Betty Talmadge Dies; Outspoken Senate Ex-Wife

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Betty Shingler Talmadge, 81, a well-known Washington socialite and businesswoman who testified against her newly divorced husband, the late Democratic Sen. Herman E. Talmadge, during a Senate ethics inquiry in the late 1970s, died May 7 of complications from Alzheimer's disease at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta.

Mrs. Talmadge started and sold a successful business selling cured hams and then became a meat broker. While a Senate wife, she played bridge with Lady Bird Johnson and hosted luncheons for first lady Pat Nixon and Judy Agnew, the wife of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, during the Watergate investigations. She later ran for Congress, wrote two cookbooks and turned her home in Lovejoy, Ga., into an invitation-only restaurant.

But it was her testimony, under subpoena, before the Senate Ethics Committee in 1979 that put her in headlines, after 22 years in Washington. Bundles of $100 bills were kept in the pocket of an overcoat in the couple's hall closet, she testified.

The money, unreported campaign donations and reimbursements for nonexistent office expenses, were used for the family's living costs. Mrs. Talmadge testified that she took about a third of it, between $12,000 and $15,000, in January 1974 after a fight with her then-husband. She said she used it to supplement her $50-per-week allowance and turned over the remaining 77 $100 bills from the stash to the committee.

She never knew the source of the funds, she said, declaring simply, "It was a way of life."

Sen. Talmadge denied the charges, blaming the financial debacle on lax bookkeeping. He repaid $37,000, was ordered to repay $13,000 more, and in October 1979, the full Senate denounced him. The four-term senator lost his 1980 reelection campaign.

The divorce was one of a spate on Capitol Hill. Hers caught the public's attention partly for the brutal way she learned of it -- on a television news show. She countersued, charging cruel treatment and "habitual intoxication." The divorce cost her at least a million dollars, according to contemporaneous accounts.

"As long as I rubbed the hams and made some money and asked no questions, it was a perfect little life. As soon as I started asking questions," she said, laughing, to a Post reporter in 1978, "I became a little old menopausal, slightly crazy lady."

When she decided to run for Congress in 1978, many of the Senate wives, former first ladies, press secretaries, authors and ambassadors who had attended her luncheons and parties over the years made campaign donations, albeit often quietly, to avoid riling her still-powerful ex-husband. She lost in the Democratic primary.

Mrs. Talmadge retained control of the family's 1836 mansion, Lovejoy Plantation, which she insisted was the inspiration for Twelve Oaks, Ashley Wilkes's place in "Gone With the Wind," despite evidence that it was at best only one of dozens of homes that influenced author Margaret Mitchell. She bought part of the Hollywood set used in the movie of the same name with the hope of attracting tourists.

Mrs. Talmadge told a visiting Washington Post reporter in 1988 that she didn't miss life inside the Capital Beltway. "It's only a good town if you have a good seat, if you know what I mean, honey," she said.

Born in Ashburn, Ga., she married at 18 years old in 1941. Her father-in-law was the governor, and within six years, her husband succeeded him. An Associated Press profile of her in the mid-1950s, headlined "Everybody Likes Sensible Betty," said that she wanted to attend college, but that her husband, 10 years her senior, discouraged that ambition. She started the ham-curing business as a way to provide a more stable family income than political life offered.

She co-wrote the cookbook "How to Cook a Pig and Other Back-to-the-Farm Recipes: An Autobiographical Cookbook" (1977), and wrote "Betty Talmadge's Lovejoy Plantation Cookbook" (1983).

A son, Robert S. Talmadge, drowned in 1975. Her ex-husband died in 2002.

Survivors include another son, Gene Talmadge of Lovejoy; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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