"She is imprisioned," says a close friend of Effi Barry's "in other people's illusions and expectations." And so on a crisp evening, the wife of the mayor steps into the foyer of a fashionable Gold Coast home. Immediately, the hostess, a black woman in her 50s, sizes up Barry's appearance and smiles thinly, "Dear, you shouldn't dress better than the hostess."
Effi Barry of the tall, tan school of looks and the sweet, guarded school of manners, does not dip at the sting. Instead, she recalls, determined not to embroider, equally determined not to forget, she reached inside for her to forget, she reached inside her own reservoir of gentility and walked on by. Smiling.
It was just another slight, another foul ball of jealousy and pettiness that has made much of the last 26 months miserable, since the day her then-boyfriend and City Councilman Marion Barry announced he was running for mayor.
"It's been demanding. First I was not prepared for the rold. And there were many, many people who expected me to fail, many people who were not supportive of me," she says. Her flat voice sounds detached, tired, like she is reading a proclamation. "I guess it's typical human nature when you reach what is perceived as the pinnacle of success. There's envy and hostility . . . And every day it's a struggle to prove yourself."
She has the direct, penetrating look of a woman determined to succeed. This is part of her metamrphosis, from a sheltered Midwestern girl to a symbol of a sophisticated world capital, from an introvert to a good-times maven spokesperson for social concerns. Yet the picture is incomplete. "She is like an open wound," says one close friend. "When I see her I sense the tensions, the struggle. And I really empathize with her."
Her personal transition from private citizen into public personality, and commodity, has been, in her own view, rough. Few would argue that it's been all awkward or all graceful. She started cold. She has tried to shape what she thought the first lady of the District of Columbia ought to be and do into a manageable role for herself, while listening to other people's expectations and fighting to keep her own personal and professional life private.
Her difficulties arise from a series of unusual circumstances: her lack of political experience, the juxtaposition of the first year of her marriage being her husband's underdog race for mayor; and the second year of marriage being her husband's trying, first year in office; her newness to Washington; and her own insistence that her life was not a public document.
"Possibly my attitude is a little oldfashioned. I have not quite conceptualized the idea that if you are considered a public official, there's no private life," says Effi Barry. Her looks emphasize this philosophy of privacy. The overall angularness, stamped with wide, deep-set brown eyes, a pleat-shaped nose, and wafer-thin lips, all set on a slender, long neck, form an aristocratic mask of haughtiness and secrecy. In public, the angles are softened by a very formal, automatic smile. And, now, over a leisurely restaurant dinner, the manner suggests a resignation, controlled yet touched constantly with impatience with her status. "That has been the most difficult thing for me to accept. Some of the inquiries, questions, allegations to me have verged on being very poor manners."
Since the toga crowd first went off to the Roman Senate, political wives have had these complaints. But Effi Barry, 35, presently a management consultant who has worked as an environmental health inspector, junior high school teacher, a Wall Street credit reporter, airline stewardess and occasional model, faced some atypical problems.
On two occasions she has been the center of a stormy public questioning of the mayor. During the campaign, almost every time her picture appeared in the newspaper, her racial identity became a campaign issue. It drove the barry staff crazy; they asked the newspapers to darken her up. Her own slowly-blooming self-confidence was shattered when people began telling her she looked too white and would cost Barry the race.
Then four months ago, the story that the Barrys got a sizable discount on their home mortgage from the bank where Effi Barry is a board member, became an integrity issue for the media and gossip for the town.
She faced a whirlpool of jealousies, like any attractive newcomer who snags one of the town's most eligible bachelors. But it was more than envy. She had stepped right into vintage, tender complexities of black society where resentment still flated at those who lacked status, lineage and duespaying from the days of segregated Washington.
She rejected suggestions she had to fit a precast mold. "To function in the role, it must be through my own interpretations. I don't think I can take a block of four years and say 'Here are four years, this is what you do' and make it separate from my own aspirations, my own lifetime goals or objectives," says Barry, sharply. "I don't consider this four-year period to be the ultimate end. I don't want to sound cynical, but it's just another chain of events."
