By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
March 24, 2008 12:00 PM

In retrospect, the governor of New York was going through the motions. Looking spiffy in white tie and tails at Washington’s annual Gridiron Dinner on March 8, Eliot Spitzer took his seat at Table 2—a stone’s throw from President Bush—and settled in for an evening of satirical toasts and comic lampoons, performed by politicians and the press. “He didn’t look troubled,” says one dinner guest who spoke to him that night. “He was smiling and laughing along with everyone else.”

In fact, the crusading former prosecutor, sometimes known as Mr. Clean, had plenty to fret about. Two days before, federal investigators had arrested four suspects accused of operating an international call girl ring called Emperor’s Club V.I.P. with male customers on two continents; in another four days, word would leak that one of its patrons, Client 9, allegedly was Spitzer himself—the 48-year-old married former state attorney general who had built his career as a white knight out to slay the evil-doers, from crooked Wall Street titans to, yes, common pimps and prostitutes. Spitzer’s wife of 20 years, Silda, a former corporate lawyer, stood silent and ashen-faced at his side during his brief public apology, then went into seclusion at the family’s Fifth Ave. apartment, fueling rabid speculation about the state of their marriage and three teenage daughters. “This is just the worst thing imaginable to Silda and their daughters,” says one of her friends.

Spitzer has not been charged with criminal wrongdoing. But the political consequences of the recklessness he admitted were immediate, with demands for his resignation and threats of impeachment echoing all around. “He destroyed his public-service life and maybe his family,” says N.Y. Assembly Republican leader James Tedisco, a political sparring partner to whom Spitzer, a Democrat, once cockily described himself as “a [expletive] steamroller.”

Federal investigators had begun their probe after Spitzer’s bank reported suspicious transactions involving thousands of dollars that ultimately led them to the escort service. Court papers detail just how embarrassing their findings were: Captured on wiretap, Client 9, apparently a repeat customer, is heard making arrangements for a call girl named “Kristen”—American, 5’5” and brunette—to travel by train from New York City for a tryst in Room 871 of a Washington, D.C., hotel. The client stayed two hours, leaving $4,300—including a deposit for future visits.

The private impact of Spitzer’s misstep is, so far, impossible to gauge. Silda, 50, though she gave up her job as a high-powered lawyer long before he won the governorship in 2006, is regarded as a forceful player in her own right. “This is a woman of purpose,” says Republican fund-raiser and cosmetics executive Georgette Mosbacher, who knows the couple. Eliot Spitzer, son of a wealthy Jewish real-estate developer, met his future wife, a Southern Baptist from North Carolina, at a Vermont ski lodge during their last year at Harvard Law School. “I was sitting there in my piggy pajamas, bathrobe and glasses,” Silda told PEOPLE in 2004. She says she rejected Eliot’s first two requests for a date because “he lacked a certain courtly charm in his pursuit.”

But he prevailed. For a time, after they married in 1987, Silda was the couple’s prime breadwinner—Eliot once described bringing her pizza when she pulled all-nighters—until his career as a prosecutor and then politician, kick-started with cash from his family, took off in the ’90s. Silda stepped back to take care of their daughters, Elyssa, now 18, Sarabeth, 15, and Jenna, 13. All go to the Bronx prep school attended by their father, where Elyssa edits the student newspaper.

More than a decade ago, Silda founded a charity called Children for Children that has funneled $1.5 million in grants to New York schools and community projects. The contrast between her giving and her husband’s bare-knuckled rise to power is unavoidable. “The most jarring thing for me is to read these negative things in the papers and try to reconcile that with the person I know and love,” she told PEOPLE in 2004. And that’s a task, surely, that just got a lot harder.