The Candidate's Wife
“What do you think, Teresa?” U.S. Senator John Kerry asks, leaning down solicitously toward his wife. He's seeking not political advice, but guidance in the fruit section of Savenor's, the Beacon Hill gourmet food store. The two move slowly through the tiny shop choosing produce with care for an intimate dinner in their Louisburg Square mansion, their driver waiting in Kerry's blue Chrysler minivan outside. The minutes at Savenor's clearly provide a refuge for John and Teresa Heinz Kerry Â— he keenly interested in his wife's opinions, she basking in the glow of her husband's attention.
Attention is something Heinz Kerry appears to have craved for all of her 64 years, but with Kerry in the throes of a presidential primary campaign, she's been getting much more of it lately than she bargained for. The media is now almost constantly buzzing around her, drawn by her unpredictability and frankness and by the glamour of the $550 million ketchup fortune she inherited in 1991, when her first husband, U.S. Senator John Heinz III, was killed in a plane crash. The insecurity created by a new place in the limelight often causes her to furrow her brow in worry these days. It causes her newly appointed political assistants to furrow their brows, too, and suddenly Heinz Kerry has become uncharacteristically guarded and anxious.
Should she have done her hair differently? she asks an aide before a photo shoot for Vanity Fair at her house in Washington, DC's Georgetown section, pushing back her curls with the delicate gesture of a woman who doesn't really have to worry about her appearance (though a friend confides that Heinz Kerry has recently become concerned about her weight and she confesses to undergoing Botox treatments). She's already fretting about becoming the target of negative campaigning ahead. “It may be pie in the sky,” she says, “but I'd love to see a primary in which whoever loses, loses with great honor and satisfaction.”
As a generous philanthropist and a senator's wife twice over, Heinz Kerry is used to satisfaction, if not downright flattery. The world she inhabits is one of both physical and emotional luxury. For every check she has written Â— and there have been many, many checks Â— there is a grateful recipient on the other end. Not surprisingly, Heinz Kerry is far more accustomed to praise than criticism. The coddling she enjoys as a wealthy donor has ill prepared her for the cold scrutiny she now faces as the wife of a presidential candidate.
At a society luncheon for Save the Children, Heinz Kerry is in her milieu. The charity event in Manhattan's swank Pierre Hotel is attended by a mostly female audience of 200, with nary a hair out of place. Wearing $10,000 outfits, they gather in a chandeliered ballroom to talk about the importance of donating $20 to children in Africa.
A photograph and short biography of Heinz Kerry, today's honoree, has been left at every place setting. Old friends and family members are here to show their support. Heinz Kerry's stepsister-in-law, Wendy MacKenzie, and her sister-in-law, Peggy Kerry, are seated at the table next to hers. A beautiful woman named Sasha Lewis is introduced as the girlfriend of Heinz Kerry's youngest son, 30-year-old Christopher. “Christopher is working on [Kerry's] campaign,” Heinz Kerry announces proudly. Later today, she plans to tour his newly done loft downtown, decorated with 17th-century Dutch paintings from the collection Heinz Kerry acquired with her late husband.
Lewis adds to the praise being lavished upon Heinz Kerry, describing her generosity at a wedding both attended recently. After Lewis's bags were lost by the airline, Heinz Kerry took matters into her own hands. “You come with me,” she said, and ushered Lewis to her room, where she offered to lend her an extra Chanel suit she'd brought along. “She says she always travels with spares,” Lewis says with a laugh, clearly touched by the girlish ritual of sharing clothes with her boyfriend's mother.
Hotel waiters serve a light lunch of salad and grilled chicken; the attendees at this event all seem to be watching their weight. An announcer talks about the value of Heinz Kerry's volunteer work. Heinz Kerry moves toward the podium, slowing to squeeze the shoulder of an old friend and Idaho neighbor, Melinda Blinken, a handsome woman in a pinstripe suit and a fixture on the Washington party circuit, who also works for environmental causes, and whose husband ran unsuccessfully last year for the Senate as a Democrat. The slightest smile crosses Heinz Kerry's face, a genuine sign of affection in a woman whose expressions tend toward deadpan.
As soon as she starts speaking, it's clear that Heinz Kerry is uncomfortable with the negative press she's been getting. “I'll take all the flattery I can get these days,” she jokes before launching into her prepared remarks. When the microphone goes dead partway through her speech, Heinz Kerry looks at her audience in dismay. “You didn't hear any of it?” she asks. She's talking about the speech, and she's relieved when they assure her they heard almost all of it.
