By Susan Schindehette
July 23, 1990 12:00 PM

This spring, it seemed, thoughts of love took a back page to gossip columns awash in a saga of a billionaire couple’s marital wreckage. But while the Trumps’ notorious split was hogging headlines, a bust-up of even more monumental financial proportions was taking place, at virtually the same time, well beyond range of the public eye. On April 22 an attorney announced the end of the union of self-made media mogul John Kluge (pronounced KLOOG-ee), 75-whose $5.2 billion in assets make him the richest individual in America—and his wife of nine years, Pat, 41. The cause? “Irreconcilable differences,” said her lawyers, but otherwise everything was hunky-dory: “They have resolved all matters amicably and wish each other well.”

If the breakup’s civility is remarkable, its spoils are incredible. As part of her expected settlement, Pat Kluge keeps a 45-room mansion near Charlottesville, Va., where she’ll live with their 6-year-old adopted son, John II, and a $20 million shooting lodge in the Scottish Highlands. There’s also the matter of spending money—in this case, the annual interest on a billion dollars, which, at $1.6 million a week, would make Pat the wealthiest divorcée in history.

The settlement alone would have been enough to keep blue-blood eyebrows raised, but there’s more. In recent weeks word has trickled out about who the soon-to-be ex-Mrs. Kluge has been keeping company with: no less than Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, 59, the first elected black Governor in U.S. history and a rising political star who’s being widely touted as a possible White House contender.

Rumors of Kluge’s relationship with Wilder, whose own marriage ended in a 1978 divorce, has set Virginia society on its ear. Pat, according to one well-placed source, is “without question the talk of Richmond. There isn’t a dinner party where she isn’t talked about.”

Some attribute the buzz to little more than thinly veiled racism. “That’s all it is,” says a Virginia political observer. “The real issue is the race thing: She’s white and he’s black. But everyone’s afraid to put it that way.”

Certainly, Wilder’s friendship with both of the Kluges, which dates to his early days as a gubernatorial candidate, had been no secret: Their $200,000 in financial backing made them Wilder’s top campaign contributors.

What was curious were recent disclosures about the Governor’s travel log. As newspapers from Charlottesville’s Daily Progress to the Washington Post noted, since last winter Wilder had several times used a state helicopter for travel to Charlottesville, which led to speculation that he had been visiting Kluge at taxpayers’ expense. After it was reported that the two had spent a spring weekend together in Nantucket, Wilder’s spokeswoman assured reporters that the Governor had reimbursed the state $3,707 for his use of an official airplane for the trip.

Wilder vehemently denied any impropriety. “We’re friends,” he has said. “Both of the Kluges are friends, and that is it.” Wilder’s spokeswoman, Laura Dillard, said the Governor will pay all personal expenses himself—including the $11.63 for a phone call that he made on May 18 to the Kluge estate. Pat’s spokeswoman called press speculation about the affair “ridiculous. It’s a tempest in a teapot.”

That left just plain folk to wonder if Kluge and the Governor were in fact taking to heart the state’s ubiquitous VIRGINIA is FOR LOVERS slogan. “You’ll never get an answer,” says one society matron. “Something like this happens, and class closes rank.”

If his friendship with Pat Kluge marks Wilder’s first significant brush with scandal, the same cannot be said for her. The Baghdad-born daughter of a British translator and his Scottish-Iraqi wife, Pat met John Kluge at a New York City fundraiser in 1976 and married the Metromedia baron five years later in a lavish ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

But in 1985, just as she was set to host Charles and Diana’s royal visit to Palm Beach, British tabloids uncovered some embarrassing history. In the 1970s, while married to the publisher of the British skin magazine Knave, Pat had posed for nude photos and starred in a soft-porn film called Nine Ages of Nakedness. Pat quietly dropped out from the royal welcoming committee—but not from controversy. Over the next few years, in fact, Kluge bashing in Virginia’s insular horse-country society-set became a blood sport almost as popular as fox hunting.

In recent years, however, there was ample evidence that Pat was trying to upgrade her image—from her endless rounds of lavish entertaining (with guests served at table by liveried footmen) to millions of dollars in charitable contributions. Says her friend, author Rita Mae Brown, a Charlottesville resident: “She’s done more for this county in the short time she’s lived here than families who’ve been here for five or six generations.”

For the time being, at least, Pat Kluge continues to live in her mansion, just three miles from her husband’s separate home on the 10,000-acre spread. Whether she and the Governor are really an item, or, as some have suggested, she is picking suitors from a field of Virginia gentlemen, friends say that these are not easy times for the woman who stands to become the world’s wealthiest divorcée.

At one recent party for Helen Gurley Brown, Pat “looked a little sad, a little shaken,” says her friend, designer Carolyne Roehm. “Regardless of the reason [for the divorce], it’s a very difficult time.”

—Susan Schindehette, Avery Chenoweth in Charlottesville, Katy Kelly in Washington, D.C.