SCENE in "The Right Stuff": John Glenn sits for five hours in the Friendship 7 capsule, then the mission is scrubbed because of heavy cloud cover. In the NASA hangar, encased in a silver spacesuit, he listens on the phone as his wife, Annie, a severe stutterer, haltingly delivers her message--Vice President Lyndon Johnson is outside asking to be let in and she can't deal with it.
As Tom Wolfe told it in his book, Johnson was panting to "pour ten minutes of hideous Texas soul all over her on nationwide TV." The astronaut's reply to his wife: "Look, if you don't want the vice president or the TV networks or anybody else to come into the house, than that's it as far as I'm concerned. They are not coming in and I will back you up all the way and you tell them that! I don't want Johnson or any of the rest of them to put so much as one toe inside our house!"
In theaters around the country last fall, spontaneous applause erupted, sending tremors through other Democratic presidential candidates as many speculated--before Glenn's stunning fade--that this scene alone could garner thousands of votes. It is pure Americana: astronaut ace standing up to the vice president for his little wife, sappily--and incorrectly--caricatured by Hollywood as an insignificant shadow.
Those who do not know the Glenns sometimes remark that Glenn must truly be admirable to have married a woman so handicapped. There is one thing wrong with that view. Anyone who meets Annie Glenn agrees that, yes, there must be something special about her husband.
If Annie Glenn picked him, he can't be all bad.
It is 22 years later. Twenty-two years after America's first orbital flight, after the confetti-strewn Manhattan ticker-tape parade, the adulation of presidents and royalty. People around the world wept when Glenn landed safely in the sea. They named streets, bridges, libraries after John Glenn.
Anna Castor Glenn is 64 now. Her salt and pepper gray hair flows from an arresting face; large brown eyes, high cheekbones, warm smile. She stands at a microphone and the audience strains to hear her soft voice. Soon, the coughs and rattling of luncheon silver stop. Few speakers are greeted with such stillness. At the end, there are tears.
"As the wife of a famous astronaut, I had to deal with being constantly in the public eye. I had to deal with the press. And if this wasn't hard enough, I had to do it all with a severe handicap. A stuttering problem I have had since childhood." Annie Glenn speaks slowly but hesitates only on a few words and people in the room raise eyebrows in surprise at her confession.
They cannot begin to know what those years of silence were like, when she had an 85 percent speech disability. A simple phone call filled her with terror. When her daughter stepped on a nail and blood gushed from the deep wound, Annie was unable to speak a coherent word into the phone and frantically had to search out a neighbor to call the hospital. It was a time when "a trip to the store or a casual gathering of friends would present a terrifying threat." For years, her husband would take grocery and repair lists to the office and phone in orders. If they went out for dinner, she would either have to point at the menu, or Glenn would have to order for her. She knew the snubs--from sales clerks to senators, who would turn their backs on her, assuming she was deaf or retarded.
"When John went into politics, the pressure got even greater," recalls Annie. "There were always public events, always crowds and always well-meaning people who went out of the way just for the chance to talk with us. Out of sheer frustration I vowed that someday, somehow I would be able to give a speech for John.
"Those were difficult times for me," she adds, softly. "In times of difficulty or defeat, it's easy to think that we really have no choices. That we are trapped. I know I felt that way. Having tried, having failed so many times." Ten years ago she heard of a revolutionary treatment for stutterers. This one worked; by 1978 she was speaking slowly, purposefully, but speaking. "As I learned in my own victory . . ." Her voice cracks with emotion. Many in the audience blink back tears as she ends with, "My own victory over those years of silence--that is the essence of truly living."
Today, Annie Glenn is an active participant in her husband's campaign--visiting the elderly, giving speeches about his qualities and stands on issues, what he would do for women if elected. After Iowa's bloodying, with Glenn finishing a poor fifth, the couple tried to put the best face on it. They were off to New Hampshire--the primary that "really" counts.
After her speeches, Annie Glenn reaches out with both arms to shake hands with those who line up to meet her. Aides have given up trying to hurry her out of a room. "We've left more events after the waiters," cracks Ted Rogers, the Glenn aide who watches over Annie Glenn with fierce affection. People wait in line to talk--no, not talk, to confide in her, as they do no other candidate's wife.
