Bill's Mom, Wife: A 'Cultural' Rift

WASHINGTON -- When Bill Clinton first brought Hillary Rodham home, his mother, Virginia Kelley, "didn't know what to think."


"No makeup. Coke-bottle glasses. Brown hair with no apparent style," wrote Kelley in a memoir to be published posthumously next month. "Even though Roger and I were polite, I guess our expressions gave us away, because the minute Hillary went to her bedroom to unpack her bag, Bill shot us a withering look."


"'I want you to know that I've had it up to here with beauty queens,'" young Clinton told them, lecturing his mother and half brother like "two bad children."


Beautiful women had been as much a part of Clinton's Arkansas landscape as his political ambitions, but by the time he brought Hillary Rodham home to Hot Springs to meet his mother in the early 1970s he made it clear that it was brains that now mattered to him -- not looks. "I have to have somebody I can talk with. Do you understand that?" he demanded.


Describing the let's-get-things-straight session in the family kitchen, Kelley writes in her autobiography, "Leading With My Heart: My Life," being published by Simon & Schuster, that as law students at Yale, Bill and Hillary were "very much of their time" -- which meant scruffy hair with T-shirts, jeans and sandals to match.


Both of Kelley's sons had grown up with what she calls "an image of womanhood" that started at home "with their coiffed and painted mother" and went right on to an endless parade of beauty-pageant young women. But Hillary was nothing like them.


Kelley, who authored the book with Arkansas writer James Morgan in the year following her son's inauguration as president, died of breast cancer on Jan. 6.


In a moving account of her life that began in poverty in a tiny Arkansas town, she describes a strong-willed, angry mother and a gentle, loving father and the crises she weathered throughout much of her 70 years. Married five times to four husbands and widowed by three of them, she offers a telling glimpse of being a single mother who worked -- she was a nurse anesthetist -- before the era of day care, family leave and flextime.


She claims to have been "jolted" though not "shattered" by revelations that her first husband, Bill Clinton's father, had been married a third time before marrying her. Hurt and confused, she says she nonetheless facetiously told her son when news reached him of a "supposed half brother," that he might expect 20 or 30 more half siblings before the revelations were over. She went to her grave doubting that her World War II bridegroom had ever married a third time before her.


Of her early rocky relationship with her daughter-in-law, Virginia Kelley offers in her own defense her provincial, Depression-era Southern upbringing, in which she never had much to do with "Yankees" like the highly educated, cosmopolitan Hillary Rodham.


"Bill may be appalled to read this, though I think he understood what was happening better than Hillary and I did," Kelley writes. "I know he's told a friend, 'There was almost a kind of cultural tension between Mother and Hillary.' I guess that's as good a way to put it as any."


Kelley leaves little doubt that there was more than "cultural tension" between herself and the strong-minded Hillary. "I might have resented her being a lot smarter than I am," writes Kelley, adding that she had never been jealous in her life "and I'm not going to admit it here. But I might've been intimidated a little bit. There's no question that this was -- and is -- the smartest woman I've ever encountered."


The "quiet, cool, unresponsive" Hillary hadn't particularly taken to Kelley and her younger son. Kelley describes herself in those days as "a mahogany brown woman with hot pink lipstick and a skunk stripe in her hair," and her younger son as "a budding rock musician." Kelley and Roger acted like they wished Hillary "would hop the next plane out," Kelley writes.


Kelley says it was her third husband, hairdresser Jeff Dwire, who first recognized that Hillary and Virginia were "two women so much alike it was funny."


Eventually faced with the cold, hard reality that she might be putting her son in the position of having to choose between herself and Hillary, Kelley says her "conversion" was almost "biblical." In a letter she subsequently wrote to Hillary, she asked forgiveness. And a happy ending might have ensued except that when Bill told her Hillary intended to keep her own name after they were married, Kelley remembers that she started to cry.


Shocked by such a radical departure from custom, Kelley remembers thinking it had to have been "some new import from Chicago."


Kelley called it "high praise" that Hillary described her as "a feminist who would never describe herself that way," noting with pride that her daughter-in-law believed Virginia to be a woman who never allowed herself "to be demeaned or victimized or subordinated in any fashion."


Adds Kelley in the memoir: "And there's a lot of truth in it."