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It's one of those yarns that reeks of cigarette butts, aftershave and spilt whiskey. The sort of titillating anecdote graying, well-connected boozehounds might swap while swilling whiskey sours at Durant's, El Chorro or the Pink Pony.
Here's the short version: Back when he was Bird-dogger in Chief, John F. Kennedy spotted a future conquest on the arm of some Swedish diplomat or general during a White House function. Determined to grant the curvaceous young thing a personal tour of the Oval Office, JFK had her tailed by a lackey, who later reported that he had followed the dame right to the digs of the archconservative senator from Arizona, Barry M. Goldwater.
It's said that Kennedy later ribbed Goldwater about the matter, a little peeved perhaps that this yahoo from Phoenix had topped the king of Camelot at his own skirt-chasing shenanigans. Goldwater, for his part, never denied or admitted to the liaison, answering JFK's charge with only a wide smile.
Apocryphal or not, the anecdote persists among Arizona power brokers who tell it and tell it often because it illustrates something about their hero they believe to be true: Barry Goldwater was just as much a Casanova as JFK, only he was more discreet about it. One of the story's principal tellers, a well-heeled Phoenix legal beagle who knew Barry back in the day, laughs loudly when asked about what it implies.
"You mean you want to know if Goldwater liked pussy?" he replies, chuckling. "Well, there's nothing wrong with that, now, is there?"
The ruggedly handsome Goldwater was married to wife Peggy from 1934 until she died in 1985. She was the mother of his four children, Joanne, Barry Jr., Michael, and Peggy. And, legend or no, the very idea that the senator might have had a sexual life beyond the matronly Margaret "Peggy" Goldwater is anathema to granddaughter C.C. Goldwater, whose acclaimed biodoc Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwatercontinues on HBO until the end of this month. C.C. produced and narrated the effort, which portrays her grandfather as a crusty but lovable gentleman-politician who had no libido past fathering C.C.'s mom, Joanne, and Joanne's brothers and sister. Sure, her grandpa ("Paka," she called him) had gal pals, but would he have bedded one of them? Why, never!
"He never cheated on his wife," insists C.C. "My grandmother was part of everything he did; she was a major part of his life, and he loved her until the day she died. Had it not been for her death, he would have been married to her forever."
Almost in the same breath, C.C. concedes that her grandfather was adored by women.
"He had that kind of charisma that JFK had, and Bill Clinton has," says C.C., seemingly oblivious to the implications of her own analogies. "He was dynamic. He'd walk into a room and suck the air out of it. He was just that kind of person. Women fawned over him, because he was a handsome guy. And he knew it, and he was self-confident about it."
The senator would've had to be a saint not to have taken advantage of his winning combination of Alpha-male traits: athletic good looks, wealth, power and charm. He also had that Western swagger, the kind men admired and women fell for. Think William Holden in The Wild Bunch or Goldwater pal John Wayne in The Sons of Katie Elder. He did and said whatever the hell he wanted.
Platinum sex goddess Mamie Van Doren, who slept with rounders like Johnny Carson and Joe Namath in her heyday, was an admirer. The busty bombshell, star of such B-movie celluloid classics as High School Confidentialand Sex Kittens Go to College, was ensconced in an apartment at Newport Beach's Balboa Bay Club, the exclusive Republican enclave where Goldwater kept a 54-foot Hatteras yacht docked for many years (the Bay Club being where the Goldwaters waited out the scorching Arizona summers). In the '70s, Van Doren's balcony looked out onto docks where the senator would be working shirtless on his boat.
"He was out there with his suntan and his silver-white hair," says Van Doren, who still looks amazing, even at her advanced age. "I would check him out as he struggled to get his boat back in after being out for a while. He was pretty hot."
Van Doren heard rumors that Goldwater liked a little side action to his wedded bliss, but she never got the chance to find out.
"I missed on that one, didn't I?" she sighs. "Don't think I didn't think about it. I was just working too hard at the time. He had kind of a cockeyed smile, piercing eyes, and a quick wit that I liked. Yeah, he was a silver fox."
Barry Goldwater was also six feet tall, drove snazzy black sports cars and regularly made international lists of best-dressed men. He was just as cool as any Kennedy, and is far more interesting than his granddaughter's hazy-filtered, family-friendly portrait.
In C.C.'s 90-minute Hallmark card, Goldwater is salt-of-the-earth instead of salty. A man who tinkered with his ham radio in his spare time and gave the grandkids a miniature donkey they named Sweet Pea. He loved the Indians and respected gay people. He supported a woman's right to choose, and had a kind word when his eldest daughter Joanne had an inconvenient embryonic tenant removed from her womb before marriage. Though the media portrayed him as a coldhearted, nuke-friendly reactionary in the '60s, "Paka" would never blow up the world. He was a nice man.