Marion Barry and Cora Masters Barry were married for almost 21 years, separated for the past 12 and remained best friends and confidants. He asked her to plan his funeral. She was the first person called when he collapsed on his doorstep last month.
But don’t call her his widow.
“Someone said that the other day and I said, ‘I’m not a widow!’ ” she said earlier this week. “No, I don’t think of myself as a widow.”
Such was the complicated, unusual relationship of Washington’s Mayor for Life and his fourth wife. “Marion and I talked, if not every morning, at least three or four times a week for, well, forever,” she explains. There’s a slight pause and a smile. “Well, a lot of times he talked and I listened.”
Last January, he sat down with Cora and his son, Christopher, and explained what kind of memorial he wanted when he died. Not that he was going anytime soon, he pointed out, but he sketched an outline of the three-day celebration that ends Saturday with a huge public service at the Convention Center.
Cora will be among the speakers at the funeral, a rare return to the spotlight for D.C.’s former first lady who has tried to stay out of the public eye for the past decade. Many people assumed she and Marion were long divorced; only a few knew how close they really were. She still lives in the house they bought together in Ward 8, surrounded by photos and memories of their life together.
“Marion and I always had a combative relationship,” she says. Combative isn’t quite the right word: They bickered. They got on each other’s nerves. She told him what to do, he ignored her. At a ceremony for her beloved Southeast Tennis and Learning Center, which she founded and heads, in October, he was at the podium, she was sitting right behind him.
“He was speaking, as usual, too long,” she says. Marion explained to the crowd that he knew Cora wanted him to stop, but he wasn’t going to. There was some back and forth, then he told the audience: “See, you all, that’s just our relationship. We love each other. I love you, Cora.”
She rolled her eyes. “I was like, ‘I love you, too.’ And everyone laughed and clapped, then I helped him to his seat.”
Cora, 69, met Marion in 1970 and the two just clicked. He was an activist, she was a political scientist; he was savvy and strategic, she was blunt and didn’t care whether people liked her or not. This was purely platonic: They were both married to other people at the time and forged what would become a 44-year friendship.
“First of all, we liked each other,” she says. “Second, we were intellectually and philosophically matched. We both had the same social consciousness. And we challenged each other.”
That friendship survived his rise in politics, his arrest, trial and prison term, eventually transforming into a partnership and romance. She married him in early 1994 — her second, his fourth — and spearheaded his campaign for an unprecedented fourth term as mayor. A second husband, she said at the time, had to be someone she respected, wouldn’t be bored with, who made her laugh and would be kind to her mother and grown daughters.
Marion was all that, and so much more — some great, some not so much. She left him in 2002.
“When we were together, I had one set of values and he had another and that’s why we separated,” she says, declining to get into specifics. They went through “what everybody else goes through” during a split but they never bothered to divorce, mostly because neither of them was interested in getting married again. “If we’re never going to remarry, why get divorced?” she explains. “Marion didn’t want a divorce, and I didn’t see any need for it.”
But they never lost respect or their ability to communicate, using the years of friendship before the marriage to stay close. “Marion’s human like everybody else, but he was brilliant, he was compassionate, and he was so kind,” she says. They were, she said, always there for each other: “I used to say to him, ‘Call when I can do for you what no one else can do.’ ”
But he called almost every day, usually about politics and the inner workings of the council. Sometimes they talked about the tennis center, a dream she started planning as first lady and opened in 2001 — although Marion loved to take credit for the idea. He’d always tell people, she says, “I was riding down the street one day and I said, ‘Cora, why don’t you build a tennis center over there?’ ” The two had played tennis on the broken-down courts there, so she conceded that round: “That’s your story and you’re sticking to it, so I’m not going to debate it.”
His final public appearance was at the center’s grand reopening last month with Venus and Serena Williams. Marion may have been in a wheelchair, but he spent the night surrounded by people, schmoozing and posing for pictures.
Cora talked to him the day before he died, twice. He was still at Howard University Hospital, and they discussed his health and what steps he should take next. They also kicked around ideas about a local program for African American teenage boys modeled after President Obama’s national initiative to empower young black men.
He was, as usual, optimistic. “I’m feeling better than when I got in,” he told her. She says he knew there were health issues that were not getting resolved, but he didn’t want to change his medical team and didn’t want people to know how sick he was.
She got the call a little before midnight. Marion had collapsed outside his house.
“I knew right away” that something serious had happened, she says. She jumped into her car and sped down Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. Marion lived about six minutes away; “since I was going through lights, it was three minutes.” The police tried to pull her over, she ignored them and yelled out her car window for them to follow her.
The ambulance was already there. “I knew he was dead,” she says. “I was very calm about it, but I don’t know why. God just gave me the strength.” She rode along in the ambulance; Marion was unconscious and unresponsive and was pronounced soon after. A heart attack, ruled the medical examiner.
Now there was a funeral to plan.
“Marion always said if he left this earth before I did, I would be the one he would entrust his legacy and services to,” she says. “He didn’t think anybody else could really do what needed to be done that would reflect the essence of him. I know his entire political life. I want to make sure that no one is left out, no era left out, that everybody gets a chance to celebrate him and everybody get the recognition for the part they played in his life.”
Per his wishes, Marion’s casket was in the Wilson Building for 24 hours, then a caisson took his body to his church, the Temple of Praise in Ward 8, for a service. Saturday’s final, public tribute will take place at the convention center, large enough for the thousands expected.
“Taking Marion’s original vision and then blowing it up to something worthy of the contribution and the life he lived — that’s the challenge,” she says. She’s a little nervous; the event is scheduled for four hours but likely to last even more. “This is Marion’s send-off: If it goes longer, it just goes longer. I think people ought to do what they need to do, take as long as they want to take, say what they want to say.”
Mayor Vincent Gray will speak, with former mayors Tony Williams and Sharon Pratt at his side. And Cora will make remarks, although she’s grieving and in pain and dreading it all.
“There’s only one thing in my mind to say about Marion, a word that’s very trite and non-exceptional but fits him: unique,” she says. “It’s as simple as that.” She wants to share a few things about him that people don’t understand or believe — that he loved all people, everyone in the city, but he was crazy in love with his people. She starts to tear up. “He loved black people and he loved justice and fought for it until the very end. He refused to compromise on dealing with this country in terms of black and white, and I just loved that about him.”
Marion will be buried in historic Congressional Cemetery, then she’ll return to her life behind the scenes. Any chance she’ll run for Marion’s Ward 8 seat? Her eyebrows shoot up.
“Absolutely not,” she says. “No. No. And no.”