By Julie Greenwalt and Jon Keller
Updated October 20, 1980 12:00 PM

Can a bright, attractive, ambitious woman of 29 find happiness as vice-president for strategic planning at one of America’s biggest corporations? Until recently, the answer appeared to be yes. Only 16 months out of Harvard Business School, Mary Cunningham had risen like a comet through the executive ranks of the Bendix Corporation in Southfield, Mich. Her future in the automotive and aerospace business seemed limitless. Inevitably there were whispers that she had been promoted so rapidly because of her friendship with the chairman and president of Bendix, William M. Agee, 42. He was recently divorced, she was separated from her husband and the two were admittedly close. Still, there were no complaints about Cunningham’s performance, and the rumors might have died a natural death.

At this point, however, Agee ceremoniously put his foot in his mouth. He ended a routine meeting of 600 Bendix employees by bringing up the Cunningham rumors and insisting that she had been promoted solely on her abilities. He said the two of them would have a “major announcement” the following day. Apparently overwhelmed by the speculation that followed, Agee hastily backtracked and had no more to say. Others, of course, said plenty. One corporate financial planner in New York, a woman, sniffed: “I can’t imagine someone coming out of school and being put in her position so quickly. I don’t know of any man with her kind of track record. How much could she have learned in a year and a half?”

Stung by such innuendo, Cunningham asked the board of directors for a leave of absence and was turned down. They believed it would be a surrender to gossip. Meanwhile, in and around Bendix, people were choosing sides. “I have no idea whether she’s sleeping with the boss,” said one Detroit business observer, “but I don’t think Agee would promote someone who isn’t absolutely qualified for the job. He didn’t get where he is making dumb decisions.” An old friend of Cunningham’s agreed. “Whatever their relationship,” she maintained, “it’s got nothing to do with her promotion. She’s not the type to take an easy route to the top. She’s been overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles all her life.”

Cunningham hardly knew her natural father. Her parents divorced when she was still small. One of four children, she was raised in Hanover, N.H. by her mother and her guardian, Msgr. William L. Nolan, the Catholic chaplain at Dartmouth. She remembers being “a keen observer of people. They used to say I was 7 or 8 going on 40.” A childhood friend describes her as “tremendously devoted to her family and her faith.” At Wellesley, where she studied philosophy and logic and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, Cunningham impressed her faculty adviser, Prof. Ingrid Stadler, as possessing “a sort of purity.” Explains Stadler: “I was struck by her wonderfully idealistic outlook, with an underlying core of strength and confidence.”

After graduation Cunningham worked for three years as a financial analyst at Chase Manhattan Bank. In 1974 she married Howard Gray, now 40, a marketing executive with American Express in New York who is black. In 1977 she enrolled at Harvard, earning a master’s degree in business administration. Recruited by Bendix in 1979, she was appointed Agee’s executive assistant. Soon afterward the gossip began. “Mary was criticized for traveling so much with Bill,” a friend reports. “My God, she was his assistant! Should she have taken different planes? Stayed at different hotels? Have third persons sit in on confidential planning sessions? Had she been a man, none of this would have happened.”

Has Cunningham’s relationship with Agee gone beyond friendship? A confidante says it has not, though they live in the same complex of townhouses in suburban Bloomfield Township. Still, says a Bendix insider, there is undisguised tension at company headquarters. “It’s really a shame,” says one colleague. “Either people come up to Mary and offer support or they avoid her eyes as if she had a deformity.” Cunningham has received 2,000 letters of support from all over the country. She also heard from author Gail (Passages) Sheehy, who reminded Cunningham of a quote she had given Sheehy a week before joining Bendix. It was something like: “I want to go out in the world and temper my idealism with the murkiest side of human nature.” “Well,” Sheehy laughed, “they accommodated you.”

Does Cunningham have any advice for other women on their way to the top? “Remember,” she says, “it’s not enough to have talent and drive. You must also have tremendous courage and practical insight. And it doesn’t hurt to be a little cautious—especially if you are young, female and have access to the boss.”