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From the July 1996 issue of The Washingtonian

Lunch With Diana McLellan

Madame Ex


[Julia Thorne article]

Julia Thorne talked about her messy divorce from Kerry.

The ex-wife of a senator is supposed to vanish. Washington conspires to kick her down an Orwellian memory hole. And it’s easy to see why: She’s anathema to her ex, to his staff, to his new wife, and to his loyalists—not to mention to the political establishment.

Her name had never been mentioned in political almanac reports on her husband, anyway. Even the “Green Book,” Washington’s social list, called her not Phyllis or Ann or Joan, but Mrs. Robert Dole, Mrs. Max Baucus, Mrs. Edward Kennedy. So with her ex’s remarriage, poof! She’s gone. In politics, divorce is still a dirty word.

But it’s not a dirty word to Julia Thorne, first wife of the tall, handsome John Kerry, Democratic senator from Massachusetts. Long before Kerry’s marriage last year to Teresa Heinz, a charming political widow with a delightful $700 million, Julia became convinced that divorce can be good—if you can handle the emotional chaos. Thorne’s new book, A Change Of Heart, is about doing just that.

“The marriage laws as we know them were really invented at a time when you weren’t likely to live beyond about 35, by which time you were a grandfather,” she says, beaming at her roast shrimp. Here in the elegant Oval Room, a restaurant next to Lafayette Park and the White House, we’re surrounded by the sort of high-octane hotshots Julia Thorne fled for her new, simple life: a senator here, a Safire there, a Stephanopoulos by the window.

“Women very commonly died in childbirth. Now when you marry for life you’re looking at perhaps 50 years. Just think what happens between birth and 10, and 10 and 20, and 20 and 30—my God, you’re talking about completely different people. Most of the divorces I saw during my research happened between 11 and 14 years of marriage.”

A little gray sprinkles the straight, dark bangs. At 51, Julia Thorne is happy, chic, and engaging. There’s still a little shimmer about her of the politician’s wife who was also a jet-set socialite and Women’s Wear Daily star.

You’d never guess that, back then, she was also paralyzed by depression. She was so overwhelmed with despair and exhaustion that she planned suicide. She was saved by therapy, determination, antidepressants, and a change of lifestyle—which, ultimately, included divorce. She kept most of her problems secret.

“It’s not politically acceptable to have any kind of mental illness,” she points out.

Long before her 14 years as “spouse of”—years she associates only with “anger, fear, and loneliness”—Julia Thorne had strong Washington ties. Her cavedweller mother grew up in DC’s Kalorama; her father, Landon Thorne, then in Navy intelligence, was posted here during World War II. A strong Eisenhower supporter, he was appointed economic minister to Italy when playwright-congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce was ambassador there.

Julia grew up largely in Italy but was at a nearby Virginia boarding school when her grandmother married the former minister of St. John’s on Lafayette Square, whose earlier divorce—a scandal in the Episcopal church of that era—made a deep impression on the teenaged girl.

She spent as much time as she could at her grandmother’s Kalorama house and became the darling of some of the city’s old society. When she was 24, divorce again cast its shadow on her life: Just as her mother turned 50, Julia’s parents divorced. Her father promptly married a younger woman. Julia was devastated.

But she fell madly in love with John Kerry soon after, and he with her, and life looked rosy and romantic.

She had been warned that marriage could be a pig in a poke—by no less an authority than Clare Boothe Luce herself.

“She said when I was engaged to marry John, ‘I advise you to write your own marriage vows. Don’t accept the standard ones. Think hard: What do you want of this marriage? What do you want for yourself? What do you want from him?’ ”

Did she take the advice?

“No, of course not. And I should have. I was completely naive. . . . Worst of all, after my parents’ divorce, I was needy. I wanted my husband to transform my life.

“And I swallowed the message of the wedding industry that focuses on the romance, the dress, the reception, the sexy body—the fantasy that if you marry the right man at the right wedding, you’re going to be happy ever after.

“But the only important and challenging thing is the relationship. The fact is that you’re taking two people with all their baggage and issues and childhoods, and you stick them into a small pot together to stew, and then you add children, financial problems, illness—and nothing prepares you, nobody teaches you to handle that.”

The handsome and bemedaled young Navy hero of the Vietnam War did transform her life, but not as she expected. And even before his first run for office—an unsuccessful campaign for the House—she got a whiff of life on the political track.

Lunching one day in 1971 at the Italian Embassy with a group of elegant Washington women, she told the assemblage, at length and with enthusiasm, about her husband’s planned march on Washington as a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The demonstrators planned to hurl their Purple Hearts and Bronze and Silver Stars over the White House fence to protest America’s continued presence in Vietnam. As she regaled the group, one cavedweller tried to nudge her into silence—but to no avail. As it turned out, the pretty blond staring at her from the next chair was Shelley Buchanan, Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan’s bride.

“I realized then that being in Washington meant monitoring everything you say, every minute,” she says.

Pat Nixon once said, “I have sacrificed everything in my life that I consider precious in order to advance the political career of my husband.” I ask Thorne how many political wives find themselves profoundly depressed, or turn secretly to drugs or the bottle, because of the self-abnegating role they must assume and the lies they must live with.

“Like Kitty Dukakis and me,” she says. “When John won the primaries for the lieutenant governorship of Massachusetts, we went to do our publicity photographs with Kitty and Mike Dukakis. Kitty had just come out of a rehab center, and I had just asked John for a separation—and here we were, living these enormous lies. We had to live those lies for the whole campaign. I call that ’shadow work.’ ”

How must accomplished women like Elizabeth Dole and Hillary Clinton feel, I wondered, often turned into stage props for a campaign?

