On election night, the Kentucky Derby Festival Queen of 1959 sat in her hotel suite with a set of rollers framing her face and watched a TV announcer report she had become the nation's only woman governor—and a sudden factor in national politics. Then Martha Layne Collins, 46, combed out her natural-blond-going-silver hair, smoothed her trademark conservative royal-blue suit and strode downstairs onto the ballroom platform at Louisville's Executive West Motor Hotel to deliver her victory speech. "How sweet it is," she began, but that depended on where one was standing. The moment was bittersweet for outgoing Gov. John Y. Brown Jr., 49, and lame-duck Kentucky First Lady Phyllis George, 34. "Well," quipped Brown, joining Collins onstage, "do I hand over the keys to the helicopter now?"

The remark had some bite in Kentucky, where the departing fried chicken king had been criticized for his highflying ways as governor—such as not fulfilling a promise to sell the state's $1.8-million helicopter to raise money for teachers' salaries. His successor's style, however, is much more station wagon than Sikorsky. And locals were quick to speculate how Collins' accession would dampen the thriving social scene at the governor's mansion created by Phyllis.

The two women have much in common. Both were reared in small towns and influenced by strong mothers. Both became cheerleaders, sorority members and beauty queens. But while Phyllis hobnobs with celebs at Hollywood parties, Martha Layne prefers neighbors and Baptist church events. Phyllis often would wing to New York for shopping sprees at exclusive boutiques and was known to return with multiple versions of the same item in different colors. Martha Layne sometimes wears homemade clothes and buys off the rack. "Phyllis thought a New York hairdresser should feel honored to fly down to Kentucky to do her hair," says one acquaintance. "A local hairdresser does Martha Layne's, but she often does it herself."

The biggest difference between them, of course, is that Phyllis is the wife of a politician, while Collins is the genuine article. Little more than a decade after entering politics, Collins has become the first woman to win a governorship in a Southern state without following her husband into office and the third ever to do so in the country. Her victory over Republican opponent Jim Bunning, 52, the former professional baseball player, immediately put her name high on the list of females given a shot at the 1984 Democratic Vice-Presidential spot.

Considered a moderate to conservative, Collins sidestepped most controversial issues during the campaign. "I don't just say a lot of things," she has said. "I'm very systematic and cautious." ("She never pretended to be an intellectual," says Liz Thomas, chairman of the state's Republican Party.) Collins favors the death penalty and opposes abortion. She backed the Equal Rights Amendment but has done little for it. A dogged campaigner, she managed to visit all of the state's 120 counties. "She doesn't threaten anyone. Small-town women like her and men think she looks like a nice wife and mother," says Edward Prichard, 68, an FDR adviser and the grand old man of Kentucky Democrats.

Collins is as much a homegrown product as the mint that goes into juleps on Derby Day. She was born Martha Layne Hall in Bagdad, Ky., a small town (pop. 250) about 40 miles east of Louisville. Her parents, Everett and Mary Hall, run a funeral parlor. Raised a strict Baptist—"The most important advice I ever gave her was to feel and believe that Jesus Christ died for her sins," says her mother—she met her husband, Bill, now 45, the son of a football coach from eastern Kentucky, while working at a Baptist summer camp in 1957. She graduated from the University of Kentucky (Bill quarter-backed the nearby Georgetown College football team). They married in 1959 and have two children. Steve, 22, works in the funeral home, and Maria, 19, is a junior at her mother's alma mater.

Once a secondary school home economics and math teacher (her husband is a dentist and businessman), Collins came late to the political fray. Named a national Democratic committee member by then Gov. Wendell Ford in 1971, she quickly earned a reputation as an extraordinarily devoted worker. Ford, her mentor, used to find her toiling away late at the office with her kids asleep on the floor. She ran successfully in 1975 for clerk of the state court of appeals and four years later won the lieutenant governorship.

The Collinses moved into the lieutenant governor's mansion in Frankfort from their country-style home on a 13-acre farm in nearby Versailles. In less hectic times, Martha Layne liked to garden and run the tractor. They spend weekends on a houseboat moored on the Kentucky River and their entertaining is low-key. Collins "fries the burgers and opens the beer cans and makes sure everyone has enough pretzels," says a friend. "If you don't let her wait on you, she won't be happy."

That will be quite a switch from the John and Phyllis Show, as it was sometimes called. Brown's own political future is clouded. Last spring it was reported that he had lost $1.3 million gambling in Las Vegas. In June he underwent triple bypass heart surgery and then barely survived lung complications. Running for President—his and Phyllis' dream—now seems unlikely. Political associates say he is considering the Senate and Phyllis, due any day now with their second child, wants to cash in on her celebrity status by endorsing products. "She really lost out on her career these past four years," says a confidant. The Browns expect to stay in the governor's mansion until the baby is born. Says a press aide, "They really want to say the baby lived in the mansion."

After that, the party's over. Collins' straitlaced ways caused some associates to dub her "Mother Superior." "Martha Layne knows it's not going to be easy," says one friend. "She's always had to work twice as hard because she's a woman."

  • Contributors:
  • Elinor J. Brecher.