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Book Review : Story of NOW's Real-Life Object Lesson

December 10, 1985|ELAINE KENDALL

Never Guilty, Never Free: The Ginny Foat Story by Ginny Foat with Laura Foreman (Random House: $17.95)

The "Ginny Foat Story" is an upscale, downbeat version of the Frankie and Johnny ballad stretched to book length. When Virginia Galluzo met the small-time hood who would do his worst to wreck her life, she had just returned to her parents' home in New Paltz, N.Y., after having given up a baby for adoption; a child born after the end of her first, short marriage. Depressed, vulnerable, a naive 22, she was an easy mark for John Sidote, the bartender at a resort near her home.

'Arrogant Little Punk'

As described by the woman who would be his lover, wife and victim, Sidote was a romantic cliche. "He had a lean, broad-shouldered compact strength. His hair and eyes were black, and his face seemed very dark above his ruffled bartender's shirt . . . there was a compelling vitality about him, a sort of magnetism that I could feel even at a distance." He could sing, too, and the fact that he had a wife, a child and a rotten reputation seemed incidental. "He's nothing but an arrogant little punk. Just remember I told you," the friend who introduced them said.

Remember? She didn't even listen. Twenty-four hours later they were lovers; after a few months they were runaways, at the start of a five-year cycle of violence, degradation and vengeance that would culminate in the author's 1977 arrest as Sidote's accomplice in a Nevada murder. Absolved of that crime, she would return to her struggling catering business and her burgeoning career in the feminist movement only to be arrested again in 1983, charged with complicity in the death of a South American businessmen in New Orleans 18 years before.

By that time, the battered, cowed girl who had been Virginia Galluzo had transformed herself into vital, confident Ginny Foat, president of the California division of the National Organization for Women, a position of high visibility and considerable clout. The case was reported in the media at great length; no gruesome detail spared; no ugly possibility left unexplored. The reverberations split NOW into pro- and anti-Foat factions, exposing longstanding rifts within the hierarchy; imperiling the future of an association already threatened by declining enthusiasm. To many younger women of the 1980s, direct beneficiaries of NOW's efforts, the major battles seemed won and NOW was "then."

As told to her sympathetic collaborator by the bitter and bedeviled Foat, the grim story of the brutalized wife finding courage and self-respect in the feminist movement could have been inspiration if the narrative had described the process by which this ideal candidate for women's liberation overcame her timidity to become a leading activist. Ginny Foat was exactly what NOW needed; a real-life object lesson. Unfortunately, the reader gets little more than the physical transformation from cocktail waitress to practiced politician; the crucial intellectual and emotional changes mentioned only in passing.

Finally divorced and temporarily free of Sidote, who was safely confined in prison, Foat met and married a gentle Englishman, Raymond Foat, who taught her airs and graces he had learned in his own rise from British working-class origins to his modest American success as a restaurant manager. She was an apt pupil; Foat a patient mentor, and by the time that marriage ended, the author was an outwardly poised and capable woman; the bad old days of racketing around the country with Sidote, one jump ahead of the law, repressed if not forgotten.

Sidote had served his sentence, then dropped from sight, giving Foat every reason to think--and hope--he had either drunk himself to death or come to some other nasty end. She was not so lucky. Eighteen years merely had exacerbated Sidote's festering rage against his ex-wife, and he seized the opportunity to implicate her for a second time.

Foat had confided some facts of her previous life to colleagues within the women's movement and one of them, at odds with her over policy, alerted the Louisiana authorities to the unsolved case. The whole miserable round of arrest, imprisonment and trial was repeated, ending finally in Foat's well-publicized acquittal.

Story Lacks Depth

Unlike many battered wives, Foat had a close and loving family able and willing to shelter her; loyal friends who continually urged her to leave him. Neither love nor fear makes her apathy plausible. The book appeals to curiosity but evades the urgent issues, becoming in the end merely an out let for Foat's fury at the various officials and associates who all but destroyed her.

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