Yet this single-mindedness causes all the clashing vibrations; brings the steely detachment to her looks; brings the sympathetic whispers of vulnerability and fragility from friends and suggestins of a superiority complex from those not so kind or close. "She is bashful, shy, some people misinterpret that as aloofness. Sometimes she would go into a room and just sit if I didn't walk with her," says her husband. "Basically she is a very sensitive person. Often, when we talk about the civil rights movement, she talks about the dilemmas she had about her complexion. She really wanted to be a part because of her sensitivity to people and her feelings about injustice."
And though she has not resolved the rough triangles of her own life, she is imposing some brakes. Part of the reason is impending motherhood. "Nothing is going to faze me," she says. "I am beginning to get the feeling of being born again."
She is seen as angel/viper, soft/hard, shy/aloof, intelligent/vacant. Here are some samplings of the Effi Barry elusive kaleidoscope:
T.S. Elliot offers a glimpse, says her executive assistant, Lynn Bumbray, of a person wrestling with preconceptions. "And I have known the eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,/and when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,/ when I am pinned and wiggling on the wall,/ then how should I begin to spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways/and how should I presume?"
Gracious. That's the word of praise used most frequently for Barry. When Jim Palmer, a U.S. Marshal and close buddy of Marion Barry's, was asked by the mayor to escort his wife to the Cherry Blossom Ball last year, Effi Barry immediately called his wife and got her permssion.
Sensitive. When Imagene Stewart, a minister and social activist, found out her shelter for abused women was about to be closed, she called Effi Barry's office for help. Barry herself called back and the two women talked for 30 minutes, Stewart crying and Barry comforting. "We prayed. And she kept telling me to hold myself together," says Stewart, whose shelter was saved. During especially tough times at the D.C. Environmental Services, where she inspected D.C. General Hospital, Junior Village and other facilities, a co-worker remembers her taping poems and quotes to her desk flower pot. "If people got low, she would read them outloud. It was rather inspirational," says Norma Stewart, one of Barry's closest friends.
Vacuous. "She is pretty, she strains her neck like a gazelle and then smiles, just smiles." says a 40-ish Shepherd Park homemaker. Another woman in the same age bracket has observed Barry at several luncheons and observes, "looking at her face, I don't know whether she is above it or out of it. If she's above it, that's healthy."
Insecure. "She has five major planets in Cancer and a moon in Sagittarius. So she has a real thirst for experience, but like most Cancers she is sensitive with a lot of insecurities. If you offend one of those spots, she'll close off to you entirely," says a close male friend. During an impromptu, casual afternoon at Patty and David Abramson's house, Effi Barry said she had been asked to join the board of Independence Federal Savings and Loan. She had her reservations. "She wondered if they wanted her or if they were using her to get to Barry," recalls businesswoman Patty Abramson.
Relaxed. Billie Fischer, an owner of three Lady Madonna franchises, describes her as a friend who is not uptight about undressing in Loehmann's communal dressing room. Ruby Gibson, a travel agent, describes her as a friend who will visit, put her feet up, read a book or talk. When the official District delegation was waiting on the Ellipse for Pope John Paul Ii to land, Effi Barry walked up and down calming everyone's nerves. When the Pope greated her, he said, "blessings on you and your family." Laughs Barry, "that's why I'm pregnant today."
Ungracious. "She has contributed to the bad taste in people's mouths. I've seen her say, 'I'm Effi' and expect a lot of bowing. What she gives in return fluctuates," says a young, native Washingtonian.
Racially aware. Once she invited 10 college students and 10 professional women over for a buffet, and they all sat on the floor, exchanging views of life and goals. "She promoted real communication," says attorney Ruby McZier. "Others might call it networking, but I felt she was setting in motion real reinforcement between black women."
Aloof. At the NBA All-Star Game, the Barry's sat in the section with some of the town's leading black politicians and lawyers. As the guys went by to rap with Barry, his wife, according to one observer, just stared ahead. The men returned to their seats, mumbling, "they would talk to Marion later."
Poised. At the luncheon for the visiting Senegalese Minister of Culture the Barrys were given two heavy bronzes. Barry handed them to pregnant Effi whose eyes pleaded don't. The ambassador interjected, saying that they were much too heavy. But Effi Barry avoided an awkward moment by taking them and quickly putting them on the table.
