The image of Effi Barry that people remember is from the front row of D.C. federal court in 1990. The prosecutors play the 83-minute sting videotape. On it, the mayor of the capital of the United States, her husband, is smoking crack in a hotel room, fondling an ex-model named Rasheeda Moore and begging her to have sex with him. The first lady of Washington sits impassively in the front row, regal and refined, calmly hooking a rug.
Poor, poor Effi. Who was behind that mask?
She stood by her man, got through his trial, got out of her marriage and got out of town. When Bill Clinton got caught in his sexcapade, Mrs. Barry No. 3 was the expert witness on "Oprah," testifying about public humiliation. Politics, she said, was anti-family. It certainly had ruined hers.
But here she is on election night earlier this month at Marion Barry for Council headquarters, big oven mitts over her lovely hands, a cross dangling from her neck, serving chicken wings to volunteers before the man gives his victory speech. The prince of D.C. politics -- or the clown prince, depending on how you see him -- with his elegant onetime consort nearby. Not at his side, though, until Marion demands it. And she consents, moving to stand with him and their son, Christopher.
She's back in the picture, literally and figuratively.
She knows the question: Sister, have you lost your mind? She picks up her glass of chardonnay and holds it to her ear, as if it were a telephone receiver. "Girl, did you see -- ?" she says, mimicking the gossip about herself, and she permits herself a ladylike little laugh.
She has agreed to an interview and picked the restaurant, Cafe Mozu, in the luxurious Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Effi likes its serenity and quietude. She is early for lunch and waiting in the lounge, one long arm draped along the banquette, the Potomac glistening through the window behind her.
Nearly six feet tall and slender, she looks perfect. She always has. Sometimes, appearances are all that one has.
She wears a simple navy two-piece dress, with a boat neckline that shows off her pretty collarbones, and a slender gold chain caresses one ankle under her hose. Her lips are coral. Her cheekbones, at 60, are chiseled. She speaks slowly, carefully composing long paragraphs of description and explanation, which are at turns poetic and platitudinous and hazy.
She supported her ex-husband's bid for office for his sake, she says, and the sake of their son.
For Marion, "his history and his legacy should be that he always fought for other people," says Effi. "It pains me that people think he's a gargoyle, a troll under the bridge." Without politics, which she defines as public service, Marion Barry, 68, diabetic, hypertensive, recovering alcoholic, isn't fully alive. "It's in his blood," she says. "Working hard for other people -- it's fuel for him."
For Christopher, who is 24, "I want my son to know and love his father, warts and all. " And for herself? "The right thing for me is to support my son's father," she says, almost as if it were penance, though she wasn't the one who committed the sin. "It's what my Christian ethic calls on me to do."
Of course she has heard the word on the street, she says. One stream of speculation has her hurting for money and hopeful of finding work once Barry, without any significant Republican opposition, rolls back into that sweet part-time job that pays $92,500 a year, representing the disenfranchised east-of-the-river residents of Ward 8. The other stream has her positioning Christopher to essentially inherit the gig from his daddy, whose various ailments caused many of his old friends to withhold their support of Barry's bid. Many of them, and even campaign workers, don't think he'll make it through his four-year term.
None of the gossip is true, Effi Barry insists.
She can support herself, she says. "I have a home, thank you very much," she says, a townhouse in Hampton, Va., she bought in 1994 for $79,000, according to real estate records. Her mother lives there now, while Effi lives alone in a rented apartment in the District (she is vague about where). "I have two cars, thank you very much. Well, the bank has them. I'm not a needy person. I'm not down and desperate. I don't need Marion Barry," she says, or anything his cronies could offer. She is doing some work for Children's Hospital, and, she said, "weighing other prospects." The job she had as an executive assistant when she returned a year ago from Hampton didn't work out. "The boss and I had philosophical differences," she says. As in much of what Effi Barry says about herself, the details remain vague enough to be unverifiable. She does want Christopher, a student at the University of the District of Columbia, "to work alongside his father, doing something good," and that is as specific as she will be during more than three hours of lunchtime conversation. "My son is my heart. His father is his father. I was particularly affected by never knowing my father, I guess. Even today, I'm incomplete."
