Charlotte Fedders: Shattered Dreams (Book Review + More)


 John M. Fedders didn’t just shatter his wife’s dreams.  He shattered the dreams of the middle class.  He made it possible for the 1% on Wall Street to steal the money that the other 99% ~ the folks who live on Main Street ~ worked hard all their lives to earn.

The protests against Wall Street greed went global yesterday, but the foundation for unfettered greed was put firmly in place during the Reagan years and blossomed during the Bush presidencies.  John M. Fedders (Securities and Exchange Commission or SEC), William H. Lash III (assistant secretary of Commerce), and John Michael Farren (deputy White House counsel and undersecretary at Commerce) abused their families and the power of their positions while turning a blind eye on and enabling the abuses on Wall Street.  In the 1980s, John Fedders was head of the enforcement division at the SEC.  It was his job to be watch dog, but according to SEC Historical he was more lap dog:

 . . .John Fedders. . .often took a low-key approach to the insider trading crisis. . .Congress nonetheless pressed. . .even the perception of widespread insider trading could undermine investor confidence.

Senator D’Amato claimed. . . “the public cannot help but think that the dice are loaded. . .House Subcommittee Chair Edward Markey. . .[warned]. . . “Wall Street has been set aflame with fraudulent activity, those of us in public office will not be seen as fiddling.”

The rhetoric was great, but Congress continued to fiddle while the nest eggs on Main Street started their slow burn into oblivion.

Domestic Violence in Affluent Homes Exposed

Meanwhile, the heat in the press was on what was going on behind the closed doors of the Fedders’ home.  Domestic violence isn’t typically the subject of a 4,000-word expose on the front page of the Wall Street Journal or on the cover of the Washingtonian.  (Curiously, neither article has been archived on the Internet, but they have been referenced in archived articles published by the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Time magazine.)

Charlotte O’Donnell Fedders’ story, however, brought domestic violence out from behind the closed doors of affluent households into the headlines and onto network news.  And, it inspired the Violence Against Women Act which gained momentum after the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson back in the day when NOW was more vocal on the issue of domestic violence.

Reagan’s “Family Values” Hypocrisy Exposed

Feminists have historically not been keen on protecting women and children from domestic violence.  So, I was shocked to discover that they were hugely supportive of Ms. Fedders.  She needed help.  Pres. Ronald Reagan, who grew up in a highly dysfunctional home, did several flip-flops on the case.  According to the Los Angeles Times, Pres. Reagan didn’t pressure Mr. Fedders to resign from the SEC:

Earlier, [White House spokesman Larry] Speakes had said Reagan “does not condone or advocate or tolerate any type of [family] abuse” ~ a position that the President first enunciated in his 1984 State of the Union address. . .

Judith Lichtman, executive director of the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, criticized Reagan earlier Tuesday for not firing Fedders. . .the President “is revealing by his inaction that he is not a man of principle.”

Time reported that Pres. Reagan had known about the abuse for a year, but he did nothing:

President Reagan could not keep on a known wife abuser. . .the White House had been informed. . .when Mrs. Fedders, after hearing Reagan decry “family violence” in a speech, composed a tell-all letter. . .forwarded by her sister to White House Counsel Fred Fielding. . . “I do not understand. . .how a man can enforce one set of laws and abuse another.”

  In Shattered Dreams, Laura Elliott wrote:

John worked for the Reagan administration ~ an administration that, more than any other preached the sanctity of the family.  Reagan had publicly declared war on domestic violence.  What did it mean that he employed a man who admitted to beating his wife on seven separate occasions?

Columnist Ellen Goodman was more pointed in her criticism:

Should a man who has brutally violated one code of behavior have the power to enforce another?  The answer is “no.”

Ms. Fedders quickly discovered she was on her own.  She told Ms. Elliott:

I had mobilized myself enough to make the call [to the police], and maybe I’m naive, but it was crushing to me that the police, the protectors of the innocent, weren’t going to do anything to help me.

Time magazine observed:

Police are often easily intimidated by a husband’s clout in the community.

Ms. Elliott was a bit of a fairy godmother for Ms. Fedders.  She wrote the Washingtonian story for which Ms. Fedders received $8,500 after paying her agent.  She also split her book advance of $100,000 and $300,000 for the paperback rights with Ms. Fedders.  But, the money went defray attorney fees.  In People Magazine, Ms. Fedders described her mixed emotions at the end of 1987:

I’m poorer than I ever thought I would be. . .It’s wonderful to live in a house no longer filled with fear.

Rich men like to have the control at home that they get elsewhere.
- Charlotte Fedders

Why Don’t You Just Leave?

