President Obama's ex-girlfriends shed light on his early years

(CBS News)--A new biography about President Obama sheds light on a little-known part of his life -- his college and post-college years in New York City -- through the letters and journals of two women he dated at the time.

Vanity Fair on Wednesday published an excerpt of "Barack Obama: The Story," the biography by Washington Post reporter David Maraniss that Simon & Schuster will publish next month. (Simon & Schuster Inc. is owned by CBS Corporation, the parent company of CBS News and The book details Mr. Obama's relationships with Alex McNear and Genevieve Cook, women he dated in his early 20s.

Maraniss writes that Mr. Obama "receded into the most existentialist stretch of his life" in New York, which was illustrated in part by his correspondences with McNear.

Mr. Obama met McNear at Occidental College and later reconnected with her in New York in the summer of 1982. She returned to California after the summer, and she and Mr. Obama wrote a series of "passionate" letters to each other, Maraniss writes. He continues:

Obama was the central character in his letters, in a self-conscious way, with variations on the theme of his search for purpose and self-identity. In one letter, he told Alex that it seemed as if many of his Pakistani friends were headed toward the business world, and his old high-school buddies were "moving toward the mainstream." Where did that leave him? "I must admit large dollops of envy for both groups," he wrote. "Caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions [and] classes; make them mine, me theirs."

In another letter to McNear about T.S. Eliot, Obama writes, "Remember how I said there's a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism--Eliot is of this type."

Maraniss also gives details of Mr. Obama's relationship with Genevieve Cook, a 25-year-old he met in 1983, when he was 22. It was "the deepest romantic relationship of his young life," Maraniss writes.

In journal entries that Maraniss excerpts, Cook mused over Mr. Obama's personality, noting his reserved nature. "Barack--still intrigues me, but so much going on beneath the surface, out of reach. Guarded, controlled," she wrote on March 22, 1984.

Mr. Obama described Cook in his memoir "Dreams of My Father" without using her name, recounting her as "a woman in New York that I loved...She was white. She had dark hair, and specks of green in her eyes. Her voice sounded like a wind chime."

The president later acknowledged that while Cook was his New York girlfriend, his description of her was a "compression" of former girlfriends.

Maraniss writes that Mr. Obama made his way to Chicago after taking interest in Harold Washington's mayoral campaign there. Coincidentally, Mr. Obama's current campaign adviser David Axelrod worked for Washington's re-election campaign in 1987.

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