Ernestine Bradley finds 'home' amid husband's career

Ernestine Bradley, wife of former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), packed her bags for good in January 1997 and left Washington, D.C., for Verona — not Italy but, rather, New Jersey.

“We can look across the Hudson River Valley directly into Manhattan,” says a contented Bradley, 69, who has shown up at the Park Hyatt in Northwest Washington this morning to talk about her new memoir, aptly titled The Way Home.

Petite and thin, Bradley exudes European elegance in a simple thin wool chocolate blazer, a peach sweater and matching brown skirt, and her short-cropped brown hair is pinned up on one side in a single barrette. Her appearance is fitting — that afternoon, she’ll appear on CNN in an interview with Judy Woodruff. That weekend, she’ll be at Politics and Prose for a book signing.

Though her manners are impeccable, and she keeps her German-accented voice low, she has a lot to say. Do not be deceived by her delicate frame and small, round face; her energy is boundless.

In the memoir, which at times reads like a self-help book, she discusses growing up in Germany during the Nazi regime, witnessing the Holocaust but not understanding what it was, her difficult relationship with her mother, being a Pan Am flight attendant, divorce, meeting her basketball-star second husband, battling breast cancer and, ultimately, coming into her own as the wife of a presidential candidate during the 2000 campaign.

“It was in part very painful but also very cathartic,” Bradley says of the writing of her book.

In it, she discusses the accusation during the 2000 campaign that her father was a member of the Nazi party. In actuality, her birth father, Sepp Misslbeck, was an air force officer and was not a member of the party. Her mother’s first husband, who raised Bradley in her early youth, joined the party in 1937 and served in the army as a clerk.

During the campaign, Bradley first became aware that, although she had been a senator’s wife, this was a whole new league. Everything about her was fair game. “It was clear you could not keep anything in such a big campaign,” she says.

Being a potential first lady was something Bradley took to heart in her own way. “I didn’t really contemplate whatever first lady means, but campaigning across the country I saw so many areas where I felt you could do good things. Bill and I laughed; these would not be voting-getting issues.”

One issue that comes to mind: recently released prisoners who have no place to live.

Asked if she believed during the campaign that her husband would win the presidency, she reasons, “To go into a campaign you have to be convinced that you can win, that your ideas are the best. Otherwise, it becomes phony and people sense that. I still believe he was the best, and I say that knowing I say it partly because I am his wife.

“I felt great regret for Bill, and I felt great regret for the people who had given themselves in the campaign.”

When the campaign was over and her husband indeed lost, he encouraged her to pursue her life story and write the book. He told her that the search in trying to be honest with herself may be worth sharing.

She began taking notes during the campaign and started to write in earnest in 2001, finishing the book in three years.

At least one entire chapter of the book is devoted to her experiences as a Senate spouse. Unlike many of the other spouses at the time, Bradley lived in Washington only part time and was not a lawyer or a real-estate agent. Instead, she taught comparative literature back in New Jersey. “It was hard,” she says. “Just as Bill wanted to be in the Senate, I wanted to keep my career.”

She adds: “There are lots of wives down here who are lawyers to begin with or real-estate agents. I wasn’t willing to do that. We just had to work it out. New Jersey isn’t so far from Washington. It was stressful, but it worked.”

Bradley said there was a great spirit of camaraderie among the Senate spouses: “We all had to deal with the same horrible schedule. At 7 p.m., you didn’t know if Bill would come home for dinner. You don’t know how to make plans.”

Fortunately, she says, her teaching career at Montclair State in New Jersey kept her busy and away from Washington. “Bill really was a workaholic, and I had enough to do. I didn’t need Bill to entertain me. Sometimes I think one of us should have broken this pattern. In retrospect, we should have done that.”

Bradley says she had no problems with her husband’s status as a public figure because she always knew him as one, whether he was a basketball player for the New York Knicks, a New Jersey senator or a presidential hopeful.

She sees an art to how he protected his privacy. “When he was out in the public he was out,” she says. “There were never interviews at home, or photographs about where we lived or how we lived.”

To her own embarrassment, she recalls an instance when a man approached her husband while they were out to dinner. “I said, ‘Don’t you see we are having a private conversation?’”

Regardless of the fact that the stranger reacted badly, Bradley says, she regrets her comment and never made another like it during her husband’s career.

Growing up in what she describes as a “family circus,” she watched her father’s amazing outbursts — two minutes later it would be over and he would be hugging and kissing her mother. She writes that his momentary anger or the fact that he’d drop to his knees and sing opera never startled her. “He had to have his outbursts,” she explains, laughing. “So maybe we grew up in a family where this was strength and intensity instead of viciousness.”

Meeting Bill Bradley, in comparison, was a dream, and a lot more serene. Ernestine Bradley describes her husband as “very calm, very soft-spoken. There was a part of me that was so exhausted by these family dramas that I felt so relaxed with Bill. It’s a comfort that he is so soothing rather than exploding.”

After leaving Germany, Ernestine Bradley worked as a stewardess for Pan Am and shortly thereafter met her first husband, to whom she was married for five years. Despite the daughter they had, Ernestine says, she was never content. “I knew I had made a horrible mistake,” she says. “Maybe in the first year, I knew.”

Looking back, she says, “I really do think children sense if it is a marriage of appearances and not really based on love.” Bradley had another daughter with Bill Bradley. Today, she is close with both daughters.

After her first marriage ended, she says, “I wasn’t thinking in terms of finding another relationship. I was too devastated, too drained.”

Bradley says the relationship with her first husband was amicable after the divorce. He remarried and, 11 years later, so did she, to Bill. Three years ago, her first husband died.

These days, Bradley teaches comparative literature at the New School University in New York and travels with her grandchildren. Two years ago, it was Costa Rica; last year, it was Paris.

She explains the title of her book, The Way Home: After leaving Germany, she explains, “I had the feeling I want to get out. I want to see the world. In America, I found the flexibility and mobility of the society so wonderful. You are not just rooted. You have a whole continent you can call home.”

Bradley says that, geographically, her roots are in New Jersey. But more than geographic, she adds, “I am rooted in the hearts of the people I love. So the way home is maybe to recognize my root system and to feel good about it … at home.”

For Bradley, finishing the book was a relief. “I must say, I’m very pleased I haven’t had any nasty comments on anything,” she says. “But basically, it’s over and that’s what it is and now I’m moving on.”