Millicent Fenwick's house in Bernardsville, N.J. is at the end of the drive where she once watched her parents take spins in their Packard, her father in goggles, her mother in white gloves. It is the house where she learned that "Mummy" had drowned on the Lusitania, and to which she returned after an unhappy marriage.
She has lived here alone for nearly 30 years in French-style, cream-colored stucco, built on 14 acres of woods and field. Inside there are several thousand books, a painting of the racehorse American Eclipse and, on the gleaming dinner table, a salt dish with its spoon perfectly balanced across the top. In this house she handwrites her constituent letters -- "pinkies," she calls them -- and here, early this morning, she is to begin the first day of her U.S. Senate campaign.
"Sometimes, going up the stairs, I think how strange it is to come home," she says. "And of course, this house is dark and empty. But my god, it's freedom. I think being old is liberating, too. It's terrible to be young. You see, the other side of opportunity is insecurity. Suppose I do lose? It t'isn't the same for a young person who has the mortgage still to pay, the children's dentist bills still to pay. It's far freer; you travel lighter. You don't carry the burden of choice."
Rep. Millicent Fenwick, Republican of New Jersey, is running for the seat held by Sen. Harrison Williams, a Democrat. She has long been one of the sharpest wits and most irrepressible consciences in the U.S. Congress, these days immortalized by Garry Trudeau with his "Doonesbury" comic strip character, Lacey Davenport. ("Oh, you poor dears," Lacey once told a group of striking blue-collar workers.) It is nearly impossible to see her name in print without the accompanying "patrician" or "pipe-smoking grandmother."
She modeled for Harper's Bazaar, wrote the "Vogue Book of Etiquette," studied under philosopher Bertrand Russell. After her mother drowned on the Lusitania, her father was saved off the Irish coast and later was ambassador to Spain. She is a life member of the NAACP and once reported her worth as $5 million, although now she says it's less. She struggled after her marriage to pay family debts from bad investments and, to this day, pinches pennies. She works by the light of one lamp at home and always counts out exact change when a staff member gets her coffee.
She is famous for the fast comeback. When an annoyed member of the New Jersey Assembly cried out during an ERA debate that "I always thought women were meant to be kissable, cuddly and sweet-smelling," Fenwick retorted: "That's what I thought of men -- and I hope, for your sake, you haven't been disappointed as many times as I've been."
She is a natural for publicity. At 71, she has just the right combination of elegance and grit, a glamorous oddity in pearls and sensible shoes. It is not inaccurate to describe her face, which wrinkles in all directions, as beautiful. But for all the attention, there is a subtle sense that something might be missing. Her son, Hugh, says she works for constituents not out of "noblesse oblige -- there's something snobby in that" -- but because "life is unfair." Yet that's just a part of it. Her home phone number is listed, and constituents call her at night with their fears. "Their problems kill me," she says. "I feel like the mother of the whole district -- anxious when anything threatens the chick." She seems to need them as much as they need her; they fill a void.
"I once worried about why I wasn't getting remarried, you know, would it damage the children and so forth," she says, warming her feet by her fire on a bitterly cold Sunday night. "So I went to a psychologist and I asked him: 'What's the matter with me? Why won't I remarry?' And he said, 'Well, you've had a rough experience, and you don't want to repeat it.' I realize perfectly well that I have some kind of -- well, obsession is too strong a word -- a very strong bias toward any form of deception."
She fusses with the fire and returns to the present. "I haven't got a campaign manager yet because I haven't had time. I'm not good at this. It's not my cup of tea. I love government, but I just don't understand this end of it so well." She thinks of her formal announcement. "Guess what it means? You announce in Newark or somewhere like that. Then you announce in Trenton or somewhere like that. And then you go to south Jersey and announce. It strikes me as nonsense."
Arguments & Applause
After seven seemingly effortless years, the woman who has established herself as a congressional celebrity can draw opposing assessments from her cohorts:
Rep. Margaret S. Roukema (R-N.J.): "I think Millicent has been just grand in the Congress. She sees the larger picture. She also has an enormous reservoir of information, which she uses to speak out forcefully, and with a candor that is admirable. It's a quality that is little seen in Congress."
