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Title sounds familiar: Now, it's mom's turn

In her new tell-all book, Pat Montandon borrows more than a page from her son.

April 09, 2007|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

Pat Montandon was living a Cinderella life. The child of impoverished itinerant Nazarene ministers, she had blown out of a bad San Joaquin Valley marriage into San Francisco, where she became a party girl, got a TV show, spent a summer dating Frank Sinatra while managing an outpost of Joseph Magnin in Lake Tahoe and became a darling of the gossip columns.

By her early 40s, she had a rich, handsome husband in butter baron Al Wilsey, an adorable young son named Sean, a glass-walled San Francisco aerie with wraparound views, a country estate in the Napa Valley, a reputation for giving the best parties and round-table luncheons and her own column in the San Francisco Examiner. Then one evening her husband quietly announced he was dumping her. "You don't know how to be married to a rich man," he said, then got hitched to Montandon's much younger best friend, Dede Traina, who presumably did.

The ugly 1980 divorce played out publicly; once-friendly gossips dipped their pens in acid and had a field day with the regal Montandon's demand for $57,000 a month in alimony (she got $20,000 a month for eight years). San Francisco Chronicle wit Herb Caen, to whom Al Wilsey sent cases of Champagne, dubbed her the Blond Dumbshell and Pushy Galore. (Caen had been writing about her for years; when she married attorney Melvin Belli in a Shinto ceremony in Japan, he called the short-lived union "thirty seconds over Tokyo.") Armistead Maupin caricatured her as the grasping society columnist Prue Giroux in "Tales of the City."

On top of the divorce, Montandon was rejected by her son, who yearned for the love and approval of his father and stepmother, not his angry, freaked-out mother. Montandon fantasized about suicide and -- who wouldn't?-- homicide too.

With the help of a Berkeley psychotherapist, she managed to pull herself out of her spiral after having a vision of a world blown apart by nuclear holocaust. She created an improbable children's peace crusade, and took groups of kids to Russia, China, India, the Vatican, to meet with premiers, prime ministers and the pope to plead for world peace. Denigrated at home as hopelessly naive and self-aggrandizing, Montandon persevered.

"I never took the criticism to heart," she said. " 'Cause I knew what I was doing. And I did a lot."

If all this sounds familiar, it's because one of the little peace ambassadors Montandon squired around the world -- her son, Sean Wilsey -- published his own take on events in 2005. His bestselling memoir "Oh the Glory of It All" eviscerated his stepmother Dede Traina Wilsey, one of San Francisco's highest- profile arts philanthropists, and chronicled his ambivalent relationships with his increasingly distant father and his gorgeous, self-involved mother.

Well, now it's mom's turn.

Mementos of peace trips

Montandon's memoir, "Oh the Hell of It All," is to arrive in bookstores on Tuesday. In her spacious Beverly Hills cottage, built onto a steep slope off Coldwater Canyon, Montandon settled into an armchair to chat. A fluffy cat named Beslana, acquired during her most recent goodwill trip to Russia, purred under a footstool. Caged birds chirped in the kitchen as she gamely answered questions, not all of which were entirely pleasant for her.

The house is full of mementos from her dozens of peace trips abroad -- busts, plaques, a framed letter from Mother Teresa, a "declaration of dependence" signed (in person) by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Premier Zhao Ziyang of China. Above her fireplace hangs an oil portrait of Sean as a young adolescent. It was painted at the Napa house without Montandon's knowledge after her divorce. One day, Sean brought it to her, telling her he'd found it in his dad's basement, facing the wall.

Montandon moved to Southern California three years ago to "repot" herself, as she put it, after a lifetime in San Francisco. She is 78 and not the least bit self-conscious about that (although she is no stranger to plastic surgery). She wore a pair of 30-year-old navy satin lounge pants from Giorgio Beverly Hills with a loose white blouse over a white tank top, said she still gets a monthly alimony check from a convoluted trust established by the terms of her divorce, still doesn't care much for Dede Wilsey, who inherited all of Al Wilsey's estimated $300-million fortune after he died in 2002, is still promoting peace, and has experienced a hard-won rapprochement with her son that she cherishes and is loath to disrupt.

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