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Before There Was #MeToo, There Was Mary Cunningham

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In the tightknit community of St. Helena, Calif., Mary Cunningham Agee is known as the Tomato Lady. She grows the best heirlooms, giving them out, along with basil, cabbage and cauliflower, to her Napa Valley neighbors. Vineyards line both sides of her 4,000-square-foot farmhouse, the one with the soft golden-white hue and the shutters with heart-shaped cutouts. Ms. Cunningham Agee tends to the grapes to produce 25 cases of pinot noir each season.

Ms. Cunningham Agee, 66, has been spending a lot of time in that garden these past couple of months, ever since her husband of 35 years, William M. Agee, died in December at the age of 79. But it’s not just grief that has kept Ms. Cunningham Agee from the lunches she regularly organized with girlfriends or from working on the charity causes she supports.

Instead, her days have been dominated by a simmering legal feud with Mr. Agee’s children from his first marriage, including both a disputed will that Mr. Agee revised shortly before he died and the revelation that Mr. Agee started divorce proceedings against Ms. Cunningham Agee in the final weeks of his life.

The animosity between Ms. Cunningham Agee and other members of the Agee family — particularly over that will and whether Mr. Agee was of sound mind when he rewrote it — is the latest dramatic twist to a very public saga that goes back nearly 40 years, when Bill Agee and Mary Cunningham played the central roles in what was arguably the first sex scandal in corporate America.

Mary Cunningham graduating from Harvard Business School in 1979. The dean of the school called her the most likely female graduate of that class to become chairman of a non-cosmetic company.

Ms. Cunningham, one of the first women ever to hold a leadership role at a Fortune 100 company, became the subject of a media frenzy in the early 1980s amid speculation and innuendo that she had slept her way to the top of Bendix Corporation, the auto parts manufacturer that Mr. Agee then helmed. (In a later article about that scandal, Forbes referred to Ms. Cunningham as “undeniably appealing.”) Ms. Cunningham has always said the two didn’t have a romantic relationship until years later, after she left Bendix. For his part, Mr. Agee said he had promoted the bright Harvard M.B.A. solely on her abilities.

But nearly four decades later, Suzanne Agee, 57 — one of Mr. Agee’s daughters with his first wife, and locked in that legal battle with his second — still isn’t buying that story.

“It was clear something was going on,” she said in a recent interview. “If you knew my dad, he was a C.E.O., he didn’t wait for things.”

Now, Ms. Cunningham Agee sits alone in the empty house she and Mr. Agee shared and stares at a shrine to her late husband set up in front of the fireplace. There are white candles and yellow roses in crystal vases and a framed photo of Mr. Agee (once known as “the Paul Newman of the executive suite”). She thinks back to the shame she felt 40 years earlier when that scarlet A was attached to her power suit.

People assume “that must be a very unhappy couple that started out all about sex in the workplace,” Ms. Cunningham Agee said of her marriage. The house, she said, and the friends who filled it in the days after Mr. Agee died were a testament to “the beautiful marriage we had.”

Mr. Agee when he was the chief executive of Bendix and considered one of the rising stars of corporate America.CreditDetroit Free Press

‘Who Is This Woman?’

The letters arrived in bundles. Typed on word processors from the steno pool and handwritten on monogrammed note cards from kitchen tables. The senders all confided a similar sentiment to Mary Cunningham Agee. “What happened to you,” these women wrote, “it happened to me, too.”

“It was a #MeToo moment that didn’t have social media or an opportunity to tell anyone else,” Ms. Cunningham Agee said. “They told me they admired me, understood me, related to the experiences and that it was wrong.”

It was the 1980s. The sexual revolution was over, and the feminist movement had shifted from communal love and bra burning to capitalism and Donna Karan suits. Women strove for positions outside the secretarial pool, often meeting fierce opposition from male leadership along the way. For the first time, cases of sexual discrimination and harassment in the workplace reached the Supreme Court and made the nightly news.

“The role of women in all kinds of jobs in corporate America were under consideration, and it became part of a really major national discussion,” said Angel Kwolek-Folland, a professor of history and women’s studies at the University of Florida.

And in the middle of it all was Mary Cunningham.

The dean of Harvard Business School called the 27-year-old strawberry blond the most likely female graduate of the class of 1979 to become chairman of a non-cosmetic company. When she graduated, Ms. Cunningham had job offers from Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and McKinsey & Company, among other top firms. Then at 7:30 one morning, she knocked on the door of Mr. Agee’s suite at the Waldorf Astoria to interview for a job at Bendix, one of the country’s largest auto parts makers.

