The Apparition of the First Wife

I could write that Jeffrey K. Skilling's first wife, Susan Lowe, was called to the stand this afternoon as a character witness for the accused, but it would be more accurate to say that she materialized in the witness box. She was ghostlike in her mien and manner, tremulous but somehow firm in her quiet and terse answers. She was, frankly, mesmerizing to watch.

Divorced from Skilling in 1997 and since remarried to a stockbroker, Lowe was called against her will, she admitted, by his attorneys. She has been in the courtroom for much of Skilling's defense over the past several days, along with their children and Skilling's current wife, Rebecca Carter, a former secretary to Enron's board.

The two women could not appear more different.

Carter, younger, more glamorous, was known around the Enron family as "Va-Voom." She married Skilling in 2002.

Lowe was married to Skilling for 22 years. She is frequently described as "mousy," but that's not quite right.

Today, she wore a tasteful light pink jacket with a darker pink shirt. Her hair is short, cut in a sort of Pricess Di do, appearing to be a mix of blonde and gray (I guess they used to call it "frosted"). Perched on a thin and graceful neck, Lowe's head made small birdlike movements as she listened to the lawyers. A thin, nervous smile would briefly appear and then just as quickly disappear. Her large eyes seemed attentive and tired at once. At times she seemed to flinch, as if brushed by an imaginary gust of wind.

Lowe was cross-examined by government prosecutor Kathryn Ruemmler, a young, emphatic, athletic power-blonde. And, although Ruemmler tried her best to be soliticious, it seemed her insistent questioning about Lowe's $14 million sale of Enron stock in October 2000 probably looked a little tough to the jury.

Lowe got the Enron stock in her divorce settlement with Skilling, and she testified she didn't know how much she received. She also testified that she and her husband sold the stock because they were "nervous about the stock market," although she said she didn't know that Enron stock was trading near its all-time high about then.

Apparently incredulous, Ruemmler asked Lowe if she knew that, in October 2000, Skilling was chief operating officer of Enron.

"I really didn't pay much attention to Jeff or Enron," Lowe said, prompting laughter. She cringed and said, "Sorry."

Later, after a long string of "did you know?" questions about Skilling and the government investigations, Lowe straightened in the witness box and proclaimed: "You know what? I have to be honest. I did not follow it at all. I really didn't. I was more concerned about taking care of my children."

Ouch. One of the first rules for prosecutors, along with "don't beat up on widows," should be: "Also, don't beat up on first wives of disgraced CEOs who look like they might shatter into a million pieces at any moment, even if they are worth tons of money."

Looking at Skilling and his choice of wives is fascinating. Some successful men who get richer and more powerful "trade up" for a newer or younger model, leaving the mother of their children for someone they believe better ornaments them and their rising world-beater status. That's what it looks like Skilling did.

Skilling and Carter began dating in 1998 when Skilling was shooting upward in the company. There's a terrific throwaway scene in Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" in which our hero, Master of the Universe stockbroker Sherman McCoy, is walking on a Manhattan sidewalk when a beautiful woman -- she might be a model -- approaches. They give each other an admiring once-over in passing. "What a magnificent pair of creatures we are," Wolfe has the two thinking.

It's hard to think about Skilling and Carter in the late '90s at big, bad, beautiful Enron and not think about that scene.

What's intriguing is that the wraithlike woman who appeared on the witness stand today seems a much better match for Skilling, now that he is a shade of his former self.

By Frank Ahrens |  April 20, 2006; 4:31 PM ET  | Category:  Dispatches
Previous: The Old Girlfriend Pops Back Up | Next: Skilling, Day Eight: Cast of Characters

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Tossing out the first wife is like tossing the baby out with the bathwater, imho. Read about what WaPo's Frank Ahrens writes about Jeff Skilling's first wife Sue Lowe and Skilling's trade-up wife, Va-Va-Voom Enron fellow-employee Rebecca Carter. Typica... read more »

Tracked on April 24, 2006 06:43 PM

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Mostly because of Mary Flood, I've been following the Houston Chron's Enron blogs but only recently discovered yours.

The above post about Mrs. Sklilling #1 is head and shoulders much better written than this one from Tom Fowler, for comparison:

http://blogs.chron.com/enrontrialwatch/archives/2006/04/the_former_mrs.html

Excellent work, please keep it up.

Posted by: skimble | April 20, 2006 05:50 PM

I've worked for large cororaion all of my life and every single executive I've met is exactly like Skilling. They have no conscience, no morals, they are sociopaths, simple empty shells. Being able to lie with a straight face is no indicator of character and neither is the ability to manipulate other people. At the very least, Skilling and Lay deserve to spend the rest of their lives in prison. If I could change one law, it would be to allow for capital punishment for people like this. For once, for one time in their miserable lives, I would like people to this to actually FEEL the harm they have done to others and I figure being strapped down on a table with tubes entering your arteries and knowing you are going to die for the lives you have wrecked might just do it.

Posted by: Mike Brooks | April 20, 2006 07:33 PM

I really don't understand the point of this entry. Why fixate on this woman's appearance? How relevant is this or important is it to your readers? I found this entry distasteful - I had hoped to get more insight into the trial but instead I got blather reminiscent of style section articles focusing on how powerful women in washington dress instead of how they think and what they do.

