• U.S.

Clinton’s Crisis: MONICA LEWINSKY: The Days Of Her Life

11 minute read
Romesh Ratnesar

When Monica Lewinsky worked in the White House, she had nicknames. One was Elvira, after TV’s vampy Mistress of the Dark–a snickering reference to Lewinsky’s long and big black hair, her fondness for tight, chest-hugging outfits and her coquettish demeanor. Another sobriquet was the Stalker, inspired by her steadfast rush toward the presidential helicopter whenever its whirr announced a landing. She was a child of Beverly Hills privilege–and the product of a bitterly broken home. She delighted in soap operas and glitter; yet she gravitated toward the political hotbed of Washington. She is now the face, the name for scandal, her image frozen in public first impression with that wide smile, in that less-than-flattering photograph. But as her lawyer said last week, she is also a young woman “devastated, concerned, upset and fearful” as she confronts some of the country’s most powerful people, including the President of the U.S.

Monica Samille Lewinsky arrived in Washington in 1995 at the age of 21, fresh out of college, with no background in politics but with a prized Washington asset: connections. Her mother Marcia Lewis, an author and socialite, lives at the Watergate (not far from the Doles, Lewis liked to tell associates); more important, Monica’s mother knew Walter Kaye, a retired New York City insurance magnate and generous contributor to the Democratic Party. Kaye recommended Monica for a summer internship at the White House, a job she probably would not otherwise have landed. Monica “was excited about it,” says a close college friend. “She enjoys hobnobbing.” Especially with the famous and powerful. It was a trait that ran in the family. Says an associate of Lewis: “[She] likes the glitterati and the big names, and if young Monica got starry-eyed, it just kind of fits.”

Lewinsky started out in the office of the President’s then chief of staff, Leon Panetta. In carrying out the duties of internship, she was attentive verging on ingratiating. She reportedly had a habit of bringing coffee to staff members who had not asked for any. “She was more interested in schmoozing with staffers than with other interns,” says a former intern who worked with Lewinsky in the fall of 1995. She was particularly taken with the President. Aides last week described her as starstruck. “She was drawn to the power of the White House and knowing the President,” says the former intern. When Lewinsky took a staff position in the White House’s Office of Legislative Affairs in December 1995, she couldn’t hide her ambivalence. “She was like, ‘yeah, yeah’–she wasn’t that excited,” says the co-worker. “When she said that, it struck me as kind of odd, because most people would die for that position.” The job would move her out of the busy Old Executive Office Building and into the comparatively quiet East Wing, and farther from Clinton.

According to her taped conversation with Linda Tripp, Lewinsky began her alleged trysts with the President around the time she began her new job. She would show up at official events in the Rose Garden where she had no role, according to White House sources. Staff members were seeking ways to get Lewinsky out of the White House. When Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon asked the White House personnel office for candidates to fill the job of his personal assistant, the White House sent over only Monica’s name. Bacon interviewed four people and in April 1996 hired Lewinsky for the job, which pays $30,658 a year. Bacon maintains he can recall no conversations about Lewinsky with J. Robert Nash, director of White House personnel. “There was no pressure to hire her whatsoever.” And he dismissed Pentagon grumblings that Lewinsky lacked the experience for the position. “The job is demanding, and the trips are very difficult,” Bacon says. “I felt it would be good to have a younger person in the job.”

But her youth showed. Reporters attending Bacon’s press conferences complained about Lewinsky’s bumbling of clerical tasks, which included managing Bacon’s schedule, preparing transcripts and answering phones. She was known for spending too much time on personal calls. A Pentagon acquaintance says Lewinsky rarely talked politics, chatting instead about her father and his wealth; she came off as flighty and flirty, “a rich Beverly Hills teen and all the insouciance that suggests.” Other Pentagon officials said she was “an opportunist” and a “spoiled brat” who took advantage of her political connections. “She was an attractive girl,” says a Pentagon source, “but a girl.”

Buoyant and tirelessly talkative, Lewinsky freely discussed intimate details about her personal life. According to the Washington Post, Lewinsky told a Pentagon co-worker that she had had a liaison with a high-ranking Defense Department official, and asked for advice because the official seemed to have lost interest. (When reached by the paper, the official declined to comment.) Still, there was another mysterious, unidentified boyfriend whom reporters and Pentagon officials would jokily tease her over and for whom she often bought presents–including, during an official European trip, cigars. Various reports last week had her buying Clinton gifts and shuttling them to the White House. Her interest in him was clear if slightly muffled. She hung a photograph of herself with Clinton on her office wall–unexceptional homage by a civil servant for her ultimate boss. But there were also knowing asides and finally, extraordinary declarations. A midlevel official remembers standing outside Bacon’s office with Lewinsky six months ago, watching as an image of Clinton flashed across the television screen. Her eyes on the TV, Lewinsky said, “I gave the President that tie.” Then, in an untaped conversation with Tripp, Lewinsky allegedly held up a dress she claimed was stained with the President’s semen and said, “I’ll never wash it again.”

Monica Lewinsky grew up in a $1.6 million Beverly Hills home. Her parents owned three cars, including a Cadillac and a Mercedes, and spent freely on themselves (symphony season tickets, artwork and wine) and on Monica and her brother Michael, including tennis lessons ($720 a month), baby sitting ($300 a month) and hairstyling for Monica ($100 a month). Vacations frequently involved spending amounts in excess of $20,000 a year. The monthly psychiatrist’s bill was $1,800.

