Divorce in Washington

A down economy makes unhappy couples even more unhappy—and makes it harder for couples to split. Here are some memorable divorces, plus 88 lawyers who know how to get the job done.

By: Leslie Milk, Kim Eisler

Related: The Top 25 Divorce Lawyers in Washington 

You might think that in tough times, bankruptcy lawyers are the busiest people in town. But the economy here is more recession-proof than most. What a slowdown in business seems to cause is more wealthy people lining up for counsel at the offices of the region’s top divorce lawyers.

“When times are good,” says DC divorce lawyer Sandy Ain, “people tend to try to work things out. But now, when there isn’t as much to divide, the parties get much more contentious.”

Adds Bethesda’s Cheryl New: “When couples are flush, they hate each other. When they’re broke, they really hate each other.”

But for many middle-income people, the slowdown in house prices is complicating things. Rockville’s Robin Clark says that in the past, “the house was the savior—the parties could sell it and take away enough proceeds to pay off their debts and still have a nice nest egg. Now we have couples who purchased at the top of the market, then took cash out, and now they can’t break even. This creates a difficult cash-flow problem that only intensifies the anxiety.”

Hadrian Hatfield, who also practices in Bethesda, says falling house prices force some couples who hate each other to stay together. “The current environment is making it difficult to sell or refinance, eliminating one of the biggest financial options for ending a marriage or finding a solution. Those people must either wait out the downturn or bring cash to the settlement, both unpleasant prospects.”

And then there’s the calendar. Says Marna Tucker, Washington’s doyenne of divorce, “I have always found I get a huge number of client calls on the first day back after New Year’s. Many folks suck it up and decide that their New Year’s resolution will be to get rid of their spouse.”

Whether the economic slowdown is pushing the number of divorces up or down, divorce lawyers agree that disappearing assets have put lots of couples in a bad mood. “Stress is driving weak marriages to fail,” Hatfield says.

Divorce lawyers say the culture of Washington is uniquely suited to bitter breakups. People in the legal and legislative worlds work long hours, often in close quarters with attractive colleagues. Sometimes, lawyers say, it’s simply not practical to go home and come back in the morning. So they get a room at the Madison or the Mayflower. And so do fellow attorneys of the opposite sex.

The problem has become so detrimental to law-firm morale that many big firms now have nonfraternization rules for partners and associates. But lawyers agree that the rule is universally ignored. Says one, “You can bet that all these big law-firm attorneys aren’t drinking hot chocolate with their young associates at the end of a hard day’s work.”

Washington has a large percentage of high-income working women, who have greater freedom to divorce than women in cities where wages are lower and opportunities fewer.

Members of Congress, even if they strive to do great things for the country, are often driven by large egos. The Hill buzzes with stories about members of both parties who dumped longtime first wives for new companions.

There are long trips that fuse reporters with politicians and campaigns in which correspondents live on the road for weeks while spouses are left behind.

Then there are divorces of the stars—those involving big names and big money. Among the memorable ones:

Throwing Darts. Gloria Haft v. Herbert Haft was more than a divorce—it was a family feud with a $1.3-billion business empire at stake. First, 72-year-old Herbert Haft, the little man with the big hair, kicked his son Robert out of the Dart Group, the drugstore- and bookstore-based conglomerate. Gloria, then 66, sided with Robert and sued her husband, claiming physical abuse, infidelity, and financial misdeeds. In a battle of legal titans, Gloria hired Marna Tucker, Herbert brought in Sanford Ain. In the end, Herb got the 30th Street mansion and Gloria got the Florida house and an estimated $50 million. When he was late with a divorce payment, she filed a lien against his house. Eventually, she got the money. Divorce aficionados say it was Washington’s longest-running divorce, filling most of the 1990s.

Sugar Free. The storybook marriage of childhood sweethearts Sugar Ray and Juanita Leonard ended amid allegations of drug abuse, infidelity, and wife-beating. At the center of the conflict was Sugar Ray’s estimated $50-million fortune from boxing and endorsements—and a supposedly ironclad prenuptial agreement. Juanita hired Hollywood attorney Marvin Mitchelson to argue that the Olympic gold medal winner’s abuse negated the prenup. In 1990 she settled for more than $7 million. Today both are remarried, and Sugar Ray lives in California.

Theismann Trophies. Talk about the wife being the last to know: In 1984, Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann had the team’s public-relations office issue a press release announcing his separation from Shari. “Hollywood Joe” already had gotten cozy with TV personality Cathy Lee Crosby, whom he went on to date for years. In the proceedings for the divorce from his second wife, Jeanne Caruso, it came out that he said adultery was okay because “God wants Joe Theismann to be happy.” For the last 12 years he has been married to former haircare saleswoman Robin Smith.

Here Comes the Judge. Sheila and Bob Johnson cofounded Black Entertainment Television. BET flourished, but the marriage didn’t. She accused him of having liaisons with BET subordinates. In 2002 they divorced and sold BET to Viacom, splitting some $3 billion. When the divorce decree was granted, Sheila asked the judge, William T. Newman, if he remembered her. The two had shared the stage three decades earlier in a production of Ceremonies in Dark Old Men. He’d played the son of a bootlegger, she a prostitute. Sheila Johnson and the judge married in 2005 at her Middleburg estate. Now if she and her former husband meet, it might be at a WNBA basketball game. She’s president of the Washington Mystics; he owns the rival Charlotte Sting.

Slam Dunk. When longtime Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson’s house burned down in 1996, his marriage of 32 years went with it. He bought a million-dollar condo, became an NBA television commentator, and hired star divorce lawyer Marna Tucker. His estranged wife, Gwen, didn’t like his settlement proposal and hired bulldog divorce lawyer Deborah Luxenberg. After the revelation that John had a close personal and business relationship with the team’s academic adviser, a former nun, Gwen emerged with spousal support ten times greater than the coach had proposed and a property distribution estimated at more than $1.5 million.

The Original AOL Divorce. In its heyday, AOL brought an economic boom to Northern Virginia—and to divorce lawyers. As the company’s newly wealthy executives traded in their cars, homes, and spouses for new models, lawyers began referring to the trend as “AOL divorces”; they credit it with helping them develop expertise in evaluating and splitting stock options. Leading the pack in 1996 were AOL founder Steve Case and his wife, Joanne. After dating through college, 11 years of marriage, and three children, Steve announced that he had a relationship with coworker Jean Villaneuva. The divorce involved numerous lawyers, who had to divide an estate that would later approach a billion dollars.

Too Many Cookes. Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke’s 1979 divorce from his first wife, Jean, cost him $42 million, then the most expensive divorce settlement ever. In 1987, after a short marriage to a sculptor, Cooke, then in his seventies, married Suzanne Martin, who was more than 40 years younger. Martin was pregnant before they married but promised to abort the child. When she decided to have the baby, Cooke had their marriage dissolved after 73 days. The birth of Jacqueline Cooke devolved into a decades-long soap opera in which Martin sued to be recognized in his will. In 1990 Cooke married a Bolivian, Marlene Ramallo Chalmers, then had the wedding annulled in 1994 after it was learned Chalmers was still married to someone else. But Cooke missed her, and they remarried a year later. They stayed together until Cooke’s death in 1997. For local domestic-relations lawyers, Cooke’s marriages, divorces, and ongoing paternity case were the gift that kept on giving.

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