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Her own woman

Is Teresa Heinz an asset or an Achilles' heel?

February 25, 2004|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

Later that afternoon, in a brown pantsuit with one of her trademark scarves draped over a shoulder, Heinz stood on a small raised platform at the Great Dane, a brewpub in the shadow of Madison's capitol building. Her audience consisted of about 40 environmental leaders. She looked at least 10 years younger than her age (she has admitted to Botox but not to plastic surgery) and wore minimal makeup. In her soft, accented voice, she talked about growing up in Mozambique, the former Portuguese colony off the east coast of Africa, with a physician father who taught her about "the relationship between nature and man and nature and health and therefore survival."

"I was never bitten by a snake or a scorpion, never got my toes nibbled by a shark," she said. "You know, a lot of South Africans used to come to our country ... and they used to go swimming at all hours and they didn't come back, because they got nibbled for cocktails and so on and so forth, so learning that was very much part of my formation."

It seemed a bit of a ramble, but "the point is," as she is fond of saying, "a lot of the work that I do today as an environmentalist is about health."

She spoke knowledgeably about mercury and dioxins, about her expansive definition of "environmental justice," then tried to tie it up with a segue to Kerry that didn't quite go as planned:

"And so I met my late husband. No, I met my first husband. No, my first husband introduced me to my late husband. No, wait. What am I saying? And I haven't even had any wine." She sighed.

"John Heinz, my late husband, introduced me on Earth Day 1990 to John Kerry because they were both speaking on the steps of the Capitol." The next time she bumped into Kerry, she said, was in 1992 at the United Nations Earth Day Summit in Rio de Janeiro. "And so the environment has been a thread that has brought us together."

Though she sometimes mixes up her husbands and sometimes gets so engrossed talking about the work she has funded that she forgets to talk about Kerry, her friends and supporters think she has come a long way since the early days of the campaign.

In St. Paul, Minn., at a women's luncheon, Sylvia Kaplan hung around after the event to chat about Heinz. Kaplan and her husband, Sam, are co-chairs of Kerry's Minnesota campaign. Last May, they threw a bash for Kerry at their lakeside home. Kerry had to bow out and sent Heinz in his stead. "She probably went on a bit too long," said Kaplan. "People at our house wanted to talk politics. They finally had to say, 'Well, how are you gonna get John elected?' And we got her to focus more on her husband. She has really grown. She has a great heart and a great intellect. She is not going to be a narrow first lady."

A life of privilege

Although she says she would be happy "in the bush," Heinz's background is one of privilege. Her Portuguese father was an oncologist; her mother came from a wealthy family.

Teresa Simoes Ferreira was sent to boarding school at 12. According to her official biography, she graduated from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg with a degree in romance languages and literature and attended graduate school at the Interpreters School of the University of Geneva. She met Heinz, heir to the condiment fortune, in Switzerland, moved to the States to be closer to him, and worked at the United Nations in New York as a language consultant before marrying him in 1966.

Their union, by all accounts, was happy and fulfilling. They raised three sons, the youngest of whom was a high school senior when his father's plane collided with a helicopter over a Pennsylvania schoolyard in 1991.

Upon John's death, Teresa Heinz became steward of an immense family fortune. Although she was recently knocked off the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans, her personal wealth has been estimated at more than $550 million. ("Whatever it is, it's never as high as they say," she said.) The entities that make up the family's philanthropic pursuits have about $1.2 billion in assets, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, and in 2002 ranked 26 on the list of 229 American foundations.

'It's what I have'

She lives the moneyed life one might expect: multiple homes, including retreats in Sun Valley and on Nantucket; her own Gulfstream II (the Flying Squirrel); a penchant for Chanel. ("The point is," she said, "that's not who I am, it's what I have.") She also has a coterie of high-end, ultra-loyal friends, some of whom have been in her life for more than 30 years, who alternate being at her side at all times on the campaign trail.

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