A Democrat in the New Jersey delegation: "The truth of the matter is, she's totally ineffective. She sits on the House floor almost all of the time, which is commendable -- but she forgoes the right, by doing that, to take part at the committee level. That's where the work is done. She'll get up and talk about anything. She has no inhibitions about taking part in the debate, even if she doesn't know what's going on. She's not into the hard work of putting together coalitions necessary to get legislation passed. What she enjoys doing is getting forums and making fairly innocuous announcements."
Fenwick's congressional district is affluent horse country, but her favorite causes are the poor, human rights violations and the environment. Critics questioned her sincerity on social issues after she voted for the president's budget cuts, a decision that has kept her relationship with the White House smooth.
"I'm so fed up whenever I have to hear that," she retorts. "It really drives me crazy. They have been abusing this flood of federal money. It was easy. It was irresistible."
An early poll, taken last September, shows Fenwick far ahead of her competitors. And the White House, while being careful not to support her, has encouraged her candidacy. "Millicent Fenwick is the most electable candidate with whom we have worked in 15 years," announces John Deardourff, the political consultant who told her she should run a year ago. "She's a unique human being, and there's very little anyone has to do to make that obvious. There is some quality about her."
There is something about her. Although her thoughts can unravel as badly as an old sweater (ask about her father's ambassadorship to Spain, and she'll start complaining about the Committee for an Effective Congress), she can bewitch when she speaks. Partly it is the Davenport "Oh, dears," a forever fascinating upper-class tongue that pronounces primary as "prime-rey." ("I love her," she says of Lacey. "We're both pitiful -- and laughable.") Partly it is her look -- 110 pounds on a "5 foot, 10 inch and a bit" frame made for the classic wools and silks that hang elegantly from her bony shoulders, just as they did when she modeled for Harper's Bazaar. She posed, for a short time, with both Clare Boothe Luce and Muriel Maxwell. "We used to go to be photographed, all three of us, and Clare always got the mirror. Muriel and I would be furious."
But much of the spell comes from charisma; Fenwick knows how to assess a group and relate to it. Once she brought a crowd of Italian-Americans to its feet by fluently speaking the language. And on this recent Sunday, before she settles at home by the fire, she speaks the language of family to constituents in Morristown, N.J. "I wish people would put up their hands," she says. "Who has received a newsletter? Oh, look, how lovely! A forest! I love my district."
They are the Friends of the Library, listening to Fenwick speak on "current events." About 100 of them -- young, old, tweedily affluent -- sit bundled in the chilly parish hall of St. Peter's Episcopal Church, built on the same small-town thoroughfare as the Morristown green and three stock brokerage firms. Mrs. Fenwick, as they call her, is a relative of sorts, a slightly richer neighbor living just down Rte. 202.
"Mrs. Fenwick," one asks, "what can you tell us about possibly running for the Senate?"
"I went to see my doctor," Fenwick says, beginning a story she loves to tell, "thinking he'd say, 'You're crazy!' Instead he said, 'You can do anything you want for the next 20 years.' To be honest, I've prayed about it, wondering whether there was ego in it. Well, look, we're sort of in the family here. The Senate would be a bully pulpit. Yes, I have very much enjoyed the House. I love the variety. It's fascinating. I remember there was Bob Eckhardt from Texas, and in the summer he'd wear all white and a bow tie and he'd rise to speak and I'd think, 'I'm listening to the South of 1840.' . . . I mean, I haven't announced yet, but my feet are on that path."
The crowd applauds her, and after the talk, there are personal hellos.
"Once I wrote in your name for president," a woman tells her.
"Nooooooo!" says Fenwick. "That's the spirit, my dear!"
"And I'm going to vote for you for senator."
"Be sure and vote for me in the primary -- that's where I'm going to be in trouble, my dear."
