Due to an editing error, the location of Fairfield University was incorrect in an article about John Heckler in yesterday's Style section. It is in Fairfield, Conn.
John Heckler is riled.
His cheeks redden, his voice rises to a full-fledged whine.
"I dedicated my life to her."
In many ways, it's an old Washington story: A young couple comes to the nation's capital after one of them is elected to Congress. They see each other on weekends, and as the children grow and career demands increase they see each other less often. The joint appearances become less frequent and are often strained by the knowledge that as a spouse, one is competing with the public.
The story is typical in all but one respect. In previous years, it was the wife who was relegated to the edge of the spotlight, smiling dutifully on the dais.
Today it's the husband.
"People who were very close to either one of us or both of us realized that her marriage was to the public," says Heckler, a 57-year-old Boston-based attorney and financial consultant who is suing his wife of 30 years, former congresswoman and currently Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler, for divorce. "The longer we were married, the more obvious that became. That her career came first.
"I gave her everything I had," he says. "For 30 years, all I ever did was promote her and help her and push her. Then, there comes a time when you just can't handle it anymore. You cannot go on with the fraud any longer. It's gone on too long. Her lawyer said to me, 'You mean she's been using you, she's taken advantage of you? How could that be?'
"I'll tell you the same thing I told him: 'I loved her.' But this is not the person I married. This is a totally different person. Now she's in the Cabinet. She has the highest position of any woman in the land. These people change. It's amazing. They get into a high position, they begin to think they're different from everyone else.
"I wanted Margaret to realize whatever she could realize. I did this up to March of '83. It's a given: There's no married woman who could ever become a member of the Cabinet of the president of the United States unless she had the full and total support of her husband."
Former aides -- who confirm that Margaret Heckler is a workaholic -- say John Heckler promoted his wife to the benefit of his business. They note his interest in socializing with Washington banking and financial officials, and say he listed his wife's political position on his own business brochures. "He got what he wanted out of the marriage," says one former campaign aide.
In an interview yesterday, Margaret Heckler, 53, said the divorce proceedings are "intensely personal and very painful for everyone. The divorce action should be heard and decided in a Massachusetts court of law. We have three wonderful children and I'm not going to add to their suffering."
She said she "has no idea" why her husband is speaking out. "It's really sad. I'm not going to say anything about my husband that is inappropriate. I am very anxious to have this issue settled. Divorce is painful for everyone.
"I'm very sorry," she said quietly, "that he's so bitter."
What began as a private matter has become a very public one, and the Heckler divorce -- now in its 10th month -- is a long-running soap opera with potentially embarrassing ramifications for the Reagan administration.
"I think it could hurt her seriously," says one former staff assistant.
"There might be" some political fallout, says one former congressional aide. "She would be hurt more in the conservative area. But the moderates -- which is mainly her constituency -- realize this happens. It depends on whether they want to make it messy."
Which is a possibility. Says John Heckler: "I'm no nice guy."
He says he presented his estranged wife with his request for a divorce in June 1983. He says he agreed to keep the news from the press until after the 1984 presidential election. However, he says, it became more and more difficult to contact his wife. She would not, he says, answer any of his calls.
"Ignoring me was the worst thing she could do. Ignore. Ignore. Ignore. That's when I sued."
John Heckler filed for divorce in Arlington last December, claiming that his wife "deserted and abandoned" him 20 years ago and was "guilty of cruelty, has caused reasonable apprehension of bodily hurt and is guilty of willful desertion and abandonment."
Heckler, in the court papers, claimed his wife "physically abandoned the marital relationship . . . on or about Oct. 30, 1963" and accused her of putting him "in fear of his life and limb and mental welfare." (He now says that charge refers to the time he was hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer, which he blames on campaign stress.)
Margaret Heckler's lawyer, Jeffrey Rosenfeld of Fairfax, labeled the charges "outrageous" and moved to have the divorce proceedings closed to the public. He later withdrew the motion. Rosenfeld then successfully convinced the court that Arlington had no jurisdiction in the case. Margaret Heckler subsequently filed for divorce in Massachusetts, and John Heckler withdrew his action in Virginia.
He also withdrew his suit asking for a $50,889.50 judgment against his estranged wife, alleging she breached a 1981 agreement concerning the expenses and mortgage of their Northern Virginia condominium.
