"I ain't running against Herman. I'm running for myself. It's important that I not sound like I'm in a fight with Herman. I'm trying to ignore him - and I'm being successful so far."
So speaks Betty Talmadge, divorced from Sen. Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.). Locked in a bitter property battle with her former husband, she is seriously considering running for Rep. Jack Flyn't congressional seat now that Flynt has announced he is quitting after this term.
"I'm not just whistling 'Dixie.' I'm getting a lot of support," says Betty Talmadge, who is waiting for poll results to make her final decision within the next two weeks. Campaign money? "I haven't got it in my hot little hand yet, but I'm getting promises I can lean on." Suddenly, she chuckles. "If I won, I'd be Herman's congresswoman. Isn't that ridiculous?"
Such humor is lost on Talmadge. Asked by a TV reporter if he would support his ex-wife should she run, Talmadge responded: "I do not like to answer 'iffy' questions."
Lovejoy, the Talmadge mansion 35 miles south of Atlanta, sits in Tara country - schlock Tara in part, with Tara Boulevard lined with shopping malls, gas stations and pizza joints. But down a winding road, the 150-year-old plantation looms in white-columned splendor. It looks like Home Sweet Home, but for Betty Talmadge, Lovejoy is a bitter anachronism. She sits there, at age 54, in the house where, for 35 years, she played dutiful political wife and shrewd businesswoman, entertained presidents and first ladies.
Her saga and present problems show the vulnerability of the political wife who banked on a political partnership marriage. The irony of Betty Talmadge's situation is that she grew into a Washington figure - only to find her financial fate, to date, has been judge by a rural jury far removed from her world.
In round one of their property battle, she lost three quaters of a million dollars (less capital gains taxes) to the senator when a rural jury ruled that he had not given her stock as a gift but for her to hold in trust for him. The case is now on appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court.
"I was flabbergasted at the decision," says Betty Talmadge. "He never told one living soul - including me - that the stock he gave me was a so-called trust."
There appear to be several inconsistencies in Talmadge's sworn statements regarding the stock, which was put in his wife's name in 1967 and sold in 1972. For example, in his initial sworn, written response to questions from her lawyer, Talmadge states that his ex-wife was not entitled to alimony because of numerous financial gifts he gave her, and that "the largest single gift" was the disputed Terminal Facilities stock. Talmadge later amended that "I did not give her Terminal Facilities. she took it and conveyed it to her own use," the senator later testified. His lawyer, Alex McClennan, said in an interview that he had prepared the initial answers and had made a mistake.
Betty Talmadge and her lawyers emphasize that Talmadge never disclosed to the Senate (or anyone else for that matter) that the stock was held in trust for him. A listing of such assets is required under the Senate disclosure rules. Talmadge argued that the arrangements was not a "formal" trust but an "implied" agreement between man and wife; therefore he saw no necessity to list it in his Senate disclosure files.
Betty Talmadge's lawyer, Stell Hule, charged in arguments to the court, however, that the senator either "intentionally misled" the Senate by filing "fraudulent disclosure statements" or his disclosure statements showed he never seriously claimed any interest in the stock. Says the senators ex-wife: "I find it unvelieveable that he can tell one story to the United States Senate and another to this jury down here - and no one even seems to care." Talmadge refuses to talked about the case or his divorce. Bride Aflutter
In the early days, the Talmadge marriage seemed happy enough. In 1948, as the 24-year-old wife of a well-known politician, "my heart was all aflutter," Betty Talmadge recalls - clasping her hands knowingly in a parody of the sweet little ole Southern Girl. Talmadge was then governor of Georgia and Betty, who was 19 when they were married, would simper to the press, "I don't know a thing in the world about politics. Ask me about the home and children and maybe I can answer."
The later years were filled with tragedies and troubles. One son was drowned, another divorced. Her mother and a brother died within the same year. Betty Talmadge went to psychiatrist to help her through her problems.
