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Drugs, Murder and the Mob in D.C. : Political Wives Take a Novel Approach

October 08, 1986|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — "One Woman Lost" is a new novel about drugs, the mob, murder and politics in the nation's capital. The heroine is a Martha Mitchell-inspired vice president's wife who cares too much about her own cause: peace work.

The carefully coiffed authors hasten to say they have had no firsthand experience with drugs, the mob and murder. But being a political wife is something Abigail McCarthy and Jane Muskie can certainly write a book about.

Abigail Quigley and Eugene McCarthy fell in love when they were both college professors in Minnesota. But, after 24 years of marriage, five children, daily attendance at Mass and the unsuccessful 1968 presidential campaign, the senator "had long since come to the conclusion that the concept of life-long fidelity . . . to which we agreed in church was no longer valid," Abigail wrote on the last page of one of her two previous books, the autobiographical "Private Faces, Public Places." Less than a year after the campaign, which was so rigorous that Abigail was hospitalized three times for exhaustion, McCarthy left his wife.

Triggered Muskie Remarks

Jane Gray was a 19-year-old working in a dress shop when she spied the handsome, 32-year-old attorney who was running for the Maine Legislature. Jane Gray and Edmund Muskie were wed two years later, had five children, and remain happily married. But despite the fact that Jane helped her husband along to an impressive job record--governor of Maine, U.S. senator for 21 years, secretary of state--the vivacious Jane Muskie will be forever remembered for some candid remarks she made during his 1972 presidential primary campaign, which prompted a devastating incident to unfold. Defending his wife for mentioning "dirty jokes, booze" and referring to him as "Big Daddy" in off-hand comments that drew sharp criticism, the senator broke down in tears in front of an astonished public gathering. Questions then arose about Muskie's ability to keep calm in stressful situations. Muskie did not win his party's nomination for President, and never sought it again.

Despite all this, both Abigail McCarthy and Jane Muskie say they treasure their past and did not write their book (Atheneum: $15.95) to solicit sympathy for the political wife, even though their drugged and unloved heroine certainly deserves it.

Longtime friends from the years their husbands served in the Senate together, McCarthy and Muskie were having lunch one day and the conversation got around to Martha Mitchell, the controversial wife of Atty. Gen. John Mitchell and friend of the press. In her apparent zeal for good government, Mrs. Mitchell often leaked embarrassing information to reporters and some have even speculated that she was the famous "Deep Throat" source that uncovered the Watergate scandal, which eventually landed John Mitchell and others in jail.

McCarthy had just read a book about Martha Mitchell, which alleged that she had been drugged at one point in an attempt to silence her. Mitchell escaped the predicament by calling a reporter.

"We posed the question, what if something like this happened to a person who didn't have the resources in the press that Martha did?" McCarthy said. "If people thought she was addicted, would anyone help her?"

An Appealing Question

The question was so appealing, they decided to write a novel together about it, although they are adamant about pointing out that the book is "not about Martha Mitchell" or anyone else.

Muskie had never written any published material before but offered to do research for it.

The book endured a change of publisher, as well as several personal crises in the lives of the authors over the 6 1/2 years it took to write. Jane Muskie had two operations. Ed Muskie had a heart attack. Abigail McCarthy underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy for breast cancer. But somehow the book went on.

"I feel fine now," McCarthy said. "In the (Washington Post) review where it says the book was alternately flat and thrilling, I think the flat parts were done when I wasn't feeling as well. You have to have energy to write well."

Abigail McCarthy, who was interviewed in her sunny Washington condominium along with her co-author, observed that "political wifehood comes out rather badly in this book." But, she added, "I think we're both very positive about it.

"I have never been sure in my own mind whether it was the strain of political life or the very particular strains of the 1968 campaign, or just the 1960s, whether our marriage was a victim of the '60s, the change.

"I really think probably all those things entered into it. Although I would never undo 1968. I believed in it as much as Gene did."

Jane Muskie said she values the friendships she has made all over the world and the stimulating involvement in her husband's jobs that went along with being a political wife.

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