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.
Schaefer was already with Snoops at that time, so that's as far as it went, Bell said. But seeds of their May-December romance were already planted. Schaefer turned 50 the day he won his first term as mayor, and it was Bell who presented him with a birthday cake at his election night victory party. The next day, the News American ran a photo of the mayor-elect, who seemed to be eyeing the young cake-bearing blonde.
Bell never again worked on a Schaefer campaign, but the two stayed close. They'd go to lunch once a week, sometimes with his mother. He'd pick her up in his chauffeur-driven mayor's sedan, quite a kick for a secretary working at Baltimore Stevedoring. They'd meet at Fort McHenry and feed the ducks.
"I never had a birthday without a present, Easter without a basket," she said. "We were just wonderful friends. We always said 'I love you' from 1971 on."
In their minds, she said, they weren't dating, just flirting. Still, Schaefer was jealous when she started seeing someone at City Hall. The City Hall employee soon broke it off, she said. "We can't go out anymore," the worker told her. "The mayor won't talk to me."
Though Schaefer was clearly interested in Bell, he showed no signs of parting with Snoops. Bell said she had no hard feelings toward Snoops. Snoops, after all, had paired up with Schaefer first and Bell said she respected that.
A couple of years into their cat-and-mouse game, Bell married a city firefighter. Schaefer attended the wedding and posed for a picture with the bride, who wore a lacy gown and billowing veil topped with a crown. In a brown business suit, blue shirt and wide '70s tie, he looks like a slightly underdressed groom with his arm around his beaming bride.
As the newlyweds were about to set off in a limousine, the mayor rapped on the back window. They put it down, and he threw rice into their faces. Bell thought it was hilarious. Her new husband was furious.
"They were absolutely jealous of each other," Bell said.
Within a decade, the marriage was over. Bell removed all of the wedding photos from her white, leather-bound wedding album — except for her portrait with Schaefer. Eventually she filled the album back up again, with new photos of herself and Schaefer, taken as their relationship grew closer.
Bell remembers the precise moment her long friendship with Schaefer officially became a romance. Snoops was gone, and the two had just finished lunch at the Sheraton in Baltimore. They'd been meeting for years there every Sunday after going separately to their respective churches for services (she to the German Lutheran church on Beason Street, he to Old St. Paul's Episcopal).
Schaefer, then Maryland comptroller, told his driver to wait for him at the car while he walked Bell to hers. He and Bell headed through the hotel corridors toward the garage.
"He grabbed me and gave me the biggest kiss — and I walked into a wall," she said, laughing at the memory.
Schaefer sent Bell affectionate little notes, which she keeps in a cookie tin.
"Jeanne — Wow!!" reads one, signed with a big "D" with a smiley face drawn inside.
"You beautiful thing you!!" reads another.
They were officially dating, but Bell stayed out of the limelight. She went to a few political functions but found she didn't enjoy them. She'd rather have Schaefer over to her rowhouse, where they'd sit out front together and chat with neighbors.
Some of the friends Schaefer had made through politics became her friends, too. When Schaefer started spending holidays with Bell and her family, Gene Raynor, the former city and state elections chief, always came along. Schaefer and Bell often dined at the home of Brice and Shirley Phillips of Phillips Seafood. There was the memorable time when the phone rang at Schaefer's house and it was former President George H.W. Bush, whom Schaefer endorsed over Bill Clinton in 1992, to the dismay of fellow Democrats. Bush asked Schaefer what he was doing. "Sitting here with my lady friend," he replied to Bell's delight.
But for the most part, Schaefer's life with Bell was ordinary. They'd garden at his Pasadena townhouse, or tend to potted plants on the deck when gardening became too strenuous for him. They spent time together in his double-wide trailer in Ocean City. If they ventured out someplace where he'd draw a crowd — to Wal-Mart, which the bargain-hunting Schaefer adored, or the Boardwalk — Bell would step back and let the fans flock. She'd shop, or step into the arcade, until Schaefer had soaked up enough public adoration for the moment. And then he would turn back to Bell.
Bell's name only popped up in public in 2008, when she tried to help Schaefer thwart longtime aide Lainy LeBow-Sachs' plan to move him to Charlestown Retirement Community against his will. Schaefer transferred his power of attorney from the aide to Bell in the midst of the battle, and Bell's name wound up in news reports. Her name surfaced again after Schaefer's will, written in 2009, became public after his death in April. He left her his stamp and plate collections. In an earlier version of the will, written in 2005, he had left Bell money and real estate worth about $860,000.
It is not clear why Bell was all but written out of the current will. She has said that she does not intend to challenge the will and that she was glad Schaefer left her something of sentimental value.
Schaefer's move to Charlestown put physical and emotional distance between them. Bell never visited him there; her name was not on a list of approved visitors. They only saw each other once in his final three years, when they met at his Ocean City trailer for a long weekend.
But they continued to talk by phone. Bell kept a series of voicemails Schaefer left her in his final months. One playfully asks if she's out with some "handsome young fella." His voice is weaker in the others. "Just me," he says. "Just don't feel good. Never feel good."
He'd given her a ring once. It was Christmas 2003 or 2004, Bell isn't sure which. After a day with her family, Bell returned with Schaefer to his Pasadena townhouse for the night. He handed her a box, which she opened to find a platinum band with three diamonds. He put it on her finger. And that was it. No "will you marry me?" No setting of a date.
"He had that silly little smile," she said. "He said, 'You you like it?' I said, 'I love it.' But he told Raynor we were engaged."
They never did get to the altar, and Bell said she never really expected they would.
"He was a bachelor," she said. "He wasn't going to do that, and I didn't think I wanted to get married again. … We were two single people who were in love. We treated each other with respect. We had fun. We laughed. We enjoyed one another thoroughly. … He was sweet. He was wonderful. He was my Donald."