Last month John Heckler refiled for divorce in Arlington, saying both he and his wife are bona fide residents of Northern Virginia (he keeps an apartment at the River House in Rosslyn and stays there three days a week). Margaret Heckler was ambushed by the process server in the garage of her Arlington condominium.
According to John Heckler's attorney, Mark Sandground of Washington, his client wants the divorce handled in Virginia because the state's one-year no-fault law would ensure a speedier resolution.
While Sandground is not shy about speaking to the press, Margaret Heckler's lawyer is. "I'm not going to litigate my client's case through the press," says Rosenfeld. He says the divorce is a private matter, and that his client is interested in "preserving the integrity of her family."
But as the battle heats up, friends and confidants expect more bitterness from both parties. "I wouldn't say they're warm people," commented one mutual friend.
John Heckler is sitting in a Washington hotel bar, flanked by Sandground, a flamboyant divorce lawyer known for his willingness to go for the marital jugular.
Heckler is an attractive man in a craggy sort of way, with a crown of curly gray hair, a sharp nose, a wiry body and a voice reminiscent of Jason Robards. He is intense, leaning forward to pour an Amstel light and plead his case.
Heckler says he met his estranged wife, the former Margaret Mary O'Shaughnessy, in 1950. He was a student at Fairfield University in New Jersey, and she was a sophomore at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Conn.
He says his wife was always interested in politics and that he helped to run her campaign to become the first woman speaker of the Connecticut student legislature.
"I helped talk the nuns into letting her go out nights with some of the guys from Yale," Heckler recalls. "I ran the campaign. It got really rough toward the end. I cut some pretty rough deals the night before the election."
Was she ambitious?
"Obviously," he says.
A former aide to Margaret Heckler says both of them were "driven and ambitious" and that they decided early on that John Heckler was not suited to a political life. "A, he was too short, and B, he didn't have the personality," says the aide.
They were married in 1953, and Heckler enrolled in Harvard Law School. His wife had won a scholarship to Harvard Law School but enrolled in Boston College Law School instead.
"A professor at Harvard told her that he'd seen a lot of people come into law school together, but he'd never seen a couple leave law school still married to each other. We decided, 'Better not do that.' I went to Harvard because it appeared at the time that I would be the practicing lawyer."
In 1956, Margaret Heckler graduated from Boston College Law School, the only woman in her class and the first woman on the Law Review. She was elected to the Governor's Council in 1962, and in 1966 she was elected to Congress after defeating former speaker and longtime Republican incumbent Rep. Joseph Martin in the primary. It was a stunning upset, and she was subsequently reelected to eight terms.
John Heckler says he is responsible for her political success.
"I ran all the early campaigns up to 1974," he says. "That year I said I couldn't run her campaign. She said, 'What do you mean? This is an outrage.' I said to her, 'But you don't have an opponent!' " He says that, over the years, "I constantly had to keep reassuring her that what she was doing was right."
Joshua Resnick, who worked for Margaret Heckler from 1969 to 1971 and later became her press secretary, says John Heckler "was the man behind the woman. There's no question about that. He was a little Napoleon, always boasting, 'I'm the man.' He was the prime motivator. She needed that support system."
But John Heckler says he gradually tired of the role. "She became more and more engrossed in what she was doing. And as she became more senior, from Governor's Council to new congressman to a more senior congressman, to a very senior member, there were more and more friends, more and more commitments and more and more position and prestige.
"When we came to Virginia, we bought a big house. She had to have it. It was very important to have the right image." Heckler says he took a second mortgage on their home in Wellesley, Mass., to finance the McLean house. "I was a little overextended."
He stayed in Boston during the week while his wife worked in Washington. Their three children lived in Virginia and attended private schools.
"I would call every night. I would be here every weekend," Heckler says. "And every two years there was all this trauma. Another election."
In 1982 her district was redrawn, now stretching from the Rhode Island border to the suburbs west of Boston. After running up a campaign debt of nearly $1 million, she lost her bid for a ninth term to another incumbent, Democrat Barney Frank. John Heckler says he got involved in the campaign too late to be effective, and says his wife blames the loss on him.
