Due to incorrect information provided by a press spokesman, a story in yesterday's Style section misreported ticket sales and arrangements for an upcoming tea for Effi Barry. A different organizer said yesterday that fewer than 200 tickets to the Sunday tea had been sold as of yesterday morning and that almost none of the costs have been donated by business supporters. (Published 7/26/90)
Lea Adams can't recall the details now, but she remembers her anger at Marion Barry for breaking some long-ago agreement and how she fled sobbing into the first quiet room she could find. Instead of solitude, however, Adams found Effi Barry.
"Effi was sitting in the corner," Adams says now, eight years after she served as press secretary for Barry's 1982 reelection campaign. "I told her what had happened, and she said, 'Honey, you've got to pull yourself together. If you can't remember they're all basically little boys, you shouldn't be doing this. If you can't remember that, you should get out.' "
They're all basically little boys -- remember that, or get out. It is a maxim of resignation, of a woman who does not expect much, who has accepted some basic, grim fact about life in general and her husband in particular that -- once accepted -- makes the living easier. Perhaps it is the answer, or part of the answer, to the question that has perplexed so many: Why has she stayed?
It is a question she has not chosen to answer. Effi Barry declined to be interviewed for this story, and many of her friends and acquaintances declined as well. Known for her loyalty, she is even better known for treasuring her privacy. She has wrapped herself in a discretion so complete that after all these years on the public stage she is more of an enigma than ever.
Now, with Marion Barry's arrest and trial, she has been in front of the cameras nearly every day, and what some may have thought to be merely the bland reticence of the political wife appears to be something much more complicated, much more contradictory.
She says she is a private person, and yet she announces she will write a book and goes on the far-from-demure show "A Current Affair" to talk about the workings of her marriage.
She says she hates the spotlight, yet she clearly blossoms into self-confidence when she speaks before a receptive crowd.
She is a woman described by some colleagues as a mystery, but by others as down to earth and remarkably easy to get to know.
She is a wife whose marriage apparently was from the beginning far more political arrangement than love match, but she continues to play the part of devoted spouse.
She says she wants to preserve her family for her son, Christopher, but as facts come out about that family life it seems clear she has essentially raised the boy by herself.
"She's an excellent actress," says one former District official. "Marion patterns himself after Jimmy Swaggart. This was before Swaggart got in trouble -- but he always looked at him because he had a way of enthralling people, the way he could get emotional.
"I don't know who she patterns herself after, but I think she is just an excellent actress."
Whether it is acting or something else, Effi Barry protects herself with remarkable self-control and determination, giving off few clues. But every once in a while, she lets on to a little something. It is the smallest movement -- the raising of the left eyebrow in a suggestive, ironic arch. When Effi Barry does it, when the delicate line of her brow rises higher and higher, it is a teasing signal that there is something more, something unspoken. The eyebrow rose when she told New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams that if she were "not quite a lady," she would have something to say to the women who approach her husband. It rises when she talks about the people who invade her private life. It rises to show anger and the restraint that holds the anger back.
It rises, suggests that there is something she will continue to keep to herself, and then her face resumes its calm facade and the hint is gone.
A Solitary Nature
Effi Barry says this about herself: "I'm an only child and I'm very much accustomed to being alone and by myself. A lot of people misinterpret that, but as only children we learn to find for oneself and fend for oneself. That's just a part of my nature."
It is one of the many explanations of her personality and life that she has grudgingly offered over the years. "Politics is anti-family," she told Adams. Barry's drinking mangled their marriage, she says. He is a "street dude" who lives by his own rules and cannot be changed, she says.
All of them sound simultaneously plausible and somehow inadequate to describe a marriage in which, as she told Adams, she and her husband have eaten "maybe" half a dozen "family-style" dinners alone in 12 years.
But the patterns were set early. During her interview with Adams, Effi Barry said she saw signs of a drinking problem even during their honeymoon. "You try to keep such experiences private," Adams quoted her as saying.
A few hours before Adams's "A Current Affair" interview aired last month, the mayor offered a brief, sharp insight into his sense of their relationship. Praising his wife for her loyalty, he went on to describe her as "one of our chief enablers," who "helped facilitate whatever it was we were doing," although "not knowingly, because she didn't know all that was going on in my mind or my soul or my body."
In the lexicon of addiction treatment, an "enabler" is a person who -- actively or passively -- allows or encourages an addict's behavior, often by protecting the abuser from the consequences of destructive actions. How that dynamic worked between the Barrys and whether it has changed over time remains largely hidden, but the former D.C. official says that Effi Barry seemed at first stymied and frustrated by her husband's actions, but that by 1987 she had "stopped fussing" and retreated from the marriage. Before that, the official says, "if you saw them outside of the public eye, she was very cold to him, she would fuss at him about different things, about not being home, not spending time with Christopher, about being indiscreet, embarrassing her."
