The De Loreans

updated 12/24/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/24/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

American villains, like American whiskey, are mostly served up on the rocks. The standard was set by the born-again Watergaters, their consciences burdened by guilt, their lips mumbling contrition. Through his trial, John De Lorean, 59, fascinated because, defiant, he refused to act this familiar role. Caught with cocaine in his hands and triumphal glee in his eyes, he would have none of a penitent's sackcloth. Instead he insisted on his innocence, even after the entire world watched him caught by the camera, hefting a bag of cocaine and braying, "It's better than gold."

His self-assurance served him well in court. Some of the best criminal defenders money could buy spoke for him, slashing great gaping holes in the flimsy fabric of the government's clumsy case. But the most telling argument for the defense was the woman who sat at his side most days, descended like a fairy princess from the ether of her high-fashion world to give the jury a lesson in wifely devotion. Surely Cristina Ferrare De Lorean—loyal, chic, smart—would not be the moll of a drug peddler. Nobody ever said that in so many words, but it was a question the jury had to ponder every time the faithful wife appeared in the courtroom. The government said that De Lorean acted out of greed; his lawyers said he acted out of fear, to protect his family from drug dealers. The jury, weighing the model of matrimonial devotion against the testimony of often bumbling government operatives, decided that evil was not in the mind of John De Lorean.

In a curious, almost tangible way, Cristina, 34, was the beneficiary of this public ordeal. This woman, whose glamour and easy elegance belie her background as a Cleveland butcher's daughter, showed courage and pluck. Those who had watched her were stunned when, after the trial, she sued her husband for divorce and custody of his adopted son and their daughter. But in the courthouse, when the cameras were turned off and the jury out of sight, she reportedly ignored De Lorean to chat with friends and flirt with the press. One confidante explained that she never forgave John for getting the family involved in drugs. After all, she had been trying for years to launch a career as an actress, to make a name for herself, and now he was dragging that name through the mud. Still a sense of duty kept her by him in his days of trouble. Afterwards, a sense of outrage drove her away.

The paradox is that John De Lorean's greatest defender may have known him as poorly as anyone did. He has always been a man of masks. Born to poor Rumanian parents in Detroit, he retooled his heritage by his early 20s, passing himself off as French. "He always wanted better, better, better," recalls John's first wife, Elizabeth, who was married to him for 15 years. "When I met him, he lived with his parents in a little house in Detroit. He slept on a cot. There was linoleum on the living room floor. Absolutely the pits. I didn't care. I loved him."

Like Gatsby, De Lorean tried to transform himself into a creature deserving of the world's admiration. He had his chin squared by surgery, worked almost obsessively on his physique and shaved his hairy legs. "His vanity was unbelievable," says Elizabeth. "He had real curly hair, and every night he would wear a navy blue knit stocking cap to bed to keep his hair straight."

As a carmaker, entrepreneur and hustler, John De Lorean was without equal. But his most creative act was designing himself. Pushed out of his General Motor's vice-presidency more than a decade ago, he convinced the world that he had left in disgust at the company's business practices and bungled management. Squeezed for cash in 1975, he sold his 8 percent interest in the San Diego Chargers, with the excuse that he was dissociating himself from the drug-ridden club because some of the players had set a bad example for youth. Through much of his career, De Lorean honed an image as a ladies' man, squiring models and starlets and marrying Kelly Harmon and Cristina Ferrare, beautiful women decades younger than himself. With Kelly, he was, says an observer, demanding and autocratic to the degree of issuing orders on exactly what shade to paint the living room. He also patronized Cristina, according to Hillel Levin, author of the 1983 De Lorean biography Grand Delusions. "The relationship was not as warm as they made it out to be in front of the TV cameras," observes Levin. "His chauvinism hung over from the '60s." Yet De Lorean professed a '50s morality. "I don't fool around," he once said. "But I like pretty girls. In fact, I'm suspicious of people who don't."

Now John and Cristina's paths will diverge wildly. For her, there is the talk show, A.M. Los Angeles, where she has been an impulsive and underused co-host. She already has a new relationship with Anthony Thomopoulos, president of ABC Broadcast Group, and there's talk of acting possibilities (previous movies include The Impossible Years and Mary, Mary). Her predecessor and former critic, Liz De Lorean, sums it up: "I have great admiration for her, since she's been so loyal to him through this. I don't know if I could have done it."

For John, there will be no such satisfaction. There will soon be a decision by a Detroit grand jury that has spent months inquiring into the disappearance of $17.7 million from his car company. He seems already to be turning combative, opposing Cristina's request for sole custody of their children and—although she is not currently seeking alimony—contesting the divorce arrangements. (The couple had a prenuptial agreement.)

Last month De Lorean took an audacious and yet somehow whiny full-page ad (which cost some $5,000) in a Los Angeles newspaper to raise money for his legal defense (he has received about $10,000). In it he rather ungraciously charged that his wife had left him because she "was unable to withstand further government harassment." On the day the advertisement first ran, an obviously embarrassed Cristina tried to make light of it at the studio. "I'll take checks. I'll take money orders. I'll take cash."

What has passed between them may become public in one final irony, when the woman who stood behind him with such gracious strength in one courtroom takes on John De Lorean in another. For Cristina it may be the catharsis, her last day in court. For John De Lorean it may be just another of many trials to come.

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