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- September 30, 2002
- Vol. 58
- No. 14
Caught in a Scandal? Here's Good News: You Can Reinvent Yourself—but It Takes Work
It appears there can be life after disgrace. Some who hit rock bottom have found ways to reclaim their lives—and even do good works. What follows are tales of those who once misstepped but came back to triumph in Act 2.
RITA JENRETTE: Leaving scandal behind
There it was again, catching up with her, this time in a classroom at Harvard Business School. "One of the young fellows came up and said, 'Are you the Rita Jenrette who was in Playboy?' " says the former Texas beauty queen, now in her third year in the Executive Education program. "I said, 'Yes, but would you mind not saying anything?'" The student agreed, but when Jenrette walked into the school's cafeteria later, "all these guys turned around and looked," she says. "It was a little embarrassing."
Jenrette, 52, knows she may never escape her past, but she says she has learned not to let it slow her down. In 1979 her then husband, South Carolina Rep. John Jenrette, got scooped up in an FBI sting during the Abscam bribery scandal. Convicted of taking a $50,000 bribe, he served 13 months in prison. His wife, 30 at the time of the scandal, stretched out her 15 minutes of fame. She wrote about having sex with him on the steps of the Capitol in a bestselling memoir, posed nude for Playboy, turned up on Fantasy Island and worked as a reporter for A Current Affair. "I made some choices that were not so judicious, and I have to live with that," says Jenrette, who was divorced in 1981. (She and her husband did not have children.) "But you have to quit feeling sorry for yourself and say, 'I will not let this incident be my epitaph.'"
Jenrette began turning things around in 1994, when she became a real estate broker. She handles high-end properties in several states and has sold more than $1 billion of real estate. Among her big deals: helping broker the sale of Manhattan's General Motors building to Donald Trump. "She's the most dynamic broker I know," says entrepreneur Barry Akrongold, head of First Real Estate Corp. and one of Jenrette's classmates at Harvard (where classes for the program are jammed into an intensive month-long session each year). "She's always trying these really wild, big deals, and she used that same energy to rebuild her life."
Jenrette says starting in the Harvard program in 2001 was "the best thing I've ever done for myself." In addition to beefing up the New York-based commercial real estate company she started in 1994, she works with several charities, including a group that seeks to help Sept. 11 victims who have not yet received financial aid. Her long, strange trip to respectability "has been an intriguing journey," says Jenrette, who lives in Manhattan with her fiancé, an architect she declines to name. "It's painful, but it makes you stronger." And she knows her past is never too far away. "It'll crop up at the most inopportune times," she says. "But now I've made it a footnote."
JIMMY BACA: From jail to Yale
Jimmy Santiago Baca was in a maximum-security Arizona prison serving time on drug charges when, looking for kindling for a fire to heat coffee, he stole an English-lit book from a clerk's desk. Amid the flames, the barely literate 21-year-old could make out a few words from a Wordsworth poem about a man walking his dog around a lake. It reminded Baca—an orphan since age 5 who had lived mostly on the streets—of strolls with his grandfather as a young boy. "I had never read a book before," he says. "I was sensing what language does and is supposed to do."
Inspired, he asked a pen pal to buy him a grammar book. Teaching himself to read and write, Baca was soon composing poetry to tell his story. At the suggestion of another prisoner, he mailed some of his work to Mother Jones magazine, which published one of his poems—and sent a $300 check. "I was happy—and surprised," says Baca, who treated the cell block to ice cream.
Released at 27, he earned his GED and soon published his first book of poetry. His novel in verse, Martin and Meditations on the South Valley, won the American Book Award, presented annually by a nonprofit group that promotes multicultural literature. The recognition helped him land teaching jobs at Yale University, Berkeley and elsewhere. But the 50-year-old father of two has drawn the greatest satisfaction from Black Mesa Enterprises, his nonprofit grassroots cooperative aimed at building self-respect in at-risk youth. And then there are readers like the man who sent him a few coins and a thank-you note saying, "My mother quit taking drugs after she read your book." Says Baca: "That still keeps me going every day."
KEMBA SMITH: A presidential reprieve
Bringing her son Armani into the world was at best a bittersweet moment for Kemba Smith. "I was shackled to the bed a minute after I gave birth," says Smith, now 31, of that December morning 7½ years ago at a hospital near the jail in Suffolk, Va., where she was awaiting sentencing on drug-trafficking and money-laundering charges. "I had two days with him before giving him to my parents. I didn't sleep, because I did not want to miss any time with him."
But Smith would miss her son's early years—and much more—as a result of crimes she committed while in an abusive relationship with Armani's father, cocaine trafficker Peter Hall. (Hall had been killed—shot in the head—about 10 weeks before his son's birth.) Though the college student and former debutante had never sold drugs and was considered a bit player in Hall's operation, the amount of crack involved triggered a stiff mandatory sentence—24½ years, longer than the average Virginia murder term. Says Smith: "I was devastated."
Her parents were outraged. Gus and Odessa Smith launched a crusade on behalf of their only child, who while in prison taught other inmates computer skills and black history. In December 2000 President Bill Clinton commuted her sentence. After moving in with her parents and son outside Richmond, she enrolled at Virginia Union University to study social work, took a part-time job at a law firm and began accepting speaking engagements around the country to share her cautionary tale with other young women. This summer Smith, who earned her bachelor's degree in May, moved with Armani into their first apartment. She hopes now to become a lawyer. "I wasn't going to be released until 2016," Smith says. "This second chance means my whole life."
DOUG TALBOTT: A beating, and a revelation
On a rainy night in 1969 Dr. Doug Talbott hit bottom. Literally. The distinguished cardiologist lay on the floor of a state mental hospital in Dayton, surrounded by hostile fellow patients, most of them criminally insane. (Talbott's wife, Polly, had had him committed in a last-ditch effort to stop a drinking problem that had cost him his job and depleted the family's savings.) "They'd just beat the hell out of me—kicking my head in, breaking my ribs, cutting my face," remembers Talbott, now 77. "I was in withdrawal from alcohol and drugs and too debilitated to even try to defend myself. As I lay there bleeding and hopeless, they all formed a circle and urinated on me." As whacked out as he was, Talbott remembers having one clear thought: If he ever got out of there, he wanted to help other alcoholic doctors like himself.
With that epiphany as his beacon and three months of enforced abstinence under his belt, Talbott took the first steps towards recovery—and what would become his life's work. He left cardiology and committed himself to "creating a place to heal the healers"—once he could figure out how to do that. "It's hard to believe now," notes Talbott, who says his own doctors never diagnosed him as alcoholic, "but so little was known about this disease of mine back then." Talbott studied alcoholism and became the medical director of Baltimore's pioneering public treatment project in 1971. Five years later he persuaded the Medical Association of Georgia to fund a program to treat impaired physicians—the first such initiative in the country. "I got criticized for my premise that doctors should be treated separately," recalls Talbott. "But the shame and blame doctors experience—goes beyond what other alcoholics experience—we're supposed to know all the answers. To recover, we need to be in the presence of other doctors."
Since Talbott started his innovative program—now called TRC: Talbott Recovery Campus and located in Atlanta—more than 3,700 physicians have been treated or assessed, with a reported 91 percent recovery rate after five years. Talbott, the father of six, however, likes to cite another statistic testifying to his success: "All four of my sons asked me to be their best man at their weddings," he says. "That is what recovery did for me."
January 31, 2015
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