What are the wages of being a corporate wife?

December 12, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Let us begin with the Corporate Titan standing at the annual banquet, thanking his ''Wife and Partner Without Whom'' he would never have been elevated to the financial stratosphere.

Now, fast-forward and check in on Mr. T a year later. This time he's at the lawyer's office insisting that his wife was not the helium in his rise to the top, but the old ball and chain.

The better half

What a difference a year makes. What a difference a divorce makes. One year, a homemaker wife is the co-author of a success story. The next year, she is a corporate welfare recipient.

It's not just that we rewrite the story of our own marriage when it goes kaput. We rewrite the idea of marriage itself.

This is the issue in the latest and most celebrated case of the rich and now famous Lorna and Gary Wendt. This couple's marriage began 30-odd years ago with high hopes and $2,500. It ended last week in a Connecticut courtroom with bitter recriminations and the division of more than $100 million.

Gary Wendt became a top executive of General Electric putting in 80- to 90-hour weeks at the office. Lorna earned her PHT -- Putting Hubby Through -- at Harvard Business School and then took care of kids and home.

When all was said and done, including the marriage, Gary thought Lorna should be ''generously rewarded'' with somewhere around $10 million, all she would ever ''need.'' Lorna thought she was ''entitled'' to $50 million -- ''need'' had nothing to do with it.

A wife's worth

In the end, the judge awarded her an estimated $20 million. In corporate boardrooms they worried whether a spouse was entitled to future earnings. And the judge awarded her some. But in the public annals it became known as the ''What is a Wife Worth'' case.

Here is the short, she said/he said, story:

She said: ''My end of the partnership was to take care of the family, the household, the care-taking so he could go out and take care of his end of the partnership, which was having the job.''

He said: ''Do you think having somebody clean the house when you go out and play tennis . . . is hard work? Tell me please.''

She said: ''Marriage is a partnership and I should be entitled to 50 percent. I gave 31 years of my life . . . I worked hard and I was very loyal.''

He said: ''I worked hard. She didn't.''

Now, as far as I know, sweat equity is not written into the marriage vows. It is intriguing how this case of the unbelievably rich focused both parties and the public on what she did or didn't do to deserve the marital millions. Nobody questioned what he did to deserve corporate millions.

There is no maximum wage in this country for corporate executives.

In Connecticut where the Wendts lived, the court has to give an ex-wife an equitable, but not equal share. In practice ''equitable'' has a ceiling, loosely described as ''enough is enough.'' But here is where a divorce says a lot about marriage.

Marriage these days is described in polite company and therapy as a 50-50 proposition. But when push comes to shove comes to split, it may be rescripted as an 80-20 proposition. The equal relationship based on love suddenly is recast as an economic relationship based on pay slips.

We can literally see two value systems collide. Those of marriage and the market. Love and money.

After all, we go to work as individuals but live as couples. We get one name on the paycheck, but we think of marriage as exempt from the marketplace. We only acknowledge conflicts between our two points of view in notoriously skimpy prenuptial agreements -- or in divorce court.

There is no way to assess what a wife -- or husband, by the way -- is worth in sweat equity. We marry for richer or poorer, and may work harder for poorer. But if there's no floor on our partnership, why should there be a ceiling?

The real question is whether we mean what we say about marriage as a partnership.

I suppose I am an incurable romantic, worrying about the effects of divorce agreements on marriage. But the Wendts have taught us about the legal limits of romance.

This is the aftermath of their corporate breakup: Lorna is starting a Foundation for Equality in Marriage. Gary is planning to marry again. She has set up a Web site. He plans to sign a prenuptial agreement. Ah, love. . .

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/12/97

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