In the staid auto industry, the brash Mr. Agee, who gained a reputation as a rock star chief executive (Fortune called him “America’s first yuppie”), had earned fame for ushering in business casual, doing away with boardroom tables and shunning executive parking spaces.

“When he said he believed in promoting women and minorities and anyone from a disadvantaged background, I said sign me up,” Ms. Cunningham Agee recalled.

Ms. Cunningham Agee speaking to a women’s group after her departure from Bendix in 1982. Before she resigned, she was one of the highest-ranking female executives in the country.

She decided to turn down Wall Street and move to Southfield, Mich., where Bendix was based. She started as Mr. Agee’s executive assistant and was soon promoted to vice president of strategic planning, a position that made Ms. Cunningham one of the highest-ranking female executives in the country.

She and Mr. Agee shared limousine rides and flights on the corporate jet and checked into the same hotels (different rooms) on business trips — activities that by 2018 standards seem like prerequisites to get ahead at work but at the time scandalized the company.

“I kept thinking: ‘Are you kidding me? How is a woman ever supposed to advance if you have to deny yourself the same tools and mechanisms that every man knows make a difference?’” Ms. Cunningham Agee said.

Further fueling office gossip had been Ms. Cunningham’s recent separation from her first husband, a banker who didn’t want to move to the Detroit suburbs.

“I had a blind spot a mile wide,” Ms. Cunningham Agee said, adding that she believed there was a racial component to the scrutiny she received. “I walked into an environment and a culture that was not only laden with a bull’s-eye on my back because I succeeded when other men could’ve had that job, but I’d just separated from my husband, who was African-American.”

She recounted sneers in every meeting, dirty looks on every elevator ride, whispers on every visit to the ladies’ room. Ms. Cunningham Agee summed up the sentiment as “Who is this woman, and what was she doing in Detroit?”

‘In a Foxhole Together’

At best, Ms. Cunningham was portrayed as a vixen who had played her cards right (“Make Your Corporate Affair Work for You,” a Mademoiselle column read). At worst, she was, as The Wall Street Journal wrote, a naïve young woman with “a raging schoolgirl crush” on the charismatic (and married) chief executive. Eliza Collins of the Harvard Business Review wrote that office romance “can break down the organizational structure,” adding that the “least essential to the company” should be terminated, even though that person is likely to be the woman.

The Agee-Cunningham scandal “brought to the forefront the very common romantic relationship that is kindled inside a work organization,” said David A. Harrison, a professor at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. “Before then, it was taboo to talk about it.”

The relationship of Mary Cunningham and Bill Agee — first professional and then personal — was covered in magazines ranging from Fortune to People.

Ms. Cunningham became so central in the debate about women in corporate America that when she faced pressure to resign in 1980, Gloria Steinem volunteered to defend her to the Bendix board.

Then, in 1982, two years after she left Bendix, Ms. Cunningham and Mr. Agee, both divorced by then, were married. The development was debated ad nauseam on the “Donahue” daytime talk show. The author Gail Sheehy riffed on the Agee-Cunningham relationship in a syndicated newspaper series titled “The Saga of Mary Cunningham.” In 1982, People profiled the couple with a piece that was headlined, in part, “Bill Agee and Mary Cunningham Made One Merger That Works.”

In 1984, Ms. Cunningham Agee wrote “Power Play: What Really Happened at Bendix,” a book that told her side, including making the case that she wasn’t romantically involved with her then-boss. (The first kiss doesn’t happen until roughly 200 pages in.)

Looking back, Ms. Cunningham Agee said she had bonded with Mr. Agee because of what they had both endured, from a voracious news media and a cutthroat corporate culture that used her as a pawn to take down Mr. Agee.

“There was an overwhelming sense of compassion,” she said. “We’d been two people in a foxhole together.”

But popular opinion had seemingly made up its mind about Mary Cunningham Agee. “Everybody said, ‘See, we told you so.’ It became a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Ms. Kwolek-Folland said. “This fit into how the world worked — she must’ve been sleeping with the boss.”

Ms. Cunningham Agee in her garden, where, she said, she has been seeking solace after the death of her husband and the legal battle it triggered.CreditMargo Moritz for The New York Times

A Rift That Lasted 40 Years

Ms. Cunningham Agee can be such an adept dealmaker that she once struck up a conversation with a young woman in the back seat of an Uber pool car and persuaded her to go on a blind date with her son, Will. Ten months later, the two were married.

