college days in Oregon and childhood in Los Angeles. On her lawyers' advice, Lewinsky declined to be interviewed for this article or to give written answers to questions delivered to her by The Washington Post. Her mother, father and brother also declined to grant interviews or respond to letters sent by The Post.
"She wore her emotions on her sleeve," said one of her Pentagon colleagues. "Somebody sophisticated about Washington is not supposed to get excited about things."
Yet her world in Washington, like her life elsewhere, did not seem entirely fulfilling. "You could tell she was missing home, or missing something," said Theresa Lovett, a Portland friend. "I never understood what it was."
By the time she moved to Washington, Lewinsky already had gotten an insider's glimpse into the nation's capital. Her eyes were opened during a trip she made in the summer of 1993 at the invitation of a Los Angeles friend who was working at the White House. There was the vibrancy and prestige of the White House itself. There was the sense of history and the aesthetic of East Coast architecture, appealing to a young woman who had spent her life in the West. Washington beckoned -- a romantic city.
Her mother decided to move here from Los Angeles in the fall of 1994. Lewinsky, in her last year at Lewis & Clark College, was excited. The following spring, when she graduated with a degree in psychology, little taste for graduate school and little feel for what she wanted to do, Lewinsky turned to her mother, as she often did. "Going home would certainly be going to Mom, versus going to Dad's," said one longtime friend in Los Angeles. Lewis consulted, in turn, with Walter Kaye, a friend and major Democratic donor, who told the new college graduate that White House internships were made for people just like her. So he helped her get one.
Most of the White House interns love and live politics. Lewinsky did not. "Monica was never a political person. She never discussed politics," said an old friend. And, according to people who worked with her, she did not take to Washington's ways quickly. In a setting in which her young co-workers could debate the nuances of arcane policy and recite legislators' voting records from memory, Lewinsky remained inattentive to CNN and unaware of even well-known members of Congress.
Even so, unlike most of the interns, Lewinsky stayed on for a second internship, then got a prized paying job around Thanksgiving 1995. In the Office of Legislative Affairs, the job came with a salary of about $25,000, but it relegated her to the basement of the East Wing.
It was a new setting, but not that different from her days at Beverly Hills High School, when Lewinsky had been part of the theater crowd but never the lead ingenue. For the most part, "she was the head costumer for the actors. She wasn't the actor," recalled a friend who knew her back then.
At the White House, "she just wasn't the cream of the crop in terms of the kids who were the leaders," said one White House aide who worked with her. "I thought she was just kind of . . . right in the middle -- not a star, but not someone who was a total incompetent."
What did come through was a kind of overeagerness that made the regulars at the White House uncomfortable. "There was just always a vague sense she was just a little too much on the make," the official said. It wasn't a sexual aggressiveness, although some saw that too. It was more an unmasked yet unfocused ambition. Though the White House affords its young workers a built-in social network, Lewinsky was not part of the crowd. To some, she seemed nostalgic for California and self-conscious about her appearance.
Discomfort with her looks had been a theme in Lewinsky's life. When her parents divorced, Lewinsky was nearly 14, and she began to get heavier. While she was estranged from her father for several years and her mother was adjusting to life as a single woman, she gravitated toward the mother of a boy, Adam Dave, who was her steady the summer they both were 13.
Laraine Dave tried to help Lewinsky understand the psychological roots of overeating. "It was an emotional hunger she was trying to satisfy," said Dave, who still lives in Los Angeles. Lewinsky's weight kept her from shining completely in the high school drama program she loved. She tried out for parts, and won a few. But Dave said, "The real parts required a different body type. She had the face. She had the talent. She had everything. Her weight was an obstacle."
By the time she arrived in Washington, Lewinsky had a figure that, while not model-thin, was not particularly overweight. Still, a co-worker from her stint in legislative affairs recalls that she was self-deprecating, telling him, "I'm so fat. I'm so fat." That same insecurity permeates a series of e-mail messages that Lewinsky sent last year to her former friend, Linda R. Tripp, and were later obtained by Newsweek magazine. "Boy, I look so scary today," one March 1997 message begins. "People might think that I thought it was Halloween."
In Lewinsky's relationship with Laraine Dave and her family, it is also possible to see her tendencies -- evident again and again at different phases of her life -- to bond with older people and to imbue her relationships with great emotional intensity. Even as a teenager, Lewinsky had keen insight, said Dave, who remembers leaning on her young friend for advice about her stepdaughter, a law student at the time. "She could be on my level," Dave recalled. "She was an old soul . . . a very intelligent girl way beyond her years."
Lewinsky's attachment to Dave and her family was strong. Years after their brief romance, even after Adam had started to date one of Lewinsky's best friends, Lewinsky would tell his mother she knew she was destined to one day win back her son. And her attention to Laraine Dave's birthday was unfailing. One year, Lewinsky arrived at 7 a.m., bearing pastry, orange juice and a gift. Another year, she gave her an apron. It said Durga -- which she believed was Sanskrit for "mother."
