Mrs. Spitzer Suits Up

Last week at the contemporary photography gallery at Christie’s, an Elizabeth Montgomery look-alike named Silda Wall took the podium before a polished mix of lawyers, Wall Streeters and politicos. She wore a crisp cream-colored shift and slingbacks, and her honey-brown hair was set in a perfect Samantha flip.

Meanwhile, her husband—ruddy-cheeked, handsome and working his way through a glass of white wine—stood joking near the bar with an old friend, playing the cheerfully obedient spouse. But his presence was hardly incidental, to this or any other public or private evening in Manhattan these days at which the couple turns up. Ms. Wall’s husband of almost 19 years is Eliot Spitzer, outgoing State Attorney General and the favorite to become the next Governor of New York. And many of the deep-pocketed minglers gathered that night at Christie’s had helped fuel his surge to the top of New York politics.

Ms. Wall, too, has helped his career.

She spoke in a refined Southern drawl to the guests, who had shown up to raise money for Children for Children, a sponsor of community-service opportunities for children that she founded. She spoke about the history of the charity, but Silda Wall—who is, for campaign purposes only, Silda Wall Spitzer—could have been reading a grocery list and gotten the kind of applause she got that night.

Ms. Wall, the former corporate lawyer, Southern belle and now benefit hostess, never imagined this life when she married Mr. Spitzer in 1987. Now that the real prospect exists of her becoming the First Lady of New York State, it’s not just the media and the public who are sorting out the enigmas of being a “political wife,” a term she first and foremost resists.

The couple had been married for six and a half years when Ms. Wall gave birth to their third daughter, Jenna, in May of 1994. A week later (or before—neither can remember), Mr. Spitzer announced that he was running for Attorney General.

“This was not something that I had anticipated,” said Ms. Wall. “Certainly not at this stage of life, with the children at the ages that they are. It was not my expectation that Eliot would be running for office. So I had to process that.”

She was speaking on a Sunday afternoon at the Madison Avenue diner Three Guys—the kind of overpriced coffee shop where, on the one hand, mothers with children might sit down after a trip to the park, and, on the other, where the Blackstone-Merrill merger was conceived.

Ms. Wall, 48, blended in perfectly, even as she apologized for the prices. She was fully coiffed and made up, wearing clip-on pearl-and-diamond studs and a David Yurman bangle. She wore more or less the same outfit of jeans and a cable-knit sweater that she had worn the day before at one of her organization’s events at Riverside Park.

Her gray-blue eyes, winged with a thick coat of mascara, got a little dewy.

“For him, out of the blue, to come back and say, ‘You know, I’ve been thinking about this, and this is why I think I should do something, and now this should be the time to do it’—that requires some processing,” she said.

“I don’t think Silda had ever expected that I would be in politics or government in an elected capacity,” Mr. Spitzer, 46, said, calling from his cell phone two days later. “And frankly, that’s because I had never anticipated that that was the direction my career would take. At the end of the day, the most important point was that her conclusion was: If I wanted to do it, it was necessarily the right thing to do. Because she didn’t want the dream to be unfulfilled. Win or lose, her attitude was: If the passion is there to try it, you’ve got to try it.”

Of course, it’s been many years since that first failed bid for Attorney General. Ms. Wall wearily recalled the 1998 race, a bitter contest between the incumbent, Dennis Vacco, and Mr. Spitzer, who had been working as an associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, so tight that it took six weeks after the election to certify a winner.

“The whole way through, it was so close—if I had known the statistics for how many people had actually beaten a first-term incumbent, I’m not sure I would have been so on board,” she said, starting to laugh.

He won the job that year, but their life did not change dramatically: The public isn’t all that interested in an Attorney General’s family.

“I just do my thing, and the kids have been able to do theirs, and it’s been lovely, and I feel like we’ve had privacy and space to kind of have them grow up as they need to grow up,” she said, sweeping English-muffin crumbs off the table with her hands.

“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know,” she said, anticipating the question. “My sense is that it will change somewhat, and I hope that I can keep the girls in their own space as much as possible.”

If her husband wins the election, she may keep Manhattan as a home base for the girls, who attend Mr. Spitzer’s alma mater, Horace Mann.

“Albany’s great. Albany’s great,” she said. “We go back and forth in our lives now anyway, because we go upstate often on the weekends.”

But she doesn’t want to uproot their kids, at least during the school year. “They’ve had to put up with a whole lot in terms of sharing their dad for the things that he’s been doing as Attorney General,” she said.

