Is America ready for the wild Kerry family?

Dad may come off like a stiff, but Mom and the kids are a whole other story.


Rebecca Traister
February 3, 2004 9:41PM (UTC)

Take my wife ... please.

It has been the recent borscht-belt refrain on the campaign trail, as Democratic front-runners Howard Dean and John Kerry have unexpectedly put their controversial spouses front and center. For Dean, the need to showcase his reclusive partner, Dr. Judy Steinberg Dean, was a matter of tempering what had turned into his major stumbling block -- a reputation for fiery unorthodoxy. After yelling through his loss in Iowa, and with voters clearly under the impression that his stay-at-home doctor wife was some sort of militant careerist trying to torpedo his Big Fat Presidential Bid, the Deans did a round of press in which they demonstrated just how peaceful and normal they were: ranch house, rhododendrons, shag carpet... "We are the most boring people on earth!" they shouted -- quietly -- at anyone who would listen.

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But on the other side of the polling numbers was John Kerry, the lantern-jawed New Englander whose expressions of enthusiasm make Al Gore look like Animal from the Muppets. Kerry too, brought his family out in late January, but their aesthetic purpose seems to be the exact opposite of the Rockwellian stability that Dean -- and many past presidential hopefuls before him -- have been forced to parade in front of Diane Sawyer and her ilk. The Heinz-Kerrys are nuts! A roiling mass of beauty, brains and bad temper, the Kerry brood is the stuff that America's infatuation with nighttime drama is made of.

Kerry's wife Teresa has become a staple on the stump, along with two of her three hot sons with late husband John Heinz -- banker-heartthrob Chris and environmentalist-hambone Andre -- and Kerry's Snow White/Rose Red daughters from his first marriage, filmmaker Alexandra and medical student Vanessa. The past week has seen the Heinz-Kerrys caught up in a gossip whirlwind over whether he got Botox injections, hot on the heels of the campaign-advisor-being-edged-out-by-Teresa story line, which followed the Kerry-saying-"fuck"-in-Rolling-Stone plot, which followed the Teresa-saying-"shit"-in-Elle arc, which followed that time when Chris dated Gwyneth. I, for one, am eating it up.

Kerry's willingness to show off his eccentric clan may mean that he has figured out what appeals to America. Hint: It's not just an aggressive stance on the Iraq war or tax cuts; it's a family that rivals the Carringtons for glamorous skeletons, the Fishers for melancholy, and the Sopranos for operatic temper. The Kerry family -- unlike the dorky Deans or the aw-shucks Arkansas Clintons before them -- is a dysfunctional group deliciously ready for prime time. They provide a parade of history, tragedy and dramatic turns that 20 years ago would have landed them in South Fork and today would get them a Sunday nighttime slot on HBO.

To be fair, John Kerry himself cuts a dramatic figure worthy of Hemingway, Cheever or O'Hara -- at least on paper. And we've read it -- again and again. A Vietnam veteran, he was wounded three times and received Silver and Bronze stars for bravery while patrolling the Mekong Delta before his return to the States, where he founded Vietnam Veterans Against the War. A Boston Brahmin whose old (Forbes) family money had dripped dry over the generations, Kerry's family name and reputation got him through boarding school and Yale, where he became a member of that self-congratulatory society of machers, Skull and Bones.

Just as Virginia Clinton's dropping her first kitten "in a town called Hope" seemed almost too made-for-TV to be believed, much of Kerry's youth feels preordained, even Gumpian, as if God had decided that this baby would someday run for president, and damn if he didn't need a breathtaking story to tell on the campaign trail. After Kerry posed his famous question, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, Sen. Claiborne Pell suggested that the 27-year-old war veteran "might one day be a colleague of ours in this body." Later that year, "60 Minutes" correspondent Morley Safer asked the young man if he would like one day to become president; he said no. Married from 1970 to 1982 to Pennsylvania heiress Julia Thorne, Kerry fathered two daughters before divorcing her. Thorne later wrote "You Are Not Alone," a book about severe depression.

