Susan Schindehette
September 07, 1998 12:00 PM

Hoping to leave behind for a few moments the inescapable, apparently interminable furor over l’affaire Lewinsky, the President took time out, as Air Force One carried him toward a 12-day family vacation on Martha’s Vineyard on Aug. 18, for his daily pastime—racing through The New York Times crossword puzzle, in ink. He paused briefly at the clue for 46 down, which called for a four-letter word for “meal for the humble.” “In a bemused way,” according to an aide, the President said aloud, “‘Here’s one appropriate for today,'” as he penned in the answer: “Crow.”

In the wake of the most embarrassing scandal of his 22-year political career—and that’s saying something—the President and his family took refuge at the estate of Boston real estate developer Richard Friedman, a major Democratic contributor. While their entourage settled into a four-bedroom main house, Bill, who celebrated his 52nd birthday on Aug. 19, and Hillary, 50, took the small, shingled guest cottage where, presumably, they began the delicate task of repairing their marriage.

The aftermath of marital infidelity is never a cakewalk, but for the Clintons, like a number of other high-profile couples—Elizabeth Hurley and Hugh Grant, Kevin and Cindy Costner, Kathie Lee Gifford and husband Frank, Donald and Ivana Trump, to name just a few—the glare of public scrutiny and embarrassment only adds to the pressure. “The tragedy is that most of us endure such things as infidelity in secret. But the Clintons live in a fishbowl. They must endure this publicly,” says Jesse Jackson, who counseled the First Couple the night before the President acknowledged on national television that his relationship with Monica Lewinsky was “not appropriate.”

The question in Hillary Clinton’s case, of course, is how much humiliation can one woman take? When does the unforgivable become unendurable? “You might say she is the most mentally abused wife in the world—ever,” says Michael McCurley, a prominent Dallas divorce attorney. “There’s no place this woman can walk without knowing everybody is snickering at her. The most powerful man in the world got on TV and said, ‘I lied to her and she bought it.'”

While no one but the Clintons knows precisely what went on behind the door of their vacation cottage, even from a distance it was clear that this was no ordinary First Family vacation. Unlike years past, when they were seen hitting Espresso Love in Edgartown for muffins or browsing at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven, this time there have been no public dinner engagements, no impromptu jogs on island bike paths and no sign of the presidential cart rambling over the links at the Farm Neck Golf Club. It was a week before they appeared together in public, going sailing last Tuesday with Walter Cronkite. “They’ve been talking, they’ve been relaxing, they’ve been reading, they’ve been walking,” reported White House spokesman Mike McCurry at an Aug. 24 briefing, “and they’ve been dealing with what is a personal, private matter.”

On Saturday night the two attended a party at the home of investment banker Steven Rattner, where “they weren’t frosty, they weren’t warm and cuddly, they were just kind of correct,” says a guest. “The First Lady was very clearly determined to have a normal evening and was not at all interested in discussing the obvious subject. The President was much more emotive, and you could just see on his face that it was on his mind more. There was discussion, for example, about Ken Starr. Mrs. Clinton didn’t want to deal with it at all. She internalizes everything, and you never really quite know what’s going on inside her. He wears everything on his sleeve. You always know everything that’s on his mind and then some.”

Still, everyone wonders how the First Lady—or for that matter any intelligent woman who doesn’t need a man for financial security—can tolerate indignity so complete that she has been caricatured in a Claymation bout with Monica Lewinsky on MTV’s Celebrity Death Match. The public debate on the subject has assumed epic proportions; virtually no one is without an opinion (see poll, page 56). “She has been way too understanding,” says Vivian Eberhard, a Houston marriage counselor. “She tries harder and harder to fix the problem and be part of the solution. But she should set boundaries and expect him to keep them.”

