Rasheeda -- the glamorous ex-model, the "mystery woman" who for months had Washingtonians tittering into their wine glasses -- turned out to be Hazel Diane after all, a down-on-her-luck matron no more likely to trade quips with Arsenio than your Aunt Ginnie. But even a sirenish Rasheeda might have paled against the pair of world-class Mystery Women who in the past weeks have puzzled and enthralled us:
Effi and Winnie.
We're talking serious mystery here, the kind that fuels rumors or accusations, discussions that end in confusion. These political wives seem utterly different, but for each of them, our fascination boils down to a question:
Who is this woman?
Winnie Mandela, a nation of TV viewers saw, is the demure wife of a charismatic statesman, a woman whose quiet demeanor, distant smile and soft bangs pegged her as a woman born to self-sacrifice -- the "Oh, don't mind me" wife, the sturdy backbone of countless churches. We saw another Winnie too -- the veteran warrior in African garb whose passion enchanted "Donahue" viewers, the fist-thrusting firebrand whose throaty cry, "AMANDLA!" (power), and fierce speech during her husband's Convention Center appearance electrified us.
And Effi. What kind of woman is this, who hooks a rug while the fabric of her husband's political life unravels before her eyes? Who confesses to a New York reporter that she and her husband have had six or seven family-style dinners in their 12-year marriage -- that's about one every two years -- but then says she stayed because "I believe in family"? Who kisses him goodbye on the same day that his videotaped pursuit of a former mistress flickered on the nation's TV sets, instantly becoming the ultimate example of public spousal humiliation?
We don't know either of them, despite the tantalizing hints they occasionally provide that make us think we do. Some peoples' lives defy easy explanation, and each of these women undoubtedly has her own very good reasons for not helping us fit her into any preexisting box. Winnie and Effi are good at banging the door shut, even as they appear to open it a crack; good at keeping their characters as neatly contained as their coifs.
These are women we'd like to catch with their hair down. We'd like to have the temerity, the unlisted phone numbers, to ring them up and coax, "C'mon. Tell me how you feel, who you are, really."
Of course we thought we knew Winnie -- several times. For years, she was the beautiful Mother of the Movement, whose sacrifices in its name -- her husband, homes that were firebombed, the support of friends when she was banished for seven years from her Soweto home, repeatedly her freedom -- earned our admiration, even awe. Could we have stayed so strong in a struggle that took a beloved husband away for so long? Winnie was real when "Nelson Mandela" was merely a rallying cry, a name with no face.
Then came rumors and then confirmation of suspicious, even bizarre behavior. We learned that her band of bodyguards terrorized suspected police informants (one member was convicted last month of stabbing to death a 14-year-old boy; Winnie -- who a witness claimed had whipped the murdered youth -- was officially ostracized by anti-apartheid groups). We heard that she attempted to sell the copyright to her husband's image to a slick American businessman who'd arranged college educations for her children; that she'd built a comparatively luxurious home in the midst of Soweto's deadly poverty. The years of deprivation, it seemed, had taken an awful toll.
But the sedate Winnie we saw last week seemed neither saint nor sinner. She was merely supportive. Sitting mostly in the background, she occasionally opened her mouth -- to deflect a question or redirect it to her husband or to slip, for a few stunning moments, into her warrior-woman persona as she exhorted audiences to remember South Africa's children. But such declarations were exceptions; Winnie Mandela clearly was a woman who'd had a finger placed to her lips.
How did it feel to be muffled by a movement you once led as your husband's proxy? To let the light of your own considerable charisma drown in the brightness of his? Has it been a relief for Winnie Mandela to surrender the mantle, or does she miss its terrible weight?
As far as Effi is concerned, few outside her intimate circle can even pretend to know her. Think of the gamut of possible reasons we've whispered among ourselves as the real explanation for her steadfastness: Her religion keeps her strong; she wants to maintain a two-parent home for her son; the Barry marriage was always one of convenience; she's hanging onto the limousine, the trappings of power, until her husband leaves office; she was never the kind of woman to build her life around a man. Of course, these suppositions distance us a bit from her. Each makes her more responsible for her life's difficulty; absolves us from examining the ticks and failings in our own relationships.
Few of the rumormongers have suggested that love and forgiveness have kept her at her wandering mate's side -- rumormongers don't think that way. But how does she think -- this woman who lived so long with a man who was obviously unfaithful, who she says she knew would one day be set up by a woman? What really goes on behind her half-smiles, those tense kisses to the mayor?
Despite their differences, there are similarities between Winnie and Effi beyond their striking looks and obvious independence.
Both have had their existences defined by men who seem larger than life; both have lived for decades under a crushing scrutiny that amplified their tiniest flaws and most bounteous gifts.
Both, it seems, have become adept at Doing the Right Thing -- for the one, by not bringing attention to herself at the expense of a righteous movement in need of funds and support; for the other, by not tossing Hizzoner's tailored suits and starched shirts into the mansion driveway and bolting the doors. Effi and Winnie won't fulfill our fantasies of how we might behave in their shoes. They don't seem inclined to provide us with juicy endings for their personal soap operas.
There's another, less obvious similarity -- each of these women has developed independent of a husband who was largely absent from her: Winnie because of her spouse's 27-year confinement; Effi because of the mayor's endless meetings and appearances, his self-confessed night prowling. Whatever Effi and Winnie are, they are much more creatures of their own making, much more the fulfillment of their own self-vision, than their supporting roles would suggest. Which makes their silence seem even more fascinating, and more likely a pose.
Still, we don't have a clue. We watch, wonder, theorize among ourselves. The phone rings and rings, but nobody answers.