It all sounds intriguing. But John Kerry is the country's stiffest, most entitled-looking politician, no matter how much time he puts into activities like drinking, windsurfing, or catting around, as he did in the years following his divorce. It was during that period that he had flirtations with the gossip columns -- dating actual nighttime soap stars like Morgan Fairchild (Jordan Roberts on "Falcon Crest") and Catherine Oxenberg (Amanda Carrington Bedford von Moldavia Carrington on "Dynasty"), as well as C.Z. Guest's daughter Cornelia Guest and Ronald Reagan's daughter Patti Davis.

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He was on to something. It's all well and good to be the straight man with hidden depths of history and experience. But those deep-running waters don't amount to squat until you have a drama queen to gussy you up, to light your fire. He needed a catalytic partner. The depressive Thorne -- by all accounts a lovely woman who is now happily remarried in Montana -- had not done the trick.

A round of applause for the 65-year-old Portuguese-accented, party-switching, stump-shaking, nervous-making philanthropist widow Maria Teresa Thierstein Simoes-Ferreira Heinz Kerry, more commonly known as "Ketchup heiress Teresa Heinz." "When you're from Pittsburgh, you've got to do something," as Auntie Mame said of her frowsy, English-accented friend Vera Charles.

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Not that Heinz is from Pittsburgh, though she did spend the bulk of her adult life there. She's from Mozambique, went to college at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, then to Interpreter's school in Switzerland, and had never been to the United States before her 1966 marriage to John "57 Varieties" Heinz, who would go on to become a Republican senator from Pennsylvania. They had three sons before Heinz's death in a plane crash over a Philadelphia schoolyard in 1991. A hothouse African orchid transplanted into steely western Pennsylvania, Teresa inherited the Heinz fortune and a year after her husband's death bonded with Kerry at an environmental conference in Rio. They were married three years later.

From the start, it was a marriage brought to you by Aaron Spelling. People called them Cash and Kerry, implying that he had married her hoping that her $600 million would fund a presidential run. She can legally contribute only $2,000. Yes, the well-bred but threadbare New Englander did marry two Pennsylvania heiresses. But Teresa married two senators named John! There are a lot of heiresses out there; there are fewer senators named John.

Many have talked about how Teresa imperils Kerry's campaign; others suggest that she adds a bit of color to his drab plumage. Both schools of thought are wildly understated. Teresa Heinz is far and away the best reason to get up in the morning and pay attention to politics since the Watergate hearings. Should her husband lose his party's nomination, we can only hope that she will miss the memo and stay on the road herself. And you know, that's not such a stretch.

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Teresa is a woman who told Elle reporter Lisa DePaulo that she didn't "give a shit" about whether people call her Heinz or Kerry, that she has gotten Botox, considered an abortion, took Prozac after her first husband's death, and that, "You've got three kids with somebody else, you've got to have a prenup." Heavy-lidded, with a fondness for deep-hued scarves, Teresa appears at campaign events and gives long-winded lectures on the benefits of green tea, rabbit meat as part of a healthy children's diet, and her husband's prostate. Last week she told MSNBC's Chris Matthews that her major complaints about George W. Bush are that he "is afraid to be Socratic" and that he came to the White House "with a lack of curiosity about the job." Heinz dresses in Chanel and sports a snazzy diamond crucifix. She is not a morning person. She is fluent in English, Portuguese, Spanish, French and Italian. She knew Yitzhak Rabin. Her private plane is called the Flying Squirrel.

She has had a life laced with tragedy and politics: her aunt, sister and first husband were all killed in accidents. Only under pressure from journalists and her husband's campaign staff has she forced herself to refer to John Heinz as her "late" husband, rather than simply "my husband." Conversely, in an interview with the New Yorker's Joe Klein, she rather charmingly implied that Kerry had never been married before. Hey, it's a common mistake to make about a guy who has two daughters by another woman. Heinz changed her party affiliation from Republican to Democrat last year and funded the study of a proposed universal prescription-drug plan for Massachusetts' elderly. She lends the campaign a touch of magic realism, occasionally bringing down a crowd -- as she did at Kerry's Manhattan coming-out party at Cipriani's in March -- with a rambling, mournful speech about dictatorship and cancer, or in Iowa, where she mystically compared small Midwestern towns to African dorps.

