She took her gun, entered her ex-husband’s house, tiptoed into the darkened bedroom where he slept with his new young wife, and shot them both dead. In just seconds Betty Broderick ended two lives, but her vengeful act would do a lot more than that. Pop culture has long had a familiarity with ladies who kill the men they can’t keep. People have been singing “Frankie and Johnny” since the turn of the 20th century; George Cukor directed his classic film The Women in 1939. Twenty years ago, however, Betty riveted our attention like no other scorned woman. Instantly she became a new kind of antiheroine. Not only has the post-Betty era been richer in female payback, but unwittingly, in ways none of us could have imagined, she has helped change the rules of retribution.
On November 28, 1989, just after Thanksgiving, I drove to the Las Colinas Detention Facility in Santee, near San Diego, to talk to Elisabeth “Betty” Broderick for the first time. It had been three weeks since she’d murdered Dan and Linda Kolkena Broderick. I had a hundred questions, but they boiled down to two: Why had an affluent 42-year-old woman with four children and a home in La Jolla overlooking the Pacific Ocean thrown it all away just to get even with the father of her kids? Had he really done her so wrong? I had no reason to think she would see me. Then, all at once, there she was. Betty was tall, statuesque, if a little plump, with her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. She wore jailhouse garb—a gray sweatshirt and navy sweatpants. As she took her seat in a hard plastic chair on the other side of a glass partition, her blue eyes flashed with intelligence. Smiling wanly, she picked up a phone receiver connected to one I held to my ear and began to talk.
That interview with Betty was my first big scoop as a journalist. Eight weeks before, I had started a new job at the Los Angeles Times. I was 27 years old, green, and determined to prove myself. Suddenly I was a lead reporter on a story the whole country was talking about. Overnight Betty had become not only infamous but culturally significant: the focus of a debate over whether divorced women inevitably were treated unfairly. Betty’s suspicions that her husband had cheated, combined with her claim that she had been a victim of emotional abuse—assault by lawyering—resonated with many women. People, Ladies’ Home Journal, the syndicated columnist Anna Quindlen—everyone had an opinion about what had made her snap. Eventually Court TV would cover her trials (there were two; the first resulted in a hung jury), Oprah Winfrey would interview her in prison, and her case would inspire two top-rated TV movies, three books, a documentary, even a skit on Saturday Night Live.
When she took her seat across from me at Las Colinas, Betty seemed tired but self-assured. For the next half hour she recited a catalog of complaints about her ex-husband’s slights and infidelities. She had supported Dan while he completed Cornell University Medical School, then Harvard Law. She had raised their two sons and two daughters almost single-handedly, with little help and less money. Then, when he had finally achieved everything they’d scrimped and worked for—he was a thriving medical malpractice attorney—he threw her over for Linda, his receptionist. Since then, she said, he had tormented her in and out of court. If I could understand every moment of her marriage and its undoing, she said, I would agree that Dan was to blame, not her.
She didn’t acknowledge the murders. It was immediately clear, however, that one conversation would not be enough. After our jailhouse meeting, Betty started calling me collect and sending frequent letters, always on yellow legal paper and always in pencil.
I’d like to say I was assigned to the Betty Broderick story because I had a reputation for getting the ungettable. In fact, I drew the short straw. After the killings, a veteran police reporter was assigned to cover the investigation. Being less experienced (and, not incidentally, female and thus, presumably, more persuasive with Betty), I was assigned Betty duty. My job was to describe her world by reaching out to her and every friend she had—what’s known in newspapers as the “soft” side of a hard news story. That kind of assignment can be difficult if not impossible. Once Betty and I made contact, though, our relationship became instantly and strangely intimate. About a month after the killings, when my boyfriend asked me just before Christmas to marry him, the first congratulatory note I received arrived in a plain white envelope postmarked Las Colinas.
Receiving good luck wishes from a woman who’d slain the man she’d pledged to honor and cherish was spooky, but that wasn’t why I chose not to write about that letter—or several others Betty sent. The conventions of newspaper journalism left no room for a reporter’s personal reactions to her subject, and I was still trying to master the distant, omniscient voice that was required. Today I see that kind of detached storytelling as more male than female, but when it comes to denying emotions, there is one way in which women usually trump men: We have trouble, many of us, expressing our own anger. Not Betty. Wrath was at her beck and call; often she visibly shook with it. That is what made her so fascinating to many women, including me. My parents had divorced when I was a kid. I’d grown up in a house where my mother’s rage was frequently stifled, until it boiled over. Me? I tried not to be angry. It felt dangerous. And yet with Betty, I found myself leaning in, not out.
After the Broderick murders, I received many letters from divorced women who had read my stories. In each one’s voice I heard the same warring emotions: revulsion and admiration. While they didn’t condone the killings, they said they understood what drove Betty—a soccer mom in a Chevy Suburban with license plates that read LODEMUP—to open fire. Betty saw marriage as an economic contract and divorce as a sin. At five feet ten, she was a perfect size 6 who’d majored in English at a women’s Catholic college in upstate New York. When Dan introduced himself to her at a party not long before her 18th birthday, he said he was an MDA—a doctor, almost. He and she were raised to believe that the goal of newlyweds was to get ahead; he would make the money, she would be the trim, tailored helpmate and stay-at-home mom. Each used the other to become the archetypal beautiful couple chasing their dream. “I bought into a 1950s Leave It to Beaver marriage,” she told me, “and he stole my whole life.”
