Last October, Suzy Wetlaufer, the editor of the Harvard Business Review, returned to her Watertown office breathless and giddy after a trip to New York. She had gone down to interview America's Mogul, Jack Welch. Which, at the time, seemed like nothing more than a score for the Review. "We got along great, we had the best time," she gushed to one senior editor. To another, she said that, in the charismatic former CEO of General Electric, she had "finally met a man with as much energy" as she had. Then: "Jack says he wants to spend the holidays with me and my family."
It was a bit over-the-top -- but then again, that was Suzy Wetlaufer.
"She was ecstatic," remembers Harris Collingwood, a senior editor who would, in the months to come, fall on his sword over Harvard's handling of the affair. "At the time, I didn't say anything. I know this sounds crazy, but it was just sort of standard fare. It really wasn't anything out of the ordinary."
Indeed. Wetlaufer, a vivacious 42-year-old Harvard M.B.A., Baker scholar, novelist, mother of four, and Sunday-school teacher -- with a penchant for Prada and Chanel and fabulous shoes -- had brought more than a little snap, crackle, and pop to the offices of the stuffy HBR. During her year-and-a-half tenure at the top of the masthead, the magazine -- already prestigious and hugely profitable to Harvard -- got better and buzzier.
But inside HBR, the best copy was Suzy. And it wasn't just that wild romance she had with a 22-year-old editorial assistant. From her open corner office, with a photo of Bono thumbtacked to the wall, she held forth like a modern-day Scheherazade, say former and current staff members. She was so well known for regaling the troops with tales of her (let's face it, much more interesting) life that Collingwood came up with a name for it: "Backstage at the Suzy Show." Says another editor, "She always saw herself as being in a dramatic production of her own creation. It was fun, at least at first. You know, most of us here are fairly drab, boring editors. Our private lives aren't that exciting. So it was kinda thrilling to vicariously experience the world through Suzy."
This time, however, they got more than they bargained for. Wetlaufer's interview-turned-romance with the mighty (and married) Welch would soon turn into a rapidly unfolding morality play, a drama that tested the ethical underpinnings of HBR, demoralized the staff, embarrassed Harvard, cost Wetlaufer her job, and could end up costing Jack Welch $450 million.
In the end, her forced resignation last Wednesday -- after an initial arrangement six weeks ago that would have preserved a role for her at HBR -- wasn't so much a result of the Welch affair but of Harvard's sheer terror of being mortified by Suzy once again. She'd done nothing new in recent weeks to bring about her downfall. In fact, she wasn't even there to stir up trouble; she'd been asked to stay out of the office. But reporters asking questions about her earlier romance with the editorial assistant apparently finally led her bosses to believe she had been less than forthcoming with them. By late Monday, they were talking about firing Wetlaufer. A second round of negotiations led to her resignation.
The big surprise is that Wetlaufer may not give a damn. Jack and Suzy are head-over-heels, and are already talking marriage. "She fell in love, what's the big deal?" says her sister and best friend, Della Cushing, who wondered weeks ago why Suzy even wanted to stay at HBR with "all those big babies."
"Everything they used to love her for, now they hate her for," Della points out. "I think she should start a new magazine. Called Jack."
"Backstage at the Suzy Show" could be wildly entertaining, even if it was sometimes difficult to separate fact from fiction. Staff members recall Wetlaufer telling tales about recently separated Ford CEO Jacques Nasser, for example, including the time she accompanied him to Game 1 of the 2000 World Series and sat in a VIP box "flipping through Vogue." (Her colleagues were appalled; "I said, 'Tickets to the World Series are wasted on people like you,' " remembers Collingwood.) And there was the time she interviewed Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the CEO of Nestlé, who "invited her to go fly someplace and land on a glacier," she told one staff member. The office was inundated with Nestlé chocolates for weeks. More impressive were the huge flower arrangements from Nasser -- "top of the line, from the best place in town," according to a staff member who worked intimately with Wetlaufer. "The flower carcasses around here were immense."
