Taking Action Is Best Revenge for First Wives

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A doormat wife gets her life together only to find her middle-age husband is having an affair with her therapist.

A helpmate wife and mother scrapes by while her husband leads a lavish lifestyle with a young chippy.

An aging movie actress starts drinking after her husband goes for a teenager--and her assets.

It's not revenge, the three heroines of "The First Wives Club" sweetly insist after they pay back these midlife galoots by blackmailing them into financing a women's crisis center. It's justice.

Actually, for many middle-age divorced women, it's "wish fulfillment," according to Olivia Goldsmith, author of the book that inspired the current hit movie. While the stories were inspired by people she knew, she said, "Women don't really have most of those options."

Despite its glitz and humorous veneer, the comedy has struck an exposed nerve among women older than 50--who if they haven't been abandoned already are fearful they will be. While the divorce rate has dipped recently to about 40%, according to the U.S. Census, still more than 60% of the 10.1 million divorced women in the U.S. are older than 40.

Our era's infatuation with divorce and social acceptance of wife shucking is to blame, Goldsmith suggested.

"In the old days, men might have played around and had mistresses on the side. They didn't abandon their wives and children. They weren't allowed to. Society would not have accepted it," she explained. Lately, she noted, high profile examples are easily found in men like Donald Trump, who announced his engagement while still married to the mother of his children. Even public proponents of family values, such as Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, left their first wives after long marriages.

Sociologists have long documented the emotional and financial free fall of many women and their children after divorce. Some believe it has worsened due to a backlash against feminism, rising support for fathers' rights, judicial and governmental ineptitude, or because women themselves continue to strive for society's impossibly mixed imperatives ("Be independent, nurturing and have thin thighs").

Even in the '90s, many women still regard divorce as failure and can't bear the possibility of further humiliation and defeat. In the movie, the three college chums unite for action after a fourth friend, whose tycoon husband has left her for a younger woman, leaps to her death from her penthouse.

"We've seen several suicides," said Monica Getz, founder of the Coalition for Family Justice, a national support and advocacy group based in Irvington-on-the-Hudson in New York. The major problem, she said, is that when women fight for their legal rights or for custody, they typically face a formidable "combination of an aggressive, powerful spouse, hiring an aggressive, powerful attorney, and the court system being power-friendly rather than family-friendly."

"Women, unfortunately, go into this like lambs to the slaughter. We have this visual image of Bambi in open season," she said.

"Family law is disgusting," agreed Lomita attorney Pat Barry, who gave up taking cases of embattled divorcees who could not afford to litigate in courts, where gender bias is pervasive. "If I fight back, it escalates the fees. You try to talk sense [to the other side]. They just laugh. They know the judge will always side with the rich man."

This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case of a woman who lost all her parental rights because she didn't have $2,000 to appeal a custody decision.

Some women are driven to action by their quest for justice--or revenge. One 50-year-old California woman, who lost her home and children after her doctor husband left her for a succession of younger women, has been waging a custody and support battle for eight years. " 'Justice' would be having him penniless," she said. "I would like him to be financially unable to support himself. I'd like him to be maimed and to have no penis."

Success stories, however, are rare enough that real-life heroines like Marilyn Kane are elevated to the cover of People magazine and booked for speaking engagements. A New York real estate agent, Kane once faced eviction while her ex-husband, who owed $580,000 in child support, went to Hawaii with his new wife and sent her a postcard: "Having a ball. Glad you're not here." Last year, a judge sent him to jail until he could come up with at least $68,000 of what he owed.

(Unlike many others, she said she enjoyed emotional and financial support from her second husband to carry on the fight.)

"If justice is getting even, then yes, I got even," Kane said.

Kane said she never felt malice toward her ex-husband, Jeffrey Nichols. What made her pursue litigation relentlessly, she said, was her belief in "justice and democracy." Said Kane: "I knew the laws were in place. I would not allow those to be set aside and ignored."

Some advocates worry that the movie, or at least the promotional clips on TV, continue to promote stereotypes of ex-wives as jealous, vindictive or greedy. In a cameo at the end, blond and bejeweled Ivana Trump brightly advises the heroines: "Don't get mad. Get everything!"

Geraldine Jensen, founder of the Assn. for Children for Enforcement of Support, said the average mother seeking child support is not married to a mogul or tycoon. "She is more like me. He worked at a factory. I worked as a nurse's aide. I got the house and the house payment. He got the good car, I got the old car. He paid $250 for six months and then stopped."

When she couldn't meet the house payment, she and her children became homeless. "Every time I went to the government, they had another reason why they couldn't help me. I wore myself out and I got sick." Finally, in 1984, she organized ACES. "The phone has not stopped ringing," she said.