But then "Effi got to a point ... she stopped nagging him and just gave up, so to speak. So that in the morning, when he couldn't get up out of bed or get to a meeting, she wouldn't bother with him, she wouldn't try to get him up. It was the security people who got him up."
The picture of Effi Barry stiffly presenting her cheek for a marital kiss is by now familiar, and those who watch her notice a cool remove in her bearing when she is close to her husband. Yet observers say it would be a mistake to minimize the bond between the two. In the past and now, when he faces adversity she defends him, rising to the occasion and reaping whatever emotional power there is in remaining his most publicly loyal supporter.
"If I had to say the best thing of all these worst things that happened to Marion Barry -- she's the only thing I can think of, the fact that she's still there, saying the right things," says Max Berry, a Barry fund-raiser who has broken with the mayor.
Over the years she has lived independently, helped by sympathetic friends. District of Columbia Secretary Teri Doke, a friend since both women went to Hampton Institute, is among that group. Barry has also spent time with Mary Wilmot, director of special projects for the mayor's office, Juanita Leonard, estranged wife of Sugar Ray, and former Redskin George Starke. They and other friends go out to dinner with her, have visited her house for fashion shows, know she writes poetry and also know that she keeps the poetry to herself.
Now a group of friends and admirers is planning a tea for her, to be held this Sunday, with the promise of a monetary gift to show support. More than 1,000 tickets at $25 have already been sold, and another 2,000 are available. When the tea was announced, organizers said Barry could use the gift for whatever she liked -- perhaps for clothes, or a trip. Because almost all the costs of the tea have been donated (including use of a University of the District of Columbia library), a spokesman for the event said he expected Barry would receive almost all the proceeds from ticket sales.
Yet despite all the support, for more than a decade she has lived largely on her own. She is used to going to political and cultural events alone. When the Barrys actually attended the same fund-raiser or party, they almost always arrived and left separately.
WRC reporter Barbara Harrison, who has interviewed Effi Barry a number of times and feels she is trusted by her "because she thought I would let her get her feelings out and not surprise her," says that whenever she has visited the Barry home for an interview she has been struck by the signs of a mother and son's life together. But one non-journalist observer who has visited the house over the years says it always felt somehow un-lived-in, a place for show rather than comfort. "Whenever I went over there and looked at that kitchen, it didn't look to me like it was something used to prepare meals on a daily basis."
Until the trial began, Effi Barry worked 25 to 30 hours a week as an advocacy program associate at Children's Hospital. The paid position, from which she has taken a leave until September, took her into the region's schools and to health fairs to set up health programs. She also volunteered weekly at the library at St. Albans, the elite private school Christopher has attended.
Christopher Barry's mother speaks of him with protective adoration, and former D.C. health commissioner Reed Tuckson remembers her talking delightedly about the time she spent with Christopher. "What she means by time is sitting on the bed, eating popcorn and watching old movies -- just talking with him," Tuckson says.
But childhood has nevertheless been an oddly distorted experience for Christopher Barry. He has reportedly relied on his father's security guards for some of the attention he missed from their boss, and even when he was with his parents, he was forced to play the role of a miniature public figure. "I would go to cookouts at the Barrys'," says Lea Adams. "The difference between the way other kids got to play and Christopher got to play -- Christopher had to have his picture taken with people, he had to shake hands with people."
Christopher has reportedly been teased and harassed by his classmates at St. Albans. This fall he will switch to the public school system and enroll at Murch Elementary in upper Northwest. His parents received special permission to send him there rather than to a school closer to their home in Southeast, arguing that Christopher has grown attached to his after-school babysitter, who lives near St. Albans and Murch.
A Painful Public Life
The crowd at the prayer breakfast has turned its attention from her, and Effi Barry's public face -- alert, responsive -- vanishes, swept away by blankness. This is the face that watches the course of her husband's trial, the flat, unreadable face. Now she is the guest of honor at a breakfast and fund-raiser for abandoned "boarder babies" at D.C. General Hospital, and soon she will be called upon to speak and to write her name on program after program. But for the moment she disappears into herself.
"I'm basically a very quiet person," she says later. "I like to be in the background, because I like to observe. Being a public figure, I can't do that as much. I would prefer to just sit in the corner and watch and observe."
Many stories about Effi Barry have her right there -- in the corner, observing. Lea Adams remembers seeing her standing alone almost 10 years ago at the wedding of longtime Barry adviser Ivanhoe Donaldson and being struck by her vulnerability. "When I first met her, she was a strange combination of excruciating shyness and softness, but at the same time a real warmth," says Adams.
One friend in 1980 described Barry as "an open wound. When I see her, I sense the tensions, the struggle. And I really empathize with her."