"I just go out and do my own thing," Teresa recently told Ed Bradley on "60 Minutes." "Go out and get him all into trouble, that's what I do."

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Like the best trouble-making divas -- Alexis Carrington, Margo Channing, Mame herself -- Teresa seems to aim her blows directly at her partner's cojones. She has a reputation for looking bored during her husband's speeches and occasionally interrupting them to make little corrections. While glaring at barking MSNBC interviewer Matthews last week as if she would have liked to club him, Teresa began a sentence by saying, "I don't want to give [John] more due than he deserves, but..." She told Ed Bradley that one of her jobs as first lady would be to keep Kerry humble.

But Teresa's effect on her husband doesn't seem to threaten him; in fact, some of her bluster may be rubbing off. After her bout of potty mouth in Elle, Kerry responded to Rolling Stone interviewer Will Dana by asking, "Did I expect George Bush to fuck up as badly as he did?" And whose breathy voice may or may not have whispered in Kerry's ear: "Just a little shot, just above the eyebrows. It won't hurt. And you won't look so worried all the time..." On "60 Minutes," the senator was asked how he felt about marrying into a half-billion-dollar fortune. "It's one of the reasons I was cautious," he replied, taking time to really consider the hardships of instant wealth, one arm around his wife. "But then emotions and feelings take precedence and you take what comes with it."

"Gimme a break, I came with it," interrupted Teresa, her giggle barely disguising the note of warning in her voice, "Come on!"

"No, I don't mean that, what I mean is, that's my point!" stuttered a flustered Kerry. It was a tiny, good-natured moment of discord, but distant enough from the canned claptrap spoon-fed to us by graspy-happy political couples that it shed light on the couple's snap. They are charged, intense and sexy; they have great chemistry.

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And while that might be all we need to keep tuning in, there's more. Like the playboy stepson!

Chris Heinz is Teresa's youngest. A 30-year-old banker who recently quit his job to help with his stepfather's campaign, Chris was a bona fide celebutante long before his stepfather threw his hat in the ring. He was a Harvard MBA candidate with steamy good looks when he first hit gossip's upper echelons by dating Gwyneth Paltrow in 2000. Though the relationship didn't last, Chris never left the Page Six family. In March 2001 he was spotted at Asia De Cuba in L.A. "ferociously" making out with actor Tom Sizemore's ex-wife Maeve Quinlan. He was at the Hugo Boss House at 2001 Sundance with Paris Hilton and Stephen Baldwin; at the Russian Tea Room with socialite Elisabeth Keiselstein-Cord and DJ Samantha Ronson; at a Suite 16 party for publicist Lara Schriftman. It was reported that he lives in the same downtown Manhattan building as Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. At the December 2003 Miami birthday party of actor and producer Fisher Stevens, Chris hung out with Nicole Kidman and Lenny Kravitz. Tracked down at a Hamptons Kmart, he told a New York Post reporter, "It's sweet! Who knew there were so much oils and lubricants!" and this Christmas he was named one of "The Apple's Top Studs" by the paper.

An image on celebrity photographer Patrick McMullan's Web site shows Chris at a Bridget Hall party at Pop Burger, seated at a banquette next to actor Liev Schreiber. On Chris' lap sits a tan, trim woman whose face is not visible. Hey baby. You wanna come and see the Lincoln bedroom?

