People who knew Millicent Fenwick often thought of her as a kind of congressional Katharine Hepburn: tall, independent-minded, aristocratic of diction, regal in her old age. Another common comparison was to the fictional character she may have indirectly inspiredLacey Davenport, Doonesbury’s elderly patrician legislator, sometimes dubbed “the last honest member of Congress.” Now, a decade after Fenwick’s death, her legacy is explored in a full-scale biography titled Millicent Fenwick: Her Way, by Chevy Chase author Amy Schapiro.
Schapiro, 32, grew up in Warren, N.J., which sits within the 5th Congressional District, which Fenwick represented from 1975 to 1983. In 1992, for an American University paper about Fenwick, Schapiro interviewed some of the former congresswoman’s friends and even spoke by phone to the formidable woman herselfthough by then Fenwick was too ill to talk for long.
In September of that yearfour months after Schapiro graduatedFenwick died. At the funeral, Schapiro met several people she’d interviewed by phone, including Fenwick’s son, Hugh. They stayed in touch; soon, Hugh granted Schapiro exclusive research rights to his mother’s papers, and the seeds of the book project were planted.
Schapiro struck a four-day-workweek deal with her employer so she could pursue her research among the documents tucked under the eaves at the Fenwick family home in Bernardsville, N.J. (“The family called me ‘the attic mouse,’” she says.) A less-flexible job forced Schapiro to put the project aside for a while, but early in 1999, she quit work entirelywithout a publisher or even an agentto focus full time on the book. She finished the bulk of it working at the Library of Congress.
Her Way includes the first detailed exploration of the congresswoman’s rocky marriage to Hugh Fenwick, father of the son with whom Schapiro worked so closely. While Fenwick’s career in public service was well-known, she tended to use her charm to derail inquiries about her private life. “When the people who knew her see my book, they immediately turn to the part about her marriage,” Schapiro says.
Millicent became involved with Hugh while he was married to another woman; after he divorced his first wife and married Millicent, Hugh was no more faithful to her. Their subsequent divorce left Fenwick with two children to support as a single mother. Given the rigid mores of her social class, she dealt with these difficult realities by keeping quiet, Schapiro says. The author learned the true story only after the younger Hugh gave her some old letters he had found in his mother’s nightstand after she died.
Schapiro believes that Fenwick’s marital woesand the loss years before of her mother in the Lusitania sinkingtaught her to focus on work instead of home life. Fenwick became a writer for Vogue, then got involved in New Jersey politics. A moderate Republican, she won the first of her four terms in Congress at age 64. She was later redistricted out of her seat and in 1982 lost a brutal Senate campaign to Democrat Frank Lautenberg.
As for Doonesbury’s Davenport, cartoonist Garry Trudeau told Schapiro that he actually created her before he became aware of Fenwick. Schapiro insists that the similarities, right down to Davenport’s frequent use of the Fenwick expression “my dear,” suggest that Fenwick’s example at least helped to round out the character.
Like Davenport, Fenwick let age serve as cover for her singular brand of tough-minded independence. “She didn’t care what her peers thought,” Schapiro said. “She was not involved in back-room dealing….She said what was on her mind.” It’s a model Schapiro admires. “I think [she was] the kind of politician most of us are seeking today: someone who’s passionate about what she believes, caring towards her constituents, and can-do in her attitude.” Louis Jacobson