Her own woman

Times Staff Writer

I’m the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris,

and I have enjoyed it. -- President John F. Kennedy, 1961

I’m getting to be the guy who accompanies Teresa around the United States of America, which is just fine by me. -- Sen. John F. Kerry,

at his Feb. 17 Wisconsin victory party


Turns out that John Kerry -- whose initials, for those who haven’t noticed, are JFK -- isn’t the only one straining toward the comparison.

In the chilly foyer of a University of Wisconsin athletic arena the day before her husband evoked America’s most glamorous first lady, a local newspaper reporter beat Kerry to the punch. “A couple people mentioned that you remind them of Jackie Kennedy,” she told Teresa Heinz.


This might seem a generous compliment, considering that Kennedy was not yet 35 when her husband ran for president and Heinz is 65. As it turns out, though, the comparison is not without validity. (Common threads: Marriages to senators from Massachusetts with presidential aspirations. Good looks, excellent fashion taste, gobs of money. Tragic events resulting in early widowhood. Whispery -- some might say sexy -- voices. Handsome sons whose dating adventures become tabloid fodder.)

“I didn’t know her,” Heinz said of Kennedy. “When I came to this country, she was out of public life, and so I don’t know what she was like. I work at different things than she did.”

Currently, of course, Heinz is working on her second husband’s campaign to secure the Democratic nomination for president. Even for a woman who famously intends to remain herself, this has required some adjustment.

A little more than a year ago, after seven years of marriage, she changed her voter registration from Republican to Democrat. (Her first husband, Pennsylvania Sen. John Heinz III, was a moderate Republican.) And now, after a near-lifetime of calling herself Teresa Heinz, her official biography identifies her as Teresa Heinz Kerry. In a Madison coffee shop, where she sipped a latte between events, she was asked about the decision to add Kerry to her name. “No decision,” she replied. “My official name is still Teresa Heinz.”

“But,” it is pointed out, “you just signed a bunch of campaign posters ‘Teresa Heinz Kerry.’ ”

She shrugged. “Because it’s political stuff....If I only put ‘Teresa Heinz’ it would be ‘Why?’ And ‘Ya ya ya.’ My official name is my official name, and I wouldn’t change one iota. His married sister has her maiden name. His sister-in-law married to his brother has her maiden name. It really isn’t a big deal.”

Ah, but even the smallest things become a big deal when your husband is a serious contender for the presidency.

At this point in the political season, the narratives around the major characters have taken shape. Vietnam veteran John Kerry, 60, has gravitas; son-of-a-mill worker John Edwards, 50, offers hope to the working class, etc. etc. Elizabeth Edwards, 54, a former lawyer, is a harried mom and self-deprecating helpmate. Teresa Heinz, already a renowned philanthropist, environmentalist and proponent of early childhood education, is not as easy to pigeonhole.

Evoking Hillary Clinton far more than Kennedy, Heinz inspires multiple, conflicting views: She is John Kerry’s secret weapon. She is John Kerry’s Achilles’ heel. Campaign aides quiver because she speaks her mind. Voters love her because she speaks her mind. Her vast wealth will help him. Her vast wealth will hurt him. She is unfocused in public appearances. She is refreshingly unrehearsed.

For journalists anyway, Heinz is a refreshing departure from the reined-in candidate’s wife. Last week, Laura Bush told the Associated Press, “I’m actually very disciplined. I don’t really have to watch everything I say because I’m pretty well-behaved.”

Deliciously, Heinz refuses to stay above the fray.

“Another thing that drives me crazy, and I hope I don’t offend anyone here, is Wal-Mart,” she told a group of Democratic women activists at a luncheon in St. Paul last Tuesday. “They destroy communities.”

When a local reporter in Madison asked her, the day before the Wisconsin primary, about an Internet report that news organizations were investigating a romantic link between Kerry and a young reporter, she said disdainfully, “That Drudge....He’s such a smudge.”

Another reporter tried a different approach: “The political right is starting to poke at you. You experienced some of that when John was in the Senate.

“Which John?” she interrupts sharply. “Kerry?”

“No,” he says, “Heinz.”

“I don’t care what they say,” she replies. “That is their problem.”

The reporter persisted: “The thing they always try to do to you is position you as the exotic....”

Heinz erupted: “I know! I mean, Rush Limbaugh has been going after my scarves and the fact that I have unruly hair! Give me a break!”

‘Nature and man’

Later that afternoon, in a brown pantsuit with one of her trademark scarves draped over a shoulder, Heinz stood on a small raised platform at the Great Dane, a brewpub in the shadow of Madison’s capitol building. Her audience consisted of about 40 environmental leaders. She looked at least 10 years younger than her age (she has admitted to Botox but not to plastic surgery) and wore minimal makeup. In her soft, accented voice, she talked about growing up in Mozambique, the former Portuguese colony off the east coast of Africa, with a physician father who taught her about “the relationship between nature and man and nature and health and therefore survival.”

“I was never bitten by a snake or a scorpion, never got my toes nibbled by a shark,” she said. “You know, a lot of South Africans used to come to our country ... and they used to go swimming at all hours and they didn’t come back, because they got nibbled for cocktails and so on and so forth, so learning that was very much part of my formation.”