“Speaking for myself, I found it humiliating. After all, it’s the husband’s career, his job. What’s it got to do with his marriage? A person can be a perfectly wonderful politician, but maybe not a perfect husband or wife. I mean, it’s known that John Kennedy was a terrific philanderer, but does that change his politics?”

For Jackie Kennedy—and for Julia and other privileged women born before 1950, and even for women today who plan to marry rich—being beautiful and polished and pleasing was, and is, a career in itself.

She marvels, “My two daughters are so completely different: One’s a freshman at Yale, the other’s finishing at Brown. This whole generation of women grows up believing that they can do anything at all they want, on their own.”

Julia kept politely quiet about her depression when she and John separated in 1982 and breathed not a word in public when they divorced and she took back her maiden name in 1988.

Then, one morning in the early ’90s, a dear friend got up and, without warning, shot himself. She then decided to speak out, to try to help others who were suffering as she had. Her 1994 book, You Are Not Alone, was recommended by Ann Landers as the “best $10 you will ever spend.” Like the new A Change of Heart, it was based on Thorne’s own experiences, frankly confronted, and was bolstered with helpful insights from other sufferers, experts, and counselors.

Divorce, she believes now, can give your life an exhilarating second wind; even the unhappiest marriage teaches you a great deal about yourself—enough to grow on and to build a base for future relationships.

“I tell this to all my girlfriends: Sit down and write down truthfully who you are, what you have accepted about who you are, and what you need for who you are. And not the glorious things—the difficult things, the ones you don’t want to look at, the uglies. And then, next to it, write down what a man would really need to be for you to be who you are. Not flimsy things—real things.

“Before I made the list, I’d be invited to dinner and meet someone. I went out with several men—but it was always unsatisfactory. After thinking very hard, one thing I wrote on my list was: No suits. If a man is in a suit, he’s probably a banker or a lawyer or a politician or somebody who’s into manipulating power, and that person isn’t going to be there for me.

“I wanted someone who’d like children, but without children of his own. I knew I was so passionate about my own children that I didn’t think I could be as kind and embracing to someone else’s.

“I wanted someone who would travel, and was curious about the world—not someone who judged it on the basis of what he thought it should be. And he had to have a very strong sense of aesthetics.

“If somebody didn’t fit all the things on my list, I simply would not go out with him. That meant I didn’t go out with anyone at all for six years.

“That was fine. I’d looked at my children and thought, they didn’t ask for this situation, their father’s job requires that he be away a lot of the time, and I owe them something. Not from guilt, from the soul. I need to cherish them, to be a full-time mother. I moved back to Brookline. I pulled out of the board of a national dance company. I stopped flying away, going to parties. My life became the car pool and writing, which I’d always wanted to do. Every time I met an attractive man, I’d check him against my list—and if he didn’t fit, I wouldn’t go out with him.

“I went to a Wyoming ranch every summer, and one year a man came out in the ranch truck to meet me. I saw him and I thought: This man looks like a middle-aged hippie alcoholic. And he looked at me and thought: She looks like a bitch on wheels. And we’ve been together ever since.

“He’s an architect. He met every single criterion I’d set. I wasn’t going to compromise, and he was it. And I laid out my ground rules up front: I want my space, my children come first, and I don’t want to get married again. Now we are both very happy.”

She’s candid in print about her own regrets: Arguments in front of the children, not helping John to move out, hunting for a tough lawyer instead of a wise mediator, failing to understand the grief that comes with divorce, not ceremonializing the end.

“The worst and most common aspect is when the fight for a legal settlement takes over from all the emotional issues, which are the most important. A lot of times revenge takes over. There’s the feeling, ’I’m going to make that son-of-a-bitch squirm,’ or, ’I’m going to give her as little support as I have to.’ What they’re really doing is acting out their anger at the loss—God, this was supposed to be so great, a pink cloud of happiness—and I got screwed!

“If you understand those emotions, you understand that a court of law or a lawyer’s office or haggling over money isn’t going to make you feel better. So in the book I try to talk about that sadness. Because no matter how old you are, there’s a loss of expectations, of hope, of safety, of belonging, of financial security.”

Julia Thorne knows she’s among the lucky ones, because upon her father’s death she inherited “just enough money to keep a roof over my head and put food on the table.” The roof is over a tiny place in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

She knows that few women have that ace in the hole.

“I worry about the children, and the deadbeat dads who are out there. A divorced woman is financially penalized—on the average, her standard of living drops 38 percent upon divorce, while a man’s stays the same or goes up. Depending on her community, she can be shamed or shunned. The children usually live with her, so she has the child care, and if she gets a job the child care eats up most of what she earns. A woman can be so exhausted and stressed from supporting her children that she can’t be there for them.

“And you have the flip side—people like Marcia Clark’s husband using her work to say she’s a bad mother. Very few laws or regulations support a woman with dependent children—even the tax laws favor couples. If you’re in New York with a big firm earning $300,000 a year, you’re fine—but if you’re working class, or even if you’re on a pretty good GS salary, it’s very tough.”

At least as challenging as the money issue, she says, is gaining a new perspective. Julia Thorne’s message to both sexes shaken by divorce trauma: “Look, it’s unfair to build the expectation that all the emotional happiness in a life is dependent on one other person.”

At a table nearby, a politician neatly cleans his thumbnail with a fork. [end of article]

See the September 2004 Capital Comment

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