Still, I found the outpouring of empathy for Betty surreal. “I believe every word Betty says—because I’ve been there,” one woman wrote in a letter to the editor. “Lawyers and judges simply refuse to protect mothers against this type of legalized emotional terrorism.” Another wrote: “The inequities in court proceedings and financial settlements are…rarely believed or understood except by the women who experience them. Isn’t it time we take a good look at our courts and our system of divorce?” While many dismissed Betty’s claim that she was a victim of emotional battery, she had tapped a rich vein of discontent. With the nation’s divorce rate approaching 50 percent, many women were struggling to maintain their standards of living after their marriages had failed. Sentiment was gathering about lack of post-divorce equity. At the same time, Americans were finally beginning to recognize the abuse some men inflict on their wives and partners. By saying she represented both issues, Betty had become a symbol of a quiet revolution.
“You ought to do a story on ‘Custody Wars in San Diego,’ ” Betty wrote to me in her loopy script. “Deadly warfare—kills everyone involved (except the lawyers, of course).” Many of her letters had the breezy tone of a postcard from a friend on an extended vacation. Ever chatty, often funny, she would apologize for how frumpy she’d looked at her last court appearance. “I had been up since 4 a.m.—no cosmetics, no hair stuff, no sun, exercise, no jewelry, same ole outfit—My picture probably will make a good case for Battered Women!” She told me she’d written an autobiography. Its title: “What’s a Nice Girl to Do? A Story of White Collar Domestic Violence.”
Beneath Betty’s exclamation points and girlish vanity, however, was a huge reservoir of narcissistic aggression. Despite her desire to be the poster girl for abused women, Betty—not her ex-husband—was the one who had been physically violent. Long before the killings, she had broken into her ex-husband’s home, smeared cream pies in his dresser drawers, rammed her car into his front door, attacked him with a knife, and left expletive-laced messages on his answering machine. Notably, Betty murdered Dan and his wife six conflict-filled years after her own marriage was over.
Betty used rage to stay connected to her ex. Even after she killed him, she often talked about Dan in the present tense, as if he were still around to be mad at. And angry she was—flippant and sarcastic one minute, bitter and despondent the next. Even when writing to a reporter, her charm was tinged with bile.
I had to wonder: How long would she stay this way?
On March 27, 1990, the phone rang on my cluttered desk in the L.A. Times bureau in downtown San Diego. It was Betty calling collect. Again. By this point I’d written several stories about her case, quoting her repeatedly. But on this day she was more expansive than ever. She was ready to talk about the killings.
Long before the sun rose that brisk Sunday morning, she recalled, she had been wide awake. Since the previous Friday, when she’d received Dan’s most recent court filings (they were haggling over money and child custody), she’d been twisting and turning. As she had told me more than once, Dan was powerful—by now he was the president of the San Diego Bar Association—and she felt his influence and high-placed friends were keeping her from getting what she deserved. That morning she decided she’d had enough.
She left her La Jolla home with a .38-caliber five-shot revolver in her purse and drove to the four-bedroom mansion where Dan and Linda lived. Using keys that belonged to her eldest daughter, Betty let herself in, climbed the stairs, and entered the master suite where the couple nestled under a colonial-print bedspread. She told me she’d intended to engage Dan in a conversation. Instead she raised her gun and began firing—“real fast,” she told me, “no hesitation at all”—killing Linda instantly. Dan, fatally wounded, lay on the floor near a telephone.
“He said, ‘OK, OK, you got me.’ There was no pain, and there was no blood. It was simple,” Betty said. “He was on the floor, and the phone was right next to him. I thought, ‘Oh, my God! He is going to be on that phone before I’m down the stairs.’?” So she bent down next to her bleeding ex-husband and ripped the phone cord out of the wall. Then she fled.
With that, Betty Broderick had confessed, and she had confessed to me. This was a front-page story, one of the most important of my career. When I think of the murders, however, that final gesture—previously unknown to the public—lingers in my mind. Even more than firing the fatal bullets, the act of severing Dan’s last hope for help was utterly ruthless, the opposite of a coup de grâce. Betty didn’t see it that way. Although she had killed two people, she believed she was Dan’s victim.
After months of talking to Betty almost weekly, I’d grown weary of her self-justifications. As her trials loomed, I resolved that my last story about her would be a lengthy portrait of a marriage—and divorce—gone terribly wrong. “Till Murder Do Us Part” appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine on June 3, 1990. I quoted from Betty’s autobiography and let her talk at length. I’d even gone to her hometown of Bronxville, New York, to get her mother’s view of what had happened. But I made it clear that Betty’s refusal to take responsibility for her actions was epic in its selfishness. I ended this way: “In one of our last conversations, Betty said that since the murders, she has warned her daughters never to depend on men. ‘That makes me so sad, because I really believed in my little fairy tale,’ she said, crying into the phone. ‘I would love for them to find husbands to provide for them. But I can’t tell my daughters to buy into that anymore. It’s too dangerous. Look at what happened.’?”
