The last name of Joseph Gough, the retired president of First National Bank of St. Mary's, was misspelled yesterday in an article about the dispute over Jay Laurence Millison's estate. (Published 01/20/2000)

The letters--on crisp legal stationery--began appearing in the mailboxes of some of St. Mary's County's most socially prominent residents last summer.

Lawyers for Martha "Betty" Millison were canvassing her longtime friends, trying to find any evidence--"verbal or written information"--that she was in fact married to real estate mogul and former county commissioner Jay Laurence Millison, the man she called her husband for 30 years.

Larry Millison had died in January 1998 at age 64, leaving an estate worth an estimated $21 million, including acres of valuable farmland and retail space and a string of more than 100 Kentucky thoroughbred racehorses.

Betty Millison was left nothing in his will. The bitter legal battle that ensued has held many surprises, beginning with the fact that the Millisons--who played the part of happily married couple for more than three decades--may not have been married at all. Betty Millison, the one person who could answer that question, is now 68 and lies ill with dementia in a nursing home, her affairs overseen by her only daughter, Linda.

The court files that detail the dissolution of this alleged charade include allegations of infidelity, cruelty, mental instability, alcoholism and venereal disease. Many in St. Mary's County have been tantalized by this unexpected glimpse into the life of their richest landowner and his pretty blond wife and have taken to wondering how well they really knew Larry and Betty Millison.

"Really, what do any of us know of the exact marital status of our friends and neighbors?" mused Joseph Goff, the retired president of First National Bank of St. Mary's, where Larry Millison was among the best customers. "Life is strange sometimes."

If the courts find that the Millisons were not legally married, Betty Millison would have tenuous legal recourse: Maryland does not recognize common-law marriage. Lawyers for Betty Millison were searching for evidence that the couple traveled and presented themselves as man and wife in common-law jurisdictions such as Pennsylvania and the District.

Were she in full possession of her faculties, Betty Millison would be appalled by the legal battle, friends said. The woman who was so concerned about appearances that she kept herself rail thin and drove to Washington each Saturday to have her hair coiffed at Elizabeth Arden would hardly be pleased by her current notoriety, especially since she had moved to St. Mary's County to escape scandal in the first place--after a 1962 arrest on numbers-running charges.

"She did not want the public to know any of this," said Ingrid Hebb, an employee of Millison Development Co. and Larry Millison's paramour for the last decade of his life, who will collect a $400,000 bequest in trust if the will is upheld. "She did not want her dirty linen dragged out into public. Linda ought to be ashamed of herself, doing this to her mother."

The son of a general store owner who headed one of the first Jewish families in St. Mary's County, Larry Millison had a worldliness that surprised those who knew him well. It came in part from his mother, a free spirit and painter. It was bolstered when he spent part of his youth living in New York City with relatives, attending a military academy.

"It hardened him like a piece of steel," said his cousin Robert Seebacher, an orthopedic surgeon in New York's Westchester County.

Millison returned home to St. Mary's County after high school and began, in Seebacher's words, piecing together "an empire" of real estate that included valuable commercial property flanking the burgeoning Patuxent River Naval Air Station. Millison made much of his early money in the rough business of running slot machines, which were legal then and drew players to Southern Maryland from throughout the mid-Atlantic region.

"He was an extremely driven and compulsive man," Seebacher said. "His business life was inextricably woven into his personal life. The two were inseparable. There was, in essence, no personal life for this man."

By the time he met Betty Millison, in late 1962 or 1963, he had been married three times. Betty Moretti, as she was then known, was an attractive divorcee--one admirer described her as having a "Marilyn Monroe" quality.

She had come to St. Mary's County to manage a small restaurant and escape the notoriety of a 1962 arrest in the District on numbers-running charges. (Moretti and her cohorts were acquitted after a U.S. District Court judge ruled that FBI agents lacked proper search warrants when they burst into her small apartment on 28th Street SE.)

Moretti and Millison fell in love soon after they met, and Moretti moved into Millison's family farmhouse, Temple Bar Farm, in Hermanville. Whether they were ever really married remains unclear. Lawyers for Betty Millison and her daughter, Linda O'Connell, insist that the couple was legally married, although they have scoured the Eastern Seaboard looking for a marriage certificate and have come up empty.

Larry and Betty Millison allegedly told friends at the time that they had run away for a romantic weekend--some friends say in New York or in Florida--and officially tied the knot.

Rachelle Millison, 40, Larry Millison's daughter from his third marriage and the executor of his estate, has asserted in court filings that "Millison was not married to Martha at the time of his death, nor was he married to Martha at any time during his lifetime."

