Suzy Wetlaufer Preparing To Be ‘Neutron Jackie’

On a recent afternoon, Suzy Wetlaufer walked into her kitchen and started screaming.

“Oh my God!” she shrieked, staring at a large cardboard box that had arrived via FedEx from Saks Fifth Avenue. “It’s my wedding dress! It’s my wedding dress!” She turned to the housekeeper. “Maria! Unpack it and hang it in my closet. In the last row, where Jack can’t see it. Oooh! I’m so excited!”

It was two weeks before her wedding to retired General Electric chairman Jack Welch, and Ms. Wetlaufer, the 44-year-old former editor of the Harvard Business Review , had plenty to do. There were children to pick up from school and work to be done on Winning , the business how-to book for which she and Mr. Welch received a $4 million advance from HarperCollins in February.

And then there was the wedding planning.

“It’s going great!” Ms. Wetlaufer said, giggling. She has long, gently curled blond-brown hair and was wearing a slate-gray suit and a glistening French manicure. “It’s really different to get married when you’re 44 from when you’re 21. You can be relaxed. We had such fun choosing the invitations together. It’s just been a fun adventure! I had none of that Bride-zilla stuff because, you know, I’m an adult, right?”

She and Mr. Welch are to wed in a white-steepled church a few blocks away from their Beacon Hill townhouse, followed by a reception at home, in the ballroom. An evangelical Christian rock band will provide the music; Ms. Wetlaufer is a devout Christian.

“It’s going to be a beautiful wedding,” she said. “But it’s not about the wedding, it’s about the marriage .”

And what a courtship it has been. Ms. Wetlaufer met Mr. Welch in October 2001, a month after he retired as the head of G.E. She was then editor in chief of the Harvard Business Review ; her intention was to interview Mr. Welch for a cover story. But they became romantically, infamously involved while working on the article. Mr. Welch’s second wife, Jane Beasley Welch, found out about it by reading their e-mails and telephoned the Review to complain. Ms. Wetlaufer lost her job in the ensuing scandal and was portrayed in the press as a promiscuous gold-digger; meanwhile, the details of Mr. Welch’s lavish retirement package were scrutinized as he and his wife haggled over his fortune, estimated to be between $450 million and $900 million. Their divorce was settled on undisclosed terms in July 2003.

Sitting on a white brocade sofa, Ms. Wetlaufer explained that she and Mr. Welch moved into their townhouse just over a year ago. Like many of the houses in the swank Boston neighborhood, theirs is big and old; rumor has it that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was married in the den, which now has a fireplace, caramel leather armchairs and sailboat paintings. The house is filled with an abundance of 20th-century art of the caliber one might find a the Museum of Modern Art. When I asked later whether she and Mr. Welch had paid a high price to be together, Ms. Wetlaufer smiled and said, “What do you think, having seen our life?”

Ms. Wetlaufer explained that Mr. Welch, who is 68, is a “romantic guy.” She was wearing the distractingly large, nine-carat oval diamond ring that he surprised her with a few months back.

“He asked me to marry him, and I said yes,” she said. “We wanted to do it quickly, so we went to New York the next day for him to get the ring and for me to get my dress. And he said, ‘O.K., I got your ring, but they can’t have it ready for a month.’ And I said, ‘Oh, O.K. All right.’ I was like”-she mimicked crying-”‘O.K., fine !’ I was ready to wait a month, but, God, of course that’s awful. And then, once he had me completely set up to believe that the ring wasn’t coming for a month, we were walking through the Common and he said, ‘Oh, let’s sit down and just take in the view.’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ I have to tell you, I was compleeetely oblivious. We were sitting there enjoying the view, and he just took this box out and he asked me to marry him again! Isn’t it romantic?”

In corporate America, Jack Welch was not known for his romanticism. At G.E., “Neutron Jack” became famous for his hard-charging management style and penchant for layoffs. Ms. Wetlaufer was well acquainted with his reputation before their first meeting, but was startled by how much she liked him in person.

“It was a great interview,” she said. “He was really interesting and smart; he was insightful and forthcoming. I thought that he was funny. I really expected the Jack Welch you read about-this sort of gruff guy, the ‘toughest boss in America’-and I thought that he was just really … nice .”

