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.
‘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.”
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