In politics, the name cuts both ways,” says the former Elise Ravenel Wood. “It can be very negative but it can also be an instant door opener.” In this case the name the lady married is du Pont, and the open door was into the governor’s mansion. Elise’s husband is Pierre S. “Pete” du Pont IV, 42, a leanly handsome heir to the billion-dollar chemical fortune and, since his victory last fall, Delaware’s new Republican chief executive.
The morning after the election, though, the exhausted first-lady-to-be couldn’t stick around to relax with the candidate. Instead, catching an early train to Philadelphia, the 41-year-old mother of four made a 9 a.m. class at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she is a second-year student. That day, Elise du Pont recalls, her 100 classmates and the professor “stunned” her with an ovation.
Three years ago, when Pete was in his third term as Delaware’s sole U.S. representative, Elise decided that despite her interest in public health, “poking into migrant labor camps was not enough. The question was, what would I do with the second half of my life?”
She enrolled at Temple University in Philadelphia to complete the B.A. she had abandoned two decades earlier at Bryn Mawr. When she was admitted to Penn Law School, newspaper editorials charged that her acceptance had been politically influenced. That still chafes her. “It’s hard to win or earn something when others think you bought it.”
Pete, too, has to contend with political japes that the du Ponts now run Delaware as well as own it. Actually, he ran against his blue blood. Rhetorically attacking industrial polluters, for example, he declared that “the air we breathe belongs to all of us, not to the guy with the tallest smokestack.” (He didn’t need to add that the state’s tallest smokestack belongs to Du Pont.) Then, while listing his own net worth as $2.6 million, Pete became one of the first congressmen to impose a $100 limit on any campaign contribution, including those from his own pocket. At one point, Pete’s political kitty was so low that he was reduced to campaigning from a 1973 Oldsmobile driven by a college student.
The du Ponts divide their time between the 15-room governor’s mansion in Dover and their own modernistic Wilmington estate, called Patterns. To give Elise study time, Pete hurries home from the state-house three evenings a week to mind the family. “I’m not interested,” he shrugs, “in sitting night after night at a head table on the mashed potato circuit.”
As for the kids, Elise figures that her dislocated life “hasn’t taken its toll yet. But I can’t help think that it may.” While Wendy and Pierre V, both 21, are away at school, Benjamin, 13, and There, 11, still live at home. To Pete, “Their mother going to law school is a new experience for them. The more input you can get into a kid’s life, the better.”
The great-great-grandson of E. I. du Pont de Nemours, who founded the gunpowder company on the Brandy-wine River in 1802, Pete grew up with the landed gentry of Delaware’s chateaux country. (The 3,000-member du Pont clan’s total revenues of more than $8 billion make them one of America’s wealthiest families.) A championship yachtsman who twice crewed for America’s Cup competitors, Pete received a patrician breeding at Phillips Exeter Academy and Princeton, class of ’56.
He spotted Elise at a college party in Princeton’s Colonial Club, where she was another student’s date. “I couldn’t help but notice someone who disagreed with me on all major issues,” he remembers. “Every time I said something, she’d say, ‘No, that’s not right. That’s full of garbage.’ I thought she had some brass.” Elise, the debutante daughter of a Philadelphia Main Line family (her father was chairman of the WaWa food chain), still debates Pete on the issues. (Each agrees half seriously that they nearly came to blows over his signing of a death penalty bill.)
After attending Harvard to become the family’s first lawyer, Pete served three years in the Navy, then worked as a quality control supervisor in a Du Pont magnetic tape plant. He served a single term in the state legislature before his election to Congress. In Washington, Pete co-authored the 1973 War Powers Act, curbing presidential authority to make war, investigated “excessive profiteering” on the Soviet wheat deal, and was one of the first Republicans to break with Nixon on Watergate. In his first year as governor, Pete has pressed for a state income tax to cut into Delaware’s $56.6 million deficit. The Du Pont Company opposes the tax and has lobbied unsuccessfully with Elise to try to change Pete’s mind.
While Elise does duty as the state’s official hostess—she has redecorated Woodburn House, the 1790 governor’s mansion, in bright yellows and tangerines and thrown it open for public tours—most of her 70-hour week is devoted to what she calls the “cold fear” of law school. She makes the one-hour drive to Philadelphia five times a week for classes. Afternoons, Elise jogs around Penn’s Franklin Field to keep fit, since “I must be the oldest student there.” She is thinking of specializing in energy law. “The tensions between energy, conservation and property laws are building,” Elise explains. “I want to be there when the pie is being cut up.”
Pete, Elise raves, has been “super” about backing her. He in turn believes law school “was really important for Elise. It gave her something worth the struggle.” The only limitation he sees to her career is politics. “However good a marriage,” Pete argues, “the corrosive effect of both partners being in public life would put too much strain on individuals. I don’t think we could handle that.” Elise agrees. “We are,” she notes with mock despair, “both afflicted with the American work ethic.”