Heinz Kerry has been talking up a storm lately, with a frankness that has her husband's campaign staffers up in arms. She told the Washington Post that she's lucky not to be throttled in the middle of the night when Kerry has Vietnam flashbacks. She described her prenuptial agreement and Botox treatments to Elle, and made a gunshot sound when asked what she'd do if Kerry were unfaithful. She never really suspected either of her husbands of cheating, she added. “What I expect of them, they have a right to expect of me,” she said. “Maybe I'm into 18-year-olds.” She told the Boston Globe of her shock and pleasure at seeing blacks in South Africa, where she was sent to boarding school from her home in Mozambique at age 13. “Our guys weren't so black and so big,” she said. This month, Vanity Fair is scheduled to weigh in with that profile for which Heinz Kerry was posing in Georgetown.
Those interviews were conducted before Heinz Kerry's staff began their apparent current strategy of keeping her at a safe distance from the press. “Teresa likes to talk about her work,” says her chief spokeswoman, former Globe and CNN political reporter Chris Black. “Rich people are different, you know. People treat them differently. They want to know things like where she bought her shoes, and that's just not who she is.” Even during two separate conversations for this story in her home in Georgetown and a hotel in New York, Heinz Kerry chooses her answers with seemingly newfound care, and at that Save the Children lunch, she sticks uncharacteristically closely to the text of her speech. But her earlier comments are certain to draw continued attention to the question of whether Heinz Kerry will be a help or a liability in Kerry's bid for the presidency.
Admired by feminists for her fierce sense of independence, Heinz Kerry oversees a philanthropic organization with more than $1 billion in assets. She works to promote environmental protection, empowerment for women, and healthcare reform Â— including a prescription drug program for the elderly in Massachusetts that was proposed by her foundation. She speaks five languages (though she says they are rusty from lack of practice).
On the other hand, she could provide a wealth of negative campaign opportunities to Kerry's opponents, eager to portray him as a wimp with a wealthy wife who owns five houses and a private jet. Heinz Kerry didn't begin to use her husband's name until this year. She maintains her legal residency in Pennsylvania, purportedly for tax reasons, despite the fact that Kerry represents Massachusetts. She once described the prospect of being first lady as “worse than going to a Carmelite convent.”
No wonder. Avoiding negative publicity as an aspiring first lady is difficult, except for those who follow the Laura Bush formula and stay in the background, talking about such noncontroversial chestnuts as childhood literacy. Heinz Kerry has already provided more fodder than most. Kerry staffers fear that Heinz Kerry may prove as much of a drag as Hillary Rodham Clinton, but without Clinton's political and social acumen. Heinz Kerry lives in a world where people have always paid her praise. She has seldom had to answer to anyone and seems surprised that strangers would reproach her.
The firestorm her comments have drawn makes it clear that Heinz Kerry brings something else unusual to American politics, something many voters may admire: frankness, albeit sometimes unintended. As early as 1994, during elections for her late husband's former Senate seat in Pennsylvania, Heinz Kerry called politicians like Republican Rick Santorum “Forrest Gump with attitude,” a remark for which other Republicans attacked her as a turncoat but with which critics of Santorum's more recent comments about gays might wholeheartedly agree. “You'd never call the husband of a female politician impolitic because he had opinions,” she told Vogue. “At my age I'm entitled to have strong beliefs. I'd be a ninny if I didn't.”
And there's another trait that Heinz Kerry possesses, one that the interviews have yet to capture, but which is known to her employees, the sales clerks at stores where she shops, and her Beacon Hill neighbors (and even their children) Â— and which is likely to be exploited by her husband's rivals for the presidency as the campaign intensifies:
At private as well as public events, Heinz Kerry sometimes appears to operate at the very edge of what is considered acceptable behavior, according to many people who have seen her. At a campaign event in Boston earlier this year, Heinz Kerry riled her husband's aides by dominating the conversation.
“The problem,” says one woman who attended the event, “is that she just doesn't stop talking.” Kerry's attempts to get a word in proved futile. Finally, he gave up and went to the appetizer table. A few of the guests rolled their eyes; one says she could swear she saw Kerry rolling his, too.
