It is Sunday morning at 11:45 and the star of "Zombie Island Massacre" is seated in the Marble Collegiate Church, head bowed in prayer.
Her platinum hair is wound into a prim bun, and the sunlight streams through the stained glass window to cast a soft glow on her apricot mousse complexion.
Other aspiring actresses might be stretched out in California king waterbeds at this hour, waiting for the Call from The Coast before heading out to brunch, but not Rita Jenrette.
You remember Rita Jenrette. Former wife of Abscam-nabbed Democratic congressman John Jenrette, former Playboy pictorial subject, the blond bombshell who found $25,000 in small bills (some of which were later identified as FBI bribe money) in her husband's brown suede shoe, inspiring the eminently forgettable country-western classic "It Gives Me the Low Down Blues Ever Since You Found Money Stashed in My Shoe."
As if that wasn't enough, she told her husband's South Carolina constituents they were cornballs and then further titillated the folks back home by confessing that she and Jenrette once made love on the steps of the Capitol.
Five years later John Jenrette, who lost his congressional seat, is waiting to go to prison (he appeared in Washington's Federal Court last Friday), and his wife, who parlayed her husband's misfortunes into the quickie paperback "My Capitol Secrets" and several stabs at a Hollywood career, has found a new calling: Norman Vincent Peale's power of positive thinking.
She attends services at Peale's Madison Avenue church every Sunday, is a member of the Action Committee and Steering Committee, and spends one night a month at a nearby Baptist church that serves as a shelter for the homeless.
But this, she insists, is no sudden Chuck Colson-style conversion.
To those who question Jenrette's sincerity, she replies in a breathless plea, "What could I get out of doing this? If anything, people are going to be so skeptical it's going to hurt me in my career and everything else.
"I don't care if they snicker," she says. "It's no ball of fun to spend the night in a homeless shelter with these men. You're actually spending a night there, locked in a church, and you get up the next morning to counsel them. If they think that's like going to the White House or going on Air Force One, they're sadly mistaken."
She is glad, she says, to be away from "the fac,ade and the BS which I used to think was important. The 'A' parties in Washington, whether former Iranian ambassador Ardeshir Zahedi had me there when Liz was there. All those things used to be so important. Being invited to the White House. It's so irrelevant in the scheme of things.
"I know I'm a lot more together today than I was as a congressional wife."
Perhaps as a warning to Marty Davis, wife of Rep. Robert W. Davis (R-Mich.) and the latest political spouse to scoff the floppy bow tie image by posing in an exercise leotard and jetting to the Coast to juggle several television offers, Jenrette says, "Splash is not substance. You can't take that home with you."
And she doesn't care if people think her Christianity is just one more gimmick to launch her acting career, which ran aground shortly after she burst onto the national scene in 1980. "I'm not giving 192 hours of my time for that. Or the Special Olympics. I was there last night. I'll be going there today."
The photographer asks her to pose by the stained glass window. She gazes off, as if in a trance, looking like Jennifer Jones in "The Song of Bernadette."
"Do you want to take some pictures over at the Special Olympics reception?" she asks. "There'll be kids in wheelchairs and stuff."
Rita Jenrette is holding court in the side chapel used to accommodate the overflow from the main church. It's a small room, with straight-backed cane-bottomed chairs, cinder block walls and columns. Flanking the pulpit are two television sets, on which the service is piped in via closed circuit. Jenrette, who had breezed in late, sat in the front row and chatted with a male friend throughout the sermon, wears a purple wool jacket over a sheer black dress, gray stockings and gray, open-toed suede high heels. She wears little makeup, and hugs her black purse to her ample bosom.
There is something luminous about her, and she laughs easily in her lilting, little girl manner, moving into the room where parishioners have gathered for coffee after the service. She works the crowd like a pro.
"This is Tom Murphy," she says, buttonholing a short, white-haired man. "This guy used to be as bad as John."
Murphy says he was a Washington lobbyist. His life changed, he says, when he walked into the Marble Collegiate Church, listened to a sermon given by Dr. Arthur Caliandro and was hooked.
"He used to come to Washington and he and John used to go carousing, so I didn't like Tom very much at the time," Jenrette says. "Then one day he called me and said, 'Come to church.' I said, 'CHURCH? You're in church?' He's gone through a phenomenal change," Jenrette says. "It's been astounding."
Murphy, who says he used to be a "number one first-class son of a bitch," says Rita Jenrette has also undergone a change.
