“The ideal attitude which should underlie all women’s manners expresses kindness, gentleness, goodwill, sensitive understanding, self-respect and, when it is appropriate, deference.” Millicent Fenwick said that 34 years ago in her Vogue’s Book of Etiquette, and it may have been the last time she paid homage to deference. As model, editor, Congresswoman and now Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, she has been outspoken, irreverent and even, in her well-bred way, pushy. But New Jersey voters don’t seem to mind. That makes her a formidable obstacle for her Democratic opponent, Frank Lautenberg, who was outraged last June when Fenwick, a millionaire, proposed a limit on campaign spending. “Because she’s a character, Mrs. Fenwick gets all sorts of free publicity,” snapped Lautenberg, 58, chief executive of a computer services company. “I’m going to spend whatever it takes to catch up.”
It won’t be easy. Fenwick, 72, has been a celebrity since she was elected to Congress in 1974. A picture of genteel elegance in her pearls and 40-year-old wool suits, the rail-thin 5’10” Fenwick charmed Washington with her sharp wit and ubiquitous pipe. News-papers quoted her often, and Garry Trudeau immortalized her in his comic strip Doonesbury as Lacey Davenport, the patrician politician who addresses everyone with a courtly “my dear.”
Millicent’s appeal, like Lacey’s, is as old-fashioned and timeless as etiquette. An oddball combination of glamour and grit, she is devoted to the noblesse oblige virtues of duty and honor. Once, while waiting to board a plane in Washington, her traveling companion, another Congresswoman, suggested they pull rank and get on first. “If you go to the head of the line,” retorted Fenwick, “you go alone.”
Part of her reputation for integrity stems from her stubborn insistence on paying her own way. She refuses to accept campaign money from political action committees, and four years ago protested a congressional pay increase by sending money back for a year and a half in the amount of her raise. On another occasion, when former Congressman Wayne Hays, the chairman of the House Administration Committee, supported a $20 million increase in congressional expense funds, Fenwick asked for a debate. Hays retaliated by threatening to strip the committee’s Republican members of their staffs. “And I have the votes to do it,” he bellowed. “Mr. Chairman,” answered Fenwick, “I think we have heard something here today for which we are all going to be sorry and ashamed.” The measure passed, but Hays ordered his remarks stricken from the record.
Fenwick, who has never lost an election, first ran for office in 1958, when she became the first woman member of the Bernardsville, N.J. Borough Council. Reelected twice, she left office in 1964, after becoming ill with a rare nervous disorder. She recovered fully to work in civil rights and prison reform until her election to the New Jersey State Assembly in 1969. In Trenton she lobbied for better working conditions, including portable toilets, for migrant workers—a campaign that earned her the nickname “Outhouse Millie.”
She also gained a reputation as an astringent debater. When, during a discussion of the ERA, a male legislator witlessly observed, “I always thought women were meant to be kissable, cuddly and sweet-smelling,” Fenwick shot back, “That’s what I thought of men, and I hope you haven’t been disappointed as often as I have.”
In 1972 Mrs. Fenwick was appointed state director of consumer affairs, and two years later she was elected to Congress. She has been reelected three times by ever-increasing margins—in 1980 with a whopping 78 percent of the vote. Declares political consultant John Deardourff: “Millicent Fenwick is one of the most electable candidates in the country.”
The reason, her colleagues say, is charisma—an analysis that she finds repugnant. “In politics, charm should be absolutely irrelevent,” she insists. “The point is, what are you doing and what have you done? What is your record?” Her own has drawn both praise and disdain. “One of the experiences I enjoyed most was watching her in operation,” said Leon Jaworski, who worked with Fenwick during the House Ethics Committee investigation of Tongsun Park. “It gave me such a lift to find someone who cared so much. I was tremendously impressed.” Her detractors, on the other hand, consider her an ineffectual grandstander. “She spends a lot of time on the floor of the House, which gives her a good opportunity to talk before the TV cameras,” says another woman member of Congress. “But the real work here goes on in committees.”
Others claim Fenwick’s eccentricity borders on flakiness. Once, during a House debate on whether federal election ballots should be bilingual, Fenwick got up and spoke in fluent Spanish—not on the issue, but on the aesthetic merits of a beautiful language. Then, last year, she and several other members of Congress met with the British Ambassador for a discussion of the IRA hunger strikes. Fenwick’s solution to sectarian hatreds in Northern Ireland: mixed dancing classes for Catholic and Protestant children. “It’s true, sometimes she’ll do things that make you cringe,” says a former aide. “Then you realize that if she seems naive, it’s only because her ideals are so lofty.”
Such loftiness may perhaps best be appreciated on Fenwick’s home turf, New Jersey hunt-club country where Jackie Onassis has a rural retreat. Yet the Congresswoman also has a following among the down-and-out. Every week she receives letters from troubled people all over the country who regard her as a kind of congressional Dear Abby. She answers them with handwritten notes she calls “pinkies.” ” ‘I’m 26 years old, and I have a terminal illness,’ ” Fenwick reads from one letter. ” ‘I don’t mind the disease, and I’m not afraid of death. But I can’t stand my parents.’ You can’t answer this sort of thing with a typewritten note,” she says. “This has to be answered the way it was written—from the heart.”