Ms. Fedders thought her nightmare would end once she kicked her husband to the curb in 1983 and filed for divorce.  It was just the beginning.  Mr. Fedders engaged in litigation abuse and manipulated the “justice” system to continue to bludgeon his wife for at least five years.  He found a willing co-conspirator in Montgomery County (Md.) Domestic Relations Master John S. McInerney who outrageously awarded 25% of the proceeds from Shattered Dreams to Mr. Fedders.  He also reduced alimony to $400 per month.  Los Angeles Times columnist Roger Simon ranted:

I’m guessing [John] must have about 100 pounds on [Charlotte].  No boxing commission in the world would allow them to get into the ring together, but he slapped her around for years and years.  And now he wants money for it. . .

Charlotte probably figured all those attacks were the worst beatings in her life.

But she was wrong.  They were nothing compared to the beating she just got in court.

His outrage was echoed by newspapers from coast to coast, and The Harvard Crimson made snarky comments.  Ms. Fedders’ got support ~ some of it financial ~ for her appeal from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, NOW, and the National Organization for Victim Assistance.  The New York Times quoted one of their spokeswomen:

This sends a terrible message. . .It says to women that you are responsible for the domestic violence. 

Circuit Judge James McAuliffe overturned part of the ruling:

The couple, who have yet to sign the final divorce papers [after half a decade in court], have sparred over alimony, now $400 a month, and the proceeds of their yet-to-be-sold house, valued at $450,000.  .  .Charlotte Fedders would get half those proceeds, plus $50,000.  Charlotte filed for bankruptcy. . .working part time in a flower shop.

Meanwhile, Mr. Fedders was back in private practice.  According to his website, he was a partner at “world class” Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin from 1985 until 1987 when he established his own firm.  He now has offices in Washington, DC, New York, and Idaho.  In 1988, they sold their house for $490,000.

We have the right in the U.S. to peace and tranquility.
Yet for these women, home is the most dangerous place of all.
- anonymous DV survivor from an affluent home

Charlotte’s Shattered Dreams

Charlotte O’Donnell was the oldest of five daughters reared in a devout Catholic family in Baltimore.  Her father, Dr. Charles O’Donnell, was an ambitious family practitioner.  Like most women of her era, her dream was to have a family.  The nuns had instilled patriarchal values which were reinforced at home.

She graduated with a nursing degree from St. Joseph’s College and was working at Washington’s Providence Hospital when she met the man of her dreams.  John Fedders, a charming, handsome,  and brilliant 6’10″ former Marquette University basketball center, was a second year law student at Catholic University in Washington, DC.

They married in 1966.  John started practicing law at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft in New York City.  On Sunday nights, he made a “white glove” inspection of their home.  The couple had five sons who survived, and the beatings started during her first pregnancy.

They moved to Dallas and Washington, DC where he joined the prestigious Arnold & Porter law firm and the Congressional Country Club.  They bought a $250,000 six-bedroom house in Potomac, Maryland.  Their sons went to private schoolCharlotte reports she “felt like a slave.”  In 1981, he took a substantial pay cut to work for the SEC.  But, he wouldn’t relinquish his lavish lifestyle or penchant for beating Charlotte.  In 1983, she kicked him to the curb and filed for divorce.  The judge found him guilty of “excessively vicious” conduct.

In 1986, she filed for bankruptcy.  Her father paid the tuition for her sons to stay in private school.  She and her sons worked odd jobs, and she sold Avon and Mary Kay cosmetics.

Human Rights Activist and New Dreams

Back in the day when October was actually celebrated as National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Ms. Fedders went on a 17-city tour to promote Shattered Dreams in 1987, and she told the Chicago Tribune:

I don’t really need a man.  One should be happy with oneself. . .I’m very happy now.

Ms. Fedders was a frequent speaker at domestic violence forums, and she testified before Congress.  She joked with the New York Times during a 1987 interview in her home:

This is a normal house now, relaxed, even a little messy.  I’ve often said that if I ever wanted to do away with John Fedders, I’d have him come over. . .He’d have a heart attack on the spot.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that she has met groups of affluent women walking in her shoes:  diplomatic wives, Capitol Hill wives, journalists’ wives, wives of prominent medical people.

By 1990, her book had been made into a CBS movie starring Lindsay Wagner, who was also the producer.  She’d been on Oprah twice.  She was working as a nurse.  She prefers to be known as “Charlotte” rather than Mrs. Fedders.

In 1999, People featured her in their “Profiles in Courage” for bringing “wife-beating among the upper crust out of the closet.”

 She survived.  She paid a heavy price for her freedom.  She’s thriving and has found joy. 

 October is Domestic Violence Awareness month.  Please join me in wearing your purple and celebrating survivors.

One response to “Charlotte Fedders: Shattered Dreams (Book Review + More)

  1. I am proud of Charlotte Fedders and her sons. She fought an almost impossible battle with Jphn Fedders, who should be ashamed to even call himself a man. He is is evil and corrupt, I’m ashamed he’s part of the human race. I hope he never remarries to put some other women through what Charlotte went through. BRAVO Charlotte, BRAVO

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