This story is one of nine that has been republished to commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Washington Post’s Style section.
Bill Clinton did not know he had a half-brother — nor was the half-brother aware of his relationship to a U.S. president — until the Style section came calling. Gene Weingarten’s pursuit of Clinton’s long-dead father broke news, and ennobled a classic Style maxim: Every story, big or small, is somehow about the meaning of life (and life’s “might-could’ves”).
The car passed them fast, not crazy fast but fast like a stranger who did not know the local roads with their quick turns and occasional slick patches of gravel. Roscoe Gist remembers thinking exactly that, must be a stranger, and noticing a young man’s face behind the wheel.
Two minutes later he saw the car again. It churned his stomach. The big Buick sedan was upside down on the shoulder, its headlights pillowing out into an alfalfa field, its radio blaring corny country music into the black of night.
It was May 17, 1946, an overcast Saturday night on Missouri’s Highway 60 halfway between Morehouse and Sikeston. Gist and his wife, Bernice, were returning from the movies. Ronald, the newborn, was asleep in the back seat.
Gist surveyed the macabre scene. The driver was nowhere. The car doors were closed, but the window was wide open. With dread, Gist inspected the brackish drainage ditch next to the car; the water couldn’t have been more than three feet deep, but an injured man could roll into that muck and drown. In the dark, Gist hunkered down, rolled up a sleeve and raked the channel with his hand, feeling uneasily for cold flesh or wet cloth. Nothing but cattails.
By now a crowd was gathering, and someone went for the police. Roscoe took Bernice home to nurse the baby, but then he drove back, frankly curious. And so he was there an hour later when someone in uniform yelled Hey and dragged the drowned man from the ditch. He was belly down a full 25 yards from his car, far away from where Gist had searched; a well-dressed, sandy-haired fellow with no apparent injuries. But what Gist could not take his eyes off was the young corpse’s hand, balled into a fist, clutching a clump of dry grass and weeds. “It was like he had tried to pull hisself out of the water, but didn’t have the strength. You’re just kind of stopped, you see something like that.”
It can be bewildering how quickly time passes, how you turn around and suddenly you are retired in Oklahoma, and Ronald the baby has four kids from two marriages and is living on a houseboat in San Diego, and now someone is on the telephone asking about the man in the ditch and damned if you don’t remember it like it was the day before yesterday.
“Where’d you get my name from, anyhow?”
From the accident report.
“But . . . why?”
He didn’t know. No reason he should know, when you think about it. And so, 47 years later, Roscoe Gist is told the identity of the man in the ditch. For a very long time, he says nothing at all.
“You know, I heard something.”
While he was squatting down there in the dark on the side of the road beside the overturned car, he says, he heard a kind of a gurgle and a splash, but it was so feeble and far away he figured it was a frog. Yet that’s exactly the spot from which the body was recovered. It haunts him still.
“I might could’ve saved his life.”
Life is filled with might could’ves. Roscoe Gist might could’ve followed the sound of the frog, and he might’ve dragged W.J. Blythe out of the ditch in time, and Bill Clinton might’ve had a real dad instead of a drunken stepfather who walloped his mother and forced him to grow up fast and focused. And Clinton might not have been so oppressively aware of the possibility of sudden death at any age that he might not have hurried up and become the youngest governor in America, and president of the United States at 46.
Or he might could’ve anyway.
So far, the story of The Man in the Ditch has been treated as a minor prologue to the inspiring public biography of The Man From Hope. What little has been published is almost caricature: William Jefferson Blythe was a handsome traveling salesman from Texas who met pretty nurse Virginia Cassidy in a Louisiana hospital in 1942. Their eyes locked across the emergency room, and it was love at first sight. They married; he went off to war, then returned home and perished on the highway a few months later at age 28. He was traveling to Hope, Ark., from Chicago to bring his pregnant wife back north to start a new life. The baby became president.
It’s all the truth, but it is not all the truth.
