By William Plummer Margie Bonnett Sellinger
January 15, 1990 12:00 PM

After their ordeal, it was television that brought the people of Rumania together. They gathered around it as if it were a communal hearth, and they were warmed by images of the downfall of Nicolae Ceausescu. They watched as the dictator and his wife, Elena—a pair of wizened hellcats spitting anger at their accusers—were tried for crimes of “genocide against the Rumanian people.” And since living well is for the moment beyond them, viewers settled for a lesser revenge when the couple were executed by a firing squad on Christmas Day.

Now, a new set of images is keeping Rumanians close to their sets. As the revolution continues, they are seeing just what kind of man Comrade Ceausescu really was, and the picture commands both outrage and fascination. While Ceausescu kept his countrymen on strict food and fuel rations in an effort to repay the nation’s reported $11 billion foreign debt, he and his family enjoyed fabulous privilege. Video footage taken in the Ceausescus’ homes shows acres of marble, bathrooms fitted with gold fixtures, and caches of art and antiques. Then there are Elena’s clothes: closet after closet of furs, couture gowns, and—the telltale vice of those of her station—hundreds of pairs of expensive shoes. Ceausescu may have stashed more than $1 billion in secret foreign bank accounts. That money helped pay for such projects as a gigantic presidential palace in Bucharest that had been under construction for four years. The cash probably also helped furnish his 40-room villa. It was crammed with paintings, gilded furniture, gold cutlery and diamond jewelry. “It is too hard to understand,” said a bewildered Rumanian Army major who led journalists on a tour of the villa. “I hope one day this place will be turned into a museum of madness.”

If so, it will be the museum Ceausescu deserves. One of 10 children born to peasants in a village near Bucharest, Nicolae came to power in 1965 and at first seemed intent on bettering life for his 23 million countrymen. Mary Ellen Fischer, the author of a scholarly book on Ceausescu, says, “He sounded a lot like Gorbachev. He promised a lot of reforms.” All too quickly, though, he turned out to be a capricious and dangerous paranoiac. Fearful that his imagined enemies might try to kill him by putting poison on his clothes, Ceausescu wore a different suit each day. A year’s worth of clothing was kept under constant lock and key; after each outfit was worn just once, it was burned.

When Nicolae and Elena traveled, they took along their own food, sealed in special coolers watched over by armed guards. They also had a personal engineer whose job it was to protect their clothing and food from chemical, radioactive and bacteriological contamination, according to the book Red Horizons by Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa, the former top Rumanian intelligence officer who defected to the United States in 1978. During one visit to Washington, D.C., aides to Ceausescu “disinfected” Blair House, the official U.S. residence for state guests, swabbing down floors, rugs and bathrooms, anything the Rumanian President might touch.

Elena Ceausescu—who posed as a scientist and ordered numerous bogus academic honors bestowed upon her—had equally strange habits. Aside from diamonds and French finery, Elena reportedly had a passion for pornography. She used the feared state-security troops, the Securitate, to make secret recordings of the sexual liaisons of Rumanian and foreign diplomats. The material provided a means of blackmail as well as entertainment.

In order to tighten their hold on the country, Nicolae and Elena packed the government with relatives: At least 40 members of their family held top posts. Ceausescu’s brothers ran the armed forces, the state intelligence network and the agriculture department, while Elena’s brother oversaw the trade unions. For dynastic purposes, though, the couple’s children were a distinct disappointment. Their oldest, Valentin, now 42, never showed much interest in government. Daughter Zoia, 41, developed a drinking problem and dated men her parents deemed unsuitable. (According to Pacepa, her mother even secretly filmed Zoia’s sexual trysts.)

Thus it seemed for a time that the Ceausescu mantle would pass to younger son Nicu, 38. Yet he was hardly a model leader-in-training, even by the family’s somewhat elastic standards. A bully who had his own problems with booze, Nicu was a notorious womanizer. He had an affair with Rumanian Olympic star Nadia Comaneci and scandalized guests at her 1984 engagement party by publicly fondling the lithe former gymnast. Several years ago, while driving drunk, Nicu reportedly hit and killed a young Rumanian girl. Officially the incident went unreported. “The whole [Ceausescu] clan just lived in a world unto themselves,” says former U.S. Ambassador to Rumania David Funderburk. “They were able to do anything they wanted.”

In mid-December, Ceausescu’s grip on Rumania began to unravel. There were huge demonstrations calling for his ouster. Then finally, on Dec. 22, a helicopter plucked him and Elena from the roof of the Communist Party’s Central Committee building in downtown Bucharest. The chopper made several stops, and rebellious troops took the Ceausescus captive near the town of Tirgoviste, 45 miles northwest of Bucharest. For the next three days they were held at a nearby army base. Just past 4 P.M. on Christmas Day, they were shot and their bodies dumped in an unmarked grave. Their children took flight as well. Zoia was caught as she tried to exit the country; according to Soviet press reports, $100,000 was found when her home was searched. By that time Nicu, too, was in custody, and later Ceausescu’s brother, Marin, was found hanged in the cellar of his office at the Rumanian Trade Mission in Vienna, an apparent suicide.

Last week the entire Ceausescu politburo was reportedly under arrest. The new interim government promised free, democratic elections, but rebuilding Rumania will be a long, painful process. “The damage brought by Ceausescu and his family may be irreparable,” says Daniel Nelson, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, D.C. “His only legacy is despair.”

—William Plummer, Margie Bonnett Sellinger in Washington and bureau reports