Australian Genevieve Cook first met Barack Obama in 1983 in the kitchen of a mutual friend’s New York flat.
In those days most Americans, even supposedly cosmopolitan New Yorkers, couldn’t tell a Cockney from a Kiwi.
But Barack Obama had met many Aussies while living in Indonesia as a young boy with his mother and stepfather, and it turned out he and Genevieve Cook – the daughter of a prominent diplomat – had lived in the country at the same time.
As the night wore on, they sat close together on an orange beanbag in the hall while Genevieve Cook swigged Baileys Irish Cream straight from the bottle.
They were amazed at how much they had in common: both were children of divorced parents, both had lived all over the world and had never felt truly at home anywhere.
They exchanged phone numbers and the self-assured Barack Obama didn’t waste time. Within days, he was cooking her dinner at his apartment.
“Then we went and talked in his bedroom,” Genevieve Cook recalled.
“And then I spent the night with him.
“It all felt very inevitable.”
Barack Obama and his First Lady sometimes seem so well-suited to each other that it’s hard to imagine there ever having been any woman in his life other than the formidable Michelle, whom he met while working for a Chicago law firm in 1989.
The US president has reinforced this notion by making only fleeting mention of ex-girlfriends in his carefully calibrated memoirs, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.
Barack Obama gives the impression of a man in such a hurry to save the world that he had no time for such distractions as romance.
But now, in a blistering new biography, Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist David Maraniss has pulled his exes out of the shadows.
In so doing, David Maraniss has revealed an unflattering picture of a president so desperate to sell an image of himself as a pioneering race warrior that he has air-brushed many of the “white” elements from his life – including that string of well-heeled, well-educated white girlfriends.
Barack Obama’s version of events, in his autobiography, is a moving story of a mixed-race child struggling to find his black identity after being deserted as a young child by his Kenyan father.
It tells how his grandfather was imprisoned by the British for helping the Mau Mau rebels in Kenya – an assertion that Barack Obama’s step-grandmother later embellished with claims he was also tortured – for which David Maraniss found no evidence.
Delighted Republican opponents are picking over the inconsistencies (38 at the last count) between Barack Obama’s own memoirs – published in 1995 as he prepared to launch his political career – and the facts uncovered by David Maraniss.
Time and again, Barack Obama, who has had to fight hard to convince other African Americans of his “black credibility”, appears to have burnished his radical credentials, not least by playing up the roles of black people in his life and playing down the roles of the white.
And nowhere is this more apparent than in his romantic life.
For Genevieve Cook – to whom admittedly the President alludes in his memoirs – wasn’t the first white girlfriend in his life, nor the last.
As a young student in the early Eighties at Occidental College, a small arts university in Los Angeles, Barack Obama developed a serious crush on another student Alexandra McNear, who was co-editor of a college literary magazine which published two of his poems.
Alexandra McNear, described by David Maraniss as “lithe and mysterious, with the face of a young Meryl Streep and a literary bohemian air”, had just the sort of rarefied upbringing that might impress an ambitious young man.
Both her parents were established writers and her father, Erskine McNear, was the scion of a property empire. In the summer of 1981, Barack Obama and Alexandra McNear moved to New York, she to do a theatre course, he to finish his degree at Columbia University, so he could explore his black identity in a more African American city.
Far away from family and friends, Barack Obama’s first summer in New York in 1981 might have been lonely but, suggests David Maraniss, for the presence of Alexandra McNear.
She recalls admiring his intellect, his sense of humor and his good looks.
After a first date at a dimly lit Italian restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, they embarked on a two-month affair.
Alexandra McNear remembers it as a “summer of walking miles in the city, lingering over meals at restaurants, hanging out at the apartments, visiting art museums and talking about life”.
When she went back to Los Angeles, their relationship continued, largely through an exchange of passionate if pompously intellectual letters.
They discussed everything from T.S. Eliot to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche – but mainly they discussed Barack Obama.
Supremely self-absorbed, Barack Obama forever harped on about his search for meaning and identity.
He seemed oblivious to her feelings, once remarking that, tempting as it would be to run off with her when he finished his degree in New York, it would mean living “in some sense of compromise and retreat”.
Barack Obama’s self-obsession would have left many women cold, if not bored to death, but Alexandra McNear persevered.
Perhaps she appreciated his toe-curlingly pretentious notes on literature, like his observation that T.S. Elliot’s poem The Waste Land “contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Munzer [a somewhat obscure Reformation theologian] to Yeats”.
Alexandra McNear told her diary that Barack Obama was “the closest friend I had, and that I really loved him but didn’t know if we could sustain a relationship”.
Her instincts were correct.
A few months later, while Barack Obama was visiting his mother in Honolulu, he wrote to inform Alexandra McNear with cold detachment that he felt their relationship was changing from romantic love to “the more quotidian, but finer bonds of friendship”.
