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Blythe Spirit

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EVEN NOW, MORE THAN 50 YEARS LATER, Bill Clinton’s mother, Virginia Kelley, gets a kick out of telling how she met the future President’s father, W.J. Blythe. It was 1942, and Virginia Cassidy, as she was known then, was working as a nurse trainee at Tri-State Hospital in Shreveport, La. One day, W.J. walked in with a girlfriend suffering from appendicitis. While the woman was being treated, W.J., then 24, started chatting with Virginia, 18, and promptly asked her out on a date. He was, Virginia recalls, “the most handsome man I had ever met.” So despite the fact that she was already engaged at the time, she said yes. Soon after, Virginia and W.J.—but mostly Virginia—were discussing matrimony. “He tried every way he could to talk me out of marriage,” Virginia told a reporter. “But I was in love and as stubborn then as I am now, and I persisted until he gave in.”

It turns out now, of course, that saying “I do” was something W.J. did often. Maybe too often. Virginia didn’t know it at the time, but she was about to become Blythe’s fourth wife. More to the point, when the couple wed on Sept. 3, 1943, Blythe was still legally married to wife No. 3, Wanetta Ellen Alexander—and may have failed to dissolve his marriage to wife No. 2, Faye Gash. He had also apparently fathered at least two children.

For decades, W.J.’s tangled romantic history has been the stuff of Blythe family legend—and family secrets. But now a systematic search of available records in eight states has answered some, though not all, of the questions concerning W.J. Blythe’s colorful past. Before he was killed in a car accident outside Sikeston, Mo., on May 17, 1946, at the age of 28, Blythe’s name appeared on at least four marriage licenses, two divorce decrees and three birth certificates, including one of a future President of the United States.

In essence, W.J. appears to have been an ordinary fellow who lived a very complicated life. He was born on a modest farm in 1918 in Sherman, Tex., the fourth son of William Jefferson Blythe and Lou Birchie Ayers Blythe, who named him simply W.J. to distinguish him from his father. When W.J. was 17, his father died of colon cancer, which meant the boy had to get a job at a nearby dairy to help make ends meet. He impressed all who met him with his hard work and easygoing charm. “He was always smiling,” said Vera Ramey, 69, of Denison, Tex., one of his two surviving siblings. “Things that would be disturbing to other people would just make him laugh.”

In 1935, the year his father died, W.J. made his first trip to the altar, marrying hometown girl Virginia Adele Gash, 17. It didn’t take long, though, for the newlyweds to drift apart. “Young and dumb is what we were,” Adele told a reporter for The Washington Post last June. Several months after the wedding, while visiting relatives in Dallas, Adele received a parcel containing her belongings in the mail from W.J. They divorced in 1936, but Adele continued to see W.J. from time to time. It was during one of those encounters, she says, that Blythe’s first son was conceived. On Jan. 17, 1938, Adele gave birth to Henry Leon, who later took the surname Ritzenthaler from his mother’s second husband. Last June, Leon, now 55 and a retired custodial supervisor, became a media star when the story broke that he was the President’s half brother. Since then, the two men have talked on the phone once.

Blythe saw his new son only once, in California, where Adele had gone to live. Meanwhile he was beginning his career as a traveling salesman, hawking auto parts throughout the South and Midwest. He also lost no time getting married again. According to a marriage certificate discovered by PEOPLE, he married Adele’s younger sister, Minne Faye Gash, on Dec. 29, 1940, in Durant, Okla.

From then on, Blythe’s marital status gets very murky indeed, it is not clear when—or even if—he legally divorced Faye, since no certificate can be found. But their relationship did not last long. On May 3, 1941, just five months after marrying Faye, he married Wanetta Alexander, then 18, in Kansas City, Mo. Eight days later, Wanetta gave birth to a baby girl, Sharon Lee, whose father was recorded as W.J. Blythe. Last month The Arizona Republic located Sharon Lee Pettijohn, now 52. married and living in a tidy middle-class home in Tucson, and identified her as another of the President’s long-lost half siblings. Unlike Leon Ritzenthaler, however, Pettijohn steadfastly refused to grant interviews. “She feels that who her father is is not anybody’s business,” says her son Tom, 34.

The fact remains that by the lime he was 23, W.J. Blythe had compiled a remarkable domestic record: three wives and two children. Then came his marriage to Virginia Kelley. Yet according to court records, it was not until April 1944, nearly eight months later, that a court in Kansas City granted the final divorce decree, awarded custody of Sharon Lee to Wanetta and ordered Blythe to make child-support payments of $42 a month. By that time, Blythe was in the Army, serving as a mechanic in Europe. Mustered out of the service in 1945, he quickly got back to selling auto parts. He and Virginia bought a home in Chicago, where they were intending to move before he was killed. All in all, it’s doubtful that the spate of disclosures about her first husband has seriously eroded the deep emotions Virginia continued to feel for him after his death. As she told Ladies Home Journal earlier this year, “It’s said that every woman has one great love in her life, and William Blythe was mine.”


ANNE MAIER in Texas, LUCHINA FISHER in Arkansas, SARAH SKOLNIK in Washington, DAVID ELLIS in New York City, MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Tucson, and bureau reports