"I think she got rid of some of the anger," he says. "She's much more calm. I think she's kind of rolling. Before, back in Washington, she was very angry. She was very angry with John."
Jenrette's eyes narrow. "I had become so angry during my time in Washington, and yet I had a lid on it. If you had met me, you would have thought, 'She's so sweet, so nice,' but there was a lid on it. I think a lot of women do that when they're living their life as an appendage to someone else. The self-respect just isn't there."
The breakup was anything but amiable. She threatened John Jenrette with eviction from their Capitol Hill home. He retaliated by stripping bare the home of all the furniture while she was away. He asked for alimony. She refused. She went on "Donahue" and he called in, irate and hostile.
Rita Jenrette says her years in Washington were a "horrible time. Because I did things uncharacteristic to my background."
Most notably, posing nude for Playboy.
"It was like saying, 'Okay, all you people who were always worried about how I was dressed, I'll show you.' In a way, I showed myself. Because when you go out and do something like that, you're the one who suffers."
Oh, how Rita Jenrette has been suffering. "I still am," she says with a small pout.
But making love on the steps of the Capitol was not so uncharacteristic.
"It's funny how that one thing -- I mean, it was in the dark, with my husband! I'm not saying I would do it again, but variety's the spice of life." She lets out a lusty laugh. "I hear the tour guides point out the steps now to tourists!"
She smiles. "I was not a nun. But I was not a promiscuous person."
And her charity work is nothing new.
"I worked with retarded people in high school," she says defensively.
Educating Rita in the ways of the church was not difficult, says David Schall, a silver-haired actor and church member wearing a red carnation in his lapel. "It really doesn't matter what someone else might think of your sincerity. What really matters is your relationship with Christ. You look at Chuck Colson's life and you look at Rita Jenrette's life now -- not what she did six months ago or five years ago -- you look at where she is now and you trace that track record."
"Plus," Jenrette says, "people take one thing that you did and they disavow everything else you did in your life."
But the leap from the fallen to the chosen might be seen as similar to Colson's conversion.
"We're all chosen," she says passionately. "You're chosen. Everybody's chosen. We're made in His image."
She is momentarily interrupted by a faceless voice coming through the television screen, someone in the main chapel the microphone has picked up. "Oh, shut up," the man's voice says.
She is startled."Oh, you shut up," she says nervously.
More churchgoers crowd into the room. They are a group of Christian actors and actresses, of which she is a member. "These are people with mega talent," she says proudly. "Gary was in 'Bubbling Brown Sugar.' "
It's time to go, and Jenrette says goodbye. Walking down the street, she talks about her work at the shelter.
Do they know who she is?
"Some of them do and some of them don't. 'Cause I'm in my jeans. Most of the time, I'm just like their daughter, somebody to talk to. It's really neat."
This work, she says, is not out of character. "It's been my pattern. I'm a soft touch." She laughs. "Or I wouldn't have married John."
She had dinner with her former husband several weeks ago. She says it was strange. She doesn't understand why she was ever in love with him. She has no plans to marry again.
"I've been in love once and it just didn't work out," she says wistfully. "I'm very cautious now because I was so naive then. I still am pretty much now when I'm in love. I'm very open. I'm not a deceptive, manipulative person, so it's difficult for me.
"I tend to be attracted to people like John. Powerful, charismatic and deceptive. The rogues."
She is still upset that the image of a congressional wife is so starchy. "It's such a hypocrisy. You look at Marty Davis, the wife of this congressman who posed in a swimsuit. Okay! Congressional wives wear swimsuits! Congressional wives are actresses!"
But the 35-year-old former model from Texas is no longer an inge'nue. She is, like every other woman her age, cascading into Oil of Olay time. Cream for the tiny lines that are beginning to show around the eyes. Hair color to cover the gray, faintly showing at the roots. Clothes that will flatter the fuller figure.
Still, she is as sweetly sexual as a Playboy bunny, posing on the sidewalk, smiling for the camera. Her only film to be released, "Zombie Island Massacre," a low-budget horror film originally titled "The Picnic," was shot two years ago. In it Jenrette does a nude shower scene. She says she might not do that again, although she would never object to nudity for artistic purposes. "Like in 'Romeo and Juliet,' or 'The Tempest,' " she says.
Her next film, which she hopes will be out this summer, is another low-budget flick, "Aunt Ida's Bikini Shop." She plays Aunt Ida.