Angry. When Barry announced for mayor, Effi Cowell was standing by his side. He introduced everyone but her, and she reportedly blew her stack. When The Ear gossip column speculated about why the Mayor arrived at the White House alone, she was livid. At the time she was in New York with her godmother who was dying of cancer. Asked about disagreements, she relates a story about a recent unscheduled visitor at their house who was allowed in by the security guards. "There I was at 7 a.m., in my kitchen, talking to a stranger. I really let Marion know how I felt about it," she says.
Independent and Lonely. "If I had been reared to be a dependent woman, politics or being married to a politician would be the death of me. I can understand how some wives of politicians resort to escape mechanisms, drugs or alcohol. If you don't have your own self-interest, confidence about yourself, or don't have direction, only living in someone else's limelight you are lost," she says. And loneliness is a problem. "What's left for me (of my husband's life)?" she asks. "In terms of personal time spent alone, we might have four or five hours a week."
Effi Barry knows the talk, the bad reviews that are tough to swallow. And, though her depression at this type of negativeness has tempered recently she can laugh at the cloudly whirl of speculation that follows her. For the Halloween party at the Polo Club, she dressed like a cat, whiskers and all. And, in what publicist Tom Curtis called a low-register-"Grace Kelly," voice, announced the winners of a weekend at a hotel, saying, "Let's hope they are fond of each other."
When Effi Barry was 12, her mother abruptly began a campaign to toughen up her only child. She decided that since she couldn't give her daughter silver spoons, she would give her some keys to self-esteem, determination and happiness.
"I sat her down and said, 'I work, you go to school, and I run the house one week, so I want you to run it the next.' And I told her to take over the cleaning, cooking, ordering the groceries. And she never hesitates at a new experience, so she did it well, more than that, fantastically," says Polly Harris, an assistant manager of a boutique in Toledo, where Effi Barry grew up.
Harris was 16 and unmarried when she had Effi. She later married a local businessman, a parking lot manager, but they were divorced when Effi was 15. The daughter was 30 years old before she asked her mother about her father, who was Italian. She explains "It was like a family secret I didn't know about. And I don't know whether I didn't ask her out of respect for her privacy or fear for my own feelings."
Recalling incidents that have made her a composed, restrained woman, Barry remembers a childhood free of material wants and free from racial scars. "My total outlook on race relations was accepting, the acceptance of people on a personal level, more than any racial distinction," says Barry, whose neighborhood was a racially-mixed, working-class one. "You used to poke fun about going into the white area of town, but it was not a true understanding of segregation." Her mother, who grew up in Crystal Springs, Miss., and East St. Louis, Mo., remembers her 9-year old daughter disbelieving stories about segregation. "She would tell me things like that don't happen. So we took a trip to Memphis, and I let her see how things were. It's one of the reasons I wanted her to go to Hampton Institute, so she would have a real Southern experience."
Interspersed with the material availability -- the roller skates, bicycle and jacks -- were the Midwestern traditions of church, school and the social lampposts of Friday night football, hamburger drive-ins, kilts and beenies. "You wore them so everyone knew you had been to the game," says Barry.
There were no shock waves in this existence. And, at Hampton Institute the small, four-year black college in the Tidewater region of Virginia, where she earned a home economics degree, the variety came only in the complexions of the value arbitors. For decades Hampton had been considered a finishing school, with emphasis on morality and manners to create "Proper Negroes" for the world. When Effi Barry arrived in 1963, she found a sedate campus. "We were so myopic in our scope," remembers Barry. "Our concerns were immediate, protesting about different professors who we didn't think were qualified to teach." At that point, Marion Barry was deeply involved in the civil rights movement in the Deep South, serving as a chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee for a time, but that challenge didn't reach Hampton. "Naturally we were concerned, but it was a little foreign."
Instead of the cosmopolitan experience she was seeking, Hampton became a haven where Effi Barry learned some self-reliance, "coasted" as one friend put it, through her studies, had some early lessons in jealousy, and earned some lifelong friends. She is remembered, by close friend Terry Doak, as the coed with the blue light in her room, the Nancy Wilson records, the sewing machine that could whip up a Miss Sophmore gown before Doak even asked, and looks that were so enviable that she was forced to drop out of the sorority pledging. "I know the shy person who loved to have a good time, a good laugh, who works hard at keeping her real friends together, and has always needed a place away from the crowd," says Doak.
