Gary C. Wendt became chief executive of GE Capital Services, the largest and most profitable branch of General Electric, in 1985. His wife, Lorna Jorgenson Wendt, ran the family’s million-dollar home in Stamford, Connecticut, raised the couple’s two daughters, entertained her husband’s business associates and traveled with him around the world.
In 1995, after more than 30 years of marriage, Gary Wendt wanted a divorce. He offered his wife a settlement of about $10 million, which she turned down.
She then filed for divorce before he could and, in a long courtroom battle, asked for half of his assets, which her attorneys valued at about $100 million.
“He may have earned the bacon,” she told CBS News in 1997, “but I shopped for it, I cooked it and I cleaned up.”
The legal saga reverberated through boardrooms and cocktail parties, was featured on the cover of Fortune magazine and brought to mind the old adage about the fury of a woman scorned.
Jorgenson Wendt, who sought financial redress for her unpaid contributions to her husband’s success, died Feb. 4 in Stamford. She was 72.
Arnold Rutkin, one of her attorneys in the divorce case, confirmed her death to CNBC. The cause was cancer.
As the case of Wendt v. Wendt played out in a Connecticut courtroom over 18 days in 1997, observers took sides and debated, as the Fortune cover pointedly asked, “What’s a Corporate Wife Worth?”
“For a growing number of women,” Fortune noted, “it’s a full-fledged movement - a nonfiction version of the First Wives Club,” a reference to Olivia Goldsmith’s 1992 novel, which was made into a popular movie in 1996. In the book and film, spurned wives exact revenge on their wealthy, skirt-chasing husbands.
The reasons behind the Wendt divorce were never revealed, but many other things about their marriage were.
Jorgenson Wendt helped support her husband as he went to Harvard Business School. She followed him to corporate jobs in Houston, Atlanta and Miami before they settled in Stamford, outside New York. Their black-tie holiday parties featured entertainment by Marvin Hamlisch and José Feliciano.
“I complemented him by keeping the home fires burning and by raising a family and by being CEO of the Wendt corporation,” she told Fortune.
“You were always to have a smile on. You always acted as if you wanted to be there, liked everyone you came in contact with. . . . Acting as if. I spent my whole life acting as if.”
Gary Wendt said that his wife contributed little to his success and that her attorneys grossly overestimated his wealth, which he put at about $21 million.
Jorgenson Wendt maintained that her husband’s net worth, including stock options, deferred compensation and other benefits, was five times that amount - and that she was entitled to half.
“I was really unprepared,” Gary Wendt told Fortune. “I had no idea of the venom that was going to be spewed on me. I mean, we really thought this thing was going to be settled on the courthouse steps.”
During the court proceedings, Jorgenson Wendt asked for a monthly allowance of $1,350 for hair and makeup, plus $10,000 for clothes. But her real goal was the principle of equality.
“I can get along on $10 million, but why should he get $90 million?” she asked. “I entered into this marriage as a partner. I don’t know when he decided that it was not a partnership.”
In December 1997, Judge Kevin Tierney ruled that Jorgenson Wendt should receive half of her husband’s cash and securities, an annual alimony payment of $252,000, and the couple’s houses in Stamford and Florida. She received smaller proportions of his future earnings, for a total settlement of about $20 million. Both parties appealed the decision, but it was upheld by an appeals court.
The divorce was final.
Lorna Joyce Jorgenson was born June 14, 1943, in Minot, North Dakota. Her father was a Lutheran minister.
She grew up mostly in Rio, Wisconsin, where she and Gary Wendt were high school classmates. They were married shortly after they graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1965.
While her husband attended business school, Jorgenson Wendt taught music. Throughout their marriage, she continued to sing in church choirs.
After their divorce, she gave speeches and established the Equality in Marriage Institute.
Gary Wendt was asked to resign as chief executive of GE Capital in 1998. He remarried that year - to a woman 10 years older than his first wife - and accepted a $45 million bonus to become chief executive of Conseco, a troubled insurance and finance business that later went bankrupt. He is now chairman of Deerpath Capital Management in New York.
Jorgenson Wendt did not remarry. Survivors include two daughters, three sisters, two brothers and three grandchildren.
Jorgenson remained in the family’s house in Connecticut and served on the boards of the Stamford Symphony and Outward Bound. She also became a strong advocate of prenuptial agreements.
“If marriage isn’t a partnership between equals,” she asked, “then why get married?”