Afterward, she puts a sensible cloth coat over her stylish brown plaid suit, circa 1946. She gets into her Chevrolet, drives quickly along Rte. 202 past a country inn, a Talbotts store and a Porsche-Audi dealership. A flagpole marks Bernardsville. Here the homes disappear up the winding driveways and white, icy hills where she once hunted fox. The locals put up fences to keep out deer. Fenwick's car turns and crunches up her own drive, a path that from road to front door is a trip in itself.
The house, as if in a landscape from "Dr. Zhivago," is perched dark on a plain of snow. There were once 35 acres of rich isolation; now Fenwick says it's "just 14." Through frozen trees, the moon comes up gold. A small outside porch is all glass, making the house look like an ice palace. Fenwick fishes for her keys, turns the lock, then walks into darkness.
"You know," she reflects later, "I felt very close to those people back there. Maybe that's why I don't get lonely."
Ties That Bind
Millicent Fenwick is a descendant of a family that didn't quite come over on the prow of the Mayflower. But close. John Stevens, her first American ancestor, arrived here in 1698. "Just a London hairdresser," says Fenwick, who says she hates her blue-blood tag. One Stevens offspring was the "treasurer on horseback" who rode across New Jersey paying the Revolutionary War soldiers; others had property and married well. Included was her mother, heir to the Hoboken Land and Improvement Co., who wed Ogden Hammond, her father. He was a rich financier. Her mother died when she was 5.
"Mother was intent on setting up a hospital in Paris," recalls Fenwick. "She was quite headstrong. Daddy wouldn't let her go alone . . .
"They were sitting on the Lusitania having coffee after lunch, and there was an enormous thump. Daddy said, 'I wonder what that is?' Then, of course, there was another terrible one and the ship started listing. Mummy had a purse and dropped it on the deck and laughed and said, 'I guess I won't need this where we'll be going.'"
Her mother got into a boat for women and children, but as a seaman lowered it by rope to the ocean, he lost control. "So they were all thrown into the water, Mummy included," she says. "Daddy jumped into the water to try to find her, but he never saw her again."
Her father, she says, drifted on a piece of wood for hours until he was picked up by a fishing boat. "Daddy was never the same," she says. "Before that, he loved riding, the hounds. He was gay, dark, quite a handsome man. When he came back, he was taciturn and different. I can remember when they told us that mother was dead. Aunt Carrie came to tell us, in the room I'm sleeping in now. I can remember it as if it were yesterday."
Determination and Debts
Her father became ambassador to Spain under Calvin Coolidge. When he and the family returned to Bernardsville after four years in Madrid, Millicent was 19. She fox-hunted, went to parties and met her husband, at that time a married man living in Far Hills. His wife was away in Bridgehampton one summer.
"There was a terrible row," says Fenwick. "It was rather seamy. The family, of course, was furious. But I was determined."
She married Hugh Fenwick, had two children, then left him at 28. There were the debts. "He made a specialty," says Mary Baird, Millicent Fenwick's cousin, neighbor and lifetime supporter, "of marrying ladies with money . . . he's coarse and he's funny. He has a lot of charm, ghastly as he is. Oh, he's full of charm. He can charm the birds off the trees."
"He wasn't really good-looking," says Fenwick, "but he was fascinating. Everyplace he turned up, he made it a party. There was something irreverent and very sensual about him."
"She told me she'd left him," recalls Baird, "and that she was going to be paying all his debts. I told her she should pay the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker -- all the locals. But not his New York debts -- Giovanni, Club 21. And of course, she listened to me very carefully, then paid every one."
She did it by commuting to work at Vogue for 14 years, eventually writing the etiquette book. "Oh, I loved it!" she says of Vogue. The book was something else. "She never said until later how much she disliked it," says her daughter, Mary Reckford. "She says now it was a boring topic."