By the time Talmadge was a nationally televised figure on the Watergate committee, their life was, she says, mostly keeping up a front for political purposes. At the end, 15 months ago, Talmadge filed for divorce on the grounds the marriage was "irretrievably broken." Betty Talmadge counter-filed that the senator was "guilty of cruel treatment" and "habitual intoxication."
In her wood-paneled den, Betty Talmadge points to the TV set where she first learned her husband had filed for divorce - on a nightly news program. "Herman was eating supper in the kitchen. I said, 'Is it true, what I just heard on TV?'" Her husband answered: "Yes." Signatures and Queries
A bit plump and matronly, with curly gray hair, Betty Talmadge exudes an easy warmth and humor; but she is a woman of determination. She parlayed the Talmadge ham business into a $3-million venture before she sold it. She recently wrote a cookbook, with an introduction by Rosalynn Carter and she now runs a small meat brokerage business.
But she is worried about her future. Lovejoy, in her husband's name, may not be hers after the property settlement. If the $750,000 in stock and proceeds are awarded to the senator, he will be worth $2 1/4 million and his ex-wife $250,000, she says. "But he is taking my liquid assets - the rest of it is fixed and I get no income from it."
Looking back over her life, Betty Talmadge says, "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 says with a laugh, "I became a little old menopausal, slightly crazy lady."
"I was secretary and treasurer of the family corporation - but all I was supposed to do was sign," she says, evoking the image of Billy Dawn in "Born Yesterday." "They'll send me something and say, 'You sign it,' Well, finally I wasted to see what was going on, to see what losses we had to face."
Trial testimony revealed that net-worth statements from 1969 to 1971 always listed the disputed stock as an asset of Betty Talmadge alone. And at the time of sale, Talmadge never asked that his wife turn the proceeds over to him.
Asked why he did not, Talmadge in a desposition replied, "Wasn't any need to ask her. She would make some impertinent remark and accuse me of stealing it. I couldn't talk to her even about simple things."
Betty Talmadge shakes her head. "Well, I continued to politic for him in 1974. I voted with him, and we had our pictures taken together. We must have talked about something ."
Talmadge said his reason for putting the stock in his wife's name was to keep "useless newspaper speculation out."
Georgia law states that a transfer of money or stocks to a wife is "presumed to be a gift." In order to prove otherwise, the Georgia Supreme Court has ruled in previous cases, "clear" and "convincing evidence" must be presented to show that both parties understood at the time of transaction that a "resulting trust was contemplated." Betty Talmadge's lawyers thought they ought to win on Georgia law alone, for they had Herman Talmadge giving this testimony:
Q. Did you tell anyone why you were putting it in her name?
A: I did not.
Q: Did you tell her?
A: I did not. I never discussed affairs of that nature with members of family, as a rule.
But Stell Huie was a lawyer from Atlanta. He did not know that much about Henry County, Ga. Images of Womanhood
McDonough, the county seat of Henry County, is 35 miles and several light years removed from Atlanta, with its sleek international office buildings and futuristic hotels. In the center of McDonough's square, a marble monument glistens, commemorating the Confederate dead. "God preserve forever in our hearts . . . a knowledge of their motive and their cause."
Betty Talmadge was, she feels in part, fighting perceptions and myths of southern womanhood; and a time-honored notion that the husband handles all the finances.
The courthouse was built before the Civil War. When U.S. Sen. Herman Talmadge walked up the squeaky stairs in January, no one needed to be reminded that he was the powerful chairman of the agricultural committee, and that "Old Eugene," the legendary governor of Georgia, was Herman's "Daddy." The jury decided in one hour.
Helen Richardson, a member of the jury, recalls the trial. She sits at the counter of her small roadside grocery store and gas station, in front of rows of Red Rose sweet snuff and chewing tobacco.
"I figured the senator didn't mean a gift to do with what she pleased, you know? We all just felt that as a man and wife, they had a understanding. She owned up to the fact that up until 1972, she signed everthing put in front of her. She didn't ask no questions."
