Born in Chicago, IL; married Erik Freeland (a photographer); children: two. Education: MacMurray College, B.A.; University of Chicago, M.A.
Home—New York, NY.
Writer. People (magazine), staff writer. Guest on radio programs.
A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer, Bantam (New York, NY), 1998.
The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America's Greatest Museum, the Smithsonian, Morrow (New York, NY), 2003.
Mirage: Napoleon's Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt, Harper (New York, NY), 2007.
Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed, and Forgery in the Holy Land, Smithsonian Books (Washington, DC), 2008.
Contributor to magazines and newspapers, including Chicago, Time, George, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and Spy. Contributing editor, New York.
The book Mirage was recorded as an unabridged audio book, released by Books on Tape in 2007.
In 1998, journalist Nina Burleigh published a biography of the life and death of a controversial woman of the 1960s and, in a separate incident, generated her own controversy. The Time White House correspondent wrote what she described as a "lighthearted" article for the magazine Mirabella in which she told Howard Kurtz, Washington Post's media columnist, that she would perform a sexual act on President Clinton "just to thank him for keeping abortion legal." As columnist Arianna Huffington wrote in an article published on Arianna Online, the predecessor to the Huffington Post Web site, that statement "traveled from the [Washington Post] to [the talk show] ‘Politically Incorrect’—the equivalent to ‘passing go’ for a scandal player—with the speed of light."
Burleigh's remark, just as reports of the president's marital infidelities were surfacing, caught the attention of Burleigh's news-industry peers. "I have been told," she wrote in the New York Observer, "that by admitting that the president is attractive to some women, I have tainted the image of the objective female scribes who are above such observations." To Huffington, "perhaps Burleigh's heinous crime was that she blew the whistle on the fact that if you share the president's ideology, and resonate his sex appeal … you are predisposed to do nice things for him … even if it breaks the feminist canon of respect for women, especially in the workplace."
The remark nearly eclipsed the occasion of Burleigh's book, A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer. This recounting of an episode from the shadowy files of the Kennedy administration sheds light on both the woman in question and the handling of scandal in the early 1960s. Mary Pinchot Meyer, born into an influential Philadelphia family, was the divorced wife of Cord Meyer, a Central Intelligence Agency division chief and Kennedy confidant. The book reveals what many in the presidential inner circle had known—and kept secret—for years: that Meyer had an affair with Kennedy and possibly introduced him to marijuana and LSD. Christine Carr, reviewing the work for Rocky Mountain News, commented: "To Burleigh's credit, she devotes only one chapter to Meyer's affair with Kennedy—because ‘there was more to the woman than a relationship with one man, even if he was the president.’"
The affair ended by late 1962, and in 1964, nearly a year after Kennedy's assassination, Meyer was shot dead along a wooded path in the Georgetown section of Washington. A black laborer, Ray Crump, was discovered in the vicinity and arrested; A Very Private Woman covers his trial and acquittal. No one else was ever charged in the death.
Meyer's killing "sent shudders through the power circles of the capital," Patricia O'Brien wrote in a New York Times review, in part because the victim had kept a diary, which was turned over to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). O'Brien found that Burleigh "brings a rich array of real-life characters to [her book], some of whom could have tumbled out of a John le Carré novel. This was a time when CIA agents, White House operatives and journalists mingled routinely," so "it's hardly surprising that Mary Meyer's death became a peculiar footnote to the conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy's assassination." San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Jim Doyle cited Burleigh's "investigative portrait of Meyer" for being a "superbly crafted, evocative glimpse of an adventurous spirit whose grisly murder remains a mystery."
Some critics said the most memorable characters in the book are Crump and his attorney, Dovey Roundtree, who was "worth a book of her own," according to O'Brien. Roundtree, a black woman who worked through school as a domestic, challenged the traditional legal practices, creating a compelling defense based on circumstantial evidence "while clearly not forgetting for a minute that liberal whites in the rapidly changing civil rights environment were afraid of appearing to be part of a lynch mob."
Overall, reaction to A Very Private Woman was mixed. While a Kirkus Reviews writer dismissed it as just "another ‘I Slept With JFK’ scenario," a Publishers Weekly reviewer called the book "an excellent study of both its subject and its time." David Bowman, in the New York Observer, called the book a "provocative, erudite biography" of Meyer. A Booklist contributor recommended the volume as one "conspiracy theorists will love." Doyle observed that "inevitably, given the unique circumstances of Meyer's remarkable life and sudden death, the author raises more questions than she can ever hope to answer." Evan Thomas, in Washington Post, observed that Burleigh "doesn't have the answers and, mercifully, she doesn't try to guess or make them up. She is skeptical of the more sinister or lurid scenarios.… A Very Private Woman succeeds less as a murder mystery or spy thriller than as a portrait of the age.… Burleigh is not, and does not claim to be, a true insider. But she offers a revealing peek through the salon window.… She sifts carefully through the available evidence and writes about the living and the dead with sympathy. Unfortunately, Burleigh never quite penetrates the heart and mind of her heroine, who was at once outlandish and reserved." But Thomas pointed out that considering the "limits of her sources, … [Burleigh] makes good use of the ones she has." Carr concluded that Burleigh "depicts an enigmatic era in American history and tells the story of a woman who embodied both its grace and its secret turbulence. Through meticulous research, she is able to uncover the essence of a life that nearly got lost in the sands of time."
