By Jeanne Whittaker
January 26, 1976 12:00 PM

Over the months the whispers got louder—Henry Ford II, 58, and his 47-year-old barefoot contessa, Cristina, were splitting. Still it came as a surprise when the rumors were publicly confirmed. Ford, holed up in his penthouse apartment at the company’s Dearborn headquarters, authorized a lawyer to announce a separation after almost 11 years of marriage. Back at the Fords’ Georgian mansion, Italian-born Cristina demurred. “As far as Mrs. Ford is concerned,” said family friend Mario De Minicis, “everything is fine and the rumors are quashed. Mr. Ford is going to Europe on business and Mrs. Ford is at home in Grosse Pointe.”

Despite the denial, there was speculation that the auto magnate may want to trade in Cristina for a new model: 36-year-old Kathleen DuRoss, a longtime chum who was riding with Ford last year when he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol in California. (Cristina at the time was off with Imelda Marcos, wife of Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos, at the royal coronation in Nepal.)

Three months later, Kathy DuRoss opened L’Esprit, a new discotheque in Detroit. “I’m still naive,” she told reporters who mobbed her disco opening night. “I hope I’m not getting all this attention just because I was the girl caught with Henry Ford in California.”

In fact, the Ford-DuRoss friendship predates his 1965 marriage to Cristina. In recent years, while Cristina was off jet-setting, Ford occasionally vacationed with DuRoss. Still something of a mystery woman, she was raised and went through high school in Detroit. Widowed at 19 when her musician husband was killed in an auto crash, she has two daughters, Kim, 18, and Debbie, 20. Last month Kathy DuRoss celebrated the holidays with Ford and his pal Prince Stanislas Radziwill shooting on the Yorkshire moors. Cristina was skiing at Sun Valley.

When Ford first met Cristina in 1960 at Maxim’s in Paris, they chatted all evening before she asked his name—twice, as it turned out. Henry was delighted that the young divorcée did not (or pretended not to) recognize the famous family. The relationship prospered gradually, and Cristina came to New York to wait out Ford’s terse, 22-word announcement that he and his wife of 23 years, Anne McDonnell, were separating. It paved the way for Ford’s divorce and remarriage.

At first the new couple were inseparable. A poverty-stricken child who went temporarily blind from malnutrition during World War II—”To this day I cannot get over that feeling every time I see an egg”—Cristina won a reputation for sleek beauty. She took daily 90-minute dancing lessons, pedaled her bicycle around Grosse Pointe and genially tried to streamline her husband’s waistline.

In recent years, however, the two of them increasingly went separate ways. While Ford refused nearly all invitations, Cristina plunged headlong into the international social whirl—and discovered a kindred soul in Imelda Marcos. They were together at Persepolis in 1971 when the Shah of Iran tossed his 2,500th birthday party for the Persian Empire, and again in Australia for the opening of the Sydney Opera House. Cristina has visited Manila to judge the Miss World Pageant. In turn, Imelda turned up as Cristina’s guest at an opening of a new wing of Detroit’s Institute of Art. “I bring exciting people here to add something to an event,” explained Cristina. Ford, who dislikes such appearances, flew off to Europe on business. Which, as matters now stand, is what Henry Ford has done again.