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Worlds Away From Watergate : Mo Dean Writes a Steamy but Savvy Novel While Redefining Her Kewpie Doll Image

Times Staff Writer

That summer of 1973, she was the perfect Washington wife, standing by her man no matter what. Impeccably dressed, flawlessly made up, her hair pulled back into a polished bun, she mesmerized the nation with the silent vigil she kept behind her husband’s witness table day after day at the Watergate hearings while his testimony brought down a President.

What a difference 14 years can make.

Yes, she still is married to John Dean, only now they live in Coldwater Canyon. Yes, she still has that doll-like delicacy at age 42, only now that shocking crown of platinum has been warmed to a honey color. And yes, she is keeping another vigil--only this time, she is a licensed stockbroker sitting slumped in her wood-paneled office at Shearson Lehman Brothers watching the market go down, down, down .

“It’s a good thing these windows don’t open,” quips Maureen (Mo) Dean, her blue-green eyes fixed on her computer screen for the latest Dow Jones average. “But I know it’ll be OK . . . I was able to live through Watergate and all the things that happened to me personally afterwards, so I will live through this.

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“It’s not the end of the world.”

She pauses for a moment, perhaps remembering what the end of her world was like--when her husband was reviled as a liar, when he was sentenced to prison, when he was disbarred from practicing law, when he had to start all over. “And anyway,” she adds, “if it hadn’t been for all of those events, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now talking to you about a fun book I wrote.”

The book is “Washington Wives,” Dean’s steamy but savvy just-published novel about ambition, greed, sex and social maneuvering in and out of the bedrooms of the nation’s capital--a sort of Potomac version of Jackie Collins’ “Hollywood Wives.” She claims it’s not a roman a clef. But just by writing it, Dean expects that, once and for all, people will find out what her friends and clients already know--"that I’m not just this kewpie doll that sat behind John.”

“She’s the most deceptive kind of woman,” explains Pamela Mason, widow of actor James Mason and part of Dean’s inner circle of Beverly Hills friends. “She looks very sweet and simple and innocent--a little ‘piece of fluff’ type of woman. But she is much more solid than that. That’s why her friends call her ‘Moby’ Dean.”

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It was Dean who decided after the Watergate scandal that she and her husband should start life anew in her native Southern California. Her mother was dying of cancer, and she wanted to be nearby. “Besides, there was nothing left for us in Washington at that stage. And I thought it would be a good place for John to get away.”

Santa Monica College Dropout

Raised near the Hughes Aircraft plant in Mar Vista, an area she once described as “a hole in the doughnut of affluence,” with a father who worked as a diamond setter (and died when she was 17) and a mother who was a factory timekeeper, Maureen Kane graduated from Notre Dame Girls Academy. After dropping out of Santa Monica City College, she worked for a San Fernando Valley insurance company and then as a stewardess for American Airlines.

But it was men, not work, that would give direction to her life early on.

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She once told of receiving a 9.5-carat diamond ring from an older man who sued unsuccessfully for its return after they broke up. She married a scout for the Dallas Cowboys--but it turned out he had never divorced his previous wife. Then in 1967, she married her high school sweetheart. It was an on-again, off-again union until he was killed in an auto accident two years later. At age 24, Dean found herself a widow.

On Nov. 13, 1970--"Friday the 13th,” as Mo likes to point out--she met John Wesley Dean III, then President Nixon’s young, bright, excessively buttoned-down counsel who, during a trip to California, looked her up on the recommendation of Rep. Barry Goldwater Jr. Two days later, John Dean asked her to spend Thanksgiving with him in the Virgin Islands, and they began a whirlwind courtship that ended six weeks later with Mo moving to Washington.

For the next year, they more or less lived together--though for appearances’ sake, she kept some clothes at a friend’s apartment. She worked for a while as a $10,470-a-year executive aide to the director of the National Committee on Marijuana and Drug Abuse. But mostly she waited for John Dean to propose.

He did--finally--and they were married in October 1972, four months after the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex.

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When Dean talks about Washington wives, she is not necessarily talking about herself, at least not then. “I think they know pretty much what they’re getting themselves into when they marry. I didn’t,” she explains.

‘Totally Apolitical’

For one thing, she was “totally apolitical” in those days. “I was just wildly in love. I only went there for John.”

Watergate to her was just another building. Even when the President called John back from their honeymoon, even when reporters phoned John at all hours at their home, even when her husband went to see Nixon at 10 p.m., “I knew nothing about the cover-up,” she recalls. “I was reading about it in the paper and I asked John, ‘What is this stuff?’ And he said, ‘Don’t believe what you read in the press. They’re just after Nixon.’ ”

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Finally, before the hearings, John sat her down. “He told me that he might end up going to jail. I didn’t believe him. I just sobbed and said, ‘No, this can’t be happening to us.’ And as it worked out, it just got worse and worse and worse.”

It was Maureen Dean who finally talked her husband into telling the truth on Capitol Hill. “He was 90% there and then I just added my two cents.” After she typed up his testimony, she told him she wanted to be at the hearings to hear him read it.

Watergate, Dean recalls, “completely turned my life upside down. I was 27 years old and a newlywed, and what I had thought my life would be--marriage to a lawyer who would come home for dinner with his family, no notoriety and what have you--became the complete opposite.”

It took her a long time, she says, to come to terms with it all.

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For one thing, they were facing “terrible” legal bills after John got out of prison, Dean notes. “It was scary. The only prospects we had were the books. And thank God for them. They helped pay legal bills and living expenses for several years.”

John Dean penned “Blind Ambition” and its sequel, “Lost Honor,” while his wife wrote--what else?--"Mo: A Woman’s View of Watergate,” with Hays Gorey of Time magazine. “It was pretty painless for me. The only really painful part was having to relive the events that are in the book,” she says. Then in 1978, “Blind Ambition” was made into an eight-hour television miniseries with actor Martin Sheen playing John and actress Theresa Russell playing Mo.

