Winston Lord May Be An Old China Hand but Wife Bette Wrote the Book on Mandarins

updated 11/23/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/23/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

Early in his diplomatic career Winston Lord learned about writing and rewriting and rewriting. As a special assistant to Henry Kissinger, Lord drafted speeches and reports for his boss. "One day," Lord recalls, "I gave him a speech and he said, 'Is that the best you can do?' And I said, 'I'll try a little harder.' I did a second draft and he said, 'Are you sure that's the best you can do?' So I did another, and after I delivered the sixth draft he said, 'Is this the best?' I replied, 'Dammit, yes. I beat my brains out.' And he said, 'Okay, now I'll read it.' "

With his writer wife, Bette Bao, Winston was not such a relentless taskmaster, but he did read the manuscript for her first novel, Spring Moon (Harper & Row, $14.95), at least 30 times before it went to the printer. For six years she wrote and revised five nights a week from midnight to dawn, while nibbling Chinese plum candies. The result is a lyrical story of China's tumultuous past century which concentrates on five generations of a mandarin family. Published only two weeks ago, the novel is already a best-seller. Paperback and book club rights have netted some $500,000, and the novel is to be published in 11 languages. "My inspiration was a trip back to China," the Shanghai-born author explains. "At the time the two great peoples in my life were trying to get together politically. I thought I could be a bridge from the land of my ancestors to the country I now call home."

Winston Lord was one of Kissinger's principal aides for seven years, first on the National Security Council staff, then at the State Department. He accompanied Kissinger on his secret 1971 mission to Peking that led to President Nixon's visit the following year. In November 1973 Bette Bao was allowed to join her diplomat husband on a China trip. During her two-month stay she was reunited with relatives she had not seen since her family left the country in 1946. At first she was unnerved by her experiences. Touring Canton alone, she found hundreds of Chinese following her on walks: "I would speak to them, but they wouldn't reply. I dressed like a Westerner and they didn't know who I was." Bette felt the irony acutely. "I had lived most of my life in America as a visible minority," she says, "and here I was back in the land where I was born, an outsider."

Even more poignant was a visit to her birthplace. "I traveled by train to Shanghai," she says. "I peered out the window into darkness, so anxious to see my relatives and wondering if they would stare at me and have nothing to say, too. Then the train pulled into the station; I saw my aunts and uncles on the platform with little red books in their hands." The books weren't of Mao's thoughts but English-Chinese dictionaries in case Bette had forgotten her native tongue. "I rushed over and hugged them," she says, "and that of course was very un-Chinese, but I think they forgave this stranger who had come home."

Bette had planned a nonfiction account of her journey, but soon realized that such a book might jeopardize her relatives. She switched to fiction. "I found myself sitting at dinner parties," she recalls, "thinking of the people I was writing about. They lived with me through this whole period, and one of my problems was killing them off. I was unwilling to do so." She overcame that reluctance, brought the project to a happy end and now exults, "At 43, I finally have a calling."

At 44, Winston's is diplomacy. Since 1977 he has served as president of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. It counts among its 2,000 members some of the nation's most influential leaders (David Rockefeller, Alexander Haig, Walter Wriston) who use it as a forum to study and debate U.S. foreign policy issues. The council also publishes the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs.

"As a couple, the Lords are very complementary," observes Nancy Kissinger. "Neither one has an ego problem. They know exactly where they are going, so they're justifiably proud of each other's accomplishments." Yet it is Bette, not Winston, who is the more ambitious. "If you look at his resumed you would assume he was a driven man," notes Bette. "But he's not. When he was working 18 hours a day at the State Department, I never felt compromised, because I knew his work was not his mistress. He is committed to his job, but his heart is always at home."

Home is an elegant Park Avenue duplex. Winston, who receives a $100,000-a-year salary, also benefits from a family fortune: He is the son of a successful textiles manufacturer and the great-grandson of Charles Alfred Pillsbury, who founded the Minneapolis flour company. After Hotchkiss and Yale ('59), Lord went to Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. His mother, Mary Lord, was at the time the U.S. representative on the U.N.'s Human Rights Commission.

