Sheila Johnson, Marrying Very Well
BET's Co-Founder Takes a Husband, And the Cake

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."

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!"

Since moving to Middleburg five years ago, Johnson, 56, hasn't done much on a small scale. She's held fundraising galas for health and conservation organizations, donated $2.5 million for a performing arts center at the private Hill School. Through her Salamander Hospitality company, she is proposing to build a controversial hotel and spa on 340 acres on the outskirts of town. She opened a high-end takeout shop, Market Salamander. She's president of the Washington International Horse Show. And on the side, she's part-owner of the Washington Mystics women's basketball team.

So, naturally, she hired as the visionary of her "I do's" worldwide wedding planner Preston Bailey -- his latest tour de force was the Palm Beach nuptials of Donald Trump and Melania Knauss -- and assured herself of a celebration that prompted guests' jaws to literally drop when they walked up the steps of the chapel built in an indoor riding arena that retained no horsey odor.

"It's got to be the wedding of the year and then some for Virginia," said Gov. Mark Warner.

Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine was there, and Ted Leonsis. Willard Scott was supposed to come, too.

Katie Couric, standing in Johnson's stables next to a white pony named For Kids' Sake, said, "I was thrilled to be invited. I'm so happy for her."

Outside the stables in the courtyard, drinking lime-ginger lemonade, stood Angela Stribling, a jazz singer and longtime friend who worked for Johnson at BET. "She deserves happiness, and she's just bubbling over with it," Stribling said.

Her date was Derek McGinty, the news anchor for WUSA. He called himself "flabbergasted" by what he'd seen, then looked up at the gray skies and added, "I'm very, very happy for her that it's not raining."

* * *

Johnson's people say the wedding cost in the high-six-figures and conjecture is that it could be as much (or as little, depending on your perspective) as $1,200 per person. Yet even if she hits the $1 million mark for Saturday's festivities alone, that's the mega-rich person's equivalent of an easy ATM withdrawal. Johnson has been called "America's first black female billionaire," and for her, a $1 million wedding is the equivalent of "the average American" hosting a wedding that costs $160.

So what about gifts?

What do you buy a gazillionaire for her wedding? What do you get for this couple who have everything -- including Salamander Farm in Middleburg, plus a place and a horse farm near Palm Beach and a brand-new home in Arlington's Country Club Hills (where she and Newman, who has a residency requirement, will live during the workweek)?

A $14.95 flour sifter. Johnson and Newman have registered for two at Crate & Barrel.

They have also registered for eight Metric Cream Dots salad plates, for $6.95 each. And the seven-piece, All-Clad Stainless Steel Cookware Set for $410.

Or you could stop at Williams-Sonoma and purchase, among 125 separate registry selections, a stainless-steel, Dualit Four-Slice Toaster ($319.95), a Cuisinart ice cream maker ($49.95) or a Mary Ann Cake Pan ($26).

While the couple is also accepting donations to Johnson's charity, the Sheila C. Johnson Foundation, the registry was pretty much devoted to Newman. "I love gadgets!" say the gourmet cook who also bakes and makes homemade ice cream, and who got into cooking when he got into politics. "I got so tired of going out and eating chicken dinners," he says. (In 1987, Newman became the first African American elected to the Arlington County Board since Reconstruction, a position he resigned in 1993 to accept the appointment of a judgeship that led, last year, to his becoming chief judge of the Arlington Circuit Court.)

Yet all this wedding hoopla has become overwhelming, the 55-year-old Newman said in his booming voice as he drove to the couple's rehearsal dinner on Friday. He was in charge of the 10-day honeymoon to Cabo San Lucas -- a destination that was supposed to surprise Johnson, but she discovered it written on a piece of paper recently when leafing around their desk. "I'm really looking forward to the honeymoon," Newman said, just before his cell-phone reception cut out. "To getting away."

Which is different from getting carried away, as Johnson has, by all the wedding costumery and set design. "I just want to stretch this out forever," she cooed, almost forlornly, watching Thursday as six guys with "PRODUCTION CREW" inscribed on their tees worked two tall, green cranes. They were hanging screens designed to look like an autumn forest and putting finishing touches on the multi-story white chapel whose facade was held upright with a series of wires and pulleys.

"I don't want it to be over."

* * *

Johnson didn't meet Newman for the first time at her divorce from Robert L. Johnson in 2002. "I walked into [Newman's] chambers," she recalls, "and I'm like, 'I think I know you.' " But you can't talk to the judge. So she found herself remembering: Three decades before, she and Newman had acted in a play together, "Ceremonies in Dark Old Men."

The son of a federal government worker, Newman had grown up in Arlington. He went to Ohio University, majored in theater and went on to act in New York. After a season on the TV soap "Somerset," he was in the traveling Negro Ensemble Company show.

Just before the show arrived in Washington, one of the actresses was fired. The company held auditions here, and Johnson was cast.

Newman played the son of a bootlegger. "I played the part of a prostitute," Johnson says. "My name was Candy."

When the divorce hearing ended, she says now, "I asked if I could approach the bench." She walked up and asked Newman, "Do you remember me?"

"Oh yes," she says he answered, "I do."

A few weeks later, he came to the Washington International Horse Show, and they've been together ever since.

He proposed with a grand, emerald-cut diamond ring surrounded by four baguettes. They had gone out to dinner and come back to the living room of his house, "and he just got down on his knees. I thought he was fainting. I didn't know what was going on," Johnson says. She holds out her hand to show off the ring, which stretches elegantly, but not entirely, from knuckle to knuckle.

"He is truly the warmest and most wonderful man in the world." She emphasizes his "integrity," then adds, "He's got a good moral compass to him."

* * *

The minister said, "The peace of the Lord be always with you" and the bride and groom kissed once, twice, three times (it was hard to count).

The back doors of the indoor riding arena were opened and the guests walked down a carpeted walkway lit with lanterns to enter the tented outdoor riding arena, draped with rich burnt orange fabric.

The night's menu included chilled Maine lobster salad tower, roasted tournedos of dry aged angus beef, foie gras sauce, local sweet potatoes, chantarelle mushrooms and petals of brussels sprouts.

A dance floor painted blue and white shone with 20 layers of lighting designed to make it look like a swirling pond.

Grammy nominee Patti Austin serenaded the newlyweds with Cole Porter's "True Love." They danced very close. Sheila Johnson was beaming.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company