It seemed a bit of a ramble, but “the point is,” as she is fond of saying, “a lot of the work that I do today as an environmentalist is about health.”

She spoke knowledgeably about mercury and dioxins, about her expansive definition of “environmental justice,” then tried to tie it up with a segue to Kerry that didn’t quite go as planned:

“And so I met my late husband. No, I met my first husband. No, my first husband introduced me to my late husband. No, wait. What am I saying? And I haven’t even had any wine.” She sighed.

“John Heinz, my late husband, introduced me on Earth Day 1990 to John Kerry because they were both speaking on the steps of the Capitol.” The next time she bumped into Kerry, she said, was in 1992 at the United Nations Earth Day Summit in Rio de Janeiro. “And so the environment has been a thread that has brought us together.”

Though she sometimes mixes up her husbands and sometimes gets so engrossed talking about the work she has funded that she forgets to talk about Kerry, her friends and supporters think she has come a long way since the early days of the campaign.

In St. Paul, Minn., at a women’s luncheon, Sylvia Kaplan hung around after the event to chat about Heinz. Kaplan and her husband, Sam, are co-chairs of Kerry’s Minnesota campaign. Last May, they threw a bash for Kerry at their lakeside home. Kerry had to bow out and sent Heinz in his stead. “She probably went on a bit too long,” said Kaplan. “People at our house wanted to talk politics. They finally had to say, ‘Well, how are you gonna get John elected?’ And we got her to focus more on her husband. She has really grown. She has a great heart and a great intellect. She is not going to be a narrow first lady.”

A life of privilege

Although she says she would be happy “in the bush,” Heinz’s background is one of privilege. Her Portuguese father was an oncologist; her mother came from a wealthy family.

Teresa Simoes Ferreira was sent to boarding school at 12. According to her official biography, she graduated from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg with a degree in romance languages and literature and attended graduate school at the Interpreters School of the University of Geneva. She met Heinz, heir to the condiment fortune, in Switzerland, moved to the States to be closer to him, and worked at the United Nations in New York as a language consultant before marrying him in 1966.

Their union, by all accounts, was happy and fulfilling. They raised three sons, the youngest of whom was a high school senior when his father’s plane collided with a helicopter over a Pennsylvania schoolyard in 1991.

Upon John’s death, Teresa Heinz became steward of an immense family fortune. Although she was recently knocked off the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans, her personal wealth has been estimated at more than $550 million. (“Whatever it is, it’s never as high as they say,” she said.) The entities that make up the family’s philanthropic pursuits have about $1.2 billion in assets, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, and in 2002 ranked 26 on the list of 229 American foundations.

‘It’s what I have’

She lives the moneyed life one might expect: multiple homes, including retreats in Sun Valley and on Nantucket; her own Gulfstream II (the Flying Squirrel); a penchant for Chanel. (“The point is,” she said, “that’s not who I am, it’s what I have.”) She also has a coterie of high-end, ultra-loyal friends, some of whom have been in her life for more than 30 years, who alternate being at her side at all times on the campaign trail.

The circle includes Diana Walker, a Time magazine photographer whose husband, Mallory Walker, is on the board of trustees of the Heinz Endowments; philanthropist Wren Wirth, whose husband Tim Wirth, a former U.S. Senator from Colorado, heads Ted Turner’s U.N. Foundation; Melinda Blinken, daughter of legendary producer-director Howard Koch, whose investment banker husband Alan Blinken was Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Belgium; and Allyn Stewart, a single Los Angeles film producer who, at 47, describes herself as “the little brat of the gang.” They often spend winter holidays in Sun Valley; for many years they have gathered at the Heinz home, a converted 15th century English barn, for a small Christmas lunch and a bigger New Year’s Eve party.

These friends, who call her T, uniformly bristle when they hear the now-familiar criticism of Teresa: she fidgets on stage next to Kerry, she doesn’t look happy, she recoils at his embrace.

“I see that and I guess it’s hard to define,” said Stewart, “but when she’s standing in front of a huge group of people, she kind of goes shy for a minute, I can sense it. She is listening. She does not drift.”

The Kerry-Heinz marriage is the subject of enduring curiosity; what kind of union is formed between two accomplished, middle-aged people, one divorced, one widowed, both with long-standing public lives, large portfolios and grown children?

At rallies, Kerry, who has two grown daughters, has unabashedly told crowds “I long for her.” And she is frank about craving something deeper than what is available to spouses who campaign separately “nine days a week,” as she put it, and lead “not a life, but an existence.”

“Since I have been married, we have had two Senate campaigns, and now this one,” she said. “It doesn’t leave you a lot of time, does it? Well, it’s certainly a hunt ... for a relationship, right? It’s hard.”

As for the rigors of a campaign that has already turned personally nasty and promises to get worse, Heinz is resigned:

“You become a football field that people punt on....You know what? I just don’t care. The other day I was being told that Chelsea, poor Chelsea, has a child by a Martian now. So Hillary has a Martian grandchild, can you imagine? People print this stuff? That’s an aberration, but the point is, people write what they want to write, and in America the 1st Amendment is the 1st Amendment.”