Despite all the nasty headlines, Jane Beasley Welch thought that she and her husband, Jack, the former GE chairman, were going to have a civilized divorce. After all, even after they both retained lawyers this March—following the embarrassing disclosure that Jack, 66, was having an affair with then-Harvard Business Review editor Suzy Wetlaufer, 43—the former couple were still sharing their stately hilltop mansion in South-port, Conn., like characters in a Noël Coward drawing-room comedy. Then one day the mood turned suddenly Sopranos. Jane, now 50, came home to find her spouse of 13 years standing in the living room next to a state marshal. The marshal handed her papers informing her that Jack had filed for divorce. “It was as tacky as hell,” says Jane’s lawyer William Zabel. (Jack Welch’s attorneys have refused to comment.) “She was stunned.”
Advantage: Jack. But not for long. Back when Jane, a onetime corporate lawyer, negotiated the prenuptial agreement on which Jack had insisted before their 1989 wedding, she inserted a clause that its provisions would expire in 10 years. She now stands to walk away with far more than the $15 million that Jack put on the table in April (when his fortune was estimated at $800 million). His offer rebuffed, Jack struck back by slashing Jane’s monthly support from an unlimited amount to $35,000. In response, Jane’s lawyers left Jack sputtering to explain himself when they filed a list of the approximately $2.5 million in annual perks in his GE benefits package, ranging from round-the-clock access to a corporate jet to free dry cleaning. (Welch then agreed to pay $2 million for the services.)
“I believe ‘Neutron Jack’ got nuked by his wife,” says Michael Lewis, a columnist for Bloomberg News. “He’s one of the shrewdest men in corporate America, but he met his match in the woman he married.”
Those who knew Jane back when in Pratts Station, Ala., a flyspeck off Highway 51, could have told him that. Family and friends remember the chestnut-haired cheerleader as a scrappy and determined young woman. “With three brothers, she had to be tough,” says Billy Beasley of his cousin, the only daughter of the late Durwood, a bulldozer driver, and Marion, also deceased, a schoolteacher.
After graduating with a B.A. in English in 1974 from local Troy State University, Jane worked for five years as a legal secretary before entering the University of Kentucky’s law school. (During that time she married and split from Charles D. Cole, a law professor at Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Ala.) “You immediately noticed that she was more serious than the other students; she was more focused and ambitious,” says classmate Greg Parsons of Jane, who would graduate at the top of her class. “She was brilliant and hardworking.”
Snapped up by the high-powered Manhattan law firm of Shearman & Sterling, Beasley applied those attributes as a mergers-and-acquisition specialist. “She just got a few breaks and they paid off,” observes her brother Bob, 52, a pastor. In 1987, only five years out of law school, she was on the fast track, headed for partnership, when mutual friends set her up on a blind date with Jack Welch, the recently divorced chairman of GE. Welch was swiftly smitten by this woman he described as “bright, tough, witty, and 17 years younger than I am” in his 2001 book Jack: Straight from the Gut. But he made it clear that he “really wanted a full-time partner” and that she would have to give up her career. Jane agreed.
She threw herself into her new role. “I never encountered someone so completely devoted to making somebody else happy,” says a former colleague of Jane’s. She took up golf so that she could share one of Welch’s passions (eventually winning several women’s titles) and ran five households—mansions in Nantucket and Southport, a multimillion-dollar home on a Palm Beach golf course along with a smaller one nearby and the Manhattan flat. “They went everywhere together, it was an exciting life, but it was all about Jack.”
After nursing Welch through two heart attacks and a quintuple bypass in 1995, Jane was hoping that her husband’s retirement last year would give them more time to enjoy together. But “it was like he hit this solid wall of free time and he didn’t like it,” says Jane’s former colleague. “Suddenly he’s going full-time again. She felt cheated.” The deeper betrayal came in early December, when Jane opened a series of e-mails sent to her husband by journalist Suzy Wetlaufer. Intimate and cooing, these messages “left nothing to the imagination,” the former colleague says. “She was totally blind-sided. But I think her analytical side took over.”
Playing the cards she was dealt with lawyerly acumen looks as though it will pay off for Jane, who spent the summer in Florence and is now maintaining a low profile in Manhattan. (By way of contrast, Welch and Wetlaufer were spotted frolicking in the Nantucket surf this summer and hitting Boston hot spots.) But that doesn’t make it a happy ending, cautions her brother Bill Beasley, 53, a high school math teacher. “Jane didn’t deserve this,” he says. “She adored that man.”
Lynda Wright in New York City, Nancy Wilstach in Pratts Station and Debbie Seaman in Southport