Two months later, they decided to stop sneaking around. “By December,” she said, “we knew that we were about to-as Jack said- put our finger on the detonation button and blow up both of our lives so that we could be together.

“People have asked me, was there any time I just wanted to bolt, get out and say, ‘I didn’t sign up for this’? And my feeling was, my God-that was the furthest thing from my mind!” said Ms. Wetlaufer. “I knew I wasn’t making a mistake. My faith was really strong in that period, and I just knew that eventually we would get through it. And we did.”

Mr. Welch appeared on the master staircase in a navy blazer and blue Polo button-down. “Hellooo!” he said.

Ms. Wetlaufer jumped up. “Hi, honey! Hi, baby!” she said, touching his arm.

Mr. Welch was on his way out to lunch. They discussed his “ow-eee” shoulder, the result of too much golf.

“Acupuncture is acupuncture,” he said as he wandered out.

“I’m going to say something that sounds so naïve,” Ms. Wetlaufer continued. “I just didn’t understand how famous Jack was. So I thought that it would be a two-day story, and I thought, ‘I can take anything for two days.’ You know, people fall in love all the time, marriages end all the time-sadly they do, but they do. People get divorced and marry other people. That happens .

“We were happy, and the children were happy, and we were building a family, and we just dealt with it. I was sad about losing my job, of course , but there was a huge amount of joy around finding this partner, this love. And like many divorced women with children, I had no expectation or anticipation that I was ever going to marry again.”

Reporters showed up at her house “in a pack.”

“They had this incredibly cynical, prurient approach to the relationship,” she said. “Jack has said many times that if he could do it all over again, he would hold a press conference and say: ‘Since you’re so interested, let me tell you that I’ve found the woman I love and am going to love for the rest of my life, and we have a beautiful, deep relationship. I love her children, I love her dog, I love her family, and we are going to build a life together. We thank God that we found each other.’”

Ms. Wetlaufer said that her four children from her first marriage, ages 9 to 15, had warmed to their future stepfather, who has four grown-up progeny of his own.

“They love him and he loves them, and it’s a beautiful thing,” she said. “It’s no secret he’s a strong personality, and so when he entered our lives, they had to learn him. But they did, and he was so good to them, and so good to me, that who wouldn’t love him?”

An impressive array of family snapshots covered every surface in the house: Jack cavorting with the kids in Maui, Jack and the children in front of the Sydney Opera House.

Ms. Wetlaufer rises at 6 a.m. each morning, makes her children breakfast and then walks them individually to school. She said she loves to cook, including her special formula for grilled cheese, which involves “obscene amounts of butter.” After dinner, she helps with homework; math, science and public-speaking assignments are subcontracted out to Mr. Welch. Once the homework is done, Ms. Wetlaufer, who regularly attends Bible study, reads the good book with the children.

The idea for their book, which is expected out in 2005, came out of Mr. Welch’s speaking engagements. People would come up to him and ask, “How do you change an organization when people really hate change?” or “How do I fire a friend who’s underperforming?” So the couple decided to write a book of practical advice.

“There’s a long history of couples who work together,” said Ms. Wetlaufer. “Of course it didn’t have a particularly happy ending, but Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir worked together. And, actually, I think that rather than make our work hard or difficult, it’s just much more enjoyable. My friend said the other day, ‘You’re not working, you’re playing!’”

They also love to swim in the ocean at their house in Nantucket, and in the last two years have been to Australia, New Zealand, Europe and Iceland. This summer, they’re going to China and Japan with all four kids.

“I just looked at the itinerary, and it’s exhausting,” she said.

Less exhausting are their putting contests at the several golf clubs they belong to and their art collecting-particularly the work of emerging artists.

“That’s really fun, because you go to their studio in a factory someplace, and you sort of see an artist who’s just beginning to discover who he is or she is, and it’s really thrilling,” Ms. Wetlaufer said. “And we’re fascinated by creativity and the process of invention.”

They’re also fascinated by their friends. “We have a fabulous, fantastic group of friends,” she said. “And we love to talk, so we go and we gab. We went out last night with Doris Kearns Goodwin and Dick Goodwin, and they are such fascinating, fabulous human beings! We talked about politics for hours.”

