For Marilyn Quayle's 40th birthday last summer, a group of her women friends gave her a surprise party. Shortly after she arrived, they sat her on a throne and left the room. When they returned, they were wearing wigs, half of them imitating her trademark flip, the other half in a bizarre extrapolation on that theme--polyester pageboys in fluorescent orange and blue. They wore buttons with the legend "Long Live the Flip . . . Fan Club" and a picture of her at age 5 or 6 with a hair style that looks familiar.
Then they sang a song: "Ode to the Flipster," the lyrics of which remain top secret. No one laughed harder than Marilyn Quayle.
Don't feel sorry for the vice president's wife. There was a period, after the election, when she seemed to be the odd man out. Being the wife of the vice president is sort of like being Mother of the Groom--she'd be missed if she weren't there, but there isn't anything for her to do after she walks down the aisle.
Having originally planned to return to the work force last fall, Marilyn Quayle once again had to put her plans on hold to help her husband. After Dan Quayle won, there was the touchy question of what she would do. Work? Take on a worthy but uncontroversial cause? Meanwhile, she had to move, find new schools for three children and adjust to life in a fishbowl: To not being allowed to drive (the worst part) or go to the supermarket (the best).
There were times--in her attitude toward the press, in some behind-the-scenes maneuvering with the vice president's staff--that she seemed a little cranky. There were reports of her asking for a bigger office, not clearing her activities or her choice of a project (disaster preparedness) with Quayle's staff, complaining about not being able to get a job. (At one point, according to sources, she considered becoming a commentator on "USA Today on TV." The plan was to pair her with a philosophical opposite--former California governor Jerry Brown. But her husband decided the job would be too controversial and said no.) She also considered--and dropped--the idea of asking to be appointed to serve the remainder of his term in the Senate.
But now, a year after the election, things have settled down. In a brief recent interview, one of the first she has given in the vice president's residence on Massachusetts Avenue, Mrs. Quayle talked about her new life while sitting in front of a crackling fire in the first-floor library. "I'm having fun," she said. "Far more fun than I thought I'd have."
Marilyn Quayle interests the public--especially the female public--partly because of her age and her time. She personifies the baby boomer woman who arrived at adulthood prepared for intellectual respect and both worldly and personal achievement, and found that the world wasn't quite ready to let her have it all. It is safe to say that she is the first vice president's wife to have earned a law degree and the first in a long time to be dealing with the daily needs of children.
For 13 years she poured the energy she might have given to writing briefs into raising children, and by all accounts she has been the proverbial Supermom. She was involved in their schools and sports, monitored their television watching, made gingerbread houses, tended to their nutrition and their churchgoing. At the same time, she cooked for sick neighbors, attended a religious study group, paid the bills, took painting lessons, figured the income taxes, played tennis, rode horses, skied, jogged, swam and advised her husband on the issues with which he was contending in the House and then the Senate.
When she says today that the thing she misses most about her old life is driving the car pool, it makes sense. "Seriously," she said with a laugh, knowing that most mothers would be happy to turn over the transporting of children to almost any warm body with a valid driver's license. "I had a van, and I would pile everybody in, and I'd take the soccer teams, I'd take everybody everywhere. But I knew everything that was going on. I'd sit there quiet as a little mouse, listening to their conversations, and you'd really know what's going on in your children's lives."
Benjamin Quayle, 13, goes to St. Albans, and Corinne, 10, to the National Cathedral School for Girls, two schools long accustomed to the offspring of the rich and-or powerful. But Tucker, 15, is at Gonzaga, a Jesuit-run high school with a strong tradition of iconoclastic teaching and public service. Mrs. Quayle said she chose it after getting strong recommendations from graduates Pat Buchanan and William Bennett and making an unannounced tour in which she "did not see an unhappy face among the boys."
For all the enormous changes in their lives, the Quayles are still basically family-oriented, according to friends and associates. They try not to go out more than two nights a week--including at least once a week to the White House--preferring to eat dinner as a family. "It makes it easy for the staff," said Dan Quayle's press secretary, David Beckwith. "We just say no."
Marilyn Quayle has been to at least four school soccer games, and both Quayles attended each child's parent-teacher conferences. In September she cut short an appearance before a conference of emergency physicians in Washington, saying she had to attend a back-to-school night. They have not hired anyone full time for child-care duties.
Marilyn Quayle does, however, have a secret weapon--her sister, Nancy Northcutt, in Tennessee, who sounds like a contender for sainthood. She will do the Christmas shopping, as well as a lot of other shopping, for the Quayles, and she helped pack when they moved.