"The same government agency that didn't help me is the same one that helps only 20% [of parents with support orders] today. It's sad," she said, "but it's an improvement."

One of the movie's truths, she said, is that the only way women will survive the current callous climate is to band together. "Alone, we're not making it," Jensen said.

Charlotte Coats, 48, a Tustin attorney who handles divorce and custody cases, lived through her own such battles 15 years ago.

She and her first husband divorced when she was 33. But the movie brought back memories of her clients, and of her parents: They split a few months after their 25th wedding anniversary after her father's "midlife crisis," Coats said.

"I did see the movie," she said of "The First Wives Club." "I thought it was just absolutely a really good movie. . . . It's certainly in a lot of instances not necessarily what real life is about it.

"And my primary reason for going," she admitted with a laugh, "was I thought I might get some good ideas to pass along laughs to the moms I represent! I think we all kind of fantasize we could do that stuff. . . . I think for somebody . . . like us to go see it, it is really good because they did what we didn't have the opportunity to do."

Members of a real first wives club in Los Angeles said their group has helped them let go and move on.

Rather than revenge, the goal of LADIES (Life After Divorce Is Eventually Sane), formed 14 years ago by ex-wives of Hollywood celebrities, was healing and mutual support.

"In the end, living well is the best revenge," said Sandi Nimoy, 64, who was divorced eight years ago from "Star Trek" star Leonard Nimoy. She said she suffered a breakdown after the public breakup of her 33-year marriage and had to learn who she was besides somebody's wife.

"Now I'm not somebody's wife. I have built my own image," she said. "I say to people, if I can make it, anybody can make it."

The other women not only provided social support, she said, but they also exchanged valuable information about which lawyers to trust and accompanied one another to court.

Now, the former celebrity wives are helping other women become emotionally and financially independent, speaking at community colleges and volunteering at organizations such as Women Helping Women Services in Los Angeles and Women Work! in Washington, D.C.

The hardest women to reach, Nimoy said, are wives like she was--those who "don't want to give up the fantasy that it's never going to happen to them. . . . We have to look at it a little more pragmatically."

Whatever strategies women use after a marital breakup can't compare to prevention, said Judith Lichtman, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Women's Legal Defense Fund, a national advocacy organization.

Given the current situation of unequal economic power between men and women, she said, "The extent to which we have jobs and economic security that's not dependent on a man's income is directly related to the extent to which you have a better bargaining position."

What's more, she said, "We do need to look at ways of encouraging people that making a decision to marry ought to be serious and introspective and thoughtful.

"What does it mean to be married the rest of my life, in sickness and in health? Do I mean it? What does it mean to parent kids? Who's going to pay for sustenance and support?

"And am I prepared to make those commitments?"

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Orange County Resources

Support groups and resources are available throughout the county for divorcing women. Many city governments, hospitals, churches, colleges and women's organizations offer hotlines and help. Meetings may require prior registration. A small sampling:

Orange County Bar Assn.: (714) 440-6700. Has several information hotlines but suggests the following agencies depending on need:

* Legal Action Workshop, (714) 633-2840, a privately owned firm offering cost-effective help for people, especially in divorce and domestic violence cases, who represent themselves but receive advice from lawyers.

* The Legal Aide Society of O.C., (714) 835-8806.

* Info Link: an information service that connects people with resources, (714) 955-CALL.

* Modest Means Referral Service, (714) 440-6747. A lower-cost lawyer referral group.

Women's Opportunities Center at UC Irvine: (714) 824-7128. Run through the university extension program. Some offerings:

* Women in Transition support group led by therapist Joy Johnson meets from 9:30 to 10:45 a.m. Wednesdays, 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursdays. First-time visitors attend once for free. Yearly membership, which covers most center meetings and services, is $60.

* Upcoming workshops: Financial Aspects of Divorce, Oct. 17 and Nov. 21. Fee: $15. Everything You Want to Know About Divorce, led by a clinical psychologist and a family law attorney, Nov. 2. Fee: $30 for members, $40 others. Other groups address job hunting.

St. Joseph Hospital's Community Counseling Services in Orange: (714) 771-8243. New Divorce Recovery Support Group starts Nov. 4, meeting consecutive Mondays, 5 to 6:30 p.m., through Dec. 9. Facilitator is Deborah Snell, a licensed marriage, family and child counselor. Fee: $5.

Mature Women's Support Group in Laguna Beach: (714) 497-1520. Led by psychotherapist Pam Moldauer for women mostly over 40 undergoing divorce and other major life changes. Call before attending. Wednesdays, 5 to 6:30 p.m. Fee: $30.

Divorce Workshop in Newport Beach: Conducted the third Saturday of each month, by marriage and family counselor Maxine Cohen, at her office. (714) 759-0579. Fee: $40. 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

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