When Barack Obama met Genevieve Cook in 1983 at a Christmas party in New York’s East Village, it was the start of his most serious romance yet. But as the 22-year-old Columbia grad began to shape his future, he was also struggling with his identity: American or international? Black or white?
Genevieve Cook came from not one but several distinguished families. Her father, Michael J. Cook, was a prominent Australian diplomat. Genevieve’s mother, born Helen Ibbitson, came from a banking family in Melbourne and was an art historian. Michael and Helen divorced when Genevieve was 10. Helen soon remarried into a well-known American family, the Jessups. With homes in Georgetown and on Park Avenue at various times, Philip C. Jessup Jr. served as general counsel for the National Gallery of Art, in Washington. The Jessups were establishment Democrats. Philip’s father had been a major figure in American postwar diplomacy.
If Barack and Genevieve were in social occasions as a couple, it was almost always with the Pakistanis. Hasan Chandoo had moved back from London and taken a place in a converted warehouse on the waterfront below Brooklyn Heights. Wahid Hamid, starting a rise up the corporate ladder that would take him to the top of PepsiCo, lived on Long Island with his wife.
Barack for the most part declined alcohol and drugs. “He was quite abstemious,” Genevieve said. She enjoyed the warmth of the gatherings, but was usually ready to go home before him. He was pushing away from the Pakistanis, too, politely, for a different reason, she thought. He wanted something more.
There was a riff in that book (Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man) that Mahmood thought struck close to the bone with Obama. The narrator, an intelligent black man whose skills were invisible to white society, wrote: “America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain. It’s ‘winner take nothing’ that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in the face of certain defeat.” His friend Barack, Mahmood thought, “was the most deliberate person I ever met in terms of constructing his own identity, and his achievement was really an achievement of identity in the modern world. [That] was an important period for him, first the shift from not international but American, number one, and then not white, but black.”
In Dreams from My Father, Obama chose to emphasize a racial chasm that unavoidably separated him from the woman he described as his New York girlfriend.
One night I took her to see a new play by a black playwright. It was a very angry play, but very funny. Typical black American humor. The audience was mostly black, and everybody was laughing and clapping and hollering like they were in church. After the play was over, my friend started talking about why black people were so angry all the time. I said it was a matter of remembering—nobody asks why Jews remember the Holocaust, I think I said—and she said that’s different, and I said it wasn’t, and she said that anger was just a dead end. We had a big fight, right in front of the theater. When we got back to the car she started crying. She couldn’t be black, she said. She would if she could, but she couldn’t. She could only be herself, and wasn’t that enough.
Obama even briefly moved into Cook’s Prospect Park, Brooklyn, apartment and they celebrated Christmas together in 1983, before the two parted ways.
In his memoir “Dreams from My Father,” Obama provides sketchy details of his time in New York. He mentioned “there was a woman in New York that I loved” but never mentioned her name.
She talked about how Obama walked around his bedroom bare-chested, dressed in a blue and white sarong while working on a New York Times crossword puzzle.
“I open the door that Barack keeps closed to his room and enter in a warm, private space pervaded by a mixture of smells that so strongly speak of his presence, his liveliness, his habits — running sweat, Brut spray deodorant, smoking, eating raisins, sleeping, breathing,” Cook wrote.
Obama and Cook would date for a year. He was 22 and she was 25 when they met.Read the Vanity Fair article, its a lengthy description
Cook said when she told Obama she loved him, he responded: “Thank you.”