Forever After

As their storied romance faces its most difficult chapter, Marvin and Jeanne Mandel hold tight to their memories -- and each other.

Cover Story

February 11, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Sun Staff

Windows line the back of Jeanne Mandel's sprawling brick home on a hill outside Annapolis, affording soothing views of Mill Creek below. But Jeanne trains her gaze on her husband as he moves around the sunroom, waiting for him to look back with those dark, soulful eyes that can see into her heart.

Even after all these years, Marvin Mandel can hardly keep his eyes off his wife -- her shoulder-length blond hair, her glowing skin, her smile. Their deep emotional bond -- forged in secret and tested in the glare of public scrutiny -- is palpable. He caresses her cheek, playfully touches the tip of her nose and gives her a kiss. "How you doin', babe?"

She can't answer him, except with her eyes.

It has been nearly four decades since their eyes first met: He was an older man with power and position; she was a younger woman with beauty and ambition. Both were already married. The attraction was instant, overwhelming -- and impossible to indulge without hurting almost everyone they cared about.

For more than 10 years, they romanced in secret. When he finally declared her the woman he loved, he was the governor of Maryland, living with his wife in Annapolis. Barbara Mandel refused to leave the governor's mansion, holding it hostage for nearly six months. It was high drama.

Men chortled at this improbable Romeo, so utterly swept away that he risked everything -- including his political future -- for a beauty 17 years younger. Women cackled at this scarlet woman, her bold bid to lay claim to someone else's man, to become his second First Lady. Buzz about Marvin's prospects as a national political figure was replaced with snickers at his role in a national soap opera.

Theirs was a story of epic proportions. He would become one of Maryland's most accomplished leaders, yet he would go to jail for taking favors from friends who got rich along the way. And she would be blamed for his downfall. Hadn't the public scandal over their relationship simply pointed the way for those who were out to get him?

When his power was gone -- when he went from putting his signature on state laws to sorting laundry in a federal prison -- gossips expected the love of his life to pack her bags, too, and leave him.

But the busybodies were wrong about almost everything. The romance was real and deep. She stuck by him through the worst humiliations, giving him a reason to go on. And now he is doing the same for her, coping as best he can with a twist of fate that leaves him, at 80, with the care of his incapacitated, 63-year-old wife.

Five years of assault by the neurological killer ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease, have robbed Jeanne's ability to control all but some facial muscles. She can't talk; she can't eat or breathe on her own. Her alert mind is held captive inside a once sleek and vigorously active body. She can communicate only through the intellect, spirit and emotion that shine through her eyes.

Marvin cares for her with doting tenderness. He reads her the morning headlines. He shops for fresh vegetables to make juice she can ingest through a tube. He sits with her and watches television, usually resisting entreaties for a night out with friends. He takes her on car rides to bucolic spots on the Eastern Shore. He forges into Nordstrom with Jeanne in her oxygen-equipped wheelchair to buy her stylish new shoes.

Marvin is able to summon the necessary energy because he has aged well. A few extra pounds show at his waist, and deep circles underscore those expressive eyes. But he's instantly recognizable -- even without the trademark pipe he gave up 11 years ago. He's still practicing law and talking politics. The Mandel aura -- part charisma, part power -- remains. Friends worry about the strain of his caregiver duties, but he is holding fast to Jeanne.

The two risked everything to be together, and some say they have had to pay for their impudence. Those close to Marvin's first wife note the irony that Barbara is healthy and thriving. But the former governor has no regrets. Life has been wonderful -- is wonderful, he says -- because he and Jeanne have what matters most: each other.

Memories of their life together comfort him. He sees a timeless love story, one he is willing to share as a tribute to his wife. He hopes it will be something he can read to her and prompt that small expression he recognizes as her smile, the sign that he's still pleasing her.

He lives for that smile. He gets a goofy look on his face when he's asked to remember when he saw it for the first time.

The old stone walls of the 200-year-old Maryland Inn resonated with the rowdy boisterousness of a familiar ritual. It was January 1963, and a new General Assembly had convened, launching a social season in Annapolis that represented a reunion of veterans, an orientation in life away from home for newcomers.

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