Ms. Wall was eager to place such compromises in the context of the sacrifices all families make.

“I’m one minute wearing a mother hat, I’m the next minute speaking to a group of hundreds of people about another topic. It’s shifting gears a whole lot. I think that the public has a very real appreciation for how much has to be juggled and organized in order to make something like this work. Because everybody—whether or not they’re an elected official, who is in the stage in life that Eliot and I are, with a young family—they’re facing all this juggling of roles.”

MS. WALL HAD HER MAGNETISM BURNISHED in the South. She was raised in Concord, N.C., a city that has tripled in size to a population of about 60,000, about 20 miles north of Charlotte. She was the granddaughter of a farmer and the oldest of three children born to a hospital administrator and homemaker. The family attended a Baptist church on Sundays.

The city was football-mad, and Silda—whose name was derived from one meaning Teutonic war maiden— was no exception. Her earliest career dream, in the fifth grade, was to be “first female professional football player.”

She describes herself, as so many women do, as an erstwhile tomboy. But if she was sporty in school, she had also given up on the idea of hitting the gridiron herself by the time she was a teenager.

“The only sports you could do were basketball and tennis,” she recalled. “We lobbied to get girls to be able to run on the track team, but this started when I was maybe in the 10th grade, and by the time we got the O.K., it was 11th grade and I was already involved in other things. But I did cheerlead, and I marched in the band and I played the French horn—and it’s very difficult to march in the band with a French horn.”

She was also the class secretary, a lifeguard at a local pool, a swimmer on the local team and a member of a drama group.

“She was perfect,” said Janet Ward Black, a high-school classmate who was a year behind Ms. Wall but took Latin with her, and who remembers sitting on the auditorium floor together doing translations for their teacher, a Ms. Stewart.

“There weren’t too many people who wanted to take four years of Latin,” she said.

And yet?

“She was much more in the popular crowd,” said Ms. Ward Black, who is now a lawyer living in Greensboro, N.C. “She wasn’t in a brainy, nerdy crowd. I met Silda when she was 16, and she was always the most ladylike female I had ever met. Not in a negative, kind-of-prim-and-proper way. She had the longest eyelashes I had ever seen. That’s the way God made her.”

For college, she shipped off to Raleigh, studying English and history at the women-only Baptist-affiliated Meredith College. She spent two summers working at the Cannon textile mills in a neighboring town.

“I am a qualified jacquard loom weaver,” she announced brightly.

She had gone to college intending to become a restorer of old paintings but found work at a law firm her senior year, where she was drawn to bigger issues, such as international human rights.

Move over, Elle Woods! To Harvard Law School she went, where fellow classmate James Cramer recalled her in an e-mail as “the greatest,” calling her “the best-looking woman in the class, bar none.”

In other words, as Ms. Wall described it, “it was still very much bumping up against a firmly entrenched status quo.”

She was active in the student human-rights group, which was rallying against apartheid in South Africa; did research for a textbook written by Harold Berman, the international law professor; and recalled feeling somewhat alienated by the campus women’s group.

“I do remember that the burning issue was, they didn’t want men to be able to join the group, because they felt threatened that it would be taken over. And I felt like our thinking should be further along than that,” she said. “There are men out there who care about women having equal access to things as well.”

Was one such enlightened man her husband-to-be?

The pair met on a ski weekend near Mount Snow, Vt. Ms. Wall initially thought that Mr. Spitzer was an intruder when he arrived at the house at dawn.

“It’s not as though she was ready to attack me!” said Mr. Spitzer. “She was sitting at the dining-room table when I walked in the front door, and she looked at me sort of quizzically and said, ‘Who are you?’ To which my response was, ‘Who am I? Who are you? This is my house!’”

Mr. Spitzer, who came from a wealthy New York real-estate family, paid most of the rent on the winter place as a way to have his Harvard Law friends get together regardless of their tight vacation budgets.

He taught her to ski, too.

“I thought she was great—I thought she was incredibly smart, incredibly attractive, and my first thought was, ‘How could I not have noticed this law-school classmate for going on three years?’” he said.

“I told him, ‘You don’t have a chance,’” recalled Clifford Sloan, a law-school friend of Mr. Spitzer.

But Ms. Wall warmed to him enough so that, when he asked her out a few weeks later, she said she was busy—but that he should ask her again.

He played it cool, suggesting that she casually drop him a note in his mailbox when she was free.

