The Trouble With Monica
The woman at the scandal's heart is beset by old loves, ambitions and fantasies. Can she be believed?
By Romesh Ratnesar
(TIME, February 9) -- Secluded in her mother's apartment at the Watergate, away from the reporters and cameramen and curiosity seekers planted outside, Monica Lewinsky was said to have spent parts of last week quietly watching television and videos, writing letters, ordering out for chocolate-mousse cake, tuning in to the President's State of the Union address. "She thinks he did a good job," her lawyer William Ginsburg said. "She still considers him a friend." Cameras caught her joking with her attorneys on the limousine ride back from a strategy meeting last Thursday. But those moments were fleeting. Lewinsky remained besieged not only by journalists and investigators but also by figures who emerged from her short, eventful past to tell stories of old loves and ambitions, most of them heartfelt, some naive, many misguided, perhaps more hoped for than real. The tales did much to humanize Lewinsky, yet it is her convoluted pursuit of love that has left her credibility badly and perhaps irredeemably sullied. Late last week her lawyer reiterated that she was "totally reliable" but added that "there are people who talk a lot, and as part of the scenario...they may tell fibs, lies, exaggerations, oversell."
It had been a trying week. On Tuesday evening, 10 minutes before the State of the Union address, a slight, ponytailed man named Andrew Bleiler, 32, stood with his wife in front of their home in Portland, Ore., and confessed to a five-year affair with Lewinsky. He said it started when she was 19 and he was a stage-production teacher at Beverly Hills High, that he tried to end the entanglement in 1993 after both had moved to Oregon, but that Lewinsky threatened to tell his wife Kathlyn. And so the affair lasted until last April. The Bleilers' lawyer, Terry Giles, said that after moving to Washington, Lewinsky sent the couple letters and White House souvenirs. "Some of this stuff is very strange," he said. "Why did she send this stuff? Why was it so graphic?" On Wednesday he gave the independent counsel's office a safe-deposit box containing six letters and two dozen keepsakes, including documents from White House files and an autographed photo of the Clintons. Over the past two years, Lewinsky had kept the Bleilers posted on her exploits: she told them she was frustrated with dating an unnamed high-ranking White House official because he indulged only in oral sex, and that she had become pregnant by another man and had had an abortion. "I don't think there is any doubt," Giles told TIME, "that she had some sexual encounters with someone at the White House."
Lawyers for each side traded blame for the sordid affair. Giles depicted his clients as the victims of a relentless infiltrator who tracked the family from Los Angeles to Portland, baby sitting the kids, befriending Kathlyn, all the while sleeping with Andy. Ginsburg, who acknowledged the affair happened, pointed out that Bleiler "is a former schoolteacher having sex with a teenager." Still, Giles maintains that Monica was "obsessed with sex. She went to Washington with the intent to have sex with the President." And, he charged, Monica had a "pattern of twisting facts, especially to enhance her own version of her self- image." Or, perhaps, to get closer to what she wanted. During her senior year at Lewis & Clark, Lewinsky allegedly drafted a fake letter to Bleiler on the college's letterhead suggesting that the school might offer him a job. At the bottom of the letter she forged a college employee's signature. The letter was returned to the employee as undeliverable mail; Lewinsky reportedly apologized to the employee. Last week the letter was in the FBI's hands.
Meanwhile, some of Lewinsky's former co-workers were telling the Washington Post that she was "besotted" with the President and, as early as the summer of 1995, fantasizing about having sex with him in the Oval Office. It was an unusual aspiration, since most interns were more interested in having sex with each other. Lewinsky reportedly found Vice President Gore fetching too, and excitedly recounted locking eyes with George Stephanopoulos at Starbucks. A friend told TIME that she remembers Lewinsky often bringing bagels and coffee to Stephanopoulos--unrequested. Last fall Lewinsky told a senior State Department official with whom she was friendly all about a relationship with a man in his mid-30s. "I got the impression several times from Monica that this was a serious relationship, that it had been going on for a while, and that the guy had broken it off," the official told TIME. "She was sad about that. I had the impression he had broken her heart." But the man, a former congressional Republican staff member, told the official and repeated to TIME last week that "there was no relationship." They had gone out once, had dinner and exchanged a few E-mails. "And that was it."
Young and insecure but eager to go somewhere in a city consumed by politics--a subject in which she had little interest and even less expertise--Lewinsky sought out older women as mentors and older men as lovers. The State Department official, a woman, says she hardly noticed Lewinsky after their first meeting but got to know her because Monica often phoned proposing they have lunch or dinner. An older female colleague at the Pentagon, where Lewinsky worked after leaving the White House in April 1996, says she spoke to Lewinsky a few times a day and had drinks with her occasionally. In their conversations, Monica did not seem sex-starved or deluded, instead talking mostly about clothes, shopping, her family--and her boyfriend, an unmarried, stocky Pentagon official 20 or more years her senior. Lewinsky often complained that the relationship was sexually but not emotionally fulfilling. Yet she stayed with him until last year and apparently never told him stories about having sex with the President. "Monica knew her boyfriend was dating other women," the friend says. "She didn't like it, but she went on with the relationship. She'd get upset, she'd call him, she gave him a number of gifts, she worried the relationship was always on his terms."
Longtime friends say Monica's attraction to older people, male and female, can be traced back to insecurities stemming from her parents' acrimonious divorce in 1987. As a teenager she desperately sought the affection of friends, showering them with gifts. "Monica had this inner hunger," says Laraine Pieri Dave, a Los Angeles woman who became a surrogate mother to Monica following the Lewinskys' divorce. Monica, who had grown up in the luxury of a $1.6 million Beverly Hills home, was estranged from her father. Acquaintances say Monica struggled, and often failed, to please him. Her mother, Marcia Lewis, was devastated by the breakup and was struggling to start a career as a gossip writer. "Being a single mom, she was trying to make a life for herself," says Dave. "Monica missed the family."