That young woman, McKinley Agee, 29, is fiercely loyal to her mother-in-law and said she could never shake the caricature of a manipulative home wrecker who had tried to insert herself into the old boys’ club of corporate America.

“I think the narrative we continue to see is that of a scandalous affair, but ultimately it was a great love story,” McKinley Agee said.

That is not how Mr. Agee’s three children with his first wife, Diane Weaver, see things.

For nearly 40 years, they had almost no contact with their father and blame Ms. Cunningham Agee’s controlling nature for the estrangement. Suzanne Agee said she believed that her father “had a lot of remorse” over not keeping in close contact with his first family but that he couldn’t do so “without breaking ties with Mary.”

In response, Ms. Cunningham Agee said she had urged her husband to reconnect to his first family, but couldn’t persuade him. “Every Christmas, I begged him to do it,” she said.

In October, less than two months before he died, a frail Mr. Agee, who suffered from scleroderma, a degenerative disease of the immune system, reconnected with his first family. Legal documents show that he gave Suzanne Agee power of attorney (along with his 32-year-old daughter with Ms. Cunningham Agee, Mary Alana Kurz), filed for divorce and rewrote his will to divide his assets among Ms. Cunningham Agee and his five children. (Previously, the will had left everything to Ms. Cunningham Agee.)

Ms. Cunningham Agee attributes his erratic behavior to dementia. She said doctors had diagnosed Alzheimer’s in 2014. His health deteriorated, and in mid-October she put him in an assisted living facility. She said that her husband “was very conflicted and paranoid” and that he had used the divorce filing — which would’ve divided up the couple’s assets and allowed Mr. Agee to alter his estate planning — as “a good tool to get out of assisted living.” (The divorce was never finalized, which means the proceeding would be legally nullified.)

But Suzanne Agee and others close to Mr. Agee disputed the Alzheimer’s diagnosis and said he was mentally competent. In an Oct. 29 email exchange, Bruce A. Miroglio, a lawyer and friend to the couple, wrote that Ms. Cunningham Agee had “retained counsel, to help her get Bill declared incompetent.” He wrote, “Bill is still competent.” Mr. Agee was never declared mentally incompetent by the courts.

Ms. Cunningham Agee said that until those final weeks, her marriage had been blissful, but people close to the family said the couple had been living in separate wings of their St. Helena home, comparing the arrangement to the 1989 movie “War of the Roses.” Ms. Cunningham Agee confirmed that they lived on different floors, but said it was because Mr. Agee, whose illness had taken its toll, walked with a cane and couldn’t climb stairs.

In her version of the story, she was the consummate caregiver, bestowing on Mr. Agee chocolate milkshakes and foot massages in the middle of the night.

“We all miss a great man who had Alzheimer’s and acted out at the end,” Ms. Cunningham Agee said, adding that it would be a shame to dwell on that difficult seven-week period in the twilight of his life after a long, happy union.

The battle over the will is likely to be for naught. In 2016, Mr. Agee put all of the couple’s assets, estimated at several million dollars, into a trust and made Ms. Cunningham Agee trustee. Even if the new will is valid, anything of real value is controlled by the trust, said a family friend with direct knowledge of the legal arrangement, who was not authorized to speak about it publicly.

Suzanne Agee said it wasn’t about the money, but about a father’s love and his attempts at reconciliation at the end. However, she indicated that she intended to test the legality of the new will, even if it appeared unlikely to stand up.

“I believe in principle that it should be seen by the courts and a judge should be allowed to decide,” Ms. Agee said.

In late October, weeks before Mr. Agee died, he traveled to Seattle to reconnect with his children and grandchildren with his first wife. (Ms. Kurz also reunited with her half siblings during this period, straining relations with her mother.) He died of respiratory failure at the Swedish Hospital in Seattle on Dec. 20.

“He got old and frail and wanted to make it right before he died,” Ms. Agee said.

Ms. Cunningham Agee attributed the end-of-life trip to Seattle to Mr. Agee’s dementia and said they had reconciled at the end before sharing a heartfelt goodbye via FaceTime.

“He said, ‘I want you to know I’ll never stop loving you,’ and I told him, ‘You’re completely forgiven,’” she said, tearing up as she recalled their final conversation.

Mary Cunningham and Bill Agee in 2013. During their time at Bendix, back in the early 80s, when Ms. Cunningham rose to become one of highest-ranking women in corporate America, the two strongly denied rumors they were having an affair. Two years after Ms. Cunningham left Bendix, the couple married.

