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Sen. Bill Proxmire & Ellen: They Split Their Ticket, Then Figured 'Married Is Better'

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For years marital crack-ups happened to the hill dwellers of Hollywood but never of Washington. Politics, like any other business, made strained bedfellows, but senators and their ladies grinned and bore it. Then, in a rush, couples like Minnesota’s Gene McCarthys, California’s John Tunneys and Kansas’ Robert Doles all split. But, curiously, the real blazers of the forked trail—Wisconsin’s Bill and Ellen Proxmire—are now back together after four years of legal separation.

Any objective observer would empathize with Ellen, instigator of the temporary break. Proxmire is by all accounts demonically dedicated to the service of his constituents but hell as a husband. He prides himself on having never missed a roll call—he is now past 3,700, setting all-time American records for Senate attendance and, no doubt, for missing family meals. And as Washington’s leading fitness freak, Bill arises at 5:30 a.m. every day, runs (not jogs) the 4.7 miles to work and also gets in a swim. All totaled, he sometimes consumes as many weekly waking hours (at least two a day) exercising as he spends with his wife.

But the Proxmires found the singles situation even more untenable than marriage. For her part, Ellen concluded that “someone who is my age”—she is 50—”can’t really date. I just felt silly. Washington can be a cruel town, and because my name is Proxmire I was never disassociated from Bill.” Proxmire suffered his share of mortification. When he went into cosmetic surgery to unpack the bags under his eyes and resod his eroding hairline and deleted his birthdate from the Congressional Record (it’s Nov. 11, 1915), all he proved was a vanity as towering as the Washington Monument. “I was unhappy during the separation,” he recalls. So now he talks almost as if it never took place. “Some married couples say, why don’t we try twin beds instead of a double bed? We just went a little further and said, ‘Let’s live in separate houses.’ ”

What mended their fences, Ellen believes, “was the gradual realization that we had invested a lot of years in each other and had more in common than not. I’ve known Bill since 1949.” Their son, Douglas, now 13, whom she says was “devastated” by the split, took his parents to school activities and promoted Sunday suppers together. (During the separation, the Proxmires lived in houses on the same street so Douglas could walk back and forth daily.) Last December, on their 18th wedding anniversary, Ellen wrote Bill a long letter which said, “maybe we should rethink all of this.” “It was hard for Ellen to be married to this senator,” Proxmire now owns up. “It’s a difficult, cruel, one-sided life. A wife knows that when she makes a mistake it’s harmful, but it is hard for her to do anything that gets much credit. All her talents were submerged. I did all the taking, and she did all the giving.”

Of course, Proxmire never promised Ellen the White House rose garden. His father, a physician from Lake Forest, Ill., sent him away to Hill School (where he was voted “biggest grind”), Yale (where his football coach was a law student named Jerry Ford) and Harvard Business School. Bill took a reporter’s job in Wisconsin and stumped successfully for the state assembly. He was divorced by his first wife, heiress Elsie Rockefeller (with whom he has two grown children). Ellen, a campus beauty queen and Phi Bete at the University of Wisconsin, was a Wisconsin Democratic party official and a divorced mother of two when Bill proposed to her during the 1956 national convention.

At the time, Ellen figured there was no chance of his getting elected to high office since he had lost three races for the state governorship. But then, with Ellen drafted as his skillful if unpaid campaign manager, Bill won an upset victory in 1957 to fill the Senate term of Joe McCarthy, who had died. Once in office, Proxmire returned to Wisconsin every weekend (as he still does at least once a month) to build his now unassailable popularity. (He runs up almost 80 percent majorities against the GOP’s sacrificial challengers.) “I remember feeling resentful,” she says, of her husband’s go-go life, and so in 1964 she dramatically dropped all of her political and philanthropic committees and tried her own therapy—”six, seven, eight hours a day of tennis”—before finally asking for the separation in 1971. Meanwhile, she and several other Capitol Hill wives spun a social consulting service, Washington Whirl-Around, into a $200,000-a-year business advising everyone from convention planners to mothers-of-the-bride (“Use paper rose petals; people slip on real ones”).

In the Senate, Proxmire was steadily outgrowing his reputation as an ineffective mouth-off to become one of the chamber’s most respected non-clubby members. He led floor fights against Pentagon profligacy and the supersonic transport and now chairs both the Senate Banking and Joint Economic Committees. Off the Senate floor, Proxmire is no less intensely combative. “I’ll kill myself to beat a guy swimming laps next to me,” he admits, and when he started playing golf with his duffer son, he discovered to his horror that “competition even creeps into that.” An aide who travels with Proxmire says, “When I wake up I can hear him thumping away, hitting the floor with his daily 200 push-ups.”

The compromise that reunited the Proxmires, Bill admits, was “mostly hers.” He shows no signs of curing his workaholicism, and Wisconsin cynics cracked that it merely meant Proxmire was gunning again for the Presidency. “He really gets his batteries charged shaking hands,” says aide Tom Pattison, but another staffer believes that the senator turns off in personal relationships. “The closer I got, the further away he stayed.”

As for his marriage, Proxmire admits, “Maybe she’s spoiling me again by being too easy.” But Ellen notes, “He doesn’t put a fence around me. He doesn’t require that I be here when he walks in the door at night. If I want to go skiing for two weeks, he doesn’t mind.” Though she rarely makes home-state visits, Ellen is going back to Wisconsin this month to help in his upcoming campaign. “Bill really needs me,” she sums up, “and I like being needed.”