The Very Rich Should Divorce Very Quietly


When you’re wealthy and your marriage breaks down, don’t exhale your anger all over the media. Discretion is classier—and may bring a better payday.

Since the so-called “Wolf of Wall Street” divorce scandal broke, I’ve been studying photographs of Christina Kelly, the angry blonde housewife whose specific allegations might yet very well bring down not just her errant husband but a whole investment bank.

I keep scanning Mrs Kelly’s thought-out wardrobe, searching for a sign of her motive. She’s got the classic boots-and-blazer look down pat; she looks put-together in a friendly, controlled way that is mystifyingly at-odds with the angriest—and most seemingly self-destructive—lawsuit to have hit the courts in years.

For those who haven’t been keeping track: Mrs Kelly, 38, and her husband, the in-advisedly-named Sage, 42, head of health-care banking at Jefferies & Co, are divorcing. She alleges that he and twenty-or-so named colleagues collectively abused “alcohol, cocaine, mushrooms, Special-K, heroin.”

She also alleges that Sage, who is the father of their two daughters, aged ten and six, urinated on himself at the office annual party and elsewhere; that he defecated on himself while intoxicated and that he encouraged her to have sex with a named client while he had sex with the client’s named girlfriend. Oh, and one of their girls almost ingested cocaine left out on a pool table in their basement.

Sage and the identified colleagues have denied all of it. He has taken a leave of absence from Jefferies, which has reportedly already lost five clients. On Monday it was also reported that, in a desperate-sounding attempt at damage control, Jefferies CEO Richard Handler had taken a random drug test with the health-care bankers (all were clean)— which only added to the surreal nature of the fiasco.

Whatever the truth of the specifics here, it’s no surprise that rich guys on Wall Street do bad things. I know this. I write books about this. I’ve heard many, many ugly stories about strippers, orgies, private islands, private clubs, hush money, missing wedding rings on strip-club floors. The anecdotes all reveal something uncomfortably schizophrenic about our world…but even so: what has gotten into this woman? Mrs. Kelly, for some reason, doesn’t seem to have understood the truism that most people in her bubble-wrapped environs intuit more clearly than the Constitution: rich people get divorced quietly. It’s a simple equation. Scandal equals reputational, emotional and financial ruin—for all concerned.

Some examples of the cost of public brawls: In 1999 Patricia Duff, the dazzlingly beautiful political hostess tried to battle publicly with her husband Ronald Perelman. All that happened was the custody of their small daughter Caleigh was decided in his favor, while she was (predictably and stereotypically) painted as over-emotional.

Even when handsome Peter Cook callously cheated on stunning Christie Brinkley in 2008, their public battle was not damage-free for the former model. It led to column inches devoted to his claim that her coldness had alienated him, a speculation that she could probably have done without.

More recently Richard Gere and Carey Lowell ducked for cover—and a privacy seal—when it looked like their differences were being put under a harsh microscope not likely to flatter either.

But more important for Christina Kelly, whose husband earns $7 million per annum, is the loss of his earning power that her scandalous allegations may very likely cause. Injuring the family breadwinner is the same as injuring yourself.

“It’s not unusual for either partner to have access to sensational or powerful information, but it is highly unusual for them to use it in such a way as to shoot yourself in the foot and let out the economic foundations of the divorce,” says divorce attorney Deb Lans of the Manhattan firm Cohen Clair Lans. “You have to be very angry to be at the point where you no longer have any self-interest.”

I can’t help thinking (yes, completely self-servingly): if only Christina Kelly had read my new book, The Liar’s Ball, perhaps she would have read about a story that shows the prudence of taking a different path.

In the early 1990s Louann Hilbert was the middle-aged wife of one of America’s highest-paid CEOS, Steve Hilbert, the founder of insurance behemoth Conseco.

Hilbert was a flashy man who helicoptered five miles daily over corn fields to and from the office. One day Louann’s phone rang. It was the local BMW dealer. “How are you enjoying your new convertible?” he asked her.

“What new convertible?” she replied. It emerged that her husband, had secretly bought the car for his new girlfriend, Tomisue Tomlinson, a 23-year-old woman whom he met a few weeks previously when she jumped nearly naked out of a cake at a bachelor party.

Divorce ensued, along with a deluge of humiliating media coverage. Louann kept dead quiet, taking a settlement in Conseco stock which she quickly sold; the new Mr and Mrs Hilbert lived, by contrast, a public, glamorous life on a 33-acre estate with a 23,000 square foot house named Le Renaissance. The Indiana Pacers came to practice there….

And then, six years later, Conseco went bankrupt. Hilbert and other Conseco directors were sued for $700 million it emerged they’d borrowed from the company. The Hilberts would lose the estate and much else. But by then Louann Hilbert had not only remarried, she had actually pocketed around $100 million from her Conseco shares…

There are many people interviewed in the book who enjoyed telling me Louann’s story (except, obviously, Steve Hilbert). And there isn’t a woman alive who wouldn’t smile, hearing it.

The former Mrs Hilbert’s story is a parable about a woman of class who needed no help from a wardrobe of carefully-co-ordinated riding-style clothes and Birkin bags, to exercise elegance and self-control. Ultimately she won out. Like I said: the rule is simple: rich people should divorce quietly…