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The Thunderbolt

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Judi Ann Stish's senior photo from her yearbook in 1972.  

Americans have an unresolved relationship with their idea of what a First Lady should be. It doesn’t usually involve thunder and lightning. Political consultants know what’s easiest to sell: Harriet Nelson, which is to say more or less Laura Bush. More-assertive types, be it the Svengali socialite in couture (early Nancy Reagan), the defiantly unkittenish liberal crusader (early Hillary Clinton), or the aloof and foreign-seeming heiress (Teresa Heinz-Kerry), are more off-putting because it’s difficult to identify with them.

Judith Giuliani’s biggest drawback—her three marriages—reminds voters of Rudy’s own three and the associated tawdry drama. The first, to his second cousin, was annulled after fourteen years. His second, to Hanover, ended with Rudy’s televised May 2000 announcement that he intended to separate from her; Hanover’s shocked, tearful, also-televised response blamed Rudy’s “relationship with one staff member,” i.e., his communications director Cristyne Lategano. That was before much was known about Judith. By the summer of 2001, Judith’s face, along with Donna’s and Rudy’s, was plastered on the cover of People magazine with the tawdry headline INSIDE NEW YORK’S NASTIEST SPLIT … THE MAYOR, THE WIFE, THE MISTRESS.

Six years later, the rollout of Judith-as-wife, as potential First Lady, is still tainted by the smoke of that thunderous extramarital night at Club Mac.

Her magazine appearances have tended to be like the one in the March Harper’s Bazaar, where she talked about “making him happy, making a happy home” and posed lip-to-lip on Rudy’s lap. “I’ve always liked strong, macho men,” she told the magazine. “Rudy’s a very, very romantic guy; we love watching Sleepless in Seattle. Can you imagine my big testosterone-factor husband doing that?” But amid their efforts at cozy public normalcy, suddenly Rudy’s son, Andrew, told a Times reporter that “there’s obviously a little problem that exists between me and his wife.”

Theirs is a very New York love story, complicated and, frankly, mature. It’s hard to say how it’ll play in the red states.

In early 2000, as Rudy’s Senate race was getting under way, Judith Nathan was a mysterious but constant presence in the campaign entourage. Rudy didn’t bother to clarify her role internally, and the few people in the know kept their own counsel. One campaign staffer at first assumed Judith was “some sort of adviser or consultant.” Others believed she was a member of his security detail. Finally, by the time Rudy withdrew from the race in May, most folks had figured it out.

The couple was quickly beset by crises: his prostate cancer and then 9/11.

Under Judith’s guidance, he considered various treatment options and decided against surgically removing the prostate—the method that produces the most reliable outcome—in favor of implanting radioactive seeds. Called brachytherapy, it’s a less common procedure that has its advantages: The risk of long-term erectile dysfunction is lower. “He didn’t want the knife down there at all,” says an intimate who was privy to Rudy’s worries.

Meanwhile, Rudy’s divorce lawyer, Raoul Felder, acting on his image-battered client’s instructions, announced that Rudy’s radiation treatments had for the past year left him impotent, making sex with his girlfriend impossible.

“Part of the reason Rudy loves her so much is that she loved him, and batted her eyes at him, even when his very virility was questioned, when his sexual vitality was knocked out,” says the former Giuliani associate.

And Giuliani was unquestionably in love.

A few years ago, at a wedding attended by prominent lawyers and judges, Rudy and Judith were sitting at a table where the other guests were having a spirited legal and political discussion. “Rudy was deferring to her the entire evening,” says a fellow guest. “They were talking about the war in Iraq, and she was opining. They were talking about the Second Circuit, and she had an opinion about that too. People didn’t know what to say. And Rudy, if anything, was drawing her out. ‘What do you think about that, baby?’ She likes to talk.”

A former associate of Giuliani’s from the days when he was a mob-busting federal prosecutor says, “Loyalty does mean everything to him. He absolutely adores her. He doesn’t need the expensive Brioni suits she has him wear, or the fancy food she has him eat. He was a cheeseburger-and-martini guy. But Rudy defers to her.”

Almost immediately after they came out as a couple, Judith accompanied the mayor everywhere, even marching alongside him in city parades. Paparazzi staked out her apartment building and her condo in Noyack. Donna Hanover obtained a court order barring Judith from Gracie Mansion.

She quit Bristol-Myers Squibb in March 2001 and, with the connections supplied by her powerful consort, joined a philanthropic consulting firm, Changing Our World Inc., as a managing director.