Alexandra McNear went on to scandalize her family by marrying a former Serbian boxer and convicted bank robber called Bob Bozic.
Next for Barack Obama was Genevieve Cook, whom he met at that mutual friend’s flat at a Christmas Party in 1983.
Barack Obama had graduated and was in a dull office job as he worked out what he wanted to do with his life.
Genevieve Cook was three years older than him, and an assistant teacher at a private school in Brooklyn.
As David Maraniss observes, “there had been girlfriends before her but none quite like Genevieve”, who “engaged him in the deepest romantic relationship of his young life”.
Genevieve Cook is mentioned in Barack Obama’s memoirs as a mystery woman.
While never naming her, Barack Obama wrote: “There was a woman in New York that I loved. She was white. She had dark hair with specks of green in her eyes.
“Her voice sounded like a wind chime. We saw each other for almost a year.”
Genevieve Cook shared many of Barack Obama’s obsessions. The daughter of a former Australian ambassador to the U.S., and a moneyed art historian who later remarried into a prominent American family, Genevieve Cook, too, religiously kept a diary.
And, like Barack Obama, she had a burning passion to save the world.
Within two months of meeting, they were seeing each other every Thursday night and at weekends.
On Sundays, Barack Obama would lounge around in his cheap, cockroach-infested flat in the less salubrious end of the Upper West Side, bare-chested in a blue and white sarong as he drank coffee and did the New York Times crossword.
His bedroom, Genevieve Cook recalls, smelt of “running sweat, Brut spray deodorant and smoking”.
Barack Obama loved to cook and they would read together and discuss writers into the night.
Like Alexandra McNear, Genevieve Cook was attracted by the “mental exhilaration” of his intellect, marveling at how mature he was at 22, but dismayed by his remoteness and wariness about commitment.
Needless to say, Barack Obama was as self-obsessed as ever.
When Genevieve Cook told him that she loved him, Barack Obama’s response was not “I love you, too”, but “thank you”.
Genevieve Cook described him as “an uncommon, earnest young man” and confided to her diary: “He is very beautiful – more than he thinks himself to be.”
But there was another side to him she found unsettling.
“The sexual warmth is definitely there – but the rest of it has sharp edges and I’m finding it all unsettling,” she wrote.
“His warmth can be deceptive. Though he speaks sweet words and can be open and trusting, there is also that coolness.”
They often talked about race and Barack Obama would confide that he felt like an “imposter” as there was “hardly a black bone in his body”.
Genevieve Cook eventually told him he “needed to go black” (to date a black woman), whereas he countered that he would never find a black woman “he would feel truly comfortable with”.
They moved into a flat together but their intellectual discussions eventually turned into fights over issues like the washing-up.
In the end, Genevieve Cook tired of his emotional “withheld-ness, his lack of spontaneity”, and broke up with him in 1985.
Genevieve Cook insists she couldn’t have been more sympathetic about his confusion over his racial identity but that’s not how Barack Obama portrayed it in his memoirs.
He recounts taking his New York girlfriend to see a black play after which she “started talking about why black people are so angry all the time”.
They had a “big fight” in front of the theatre and she burst into tears and said she couldn’t be black.
All very dramatic but Genevieve Cook insisted to David Maraniss that it never happened.
The only play she saw with Barack Obama was entirely different – British actress Billie Whitelaw performing a monologue written by Samuel Beckett. And there had been no row over race, she said.
Barack Obama had to admit to David Maraniss the incident happened not with Genevieve Cook in New York but with someone else, though he wouldn’t elaborate.
Did it really happen? He mixed dates and places to protect former girlfriends’ identities, he said.
Soon after that period, Barack Obama made strides in his career, moving to Chicago to work as a community organizer.
In a moment of acute foresight, Genevieve Cook had told her diary that while she was not the woman for Barack Obama, “that lithe, bubbly, strong black lady is waiting somewhere”.
She may or may not be “bubbly”, but “strong” certainly sums up Michelle Obama.
However, before Barack Obama met Michelle, he went on to have a relationship with another white woman in Chicago.
The woman, who like Genevieve Cook was an anthropology graduate, was barely mentioned in Barack Obama’s memoirs, but by then he was trying to establish his African-American credentials by toiling in an impoverished and predominantly black area of Chicago.
David Maraniss does not identify this new woman either, but says the relationship was “serious” and “ended much like the one with Genevieve, when Obama was ready to make his next career move”.
Within four years, Barack Obama had met Michelle in Chicago and the rest we know. He finally had the partnership he wanted history to record – with a strong black woman, a descendant of slaves who had pushed her way up from humble roots.
But Michelle Obama, at least, is not a “dream”, unlike some of the other fantasies in his own autobiography.