When Millison won his first of three terms as a St. Mary's County commissioner in 1974, the jubilant couple posed for pictures published in the newspapers. The captions identified them as husband and wife. They both wore wedding rings. For many years, they filed "Married-Filing Separately" tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service, Betty's lawyers say.

Further, Betty worked 12- to 14-hour days as the manager of Larry's Belvedere Restaurant, which for years was a popular white-tablecloth eatery in the county. She did everything from hostessing to making the restaurant's famed stuffed ham, a local delicacy. She fussed over Larry's diabetic diet and cared for their home.

Things began to deteriorate for Larry and Betty Millison after both developed serious medical problems. Larry Millison's Parkinson's disease was diagnosed in 1985; Betty suffered from emphysema brought on by smoking.

Larry Millison, too, had begun an affair with Hebb, a woman 16 years his junior whom he had met through the horse business. Because Millison was still living with Betty, the affair was carried on predominantly when the two would leave the state for horse-buying trips. Hebb, now 50, is still smitten.

"Larry had a sophisticated face, kind eyes and a smile that would melt his worst opposition," Hebb raved. "It was devastating."

The meltdown occurred after a September 1996 car accident put Betty in the hospital in Alexandria. According to a civil lawsuit filed against the Millison estate by O'Connell and Betty's uncle by marriage, Holmes Sumner Moore, Betty Millison's co-guardians, Larry Millison refused to allow Betty to return home to Temple Bar Farm after the hospital declared her fully recovered.

He told Moore in a telephone conversation a month after the accident that he and Betty had never been married--the first time any of Betty's family members had heard it. The news hit like a bombshell, especially for Linda O'Connell, who had thought of him as her stepfather. O'Connell, 44, of Port Republic, runs a gift shop.

Millison later told a social worker trying to mediate the situation to "never call his house again" and that "there was no handicapped equipment in the house nor would there be," according to the civil lawsuit. He instructed Linda and her husband to take Betty home with them. A distraught Betty Millison tried for several weeks to reach Larry Millison by phone; when she finally did, the lawsuit states, Millison told her, "No, let's just keep things the way they are."

Betty Millison's health declined precipitously after that, the lawsuit states, and she was declared incapable of handling her own affairs by a Calvert County judge in April 1997. The civil lawsuit, requesting $14 million in damages, alleges that Millison inflicted intentional emotional distress on Betty by not allowing her to return home.

During discovery, lawyers for Rachelle Millison--in an effort to prove that Betty's breakdown was caused by her own poor health rather than what Betty's lawsuit calls Larry Millison's "extreme and outrageous conduct"--sought her complete medical history, including "evidence of Betty's venereal disease and relationships with others."

Betty's attorney, Jeff Evan Lowinger, objected.

"We've got a woman who is incapacitated and spent her entire life becoming a model citizen in a community, and it is alleged in pleadings that she has been unfaithful to her husband and is suffering from a venereal disease. . . . These allegations--and they are merely allegations--are not relevant," Lowinger said.

Larry Millison's friends said that the couple's love affair had been over for some time. Millison was gravely ill from Parkinson's disease and other ailments by that time and was unable to care for Betty himself. That's why he asked for Linda's help, they said.

"He loved her very much and thought the world of her. They were not married, though," said Kenneth C. Rossignol, a newspaperman and Millison friend. "Not everybody who loves each other is married."

Millison died Jan. 27, 1998, slumping over at his desk from a heart attack at precisely 5 o'clock, the end of the working day. His last will and testament, dated in 1996, left the bulk of his estate to Rachelle. He left his son, David, of Norfolk, $1,000. To Hebb he left $400,000 in a trust to be disbursed in $40,000 annual payments.

In addition to the civil lawsuit, lawyers for Betty Millison filed an order electing to take her spousal share of the money, which would be one-third of a spouse's net estate, according to Maryland law. Rachelle Millison's lawyers rejected the request.

To further complicate matters, Betty Millison's fortunes were ensnared with Larry Millison's. Her guardians have thus far collected from his estate more than $340,000 in personal loans she made to him over the years. Because of that, she now has a personal net worth of more than $500,000, her lawyers said.

The case has dragged on for months. But lawyers for both parties said last week that they have signed a "memorandum of understanding" agreeing to work toward a settlement. Doing so would avoid what would likely be a messy public trial, scheduled for June 12.

"Mrs. Millison is a very private person, and Linda is saddened by the fact that her mother's life is being played out in this public arena," Lowinger said. "But she always understood that they were married, and Mr. Millison's statements that they weren't married weren't enough for her to let Mrs. Millison's rights go unprotected."

Meanwhile, many in the county are quietly rooting for Betty to prevail. As one put it: "Everybody thought she should get something, because she worked like a dog."

CAPTION: Larry and Betty Millison lived together for decades as husband and wife.