Reporters following the Clinton campaign through the South last year heard tantalizing rumors of a shiftless drifter who resembled not so much a mythic American hero but the traveling salesman of bawdy humor, a footloose ladies’ man who left a trail of broken hearts across the south-central United States, and maybe a baby or two. Nothing was written; it was just talk.
Talk is unreliable. Sometimes it is true. Sometimes it is hooey. Sometimes it is a thick embroidery of both.
If the Bill Clinton story is about the American Dream, no less so is the story of his father, W.J. Blythe, a rag-poor farmer’s son who grew up at a time and in a place when the American Dream nearly strangled in the dust. It was an era of unimaginable desperation; if you weren’t careful, you could drown in your own despair. People sometimes did things not because they made sense but because nothing else made much sense either.
Bill Clinton was surely shaped by the challenging circumstances of his youth, and by the imprint of a strong-willed mother. But every parent leaves a mark, even if the child never knew him. The president of the United States has his father’s genes, a legacy as apparent as his nose and as elusive as his nature.
In the middle of the Mojave Desert, in a sun-caked valley ringed by snowcapped mountains, an old woman with an exquisite face comes to the door. You apologize for arriving unannounced, explaining that you were afraid that if you called ahead she would not have agreed to see you. You say you want to talk about private matters that are more than a half-century old. You want to ask her about W.J. Blythe, her first husband. You want to know if he is the father of her only son, which would mean that her son is the half brother of the president of the United States. A brother no one knows about, not even the president’s mother.
The woman puts down the quilt she is sewing, with pretty pink hearts, and asks you politely if you would mind repeating what you just said. You do, and she smiles and says, okay, she supposes it can’t hurt, now.
Every family has its secrets, its old scandals, seldom-entered rooms with hidden recesses. This is true of the Blythes, an ordinary family that — with the spectacular prominence of one of its members — suddenly becomes a public curiosity. Who was Bill Clinton’s father? Where did he come from?
The Texas branch of the Blythes has passed down a tale of how the family moved to Sherman, Tex., from Tippah County, Miss., in 1909. They came in a covered wagon, it is said, and as they lumbered through Arkansas in the gathering dusk they became aware of furtive shapes in the distance.
And so they pulled the horses up short, and the men stood guard, talking robustly, brandishing their weaponry while the women and children huddled inside. In this fashion they spent the next 10 hours, braced awake by their own terror, peering into the darkness, waiting for the attack. At dawn, with reddened eyes and raw nerves, they studied the shadows to discover that the lurking Indians were nothing but a field of tree stumps.
The Texas Blythes love that story, because it evidences how uncertain were the lives of their forebears. A farmer had as many children as he could, and he had them as quickly as he could because you needed extra hands and you never knew how many children would survive. And so Willie Blythe — Bill Clinton’s grandfather — married young. It was 1906. He was 24 and his bride, Lou Birchie Ayers, was all of 13, and they started up a family right away. Clifford was first, then Raymond, who was nicknamed “Doc” and died at 19 of “yellow jaundice,” then Pauline, then Earnest, then Maureen, then W.J., then Cora Lucille, the crippled girl, then Vera, and finally Glenn, the baby. Nine children, 18 years from first to last, by which time mother Lou Birchie, at 4 feet 11, weighed 200 pounds.
W.J., the fourth son, was born in 1918, and he was named exactly that way — just two initials — to distinguish him from his father, William Jefferson Blythe. W.J. did not officially become William Jefferson Blythe until years later, when his birth certificate had to be re-created after a lynch mob dynamited and burned to the ground the Grayson County Courthouse and all its vital records. The vigilantes were trying to flush out a black man jailed there on charges of raping a white woman. He was mutilated, hanged from a tree, his body burned. It was 1930; it was one of the last lynchings in America.
“In later years, one of the main lynchers’ mothers became a good friend of our family. That’s how things were.”
This is Vera Ramey, one of two of the Blythe children still alive. The other, Pauline, is 83 and her memory fades in and out. But Ramey is 69 and her recollections of her favorite brother, W.J., remain as vivid today, she says, as they were when he was imprisoning her in an inner tube and hurling her, happily squealing in protest, into the pond.
