The couple had three sons, and Mary devoted her life to her home and family. Cord frequently traveled to give political speeches, and the housekeeping fell to Mary. When the pair moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1949, she found a new creative outlet: painting. Meyer took classes at the Cambridge School of Design, but the pressures of motherhood were particularly pronounced throughout the post-war era. “The time she could spare,” Burleigh writes, “was always contingent upon the children’s needs; guilt was a monster at the door of any mother following a muse into solitary work at the beginning of the baby boom.”
Two years later, Cord was hired by a new organization called the Central Intelligence Agency. Along with his cohort of “Cold Warriors” in the nascent CIA, Cord played a role in assassination attempts on foreign leaders suspected of Communist aims, infiltrating cultural organizations to curb leftist agendas, wiretapping civilians, and experimenting with LSD on unsuspecting subjects.
The Meyers moved to McLean, Virginia, in the early 1950s for Cord’s job. Mary wasn’t entirely oblivious to her husband’s occupation—even if she didn’t know all the details of his day-to-day. His macho, withholding position created tension between them. As she continued with her painting and as Cord became more immersed in the CIA, their lives began to diverge. “Cord lived in the world of James Bond and Hemingway,” Burleigh explains. “Mary admired the work of artist
and had a casual artist’s style in dress and manner.” Cord supported his wife’s painting, though she had little time for her work. Just before Christmas in 1956, the Meyers’s middle son, Michael, died while crossing the street in front of their home. The tragedy created even more distance between the pair. Two years later, Mary filed for divorce.
After their separation, Meyer maintained her own prominent social network in Georgetown. One of her closest friends was sculptor
, with whom she eventually shared a studio, and Truitt’s husband, the journalist James Truitt. Meyer’s sister, Tony, married Ben Bradlee, who became the star executive editor of the Washington Post
. Artists Robert Gates, Mary Orwen, and Lothar Brabansky also entered Meyer’s orbit. Then–Massachusetts senator John Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, were neighbors and friends.
Meyer began painting more seriously as she also embarked on a series of affairs. She began a romance with painter
while volunteering at the Jefferson Place Gallery in Washington, D.C. Over the course of their relationship, Meyer adapted his style of
, though Noland didn’t take her work particularly seriously. In her writing on this chapter in Meyer’s life, Burleigh makes an interesting—if dubious—connection between the work of the
artists and the CIA spies that surrounded them: both, she writes, “communicated in a secret language comprehensible to others in their group but cryptic to outsiders.”
Noland and Meyer began going to Reichian therapy, which was intended to help patients relinquish their inhibitions and embrace sexual openness. (Meyer later experimented with LSD and took regular trips to see acid guru Timothy Leary.) Burleigh partially attributes Noland’s signature style—concentric circles in vivid colors—to the couple’s passionate relationship. “They have the almost physical effect of sucking the viewer into a small, intensely warm even ecstatic space,” she writes, noting such titles as Heat, Plunge, Split, and Luster. “The splattered edges and the choice and arrangement of colors with their throbbing centers are much more overtly sensual” than the cleaner, crisper lines Noland used after the pair’s break-up in the late 1950s. Meyer, in other words, was a valuable muse.