She has become the poster girl for disgruntled corporate wives, the determined woman who would not accept an estimated $10 million to go quietly from her 32-year marriage to a top GE executive. The dust may have settled temporarily on her very public divorce - an appeal is possible - but Lorna Wendt sees no need to slip out of the limelight. So she is still on the case, still pushing the notion that standing by your man is worth half the pot, no matter how overflowing it might be. She is even funding a foundation intended to spread the word.
Wendt in late December learned that the settlement ordered by a Connecticut judge in her divorce from Gary Wendt, chairman and CEO of GE Capital, the highly profitable financial services division of General Electric Co., would fetch her somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million. True, the amount was not the 50/50 split she had been seeking, but it appears to be enough to support her in the lifestyle with which she has become familiar: $18,000 a year for restaurants, $11,400 for hairdressing and personal care, $6,000 for dues at the private Stanwich Club, $120,000 for clothing and shoes, and so on.
“I have become accustomed to wearing a certain kind of clothing, style of clothing, cost of clothing that my position as wife of a CEO demanded,” is the way Wendt firmly explained this last expense to the court.
It is such marital demands, in fact, that have become the crux of Lorna Wendt’s case (and cause), making it a hot topic in living rooms and board rooms. The debate over Lorna J. Wendt v. Gary C. Wendt persists. What’s the value of keeping house and raising kids while your husband is bringing home a paycheck? What’s a wife worth who spends much of her life meeting and greeting on her husband’s professional behalf? And just how much of an economic partnership is a marriage anyway?
“Gary’s career was my career,” the 54-year-old Wendt says now, leaning across a small table in a posh restaurant near an apartment she keeps on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, one of three homes she owns. “It was my role. It was my job. And then he told me he wanted a divorce, and I was fired.”
Trouble is, she wanted a golden parachute, just like the guys get. But was the job she says she held as Gary Wendt’s wife worth, say, half of the $1.4 million he says he pulled down from CE Capital in 1996? Half of a $6.7 million bonus due upon his retirement? Half of his unexercised stock options worth about $5 million?
Hell yes, his ex-wife answers as she talks about raising the two daughters, now in their 20s, that her husband didn’t have time to raise; as she talks of making his home a home; as she talks of smoothing his rough social edges (Gary Wendt would often disappear during social functions, she says, although one witness during the 18-day divorce trial recalled that he once donned a lampshade at a social gathering); and especially as she talks of the many GE-related dinners and trips she took, of grinning and glad-handing her way through some 40 countries as her husband’s wife.
“Listen, I enjoyed it,” she says. “But I was very much aware that I was Gary’s wife and that I was representing GE Capital in my role as his wife, a CEO wife. I was always on. I could never have a down minute. I was programmed. And I was never hired by GE. It was just assumed a good wife would do it.”
Right up to the bitter end. When Gary Wendt told his wife he wanted a divorce in December 1995, he had one other request, she says: “He said, ‘You’re still going to have the party, aren’t you?”’
Ah, the Christmas party. The Wendts were a power couple renowned for their two annual Yuletide gatherings, the first a black-tie affair for favored GE executives, the second a less formal gathering for approximately 200 friends and neighbors. Gary Wendt was apparently most worried about the former, at which some 90 guests were expected to turn up at the duo’s $1.5 million contemporary manse in Stamford, Conn., and where Marvin Hamlisch was booked to perform. (Jose Feliciano had played at another Wendt affair.)
But the party was scheduled to take place just six days after Gary Wendt informed his wife that he wanted to split up. What to do? “I said, ‘I’ll think about it,”’ she recalls today. “But I went ahead with it because I didn’t want to disappoint the people. They had baby sitters lined up. They had bought their dresses. So I was meeting with caterers for the party and interviewing lawyers about the divorce. And when people came through the front door that night, when we greeted everybody, they didn’t have a clue.”
Lorna Jorgenson Wendt contends that her training to become a high-level corporate wife pretty much began on a summer day in 1965. That was when she and her bridegroom packed their worldly goods into a U-Haul trailer and drove their Mercury Cougar from their tiny hometown of Rio, Wis., where she had sewn her own wedding gown, to the Harvard Business School. The former high school sweethearts, who had both graduated from the University of Wisconsin, deposited the $2,500 wedding gift that Gary’s father had given them in the State Street Bank and moved into a two-bedroom apartment near the B School. “For me,” Lorna says, “the marriage was a contract for life.”
She worked at MIT and later took a job teaching music in the Sudbury schools for about $5,000 a year. But she spent no small amount of time, she says, typing her husband’s school papers. At the end of Gary’s two-year stay at Harvard, Lorna, like the wives of other graduates, received a “P.H.T.” degree - for “Putting Hubby Through.” The certificate thereafter hung in the Wendts’ various homes, and was introduced as evidence by Lorna’s lawyers during the trial.
What followed Harvard was a two-decade climb up the corporate ladder that consisted of four companies and six ever-larger homes. It began in Spring, Texas, an unpretentious Houston suburb, and ended among the big estates of the Connecticut coast. Lorna, like so many women of the time, was designated as the housewife who would keep the home fires burning so that Gary could focus on being the breadwinner.
True, she often played the organ in whatever Lutheran church the couple joined, and she also taught piano. But her real job was to raise the two Wendt daughters (Sarah and Rachel), to keep a nice house, and to be ready to entertain. She recalls that less than a week after Sarah was born during the 1968 holiday season, Gary’s secretary informed her that a dozen business associates would be coming over for dinner in two or three days.
She learned at the feet of other women, she says, role models who taught her what was expected of her. In Texas, the wife of Gary’s boss threw barbecues at which astronauts showed up. “I remember watching how she entertained,” Lorna recalls. “I was learning. And this lady, she kind of took me under her wing in a nice way.”