Ramey does not consider herself an emotional person, but she cannot watch Bill Clinton on television without choking up. She sees in the president the unmistakable imprint of his father: the eyes, the high forehead, the large but slender hands, the pleasantly plebeian nose. “I wish I could look without bawling, but I can’t,” she says.
No death of a loved one is easy to bear; for Vera Ramey, a seamstress in Denison, Tex., the death of W.J. was very nearly disabling. She was a young woman when her brother had his accident, but she recalls the time as one recalls a tragedy from which complete recovery is impossible.
“I have a good husband and I love my kids and hug ‘em every time I can, but I don’t believe I have ever been as close to anyone as I was to W.J. I think my husband would tell you that.”
Ramey describes her early childhood as hardscrabble but almost idyllic. There was no money on the farm, but plenty of food. They lived in a nice house, a lot of poor people getting along fine.
W.J. was a tall, friendly kid who loved an old flop-eared hound dog, and figured out a way to catch and keep squirrels as household pets. There were 40 acres of pasture land, cotton to be harvested, cows to be milked, chickens to be fed, and the two-room White Rock school was a saunter down the road. There was an old wooden root cellar to which the children were banished when a twister was sighted; the kids huddled down there in the dark on an old bed, next to their mama’s preserves and tinned meats, their father outside on a chair, leaning against the house, balefully scanning the horizon. There was a swaybacked old mule that five children could ride at once. There was the old cow barn, which had a six-foot hayloft from which the kids would leap.
The barn is still there, out on Preston Road off Route 691, midway between Denison and Sherman. It is a rotting firetrap of bowed gray oaken board and rusted hinge, leaning precariously. The current owners have left it standing because they fear that if they try to tear it down it will collapse on them. In front of the barn stands the farmhouse in which the president’s father and his eight brothers and sisters grew up. Outside, two chairs ooze their stuffing onto the ground.
Your first thought is, there must be some mistake.
In a pink housecoat, Lucille Waw invites you into a small living room dominated by an enormous color TV. Yes, she says, this is the old Blythe place. She’s lived there since ‘36. The house is dismayingly tiny, just three medium-size rooms and a kitchen. There’s no upstairs, no downstairs. The rooms were even smaller, back then; her husband added on.
“How they lived, I do not know,” said Waw. “I’ve wondered. Lord, I’ve wondered. Nine children they had. The walls were canvas and paper, it crumbled when you touched it. They didn’t have a closet, didn’t have a cabinet. Didn’t have running water. Didn’t have electricity.”
Waw says she’s heard that one of the Blythe boys was a cousin of the father of the president of the United States.
Actually, she is told, he was the father of the president.
“The president’s father lived here?” she says, dubiously.
To understand what happened to the Blythe family, what flattened them, you need only leaf through the scrapbook of old photographs kept by Ann Blythe Grigsby, Earnest’s daughter, who still lives in Denison. She has Blythe family pictures going back to the turn of the century.
The oldest are a Joadian gallery of weather-beaten faces, grizzled men and hardy women in baggy clothes, smiling gamely beside barns and silos and livestock and children. Among these is a photo taken in Sherman in 1921 or ‘22. Father Willie Blythe, dressed in a Stetson and a dark suit and looking like a lean country preacher, is proudly holding an infant, Cora Lucille, as the older children grin at the camera — all except 3-year-old W.J., sullen in a prissy sailor suit. A big, young family squinting hopefully into the sun.
Then there is another picture, taken just a decade later, of Willie Blythe on his front porch. He has become an old man. He is unshaven, hollow-cheeked, someone ready to give up the fight. His sallow face is creased with pain.
In 1930, Willie Blythe contracted colon cancer, and it took five bad years to kill him. These were years when country banks failed and even hale American farmers lost their homesteads to debt. The small Blythe farm, with its patriarch shivering in a bed in the backroom, didn’t stand much of a chance.
They tried. Much of the burden fell on W.J., at 15 the oldest unmarried son. W.J. took a job at Ashburn’s dairy down the road, bringing home milk and butter and eggs and a meager paycheck that he handed over to his mother.