Meanwhile, John was trying to figure out what he was going to do with the rest of his life since he could no longer practice law. “The hardest thing for him was starting from scratch,” his wife recalls. When he applied for a Beverly Hills library card in 1976, he angrily tore up the form for lack of a personal reference. “I don’t have a friend,” he told the astonished librarian. “If I ever get one, I’ll come back.” Eventually, he did.

In 1980, they went into business together, starting a company called Popular Media Products that provided radio programming for syndication and was eventually sold. “Basically, I worked with John on everything--recording, editing, answering the phones, and typing letters,” Dean recalls.

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But it wasn’t easy working together. “I’m a chief and he’s a chief. So I’d have to say, ‘Look, it’s fine if you tell me what to do in the office, but don’t you dare start that at home.’ It got to be about that time that I decided I had to find a career for myself to take that pressure off the marriage.”

Many people who don’t know them, in fact, assume the Deans are divorced. Notes Mason: “The struggle to reconstruct their lives was probably very rough on their marriage. But I think they managed to rise through that and find enough in it to keep it going.”

Stress in the Marriage

Today, Dean candidly admits “there were times there was a tremendous amount of stress on the marriage. And I think those periods came when the communication broke down.” But they stayed together, says her husband, “because we love each other. And because we’re good friends, too.”

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When Dean announced she wanted a career in the stock market, some of her closest friends were shocked. “Instead of picking something easy, she went into this cuthroat business. We were quite sure she would never last it out,” Mason confides.

But Dean received her license five years ago, and today a Certificate of Achievement plaque hangs on a wall of her office. It was a “natural” choice of career, she says, since she had always handled the couple’s finances, and had kept tabs on Wall Street since she was 20 years old. “And I’m a newsaholic, which is probably the result of Watergate, so I can’t wait when I get up in the morning to turn on the radio to see what happened while I was asleep and how it’s going to affect the markets.”

Her clients confirm that they can call her at night and ask what IBM did today--and she knows. In fact, Dean takes her job so seriously that even when she’s having lunch with “just the girls,” Mason says, “she hands me a rolled up a piece of paper with the prices of all my stocks. And she does this without my even asking.”

John Dean, meanwhile, has decided not to apply for readmission to the bar as other Watergate figures have done. Instead, he says he is “quite content” arranging for the buying and selling of medium-range Southern California companies through a network of contacts he has developed over the years. Still, he had a hard time adjusting to what he thought was going to be a laid-back California business climate. “I thought most of the men my age were into gold chains and fuzzy shirts. Then I discovered there was a Brooks Brothers in Century City,” he says.

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‘People Leave You Alone’

Today, the couple are L.A.-based for good. “I can’t visualize living anywhere where I have to buy snow tires,” John Dean quips. But what the couple cherishes most about Los Angeles is that it gave them back their privacy. “You close your door at night and people leave you alone. If you want to live a quiet life, you can,” Mo Dean says. “But the phone still rings off the hook when some event happens or if Nixon says something.”

The Deans are a hit on the Beverly Hills social circuit, especially Mo. “She was so strikingly beautiful for one thing that people were very taken with her,” one friend notes. Their financial problems behind them, the Deans entertain grandly at home, and she shops on Rodeo Drive, so much that friends joke she virtually lives in Giorgio. And every so often, she wonders what her life would have been like if Watergate had never happened and she and John had stayed in Washington.

She was able to live out that fantasy when she began writing “Washington Wives.” The idea for the book originated with Hollywood producer Larry Gordon, who wanted material for a movie. He took the project to Arbor House, who suggested Dean should write a novel.

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At first, the publishers provided her with a writer, but Dean dismissed him because his first chapters were “tawdry. I didn’t like the characters that I was reading about. They were not sympathetic. They were hard, tough, bitchy people I would not want to know.” For the next 2 1/2 years, she penned the book herself--with John’s help. “I was in charge of verisimilitude,” he explains. ‘After all, I wrote my senior thesis in college on ‘Verisimilitude and the Political Novel.’ ”

The book--about the death of the President’s chief of staff in a hotel room during an affair with a rich beautiful woman, and the three Washington wives who might have been his lover and yet are married to the top contenders for his job--gave Dean a chance to ponder the advantages as well as the pitfalls of life in the political fast lane. The ambition. The loneliness. The alcohol, drugs or extramarital affairs used to make life bearable. The sheer emptiness of it all. And, most of all, the city she left behind. “I don’t have any bitterness anymore toward Washington. I’ve gained a totally different perspective, and I’m happy. I have moved on with my life.”

Too bad she can’t say that about the Washington wives she knew and left behind. Every so often, she talks to them. “They’re not happy,” she confides. “They indicate that everything’s fine. But you can tell by talking to someone that there’s no spark or excitement in their life . . . They’re just going through the motions every day. I try to encourage them to find something to do for themselves. But they’ve lost all confidence in themselves.

“It’s like they’ve given up.”

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Not Dean. Right now, she’s training to host a financial talk show aimed at women. And she fully intends to weather the current stock market crisis. She is so busy, in fact, that sometimes she forgets she’s famous and that people still recognize her from Watergate. “It happened to me yesterday, and I was really surprised,” she says. “I was in Robinson’s looking for shoes, and a saleswoman came up to me and said, ‘I’ve admired you for years.’

“And I looked at her and wondered, ‘Does she really know who she’s talking to?’ ”

‘I don’t have any bitterness anymore toward Washington. I’ve gained a totally different perspective, and I’m happy. I have moved on with my life.’ --Mo Dean


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