Finally, driving off in a car, Annie Glenn still seems awed by the reaction she always induces. Her husband's campaign, which once seemed the major challenge to Walter Mondale, has become a matter of survival; but Annie Glenn is sought out time and again. A woman tells her that she has lost confidence, that people keep tearing her down. "She told me that after listening to me she has a new lease on life."
Another stutterer showed up to tell Annie Glenn she was starting therapy. "I didn't expect this. It really is sort of scary. Some conversations can be very emotional. One mother had brought her daughter, a stutterer, to an event last spring. She came back to tell me that her daughter can now say her 'S's.' " Annie Glenn stumbles slightly on the sound. "The girl is 12. It really is worth everything to be able to help people."
She suddenly looks out the window and tears form. "There are other types of lives I didn't realize I was going to affect. A lady in Alabama had horrible scars all over her face. She had been accidentally scalded when she was 2, and had been so ashamed all her life. She came up to me and told me how she had changed her whole attitude."
After years of cruel slurs, of being overlooked by strangers, Annie Glenn seeks out the handicapped. In a crowd, she heads straight for those in wheelchairs. She has a sort of radar; finds the shyest person in the room and takes the time to draw him out. A group of deaf people were in the audience at one of her husband's speeches. Afterwards, Annie Glenn went over to them and soon was learning sign language. As the press crowded around Glenn, he looked over at his wife, who was signing "I Love You" to the deaf. "That's what you should be covering," he told the reporters.
In politics, where insincerity is often masked by surface warmth, Annie Glenn is genuine; it is not hyberbole to say "everyone loves Annie." Her longtime friend, Rene Carpenter, former wife of astronaut Scott Carpenter, says, "She goes right to the heart of things. She's not only listened for 60 years, she's watched. She'd see people saying, 'Oh, don't you just love her?' and all the while they were looking around with a 'how-can-I-get-out-of-this' look, searching for the next person." Instead of becoming bitter, Annie Glenn today stops others from speaking ill. "For example," says Carpenter, "one day everyone was talking about the new Mrs. George Wallace, rolling their eyes, making catty remarks and Annie said quietly, 'Do you know that woman is working on her masters in child psychology, she manages the children, etc.' Always positive, that's Annie."
The mousy portrayal in "The Right Stuff" did not in any way capture Annie Glenn. Despite the handicap that brought terror and disability, she was an extrovert, with a zest for life. She could joke with friends and family, who learned to listen patiently while she got out what she wanted to say. "Most people just wouldn't let her get into that second gear," says Carpenter. "She never was shy. She may have been terrified inside about how she would communicate, but she always worked a room." She was a loving disciplinarian with her children, worked as an organist during the anonymous years as the wife of a Marine fighter pilot, and was an active partner during those incredible astronaut years when fame came so fast.
And all the while, Annie was struggling with her stuttering. Bob Hope wanted her on his show with the other astronauts' wives. They wrote out a script, but she couldn't do it. "So Bob Hope asked me a question that I could either answer yes or no. When we had gone on the air, I wanted to speak--even if it was just going to be a try. And there was no way to tell anybody. I was really disappointed with myself for not trying," she recalls today. "That, I will never, ever forget."
"I'm continually amazed at my mother," says Lyn, the Glenns' married daughter, who campaigns for her father. "To use the word pride would not even be appropriate. She is really one of a kind. I can remember being 15 and watching three people I recognized as leaders on Capitol Hill standing next to my mother at a reception. One of them asked her a question and when she tried to respond all three turned and walked away. That was the beginning of my realizing that just because you're famous or have some status doesn't mean you're a nice person."
There is pain in Annie Glenn's eyes as she recalls those days, but she refuses to denigrate anyone. "That's her weakness," says Lyn, "but also her strength." Annie recalls one of the few times she became angered in those days. "This one man was tearing down another with just ugly, ugly untruths. Well, I tore into him and told him off. My speech just got so smooth." She laughs. "I guess I should have gotten angry more often."
Glenn is watching as his wife is interviewed on Boston television. The familiar squint-eyed Huck Finn face crinkles into a smile. "It is like a rebirth for her," he says. "When she gave her first speech I wanted to hear her so bad it hurt. But I didn't go. I didn't want her leaning on a crutch. All her life she's had intensive therapy and nothing worked." Then one day Glenn heard on a news program of Dr. Ronald Webster of the Communications Research Institute at Hollins College in Roanoke, Va.