In truth, of course, every marital crisis is different. And friends suggest that Hillary, in dealing with hers, is guided by the same resources she has always drawn on in bad times: her religiously based moral compass, a 23-year investment in the man she has always been said to adore and, of course, her love for Chelsea, 18. “My strong feelings about divorce and its effects on children have caused me to bite my tongue more than a few times during my own marriage,” she wrote in her 1996 bestseller It Takes a Village. “That we are blessed with Chelsea enhances our commitment.” Beyond that, says Letitia Baldrige, who served as Jackie Kennedy’s chief of staff during her White House years, “Hillary is a strong, tough woman who knows herself and knows her husband.”

Only time will tell if that is enough. Meanwhile, the First Lady might consider the experiences of other highly visible wives and lovers who have weathered infidelity and salvaged their relationships—sometimes by speaking softly and sometimes by carrying a big stick.

In May 1997, after talk show host Kathie Lee Gifford, then 44, saw a tabloid photo of her husband, Frank, 67, cavorting with flight attendant Suzen Johnson in a New York City hotel room, the two went through a rocky phase. “She forgave him publicly, but in reality, she made life miserable for him,” says a friend. Still, Maggie Scarf, author of Intimate Partners: Patterns in Love and Marriage, credits Kathie Lee with showing remarkable resilience. “The whole nation found out,” says Scarf. “You have to say that she showed grace under fire. She went on the air every day.”

Ultimately, it was a family tragedy—the skiing death last December of Michael Kennedy, who was married to Frank’s daughter Victoria—that helped start the healing. “When [Michael] was killed,” says Astrid Gifford, Frank’s second wife, “that, I think, brought them closer together.”

Three years ago, shortly after learning that longtime love Hugh Grant, then 34, had been arrested in Hollywood with a prostitute, Elizabeth Hurley, 29, issued a telling statement: “I am very much alone,” and dressed Grant down at their rented home. But more recently their abiding friendship—not to mention their professional partnership (they own a production company, Simian Films)—has helped them rebuild. As Pepper Schwartz, professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle, notes: “Pain goes away. Even the worst things that you think you’ll never get over start to get dull over time.”

And if time doesn’t work, then maybe playing hardball will. In 1992, when tabloids ran a story about her then 49-year-old husband in a posh Thai hotel with Italian model Carla Bruni, 23, Texas-born Jerry Hall, then 36, turned steel magnolia. Though Bruni consistently denied the affair, “I rang her,” said Hall, “and told her to leave my man alone.” Four years later, when published photos showed Czech model Jana Rajlich, 28, peering out of Mick’s hotel room in Beverly Hills, Hall made a different kind of call—to a divorce lawyer. “It was a shock tactic to make [Jagger] sit up and acknowledge that he should be well past this stage of playing around,” says rock author Laura Jackson.

If so, it apparently worked. In 1992, Hall gave birth to daughter Georgia, and the couple, says a friend, are now “besotted” with their fourth child, son Gabriel, born late last year. Still, “it hasn’t been easy,” Hall once told a reporter. “I know women who move out the first time the guy does something wrong, which is crazy. You have to decide what you want and who you want.” And she wanted Mick.

Sara Netanyahu, wife of Israel’s current Prime Minister, knew what she wanted, too—and got it in writing. In 1993, when her husband, Benjamin, went on Israeli television to admit an affair with a married adviser, Sara, then 34, tossed him out of the house. Professing his love for her, Netanyahu, 43, asked for forgiveness, and she gave it—but only after he reportedly signed a binding contract forswearing any future infidelity. Today, Sara, who has since had the couple’s second son, accompanies her husband on public appearances and trips abroad. “Perhaps if our relationship were less deep, I would have accepted what happened with more tranquillity,” she told a reporter. “But because of this relationship, the pain is not mine alone.”

