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A Question of Brotherhood

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A little more than a year ago Adele Gash Coffelt got a letter from a relative. Inside was a clipping from PEOPLE magazine about Bill Clinton and his family. It mentioned Clinton’s biological father, William Jefferson Blythe, who died in a car accident in 1946, just a few months before Clinton was born. The more Coffelt, 75, read, the more she became convinced that the Blythe in the story had been her first husband.

He had also, she says, fathered her only child, Henry Leon Ritzenthaler, now 55, a retired custodial supervisor. On June 19, 1992, she sat down with Leon, as he is known, and broke the news. “Bill Clinton is your half brother,” she told him. Ritzenthaler (like Clinton, he uses the surname of his mother’s second husband) could only gasp in shock. But incredulity quickly gave way to delight. “Soon I was telling everyone I knew,” he says.

Speculation that Clinton had a long-lost sibling had been circulating in his camp at least since last year’s election campaign. Staffers heard stories that Clinton’s father was a ladies’ man, and thus it was widely suspected that he might have produced other children. But the story didn’t make it into print until last week when a Washington Post reporter, researching an article on Blythe, located Adele Gash Coffelt and published her account. Within hours, the wheels of instant celebrity were in motion. Ritzenthaler was hounded by reporters and wooed by talk shows. Would he join Roger Clinton as another First Brother? Would he and his wife, Judith, 47, a hairdresser in Paradise, Calif., be sleeping over at the White House? “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” says a still dazed Ritzenthaler. “Things will probably be different.”

Just how different is a little unclear. Early last week, without actually denying that Ritzenthaler is the President’s brother, White House Chief of Staff Mack McLarty did his best to douse the report with cold water. “It’s been talked about for a number of years, and to the best of my knowledge, it’s not true,” he said. When contacted by the Post, the President’s mother, Virginia Kelley, also professed surprise at the news. “I’m 70 years old and things sometimes slip my mind,” she told the reporter. “But as far as I can remember, no one ever told me.” The President himself tried to phone Ritzenthaler but didn’t get through. Fending off further questions, Clinton told reporters, “I think I ought to talk to him before I make any public statement.”

Any contact with the President would be welcomed by Ritzenthaler and his family. who over the past year have been trying quietly to make contact with Clinton. Initially, Ritzenthaler sent a letter to the governor’s mansion in Arkansas, and included a photograph, his Army records and a birth certificate dated Jan. 17, 1938. The document lists his father as W.J. Blythe. But Ritzenthaler got no reply. “An aide probably looked at it and tossed it in the trash can,” he says.

Leon and Judith, who rent a modest two-bedroom home in rural Paradise, 80 miles north of Sacramento, figured that was the end of it. But Leon’s daughter by a first marriage, Virginia Gana, 32, pressed her father to keep trying. Last fall, Virginia and Leon wrote to Carol Publishing Group, the company that issued Clinton’s biography. No response. In May, Virginia wrote directly to the White House, but never heard back.

For Virginia, a housewife in Sheraton, Ark., about 30 miles south of Little Rock, the frustration has been intense. “There have been so many times this past year I wanted to drive into [Clinton’s hometown of] Hope and introduce myself, but people would have thought I was crazy,” says Virginia. “I must admit, my 12-year-old son, Shane, really wants to meet President Clinton.” For his part, Leon remains understanding. “I’m not disappointed,” he says, puffing on one of his Best Buy cigarettes. “The President’s a busy man. He’s got a lot of problems to deal with.”

By all accounts, W.J. Blythe was a busy fellow as well. He worked as a traveling salesman for an automotive parts company and married Virginia Cassidy in 1942. On the night of May 17, 1946, returning home to Hope from a business trip, he swerved off a rain-slicked highway in Missouri, plunged into a ditch and was drowned. He left behind his pregnant wife; a son, Bill, would be born three months later.

But now it turns out that he may have left behind two ex-wives as well, sisters from Sherman, Tex. Adele Gash, the older sister, says that she and her sister, Faye, had known Blythe growing up in Sherman, where he was raised on a farm along with seven brothers and sisters. In 1938, when they were both 17, Adele and W.J. lied about their ages and got married in Madill, Okla. But things didn’t work out. After a few months of living with all the Blythes in a cramped three-room house back in Denison, Tex., Adele headed off to Dallas to visit an aunt. Not long afterward, W.J. sent her a parcel containing all her belongings, effectively ending their marriage. A year later she divorced him, but they continued to see each other from time to time. It was during one of these encounters, she says, that Leon was conceived.

After the baby was born, Adele moved to Brawley, Calif., where she eventually married Charles “Ritzy” Ritzenthaler, who went on to become the local police chief. She saw Blythe only one more time before she left Texas, when the baby was a few months old. The family ties were not dissolved completely, however; according to Adele, before he met Virginia Kelley, W.J. was also married briefly to Adele’s younger sister, Faye, but little is known about this relationship.

Like Clinton, Leon looked to his stepfather as the only father he’d ever had. Unlike the President, however, whose mother was mistreated by the alcoholic Roger Clinton, Leon adored Ritzenthaler, who died of heart failure in 1977. “Leon worships his mother and stepfather,” says wife Judith. “That’s why he took his name.”

After dropping out of high school at age 17, Leon enlisted in the Army and served 18 months. Afterward he started a small janitorial services operation in Paradise. He was also married twice and fathered two children, Charles, 30, and Virginia. In 1983 he married third wife Judith, whom he had met on a blind date set up by his son and daughter-in-law. Since 1984, Leon, who has a bad heart, has been retired and collecting disability benefits.

At first glance, there appears to be scant physical resemblance between Leon and the President, though they are both blue-eyed. In temperament, though, both are emotional, easily moved and quick to show anger. “[Dad] is a lot like Bill Clinton that way,” says daughter Virginia. “I saw the President cry introducing [Supreme Court nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg], and then I saw him yelling at the press. My father’s not afraid to show his emotions either.” Leon agrees. “I’m stubborn and bull-headed,” he says. “But I can cry at the drop of a hat.”

Leon insists that his only motive in publicizing his claim is a natural desire to be reunited with his kin. “I didn’t do this for personal gain,” he says. “I probably could have sold my story for money during the election. I didn’t. But if some money came in my direction, I suppose I wouldn’t turn it down. Life’s a struggle.” Yet as the media scrutiny intensified last week. Leon was beginning to have second thoughts about coming forward, money or no. At one point, he found himself alone on his mother’s porch in Apple Valley, Calif., crying and washing that the spotlight would just turn away. “I’m a very private person,” he says. “I kept asking myself, ‘Why me?’ ”

BILL HEWITT

LORENZO BENET in Victorville. Calif., and NINA BURLEIGH in Washington