For the most part, Washington divorces are very civilized,” says top divorce lawyer Marna Tucker, who has practiced in Washington for more than 35 years. “Most divorces here are done in a very genteel way.” Even last summer’s much-publicized breakup of Catherine and Charles Ommanney, following the couple’s roles in The Real Housewives of D.C., went off quietly and, at least in public, smoothly.
However, when millions of dollars—and maybe more important, the reputations of Beltway power players—is at stake, good manners can be forgotten. Washington has been the setting for a number of high-profile divorces—some tragic, some sordid, some with happy endings. In time for Valentine’s Day, here are big breakups that got Washington’s attention.
Best outcome: Sheila Crump Johnson and Robert Johnson. Though the 2002 divorce of the billionaires who made their fortune building Black Entertainment Television marked the end of a 33-year marriage, it also resulted in an unlikely new beginning for Sheila. The Arlington County judge originally assigned to approve the divorce agreement between her and Robert was unavailable, so chief judge William Newman Jr. presided. Sheila Johnson recognized Newman from decades earlier, when they acted in a play together with the Negro Ensemble Company, and after the divorce was approved, she asked to approach the bench. It turned out Newman remembered her, too. They began dating, and in 2005 they were married at a 700-guest fete on Sheila’s property in The Plains, Virginia. Who toasted the couple at the reception? Sheila Johnson’s divorce lawyer, Sandy Ain.Most successful self-promotion: Rita Jenrette and John Jenrette. In the fall of 1980, when Congressman John Jenrette was on trial for taking a bribe as part of the FBI’s Abscam sting, Rita, a former Texas beauty queen and aspiring singer, was his strongest supporter. But by February 1981, Representative Jenrette was served with divorce papers outside the federal courthouse where he was appealing his conviction for accepting a $50,000 bribe from an undercover federal agent. Over the next year, Rita’s willingness to talk about the salacious details of their marriage—such as the time she and John had sex on the Capitol steps—made her a media sensation. By the time a DC Superior Court judge granted the divorce in July 1981, she had posed for Playboy, become a fixture on the talk-show circuit, and released a tell-all book, My Capitol Secrets. Though the singing career didn’t pan out, Rita did get remarried—to an Italian prince.Strangest political twist: Mike Tyson and Monica Turner Tyson. Everything in Washington—even the divorce of a heavyweight boxer and a pediatrician—can turn political. Monica, then a resident at Georgetown University Medical Center, accused Mike of adultery and filed for divorce in Montgomery County in early 2002. By July, they had reached an alimony and child-support agreement under which Mike would pay her $10 million. The problem? Monica’s brother, Michael Steele—then the Republican nominee for Maryland lieutenant governor and currently chairman of the Republican National Committee—helped draft the agreement, according to an introductory clause in the document. Steele wasn’t licensed to practice law in Maryland, so the state’s Democratic Party filed a complaint with a state board on lawyer conduct, and Mike Tyson challenged the validity of the agreement. Steele contended that he had only reviewed the document and hadn’t taken part in writing it. Nonetheless, the couple went back to the negotiating table. Finally, in January 2003 Mike Tyson agreed to pay his ex a $6.5-million settlement. And Steele won the lieutenant governor’s race.Shortest marriage: Jack Kent Cooke and Suzanne Martin Cooke. The divorce proceedings lasted longer than the marriage. Martin, 31, wed 74-year-old Washington Redskins owner Cooke on July 24, 1987, in a courthouse ceremony in Old Town Alexandria. Less than three months later, on October 5, Jack Kent Cooke filed for divorce in Fauquier County. At the time of the wedding, Suzanne was about three months pregnant. In court testimony, she claimed her husband had agreed to marry her on the condition she have an abortion. When she didn’t go through with it, she said, he locked her out of the house. He didn’t acknowledge he was the father until the baby, Jacqueline, was more than a year old. The divorce was granted in October 1988, but the fight over child support went on. In 1990, Jack Kent Cooke was ordered to pay $29,000 a year in child support—$110,000 less than his ex-wife had requested. It was a far cry from his first divorce in 1979, in which the $41-million settlement landed him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Strangest property dispute: Tom Clancy and Wanda King. It’s not unusual for divorcing couples to fight over the kids, but what about custody of a book character? During her 1998 divorce from best-selling author Clancy in Calvert County, Maryland, King claimed she was entitled to money earned from Jack Ryan, the fictional hero created by her ex-husband and played in the movies first by Alec Baldwin and later by Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck. Ultimately, King did win a share of the corporate entity named after the character, the Jack Ryan Limited Partnership, in her divorce settlement with Clancy, allowing her to profit from his books.
As for their actual children, there apparently wasn’t much discord over them. Details down to how much money should be allocated to the kids’ future weddings were reportedly hammered out with relative ease.
This article first appeared in the February 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.