Effi Slaughter was born in Toledo. Her mother, Polly Lee Harris, was 16 and black. Her father was Italian.
"There were miscegenation rules back then," says Effi, "that didn't permit them to be together, and so," she adds, waving her long fingers through the air, dropping her voice to a whisper, "suicide." Her father committed suicide? She nods, soberly. "So that whole half of me is not there." She was 30 before she asked her mother about him. Her mother married a man who managed parking lots, which did provide some stability until their divorce, when Effi was 16.
Effi was smart, and she was striking, and she went off to Hampton University, where she got a degree in home economics. She moved to New York to join her childhood sweetheart, Stanley Cowell, an accomplished jazz pianist who now lives in Upper Marlboro. They married, and Effi worked as a flight attendant, a credit reporter and a junior high-school teacher. She got a master's degree in public health from City College, she has said. When the marriage ended, she moved to Washington for a job with the city.
She met Marion Barry in 1976, at a Bicentennial celebration in Southwest Park. "I was looking in my purse for something, and suddenly he was there. "Is there anything in your purse for me?" she recalls him saying. Barry was an activist, the former head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a former school board member running for reelection to the D.C. Council. She was apolitical and had no idea who he was. But he was "very vibrant, very charismatic, that Southern charm," Effi says. (He was also still very married, to Mary Treadwell, who years later was convicted twice for stealing public funds.) Effi gave Marion her number, and he called the next day.
In 1978, after Barry had announced his bid for mayor, they got married. Newspaper photos from that period show a happy and handsome couple -- the Barrys at inaugural parades, Effi in one of her sophisticated hats and furs; on official visits to Africa; greeting heads of state from other nations.
"It was a wonderful education being exposed to all these different cultures," she says. "I had a life where I might be at the White House in the morning and serving soup to the homeless in the afternoon; there was that diversity of experience. I so much admired Anwar Sadat, and that was a highlight, entertaining his wife in my house, in my house! As a result of Marion, all this was possible."
If being the first lady of Washington brought opportunity, it also brought scrutiny. She drew criticism for taking a birthday gift of $1,150 in clothing from a lobbyist who met repeatedly with the mayor. The couple got a discounted home loan from a bank on whose board she sat, and after that became public, the bank rescinded the preferred rate and she quit the board. She took a job with a public relations firm with a city contract, and then quit, amid questions of conflict of interest. When she arranged for Christopher to have his eighth birthday party at an amusement park with friends, she brought along an entourage that included three members of the mayor's security detail, a plainclothes cop, a government photographer and one of Effi's city aides.
In the photos, as the mayoral years march on, the expression on the face of Mrs. Marion Barry changes. The early unguarded joy and authentic excitement vanish. They are replaced by the inscrutable smile born of necessity and worn by the sorority of betrayed political wives -- Lee Hart, Hillary Rodham Clinton and, most recently, New Jersey first lady Dina McGreevey.
On camera, Mayor and Mrs. Barry stayed hand in hand. Off camera, they were living separate lives. In the course of their 12 years together, she once said, the couple had only a half-dozen "family-style dinners." She acknowledged that she knew all about her husband's infidelities -- and accepted them.
Of Marion's friend Karen Johnson, who pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy charges in 1984, Effi said in a television interview that she chose to take at face value her husband's explanation that his relationship with Johnson was "non-intimate" and added: "There are very few men in this town who can say they have not been involved in some way or the other with another woman during the period of their married life, be it platonic, romantic, sexual or whatever. What I blame him for is indiscretion."
And she warned him: "I told him all along, 'You're going to be set up with a woman,' " she said after his 1990 arrest at the Vista Hotel with Moore. When she got the call late that night, she knew what had happened. "Who was she?" was her first question.