W.J.’s bed was in the living room, but he was hardly ever in it. “He would go to work in the afternoons after school at 2 or 2:30, and work till 10 o’clock,” Ramey recalls. “Then he’d sleep till 3 a.m., when he would milk our cows, wash them down, carry the milk to the dairy. Four hours of sleep a night was enough for him.” After eighth grade, he quit school altogether.
By late 1934, Willie Blythe was near death. Vera was 11; she recalls how convulsions would seize her father and rattle his body.
“I would take my crippled sister and run out of the house. W.J. and my mother held him down. They’d have to give him morphine by mouth and wait for it to take effect.”
After 15 minutes of this, W.J. would come out of the house, smiling, and tell the girls everything was okay now.
“He was always smiling,” says Ramey. “Things that would be disturbing to other people would just make him laugh. I think he felt that was one way of keeping the rest of us happy.”
In February 1935, Willie Blythe succumbed. An undertaker came to the house to embalm him, and then he was to be taken to the cemetery. But a storm rolled in, and the roads froze and became impassable. And so for more than a week, the cold body of Willie Blythe lay in the family’s living room.
“I never went into that room alone again,” Ramey said, “unless Mama or W.J. was with me. Never.
“I was a daddy’s girl. And when my daddy died, I think W.J. just kind of took over. He used to come and hug my neck. I guess I was afraid he was going to leave us like the other brothers did, and he said, ‘Puddin’, I will always be there for you,’ and he was. He never called me by my name. He called me ‘Puddin’.’ “
In the Blythe family, there is some uncertainty over just what happened to the farm. By 1936, with Willie dead, it is clear that Lou Birchie was having trouble meeting her mortgage payments. Ramey and other family members recall that she somehow disposed of the property to avoid foreclosure; that some money came out of it, that it wasn’t total disaster.
But in the Grayson County Courthouse, in Deeds Book 387, Page 203, there is no ambiguity about what happened.
In January 1934, with the farm failing along with Willie Blythe’s health, Lou and Willie had secured a loan from the Federal Farm Mortgage Corp., an emergency lending organization created by the New Deal.
But by June two years later the new widow was two payments delinquent and the bank foreclosed. The language is brutally precise: “ . . . unable to pay said installments and unable to protect any equity which the undersigned has.” with a few dozen dollars due on a promissory note of $3,500, Lou Birchie lost the farm.
The family moved into an upstairs apartment on Houston Street in downtown Sherman. At 43, W.J.’s mother became a hotel chambermaid.
And at 18, W.J. resolved two things about his life: He would not become a farmer, and he would become a millionaire.
By 1938, he was working out of Oklahoma for an auto parts distributor, on the road all the time. By all accounts, he was a very persuasive salesman. He came off as forthright and friendly, a man without pretension. Everyone liked him.
“I think that’s why he was such a good salesman,” says Ramey. “He never saw a stranger.”
And here is where the few sketchy public accounts of W.J. Blythe’s life kick in. He traveled all over the middle South, selling shock absorbers and oil filters and such to auto dealerships. In 1942, while bringing a woman friend to a hospital emergency room in Shreveport, La., he met Virginia Cassidy, a student nurse with mischievous eyes, generous lips and a personality as outgoing as his. They courted, he was drafted, and they married just before he left for Europe. He served in North Africa and Italy and was discharged in December 1945.
In the months afterward, living with Virginia in Arkansas, he talked almost not at all about the war. Ann Grigsby remembers sending her uncle a letter when he was in Italy, asking him to mail her some leaves for a school project she was working on. “Sorry, there are no leaves on the trees,” he wrote back. “They’re all shot off.”
That was about as close as anything he ever said about what he saw in the war.
When W.J.’s mother had a stroke in early 1946, Virginia traveled to Texas to help nurse her, creating a reservoir of goodwill with the Blythe family that remains strong to this day. Vera Ramey remembers how the attending doctor predicted that her mother would survive, but Virginia the nurse looked doubtfully at the pallor of the older woman’s feet, and gravely warned the family that she was done for. And she was. She died the next day.