Still seeking a worldly experience, Barry moved to New York, shelved her teaching goals temporarily, and became an airlines stewardess for United. In discussing this part of her life, her sense of humor, an arid wit that almost mined out, emerges. "I saw parts of the country," she says pausing, as if for applause, "from the motels, from the airport."
The value of a year spent on 30-minute hops from Chicago to Cincinnati, or other such exotica, was that she learned she could survive as an object. "It taught me tolerance, taught me how to handle myself, when no one cared about me as a person, and taught me how to endure jokes and rumors," says Barry. Her next job, as a credit reporter for Dun and Bradstreet, taught her an important lesson in femnist politics. "I was the first black woman credit reporter. And the first few weeks they made me feel very comfortable. Then when incidents occurred, like the men getting more pay for the same work, I felt it was sexism, not racism." She only stayed a year.
Having experienced two mild downers, Barry turned to the comfort of familarity. She married her Toledo childhood sweetheart, Stanley Cowell, a jazz pianist. Then a member of Stan Getz' group, the Cowells spent the early part of their marriage in Europe and then settled in New York. But she was restless. "One day I found myself scrubbing the doorway," she remembers, a note of amazement in her voice, "and I said the time has arrived for you to go to work. You have run out of things to do."
The solution to this restlessness was falling back on the career ambition she had since she was 7, teaching school. But the dream of a young girl scratching on a play blackboard was far from the reality of Bedford-Stuyvesant in the late 1960s. In Toledo, drinking wine was a risque teen-age experience; in this teeming, northern black community, the harshness of day-to-day living erased many childhoods. "The first year was horrible," says Barry, explaining her naivete. "Then I had to realize that maybe I could only reach one child in the class." At the same time, the uncertainty of her political position clashed with the unbending cries of "black power." She tried an Afro hairstyle but still her middle-class background was questioned, and she felt uneasy and confused.
Five years ago, Barry, reeling from the scars of her Bed-Sty experience and the disappointment over the collapse of her marriage, decided she was burnt out. "Since I was unemployed I figured it was easier to do it in Washington," says Barry, who moved here in September 1975, prepared for a career change with a master's in health education from City College of New York.
"I had really wanted to go to California. But this was a chance to save some money, then go to California, buy that house in Carmel." She pauses, the chin jutting out, and says, trying to be flippant but sounding overly dramatic, "But fate had other things in store."
THE MAKING of the District's first lady, Effi Barry style, got off to a very rough start.
It wasn't bad enough that some entrenched Washingtonians wanted a younger version of Bennetta Washington, the first elected mayor's wife, or that Effi Barry couldn't sort out the external resentment from her own timidity and insecurity. To add to the hardships, some of the men around the mayor weren't wise to the value of a well-in-formed, active campaign mate. She was iced out and resented it.
The Mayor says now that that was not an oversight but a strategy for the campaign. "That was an institutional part of the campaign," says Barry. "I know she felt left out, but there was no role for her as an adviser. I worked on it and tried to invite her to strategy sessions, but I think many times the wife's role is confused. In meetings her remarks might be interpreted as carrying more weight and reflecting my opinion because she's my wife."
The eveness of her tone is an unsuccessful attempt to hide the fact that Effi Barry is still smarting. "There are a lot of people in this town who feel because of their relationship with Marion in the civil rights struggle, in his formative days, and (because of) the longevity of their relationship . . . I guess they feel, not that they own him, but they were instrumental in his making. It leaves little room for outsiders," she says. "Various people haven't accepted me, but that doesn't bother me, because women are survivors . . . it's not the kind of thing I would vie for." b
Instead she turned her energies to perfecting her public, professional and wifely roles. To fit the ladylike criteria, she started wearing enough hats to make Hedda Hopper crazy with envy. The look backfired; people snickered. tWhen she opened herself up to people, then found out they knifed her, she became more guarded.