"She cleaned out my drawers--there are very few people who would do that for you, or who can. And she also took all of my pictures--I had them organized by year, but I had never gotten them into albums. She took all of them, put them into albums, made individual ones for the kids, and sent me this huge box of about 20 albums, organized, dated, everything. It was the most fabulous thing."
In the early months, Mrs. Quayle felt constrained by the lack of spontaneity forced by her new life--she told one group of women executives that it was the worst aspect of the job. But now she seems to have adjusted, and found ways to do what she wants, as well as outlets for what friends describe as her "prankish" sense of humor.
Ray Evans, a friend who works in the government affairs office of Hallmark Cards, was the one who organized the surprise party. She describes her relationship with Marilyn as being "fairly competitive--about tennis, about our weight, you name it." Evans arranged a meeting between Marilyn Quayle and Nancy Brinker, a wealthy Texan who heads the Komen Foundation, which is devoted to breast cancer awareness. Brinker was hoping to get her to speak at the foundation's annual awards lunch in Dallas last month.
As it happened, Quayle and Brinker hit it off, and the vice president's wife agreed to speak at the Dallas lunch--an event that would turn out to be something of a turning point for her.
But the day Evans took Brinker to the vice president's residence, Evans was wearing a new suit she had bragged about getting on sale. It was a size 10. "Too bad they didn't have it in a size 8," jabbed Mrs. Quayle as she admired it. "No way you could fit into an 8," Evans retorted.
Not to be bested, Marilyn Quayle whipped off her skirt and demanded to try it on. Evans complied. (They were both wearing slips, in case you're wondering.) "You should have seen Nancy Brinker's face," Evans recalled. "And the stewards just flew out of there. The sad part is that the skirt was too big--she's a perfect size 8. She was just reeling me in."
When Marilyn Quayle chose emergency preparedness and disaster relief as her official focus, following on Barbara Bush's illiteracy work and Joan Mondale's promotion of the arts, a few eyebrows were raised.
First of all, she did not consult with anyone other than her own advisers before choosing it. Secondly, the general impression was that this country handles disasters pretty well, and with all the other problems in the world, her choice seemed a little odd.
Ironically, since she announced this selection, there has been a major plane crash in Iowa, a hurricane in South Carolina and an earthquake in California, focusing attention on the strengths and shortcomings of disaster preparedness as never before. "My friends say it all fell into place rather strangely," she said, laughing.
She was attracted to the idea because as a child she witnessed her parents, both physicians, help out after a skating rink collapsed.
Individual communities are fairly well-organized to handle disasters, she said, but there is not enough coordination on a national basis. "After seeing what happened in Soviet Armenia, where you lost the equivalent of the mayor, the chief of police and the fire chief--they were all dead--there was no one to carry out the plan the city had, no one to run the thing, and it pointed out that you have to look beyond your own community. . . . People had been saying that for years, but no one had been listening."
She traveled to Charleston in the wake of Hurricane Hugo, helping people in two relief centers fill out forms requesting government aid and handing out meals at a Red Cross station. More recently, she visited the San Francisco area after the earthquake and, among other things, was able to mend a political fence with the city's mayor, who was piqued that the vice president didn't stop by to see him on his tour of the devastation.
Marilyn Quayle has taken on another cause as well--the early detection and treatment of breast cancer. Again, it grew out of a personal experience: seeing her mother die of the disease at the age of 56, when Marilyn was 25, because she had neglected to get regular checkups. When Mrs. Quayle spoke at the Komen Foundation awards lunch, she wept--and others wept with her. Friends say she was surprised at the warm response, including press coverage that was overwhelmingly favorable.
"Dallas was the speech of her career," said Evans, who was there. "The magnetism was incredible. What surprised me was that she was willing to share these personal thoughts--she's a very private lady who doesn't often share intimate details. But she believed it was something worth doing."
So far, she said, her work with breast cancer and, especially, with disaster preparedness has fulfilled her "need to be a professional." But she has not eliminated the possibility that she may become the first vice president's wife to have outside employment.
"If I can get my act totally together, and things fall into place . . . I haven't ruled anything out."
The vice president apparently enjoys hearing about her going one on one with someone, asserting her well-honed independence and opinions, or what some have called obstreperousness.
"It says something about him that he can be comfortable in a marriage that's thoroughly modern," said press secretary Beckwith.
Mrs. Quayle said that after her birthday party, where she and her friends laughed "as hard as they had in years," she realized how great it felt to do that. She suggests--gently--that perhaps Washington needs to laugh a little more.
For her part, she has found she can have some fun. "I sometimes sneak out," she said mischievously. "The agents have been places with me and my friends they never dreamed of."
Where? You've got to be kidding.