GE executive's ex-wife pushes equal settlement

December 30, 1997|By Nathan Cobb | Nathan Cobb,BOSTON GLOBE

She has become the poster girl for disgruntled corporate wives, the determined woman who would not accept $10 million to go quietly from her 32-year marriage to a top GE executive.

The dust may have settled temporarily on her very public divorce -- an appeal is possible -- but Lorna Wendt sees no need to slip out of the limelight. So she is still on the case, still pushing the notion that standing by your man is worth half the pot, no matter how overflowing it might be. She is even funding a foundation to spread the word.

Wendt earlier this month learned the settlement ordered by a Connecticut judge in her divorce from Gary Wendt, chairman of GE Capital, the highly profitable financial-services division of General Electric, would fetch her about $20 million, not the 50/50 split she had been seeking.

Still, it appears to be enough to support her in the lifestyle with which she has become familiar: $18,000 a year for restaurants, $11,400 for hairdressing and personal care, $6,000 for dues at the private Stanwich Club, $120,000 for clothing and shoes, and so on.

"I have become accustomed to wearing a certain kind of clothing, style of clothing, cost of clothing that my position as wife of a CEO demanded," Wendt firmly explained to the court.

It is such marital demands that have become the crux of Lorna Wendt's case, making it a hot topic in living rooms and boardrooms: What's a wife worth who spends much of her life meeting and greeting on her husband's professional behalf? What's the value of keeping house and raising kids while your husband is bringing home a paycheck?

"Gary's career was my career," the 54-year-old Wendt says now, leaning across a small table in a posh restaurant near her apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side, one of three homes she owns. "It was my role. It was my job. And then he told me he wanted a divorce, and I was fired."

Trouble is, she wanted a golden parachute, just like the guys get. But was her "job" worth, say, half of the $1.4 million he says he pulled down from GE Capital in 1996? Half of a $6.7 million bonus due upon his retirement? Half of his unexercised stock options worth about $5 million?

Oh, yes, his ex-wife answers as she talks about raising the two daughters, now in their 20s, that her husband didn't have time to raise; as she talks of making his house a home; and especially as she talks of the many GE-related dinners and trips she took, of glad-handing her way through some 40 countries as her husband's wife.

"Listen, I enjoyed it," she says. "But I was very much aware that I was Gary's wife and that I was representing GE Capital in my role as his wife, a CEO wife. I was always on. I could never have a down minute. I was programmed. And I was never hired by GE. It was just assumed a good wife would do it."

Right up to the bitter end. When Gary Wendt told his wife he wanted a divorce in December 1995, he had one other request, she says: "He said, 'You're still going to have the party, aren't you?' "

Ah, the Christmas party. The Wendts were a power couple renowned for their two annual Yuletide gatherings, the first a black-tie affair for favored GE executives, the second a less formal gathering for 200 friends and neighbors. Gary Wendt was apparently most worried about the former, at which some 90 guests were expected to turn up at the duo's $1.5 million contemporary manse in Stamford, Conn. Marvin Hamlisch was booked to perform.

But the party was scheduled to take place just six days after Gary Wendt informed his wife that he wanted to split up. What to do? "I said, 'I'll think about it,' " she recalls today. "But I went ahead with it because I didn't want to disappoint the people. They had baby sitters lined up. They had bought their dresses. So I was meeting with caterers for the party and interviewing lawyers about the divorce. And when people came through the front door that night, when we greeted everybody, they didn't have a clue."

Lorna Jorgenson Wendt contends that her training to become a high-level corporate wife pretty much began on a summer day in 1965, when she and her bridegroom packed a U-Haul trailer and drove their Mercury Cougar from their tiny hometown of Rio, Wis., to Harvard Business School.

She worked at MIT and taught music, and at the end of Gary's two years at Harvard, Lorna, like the wives of other graduates, received a "P.H.T." degree -- for "Putting Hubby Through." The certificate thereafter hung in the Wendts' various homes and, not surprisingly, was introduced as evidence during the trial.

What followed Harvard was a two-decade climb up the corporate ladder that consisted of four companies and six ever-larger homes. Lorna, like so many women of the time, was designated as the housewife who would keep the home fires burning so Gary could focus on being the breadwinner.

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