Three days before her wedding to Jack Welch, Suzy Wetlaufer sits at her favorite table at Via Matta, the trendy Italian restaurant, smiling flirtatiously at the restaurant’s manager, and swaying as she sings like a giddy schoolgirl. “I’m so excited, and I just can’t hide it! I’m about to lose control, and I think I like it!”
The manager gazes at the 44-year-old woman who, with her long, copper-colored hair, olive skin, and oversized brown eyes, looks every bit the siren. How could he not? Suzy’s diva performance demands an audience. And this is the restaurant that will host her rehearsal dinner and cater her 92-person, A-list wedding. What is he to do, really, but watch and smile and nod as she finishes her song and goes on to gush about her plans to show up at the restaurant on Friday night for the rehearsal dinner decked out in a frilly, off-the-rack wedding dress and veil? The pre-wedding pizza party will give the bride another chance to bask in the spotlight; she’ll even hold a mock wedding for the kids who aren’t old enough to be invited to the main event on Saturday.
It’s no surprise that Suzy is flying high today. On the eve of her marriage to one of America’s richest and most powerful businessmen, two years after news of their unlikely affair broke in newspapers nationwide and resulted in his messy divorce and her forced resignation from her job, Suzy Wetlaufer is crazy-strangely, ecstatically, and much like a teenager diving headlong into her first romance-in love. And so is her new 68-year-old husband.
Much has been written about the love affair of Jack and Suzy, most of it fed by gossip from her colleagues at the Harvard Business Review, but very little has actually come from Jack and Suzy themselves. Neither has seemed compelled to explain their relationship to the public. He is, after all, the world-renowned business titan who, during his 20 years as CEO of GE, developed what was once a simple light bulb and appliance company into a global manufacturing, technology, and communications giant-transforming himself along the way into a 20th-century capitalist icon who could do no wrong. She is a mega-achiever who has accomplished more in her two decades of professional endeavors-as a reporter, a novelist, a business consultant, and, ultimately, editor of the Harvard Business Review-than most people do in a lifetime.
When Jack and Suzy met almost three years ago, they had much that seemed good in their lives. They traded it-his wife, her job, both of their reputations-for what they say is true love. The result was a storm the size of which neither one had ever seen. And now reporters are calling again. Jack and Suzy are writing a book about business strategy. Jack and Suzy have bought a house on Beacon Hill. Jack and Suzy are getting married. Jack and Suzy are in the news.
Now, they sit together for a rare couple of interviews to explain what drove them to give up so much for each other, what fuels them still, and what they have planned for the future.
And in case you’re wondering, children are not entirely out of the question.
As Suzy finishes describing her plans for the rehearsal dinner, Jack Welch appears. He’s a smaller man than you’d expect, and his face, with its cherubic cheeks and expansive dome of a forehead, has something of the openness of an egg, sunny side up. His blue eyes are decidedly frisky, offering a glimpse into what drives him: his ardent, no-holds-barred desire to work harder and live better than anyone else. It’s a thrilling way to live, allowing for staggering moments of feeling, in Jack’s own words, like you have “the world by the ass.”
“It’s dead here today,” Jack says, grabbing a piece of bread from the basket and scanning the near-empty restaurant. Jack and Suzy do not like quiet restaurants. “They look for restaurants with energy,” says Michael Schlow, a close friend and Via Matta’s chef and owner. “They don’t want to eat at solemn restaurants. That has become painfully obvious to me.”
But the stillness of the restaurant is one of just a few pockets of quiet for Boston’s new “it” couple. They claim to be shocked by all the wedding-related attention. “Usually, journalists don’t like to do happy stories,” Suzy says. “They’re happy to cover your divorce. They’re happy to cover your firing. They’re happy to cover the mess. We just thought this story was too happy to be news.” But no one seems to get sick of this story. It begins before the two of them, in Suzy’s words, “crossed to the other side and entered the world of love.”
Suzy Wetlaufer is not an easy woman to pigeonhole. She’s a Harvard-educated novelist, a brilliant thinker who some say was the best editor the Harvard Business Review ever had. She’s a devout Christian who attends Bible study regularly, but she’s also a woman who is partial to French manicures and shopping for designer clothes. She can expound on the situation in Iraq in one breath and blurt out things like, “Uh-oh, SpaghettiOs,” or, “Get out of town!” in another. When complimented, she may even exclaim, “I love you!” punctuated by a giant kissing sound. And yet, says Jack, “She’s the smartest person I know. I told her that on our second date.”
The third of four kids, Suzanne Rebekah Spring was born in Portland, Oregon, the daughter of an architect who moved the family from town to town while he tried to build a career as an architecture professor. Her mother, who had a PhD in education from Columbia, worked as a teacher and school administrator. Dinners at the Spring house included intellectual conversation and visits from the people Suzy calls her parents’ “really smart, interesting friends.” They also had money, thanks to Suzy’s grandfather, who made a small fortune in real estate.