But she won some supporters by obviously trying to personalize each public statement. Her remarks on womens' solidarity brought rousing, proud applause from an audience during last fall's Black Caucus Weekend. Yet some of her political persepctive irked others. In speeches, she will often use quotes from Sam Yette's book "The Choice," a pessimistic and controversial view of minorities' furture; or repeat remarks by former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young. "She will say that 'once you leave your home, you are just another nigger.' And some people called to say it was in poor taste," says Lynn Bumbray. "But Effi is very capable of saying, in her Ultrasuede dress, that we are a collective people, we came over on the boat together, and we are going out together. In some places that's not appreciated."
Her personal life is riddled with rumors. The Mayor has long had a well- known eye for the women, and Effi Barry likes to stop for an after-work drink at the Polo Club or Foxtrappe. So people talk. One evening Effi Barry stopped by the Foxtrappe, dressed in slacks, dancing and chatting at length at the bar with a young man. The next day Bumbray attended a meeting, where the talk was of the mayor's wife, "out alone, the man she had been curled up at the bar with, and some gossip that she is a lesbian." Recalls Bumbray. "I had to cuss them out."
So her story is one of striking a balance. She puts in a full day at Pacific Consultants, attends the required lunches and evening events, makes curtains for the new house, lays tiles, dances when the Barrys have company over, falls asleep during the Barry poker rounds, and re-celebrates her marriage the 17th of every month.
Yet her story is one of compromise. As a close friend says, "she knows she is in charge of herself. She knows she is not in charge of Marion, but she has compromised on that." But she has made strides. Her outspokenness on the treatment of minorities at private social clubs led to her role as a whistle-blower in a city investigation of discrimination in the clubs.
Her most visible effort has been in the arts. As a board member of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, she was instrumental in getting an exhibition of contemporary Senegalese art there. Through her initiative the fifth floor of the District Building now has "The Mayor's Art Gallery," where local residents are selected to exhibit. "I think I am a frustrated artist," she says of her enthusiasm."I live vicariously through an apprecition of other peoples' talents."
In the last two years, the low point for Barry was the controversy around her home mortgage. And like many of her other thoughts, her resentment stems from people's perceptions of her as a woman. "I am very bitter about the fact that there would be any question about my qualifications . . . I think at this point in my life, I didn't need to be married to a person for two years to verify my capabilities and skills . . . I considered that a basic male chauvinistic attitude," says Barry. "The whole attempt to make something look wrong or illegal annoyed me."
Looking back, she feels her major mistake was even talking about it. "That was probably an error. It violated my personal value system," says Barry, who feels the same way about the conflicting stories about her salary. On the mortgage, she says, "i could find a justification for close scrutiny if the city were providing residences . . . if the city had to pay the mortgage . . . And, after a point, even though it violates some of your personal values, violates some of your personal feelings, you have to accept the reality you are a semi-official person . . . However, I feel I am still able to draw the line."
During the time last year when The Washington Post ran a series on alleged financial mishandlings at Pride, Inc., the youth self-help program, where Marion Barry first became a visible local leader, Effi Barry was concerned, but calm. There was never any evidence that Barry was involved in the wrongdoings. "I asked him if the allegations were true, and he said he didn't know. I asked him if he was involved, he said no. I believe him, I believe very strongly in the man," says Barry. If the anticipated indictments in the Pride case include Barry, she says, "It would be rough. But I believe in him. I can stand the pressure. And it will be another lesson in politics."
Strangely enough, her tone is never a please-pity-me variety. There are some things that have made her extremely appreciative of the chance she has to learn the city. Last Spring she was a guest at Plummer Elementary School, where she was escorted to the stage by 4-year-olds and heard them recite poetry and songs.
"I looked at these babies, exuding so much self-confidence, innocence and pride," says Barry. "It was breathtaking. And I wonder at what point in life do we adults destroy this innocence, this self-confidence and pride. It was a real challenge. We hear that black kids can't learn, that Southeast is such a bad environment for kids to grow up in, all those negatibe things you hear were destroyed that day."
But she comes back, again and again, to the fact that she is being tested. No one will remember she was at Plummer School, but they all will remember how she looked greeting the pope at the Ellipse."I was tested, I know I was tested, primarily to see if I had enough savvy and class to function in that role," she says, crisply. "And I know I am not totally accepted in certain circles . . . and I'm sorry. This is me, this is what I am."