Somebody looked at me the other day,” admits Cornelia Wallace, “and said, ‘You’re just a displaced housewife.’ I guess, basically, that’s exactly what I am.”
It was not always so. Once upon a time Cornelia was the reigning belle of Alabama—presiding glamorously over the Governor’s Mansion in Montgomery and nourishing her husband’s fiery ambition with all the thoroughbred skill expected of a niece of former Gov. “Kissin’ Jim” Folsom. Then came the assassination attempt in May 1972 that left George Wallace paralyzed from the waist down. Cornelia gamely carried the Wallace banner on, but some friends believe the fairy tale ended the moment she knelt over him in that Maryland shopping center six years ago. Others think that Cornelia showed a little too much aptitude for politics—that George, and maybe his aides, were annoyed by the talk that she might succeed him as governor, as his first wife, Lurleen, had done.
The marriage cracked, but not before Cornelia had been caught tapping her husband’s bedroom phone. Now she insists, “George wanted the divorce. I didn’t. I fought it a long time. I just couldn’t fight any longer.” Is it true, as rumored, that his staff took a poll and voted her out? “There were other people influencing him. That’s all I can say. People who wanted to be close to George’s power fought to get me out of the picture.”
For Cornelia Wallace today, the whys and wherefores have given way to the what-nows. At 39 she is confronting for the second time the bitter commonplaces of divorce. “I’ve been living my life for somebody else totally,” she says. “I’ve arrived at this place in life without wanting to be here, and that is hard. But I really have to learn to live again.” Since her divorce in January, one of her first outward gestures was to write to Althea Flynt, wife of the Hustler publisher who was crippled by gunshots from ambush. “I knew when I heard where the wounds were that there would be some spinal cord involvement,” she says. “I just wanted to send her a message.”
The remarkable thing about Cornelia’s retreat from the world is its brevity, given the Wallaces’ prolonged estrangement. After a clamorous separation last summer, each sued the other, and they finally signed an out-of-court settlement on what would have been their seventh wedding anniversary. It gave her $75,000 in cash and some community property—only modest financial security against the problems of making a new life for herself with sons Josh, 13, and Jim, 15. (They are by her first marriage to Florida citrus tycoon John Snively III.) “I can make a home for my children, but I can’t be the kind of mother I think I should be and have a career,” Cornelia worries. “I will end up doing both not well enough and I will know it and feel badly. Thank goodness they’re as old as they are and beginning to be independent.”
Yet the conflicts of working motherhood seem unlikely to deter Cornelia. “Here I am almost 40,” she says, “and the only career I ever had was as a professional entertainer.” She still retains the open good looks that won her second place in the 1956 Miss Alabama contest—and she works out vigorously at the Montgomery Y several afternoons a week to keep trim. So far she has lost 10 pounds. Casting about in her memories for a key to the future, she recalls with particular pleasure her girlhood enthusiasm for piano, organ, acting and waterskiing. She was in the show at Cypress Gardens when she met her first husband. Music was her major at Rollins College in Florida, and she once toured Australia with C&W singer Roy Acuff, appearing with him regularly in a long-running TV series there.
Cornelia recently signed with top Nashville agent Tandy Rice on the recommendation of satisfied client Billy Carter. She sees herself as a TV pitch-woman, partly because it would give her more time at home than a show business career. “If I made commercials,” she says, “I could be a whole lot better mother.” Cornelia specifically covets Anita Bryant’s job. “Promoting Florida orange juice would be the answer to my prayer. I could show that orange juice makes it easy for someone my age to remain active—and even still water-ski. I know a great deal about the citrus business because my first husband was in it.”
A career in commercials, warns agent Rice, is difficult—”not like pick-in’ and singin’ on the back of a flatbed truck.” Cornelia also has encountered “some controversial feedback. I’ve already lost two jobs because I’m too identified with George Wallace.”
By September Cornelia hopes to have her future sufficiently under control to leave her rented house in Montgomery for a permanent home there or wherever the work is. Meanwhile, “I’m getting back in touch with myself.” Buzzing around town in her blue 1976 Chevy wagon, she visits friends, happily keeps up her end of CB conversations (her handle is Blue Bonnet) and hums along with the car radio. She talks animatedly about recent trips to Aspen and the Daytona 500, the celebrity tennis tournament she’ll play in soon, a turkey shoot last month (she’s pushing for the wild turkey to be named the state bird) and the country song she is writing. It will be her second; her widely forgotten first was a ballad for MGM called Baby with the Barefoot Feet.
Despite the “painful and depressing” divorce, she foresees a new self-confidence emerging. “It’s in my blood to fight back,” she says. “Look at Uncle Jim [Folsom]. He’s had open-heart surgery, a stroke and now blindness, but it hasn’t got him down. I guess I’m like him. I’m not part of George’s life anymore. I’m my own person now.”