Suzy went to Phillips Exeter Academy in 10th grade, and then to Harvard. (Two of her equally ambitious siblings earned degrees from Brown; a third graduated from MIT.) After college, she worked briefly at the Washington Post and then the Miami Herald before joining Boston’s Associated Press bureau in 1984, the year before her wedding to Eric Wetlaufer, a money manager she first met at Exeter. The following year, Suzy entered Harvard Business School, graduating in 1988 in the top 5 percent of her class. Over the next eight years, she cobbled together a career while having four kids. She worked at Bain & Company, spent some time freelance writing, and finished three novels, one of which, a crime thriller called Judgment Call, was published in 1992 to mixed reviews. The other two books were never published.
By the mid nineties, Suzy was working at Bain again when she was offered a job as a senior editor at HBR-a position she couldn’t refuse. But her marriage to Wetlaufer was crumbling, and by 2000 they had separated. “I had a marriage that didn’t work,” she says simply. Still, when Eric Wetlaufer moved out, Suzy was said to be devastated. Four months later she was promoted to editor in chief at HBR, where she earned $276,000 a year to recruit strong new editors and oversee the magazine’s switch from a once-every-two-months publishing cycle to 12 times per year. More important, she was having fun again. When the magazine needed an interview, Suzy would take the lead, reportedly regaling her staff with heady tales about one-on-ones with captains of industry, complete with Champagne and private jets. Though she was in the throes of her divorce, she was intoxicated by her new job. Even so, something was missing. “There were elements of my life that made it quite wonderful and exciting and fulfilling,” she says, “but I never had a love in my life until I met Jack.”
More than 20 years before Suzanne Spring was born in Oregon, Jack Welch was growing up in a modest house in Salem, the only child of a homemaker and a train conductor who was the son of Irish immigrants. Welch’s mother dominated his life. “I lived in fear of her dying, because she had multiple heart attacks,” he says. He was so fearful, in fact, that whenever his mother was late coming home from picking up his father at work, he would run to the end of the street to look for them.
Welch was an average student in high school but improved in college, earning chemical-engineering degrees at UMass Amherst and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He landed his first job out of school at General Electric, bringing home a salary of $10,500. He met and married Carolyn Osburn in 1959, and the couple had four children. Welch played the role of traditional father as he climbed the ranks at GE.
On April 1, 1981, he was named CEO. He soon earned the nickname “Neutron Jack” for his neutron bomb-like quality of annihilating jobs-81,000 in his first five years alone-while leaving the buildings intact. GE’s stock price soared, and, for a time anyway, it seemed there was nothing Welch touched that wouldn’t turn to gold.
His personal life was another story. He and Carolyn divorced in 1987. Two years later, he married Jane Beasley, a smart, attractive lawyer from Alabama. Welch retired from GE on September 7, 2001, handing the torch to successor Jeffrey Immelt with apparent grace. But the famously workaholic Jack Welch couldn’t live without the day-to-day adrenaline rush of big business. His autobiography, Jack: Straight from the Gut, was published to coincide with his retirement, and the book tour promised the press-the-flesh moments and standing-room-only crowds Welch lives for. The morning he appeared on the Today show with Matt Lauer to plug the book, however, was September 11. The book tour was postponed for a month, and Welch was so shaken that he reportedly began taking Cipro to fend off death in the case of an anthrax attack.
By October 2001, Welch found himself closer than ever to being put out to pasture and simultaneously terrified that he could die at any minute. What he needed was some sort of boost. What he needed was someone to make him feel alive again.
It’s not every couple who can point to the moment they fell in love and, for that matter, listen to a recording of it.
Suzy and Jack are sitting at a round table in the fourth-floor office of their 20,000-square-foot Beacon Street brownstone, morning sunshine flooding through the generous windows. “I had never met anyone like Jack before I met Jack,” Suzy says of her thoughts going into her first interview of him almost three years ago. “And you can’t even conceive of a person like Jack.”
Suzy’s awe has not faded. Even today, in their office-which accommodates both of their desks because, they say, they can’t stand to be apart-she affectionately touches his arm every so often, watches him adoringly when he speaks, and calls him “honey.”
“It was the most spectacular, fun interview,” Jack says, lighting up at the memory. “We’re one of the few couples in the world who have a tape recording of our first meeting, of our first, ‘Hi. How are you?’ We sat in Nantucket two summers ago and we played it.”
“We listened to it,” Suzy says, “and we thought, Oh my God. Of course this was going to happen. Because the chemistry was there. It was wild.”
“It was wild,” Jack beams.
Wild was precisely the problem.
Jane Beasley Welch may not have Suzy’s pizzazz, but she does have some of her smarts. She discovered her husband’s intimate e-mail exchanges with Suzy, who she confronted in a phone call to the HBR office on the day after Christmas, 2001. Suzy was forced to admit the relationship with Jack to her HBR boss and retract her interview. Two members of her staff re-interviewed Jack and a new story was printed, but the Wall Street Journal had caught wind of the affair. By the time the Journal outed Jack and Suzy in a March 2002 story, Suzy’s colleagues had rallied against her, calling into question her integrity both as a journalist and as the magazine’s leader. (Sources at the time said Suzy reportedly claimed to have had a dalliance with at least one other business leader she’d written about, then-Ford CEO Jacques Nasser. Both Suzy and Nasser deny the relationship. But no one denies that she was carrying on with a 24-year-old editorial assistant at the magazine.) Six months after she first interviewed Jack, she was forced to resign.