"It changed her life. This is a whole new thing that works with 80-percent stutterers. His theory is that speech patterns are set to a large degree by what we hear in audio feedback through our ears. If there is something weak in that hook-up, you go back and retrain it. The first week they speak in two-second syllables." Glenn flicks a stop watch on his wristwatch and draws out the words. 'Youuuuu tryyyy tooo talllkkk' . . . That's the speed," he says, flicking off the stop watch. "The next week, they speak in one second syllables and the third week, they speak the way Annie talks, which is called 'slow normal.' For certain explosive sounds, like the hard 'k', they learn what is called 'soft onset.' " Glenn glides into the word "king" as would a singer, with a soft approach. "Annie will have to practice all her life."
She has learned to relax her throat; to halt the involuntary tightening of muscles, she sips water often. She practices the tough sounds, F's and V's and S's, and a machine monitors her mistakes. The phone is still something of a menace; she refuses to do phone interviews. At the end of a tiring day, she tried to say the word "flaunt" and stumbled over it, "fffflll" She laughs, ruefully, "See, there are the 'f' 'l's together.
John and Annie Glenn have known each other for 60 years. A friendship that began in playpens in New Concord, Ohio, turned into puppy love in grade school. Glenn likes to joke that he fell in love with an older woman (she is one year older) who was taller than he. By high school, he had shot up past Annie but the romance continued. It sounds like the stuff of Andy Hardy but he never dated anyone else, and Annie only had one other date. Recalled Lloyd White, who became a minister and later married the couple, "John got in such a huff he wouldn't speak to me for a week."
Mocked in the "Right Stuff" for his straight-arrow morality, for chastizing other astronauts for flings with space groupies, Glenn is considered a bit of a square even by his best friends. A religious man who can't always avoid the pitfalls of preachiness. A man who weeps over sentimental songs, who says "by golly" and "you betcha" and grace before dinner. A man who unabashedly proclaims the old-fashioned virtues.
But there is a fun-loving side to Glenn that has not emerged in his stiff debate performances or in his attacks against Mondale. If there is a tendency to stuffiness, Annie Glenn curbs it. Glenn tells the story about a banquet when he was introduced as "one of the few truly great men in the world who are still living." On the way home he was musing to his wife in a self-satisfied way how there really were few great men in the world still living. Annie shot back, "That's right--and I'll tell you one thing--there's sure as heck one less than you think."
Glenn is a keen mimic. Heading home from New Hampshire, he screws up his face and says "E.T. Go Home," taking on an amazing resemblance to the extra-terrestrial creature. "He's a nut," Annie says with a giggle, as Glenn taunts a photographer who has been trying for weeks to get him in a crazy pose with a silly hat. This night, he steps out of a kitchen in a New Hampshire restaurant wearing a chef's hat--flipping it off just when the photographer tries to take the picture.
On the plane, Glenn settles into a Jack Daniel's. Aides try to keep the conversation to 10 minutes, to get on with political interviews, but he very much wants to talk about his wife, and time stretches on. He has heard those who wonder how he could have married a woman so handicapped. "I never knew Annie when she didn't stutter. I knew her to be the kind and compassionate soul that she is. Sure she had a handicap, but there's so much more to her than just that. I figured we're all handicapped one way or another.
"She felt the snubs, she was very self-conscious at times. But we decided it's our lives and that's how we're going to live it. If it involved kings and queens and presidents, that's the way it is. She didn't let it hold her back. Everywhere she went she was the organist in chapel and church. She was honorary chairman of an Ohio nursing home and got all fired up about the old folks and spent one week living with them--and then she stayed for a second week. She has great empathy."
Glenn recalls how he was halfway around the world in China when he got the news that his wife was seriously ill after giving birth to their daughter. He remembers having doubts about the kind of life they were living but, he adds, a bit stiff-upper-lip, "Annie was part of that sacrifice and she knew it when I signed up. She had her eyes wide open."
As for that scene, where Glenn stands up to NASA to keep Vice President Johnson at bay, there are conflicting versions. "Glenn's chivalrous support of Annie had little to do with her stuttering and nothing to do with Johnson's 'hideous Texas soul,' " wrote Frank Van Riper in "Glenn: The Astronaut Who Would Be President." " Van Riper contends that Glenn, mindful of the exclusive Life contract with the astronauts, was aware that reporters camped outside finally would be able to come in along with the vice president. Life reporter Loudon Wainwright was already in the home. Glenn told Van Riper that the Life contract had something to do with it.