Freelance ESPN producer Heather Faulkiner also received legal help with her relationship, but not the kind she could ever have anticipated. In 1997, just three weeks after sportscaster Marv Albert, then 55, proposed, he was indicted on charges that he had assaulted divorcée Vanessa Perhach, 42, with whom he had been having a 10-year affair. When she learned of the scandal, “I felt like I was almost hit over the head,” says Faulkiner, now 40. “My knees went weak, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe.” Still, she dug in for the long haul, and today, as Albert—who later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge—undergoes a year of court-ordered therapy, “we are best friends,” says Faulkiner, who still plans to marry him. “I know it’s difficult for people to understand, but I think Marv is the first one to admit that he made a mistake and is trying to correct it. In a way, it has brought us together.”

For the luckiest couples, that may be true. Back in 1987, after she learned that her husband, Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, then 50, had been carrying on with 29-year-old model Donna Rice, Lee Hart, 51, stood by his side when he withdrew from his presidential campaign. “If it doesn’t bother me,” she told reporters, “I don’t think it ought to bother anybody else.” Having gone resolutely to ground in the wake of the affair, the couple now live in their 4,700-square-foot mountain home in Kittredge, Colo., and last month celebrated their 40th anniversary. Says a friend: “They are probably happier now, or at least more content, than at any time since I’ve known them.”

But it seemed like political déjà vu all over again last February when Bea Romer, 68, wife of Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, 69, stood by her husband of 46 years as he admitted to an “honorable and beautiful relationship” with his former deputy chief of staff, Betty Jane Thornberry, 52. Bea got through the ordeal with the help of Prozac and, more importantly, her faith. The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, “she is going to go through this marriage literally ‘for better or worse,’ ” says a friend. “That is what she has been taught, and that is what she clearly believes.”

Mary Alice Cisneros, then 39, also turned to her religion after reporters broke the story, in 1988, that then San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros, 41, had begun an affair the year before with political fund-raiser Linda Medlar, 39. Last December the wound was reopened when Cisneros (who served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development from 1992 to ’96) was indicted by a federal grand jury and charged with obstruction of justice and making false statements about the more than $250,000 he gave Medlar in financial support after they split in 1991. A trial is scheduled for November in Washington.

The couple separated, and Mary Alice filed for divorce before the two ultimately reunited. Their marriage has survived in part because of their 11-year-old son’s severe health problems (he was born without a spleen and with a serious heart defect that has now been surgically corrected). His wife, says Cisneros, now the president and chief operating officer of the Spanish-language television network Univision, also “had many counselors during the toughest days, including some evangelicals.” Today they have moved from their longtime home of San Antonio to Los Angeles, where they are less visible and have become regulars at Sunday mass at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic church. “When one loses one’s compass, as I unfortunately did, and the moorings come undone,” says Cisneros, “you just have to rely on institutions like the church.”

But even the deepest personal faith can’t save all relationships. Believing her husband would ultimately return to her, Adua Pavarotti, then 58, stood by him in 1995 when news reports revealed that 59-year-old tenor Luciano Pavarotti had left her for his 25-year-old secretary, Nicoletta Mantovani. “I will defend my marriage at all costs,” she told the Italian magazine Gente, even after it was rumored that Mantovani was pregnant. “There is no price too high to save our 34 years of life together.”

But by March 1996, when the couple appeared in court to request a required three-year separation before they could divorce, Adua was finally ready to throw in the towel. “I cannot recognize Luciano anymore,” she said. The split was especially galling for a wife who had served as Pavarotti’s business partner from the start of his illustrious career. Though she now has half of his reported $209 million fortune, “On the calendar there is no such thing as Saint Adua,” she has said, “but I wouldn’t mind if it was added, thanks to me.”

Although Hillary Clinton, on the day after her husband’s public admission, stated that she is committed to her marriage, whether she will succeed at getting him back on the straight and narrow is anybody’s guess. But whatever healing goes on in private, the Clintons can be sure that every gesture and every word will be scrutinized publicly and tirelessly by pundits, polls and talk show types feeding off the First Couple’s plight. “Clinton was caught by the changing vulnerability of the presidency to a complete lack of privacy,” says sociologist Pepper Schwartz, adding that the President “probably can’t believe why he’s the unlucky person [in a situation] where technology and lethal party politics caught up with him.”

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