There's a lot of smoke in Alabama these days as one old crony of George Corley Wallace puts it, and most of it seems to be wafting from the divorce fight between the governor and his wife, Cornelia.
It is starting to generate an extra-ordinary sort of revisionism in Alabama political thought. The claims are in substance, that Wallace is a closet millionaire.
Cornelia's lawyers seem to believe it and so presumably does she. Just this week, they marched into Montgomery Domestic Court with a list of 43 difficult questions about Wallace's finances including requests for information on any insurance, banking and property records that might turn up some assets.
Mrs. Wallace wants to know, for instance, "the present whereabouts and the disposition" of funds left over from his last two gubernatorial campaigns (1970 and 1974) and his last two presidential campaigns (1972 and 1976). She also wants to know "the name and address of every bank, domestic or foreign, in which you have maintained a deposit of any kind during the past five years."
According to William Bradford Huie, Alabama author and resident muckraker, the governor "instead of being a poor man is worth about $4 million."
That, to be sure, is contary to conventional wisdom. The long-accepted notion about Wallace's standard of livinng was that he was interested in very little beyond ketchup on his steak. As Marshall Frady recounted in 1968 in biography, "Wallace."
"His one indulgence, reports a Montgomery businessman, is having his fingers manicured downtown at the Exchange Hotel Barber Shop by Edna Taylor. What money arrangements have been quietly attended to by aides out of his sight, sut of his knowledge. Finance, high or low, leaves him wretchedly bored anyway; as one observer has noted, it would seem he never got beyond decimals."
Wallace himself refuses even to entertain question about whether a mass of ewealth may have been accumulated on his behalf by relatives, friends and supporters more attentive to detail. He lumps all such inquires as part of the "domestice matter." as though not even a snippet of it might be the public's business.
"Private and personal," the governor responded when asked if he had any secret wealt tucked away for him.
Perhaps because of such claims of privacy, there are old and new rumors afloat here, almost past counting, from talk of hidden commissions on state-bought Christmas cards sent out by Wallace to allegations of kickbacks on insurance premiums, of secretly reserved bank stock of special favors for the governor's brother, Gerald.
The truth may prove elusive. "Gerald is extremely smart. George is extremely smart. It's going to be extremely difficult to tie down." says one longitme and now disenchanted Wallace adviser who believes that at least a few pertinent assets have yet to be made public.
On the other hand, one of Mrs. Wallace's three lawyers - all of them opponents of the governer in various other forums - thinks the financial pickings may be slim. "There's just so much meat on a bone," he says.
Huie insists there is more - albeit without reciting his sources. In an appearance on a Birmingham television call-in show earlier this month he asserted, among other things, that during the first five years Wallace was governor, insurance companies doing business with the state kicked back at a rate of $300,000 worth of bank stock was being held for Wallace, though not be in his name, at a Birmingham bank. Wallace refused to discuss Huie or his allegations on the record.
In apparent recognition that Wallace might not have much in his own name, Mrs. Wallace's lawyers have asked whether Gerald Wallace or six other Wallace allies hold any porperty, real or personal in trust for the governor "and whether such trust is written or oral, known or secret."
The list includes Ralph W. Adams, president of Troy State University; Thomas J. Ventress, state finance director; Billy Joe Camp, Wallace's press secretary; Ray Bass, Alabama highway director, and Oscar Harper, a longtime friend and supporter of the governor.
Fireworks in the divorce case could begin Tuesday when the governor's lawyers plan to take Mrs. Wallace's deposition. She was one of 14 subpoenaed Thursday.
The 58-year-old governor went to court for a divorce Sept. 12, claiming "a complete incompatibility of temperament" and "an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage."
The suit came six days after Mrs. Wallace, 38, moved out of the governor's mansion.
She filed a countersuit Sept. 15 maintaining that her crippled husband had committed "actual violence and cruelty" upon her and that she had been left "without funds to support herself with even the basic neccessities of life."
What is now one of the most public marital rifts in America was first assigned to Montgomery Family Court Judge John W. Davis III, but he was recently told by the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals to disqualify himself to avoid any "appearance of partiality." Mrs. Wallace's lawyers had complained that Davis, who was originally appointed to the bench by Wallace, could not be fair because of personal and political ties. Davis' replacement, Circuit Judge Joe Phelps, has a reputation as a no-nonsense jurist and seems to be pressing for an early trial this winter.
Wallace's lawyers apparently would like to keep it all behind closed doors, but Ira De Ment, one of Mrs. Wallace's attorneys, says "we wnat a public trial except for what the [(KEY OFF)(KEYWORD)labama divorce] sastute says ought not he public if the matter becomes vulgar and obscene."
The maneuvering has led to intense speculation not only about the governor's financial resources, but also about his forthcoming candidacy to succeed John Sparkman (D-Ala.) in the U.S. Senate.
Some think the heat of the divorce trial may force Wallace to withdraw while others scoff at the notion that he would ever voluntarily stop running for political office. Then there is an in-betwen school of thought which holds that George and Cornelia, whose portrait still hangs in the governor's office, will somehow get back together again so that both can go to Washington
For the moment, though, that does not appear likely. Just Friday, Mrs. Wallace, who was seen at midweek partying at the swank Montgomery Country Club, submitted a Christmas-time motion to the court, saying she was destitute and asking for temporary alimony.
The governor, meanwhile, remained silent, insisting in a lengthy interview on talking only about politics and the great low-tax state of Alabama and his debt to its people. He sniffed at the thought that they might not elect [PARAGRAPH ILLEGIBLE].