Before they were married, he indulged her desire to dine regularly at Le Cirque even though the heavy cuisine tended to make him queasy. “It was almost required daily, going to Le Cirque for dinner, and Rudy used to throw up afterward, because the food was so rich,” says a witness. “But she wanted to go, because it was the place to be seen, and the treatment by Sirio [Maccioni, the owner] was incredible.”

As you descend from the hilltops on Route 309 into the former Judi Ann Stish’s hometown, Hazleton, Pennsylvania, it sparkles like shards of glass in the sunlight. Then—closer in, on the edge of town—the vision loses its luster amid the detritus of a long-abandoned coal-mining economy. You pass a barnlike structure sporting a sign that misspells adult shope, then gigantic Quonset huts, then strip malls, then churches. Since the mines shut down after World War II, Hazleton has struggled mightily. In 2002, U.S. News & World Report labeled Hazleton “a town in need of a tomorrow.” Aside from Judi, the city’s most famous native is Jack Palance.

Judi’s second cousin, retired Hazleton Area schools superintendent Geraldine Stish Shepperson, says the family patriarch—whose surname was Americanized from Sticia—emigrated from Italy to toil in the mines with Irish and Slovak settlers in the early 1900s. “They were all poor working people.” Judi’s grandfather Frank Stish, a milkman, was paralyzed in an on-the-job accident, Shepperson says, and Judith’s 81-year-old father, Donald, is a retired circulation manager for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Judi’s mother, Joan, is Polish-American, and these Stishes—including Judi’s older brother, Donnie, and younger sister, Cyndy—attended St. Stanislaus Catholic Church, down the street from their modest two-family house on Carson Street in the Nannygoat Hill neighborhood. These days, Donald and Joan Stish spend part of the year in a Palm Beach condo purchased by Rudy and Judith.

“She was beautiful and had long, reddish hair,” remembers current Hazleton High School English teacher Mike Saleeba, who was a year behind Judi back in the early seventies. “I remember her face—she had a fantastic complexion. I wouldn’t have dared to ask her out.” Still, “she would go out of her way to say hello to you. She wasn’t one of the snobs.”

Saleeba compares Hazleton’s atmosphere in those days to the sitcom Happy Days. Saturday nights were spent dancing to live bands at the local YMCA. Afterward, the kids headed for the Knotty Pine—“the Pines,” they called it—a popular diner where they pulled up in their cars, flashed their headlights, and the waitresses served barbecue sandwiches curbside. Judi’s Hazleton High classmate Mike DeCosmo often dropped her home after a night of fun. “She was one of those people who never had a bad word about anybody, always upbeat, always friendly,” says DeCosmo, today an accountant.

Judi was known as a diligent student and an attractive girl who busied herself with extracurricular activities such as the Future Nurses Association, the tennis and ski clubs, the literary society, and the Diggers Club, a volunteer service organization that “brightened the days of many handicapped and retarded children in Hazleton’s schools,” according to Janus, the high-school yearbook.

In a blue-collar place like Hazleton, nursing was one of the few professions that were seen as appropriate for young women. “There was teaching, and there was nursing. That’s all that was offered to us, really,” says the school librarian, Theresa Krajcirik.

It also got Judith out. She met medical-supplies salesman Jeffrey Scott Ross and, after two years of nursing school up the road in Bethlehem, married him at the Chapel of the Bells in Las Vegas. Then they moved to North Carolina.

Their marriage lasted less than five years. By the time of their uncontested Florida divorce on November 14, 1979, husband No. 2 was already in the wings. She married Bruce Nathan five days later.

They had met in Charlotte, where Bruce had moved after selling the Long Island–based office-furniture business founded by his grandfather. For the 24-year-old Judi, who had spent much of the previous five years on the road, demonstrating and selling surgical equipment, Nathan was a catch. Over the course of their increasingly rocky marriage, they lived in Atlanta and Manhattan (while acquiring a Hamptons summer place) and the Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles. She left him and moved to New York in March 1992 with their 7-year-old daughter, Whitney.

Not surprisingly, Bruce Nathan’s friends remember Judi less than fondly. “She was a real opportunist, a real Becky Sharp character,” says a Nathan-family friend who shared Thanksgiving dinners with Bruce and Judi. “She was kind of cute, and Bruce was quite handsome—a rich trust-fund kid from Long Island. She was less sophisticated in those days. I think she really desired to be sort of the Junior League type. She basically struck me as having an inflated, self-important view of herself.”


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