W.J. insisted on paying the funeral expenses, Ramey recalls. He had a little money, and it was vitally important to him.
Both W.J.’s mother and his father had died young, at 52. The whole family was acutely aware of this, but only W.J. made a joke of it. He talked about hurrying up and starting a family real quick, because who knows how long you’ll be breathing? He wanted lots of kids.
In May 1946, with Virginia pregnant and staying with her family in Hope, W.J. secured a job with a Chicago auto parts company. The couple had chosen a house, and he was driving home to get her when he passed Roscoe Gist on the road, moving, as was his custom, a little too fast.
And the story could end there, except it can’t. There was another side to W.J. Blythe that was as much a part of what he was as were his ingratiating temperament, his devotion to his family, his prodigious appetite for hard work, and his determination to transcend the heartbreaking poverty into which he was born. Just like those things, his other side was a product of the times in which he lived.
Sherman, Tex., in the 1930s was something of a frontier town, but Madill, Okla., some 40 miles away, was even more so. Madill was the place where Texas folks drove when they had public business to transact but didn’t want too many questions asked.
And so it is that in the Marshall County Courthouse in Madill is an old marriage license, dated December 1935, under a handwritten notation, “Don’t publish.” It registers the marriage of W.J. Blythe to one Virginia Adele Gash. Bride and groom are listed as being 18 years old.
Behind the story, another story.
“There was a child,” says Vera Ramey.
She says she vowed to talk about this only if someone else brought it up — and only to correct what she believes is a terrible misperception and clear her beloved brother’s name.
As Ramey remembers it, Adele Gash was the daughter of a Sherman saloonkeeper who got pregnant, and W.J. married her. She stayed in town a few months, even living briefly with the Blythes, but then left for Dallas. That was no secret in town, she says.
The secret, Ramey says, was that W.J. was not the father.
She says she recalls lying awake at night as a 13-year-old, listening to her mother and young W.J. talking heatedly. The father of the child, she says, was another member of the family, a married man whose identity she does not wish to disclose. She says Lou Birchie asked her son to claim paternity and marry the girl, to prevent not only a scandal, but a divorce within the family. W.J. protested, but did it, Ramey says.
The baby, a boy, was born in a hospital in Sherman, Ramey says, and after the mother moved away, W.J. came to her and said, “Don’t worry, Puddin’, it wasn’t mine anyway.” The mother and child moved to California somewhere, and have not been heard from in a long, long time.
That’s the story as Ramey remembers it.
But memories are like old wood. They can rot and crumble away, or they can stay strong and pick up a rich luster over time. Sometimes even the strong ones will develop a network of spidery cracks that warp them ever so slightly.
Apple Valley, Calif., is a cozy oasis in the western Mojave Desert. The wooden sign above the door of the simple stucco ranch house says “The Coffelt’s.” Adele Gash Coffelt looks like someone’s favored grandma. Though 75, she seems 15 years younger, and her handiwork is all over the house: a fruit pie cooling on the kitchen table, handsome quilts on the couch, elaborate Christmas stockings that she sews for her grandchildren. On the wall in a hallway is a photograph of her only child, Henry Leon, born in Sherman, Tex., more than 50 years ago. He is a pleasant-looking man with a high forehead and a plebeian nose.
Is he W.J. Blythe’s son?
Adele Coffelt says she knew W.J. from the time they were both children, that they were good friends and that she married him at 17. He was 17 too. They lied about their age, which is why they went to Madill.
She was definitely not pregnant, she says. No truth to that at all. It may be that she and W.J. were keeping too close company and that her father wanted them to marry to avoid scandal. That could be true, she says. But she was not pregnant.
Exactly why did they marry?
“Well, I wasn’t madly in love with him, or anything like that.”
She sits back on the sofa, and says she doubts anyone could really understand who did not live through those times.
“All I wanted,” she says, “was a home.”
Adele’s mother died when she was 6 years old. Her father owned a bar and a domino hall, which he believed was not a suitable environment to raise a girl. And so Adele and her younger sister, Faye, spent their childhood raised by aunts and other relatives.
