I normally don’t want to read kiss-and-tell stories, because they seem so unfair and one-sided, but I am hooked on Genevieve Cook. The story of Barack Obama’s New York interlude — a romance between the tortured genius and exotic downtown girl — reminds me of a previous generation's might-have-beens: Suze Rotolo and her young, freewheeling boyfriend Bob Dylan.
I’ve only had a peek at Genevieve so far through David Maraniss’s intrepid reporting, but I want to know so much more! What happened to the 25-year-old Australian-born Park Slope elementary school teacher who was evaluating the future president as boyfriend material in 1983 (and found him lacking)? What became of her after the year she was in love with and then moved on from an intensely engaging but ultimately distant boy still figuring out who to be when he grew up?
We all know what happened to the boy. But until Mariniss reveals more in his new biography titled “Barack Obama, The Story,” I only know that the diplomat’s daughter “is five-seven, lithe and graceful, with auburn-tinged brown hair and flecks of brown … in her hazel eyes.”
Meantime we know from the Vanity Fair excerpt that the romance was not that unusual for 20-somethings of any era.
They met at a copy editor’s east village Christmas gathering 30 years ago, talked till dawn on an orange bean bag chair, had dinner at his Upper West Side apartment and by breakfast time it all felt very “inevitable.”
She was three years older. She jotted down thoughts in her private journal about the recent Columbia grad’s keen ability to read her: “feels really good not to be faltering behind some facade — to not feel that doubt must be silenced and transmuted into distance.”
The connection was mutual. As Barack later lyrically remembered, her voice sounded like “wind chimes” and the two shared their “own private world.” “Just two people, hidden and warm. Your own language. Your own customs.”
But their future together was not to be. Almost immediately she was cautioning herself: “I find his thereness very threatening. ... Distance, distance, distance, and wariness.”
A month after that, she further assessed her boyfriend: “The sexual warmth is definitely there — but the rest of it has sharp edges. ... His warmth can be deceptive. Tho he speaks sweet words and can be open and trusting, there is also that coolness.”
As the young lovers discussed their relationship, she told him she felt excluded from some part of him. At the end of three months, she mused, “Barack — still intrigues me, but so much going on beneath the surface, out of reach. Guarded, controlled.”
By early May, she recognized that they might be on different courses. He had “visions of his life” and was expecting to fly. Her new love’s vision hadn’t “yet started to take off,” she wrote in her notebooks, but he “resents extra weight.”
The relationship nevertheless lasted another year, but Maraniss describes their different levels of commitment to each other: “When she told him that she loved him, his response was not ‘I love you, too’ but ‘thank you.’ ”
Obama later wrote in his memoir: “I pushed her away. We started to fight. We started thinking about the future, and it pressed in on our warm little world.” Genevieve remembers she broke it off.
She recollected to Maraniss that she “chafed at his withheld-ness, his lack of spontaneity, which, eventually, I imagined might be assuaged, or certain elements of it might be, by living together.”
“Because it felt so intrinsically to be part of his character,” she continued, “this careful consideration of everything he does, I saw it, then, as a sort of wound, one which ultimately I decided I was not the person he would ‘fix it’ with.”
Because the spell of the past has been broken, quite soon we will learn much more (maybe more than even I want to know?) about what became of the pretty young school teacher who met “Bahr-ruch” 30 years ago and then continued on a different journey than his. Genevieve guessed he would find his match — (“That lithe, bubbly, strong black lady is waiting somewhere!”) — but now I am wondering if she found hers?
Mariniss told Obama late last year in the Oval Office that he had found Genevieve Cook and the president asked how she was and what she was doing. I suspect by now the White House and its principal occupant have been in contact with the middle-aged woman the former diarist became, and soon, I imagine, for her, the entire twitterverse will feel very up close and personal.
However her life turned out, one thing is certain: Whatever obscurity the once-private citizen carefully maintained is forever gone.