Despite her concern for the poor, Fenwick voted for most of President Reagan’s budget cuts. Her relationship with the White House remains cordial, though she has come down on the liberal side of most social issues, including the ERA, abortion and gun control. Ultimately, she considers herself a bedrock conservative. “Since Hitler came to power I have never really trusted government, and it is because don’t trust government that I am a Republican,” she wrote in her book Speaking Up. “Democrats don’t mind mandatory laws, regulations and ordinances…. Republicans tend to ask ‘Why? Is the situation such that we must order people around?’ ”
Paradoxically, Fenwick, née Millicent Hammond, was born into a class that gave orders—an aristocratic world in which croquet was played on manicured greenswards, while French maids served tea and polished the silver. Her mother, real estate heiress Mary Stevens, wed financier Ogden Hammond in 1907 and settled on an estate in Bernardsville. Millicent, the second of their three children, lost her mother at the age of 5, when Mrs. Hammond drowned following the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat in 1915. Her husband tried in vain to save her, then clung to a a piece of wood for hours before being rescued off the Irish coast.
Two years later Hammond married Marguerite McClure Howland. “She was nasty, and she was terribly cruel to Millicent, I think because she was so jealous of her,” says Hugh Fenwick, the Congresswoman’s ex-husband, now living in Aiken, S.C. The stepmother, who didn’t believe education was necessary for girls, pulled Millicent out of the horsey Foxcroft boarding school at 15, when Hammond was appointed Ambassador to Spain. That ended the girl’s formal education, but Spain was not wasted on Millicent. “My sister and I had our own car and our own chauffeur,” she recalls. “Whenever we went out to play golf, a maid would go along with us. And if we wanted to play golf with a man, a married woman had to be present. There was a lot of drama to life—every man was dangerous dynamite.”
None more so than Hugh Fenwick. Millicent was 19 when she met him at a neighbor’s lawn party back in New Jersey. He was 24 and already married, but his wife was away for the summer in Bridgehampton. Millicent’s parents opposed the romance, and at the wedding, a year later, her stepmother unplugged all the lights so the photographer couldn’t take pictures. “Hugh Fenwick was heavy, and he never had much hair, but he was full of charm,” says Millicent’s cousin and close friend Mary Baird. “I remember sitting with him on a screened porch one night, and a moth was circling the light. Instead of getting up and turning off the switch, Hugh pulled a pistol from his belt and shot out the bulb.”
For a time the couple lived on a farm with 4,700 chickens and 40 cows. Fenwick commuted to Newark, where he worked as an airplane parts salesman, and Millicent cared for their two children, Hugh Jr. and Mary. Then, in 1938, as Europe was preparing for war, Fenwick was transferred to London. He never came back, and Millicent divorced him in 1945. “He always had women,” says a friend. “The last time I saw him he had a gold cigarette case with a map etched into the lid. A ruby marked every city where he had stayed with his girlfriend.”
Soon after Fenwick’s departure, Millicent went to work. She tried modeling for a while, then got a job at Vogue after Condé Nast, a friend of a friend, read one of her short stories. Her first assignment was to interview Mary Martin. “I was so scared,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to be rude, but I also wanted to get everything for my story. As it turned out, it was also the first time anyone had interviewed her!”
Profiles of Toscanini and Paul Robeson followed. Then Nast asked her to write the etiquette book. The idea struck her as snobbish, but she needed the paycheck. Her family had no idea her husband had left her saddled with debts, and she had no intention of asking for help. Then, in 1952, some family real estate investments paid off, enabling her to quit work entirely. “I thought I was going to have a quiet life reading, gardening and doing volunteer work,” she remembers.
Politics, however, intervened. She now puts in a 14-hour day at the Capitol (“There isn’t anyone in Congress who works as hard as I do”), then walks a block and a half to her South Capitol Street duplex, eats her nightly spaghetti dinner, and retires for the evening. “There are two theories on why Millie never remarried,” remarks Hugh Fenwick. “One theory is that she had such a miserable experience the first time, she didn’t want to repeat it. The second theory, and the one I prefer, is that she could never find anyone as charming as me.”
Every Friday when Congress is in session, Mrs. Fenwick goes home to the country house her father bought in 1908 and the 14 rolling acres where young Millicent once rode to hounds. She has been plagued all her life with ill health—33 years ago she underwent successful surgery for cancer, and she has worn a pacemaker since 1975, but she is less concerned than her aides that her current opponent will make age an issue. She is more worried about Lautenberg’s spending. He won the Democratic nomination with a $1.9 million advertising blitz consisting largely of TV commercials, and is expected to rely on the same tactic this fall. Fenwick, 11 times a grandmother, points out that most of her estimated $5 million fortune is tied up in trusts for her children.
Though Fenwick is heavily favored to become the Senate’s third woman member, she knows that no election can be without risk. “You know what I’ll be doing if I’m defeated,” she says, energetically pulling weeds from a flower bed with the look of a woman accustomed to taking care of herself. “I once consulted a psychiatrist to find out if not remarrying was damaging to the children. I paid him $100 for a Rorschach test, and he told me not to worry—the children would be fine.” As for Fenwick herself, singleness has never really meant solitude, and politics holds a joy for her that age cannot stale. “You know why I love it?” she asks without waiting for an answer. “It’s company.”