For all the negative publicity Heinz Kerry has received, the issue of her temper has been left unexplored. She has a sharp tongue and has been known to use it, particularly when dealing with people in her or her husband's employ. Former staffers for Senator Heinz, campaign workers for Kerry, and salespeople at chic clothing shops frequented by the heiress say she doesn't hesitate to voice her displeasure. This conduct is so widely known in the retail world that a woman who works in one Newbury Street boutique says she's grateful Heinz Kerry does so much of her shopping in Washington, and not here. Heinz Kerry complains about everything from the kind of food and wine being served to the time at which people telephone her home at night. And she voices those complaints loudly and publicly, say those who claim to have been humiliated by her.
Others contest this. “What I've observed is quite the opposite, that she's extremely cordial to people Â— in part because she knows she's being watched,” says aide Chris Black. Bill Rouvalis, a Beacon Hill florist with whom Heinz Kerry does business, calls her “absolutely nice and friendly. Never a raised voice, nothing.” And a current staffer says Heinz Kerry “can be exacting, but she is not a screamer, not a diva type at all.”
Yet even children Â— who as a group appear to inspire Heinz Kerry with great affection Â— have come up against her apparent temper. In 1996, during the Kerrys' first Halloween on Beacon Hill, where the evening is an important tradition and celebrity status doesn't excuse anyone from door duty, their house was attended by the couple's housekeeper. Neighborhood resentment was immediately focused on Heinz Kerry. “Who does she think she is?” one mother whispered.
After most of the trick-or-treaters had finished their rounds, Heinz Kerry made an appearance when three children about 10 years old rang her bell, two dressed as hippies and one as a cat. “I had a big barrel of candy, and it's all gone!” she screamed, shutting the door on the bewildered youngsters.
After word got around, the next Halloween was a different story. Both Kerrys were on the front stoop. The senator himself handed out the goodies while a smiling Heinz Kerry snapped photos of the children.
Maria Teresa Thierstein Simoes-Ferreira, as she was known before her first marriage, grew up with two siblings in what was then the Portuguese colony of Mozambique. Though not rich, the family was well off. By virtue of the rigid race-based class system still endemic in much of the developing world, there were plenty of servants around to perform the daily chores.
Teresa was close to her mother, who made a point of having tea every day with her children. Sometimes, her mother would attend one society tea Â— common in that part of Africa Â— and then have a second tea at home with the kids.
The center of attention in the household, however, was her father. Her mother, she remembers, “was like a lot of wives, especially in those parts of the world. The male has to shine. My mother was in the background.” Her father was a physician, and Teresa enjoyed accompanying him on his rounds. He would often hug the children, she recalls, giving them emotional as well as physical comfort.
Heinz Kerry says she regrets that she didn't become a doctor herself, as her father wished. “But I wanted lots of babies.” She likes it when friends and relatives call her Dr. Teresa. When John Kerry was diagnosed with prostate cancer earlier this year, she relished her role as full-time nurse, hovering over him constantly.
Women don't usually figure highly in Heinz Kerry's conversation. She jokes, quoting author Jill Ker Conway, about having been part of “a tiny island of women in a world that revolved around male activities.” Considering that she has had an influential father, two prominent husbands, and three sons, it's easy to understand her sense of male domination. At events such as the White House correspondents' dinner, she says, “People at the event were more interested in him than me.” Yet Heinz Kerry insists that her philanthropic work gives her all the recognition she could want, separate and apart from her husbands' high-profile careers.
While Heinz Kerry often talks about her African upbringing, a turning point in her life came when she left home to study at the Interpreters School at the University of Geneva. There she met John “Jack” Heinz, whom she still describes as the “love of my life.”
The only child of parents who divorced when he was just three years old, Heinz was working at the time at a bank in Geneva. The business experience was meant to prepare him to one day run the H. J. Heinz Company, founded by his great-grandfather. Instead, he would become a popular politician, a centrist Republican senator from Pennsylvania.
The couple married in 1966 and moved to Pittsburgh, where Teresa Heinz was introduced to an exclusive world of megawealth and privilege. Determined to follow in her mother's footsteps, she dedicated herself to bringing up her three boys, John IV, Andre, and Christopher. She breastfed them at a time when it wasn't fashionable. “Just for two months, but at least they got the colostrum,” she says with her characteristic bluntness.
