Sibling Revelation: An Overlooked Branch of Cindy McCain's Family Tree

Half sister Kathleen Portalski with father Jim Hensley.
Half sister Kathleen Portalski with father Jim Hensley. (Courtesy of Nicholas Portalski)

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By Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts
Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Cindy McCain's Distanced Relatives

When Cindy McCain talks about growing up, she usually refers to herself as an "only child" -- a phrase that ignores the existence of her half sisters.

"It's terribly painful," Kathleen Hensley Portalski said yesterday. "It is as if she is the 'real' daughter. I am also a real daughter."

Portalski and McCain are both children of the late Jim Hensley, the Arizona businessman who founded one of the largest beer distributorships in the nation. Kathleen, 65, is the product of Hensley's first marriage in the 1930s to Mary Jeanne Parks. Hensley divorced Parks for Marguerite "Smitty" Johnson, whom he met at a West Virginia hospital in World War II and married in 1945. Cindy was born nine years later.

The half sisters had little contact growing up and have not spoken since Hensley's funeral in 2000. In his will, he left just $10,000 to his older daughter; Cindy inherited her father's multimillion-dollar fortune.

Portalski told our colleague Kimberly Kindy that she stood quietly by for decades while her father lavished attention on his second family. But the past few months -- with Cindy McCain's glowing childhood memories and repeated references to being her father's only child -- finally became too much. "I was his family, too," she said from her home in Phoenix. "I saw him at Christmas and I spent my birthdays with him."

But there's more: Cindy McCain has another half sister. Before her marriage to Hensley, Johnson had a daughter, Dixie Burd, by a previous relationship. Burd, who is much older than Cindy, could not be reached for comment.

The McCain campaign has been tight-lipped about the expanded family tree: "Mrs. McCain was raised as the only child of Jim and Marguerite Hensley, and there was no familiar relationship with any other sibling," it said in a statement.

The messy saga went public after McCain talked about her childhood in an NPR interview. Portalski's son, Nicholas, contacted the network to clarify the family history and his mother's feelings about being overlooked. "I'm upset," she told NPR. "I'm angry. It makes me feel like a nonperson, kind of."

Money, of course, has exacerbated the family tensions. The multimillionaire Hensley only occasionally saw his older daughter -- and was emotionally distant when he did, according to her son -- but gave Portalski and her children money and college tuition. But when he died eight years ago, Hensley bequeathed Cindy the majority share of his company. (Andrew McCain, John's son from his first marriage, is now the chief financial officer.) Portalski got no share of the business, and support to her family was abruptly cut off.

"It doesn't make any kind of sense at all,'' Portalski said yesterday. "He was generous over the years when I was growing up, so it doesn't compute that he would do that; that he would leave all of us out. He paid for college for two of my kids. He gave us yearly gifts that were generous, allowed for a down payment on a home. I felt shock and disbelief. I just wish I could ask him, 'Why?' "

Her son, Nicholas, asked for a copy of the will and said it had been amended so many times that it was hard to tell what the original intent or language must have been.

Now, she said, all she wants is for the McCains to apologize and acknowledge her branch of the family tree. (Since you asked: Yes, they're Democrats.) "He was my father, too. I don't know why even now he cannot be a part of my life."

A Museum's Crime & Punishment

Well, look who's breakin' the law! None other than the National Museum of Crime & Punishment. The new downtown tourist magnet -- also HQ for John Walsh and "America's Most Wanted" -- got hit with a citation and a fine from the District's Department of Transportation for affixing cute little footprints on nearby sidewalks, along with the slogan, "Follow the Evidence." It seems the ads violate city regs about advertising on public spaces. Museum exec Janine Vaccarello told us the signs were put out by a contractor who she believed had cleared things with the city -- though the museum had to pay the fine. "It was a really great campaign!" she sighed. Said DOT spokeswoman Karyn Le Blanc: "They took a step in the wrong direction."

  • Flavor Flav waiting for a table at super-packed McCormick & Schmick's at National Harbor on Monday. The rapper/reality star -- whose Public Enemy will do a free show in Denver during the Dem convention -- wore the black backwards baseball cap and large black clock around his neck; arrived with a couple and his toddler son Karma. Chef Robert Gelman came out to get a photo; eventually they were seated in a private room. Had lobster, cognac.
  • Chris Cooley taking his wife to the Backstreet Boys show at Wolf Trap on Monday. The Redskins star (yellow shirt, backwards Atlanta Braves cap) gamely fist-bumped a fan, posed for a photo. Seems Christy Cooley is the true BSB groupie -- she stood and sang through the whole show while he spent a lot of time on his cell.
  • Nicole Richie and Joel Madden sitting outside the Starbucks at 21st and P on Monday night, laughing as other patrons loudly debated whether it was her. The celebutante (pale-colored top) and rocker (black tee, black hat) did a People photo shoot earlier at Meridian House; last night was his sold-out Good Charlotte show at 9:30 club. Richie showed up again yesterday a.m. to order a vanilla latte, baby Harlow in a stroller.
  • Madeleine Albright doing the jury duty thing yesterday, drawing whispers and stares as she read her Post and drank her Starbucks. (D.C. Superior Court is like clockwork: Almost exactly two years since the day she and Karl Rove ended up in the same jury pool!) Black dress, tan jacket, matching heels, great hair. Probably more fun the day before, when Madame Secretary was seen taking a couple grandkids to a Mazza Gallerie matinee of "Wall-E."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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