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Doctor Led Three Lives With Three Wives : Polygamy: Stanford professor never divorced and kept households with each of the women. Truth emerged after his death in August.

October 14, 1991|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PALO ALTO — Dr. Norman J. Lewiston, a professor of pediatrics at the Stanford University School of Medicine, believed in the institution of marriage.

He believed in it so much that he got married three times--without ever having the benefit of a divorce.

For more than five years, the prominent doctor lived a life of deception, juggling first two, then three wives--as well as a busy schedule of teaching classes and treating patients.

His complicated life began unraveling this summer when his third wife, Robyn Phelps, a nurse in San Diego, became suspicious and uncovered his secret.

In August, when the 52-year-old physician died suddenly of a heart attack, the truth surfaced, shocking those in the Stanford medical community who knew him as a dedicated doctor and a pioneer in research on cystic fibrosis.

"Once you had a relationship with Norm, you had a relationship for the rest of your life," Phelps said in an interview. "You never said goodby to Norm."

To outsiders, the bearded, overweight Lewiston appeared as a manipulative villain who lived a lie and took advantage of women.

But to many who knew him, he was a caring person who couldn't say no; a doctor who often witnessed the death of patients but had difficulty parting with people; a man whose life went quietly out of control and who did not have the inner strength to be honest.

The way he conducted his personal life, however, has left a stain on an otherwise stellar career, raised questions about the way he spent at least $7,800 in research funds and left a tangle of legal questions for his three wives to sort out.

"It's easy to fantasize about how much fun he was having, but I think it was hell for Norman," said one colleague who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I think he got himself into a complete mess and didn't have the character to get out of it."

By all accounts, Lewiston was intensely committed to his patients and was nationally recognized for his work in treating cystic fibrosis, a crippling genetic lung disease that often kills its victims in childhood. A professor at the medical school since 1974, he helped develop protocols for heart-lung transplants and served as chief of allergy and pulmonary care at the Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford.

Those who knew him say he was not a slick operator who was simply out for himself. They suggest that his weakness in handling his personal affairs was the flip side of his strength as a doctor: his devotion to people.

"He truly hated to let go of anyone," said Katy Lewiston, 44, his second wife.

"He was an incredibly kind, caring person, the kind of person you instantly like," said Phelps, 42, his third wife. "Everybody just loved him."

Lewiston married his first wife, Diana B. Lewiston, 51, in 1960. They lived in a modest one-story house in Palo Alto, not far from the university, and reared three children.

In 1985, he married his second wife, Katy, at a public ceremony attended by many of his colleagues from Stanford. They, like Katy, believed that he had divorced his first wife. The couple shared a house in nearby Los Altos, and she became his wife in public, attending events connected with the medical school and the children's hospital, where she had worked.

In 1989, he married Phelps. They had known each other well since the 1970s, when they worked together at the hospital before she moved to San Diego. Before they got married, she said, Lewiston showed her copies of what he claimed were divorce records from his earlier marriages.

"He forged them, I guess," she said.

Using the excuse of his medical work, Lewiston split his time among the three, following what must have been a rigorous schedule.

At the end of his workday, he usually went home to Katy Lewiston, wife No. 2, according to sources familiar with the arrangement. Around 10 p.m. he would leave, saying he would sleep at the hospital.

Instead, however, he went to Palo Alto to the home he shared with Diana Lewiston--often leaving early in the morning to go back to Los Altos and have breakfast with Katy Lewiston.

About two weekends each month, he traveled to San Diego to visit Phelps.

Much of Lewiston's philandering apparently was made possible by the attitude of his first wife, Diana, who was willing to tolerate the arrangement as long as he slept at their Palo Alto home and did not seek a divorce, said the sources, who asked not to be identified. Diana Lewiston declined through her attorney to be interviewed.

Occasionally, Lewiston would take a vacation with one of his wives, but it was the holidays that could be the most demanding.

"I know for a fact there was one Thanksgiving when he had three dinners," Phelps said. "Of course he was overweight--he had three wives feeding him."

Phelps said she began to hear reports from friends that Lewiston was seen with his other wives when he was in the Bay Area. She sought the assistance of an investigator, and in June she was crushed to discover that he had never divorced them.

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