At a Fletcher class mixer he met Bette Bao. She had arrived in Brooklyn at age 8, the daughter of a Chinese government official who was sent to the U.S. to buy merchandise. Bette's earliest memories of her war-torn homeland are the sound of air raid sirens and scurrying to shelters clutching her silkworm collection. After the Communist takeover, the Baos decided not to return, though it meant leaving Bette's infant sister behind. (She finally came to the U.S. in 1962.)

In Brooklyn Mrs. Bao informed Bette, who could not speak English, that she would have to be a "little ambassador" for her 450 million countrymen. The child was enrolled in a public school, and the first test of her poise came when a classmate presented her with a chocolate bar. After gobbling it down, she learned that mischievous Tommy O'Ryan had treated her to Ex-Lax.

Bette went to movies constantly to improve her English, and at 12 began working as a cashier in a Chinese restaurant. She attended Tufts as an undergraduate on a scholarship and won another to Fletcher.

When she and Winston met, Bette remembers, "He invited me to dance, then proceeded to ask, 'Have you encountered much racial discrimination in this country?' I was dumbfounded. I thought he was taking a goddam survey." Says Winston: "I was my usual gauche self."

They courted for four years but dithered over whether to wed. While Winston did a short Army hitch and joined the Foreign Service, Bette headed west to the University of Hawaii. "I was proud and did not want to marry him without having made my mark," she explains. In Honolulu she assisted the director of the university's East-West Center and soon ran a staff of 25. In 1962 Winston finally proposed.

Both families were delighted and have remained close. To illustrate the point, Winston tells the story of his 30th birthday, when his wife was seven months pregnant. "My parents flew to Washington to take us to the Jockey Club, a fancy restaurant," Winston says. "Bette is allergic to alcohol, but my mother persuaded her to have a champagne cocktail. Soon Bette became very dizzy, got up, stumbled over to the maître d' and collapsed flat on her back, looking like Moby Dick. At that point," Lord continues, "my mother, who had had about four martinis, raced over to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I don't think the martini breath helped."

The Lord children—Lisa Pillsbury, now 17, and Winston Bao, 14—were born in Washington. Later the family spent two years in Geneva, where Winston was involved in U.S. trade negotiations. He signed on with Kissinger in 1969. "There's no question I learned more about foreign policy from him than anybody else," says Winston. Lord was present at the secret negotiations in Paris and Hanoi to end the Vietnam War. He sat in on six conferences with leaders in the Soviet Union and participated in the intricate dealings between Israel and Egypt during Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy. "With the Russians you haggle like a rug merchant," says Winston. "The Chinese generally put forth their real position from the beginning. With the Vietnamese it was just a long endurance test. The Israelis look at things like lawyers and haggle over details."

After the Carter Administration took office, the Lords bailed out to a ranch in the Colorado Rockies. "There's always some adjustment when you leave a position of power and influence," says Winston, "but I had no problem." He read, helped Bette revise her manuscript and grappled with his children's homework until he was offered his current job.

In Manhattan, the Lords socialize with the Kissingers, the Tom Brokaws and the David Brinkleys. At home a cook whips up Chinese specialties six nights a week and rests on the seventh, when the family eats hamburgers. The Lords' favorite weekend excursion: seeing four movies in a row.

Bette plans to write a second novel—subject uncertain—and Winston expects to remain at the council for several more years, but does not discount the possibility of returning to government service. "I don't really miss the power, but I may go back someday," he muses. "I don't plan my life very carefully. Things seem to fall into place." His wife is less patient. She recently consulted a fortune-teller who "told me the curse of my life is that I will never be able to sit down." And so, while Bette Bao Lord takes a long march through 20 cities to promote her novel, Winston tends the home front while taking on one more clandestine mission—casing Manhattan bookstores to find which ones have his wife's book prominently displayed. "I've had my share of the limelight," he says proudly. "Now it's her turn."

From Our Partners