"He was the strategist. He was the money-raiser. He was the architect of that campaign," says Resnick, who was Margaret Heckler's press secretary at the time. "If any one person is responsible for the loss, it's John Heckler."
But others say Margaret Heckler -- favored to win -- underestimated the strength of her opponent.
John Heckler says now he isn't sorry his wife lost. He never liked the Washington social scene, saying he preferred horseback riding to cocktail parties. "She did that during the week. I was never really one to be concerned about society. I've always done my own thing. She is such a part of it."
One of Margaret Heckler's closest aides disputes this, saying "she'd rather be in her office than go to a party" and that it was her husband who aspired to the tony set, especially the Rappahannock Hunt crowd.
The Hecklers' home in McLean was not "glamorous," says the aide, and the living arrangement "was one that seemed to work for them. It was a mutually beneficial relationship."
John Heckler says that over the past 20 years he has seen other women, a practice one former campaign official said was "embarrassing, but common knowledge."
"He was very well known as a 'stick man' -- someone who likes to hang around a lot of women in Washington," says Resnick. "Their marriage was, without question, the best known secret in Washington."
"I knew the marriage was over," John Heckler says. "There was nobody special. Believe me, there wasn't a single lady that I'd met in 20 years that I would have married." He pauses. "There was someone many years ago that I got fairly close to, but that ended."
In marriage, he says, "there are two partners. When one person starts contributing far less than the other person to the marriage, that's the original infidelity. You don't need any third party."
In 1977, he says, "I ended up with a bleeding ulcer that almost killed me. I went into the hospital. They had a team of seven doctors. They couldn't believe it. They said most men half my age should die. I sat in that hospital room and thought it was from the tremendous amount of stress. I started to add it all up. I personally spent something in excess of 11,000 hours working on her campaigns unpaid.
"I began to look at it coldly: What has she contributed and what have I contributed? I gave everything. I really did. I raised all this money. I'd done all these things for the family. I never complained. I never said 'boo.' "
Says Margaret Heckler, "He's a very successful man. We have each helped each other."
Despite the current emotional climate, it is clear that John Heckler is extremely proud of his wife. He claims that it was Margaret Heckler who persuaded Ronald Reagan to name a woman to the Supreme Court.
During the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit, he says, Margaret Heckler was one of the proponents of the Equal Rights Amendment and worked to include it on the platform. "She and the president got into this battle over the ERA . I think Ronald Reagan's probably the nicest guy I ever met in my life. I got to know him a bit. He's a big horseman, you see."
After the ERA proposal died, he says, Reagan approached Margaret Heckler and said, " 'What would you suggest I do?' Margaret said to him, 'Now you appoint a woman to the Supreme Court.' That's where it came from."
He also recalls the happier times as a political spouse.
"In 1966, there were 48 new Republicans elected. Forty-seven men and Margaret. Here were the spouses, all female, and yours truly. Poor Betty Ford was stuck with the spouses out at this Airlie House in Virginia. Some of these women I liked because we all belonged to the Congressional Wives Club, but some of them were really a pain in the neck. They were really bothering her. I finally told them, 'Why don't you straighten out! We'll do what Betty tells us. That's it.' Betty and I were really great friends from that day forward."
But the happy times are gone. He says he's been financially strapped. "For her second campaign, I borrowed $92,000. I didn't pay that damn thing off until last year."
"The business has taken a terrible shellacking over the years, thanks to all this involvement in politics. You go for 18 months working, then it's six months of politics."
He says he was forced into going public with their divorce.
"I didn't want to hurt her," he says quietly. "I had a big investment in her. I agreed to make no announcement until after the presidential election, because she was now in the Cabinet. I also agreed to take all our joint assets and split them down the middle.
"She in the meantime has inherited a lot of money, a substantial amount in the six figures, from first her father and then her mother. She's got a pension from the government. Plus she has half of our assets. So the woman's a millionairess. Plus she makes over $100,000 a year with the money from the estate and her salary from the Cabinet."
He orders another Amstel light.
"This whole thing could have been cleared up in two weeks if she had talked to Heckler and his lawyers. The people who really care about her and who really care about me are really torn up about this whole thing because it's so stupid."
He says he knew his marriage was not a conventional one.
"I knew it wasn't. What are you going to do? Ask Margaret to get out of the Congress? Forget it."