"For reasons I never quite understood," said Glenn, the vice president would not come in the house unless Wainwright was out. "That was the big question: was Loudon going to be kicked out of the house? . . . I just told them to do whatever Annie wanted, and that whatever agreement we had made before still stood." Annie says emphatically today, "It was nothing against Vice President Johnson. And he was not parked outside of our house. I was getting a severe migraine and just didn't want to talk to anyone."
In speeches, Annie tells women it would be a better world for them if her husband were in the White House--he is for the ERA, has not backed down on pro-choice despite antiabortion activists, is attuned to the "ever-present problem of child care." Says his wife, "flex-time and part-time career schedules will finally get full endorsement from the top." He champions expanded home health care for the elderly, many of whom are women, says Annie. She speaks to the gender gap and women's concerns about war. "I promise you no one will work harder to keep world peace."
After one speech, Annie settles into a hotel room, tossing her fur-lined coat on a chair. After those struggling military days, her husband's stint with Royal Crown and Questor corporations made him a millionaire. She dresses tastefully, lives in comfort in Potomac, has a condominium in Vail, Colo. But New Concord never seems far away.
Her self-esteem and security comes from her childhood. "Everyone just accepted me. I had a severe speech handicap, but that was just a part of me. I had complete love from my parents. Her father, a dentist, also stuttered. And then John's support. Muskegum College which both she and Glenn attended was right in our hometown. I didn't get out into the really cruel world until I graduated and went to look for a job, clear across the state in Dayton.
"I majored in music and had a minor in secretary skills and was very good at shorthand and typing and had three years of accounting. I made up my mind I was going to get a job. One college professor knew I couldn't have an interview but that I could do a good job. I was scared to death but I went and showed them the letter and I was hired." When she went to get the bus ticket to Dayton, Annie asked, in writing, how much it cost. The ticket clerk, thinking she was deaf, wrote back the answer.
There is an ambitious, tough side to Glenn and he appears strident and counterproductivethese days when he attacks Mondale. Only once does Annie Glenn look angry and it is when political namecalling is discussed. She is annoyed at Mondale for saying her husband is similar to Reagan. "John led the fight, as you've heard him say, against the MX and other things. He is not like Reagan, all over the place. Mondale is just completely wrong there--but he'll keep plugging away at it. They have to say something."
Much has been written about the bitterness betweeen Glenn and President Carter. Glenn felt he was being left on the hook as a vice presidential choice well after Carter had picked Mondale, according to some accounts. Moreover, Richard Reeves reported in "Convention" that Rosalynn Carter considered Annie a negative because she stuttered and would not be an effective campaigner. Carter aides to this day strongly deny the allegation.
But Annie Glenn's eyes lose their sparkle when she recalls the 1976 race. "To tell you the truth, I didn't want John to have that job anyway," she says, dismissing the subject. If Mondale became the nominee and offered the vice presidential spot to Glenn would she want that? "Not as far as I'm concerned," she says tersely. Not even if he could strengthen the ticket? "I think John is the only one who can beat Reagan. Politics is always changing; unexpected things happen, but I would not want John in that spot. He can do more as a United States senator."
On the campaign, Glenn is still a hero, is still asked for his autograph. The astronaut image, however, is proving detrimental--in fact, overwhelms other achievements; people feel he has done nothing much since then. As the campaign slips, Annie Glenn, at least, has gained much from the contest. In each speech, she gets stronger, more sure of herself. She will continue to work for the elderly, to speak out for the handicapped, to find a following she never knew in her days of silence.
And no matter the political blows, John and Annie Glenn have a marriage that has survived defeat as well as heady victories. In 1964, Glenn, the space hero, suffered the ultimate incongruity, slipping on a bath mat and injuring his inner ear. The illness wrecked his political bid for the U.S. Senate and put the Glenns in debt. Before he withdrew, Annie tried to keep the campaign afloat, meeting in painful sessions with aides and supporters. The Glenns suffered months of uncertainty; doctors could not predict if he would fully recover. In 1970 he tried again, lost, but won in 1974. He was overwhelmingly reelected in 1980.
Annie Glenn speaks of her husband, after all these years, with a special warmth, remembering long years of togetherness. "He is so kind, so special . . . So patient. He always took the time to listen."