In new bio, Obama's youthful romances take centre stage
A new biography of US President Barack Obama paints a personal picture of the conflicted young man who moved to New York in 1981 - drawing on the accounts of former girlfriends who have spoken publicly for the first time.
For "Barack Obama: The Story," Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Maraniss tracked down two of Obama's old flames, interviewed them and read their letters and journals. Excerpts published in the latest issue of Vanity Fair showed the future US president as a thoughtful young man in search of himself.
In 1981, Obama was a university student in the midst of an identity crisis. Then in his early 20s, Obama had just transferred from Occidental College in Los Angeles to Columbia University and was sharing a New York apartment with a friend. Heating and hot water were a rare luxury. The roommates spent much of their time at the university library, parts of which were open all night.
"I was leading a very ascetic existence, way too serious for my own good," recalled Obama in an interview with Maraniss in the Oval Office.
But when Alex McNear, a literary-minded classmate from Occidental, came to New York for the summer, that changed. She and Obama reconnected in a summer romance of long walks, intense discussions and "hanging out," as she recalled in interviews with the biographer.
McNear returned to California in the fall, but the two kept up a long-distance relationship, conducted largely in letters McNear saved and shared with Maraniss. They showed Obama's obsession, even then, with the ideas of choice and free will. At a time of decision about the direction of his adult life, he admitted envying friends who were "moving toward the mainstream."
"Caught without a class, a structure or tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me," Obama wrote in a letter to McNear.
The two eventually drifted apart, and in December 1983, Obama met Genevieve Cook, the daughter of an Australian diplomat, at a Christmas party. They exchanged phone numbers and had dinner together a few days later. In an interview, Cook recalled he cooked for her.
"Then we went and talked in his bedroom, and then I spent the night. It all felt very inevitable," she told Maraniss.
Obama wrote of Cook in his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father.
"There was a woman in New York that I loved. ... She was white. She had dark hair and specks of green in her eyes. Her voice sounded like a wind chime," he wrote.
Although the subject of much speculation, the identity of Obama's New York mystery woman remained unknown until now. Maraniss was the first to track down Cook and gain access to her journals.
They contain a detailed record of the relationship, down to impressions from Obama's bedroom: a "mixture of smells that so strongly speak of his presence, his liveliness, his habits - running sweat, Brut spray deodorant, smoking, eating raisins, sleeping, breathing."
Soon the two were spending much of their time together, reading, cooking and eventually sharing an apartment in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood.
But Cook's journal entries showed Obama always kept a certain distance. She told him she loved him, and he answered, "Thank you."
Even early on in the relationship, Cook expressed doubts. "The sexual warmth is definitely there - but the rest of it has sharp edges, and I'm finding it all unsettling and finding myself wanting to withdraw from it all," she wrote in February 1984.
In May 1985, the two split.
"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," Cook wrote. "Hard to say, as obviously I was not the person that brought infatuation. (That lithe, bubbly, strong black lady is waiting somewhere!)"
Michelle Obama has not commented publicly on the book. The president, however, spent a nearly unprecedented 90 minutes with Maraniss, discussing the biographer's research.
"The essence of this book is a search for home and identity," Maraniss said in an interview that accompanied the excerpt. Obama's family "certainly shaped him but so did his long search for family."
But it is the ex-girlfriend angle that has made headlines.
Although the remembrances published so far haven't contained any bombshells, Maraniss' book has the White House nervous, according to the Politico website.
Despite many other books about him, Obama's own memoirs have until now served as the defining public account of his life. Politico said Obama's advisers are concerned the prominence of the new biography could supplant the image they have carefully controlled.