When she and W.J. were 17, an opportunity arose. W.J. was in line for a job at the dairy that would have given him meager living quarters on the company grounds. A home! And so they got married. Just like that.
“Young and dumb is what we were.”
The job and the apartment never came through, and Adele moved in with the Blythes in that tiny house on Preston Road. Adele says she liked W.J. — “he was a clean, pleasant, decent person” — and might have stayed with him for a long time if they’d just had some privacy.
She and W.J. shared a bedroom with Earnest Blythe and his wife, Ola Maye.
“I don’t require a whole lot. I never wanted to be rich, but I never lived with so little,” Adele Coffelt says. “We were poor, but they were poorer than we were.”
She says the Blythes treated her well, and she liked and respected all of them, but that she felt as though she was a terrible burden on a family that could weather no additional burdens.
After a few months, Adele went to visit an aunt in Dallas. W.J. was supposed to come for her in a few days. Instead, she says, a package arrived in the mail. It was all of her clothing.
“That’s how it ended, right there.” Adele Coffelt is smiling. “I stayed in Dallas.” She got a divorce the following year.
None of which explains the baby.
Coffelt says that after her divorce, she returned to Sherman several times and would spend time with W.J. It was on one of these trips, she says, that her son was conceived. She stayed in Sherman to give birth.
When she is told that someone in the family said W.J. was not the father, she is thunderstruck.
“It wasn’t anybody but W.J.” Pause. “Why would anyone say that?”
She is told why, and for the first time her formidable composure deserts her.
“If I am not telling the truth may God strike me dead.”
The public records support her version of events. The certificate recording her marriage to W.J. is dated December 1935. The divorce petition, on file in Dallas, is dated one year later. And Henry Leon’s birth certificate, on file in Austin, is dated Jan. 17, 1938. It lists W.J. Blythe as the father.
“I’m not proud of everything I did in my life,” Adele Coffelt says, “but I am not sorry, either.” In fact, she is deeply grateful to W.J. for giving her a child. In 1939, just before her second marriage — a happy one to the police chief of Brawley, Calif., that would last more than 30 years, until his death — she was involved in a serious auto accident that shattered her pelvis. She could never bear children again.
“People without children,” she says, “are miserable.”
When her baby was a few months old, she says, W.J. came to visit her in California. He was traveling for his company. He hugged her, held Leon, “and was as nice as he ever was.” He left that night, and it was the last time she ever saw him.
There is one more thing.
“W.J. also married my sister.”
“It was a fling thing,” she says. “Didn’t last long.”
In 1940 or ‘41, Coffelt says she got a distressed phone call out of the blue from her younger sister, Faye. “She was back East somewhere, and she wanted to know if she could come to live with me. She had married W.J. and it wasn’t going to work. “
“She did not say and I did not ask. I did not care to know.”
“When someone needs help, you give it to them. You don’t ask questions.”
Why did they get married? Was she pregnant?
“No, some other gal was pregnant . . . The reason he married her was to keep from having to marry a girl who was pregnant. That’s what my sister told me.”
(Faye is ill and unable to sit for an interview. But Ola Maye Blythe Hazelwood, Earnest’s widow, later confirms that, yes, she recalls something about W.J. coming back to marry Faye. And, yes, there was some trouble with another girl who was pregnant.)
There is a TV in the Coffelts’ living room, and at this moment Bill Clinton’s face flashes on the screen.
“Doesn’t mean anything to me that he is W.J.’s son,” Adele says. “He doesn’t look that much like W.J. But I wish him well. He’ll always be welcome in this house, you tell him that if you talk to him.”
A big smile.
“But I didn’t vote for him.”
It is said that people are shaped the most not by what they want, but by what they fear. Perhaps W.J. Blythe — who watched his father die screaming and his mother lose the family home — so feared death and destitution that he became a man of relentless good cheer, with a ferocious appetite for life-affirming things, sometimes at the expense of good sense and good judgment. But even those people who had cause to dislike him could not find it in themselves to do so. He must have been a wonderful salesman.
