Turns out F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong: There are second acts in American lives. And a former congressman’s wife who posed nude for Playboy—twice—illustrates that ... as well as the virtues of travel.
I write a lot about the life-changing benefits of travel, and if I ever doubted the truth of that, a recent article featuring that former congressman’s wife cinched my argument.
As a young woman in the1970s, a young woman named Rita Carpenter moved from Texas to Washington, DC, and experienced what People magazine called at the time a romance right out of Romeo & Juliet.
Assigned by the Republic National Committee to do some background research—digging up dirt, we call it in DC—on a South Carolina Democratic congressman named John Jenrette who was running for reelection, lovely Rita wound up falling in love with her target. They wed 18 months after they met at a political reception. Washington gossip columnists—including this then-Washington Post columnist—loved it: Gorgeous, young blonde who favored low-cut dresses marries older, other-side-of-the-political-tracks congressman. Boffo!
But their lives eventually took a dark turn that even Shakespeare would have been hard pressed to imagine.
In 1980, the congressman was indicted and convicted of accepting cash bribes from FBI agents posing as Middle Eastern businessmen seeking favors in what was called the Abscam investigation. During the trial, Rita Jenrette told her story (with my encouragement) of the travails of being a congressman’s wife in a sensational magazine article for the Washington Post written by journalist Kathleen Maxa, then my wife.
At the same time, along with the rest of the nation, editors at Playboy noticed the curvy blonde on the evening news night after night who stuck close to her husband as he entered and exited the federal courthouse in Washington during his trial.
“Think she’ll pose?” asked one of the magazine’s editors when he called me.
“I can’t imagine it,” I said.
“Oh, please,” said my wife.
Sure, said Rita, and before you could say “Check, please,” Rita was dining in California with Hef at his Holmby Hills mansion and taking it all off for the magazine. (Hubby John, convicted but not yet sentenced, resigned from Congress with a tearful speech one afternoon and then, that night, teared up again when he joined Tom Snyder on his late-night, NBC-TV talk show in exchange for a ticket to Los Angeles so he could join his wife for dinner with Hef the next night. At Hef’s dinner, the former congressman zeroed in on two centerfold lovelies who happened to be twins and tried to convince them to join him in Las Vegas the next day. I know, because I was there.)
As you might guess, this marriage could not be saved. The Jenrettes divorced, he went to jail, and she made money doing a few things that never quite made her official bio, posing again in an older women/younger man spread for Playboy, writing a memoir that didn’t spend too much attention to the facts, and doing a few nude turns in a sexploitation movie called Zombie Island Massacre.
Eventually, she wound up in New York City as a real estate agent.
What’s this got to do with travel?
Well, this is a fairy tale, a story of a commoner who wakes up one morning thanks to a trip to Europe and finds her life changes dramatically. After her nude turns in a magazine and on film—done to help her husband meet his legal bills (at least that’s the story)—she goes on to her reward as all true fairy tale princesses do.
But I get ahead of myself.
In 2003, Rita Jenrette flew to Italy with a real estate client looking for some land on which to build a hotel. In Rome, they viewed a property owned by an Italian prince. The hotel never happened, but the prince was captivated by Rita the Realtor, and they married in May of 2009.
So don’t ever let anyone tell you that travel can’t change your life. That you can’t reinvent yourself. That there are no second—or third, or fourth—acts in an American life.
Today, the former congressman’s wife is Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, whose husband counts two former Popes as ancestors. Together she and her prince live in the heart of Rome in his family estate, Villa Aurora, that was recently featured in the New York Times for its incredible ceilings done by Caravaggio and Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, better known as Guercino. Prince Nicoló Boncompagni Luovisi once said his home and its artwork—his is the only ceiling known to have been painted by Caravaggio—was worth $844 million.
Trust me: Believe it if someone tells you that—just as fairy tales promise—someday, your prince may come.
Photo courtesy of ritajenrette.com