December 21, 1998 12:00 PM

Until now, Michael Huffington could count on two main claims to fame. First, he was very, very rich, and second, he had once been married to Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, the ubiquitous conservative political pundit. In the early ’90s they had been Washington’s ultimate power-couple-on-training-wheels—he as a freshman congressman from Southern California and she as the driving force behind a high-profile Washington, D.C., salon. But their ambitions took a tumble in 1994, when Huffington spent $28 million of his personal fortune in his race for a U.S. Senate seat—and lost. Following that defeat and his divorce from Arianna last year, Huffington had largely faded from view.

But just to prove there are not only second but third acts in American lives, Huffington, now 51, is back. In an article in the January issue of Esquire, Huffington disclosed to writer David Brock that he is gay—thus confirming one of D.C.’s most widely circulated rumors. Since the divorce, says Brock, “He’s been to gay parties. I think he just wanted to tell the full story rather than have it surface in the gossip columns.” As Huffington told it, his Senate defeat may have been a blessing in disguise in that he was able to reevaluate who he was and what he wanted. “I now know that my sexuality is part of who I am,” Brock quotes Huffington as saying. “It seems I had to do a lot of things to find out they were not what I wanted to do.”

In the article, Huffington, heir to an $80 million chunk of the Huffco oil fortune, describes how as a bachelor in his twenties he started discreetly dating men in Houston. But he felt conflicted about his sexuality. So in his early thirties he vowed he would marry and have a family. A few years later he met Arianna, a Greek-born, Cambridge-educated author and socialite, and became engaged. Huffington says he told Arianna, now 48, about his homosexual past. “She told him his honesty made her love him more,” says Brock. Their wedding extravaganza in 1986 attracted such diverse guests as Shirley MacLaine, Norman Mailer and Helen Gurley Brown.

They were, in a sense, an odd couple. Her braininess and zest for the social whirl seemed to make her a mismatch for Michael, who admitted he was bored by business and politics. As a result, more than a few friends and acquaintances viewed the marriage as one at least partly of convenience. “Arianna was a real climber, and Michael needed legitimacy,” says Hazel Blankenship, a former Republican party official in Santa Barbara. In any case, the couple did produce two daughters, Christina, now 9, and Isabella, 7.

During the Senate campaign there were widespread rumors about Huffington’s sexual orientation. At the time, Arianna seemed the more vehement of the two in her denials. “That’s like saying that Michael is Chinese,” she indignantly told a writer for Vanity Fair who asked if it was true her husband was gay. By contrast, Michael, who supported allowing gays in the military during his single term as a congressman, was more circumspect. When asked about his sexual preferences, Michael tersely told the Vanity Fair writer, “Sorry, I have no comment.” There were also stories in the press about Michael’s unusual tendency to hug some of his male congressional staff members against their will. When approached by the Los Angeles Times, Huffington blithely insisted, “I’m a hugger. So is Bill Clinton.”

These days, Huffington might think twice about making that comparison. Brock believes he has no regrets about getting married and having kids. The decision to come out of the closet was apparently his and his alone. He approached the openly gay Brock this past summer and told him he wanted to make a clean breast of things. Part of his rationale, says Brock, was that Huffington, who now lives near his daughters (who were unaware of his outing) in L.A. and frequently visits them, “thought it might be helpful to others who are struggling with the same issue.” As for the usually loquacious Arianna, her only public comment was gracious but uncharacteristically low-key. “I wish him well,” she said, “and my only concern is that he is a good father to our children.”

Bill Hewitt

Margery Bonnett Sellinger in Washington and Champ Clark in Los Angeles

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