When he met and married Virginia Cassidy, he took a new name, shedding the initials with which he grew up. For the first time in his life, he became Bill Blythe, the only name his new wife ever knew him by, and it was as Bill Blythe that he was to start a family. It may well be that the change represented something of a turning point, that W.J. was prepared at last to settle down and take responsibility for himself.
It’s a theory, as good as any, half a century later.
For four months, Bill Clinton’s mother declined repeatedly to discuss her first husband for this article.
Finally reached by telephone last week and asked about Bill Blythe’s other life, she said it was all news to her. Blythe never told her about his marriage to Adele Gash, or his marriage to Faye Gash, or any other marriages or children he may have had along the way. She also said W.J.’s family never told her either, even after his death.
“I’m 70 years old,” said Virginia Kelley, “and things sometimes slip my mind. But as far as I can remember, no one ever told me.”
What does she think of it?
There is the briefest of pauses.
“I don’t know what to think,” she said. “I loved him very much. He was a wonderful person to me. For his own reasons, he did not mention it to me.”
If he had, would it have bothered her?
“I’m sure it would have bothered me.” Might she not have married him? Might she never have had a child with him?
“It’s hypothetical what I would have done about it.”
Life is full of might could’ves.
Like many of Clinton’s relatives, Vera Ramey was invited to the inaugural events in January. She attended the big gala, and saw Michael Jackson and Chuck Berry, but she wasn’t really enjoying herself. All the while she was fighting a hollow feeling she could not quite puzzle out.
Afterward, without telling anyone, not even her husband, she got in her car and drove three hours to Hope, Ark., to the Rose Hill Cemetery, where a footstone marks the grave of William Jefferson Blythe, born Feb. 27, 1918, died May 17, 1946.
For four hours, she talked to her big brother about the family. Mostly, she talked about what had become of his baby boy. Just in case he didn’t know.
Feeling much better, she drove back home.
Adele Coffelt did not discover that the father of her son was also the father of Bill Clinton until a relative sent her a clipping from People magazine, during the presidential campaign, mentioning the name William Blythe. And so, of course, her son did not find out about his famous half brother until then either.
Henry Leon Ritzenthaler — he changed his name from Blythe when his mother’s second husband adopted him — is 55. He lives in Paradise, Calif., with his wife, Judith, a hairdresser. He has two children. The former owner of a janitorial service, Ritzenthaler was forced to retire some time ago because of ill health. He has a heart condition.
Late in the campaign, he and Judith wrote to Bill Clinton, care of the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock. Ritzenthaler says he introduced himself, included a copy of his birth certificate, and requested any information the governor could give them about the Blythe family’s health history.
“I don’t want any money out of this or anything,” Ritzenthaler said. “All I would like to do is meet the man. I would be honored to get to know him a little. To find out after 55 years that I’ve got a brother eight years younger than I am, well, that’s kind of nice.”
Not to mention that he is the president of the United States?
“It’s very nice.”
Ritzenthaler says he never heard back from Clinton or his office, but that he doesn’t take it personally.
“In the business he is in, I’m sure he was busy and under a lot of pressure. I would just consider it an honor and a privilege to get a phone call or a letter from the man, saying, ‘Hey, I know you’re alive.’”
Memorable pieces from 50 years of Style
“The Law of Twelve, Which Makes Washington Whirl, and the Boy from Pocatello” by Sally Quinn, June 23, 1974
“New Hampshire is a Fraud” by Henry Allen, Feb. 11, 1988
“Clark Clifford: The Rise of Reputation” by Marjorie Williams, May 8, 1991
“He Speaks” by Martha Sherrill, September 7, 1995
“White Girl?” by Lonnae O’Neal Parker, Aug. 8, 1999
“The Couch That Warped Space-Time” by Hank Stuever, Feb. 23, 2000
“Dick Cheney, Dressing Down” by Robin Givhan, Jan. 28, 2005
“A Butler Well Served by this Election” By Wil Haygood, Nov. 7, 2008