The education of the corporate wife continued even in Connecticut in 1976, when Gary landed at GE Capital, then General Electric Credit Corp., and began his 10-year rise to the top of the company. Says Lorna: “I remember when we first came, there was another CEO (John Stanger), and I remember how impressed I was with this lady, his wife (Valerie), for going out of her way to greet everybody at parties. I learned from role models like her to take that extra step. They taught me to learn names, to really listen when people talked, and to not monopolize the conversation and talk about yourself.”
In court, Lorna’s friends described her as the grease that made the Wendt household wheel run smoothly. They talked of her meticulous housekeeping, superb pies, and - on that $120,000 a year budget - fine clothes. She herself takes pains to point out that she had no regular household help, except a $63-a-day housecleaner who came three days a week when the family had reached the top of the heap in Stamford. She ferried the kids to piano and flute lessons, to Brownie meetings, to swimming practice, to church groups. For many of the years she was married, she wrote the checks that paid the household bills. Around 1989, she stopped giving piano lessons because she was traveling so much with her husband.
But even today, lots of wives drive their kids to volleyball practice while their husbands work. What Lorna Wendt says she also did was play her role as GE Capital’s first lady, an office she contends was crucial within a company that valued the role of wives who stood behind their husbands. Each year, when “Pinnacle Club” trips to such exotic locales as Paris and Hong Kong were used to reward successful executives, she would present awards to the loyal underling wives. “I would say to them, ‘Here, this is for you. It’s for all the work you’ve done in supporting your husband this past year.”’
She was often the smoother, the fixer, the happy face. Gary Wendt could be moody and withdrawn, according to court testimony, and certainly his job was stressful. (In his own deposition, he said he has not always been happy at GE Capital, and at one time was interviewed for - but not offered - the top job at Prudential Insurance Co.) So in Italy, it was Lorna who organized a train dance of GE customers who weren’t having a particularly good time at a party. In Cairo, she hastily rid the tables, chairs and napkins of marauding black bugs before a sit-down dinner. When a group of GE clients climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, it was she who acted as cheerleader for the group when it took a wrong turn and had to walk five hours in the dark.
Near the end of her marriage - “my term,” as she now calls it - she was traveling with Gary about five months a year, Lorna contends. Trips and even local gatherings required a kind of rehearsal. In the car on the way to, say, the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan for a dinner with Rupert Murdoch or to 21 to dine with William Simon, “Gary would be on the phone, and he’d hand me a list of who we were going to meet for dinner, who we were going to be talking to. And then he’d say, ‘Quiz me on the names,’ because he wasn’t very good at names.”
But is it really so difficult - or worth half an estate valued at $28 million to $130 million, depending on who’s counting - to travel the world in company jets, where the worst thing that happens is that you lose your luggage and have to wear lime-green jeans and Keds for three days? Or that you, your husband, and another couple have so many suitcases crammed into a small jet flying from Italy to Ireland that you have to stow them in the lavatory and can’t use the toilet?
Lorna Wendt has heard such questions before and she’s ready with her answer: “I know people might say, ‘Well, gee, what did she really do? She dressed up, went into New York, talked, had dinner, and went home.’ I answer that by saying I’d been a wife, a mother, and had all those duties at home all day long. My job was as much of a job for me as Gary’s was for him. I may even have been busier than Gary, what with trying to run the house and be a corporate wife.
“Sometimes I’d say, ‘Can’t you and I just go away together?’ And he’d say, ‘I don’t have time for a family vacation. Look at all the lovely places I take you to. That’s vacation enough.”’
Since separating, Lorna Wendt has taken plenty of vacations, jetting off to Arizona, Antarctica, Mexico, France, Germany, Costa Rica and Africa. She proclaims herself satisfied with much of what she received in her divorce settlement but says she is reserving judgment until Superior Court Judge Kevin Tierney releases his full 465-page opinion.
Meanwhile, she says her “new career” will be the Foundation for Equality in Marriage, a nonprofit organization that she hopes will make the case - through the likes of research, speeches, and lobbying - that monetary and non-monetary contributions to a marriage should carry equal weight. The group’s board members (a cadre that ranges from feminist legal scholar Martha Fineman to Sarah and Rachel Wendt) met for the first time recently. Lorna Wendt says she is providing seed money for the effort but won’t say how much.
While it’s true that Connecticut, like most states, requires an “equitable” rather than an “equal” distribution of a couple’s assets, judges have tended to mandate a 50-50 split unless the money involved tops the $10 million to $15 million range. So are there enough resentful wives and ex-wives out there to drumbeat the cause? “I’ve heard from lots of unhappy women at all levels, women who feel like chattel,” Wendt contends.
Still, if Lorna Wendt had her way, she’d still be a high-level corporate wife. She would still be shaking hands, memorizing names, dickering with caterers, climbing aboard company jets, and maybe even wandering around Mt. Kilimanjaro in the dark. As she said during her day in court: “Judge, I’ve been fired from my job. I didn’t want this Wendt Company to dissolve. That was not my choice.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT WENDT WON Lorna Wendt’s major awards in her divorce from Gary Wendt: 1. Stamford, Conn., home with $1 million mortgage paid. about $1.5 million 2. Key Largo, Fla., home. about $950,000 3. Alimony. $252,000 4. 50 percent of cash and securities. about $8 million 5. Cash payment. $2 million 6. 50 percent of G.E. Qualified Pension Plan. about $500,000 7. 28 percent of G.E. Long Term Performance Award. about $2 million 8. Payments related to ownership of G.E. stock options. $2.8 million 9. 50 percent of Wendt Family Foundation assets. about $450,000 10. Macy’s credit card with 45 percent lifetime discount. (Gary Wendt is a former director of the chain.) 45 percent discount
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