The next year, Jane Beasley Welch cashed in on an expired prenuptial agreement and walked away from her marriage to Jack Welch with a reported $180 million of his estimated $900 million fortune. Perhaps more damaging was an extensive listing of Welch’s post-retirement GE perks that was included in the court documents-amenities that ranged from Red Sox tickets and free laundry service to the use of a corporate jet and a $15 million Manhattan apartment. News of the perks, most of which had never been mentioned in annual reports to shareholders, brought Welch’s graceless fall from the throne on which he’d sat for nearly two decades. At one point, the Economist pictured him on its cover as a toppled Soviet-era statue with his head cracked open. Welch is not one to worry about what other people think of him. “I’ve been prince to pig three times probably,” he says. “And I think there was a time when business was being treated that way, and I was a great symbol to get some of that. But I know who I am. I know that I’m good to my friends. I really like myself as a human being.”
The press was unrelenting. By the summer of 2002, both New York magazine and Vanity Fair had provided every tawdry detail of the couple’s affair, including, as one breathlessly put it, “when the sex began.”
Of the whole gory episode, Suzy is nonplused. “I guess that my biggest mistake was thinking that the people who worked with me at HBR were my friends and that was dumb,” she says. A moment later, she adds, “I can’t talk about HBR because I have a legal agreement. So I probably shouldn’t have said what I just said.”
As for Jack’s divorce, he also tries not to speak about it but can’t quite help himself. “I have absolutely zero comment on that because I can’t,” he says. “But, on the other hand, you should generically know-not Jane and I-but you should generically know as a smart person that marriages don’t end in a day. They just don’t. I’ve got a contract. I can’t say anything. For example, in this book, I cannot use the word J-A-N-E.”
“And we wouldn’t,” Suzy adds quickly.
“And we wouldn’t,” Jack says. “And why would we want to anyway? It’s over. It’s yesterday.”
This spring Jack and Suzy found themselves back in the media glare. The press came asking for interviews before their April wedding at the Park Street Church. The couple granted a few callbacks, but a particularly catty piece in the New York Observer about Suzy’s girlish reaction at seeing her wedding dress left her cautious about talking to the press. Still, details of the wedding leaked out-the guest list included Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose; the reception was catered by Michael Schlow; and, in a nod to Suzy’s faith, the Sunday Night Band, an evangelical rock group, played at the church. Suzy wore a café-au-lait-colored beaded and crystal gown designed by Elie Saab.
The couple has chosen Boston as their home mainly because Suzy’s children, now aged 9 through 15, are still in school here. And to hear Jack and Suzy tell it, the family couldn’t be happier. The self-described “news junkies” spend their days devouring five newspapers and several cable-TV news shows, picking up Suzy’s kids from school, and writing and editing their book, Winning, scheduled to be published next spring.
The two apparently can’t bear to be apart. “We have a relationship where I go to New York for business,” Jack says, “and I stay over for one night, and we talk on the phone for an hour and I can’t stand it!”
“And we can’t sleep!” Suzy adds as if she can’t believe it herself.
“It’s wild,” Jack says. “She’ll be out shopping and she’ll call and she’ll say, ‘I’ll be home in 10 minutes. I’m right in the middle of the park right now.’ And I’ll look out the window for her. You know, it’s crazy.”
It’s also strangely reminiscent of a young Jack waiting anxiously at the end of his street for his parents to come home. In Suzy, he has found the salve for the loneliness he won’t admit to and the energy to keep him young.
Suzy could have found no better star to which to hitch her wagon. “He was just a really major figure, a really important person for how people thought about business,” Suzy says of her initial intrigue with the man who is now her husband. “It was fascinating to be with the person about whom people talk.”
Some acquaintances whisper that Welch is being taken for a ride by a woman they say always coveted power. As one business insider who knows Welch well says, “I hope Jack never wakes up.” But Andrew Lack, Welch’s good friend and CEO of Sony Music Entertainment, says Welch’s eyes are wide open. “I think they will be deeply in love with each other, as the saying goes, as long as they both shall live. I don’t have any doubt about that.”
There are few questions that throw Jack or Suzy; both are now well rehearsed before the media. But when asked if they plan to have a baby of their own, they pause and stare directly at each other for a full 15 seconds. It is the longest stretch of quiet they’ve shared throughout the lunch at Via Matta, and it’s obvious they’re weighing the consequences of their answer. “That’s one step too personal,” Jack says finally. “We shouldn’t answer that,” Suzy adds. But in a way, they already have.
For now, the couple has plenty to keep them busy. On this particular day, they head off to pose for the photo that will accompany this story. The following week, a taped interview will appear on a local news program. For several months after their book is published, they will tour the country, shaking hands and signing autographs. You will see them in the press again, always front and center.
“We go places. We do wacky things. It’s sort of a movable party,” Suzy says of their lives today.
Jack, who is visibly tickled by Suzy’s nearly every word, says with an enormous smile, “Think about how much fun it is.”
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