When Suzy flew to Ireland at Christmastime in 2000, she bragged that Nasser showed up and they rang in 2001 at a pub. "She told me this great story," says Collingwood, "about being in a bar with a bunch of drunken Irishmen with Jacques and Jacques's brother, and how everybody got hammered and they were playing rock and roll. So she jumped up on a table and started dancing and took off her shirt and was dancing on the table in her black bra."
One of the perks of dating a CEO is use of the company jet, especially if he lives in Michigan. According to the colleague who worked directly with Suzy, "she would fly out to see him often," and he would send "the Ford plane." Even management "knew that Suzy was dating Nasser, everybody knew," says one Harvard executive. "We were happy for her," remembers one staffer; after all, the romance didn't start until late 2000 and her interview with Nasser had run the previous February.
There's just one hitch. Through her spokeswoman, Karen Schwartzman, Suzy denies having had any personal relationship with Nasser, as does he. "There was no romance, and there's no friendship at all," says Nasser, who was ousted from Ford in October. "I've never sent her anything, I don't even know her! I've never been to a World Series," he adds, laughing, over the telephone from Australia. And the bit about the black bra? "I don't think I've been to Ireland for at least a decade."
Nasser says that the first he heard about the rumors was when his excellent friend Jack Welch called to tell him "there were rumors going around. He said Suzy had denied it."
In November, a month after suzy's interview with Welch, she made another trip to New York for an HBR photo shoot. For weeks, staff members say, she'd been begging her boss, Walter Kiechel, editorial director of Harvard Business School Publications, to run her photograph on the "Editor's Letter" page. Finally, he'd relented. Okay, he decided, but only with their cover boy, Jack Welch. (Thank you, Walter.)
By this time, plenty of Suzy's confidants -- both inside and outside HBR -- knew that Suzy and her famous subject were enamored of each other. And if anyone had any doubts, they were assuaged when the boss landed back in Boston after the photo shoot. "She told me he wanted to make her the next Mrs. Jack Welch," remembers Collingwood.
Then came the jewelry. Accepting gifts while she's working on a story? the staff whispered. Can't we draw the line somewhere? When one editor confronted her about this in a huff -- "Did Jack Welch give you a diamond bracelet?" -- Suzy smiled and replied, "It wasn't diamonds!"
Later, the staff would put together the time line of when the sex began, based on what Suzy had come back and shared: After the photo shoot in GE's offices, where Jack once reigned supreme, the couple repaired to the '21' Club for a lingering lunch. That evening, they went out dancing. Later that evening is almost certainly when they officially crossed the line between reporter and subject. She told at least one editor that she spent some quality time at Jack's apartment at Trump Tower.
All of which might have gone unnoticed by the world outside Harvard had it not been for The Phone Call. On December 26 -- as Wetlaufer's big interview, titled "Jack on Jack," was heading to the printer -- Jane called.
Jane -- the current Mrs. Jack Welch -- was none too pleased that her husband was doing more than being interviewed by Suzy Wetlaufer. She reached Suzy at home in Lexington, Massachusetts. A high-powered lawyer who gave up her career at Jack's insistence when she married him thirteen years ago, she wanted to know: Wasn't Suzy at all worried about compromising her journalistic integrity by sleeping with her husband?
A friend of Suzy's tells New York that Jack had confessed the affair to his wife (albeit after "Jane picked up the extension while she was talking to Jack," the rumor went). The liaison was only a month or two old, but friends say the 66-year-old Welch was already so taken with Suzy that he fessed up. Even more amazing, when the affair was exposed -- in the March 4 Wall Street Journal -- Neutron Jack stood by his mistress, not his wife. Suzy is "quick" and "funny," he told the Journal.
Della says the phone call from Jane jolted Suzy. "She was very surprised," says Della. "And I think it made her nervous. I mean, it was so confrontational."