The vulnerability has a long history. Born to an unwed 16-year-old black woman in Toledo, Effi Barry did not know for years that her father was a white Italian. It was not an easy childhood, and she has said that she fears raising a child as a single mother.
By the time she met Barry she had received a degree in home economics from Hampton, been married and divorced from jazz musician Stanley Cowell, lived in New York for a number of years, worked as an environmental health inspector, teacher, Wall Street credit reporter, stewardess and model and received a master's degree in health education from City College.
But before they were married, he had announced for mayor and she was plunged into a world for which she had little preparation. She quickly became a political symbol. During Barry's campaign, rumor had it that she was not black at all. Political wisdom, deciding that at best she was not black enough, led Barry to ask her to work on a tan.
Barry has said that after her husband's first mayoral victory, she was snubbed by Bennetta Washington, wife of the former mayor, and it was soon clear that old-line black Washington society did not welcome her. As she struggled to find a role for herself, her professional life seemed doomed to clash with her official position. She sat on a bank board, received a discounted mortgage, and resigned from the board over the ensuing controversy. She worked for the public relations firm JAM, which had several city contracts; doubts were raised about whether such a position was appropriate, and she resigned. City lobbyist David Wilmot gave her $1,500 worth of clothes as a birthday present and that too caused controversy.
By 1986 she was saying the city was filled with "piranhas." She seemed increasingly embittered toward the media and critics of her husband, and when her mother was arrested for arson in 1987, her reserve cracked momentarily. "I'll deal with you later!" she shot at WRC reporter Pat Collins.
The media had become the enemy.
To Max Berry she has become "a much tougher person" over the last decade. "She's got a much tougher skin. I don't think she trusts anybody. I think she trusts her mother, her son -- very few.
"She talks about fair-weather friends. When Effi's and my eyes meet at some of these things, she doesn't see me as the guy who raised lots of money. I think she sees me and other people as fair-weather friends. When he sees me, it's different. He's the politician. He's not saying, 'The son of a bitch left me!' He's thinking, 'If I run again, can I get him back?' I'm saying this based on some things he's said. He's never closed the door."
Effi, he believes, closed the door long ago.
The Speculation She moves through her official duties with a brittle allure, gracious when called on to be gracious and otherwise elusive.
There are aspects of her role as First Lady that Barry clearly enjoys, from attending some of the more stylish fund-raisers and parties to meeting the official and unofficial people who come across her path. She is particularly comfortable among artists and with the gay community, which has received her warmly for years. Many of those who work with her and benefit from her attention speak of Effi Barry with admiring appreciation. Since 1983 she has worked with Whitman-Walker Clinic, and clinic Director Jim Graham praises her early involvement in the AIDS issue.
"I can remember her being in the company of people with AIDS at a time that that type of thing was not appreciated," says Graham. "Being able to have her interested at that early point made a big difference in terms of access to the mayor and to key administration figures."
As the Barry trial winds down, there is much speculation about what Effi Barry will do after she is no longer First Lady of the District of Columbia. She expressed interest in a career in television to former WRC news manager Bret Marcus, but Marcus says she did not seem to have "a specific agenda." Although her husband has talked about working at keeping the marriage alive, she herself has been both suggestive and evasive on the subject, answering Cindy Adams's question about her future with Barry with only this: "You live one day at a time."
How difficult it will be for her to give up the perks of her position remains unknown, along with so much else about her.
From the time of her arrival on the political scene she has been the subject of rumors that are no doubt fed by her desire for privacy and the sense that there must be something more there, something hidden. In 1980 her executive assistant, Lynn Bumbray, said she heard "gossip that she was a lesbian." "I had to cuss them out," Bumbray said at the time about the people purveying the gossip, and Barry herself raised and dismissed the subject in a television interview. There has also been talk over the years that she has lived away from the Barry home. Again, she dismissed the suggestions, but the rumors persist.
Partly because of her mystery, she has become all the more fascinating to people. They speculate about her motivations and psyche, and because they can do little more than speculate, they often end in projecting their vision of themselves onto her and finding lessons in her demeanor and life about what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a wife, what it means to be black. Denise King-Miller, a friend who is herself described as a private person, admires Barry's discreet composure. Lea Adams, herself a single mother of a son who says she believes "the condition of woman is lonely," values Barry's persistence.
"In the black community that strength and that self-control is what being strong is about," says Adams. "If you're not strong, you can't protect your child."
And Washington poet Rabia Rayford remembers her demeanor at a ceremony honoring Winnie Mandela. "She is the epitome of an African woman who is under a lot of pressure. When the crowd stood up for her at the AME church, just screaming at the top of their lungs, you could see the tears forming, but she kept to her text, she didn't veer from her text. Tears streamed down her face but she maintained her purpose, the thing that she came to do. There aren't a lot of people in this world who do that."