Burleigh once told CA: "I believe my famous quote exposed the people in my business who take themselves way too seriously. The media were obsessed (inappropriately in my view) with the president's sex life, and I thought it was time for someone to provide a quote that highlighted the cartoonish aspect of what was underway. I am still trying to digest the fact that we live in such a literal society that even some of my esteemed peers missed the point."
Burleigh later added: "I am a great admirer of the late Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci and the seventeenth-century writer Daniel Defoe, both of whom proved that great writers may also be people of action and courage."
Burleigh's subsequent writings explore the contributions of "people of action and courage" whose accomplishments have settled into the margins of history. James Smithson (1765-1829) carved a small space in the annals of history by his bequest to the museum that became known as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. It was an odd bequest in several respects, because Smithson was an Englishman who never even visited the fledgling United States, and his own work as a collector was limited to a relatively avocational and untrained interest in rocks and minerals. For The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America's Greatest Museum, the Smithsonian, Burleigh mined the scarce sources of information about Smithson without ever uncovering his motive for leaving a half-million dollars (a substantial fortune at the time) to promote the scientific education of the masses in the New World. She did, however, learn much about the controversy that his bequest generated in the young Republic. Everyone wanted a piece of the fortune, it seems, except for a small but vocal contingent that wanted to reject the foreigner's gift altogether. In the end, according to Burleigh's account, it was statesman John Quincy Adams who managed to protect and preserve enough of the fortune to create the museum that became America's treasure house.
In Mirage: Napoleon's Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt, Burleigh delves into the variegated assemblage of scientists and artists that accompanied Napoleon on his military invasion of Egypt in 1798. These men, about 150 in all, became the first archaeologists to discover and describe the antiquities and mysteries of Egypt's past, including the famous Rosetta Stone, and the first Westerners to define the land in its then-current state. His entourage included engineers and naturalists, astronomers and illustrators, physicians and entertainers, all of whom braved disease, warfare, and extreme discomfort in the name of discovery. The survivors of the expedition, which lasted much longer than planned, sometimes went on to illustrious careers later in life, but Burleigh concentrates on their modest and difficult beginnings in an account that several reviewers found engaging and informative.
Burleigh is sometimes criticized for a perceived lack of depth in her scholarship, but other reviewers point out her penchant for subjects who left little documentation behind and her skill at weaving the thin threads of their lifelines into stories that are both well researched and "captivating," as George Cohen observed in his review of The Stranger and the Statesman.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Archaeology, March-April, 2008, Zach Zorich, review of Mirage: Napoleon's Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt, p. 15.
Biography, winter, 2008, Katherine Bouton, review of Mirage, p. 218.
Booklist, October 15, 1998, Vanessa Bush, review of A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer, p. 393; October 15, 2003, George Cohen, review of The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America's Greatest Museum, the Smithsonian, p. 359; December 1, 2007, Gilbert Taylor, review of Mirage, p. 15.
Insight on the News, March 15, 1999, John Elvis, review of A Very Private Woman, p. 14.
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 1998, p. 1166; September 1, 2003, review of The Stranger and the Statesman, p. 1109; October 1, 2007, review of Mirage.
Library Journal, October 1, 1998, Sandra K. Lindheimer, review of A Very Private Woman, p. 115; November 1, 2003, Dale Farris, review of The Stranger and the Statesman, p. 97; October 1, 2007, Ann Forister, review of Mirage, p. 90; March 15, 2008, I. Pour-El, review of Mirage, the audio book version, p. 104.
New York Observer, October 19, 1998, David Bowman, "Presidential Squeeze on Acid: Sexy, Chic, Smart—Very Dead," p. 33.
New York Times, December 20, 1998, Patricia O'Brien, "When History Had Secrets," p. 30.
Publishers Weekly, August 24, 1998, review of A Very Private Woman, pp. 34-35; September 15, 2003, review of The Stranger and the Statesman, p. 53; October 22, 2007, review of Mirage, p. 49.
Rocky Mountain News, October 25, 1998, Christine Carr, "The Mysterious Mistress of JFK," p. 3E.
San Francisco Chronicle, December 13, 1998, Jim Doyle, "The Mysterious Killing of a JFK Mistress/Mary Meyer May Have Known About the President's Assassination," p. 4.
Science News, January 12, 2008, review of Mirage, p. 31.
Smithsonian, September, 2003, Alina Corday-Taylor, review of The Stranger and the Statesman, p. 115.
Washington Post, October 11, 1998, Evan Thomas, "The Woman Who Knew Too Much," p. X05.
Arianna Online,http://www.ariannaonline.com/ (July 16, 1998), "The Nina Burleigh Rorschach Test."
Nina Burleigh Home Page, http://www.ninaburleigh.com (July 4, 2008).