Then in 1987, Marcia Lewis filed for divorce from her husband, Dr. Bernard Lewinsky, who headed a lucrative oncology practice. She accused Lewinsky of carrying on an affair and having “a violent temper” that induced profanity-strewn tirades against her and the children. Meanwhile, Dr. Lewinsky charged Lewis with running up his credit-card bills in anticipation of the divorce. The settlement downsized the family’s life-style; Bernard Lewinsky, who paid $6,000 a month in spousal and child support after the settlement, now lives in a one-story stucco house. It is worth $700,000, but it lies in a modest section of Brentwood, a few blocks from Nicole Brown Simpson’s house.

Following the split, Lewis became an occasional contributor of gossip to the Hollywood Reporter and in 1996 published The Private Lives of the Three Tenors, a quickie biography of Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti gushing with tales of the singers’ amorous adventures. Her publisher, Steven Schragis of Birch Lane Press, says Lewis recommended that the book’s publicity notes include this teaser: “How did the author, a glamorous Beverly Hills writer formerly with the Hollywood Reporter, 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.” Last week the tenor said he knew Lewis “socially” but denied any liaison: “She came to several of my performances over the years. But that is all.”

The Lewinskys’ divorce came just as Monica entered Beverly Hills High School. Eden Sassoon, 24, and the daughter of celebrity hair stylist Vidal Sassoon, was a classmate who would often have Lewinsky over to her house. “She was not my best friend. She was sort of a hanger-on,” says Sassoon. “She was very outgoing, sweet, charming. If you needed anything, she’d always help. Growing up in Beverly Hills, well, you know it’s different, and perhaps being overweight, she’d overcompensate to please.”

Lewinsky left Beverly Hills High abruptly during her junior year. At Bel Air High, a tiny $12,000-a-year prep school designed for smart kids facing personal problems, a more self-assured Monica began to emerge. She got involved in drama, the choral group and art. Still dealing with a weight problem, she didn’t have a boyfriend. But it was a more fulfilling time. In her senior year, Lewinsky made valedictorian in a class of seven. In the school yearbook Monica’s senior year, a classmate calls Lewinsky her “guardian angel.” Lewinsky’s page included dedications to her parents, her brother and her friends and a paean to her favorite soap opera, Days of Our Lives. The page is also dotted with quotes from Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, William Wordsworth–and Dr. Seuss (“It’s fun to have fun but you have to know how”). Her classmates voted her “most likely to have her name in lights.”

In 1993, after spending two years at Santa Monica College, Lewinsky moved to Portland, Ore., and enrolled at Lewis and Clark College, where she majored in psychology and made the dean’s list in her senior year. Those who knew her describe Monica as a big-hearted and reliable friend. Recalls Dick Morgan, a former neighbor: “She was a listener who was interested in people.” But some also remember her as sharp-tongued and talking too much. She liked name dropping, telling friends she knew Tori Spelling and the Menendez brothers back in Beverly Hills High. (Spelling said last week that she did not know Lewinsky.) She once spotted a teacher and student together in a convertible and promptly dished the tidbit to her friends. Yet a close friend says she was “very tight with a number of professors.”

Her garrulousness was her most impressive trait. “She felt comfortable talking about just about anything to people,” says a former classmate. “If something was on her mind, she’d just come up and start talking with you.” But, says a close friend, she “just had a proclivity for indiscretion…she was definitely a gossipmonger.” According to the friend, she openly told several people while in college that she was having an affair with a married man. “He gave her the standard ‘I’m going to get divorced and we can be together,’ which is obviously a load of crap, and she ate it up,” says the friend. “And she got hurt a number of times. She’d say, ‘What the hell am I doing with this married guy?'” She talked to a Beverly Hills therapist “quite a bit” and cried often. “She’s a pretty fragile person, just emotionally fragile,” her friend says. “She was not a depressed person, but it’s just that she was pretty sensitive.” Stephen Enghouse, a self-described classmate and friend, wondered aloud last week if she has been concocting the whole sordid saga involving the President, or at least dramatizing her role in it. He told ABC’s Nightline that “She’s kind of young and seeks attention…I think it’s probably likely that yes, she’s making it up.” Enghouse, though, has not spoken to Lewinsky in nearly three years.

In Washington by the end of last year, Lewinsky was not having much fun with her Pentagon job. “She wasn’t too thrilled with it,” says a former co-worker. Bacon describes her as “competent” but says he urged her last year to begin looking for some other work. Vernon Jordan, the lobbyist who is a close confidant of the President’s, passed her name along to Revlon in New York City. She was hired for a public relations job, an offer rescinded last week when the scandal broke–and Lewinsky got a graduate degree in American politics.

Some fellow psychology majors from Lewis and Clark have banded together–anonymously–to circulate a message of support: “Monica is the epitome of a true friend.” A couple of Website fan clubs have also sprung up, but most of the Internet home pages that revolve around her name are sardonic depositories of tawdry humor. She faces countless depositions and grand-jury testimonies and the possible charge that she perjured herself in denying an affair with the President.

Last week, only a few words came directly from Lewinsky. They were spoken to a CBS News reporter who reached her by phone at an unlisted number at the Watergate. “I really can’t comment,” she said, sounding frazzled but polite, reluctant to displease. “I’m very sorry, but I shouldn’t have said this much. I don’t want to have to hang up on you.” Surely it would have been easier to be just another name, just another face.

–Reported by Melissa August, Jay Branegan, John F. Dickerson, Chandrani Ghosh, Mark Thompson and Karen Tumulty/Washington, Cathy Booth and James Willwerth/Los Angeles, Patrick Cole/Portland and Andrea Sachs/New York

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