Later, we joined Mr. Welch in the fourth-floor office where he and Ms. Wetlaufer spend their days, working side by side at twin desks. There are framed newspaper clippings featuring the couple when they announced their book deal. Mr. Welch’s long-time assistant, Rosanne Badowski, has an office just outside.

When asked how Ms. Wetlaufer has changed his life, Mr. Welch leaned back into the couch and, in a thick Boston accent, said: “She made it perfect. She is endless, endless … entertainment. She’s intellectually stimulating. And I won’t tell you the rest!”

“Jack, honey,” Ms. Wetlaufer squealed, snuggling up to him, “please don’t get us in trouble, will you please? I’m trying to make a very good impression, O.K.? Here’s what I told her: Before me, you didn’t love dogs, and you learned to love dogs!”

“Right, yeah,” said Mr. Welch.

“And then you became a great parent, ’cause you weren’t a traditional parent in the old days,” continued Ms. Wetlaufer.

“Endless entertainment,” said Mr. Welch, giving her a squeeze. “What could be better? Look at this place, you know? Being in love is the nuts !”

Suzy Wetlaufer was born Suzanne Spring in Portland, Ore. Her father was an architecture professor, and her large family bounced between his academic jobs, doing stints in Princeton and Westchester. She went to boarding school at Phillips Exeter Academy and then to Harvard, where she worked on the Crimson . Journalism followed: an internship at The Washington Post , the news desk at The Miami Herald, the Associated Press in Boston. In 1985, she married her high-school sweetheart, Eric Wetlaufer, who was a money manager, so she applied to Harvard Business School. She got in. She loved it. She went into management consulting and then got pregnant. While she was on maternity leave, she published a novel but didn’t like it. She needed to get out of the house. She started as a senior editor at Harvard Business Review in 1996 and became editor in chief in October 2000.

Meanwhile, she said she began to have “creeping problems with journalism and the invasion of privacy that it involved,” problems which culminated when the space shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986 and Ms. Wetlaufer was sent by the A.P. to camp out on the front lawn of the parents of Christa McAuliffe, the school teacher who died in the explosion. “I couldn’t stomach it,” she said.

“It was great, great work, fascinating work,” she said. She transformed the magazine from a bimonthly to a monthly. She and her husband split up in 2000, and she got used to “being married to my kids.”

“But,” she said, “that all came to an abrupt halt when I interviewed the C.E.O. of G.E.”

Ms. Wetlaufer is one of those mothers who might be mistaken for the older sister of her teenage daughter. As she walked through downtown Boston to pick up her 9-year-old from school, several men turned to look. At the school, a teacher approached Ms. Wetlaufer.

“Mr. Welch was here yesterday. I couldn’t believe it!” said the teacher.

“He couldn’t resist coming to get her,” said Ms. Wetlaufer.

“I couldn’t believe it! I thought, Is that Jack Welch? Am I seeing what I’m seeing? “

Ms. Wetlaufer took her daughter’s hand and peppered her with questions during the walk home: “What happened in school today? Did you do somersaults? What homework do you have?” Her cherry-cheeked daughter responded dutifully; she said she had spelling homework.

Mr. Welch underwent a quintuple bypass several years ago, but Ms. Wetlaufer said that she doesn’t notice their age difference.

“From the beginning we never thought about it, because who knows what our cumulative age is?” she said. “We’re young people in our hearts and we’re both really vigorous, and it hasn’t affected us.”

She leaned toward her daughter and said, “Do you feel Mommy and Jack’s age difference at all?”

“No,” her daughter responded.

“One of the cool things about it is, we can teach one another a lot about music,” Ms. Wetlaufer said. “You know, he didn’t know who Moby was when we met, and now he really does.”

The age difference, the insinuations, the loss of her job … it all seems to have rolled off Ms. Wetlaufer.

“Obviously we took our lumps because of it,” she said, “but we have built this beautiful, happy life together. So you know, in the end, we came out of it so happy and strong, I never think about it as having been ‘broken’ by it. I don’t see it as a net loss.”

Ms. Wetlaufer breezed through the front door of her house, where Mr. Welch was waiting with his coat on. “Suzy!” he said. “Let’s go!”

“I need two minutes!” Ms. Wetlaufer said. “We’re driving? Are we taking the Lexus? Let me just get my purse! I’ll be right there, Jack!”