Jeanne Bell, William Donald Schaefer's longtime girlfriend,… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
July 22, 2011
He was 49 and on his way to political greatness. She was 22 and picketing City Hall mostly for the fun of it.
It took hot pants to bring them together.
Paired with white go-go boots and Jeanne Bell's lithe young physique, the red short-shorts caught the eye of William Donald Schaefer as he strode past protesters outside City Hall. He looked her up and down, said he'd like her on his mayoral campaign, gave her his phone number with instructions to call, and walked off.
"Who was he?" Bell wondered.
Forty years later, it would be hard to find a Marylander who hasn't heard of Schaefer, then Baltimore City Council president, who went on to become a towering political figure as mayor, governor and state comptroller. But Bell? She has remained largely unknown, even as that chance meeting in the spring of 1971 produced a decades-long relationship with one of Maryland's most famous sons.
The bachelor politician said to have been "married to the city of Baltimore" had a richer, fuller personal life than his public image suggested.
The public knew about Hilda Mae Snoops, Schaefer's longtime companion who shared the governor's mansion with him. When she died in 1999, it was assumed that the closest thing he'd had to married life was gone, too. He was often described as a lonely man with no family but for a couple of cousins.
In fact, Schaefer had a long, intimate relationship with Bell, one that simmered for decades as a flirtatious friendship, bloomed into a romance after Snoops died and finally settled into quiet couplehood. Love notes, voicemail and photographs she's held onto over the years attest to that.
Schaefer also had a comfortable family life with Bell's relatives, sharing every major holiday with her mother, brother, nephew and others inside her Formstone rowhouse. Home movies show Schaefer leading the carols at Christmas, claiming the gizzards at Thanksgiving and, after the feast, snoozing in the Barcalounger.
"I didn't know how big a man he was," said Bell's nephew, Eric Miles.
Miles, 24, knew Schaefer not so much as the great builder and rebuilder of an aquarium and stadiums and neighborhoods, but as the funny curmudgeon who went with his aunt. Schaefer attended Miles' 16th birthday party, saw him off for his prom and gave him piles of old ties when he was starting high school at St. Jo's.
"Some of them had stains on them," said Miles, who wears the ties now to his job as a legal assistant. "He wore what he'd eat."
Miles didn't address Schaefer as governor or comptroller or, even his favorite title, mayor. He called him Uncle Donald.
Because Bell chose not to attend most political functions, she wasn't as well known as Snoops. Even some of Schaefer's closest aides were in the dark about her for years.
Mike Golden, who was Schaefer's spokesman when he was comptroller, first met Bell by chance when Schaefer was hospitalized in 2001.
"He had a scare when he thought he was having a heart attack, and they took him to University of Maryland Hospital," Golden said. "So I go to the hospital and in the waiting room is the cast of the usual suspects, [former chief of staff] Mark Wasserman, [former State Police Superintendent] Larry Tolliver. I saw this woman sitting there and I didn't recognize who she was. And I asked Larry, 'Who's that lady?' He got all antsy and secretive, and ushered me into the hallway, and swore me to secrecy and said, 'That's the governor's girlfriend.'"
Bell said her relationship with Schaefer was never meant to be a secret, just apart from his life in politics.
"Donald and I liked the quiet life," said Bell, 63. "We had a normal life. … We liked real people, not political people. You always had to put on with the political people."
Though Bell never liked politics, she found herself at a regular outside City Hall in 1971. Three busloads of Locust Pointers headed there every night to protest plans to build a bridge over Fort McHenry, an idea eventually scuttled in favor of a tunnel. City firefighters were also picketing for a raise, so it was a big party. And Bell dressed for it.
"That's what he liked, the red hot pants," she said, examining a faded snapshot of herself in the boots-and-shorts get-up.
At Schaefer's request, Bell joined a group of about 30 women volunteering on his campaign. There were all young, all outfitted in black short-shorts and orange tops. They campaigned 12 to 18 hours a day; within a month, all but Bell had quit. And that was just fine with Bell, who got special attention from Schaefer. At the end of their marathon days of campaigning, he'd personally take her home, walk her to the door and give her a good-night kiss on the cheek.