Chris' brother Andre is also a good-looking guy and possibly the only environmentalist who has a side trade in stand-up. "I haf known John Kewey now for many yeahs," intoned Andre at a pre-primary Kerry rally in Derry, N.H., in pitch-perfect imitation of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Dressed in a red button-down and green pants, he went on to mimic Bob Dole and George Bush the elder in what felt like a recap of "Saturday Night Live's" past 15 years. Andre concluded by going fuzzy-voiced and saying, "I feel your joy, I feel your pain. If you want another president who has even better hair than I do, I think we should elect John!" Hey, a stepson who can do a good Clinton is not to be scoffed at, especially when, like Kerry, your attempts at cool have included a rendition of Bruce Springsteen's "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" at a fundraiser. Think bludgeoned cats.

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The eldest Heinz brother is so far not part of the campaign. In fact, he doesn't seem to be much of a joiner. Teresa told Washington Post reporter Mark Leibovich in June 2002 that one of her sons -- presumably John IV, who has fathered her only grandchild, a daughter -- "hates" her. Not much more has been said about him since, except that he is a reclusive Pennsylvania Buddhist who runs a school for wayward kids and is ... a blacksmith.

Kerry's daughters have only recently turned up on the trail. Alexandra, 30, is a brunet filmmaker from Los Angeles who doesn't seem keen on talking, and in a twist reminiscent of Rep. Nancy Pelosi's daughter Alexandra, has turned her camera on the journalists swarming her father. Vanessa, 26, is a talkative blonde studying to be a doctor at Harvard and obviously working on her role as the "lighten up, Dad" daughter, as Karenna was for Al Gore. It has been written that the Kerry girls, who spent a significant amount of time being raised by their father after their parents' divorce, had a hard time adjusting to Teresa's presence in their lives. It doesn't take a psychotherapist or an expert in serialized drama to guess that a hot-tempered heiress who had raised three sons might throw a wrench into a house where two young women were used to having their father to themselves. "We worked at it," Vanessa told the New York Post, "and now we're really close."

This is not your parents' first family. Other families have had scandals: Amy Carter's activist years ... Patti Davis' political dissent ... the Bush twins' illegal drinking ... Bill Clinton. But there has always been a team of communications people and press aides rushing around, whitewashing events, telling us to look the other way. It looked as if that would happen in the Kerry campaign as well, as early stories basically served to fit Teresa for a muzzle. But here they are, the majority of the mixed clan, walking and talking to the press. They aren't scandals; they're characters, archetypes in some cases, mold breakers in others. They have already smashed prime-time and certainly presidential rules for language, talked about divorce and abortion. And who doesn't love the Botox story? Who knows if he did it or not! Who cares? The only definitive observation is that his eyebrows no longer move. But God bless John and Teresa and their botulism. We look forward to upcoming episodes in which we deal with a Klonopin addiction, the return of the Buddhist blacksmith son, and a recurring character played by Kathy Bates.

I don't mean to make fun. Everyone's families are screwed up. But, as Kerry stammered at his wife recently, that's the point. The Heinz-Kerrys are made of the very stuff from which multigenerational American melodrama is built -- whether that means John Updike or Jackie Collins or Tony Soprano. And that drama is in turn an outsized reflection of real American life. Callous as it may seem to reduce the true losses and traumas of an American family to melodrama, it is perhaps more respectful than viewing them through the same outdated prescriptive lens we have trained on our politicians' home lives for generations. In some ways, television -- even whiny, turgid television -- is more honest about the state of the American family than politics is. We live in an age in which the terms "voters" and "viewers" have become synonymous, in which "reality" and "television" are inextricably linked. Our most popular presidents of the past decades have been Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, cinematic men whose family dramas have been (ineffectively) tamped down by spinmeisters who prefer that presidential kids never hate their parents, that divorces are always amicable, that no one diddles their interns. And while we're at it, all the pets are housebroken, Sundays are church days, and everyone takes turns setting the table.

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The Heinz-Kerrys are beginning to let it all hang out. We can look forward to eating it up with a spoon. Perhaps it's a fantasy that if political spinmeisters spent less time managing the family image, they would be able to devote more time to sprucing up the politics. And if that is a pipe dream, so be it. So far, allowing us to see this bunch of loons up close has only made their dull patriarch -- the man who may be elected president -- more palatable.


Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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