Teresa Heinz wanted the boys' childhood to be as normal as possible, a challenge in such a prominent family. The Heinzes moved in society's upper sphere, shuttling between their two principal houses Â— a farm in Pennsylvania and a home in Washington, DC Â— and two vacation houses, one a ski hideaway in Idaho, the other a summer place on Nantucket. Her son Christopher's godfather was Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood fame. One little-known piece of trivia is that the character H. J. Elephant on Rogers's show was named for Jack Heinz.
At times, Teresa Heinz felt isolated. Her husband was often traveling or distracted by his political work. On her trips to Idaho when the boys were very young, she resented having to drive to the next town to wash their cloth diapers.
But those years were generally happy ones. “We had so much fun, barbecuing in the backyard and watching our boys play with each other,” says longtime friend Singer Rankin.
In 1990, a year before Heinz's death, Teresa Heinz met John Kerry. With her boys grown up, she was deepening her involvement in environmental affairs and attended an Earth Day event in Washington, DC. Jack Heinz introduced them.
When the two saw each other again as delegates to the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil, Teresa Heinz was newly widowed. By all accounts, it was a fascinating trip. The assassination of rain forest activist Chico Mendes was still being felt, and environmentalists were upset about a proposed highway to be built into the heart of the Amazon jungle.
Heinz Kerry loves to tell the story of the day she saved the Amazon. It happened like this: During a speech by a Brazilian state governor, it became clear to her that the interpreter wasn't translating correctly. “It wasn't a mistake,” Heinz Kerry says. “It was an invention.” She stepped in to do the translation herself. The rest of the story is a bit convoluted Â— something to do with Japanese developers. But Heinz Kerry is clearly proud of the role she played.
The performance impressed John Kerry. When they found themselves at the same Washington dinner party a few months later, Kerry invited Teresa Heinz for a romantic walk. Kerry had been a bachelor for much of his adult life and was considered one of the most eligible single men in the country. His name was linked in the press to women like Catherine Oxenberg and Morgan Fairchild. But Teresa Heinz's earthy sophistication won him over. “Definitely sexy,” he has called her. “Very earthy sexy, European.” They began dating in 1993, then living together. Two years later, they married on Nantucket.
During an interview in the living room of the Georgetown mansion, where she has lived since Heinz was first elected to Congress more than 30 years ago, Heinz Kerry fetches a framed picture of her wedding with Kerry. She is in a peasant-style white dress, and the two are surrounded by close friends and family. Kerry “had always wanted to be married by the sea,” she says nostalgically.
Yet the marriage would permanently change the nature of her visits to Nantucket. Before, she says, it was fun. Now, because the island is part of Kerry's state of Massachusetts, it feels more like work. Even talk about her only grandchild Â— the two-year-old daughter of John, a Buddhist who runs a school for wayward children Â— turns wistful. “I wish I could see her more often,” she says.
Heinz Kerry finds little in her life amusing these days. When an acquaintance asks her how she is, she responds with a wry smile. “Work, work, work,” she says.
Were her husband elected president, Heinz Kerry says, she would woo the spouses of elected officials in Washington by holding regular get-togethers with all of them. She would meet with them in small groups of 12 to 20 at a time Â— and they, not she, would be the center of attention. “I'd listen to them, make them feel important,” she says. “Women are interested in finding common ground.”
Perhaps so, but for now Heinz Kerry is stuck in a male-dominated campaign that is more interested in leveraging politicians' differences. “There are too many competing interests,” she complains, wrinkling her nose, when asked if Kerry still finds time for her. And if Â— as some campaigners reportedly want Â— she is pushed still farther away, Heinz Kerry's time with her husband could be more seriously threatened.
Heinz Kerry seems prepared to fight back. No matter how her husband's aides might prefer for her to fade into the background, convincing her to do so could prove difficult. “When Heinz was senator, a lot of effort [on the part of his staff] went into keeping Teresa from expressing her opinions,” says Robert Cranmer, former chairman of the Allegheny County Republican Committee.
Yet Heinz Kerry's inheritance has given her independence and power she didn't have as Jack Heinz's wife. Kerry “has learned a bit from the [philanthropic] work I've done,” she asserts. “My work helps him.”
Her frustration at having to compete for her husband's attention bubbles back to the surface as one discussion in her Georgetown house comes to an end. “I don't mind not being able to participate, as along as I can hear the conversation,” she says, showing her guest to the door. “I just don't want to be left behind.”