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Sheila Johnson, Marrying Very Well

Sheila Johnson and Arlington County Circuit Court Judge William T. Newman Jr. wed in front of 700 guests at her Salamander Farm in Middleburg.
Sheila Johnson and Arlington County Circuit Court Judge William T. Newman Jr. wed in front of 700 guests at her Salamander Farm in Middleburg. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

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By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 25, 2005

The billionaire's first wedding cost $50. She was a cheerleader at the University of Illinois, so she got the chapel and hors d'oeuvres for free. She made her dress herself, from a McCall's A-line "idiot-proof pattern."

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Thirty-three years later, that marriage had dissolved, and last night, Sheila Crump Johnson, who made her fortune with her ex-husband as co-founders of the BET cable network, married the Hon. William T. Newman Jr., the Arlington judge who presided over her divorce.

In front of 700 guests seated in custom-made chairs, surrounded by two dozen handmade trees each tied with 1,500 autumn leaves, cymbidium orchids and crystals, Johnson glided into the little white chapel constructed on Salamander Farm, her estate in Virginia's luxurious horse country. Preceded by five bridesmaids and her 19-year-old daughter, Paige, her maid of honor, she was escorted by her son, Brett, 15, as the 30-piece Loudoun Symphony, the U.S. Marine Band Brass Quintet and an organist crescendoed the Trumpet Voluntary.

Arriving at the altar in her custom-designed antique-white Bob Mackie gown -- a sleek, tulip-skirted and off-the-shoulder affair overlaid with a lavishly beaded and trailing cape and billowing hood, Johnson faced her fiance.

"We ask you," the Rev. William MacDonald Murray told the couple, "to make your public declarations."

Newman was to speak first, but faltered nervously. The minister whispered to him.

"I love Sheila," Newman began, then paused.

"Now you want to marry her," the minister prodded.

"And I want to marry her," Newman said.

"I love Bill," Johnson said in her clear, strong voice, "and I want to marry him."

For the past two weeks, 350 employees have been working on this wedding. Refrigerated trucks rolled in with 60,000 flowers -- 30,000 roses and tens of thousands more hydrangea, orchids, hypericum berries, hanging amaranthus and mums. The wedding cake, a 400-pound architectural confection designed by New York legend Sylvia Weinstock.

At one point late last week, 22 workers took a midday break, piling paper plates with catered burgers, salads and chips, hissing open cans of soda. "Thirty minutes to eat!" a voice shouted. "That's it! Thirty!"


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