Although Betty Talmadge's lawyer stressed during the trial that Georgia law states that money conveyed between husband and wife shall be presumed to be a gift, Helen Richardson did not recall this. Asked if she had understood this law, she said, "I don't know about that." She thought a moment. "But, you know, laws are just so funny ."
In the donut and coffee shop by the courtyard, some McDonough citizens held different views.
Drinking coffee, one man rubbed his beard and said, "In Georgia, you give a wife a gift, you're not supposed to be an Indian giver. But once old Herman was drug down here he wasn't gonna lose. He's got too much power." The woman behind the counter said, "I think he done her dirty. He give it to her - then he wants it back." Another woman said. "If that stock really was his, why didn't he tell the U.S. Senate she was the trustee?"
Talmadge's lawyer argued in closing, "If you find against him, you have got to find that he's a cook ," Said McLennan "You have to find that your senior United States senator perjured himself in your presence. I can't believe you'll do it."
As Helen Richardson said, weeks after the trial, "Like his lawyer said, if he did what her lawyer said, he'd be a crook. He wouldn't take a chance on his past, present and future for that money, would he?"
After the verdict was announced, the senator stood on the worn steps of the ancient Henry County Court House and personally shook hands, one by one, with the jurors. Politics and Positive Thinking
Betty Talmadge says she is trying to think postively. "Living alone is tough - but I just can't think of anyone I'd want to live with." She explains why she never sought the divorce. "Think of the time I've had with him instigating it. If I had broken it off, I wouldn't have had a chance of a snowball . . . Besides, after so many years, you don't want to face the fact that things won't change. I kept thinking he might get help. With my psychiatrist's help, I faced the fact I could not live his life. I was just living life and doing the best I could."
Lovejoy, rundown and abandoned when the Talmadge family purchased it in the 1930s, has been turned into a homey showcase by Betty Talmadge. There are apricot damask drapes and fine porcelain china in the dining room. A huge kitchen that was once a separate quarters is now attached by a enclosed walkway.
In the formal, antique-filled sitting room, Herman Talmadge's portrait still hangs over the fire-place. In the wood-paneled den, there are pigs in every shape, size and color, from ceramic to pillows, a tribute to the ham business. Near the plantation is her son's grave, encircled by a wall. He was drowned in 1975, at the age of 29.
The idea of running for Congress consumes Betty Talmadge now - as she goes on talk shows, gives interviews, looks for "seed money." She feels she is a natural for politics. "My dad was mayor of our small town, my granddaddy was in the state senate and my brother was tax collector for 20 years and never had an opponent. I've had a wealth of experience in those years in Washington and know my way around. I have no family obligations and can give 100 percent of my time to it."
She brings up her psychiatrist because "that my help erase any stigma, if it still remains, on that subject." As for being divorce, "I've gotten great support from divorced women, who identify with me."
She anticipates some skepticism about what practical political knowledge she gained as a political wife. "I may not know all the answers, but after all these years in business. If there's one thing I have a talent for, it's being able to find people who do know the answers."
One supporter, Bob Maddox, a wealthy Atlanta car dealer, sees Betty Talmadge's chances as "excellent. She's smart and has got the common touch. Herman's being a powerful senator may have a little bearing on some people supporting her - but Herman couldn't say a thing against her without looking like a very little man. Their divorce is not going to be a key issue, even though I think it's kind of a tragedy for Betty in her time of life." The Once and Future Campaigner
One day recently Betty Talmadge was getting new car license tags in the court house where she lost the disputed $750,000.
She was traveling as fast as she could, without actually running.
"Hi," she said, approaching some men. "My name is Betty Talmadge and I'm thinking about running for Congress. I haven't made up my mind yet," she said, then with a broad smile, finished the sentence.
"But I sure would appreciate it if y'all remembered my name."