‘The Yoko Ono of Finance’

For decades, the Agee-Cunningham saga had been out of the headlines. Now, both families seem unable to shake the swirl of the scandal and speculation that consumed their early relationship in the 1980s and resurfaced at the end of Mr. Agee’s life.

“They may still harbor feelings from 40 years ago,” Ms. Cunningham Agee said of her husband’s first family.

Suzanne Agee, indeed, recalled in vivid detail how some 40 years ago Ms. Cunningham Agee had inserted herself into their family, including helping with her sister’s college applications, sharing a phone line with their dad and accompanying them on family trips. (Ms. Cunningham Agee said those duties had come with being Mr. Agee’s executive assistant.)

Making matters worse for the family, Ms. Agee said, was the relentless scrutiny. “We’d be out in public years later, well into the late 1980s, and people would be discussing the whole Agee-Mary thing,” she said. “It was humiliating.”

Like much of the media, the Agee children from his first marriage saw Ms. Cunningham Agee as not only their father’s mistress, but the cause of the unraveling of Mr. Agee’s once-promising corporate career.

In 1982, Mr. Agee, who had been anointed by the business press as a visionary, tried to buy a stake in RCA. The company shunned the offer, saying the chief executive hadn’t “demonstrated the ability to manage his own affairs, let alone someone else’s.”

The same year, Mr. Agee made an ill-advised bid for Martin Marietta, a rocket maker. Ms. Cunningham Agee, who had since joined Seagram & Company as a vice president, had consulted her new husband on the merger, which The New York Times called “one of the most bizarre takeover battles in American corporate history.”

Some industry analysts and business journalists blamed Ms. Cunningham Agee for the failed deal, with The Washington Post describing her as “holed up in a room nearby Marietta’s Bethesda headquarters in case her husband wanted her on-the-spot advice.” That misfire ultimately led to Allied Corporation’s taking over Bendix and Mr. Agee’s departure in 1983. (At least one article at the time, recapping the events leading to the takeover, prominently noted Mr. Agee’s relationship with “Mary Cunningham, a young woman who was Mr. Agee’s protégée and whose rapid rise up the Bendix ladder in 1980 provoked a flurry of romantic rumors.”)

In 1988, he and Ms. Cunningham Agee moved to his hometown, Boise, Idaho, where he served as chief executive of Morrison Knudsen, a construction company, until the board fired him seven years later. Again, the media pointed to the controversial wife. Ms. Cunningham Agee became known as “the Yoko Ono of finance.”

Ms. Cunningham Agee left Seagram after two years and formed a venture capital and strategic consulting firm with Mr. Agee. She never went back to the corporate world and would spend most of her career working on charitable causes, including founding the Nurturing Network, a nonprofit that provides women with an alternative to abortions. Now she’d like to get involved in charitable causes to help find a cure for Alzheimer’s, she said.

“I am doing my best to remain above the darkness that entered his life so unexpectedly and at such a vulnerable time,” she said in a Feb. 1 email. “He knew he was unconditionally loved and that any anguish caused by his illness was completely forgiven.”

Suzanne Agee doesn’t see Ms. Cunningham Agee as a devoted wife and grieving widow. Rather, her father’s death and the current imbroglio reminded her of how masterfully a much younger Mary Cunningham had spun the story of her tenure at Bendix.

“Is she the victim, or is she the villain?” Ms. Agee asked.

It has all been a strange confluence of events for Ms. Cunningham Agee — her husband’s death and the still-open wounds it has exposed, unfolding along with the national reckoning about women in the workplace. She has been thinking a lot about those letters stashed quietly away in trunks all these years. In the Twitter era, their voices would’ve culminated in a public scream.

“It was women trying to tell their truth” — about what it was like for them being the subject of nasty office rumors, Ms. Cunningham Agee said. And while she doesn’t like to dwell on how her corporate career could’ve gone differently, there remains a tinge of regret about the heights this promising young Harvard M.B.A. could’ve reached had her situation happened in the current era.

“This interview isn’t easy,” Ms. Cunningham Agee said last month. “I’m reliving experiences from 1980 that never should’ve happened.”

Ms. Cunningham Agee in her Napa Valley vineyard. ““I’m reliving experiences from 1980 that never should’ve happened,” she says.CreditMargo Moritz for The New York Times

Steve Lohr contributed reporting.

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