Posted by: Amanda | April 20, 2006 10:19 PM

Amanda: Thanks for taking time to read and write. Sorry if you were disappointed by this entry--and I hope it won't prevent you from reading further ones--but I tried to capture what I thought was the extraordinary appearance of the first Mrs. Skilling on the witness stand today. It's what I've doing all along, or trying to. I must tell you, it seemed everyone in the Overflow Press Room (OPR) stopped what they were doing to watch her. She had this amazing fragile-but-strong appearance, like you didn't know if she were going to just vaporize or come across the witness stand at the prosecutor. And inasmuch as she was with Skilling during much of his rise, it's worth trying to get a handle on what sort of woman she is. Thanks again for your input and I do hope you'll keep reading.

Posted by: Frank Ahrens | April 21, 2006 02:24 AM

Oh, and p.s.: You found me out--I spent five years writing for Style before I came to Business!

Posted by: Frank Ahrens | April 21, 2006 02:25 AM

I 'm with Amanda. I too find the depiction of Skillings ex distasteful. I only hope she does not read it, nor her children. Who wouldn't be a bit fragile on the stand? She didn't want to be there & thought she was through with him long ago.

Posted by: MJ | April 21, 2006 04:22 AM

Great article. Which network will make a TV series from all this. Could replace desperate housewifes. While it may do well as TV drama, it is not quite competition for the Sopranos.

Trophy wifes are easy to find, when you have bucks. Dumping the old lady is costly, ie: crooks like the boys at Enron,need to cook the books to afford their new found importance. We must all remember, putting these boys in jail, is required, for all the poor souls who lost both their jobs and their pensions.

Posted by: Dan Green | April 21, 2006 06:44 AM

First of all, great job sir. I am really enjoying these articles. I completely understand the concern expressed when writers (or anyone) focus on the physical attributes of women in a way that they may not with men. However, is it possible to carry this concern a little too far?

I think part of Franks role here is to convey the vibe and feeling of what it's like to be there as a witness to the trial and surroundings of the trial. If he was struck by her appearance, then I think it is part of his responsibilities to write about that.

To me, a blog is different than a straight news article. He is giving us his reactions and personal feelings and observations so that we may on some level understand what it's like to be there.

I do not have a problem with someone expressing his thoughts that do not seem to any way be demeaning or superficial.

Yes, let's be aware of the differences that men and women are portrayed in our culture, and the lack of fairness and respect that occasionally results from that. But lets box Frank in to only describing his feelings and observations, in his blog, to what may accepted by as wide a range of audience as possible.

Posted by: blah | April 21, 2006 11:50 AM

*not box in.

Sorry.

Posted by: blah | April 21, 2006 11:53 AM

I found most of the descriptions of the women sexist ("power-blonde?"). When will columnists stop describing womens personalities by their hair color? Both Skilling and Lay are demonstrably loosing their hair - where are the attendant personality tie-ins for their hair status? They aren't there because they are not relevant. Please reach further in to your imagination to describe the female characters in this drama, so far they feel trite.

Posted by: Jill Cerino | April 21, 2006 12:24 PM

"Mesmerizing," "wraithlike," and in comments, "extraordinary."

Those are not distasteful judgments, those are descriptive, cinematic, informative adjectives -- exactly what I would hope to hear from someone who was there.

In court, as in life, appearances count. Those of you who take issue with Frank Ahrens' word-painting of the contrast between the Skilling wives seem to live in a different universe than the one in which this trial is taking place.

He is not dissing Mrs. Skilling #1. He is trying to evoke a sense of what happened, and to do that, he must describe the physical reality of the courtroom and its occupants.

Posted by: skimble | April 21, 2006 12:26 PM

Attention all up-in-arms readers: These descriptions aren't defamatory, they make the trial more interesting to those of us who can't attend, and make it easier to understand Jeff Skilling, the man.

Sounds like Skilling was married to a decent person for 22 years, someome who was a good mother to their kids despite the fact he must have been a workaholic. 22 years of marriage is a long time, considering how short most marriages are. Give them both some credit.

As for me, if I was in front of a courtroom with the national media spotlight on me, I'd shake with fear, no question about it.

Posted by: Kyle R. | April 23, 2006 02:19 AM

Frank -- I disagree with many of the commentary opinions expressed here. I knew Sue and watched Enron and Skilling during the heady days that reminded me of Penn Square Bank right before it folded.

The advantage of blogs is that it they can be more than just a news story and the commentary often adds a lot to the coverage. For example, look at my disclosures about watching what happened from a personal standpoint and having known Sue and watched her try to handle a marriage before, during and after the divorce. I think you probably captured the stoicism of a first wife dumped for the thrill of the excitement of arm candy. It made much more interesting reading.

This adds more to WaPo's coverage in a different medium, as does the Fortune magazine print magazine article on the trial in the lastest issue. (referenced in earlier trackback above).

Great going. Keep at it. Plus, you are doing a nice job of listenting to your commentators making this a two-way dialogue.

Posted by: H.A.Page | April 25, 2006 02:54 AM

Please people give me a break. Frank did a great job analyzing and summarizing the situation. Since there are no pictures available it is interesting to read accurate court accounts. Whenever a man writes anything about a women, one of these feminists is going to make a big deal about it, even with articles like this one. For those people men cannot do anything right. Just awful.

Posted by: winnie | May 25, 2006 01:22 PM

I can't believe it, my co-worker just bought a car for $70815. Isn't that crazy!

Posted by: Betsy Markum | June 5, 2006 07:35 PM

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