"I used to go to her office," recalls her son. "She wore black suits and had large black floppy hats and smoked Chesterfields at the speed of light." Fenwick was war editor, a job she took seriously. Consider the fate of a member of the J.P. Morgan family: "I wouldn't let Miss Morgan's picture appear in Vogue," she recalls, "because she had entertained the Vichy ambassador." She giggles, still.
Fenwick never told her family how bad things were. "Every Friday night when I got home from work," she says, "Mr. Boyd, the process server from Somerville, handed me another suit. He said, 'Oh, Millicent, I'm so sorry.' I knew we were hard up, but I didn't know we were in so much trouble."
She learned to save. Her son, Hugh, remembers that she didn't take an extra gas ration during the war because she felt it was wasteful; to conserve, she let her 1941 Plymouth coast downhill from her driveway to the commuters' train station. The only problem was the bump at the Episcopal church. Her kids got out and pushed.
In 1952, some long-term family investments were yielding enough money for her to quit Vogue and do needlework forever. Instead she did something equally acceptable but less sedentary: volunteer work. First for local causes, then state. She worked for Republican candidates, legal aid and prison reform. No pay.
"Yes, the typical female pattern," she once said. "I always wanted things in the most foolish, overmodest, hesitant way. I finally learned that when a man wants more he says, 'Listen, George. I want a bit of the action.' Well, we've been taught: 'You Have to Wait to Be Invited to Dance.' "
In 1969, she was elected to the New Jersey Assembly. In 1974 she went to Congress. At her first Washington Press Club dinner, the event where freshman congressmen deliver stand-up routines, she made the now-famous remark about cuddly men and became an overnight hit.
In the House, she is not unlike an indignant mother hen, deeply disturbed over the moral failings of her colleagues. Once she challenged Wayne Hays, then the feared Democratic chairman of the Administration Committee, by calling for debate when he tried to increase congressional expense funds. "If the Republicans think their expense allowance is too large," Hays reportedly thundered at the upstart, "I can reduce it for them. I can strip them of their staffs."
"Mr. Chairman," Fenwick replied, calmly, "I think we have heard something today for which we are all going to be sorry and ashamed." Hays' provision passed, but he removed his remarks from the record.
She was an important force on the ethics committee that investigated Tongsun Park, and once, when former Hill aide Stephen Elko casually told another investigating panel that political payoffs aren't "anything unusual," Fenwick exclaimed: "Oh, Mr. Elko!"
She arrives at her Washington office at 6:30 or 7, walking from a rented house that she calls "just a dump." The Capitol is still lit in the dark. "I think, 'My God, do I work there?' " she says. She often doesn't leave until 9 at night. "She's not the easiest person in the world to work for," says her administrative assistant, Larry Rosenshein. "If I get in there at 7 in the morning, she reels off eight things she wants done. At 9 at night, she'll reel off the exact same things -- in order -- boom, boom, boom and ask, 'Did you get these done?' "
Once at home, she has an unerring routine of spaghetti and wine: "I put the key in the door, I shed my coat on a chair in the living room, put my purse on the stairs and head for the kitchen. I turn on the stove; first, though, I turn on the light; then I turn on the hot water, then put the water in the pot, then I hang around until the water boils. Then I put in the requisite spaghetti. Then I go upstairs and put on my dressing gown and come back down and hang around until the spaghetti cooks. Then I get out the white wine, then the margarine -- I don't use butter -- then grated Parmesan cheese, Kraft. Then I go upstairs and have my lovely dinner in bed, listening to the radio. I like these talk shows, where people call in. It's mind rot, of course.
"What I've found is: Something that you do routinely doesn't require psychic energy at all. So I get undressed right in the place where I'm going to hang up my clothes, because otherwise, you have to throw them down and pick them right back up. It's too much damn energy. I want to save my energy for my job, my letters."
Her children say they don't worry that she's isolated. "There are times when you feel that she could be lonely, in theory," says Hugh, her son. "You know, she might be lonely on her birthday, and you call her up, and you find she's just had 12 hours of meetings with some power group, and she's so involved, she's forgotten that it's her birthday . . . she probably doesn't feel she needs someone else to round out the picture. I think she's felt she's had a complete-enough life that she didn't need a husband."