During her husband's trial on drug and perjury charges, the ever-controlled Effi Barry sat most days beside a woman named Cora Masters. "I guess Cora and I, then, were the closest of friends," Effi says now. Cora went on to become Mrs. Marion Barry No. 4, and the new first lady of Washington; Barry was elected to a fourth term as mayor after his release from jail. The couple are now separated; Cora Masters Barry declined to be interviewed for this article. Asked if she ever speaks to Cora, Effi pauses, arches an eyebrow, and smiles. "Whatever would I say?"
The woman who says she was a blunt talker as a sex educator of college students is far less direct when she now assesses how her ex-husband treated her, often reaching for the affirmative language of self-help tracts.
Marion Barry, says Effi, "became distracted with other activities" and "made some poor decisions about his personal conduct." She regrets that "we shared the experience at different levels." She says, "I didn't know Marion as a user of drugs," just alcohol.
Asked what she would do over in their life, if she could, she leans onto the table and rests her chin in her hand. "I think," she says, "if I were able to wave a magic wand -- and if I had been able to keep all of the negative people and the temptations away from him, it would be a different world, and a different city."
Here is the story she tells to describe her bond with her son.
"When we welcomed the pope" -- John Paul II -- "in 1979, the helicopter descends. It lands on the Mall. The door opens. He has a flowing white robe, this aura, his was the brilliance of a thousand stars. And I started shaking. Damn! I said, that's the Pope! I gave him the key to the city. He touched my hand. He said, 'God bless you and your family.' And I said to myself, 'Wow, Marion and I are blessed for life.' "
But she felt nauseated all that week, and when she went to the doctor, he told her she was pregnant. She was shocked. "We were specifically not trying," she said. "So I say he is my blessed child. He thrives on faith. All the negativity he has endured to [be able to] extract some sort of strength, and hopefully he will be empowered to achieve his greatness."
Christopher was 9 when his father was arrested Jan. 18, 1990, and television crews descended on their home. The day of the arraignment, a friend carried him out of the house with a coat over his head, to shield him from publicity. When Effi left her marriage later that year, she took her son with her to Hampton, but, she says, he found it "too country." An urban child, he wanted to be back in Washington, she says, so he went to live with Barry and his new wife. Effi taught health and sex education at her alma mater, Hampton University. When Christopher was a senior at Wilson High School, she returned to Washington for a year. "It was significant for me to be there," is all she says. "I don't know whether it was significant for him or not."
Now, at 24, after a stint at Hampton, he is studying business and finance at UDC, his mother says -- "this week" at least. She hopes he will graduate soon. "They never finish in four years anymore," she says.
Asked if she worries that Christopher might be influenced by some of the unsavory characters who have gravitated toward Marion Barry over the years, she narrows her eyes. Then she laughs. "He is like his mother," she says, much more skeptical of people's motives than her ex-husband. Her message to Christopher is "No, your father is not perfect. Yes, he has made mistakes. But he is to be honored, now that you are a young man. You have a legacy, of which you can be proud."
To her, the council race is bound up in securing this legacy and her personal peace with a man who always will define her. A year ago, when Barry told her he was thinking about running for office, "I said, 'For what?' " Effi told a reporter last month. "He said, 'You ride around this city and ride around Ward 8 and you come back and tell me why.' "
At lunch, she expands: "When I went around with him, everyone had a story to tell him. He represents hope -- no matter what the situation has been, he's been able to resurrect himself."
And for herself, her spirituality has "taught me to forgive. If I carry around with me the hurt and the pain, then I'm stuck. If I'm harboring heartache, I can't grow." They won't get back together, she predicts.
"My relationship with him now is totally different from a wife who felt used and neglected, from that bewildered person who felt she was free-falling into a black hole, to a person who says, I'm still here. I'm a survivor," says Effi Barry, and she splays her hands in front of her, then brings them together, carefully matching flame-red fingertip to flame-red fingertip.
Still, here she is, back in the Barry orbit.
She nods slightly and smiles. Is there a hint of surrender in that smile, or is it apology? She knows him so well, well enough to know that "in the 30 years I've known him, he hasn't changed."
"And I like Marion," she continues. "There's a certain quality that just kind of grows on you."
Staff writer Yolanda Woodlee contributed to this report.