“This was when the North-South divide reared up,” she recalled. “I said, ‘I really would like to go out with you, but I don’t think I’ll ever leave a note in your box.’

“I think that if we had met at any other point in time, we would have had absolutely nothing in common, because we’re coming from such radically different places,” said Ms. Wall.

For their first date, they went to a restaurant called the Peacock (her choice) and saw the movie Carmen (ditto).

They both moved to New York. Ms. Wall installed herself in a studio at Waterside Plaza, but her real home was the skyscraper at 919 Third Avenue, home to Skadden Arps, where she worked in the mergers-and-acquisitions department.

“Everybody used to fight to get her on their deals,” remembered Nancy Lieberman, a Skadden partner who has remained a friend. “I have no doubt that had she stayed here, she would have been one of my partners. She’s the kind of person who could stay up 36 hours and work on a deal, on drafting a merger agreement—and I looked like death warmed over, and she looked like she stepped out of a magazine or a salon.”

These were boom years, and Skadden was thriving. Ms. Wall’s days began around 9 or 10 and ended at 2 in the morning. For “dates,” on the weekends, Mr. Spitzer would bring the next day’s paper to the Skadden conference room and read until the two could have dinner at the office together. Then she would go back to work.

“It took me about five years before it felt like it was home,” said Ms. Wall of New York. The first time she had visited the city, it was in the 10th grade. She came with her drama group in a chartered bus; they saw Grease and A Raisin in the Sun and ate at Sardi’s.

“It was not something that I dreamed my whole life—that I was going to leave my little town and come to the big city,” she said. “If anything, it was probably the opposite of that.”

Mr. Spitzer proposed on a flight to North Carolina in the summer of 1987 to visit her parents.

“I always pick the most romantic spots for things like this,” he deadpanned. “But I’m working on it—I’m getting better. We’d dated. We were both in the city for a couple of years. I guess we were flying down to North Carolina, and I said, ‘We really should get married.’ … She never wanted an engagement ring. She still doesn’t have one.”

He was ready to talk to her dad when they arrived.

“I did that after she already said yes,” he said. “As a legal matter, I’m not sure it mattered—but I thought as a formality, it looked nice.”

The wedding took place at the Central Park boathouse, and the pair moved into Mr. Spitzer’s one-bedroom on 72nd Street, between Second and Third. (The family now lives on Fifth Avenue with their two dogs.)

The long hours continued at Chase Manhattan Bank, where Ms. Wall went to work in the international legal department while her husband was working as an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan. In 1989, their daughter Elyssa was born, and in 1992, Sarabeth. Ms. Wall had planned on returning to work part-time after their third daughter was born, but her husband’s decision to run for Attorney General prompted a reevaluation.

“It was, for me, a very difficult decision to stop work. It just felt like it was the right thing to do for the kids,” she said. “They were getting of an age where they really needed to have a parent who was there, and it wasn’t clear what Eliot was going to do.”

“SOMETIMES IT’S A REAL OPT-OUT, and sometimes it’s like where I was, where I just felt like it was necessary,” she said of leaving the work force. “I hope that I get to do some more interesting things on the side of life that has a paycheck attached to it. I have missed feeling like I am bringing back my own weight, in terms of bringing back my own economic weight—though [work in the home] is of enormous value.

“It was very important for me, because I felt my mother had always been frustrated by not having a way to express herself professionally,” she said. “She was married in the 1950’s, but she did have her college degree, and there were a lot of things that she could have accomplished— would have accomplished—had the opportunity been there, had the expectations and possibilities been different. I think she was frustrated by that. I felt that that was one thing that I could do something about.

“To this day, I don’t think that all the work that is done in the home is fully appreciated. To this day, I don’t think it’s equally distributed,” she said. “I think the real issue there is having a more equal distribution of all of the life roles—and that hasn’t fully happened yet.”

As Ms. Wall’s girls began attending nursery and elementary school, she and her husband began noticing how lavish the birthday parties for their classmates were, and started to worry they were sending their children the wrong message. What began was a campaign to get parents to cut back in small ways and donate the difference to high-needs schools. The not-for-profit now has a staff of about half a dozen.

“I think we’re conscious of the fact that we want our children to understand civic engagement and sharing, and all the obvious virtues,” said Mr. Spitzer. “And the environment in which they’re living makes it a bit more important that we focus on that a bit more overtly, for them and for other children as well.”

Ms. Wall answered her BlackBerry. It was one of her three daughters, placing an order with Mom. Looking up from the phone, she asked, “Do they make milkshakes at Three Guys?”