It was that same intensity that Lewinsky devoted to Andy Bleiler, a married theater technician at Beverly Hills High who became her lover for five years until last spring. After Lewinsky had left the famous high school -- first for a smaller private school, then a Los Angeles community college -- she sometimes would walk, unannounced, right into the middle of Bleiler's class, saying she needed to talk, according to Terry Giles, Bleiler's attorney.
Later, when Lewinsky had moved to Portland, she took a perilous step. Bleiler was looking for a job there, so Lewinsky made it look as if one might exist. According to two sources familiar with the episode, she took stationery from her college theater department, wrote Bleiler a letter saying the department had job opportunities for him, and signed the name of a college employee. The employee got the letter by accident, because of a mistake in the address.
And once Lewinsky arrived in Washington, it was that intensity, again, that some thought they glimpsed in her feelings for Clinton. As a letter-writer in the legislative affairs office, Lewinsky had to bring the correspondence from her East Wing basement office to the West Wing, the inner sanctum, to be proofread and signed. Others who have held that job made the trip when they had a big stack. Lewinsky took tiny batches many times a day, according to a White House official.
And after her obvious crush on Clinton helped prompt White House officials to transfer Lewinsky to the Pentagon, her new co-workers there would tease her. Whenever Clinton appeared on television during the day, she was riveted to the small TV near her desk. Was she looking, her co-workers would ask, to see if the president was wearing the now-famous tie she had given him?
It was April 1996, less than a year after she had come to Washington, when Lewinsky reluctantly left the White House for a Pentagon job as the assistant to Kenneth Bacon, the main spokesman. Her workdays began before 7:30 a.m. and often ended at 8 or 9 at night. When Bacon went in on Saturday, Lewinsky went too.
The job had a perk: foreign trips with the defense secretary. But to her surprise, "she saw the whole world from inside an airplane and a second-rate hotel," said William H. Ginsburg, her attorney. It was her duty while traveling to transcribe the press briefings. So while the rest of the entourage dined, she hunted and pecked in her hotel room late into the night.
Bulent Bozdemir, the hairdresser whom Lewinsky visited twice a week to style her curly hair into the sleek look she favors, said she often canceled 7 p.m. appointments because she was still at work. So she began making once-a-week trips to his salon, alternating with his visits to her apartment.
This pattern of hard work was not new. In Portland, she had held a job at a tie shop, babysat and treated her schoolwork seriously. "Monica was not spoiled," said Karl Fulmer, one of her Portland housemates. "She studied a lot at the house; she didn't run around having a grand old time."
In college, another familiar pattern was on display: She seemed a bit out of sync with the local culture. Her housemates in the four-bedroom bungalow where she lived were all men in their late twenties who favored tie-dyes and Birkenstocks. She listened to Broadway musicals and had trouble remembering to recycle. She had phone sessions with her Los Angeles therapist, talking about her weight and her relationships with her father and with Bleiler.
For all her differences, she seemed eager to forge connections, sometimes in her typically extravagant style. Soon after she moved in, the college junior single-handedly organized a block party for her neighbors, mostly middle-aged people and retirees, who were touched by her gesture. Her housemates also were fond of her and sensed that she needed them. "We served as her closest friends and support system," said Fulmer.
At the Pentagon, she found herself an outsider too. She was young, female and from a more privileged background than most of her co-workers. And, after evincing too little interest in politics while at the White House, she was now bursting with political opinions -- invariably liberal -- in a workplace in which political conversations were rare.
But most of all, in a military environment of buttoned-up emotions, Lewinsky was effusive. After a tiring plane ride to Scandinavia, members of a Pentagon traveling party were disappointed when their hotel rooms were not ready. Lewinsky's co-workers sat in the lobby, quietly resigned. She burst into tears.
In her zeal to help Bacon prepare for briefings and trips, Lewinsky grated on many of her co-workers. What one friend saw as normal youthful energy, they saw as frantic. "She seemed to be kind of on both ends of the spectrum, both in being too happy and too sad, instead of being kind of professional and focused," remembers one person who knew her from the Pentagon.
By now, she was dating an older man at the Pentagon and had become friendly with a young White House worker, Ashley Raines. Few in her office were aware that she also had grown close to another White House transplant who was working in the Pentagon's public affairs office: Tripp, who later, it would turn out, betrayed her young friend by making secret tape recordings of Lewinsky describing her alleged sexual relationship with the president.
But for the most part, said another friend from the Pentagon, "I don't think she was thrilled with her social life. She wasn't a highly social person. Hobnobbing in Georgetown? There was none of that. I don't think she had a best friend here." When the two had dinner sometimes after work, the friend recalled, "the kind of places we went were usually low-key, quiet -- a dead empty sushi bar."
Bozdemir, her former hairdresser, recalls Lewinsky talking of dinners with her mother or with her aunt, Debra Finerman, who also lives at the Watergate, or occasionally with her younger brother Michael, who visited often from Pittsburgh, where he is a college student.
But her mother was spending more time in New York, and Lewinsky was often alone. As last year wore on, her thoughts began to turn to New York, too. According to R. Peter Straus, a New York communications executive who is engaged to her mother, Lewinsky was feeling "a little bit of burnout" with government work.
Last September, Lewis took an apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Straus said. It is essentially a studio, but she made sure to find one with a little extra space for her daughter.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company