At the time, Monica had a major crush on Dave's son Adam. Both were 14. "She really had an obsession for Adam," Dave says. "He was her first love, her first steady." So when Dave opened her doors to Monica, she rushed in, with all her vulnerabilities. She clung to the family, and Adam in particular, spending much of the next five years in their Bel Air house, swimming in the pool or watching the Dave boys play Nintendo and often engaging in long heart-to-hearts with Laraine, even counseling Dave about her stepdaughter. "She was Johnny-on-the-spot for us," Dave says. But Monica's family problems, compounded by those of adolescence, resulted in large weight gains (she was almost 225 lbs. at one point). To mask it, Lewinsky often wore black clothes and black makeup. Dave says she "worked with [Monica] on exercise and eating right and getting into the psychological perspective...how beautiful she is, and how beautiful she would be if she slimmed down." Monica had impulsively dumped Adam because he was inattentive, and he soon lost interest in her. Says Laraine: "She was very demanding, but she lived to regret it. He put a wall around himself."
And Monica does not like walls. Even after she transferred to Bel Air Prep School in her junior year, she kept a jealous eye on Adam, who became, according to his mother, the heartthrob of Beverly Hills High. In 1990, when he was named homecoming king, she "did everything in her power to get him back"--giving him presents and writing him an adoring letter "about how he walks down the hall like Moses, how everything parts for him." When she couldn't have Adam, she became pals with G.T., his younger brother. The two went to dinner and the movies, but it was all a device to get close to Adam, his mother says. By 1991 it was getting to be too much, and Laraine Dave quietly told Monica to move on. Shortly after, she began the relationship with Bleiler. Dave advised her against the affair, but she recalls the younger woman responding, "I'm just starving for love. And he's attracted to me."
With Monica, says a woman who met her in Washington in early 1996, "everything is tinged with sexuality. She always dressed in low-cut dresses. I remember a conversation once with her near tears because [then White House deputy chief of staff] Evelyn Lieberman had sent her home that day because of her clothing." Last week Jake Tapper, a writer for the weekly Washington City Paper, published an account of a date he had with Lewinsky a few weeks ago. Little happened, but she was smart and funny. Says Tapper: "I noticed her because, unlike most women in this town, she actually had some style." An acquaintance says Lewinsky was "one of the very few people where after the first 15 minutes you would remember her... She's very outgoing. Very extravagant." Once, she says, Lewinsky went to the birthday party of a woman she had never met before, arriving with a huge bouquet of balloons as a gift. There were always instant familiarity and intimacy. Says the acquaintance: "It wasn't so much that she'd be personal in a one-on-one conversation but with a group of five people she had never met before."
Such social graces were inherited. At Lewinsky's 23rd birthday party at the Palm, an expensive restaurant in Washington, her mother and her aunt Debra Finerman, Lewis' partner in the short-lived gossipist career, invited six women who seemed to know the celebrator only casually. "I think everyone at the table was surprised they'd been invited," says a friend. Lewinsky's mother tried to make everyone comfortable, but it was awkward. "I remember how affirming her mother was," says the friend, "to the point that she couldn't possibly have meant what she said, because everything was 'This is so fantastic, this is great, you girls are all so wonderful.'" And then, at the end of the meal, talk-show host Larry King stopped by the table. Says the friend: "It was obvious Monica had met Mr. King before."(Through his publicist, King says he has no recollection of the party. "I stop by birthday parties all the time," he said.)
Because of their brief reportorial careers, Lewis and her sister know many celebrities. Lewis, who has a place in a tony apartment building on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue across from Central Park, was not above dropping her daughter's job to impress. When Kevin McDonough, the editor of her book The Private Lives of the Three Tenors, told Lewis he was leaving New York City to do some work in Washington, Lewis told him, "My daughter works at the White House. She can give you a tour."
Lewis' book caused little buzz in the opera world, but it did pique the interest of R. Peter Straus, an opera buff who met Lewis at one of her book signings in New York's Westchester County. Straus, 74, the widower of New York Times clan member Ellen Sulzberger Straus, soon began dating Lewis. They are now engaged. "She's a very good friend, and I love her very much," he told TIME last week. There are other wrinkles. Straus is also a close family friend of Vernon Jordan's. "I feel like I've known Vernon forever," he says, "and I honestly cannot identify when and where we first met." But, Straus says, "I have not had any conversation with Vernon Jordan ever about Monica Lewinsky or Marcia Lewis."
Lewis, however, pops up briefly in her daughter's conversations on Linda Tripp's notorious audiotapes. As Lewinsky and Tripp discuss a plan to have Tripp fake a foot injury to avoid a scheduled deposition, Lewinsky gets a call on her other line from her mother, during which she allegedly tells Lewis of the ruse. Returning to Tripp, Lewinsky reports, "She said, 'Brilliant.'"
Lewinsky's onetime surrogate mom Laraine Dave says she hasn't talked to Monica since December 1996. She defends the young woman she took into her home. She believes that "Monica had an obsessive-compulsive personality. The way she works her way into your life, yes. She really likes people to accept her." But, Dave says, "she's very direct, very sincere, very forthright. I don't think Monica embellishes at all. She loved to get into people's minds, to understand why people do what they do." And she had a kind of vision too. Says Dave: "She was interested in the mystic arts, the higher mind, karma, destiny." Now she's mired in history.
--Reported by Melissa August, John Cloud, Sally B. Donnelly and Adam Zagorin/Washington, Charlotte Faltermayer and Andrea Sachs/New York, Cathy Booth/Los Angeles and Patrick E. Cole/Portland