"It's kind of like a 'Porky's.' "
She wets her lips for the camera. An elderly man of the street, carrying a shopping bag, stumbles by. "We're in Hollywood today," he says drunkenly. Jenrette shrugs and shakes her head. He glances at her, then at the photographer.
"It's nice to feel like you're in Hollywood, anyway."
Rita Jenrette hails a cab and climbs in, giving the driver an Upper West Side address. She has time for a drink. Then she can drop by her apartment to get her re'sume'.
"I'm doing well," she says. "I didn't ask for alimony in my divorce. I'm making it on my own.
"In a way, Abscam saved my life. If it hadn't happened, I'd still be sitting in Washington worried about how I was dressed, what his staff thinks, if his AA administrative assistant likes me. Whether I'm saying the right thing.
"I'm a very free spirit. It was like a round peg being fit in a square hole. They tried, you know, with a mallet. But I'm not judging them. I'm really over that angry part of my life."
She had no one to blame for her situation. After all, she married John Jenrette knowing he was a congressman. Yes, she says, just as she is attracted to rogues, "there were ingredients in my personality attracted to that kind of heady, flash-in-the-pan romance and experience."
Was it self-destructive?
"I think it was. I don't think it's there anymore."
The church, she says, has made all the difference.
"It makes the quality of my life so much better. Like in the future, if I ever had another decision to make like the Playboy thing, I could go to them. We meet every Tuesday and say, 'What do you think?' And they wouldn't be judgmental. Someone will say in the group, 'What does God think of nudity?' And we answer, 'Maybe He's neutral.' "
When Jenrette left Washington, she moved to Los Angeles, got into therapy ("I did a Reichian therapy. Breathing and all that.") and knocked on more doors than a Girl Scout flogging Thin Mints.
Plans for an ABC made-for-television movie, "The Rita Jenrette Story," were announced, then quietly dropped.
"I didn't like the script," she says, climbing out of the cab and walking into the restaurant. She greets the manager, takes a seat at the bar and orders a diet soda. "I didn't like the way anything was going with it. It was all about Abscam. I said, 'This isn't my whole life!' It really never got off the ground." She shrugs.
"I received a little money for it, and then I decided, through talking to my therapist at the time, that it was not something I wanted to focus on as being my story. I didn't want that to be the crowning glory of my life."
She takes a sip of soda. She is a vegetarian and infrequent drinker.
Has she been used?
"Probably, but that's life."
"I suppose I let them. Sometimes you don't realize it until after it's over, though."
Other projects were touted, but nothing seemed to click. There was an episode of "Fantasy Island." A guest shot on "The Edge of Night." Talk of a television hosting job. But Jenrette was treated more as a novelty than a professional. She did appear on stage in "The Philadelphia Story" in Los Angeles and won favorable reviews.
Two weeks ago she had a walk-on in "Kate & Allie." She won it in a charity raffle. Her agent didn't want her to do it, said she should only be playing leads. She did it anyway.
And there's the novel she wrote, "Conglomerate," which she says will be published this fall.
It hasn't been easy for Rita Jenrette.
"If you want to know the truth, it's been much more difficult. People meet you out of curiosity, but then you have to be that much better."
Her love life has not been great. She dated actor Dan Aykroyd for a while, but now he's married to someone else. There was a man in Los Angeles. "We had a deep, deep love relationship. I still love him. You know, we were really soul mates."
And soul mates tend to be married. She laughs knowingly. "I don't want to talk about it."
She finishes her soda and leaves the restaurant, walking several blocks to her building. Her efficiency is cluttered with clothes and furniture. There's room for a sofa bed. On the bookshelf are paperbacks, including "Nice Girls Do."
She rummages around for her re'sume'. Attached to it are an 8-by-10 glossy and a copy of the Drama-Logue Critics Award she won in 1982 for her performance in "The Philadelphia Story."
On one page is a single line from Playboy: "Rita Jenrette is an amiable, attractive screen presence . . ."
The re'sume' also lists every guest shot on television talk shows in 1980, when Abscam broke, and the information that she appeared in Playboy twice (including last May's cover) as "Featured Celebrity."
Under the heading "Training," she has written in "Stella Adler."
Is Jenrette studying with the famed Method teacher?
"Well, not exactly," she explains. "I signed up for the class but then I had to be out of town, so I didn't want to waste the $400."
She picks up a green felt-tip marker and crosses it out.