But a relative, asked why Millicent Fenwick has never remarried, replies simply: "I think she's still in love with her ex-husband."
House and Home
The big Bernardsville house is chilly, but is warming a little from the fire. Fenwick tore more than two-thirds of it down when she moved back in 1952. Too big, too wasteful, too much money for the heat. Now a small statue marks where the old front of the house was. Looking out from a window you can imagine where it stood, the huge old house, shingled back then, with its two wings and 38 rooms. There was a boot room, a sewing room, a pressing room, even a schoolroom. Fenwick remembers that they used to have movies. Once it was "The Perils of Pauline" in a darkened attic hall.
Now she lives in what was the old library, which is plenty for her. She had walls put up to make it three rooms. There is an airy one of wandering plants, old chintz couches and oils. The kitchen, domain for the help, has an old-fashioned black-and-white linoleum floor. The room she uses on this night has the dinner table, neatly set with a single plate and heavy silver.
She stares at the fire, blowing her nose. "Don't tell me I'm catching a cold," she says. "That would be so boring." Equally annoying are thoughts of what she'll spend for a modern election, talk that doesn't go with this cozy room. "I don't like spending money on campaigns," she says. Deardourff figures the primary and general election will cost $3 million in a state where campaign advertising has become highly expensive; a New Jersey Senate candidate must buy both New York and Philadelphia television time.
In the primary, Fenwick is expecting to face, among others, Rep. James Courter (R-N.J.) and Jeffrey Bell, who ran against Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) in 1978.
Her campaign is complicated by Williams, who was convicted on federal bribery charges in the Abscam investigation and may be expelled this year by the Senate. New Jersey's new governor, Thomas Kean, could then appoint someone to the seat, but even that senator must run for election in the fall.
"I think Bell's intention will be to try to portray her as an ultra-liberal and feminist, hoping he can galvanize the far right," says Deardourff, who admits that for this campaign, Fenwick will "have to become more involved with specifics -- she'll have to deal with a wider range of issues." But, says Deardourff, "I don't see her as a craftsman of legislation. A senator from New Jersey is going to have a staff of 35, 40 people who are going to be experts in legislation. The role I see for her in the Senate is as a very articulate spokesperson for a point of view."
"I wish sometimes I'd been trained as a lawyer," says Fenwick. "Maybe my mind would be sharper, more able to force questions down to the root of the problem . . . I think I talk too quickly, with too much emphasis. I would be far more persuasive if I talked less vehemently, and in less colorful language, and with less intensity. I think the intensity puts people off."
By the time the fire is in embers, Millicent Fenwick offers to share her "horrid" dinner with the last in a week of reporters. The meal is a slice of toasted homemade bread with no butter, two slices of salami, two of liverwurst, one of ham and half a grapefruit. She apologizes for the paper napkins, then apologizes again when she serves the prepackaged salami by pulling it delicately from its plastic bag with her fingers. She allows her dinner guest to do the same.
The talk ranges from AT&T to gardening to Richard Allen to her pacemaker. She pulls her silk scarf tight against her chest to show its rectangular outline. "It's nothing, really," she says. She once told a reporter: "I wrote about my pacemaker the operation was performed in 1975 and it was the most popular newsletter I'd written. I suppose I should talk more about such things -- I've had almost everything -- but I have a sense of privacy. When I was young you didn't even say someone was having a baby. Sex was a word that I had to train myself to say."
She drinks white wine and smokes her pipe. Over in a corner are boxes containing her first 2,000 campaign letters. "Please sign 'Millicent' and personalize where necessary," say the accompanying instructions from her staff.
By 9:30 p.m., the dinner guest is gone. Fenwick begins to sign the letters. She finishes at 3 a.m.
"Of course, there's some ego in it," she's said earlier. "It would false to say otherwise. It would be terrifically grand to be a senator. It's been terrifically grand to be a representative. And if that's the end of the story, it won't kill me."