Sharon Bush says Susan Page's The Matriarch stirred up some painful feelings and, earlier this week, a friend suggested she speak to PEOPLE
Sharon Bush — who was married to former President George W. Bush‘s brother Neil Bush for 23 years and shares three children with him — says a new biography has her reflecting on how her ex-mother-in-law, Barbara Bush, treated her in the wake of her headline-making 2003 split from Neil.
In Susan Page’s The Matriarch, which includes interviews with Mrs. Bush in the months before she died, Sharon learned that the former first lady thought about killing herself during a deep depression in the ’70s.
There are suggestions in Page’s book that the despair might have been linked to an alleged — but never confirmed — affair between George H. W. Bush and his longtime aide Jennifer Fitzgerald.
As recounted in lengthy articles in Texas Monthly and Vanity Fair at the time, Sharon and Neil’s union notoriously collapsed in the early 2000s and he quickly remarried to a woman with whom he became involved during his marriage with Sharon.
Afterward Sharon was not shy about describing how she felt cut-out of the Bush family.
Though Sharon said last fall she was not invited to President Bush’s funeral, relations seem to have smoothed over the years: Many family members reportedly gathered in March for the Texas wedding of Neil and Sharon’s daughter Ashley.
Still, Sharon says Page’s Bush biography stirred up some painful feelings. Earlier this week, a friend suggested she speak to PEOPLE.
Of Mrs. Bush, she says, “I just found it very ironic that when my husband, her son, left me for his mistress after a 23-year marriage and our three children, that she turned a blind eye to me.”
Vanity Fair reported in 2004 that Mrs. Bush told Sharon she did not want to get involved between her son and former daughter-in-law: “That’s for you and Neilsie to work out.” According to Texas Monthly, Mrs. Bush reportedly once told Sharon: “You talk to your mother. Neilsie will talk to me.”
The elder Bushes made clear that the divorce did not affect their feelings for their grandchildren, according to Vanity Fair.
Speaking with PEOPLE, Sharon says, “I’m way over it.” But she immediately circles back to what she feels like are parallels between her situation and that of her in-laws.
Although she stated that she doesn’t have any direct knowledge, Sharon says she believes the years-long rumors of an affair between President Bush and Fitzgerald. In her view, she doesn’t understand why Mrs. Bush didn’t act differently toward her as her marriage fell apart and her husband grew close to another woman.
“I would have thought she would have been more empathetic, having gone through that herself,” Sharon says.
“It’s just interesting that she was suicidal but would not even take my phone calls, wasn’t empathetic at all,” she says of Mrs. Bush, adding, “I was in shock because, you know, we had a very close relationship.”
According to Page’s book, Fitzgerald first worked for President Bush while he was the top U.S. diplomat in China and later followed him back to Washington, D.C., then onto his campaign and the White House.
“Allegations that they had an affair would erupt during the 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns. Both Bush and Fitzgerald would consistently deny them. So would Barbara Bush,” Page writes.
Sharon, now the development director for Cristo Rey Brooklyn where she is focused on helping disadvantaged children (“It’s so important to get them while they’re young”), thinks her ex-mother-in-law knew about the affair “the whole time.”
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Speaking with Page before passing away last spring at 92, Mrs. Bush said she grappled with thoughts of suicide during the darkness of her deepest depression, after her husband became director of the CIA.
“I felt terrible,” she told Page. “I would pull over and park so I wouldn’t go hit a tree. I mean, I really felt that depressed.”
Mrs. Bush has said her feelings were likely fueled by a combination of factors, including her husband having to be more secretive because of work and her empty nest at home. But, Page writes, “Some of those close to her speculated to me that there might have been another reason for Barbara Bush’s depression as well.” Namely: Jennifer Fitzgerald.
All parties involved have always denied such a relationship was real.
According to Page, Fitzgerald retired to Florida. (PEOPLE’s efforts to reach her this week were not successful.) She has said any affair with the president “simply didn’t happen.”
“I have nothing but the deepest respect and admiration for the entire Bush family,” she said.