Seven years ago Rene Carpenter ended her run as the archetypal astro-wife. As Mrs. Scott Carpenter, married to one of the seven original Mercury astronauts, she was the undisputed prom queen of the early space program, the perfect public wife who said and seemed to mean things like, "A husband—a man—is a rare, wonderful creature, a pleasure to wait on and love."
But by 1968, Scott Carpenter, a Navy commander almost a year out of the space program, was living in California doing underwater research while Rene and their children had moved to Washington. The Carpenters' marriage, which had been troubled for years, formally ended in 1972. "He's a lovely man," says Rene, "we just went separate ways." (Scott, 49, now remarried to Maria Roach, 27, the daughter of the late producer Hal Roach Jr., continues to live in California and is engaged in a synthetic fuel project.) Today Rene is the Carpenter people are talking about.
Since January 13 she has done Nine in the Morning with Carol Randolph and "token male" Doug Llewelyn, a one-and-a-half-hour burst of live interviews, film and occasionally controversial reportage over WTOP-TV, a CBS affiliate, five days a week. "My weapon is the needle," says Rene, who clearly enjoys using it. For three years she has also hosted or co-hosted Everywoman, now a half-hour feminist-oriented documentary. It is shown three out of four Saturdays over the same station and syndicated to four Washington Post-Newsweek stations. Her TV work earns her $25,000 a year.
Before starting on Everywoman in 1972, Rene wrote a syndicated newspaper column, A Woman, Still, for three years. She gave it up in 1968 to campaign for Bobby Kennedy, alongside Ethel.
Rene says that her new "unintegrated life" involves three elements besides work—children, friends and "gentlemen callers." Rene's daughter Candy, 18 and a freshman at Montgomery College in Maryland, shares with her mother a cheerful Washington apartment. Kris, 19, is a sophomore at Wells College in Aurora, N.Y. Jay, 23, lives in Annapolis, working in a boatyard and deciding whether to finish college. And Scotty, 25, is an Army private stationed in Germany.
Her friends include Washington's most influential people—the Art Buchwalds, Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post and lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, who is president of the Washington Redskins. She is part of a coterie of rabid Redskins fans.
As for the "gentlemen callers," Rene admits, "There may be four or five men in my life at one period." And Washington has observed that one not entirely unattached gentleman has been a fairly permanent escort for many years.
A woman of spirit and energy, Rene Carpenter can afford an amusing look at herself—"I have always been a warm and wonderful wood nymph"—confident that the last six years of her unusual life have been the most fulfilling. "I'm 45. God, no, I'm 47, and I didn't get started till I was 45...although 40...40 was a good year...39 was not a bad year..." And 47 looks rather promising, so far.
It is noon. Rene Carpenter, huge rose-colored glasses slipping off her nose, sits behind her cluttered desk in a Washington, D.C. TV studio. As co-host of Nine in the Morning, she has presented a film showing seals being slaughtered for their pelts by Norwegian sealers, and it has provoked a barrage of calls. The Norwegian Embassy is demanding equal time. "I like it!" Rene says, triumphantly. "Crusaders at work!"