One day last month, as Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry was preparing for his trial on drug and perjury charges, Effi Barry, his wife of 12 years, was in the kitchen of the Barry home, chatting with a local newscaster. As she peeled potatoes, Effi, 46, talked frankly about her feelings, in particular the toll her husband’s arrest had taken on their son, Christopher, 10. Unbeknownst to Mrs. Barry and her guest, Barbara Harrison, a Washington television reporter, young Christopher had crept unnoticed into the room. “Effi said, ‘This is just such a terrible situation,’ ” recalls Harrison. Suddenly Christopher piped up. “This certainly is a terrible situation,” he said, “and it’s certainly the worst thing I’ve been through in my life.”
Day after day this summer, Effi has sat in the D.C. federal courthouse, listening as a succession of witnesses accuse her husband of drug use and recount stories of his sexual exploits. Barry’s former friend, Charles Lewis, who served a 13-month sentence on drug charges, testified that on Dec. 22, 1988, he and the Mayor smoked crack cocaine in a D.C. Ramada Inn. Linda Creque Maynard, a resident of the Virgin Islands, tearfully described visiting Mayor Barry in a St. Thomas hotel room in March 1988. Maynard told the jury that the Mayor made advances toward her and, after a 10-minute struggle, forced her to have intercourse. Rasheeda Moore, a former model with whom Barry allegedly began an affair in 1986, also took the stand. She said that she and the Mayor smoked crack together on at least a hundred occasions, including once at the Mayor’s office and another at her mother’s house.
Then, as the prosecution case reached its end, Effi’s eyes turned to a courtroom TV monitor to watch an FBI videotape showing her husband meeting Moore in a Washington hotel room. The surveillance camera caught Marion Barry smoking crack after asking Moore for sex, attempting to fondle her breasts and telling her, “Well, I love you still….Once in love always in love.”
Whatever Effi may be feeling inside these days, she seldom lets on in public. Instead she has joined the long line of political wives who mostly keep quiet about their sufferings. Through much of the proceedings, Effi has patiently and methodically worked away at a small pink, white and green hooked rug, her sharply beautiful features showing scarcely a hint of emotion. During breaks in the trial, Barry pushes his chair away from the defense table and walks over to whisper to Effi. As they leave the courthouse, the Barrys have made a point of kissing, although there appears to be more political practice than passion between them. Only once, so far, has Effi’s serene facade shown even a hairline crack. “Initially it looked as though her intention was to ignore things,” says one courtroom observer. “But when Rasheeda started testifying, [Effi] stopped working at her rug. Her lips are very thin naturally, but when Rasheeda spoke they thinned even more.”
That controlled demeanor has characterized Effi’s relationship with Barry during the eight years that he has been Mayor of the nation’s capital. Where he was outspoken and flamboyant, a self-described “night owl” who liked to roam the city into the small hours, she remained quiet and guarded. The child of an unwed black teenage mother and a part-Italian father she never knew, Effi grew up in Toledo, Ohio, going to an integrated school in a white neighborhood. After attending Hampton Institute in Virginia and graduating in 1967 with a B.S. in home economics, she worked as a business analyst for Dun & Bradstreet and as a flight attendant. “I flew with United,” she recalled. “They taught us to be nice little ladies, to serve, smile. It was a lot of fun.”
A light-skinned beauty with a model’s slim stature, Effi was a health inspector with the D.C. Department of Environmental Services when she met Barry. They married in 1978, and Christopher was born two years later. Philip Ogilvie, a Barry campaign worker in those years, recalls that, for Effi, “Christopher became the center of things. She tried to shield him from the exposure of a politician’s child.”
Keeping up that shield grew increasingly difficult. Initially hailed for his economic development of downtown D.C, the Mayor, a stalwart of the 1960’s civil rights movement, has had a long downward spiral. Two deputy mayors have been convicted on corruption charges, and 11 other Barry appointees have been sentenced for political crimes. Barry was alleged to have had an affair in 1982-83 with Karen Johnson, who later pleaded guilty to cocaine charges; Johnson told federal prosecutors she had been paid $20,000 not to testify against Barry before a grand jury investigating drug use among city officials. During Thanksgiving of 1987, while Effi was attending a conference in London, Barry spent a weekend in the Bahamas dallying poolside with Bettye Smith, an employee of a city contractor, while his security guards took care of Christopher.
Over the years, Effi has acknowledged Marion’s wayward tendencies. “If my husband is involved with another woman, I don’t care,” she once said. “That’s an aspect of [his] life. He has to deal with it.” The one thing that does cut deep is the impact of her husband’s behavior on their son. “Christopher will talk to his father on the phone or see him on television,” she told a writer in 1988. “It’s like being a single parent. My husband gets upset when I say that, but it’s true.” Occasionally, Effi conceded, the pressures become too much. At such times she retreats to the den of the family’s four-bedroom home in southeast Washington. “Maybe it’s a way of dealing with the garbage around me,” she said. “I laugh. I dance. I drink, I party there all by myself. Christopher and Marion know not to go in there.”
Nancy Reagan’s Washington hairdresser, Robin Weir, who at one time also coiffed his friend Effi Barry’s tresses, observed firsthand how the Mayor’s wife dealt with her husband’s reputation. “One day I was doing her hair in the salon. Another woman sat down. She had no idea in the world that the Mayor’s wife was sitting right there. For some reason she got on about the Mayor and said some horrible things about his womanizing and drugs. Effi did not blink an eye, move or react. She was the ice princess.”
So far the heat on her husband has not melted Effi’s composure. In an interview last week with New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams, Effi recounted how Marion’s alcoholism had damaged their marriage and how she had warned him that he might be set up for a fall by a woman. She said she still loves her husband, who has declared he will not seek reelection in November. Her loyalty to a man who has allegedly betrayed her as well as the people of Washington nevertheless remains a mystery. At this point Effi Barry may have good reason to work so hard on that hooked rug. Maintaining her calm dignity and doing something constructive is a natural reaction at a time when everything else in her life seems to be unraveling.
—Montgomery Brower, Katy Kelly and Tom Nugent in Washington