A few days after the story appeared, I received a ten-page letter from Betty.
Behind her anger at me lay the wellspring of fury she was still directing at her ex, dead now for seven months.
I didn’t hear from her again for almost 19 years.
Back in 1989, my fiancé and I talked about Betty Broderick often. He was a newspaper reporter, too, and he understood what a boost it was for my career that she’d opened up to me. The irony, however, wasn’t lost on either of us that her fatal divorce coincided with our wedding plans. When I wasn’t running off to the jail to see her, I was ordering cream-colored invitations from a fancy stationer not far from where she’d lived in La Jolla. When I wasn’t frantically typing notes during our interviews, her voice blaring from a phone cradled next to my ear, I was talking to caterers, reserving blocks of hotel rooms, and shopping for a simple white linen dress.
We were to be married in Marin County. A subpoena from Betty’s prosecutors almost delayed our ceremony. When I got word that I was about to be served with the papers, my editor suggested I make myself scarce and go north ahead of schedule. I was happy to comply.
Our wedding was perfect, and Betty helped pay for it. My magazine piece had drawn inquiries from more than three dozen television producers. One even sent me red roses. Eventually I agreed to be a consultant for a TV movie. The first crisp check I received was for $5,000—more money than I’d ever seen in one chunk. I signed it over to my mother to help pay for the caterer, the tent, and the champagne.
The second check came several months later, when principal photography began on the show, A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story, which would become a CBS movie of the week. This check was for $25,000, and my husband and I used it as most of the down payment on our first house. It was in Los Angeles—not in San Diego County, where we’d lived when I first met Betty. We were moving, and for me, that too was mainly because of her. I’d been promoted from the Times’s San Diego edition to its Los Angeles headquarters. In large part I’d advanced because my coverage of Betty had put me on my bosses’ radar.
Again I was aware of the irony: Writing about Betty’s ruined life had led to improvements in my own. I didn’t feel guilty exactly. I had always been honest with her about my pursuit of the whole story, not just her version. Besides, if I had used her to succeed, she had used me right back—to let the world know her feelings. Nonetheless, the juxtaposition felt strange. It still does. Her impact on me was undeniable.
On February 7, 1992, Betty was sentenced to 32 years to life. In March 1992, A Woman Scorned aired to record ratings. Meredith Baxter, who portrayed Betty, was nominated for an Emmy. Because the movie ended with the murders, it left room for a sequel, and CBS immediately ordered up Her Final Fury: Betty Broderick, the Last Chapter. This movie covered the period between the killings and her conviction and sentencing. It aired in November 1992. Unlike most movies of the week, which were broadcast and then forgotten, these two lived on. For years Lifetime Television played them so frequently it seemed impossible to tune in without seeing Betty drive her car into Dan’s front door or Dan threaten to take Betty to court.
I appeared in the first movie as an extra, an inside joke that the director couldn’t resist. He dressed me up in a lawyer’s suit and sent me to the hair and makeup trailer, which made such an impression that I recall precisely how the makeup artist assessed me: “Your lower lip is all right, but you really have no upper lip to speak of.” I’m not in the second movie, but I am mentioned by name. The prosecutor grills Baxter-as-Betty: “Do you remember telling Amy Wallace from the L.A. Times that ‘There was no pain. There was no blood. It was simple’? Do you remember saying in the same interview, ‘I had only one choice: his funeral or mine’?”
Betty’s answer: Yes.
In November 1992, nine months after Betty was convicted of second-degree murder, she sat down with Oprah Winfrey at the Central California Women’s Facility. In the interview she sounded all the same notes she had with me. “I thought we did have the perfect marriage,” she said. “I took those marriage vows, and I believe he did at the time, too, believing that we’d be together, and we’d get through everything.” It remains one of Oprah’s most-watched programs.
Four years ago, in 2005, on Oprah’s 20th Anniversary Follow-Up Show, Winfrey interviewed Rhett Broderick, Betty and Dan’s youngest son, who was ten at the time of the murders. Handsome and well spoken, he said his mother should be released.
“She’s a nice lady,” he said. “Everyone here would like her…if they spoke with her on any topic other than my dad.”
To Betty, it was still about Dan. To me, it shouldn’t have been. My smart, handsome journalist husband and I had a son in 1997. Then, in 1998, we divorced. When Betty committed the crimes for which she remains in prison, she was a single, divorced mom in her forties whose ex-husband had remarried. Today I’m those things, too.
In 1990, when she sent me her “For Shame” letter, she implied that my youth and naïveté were obscuring my vision of matrimony. I’m older now and at least a little wiser (today, for example, I wouldn’t be an extra in a TV drama—it felt heady at the time; now it seems a bit tacky). More relevant, I’ve experienced the heartbreak that divorcing people endure—both men and women. My divorce was the hardest time of my life. I appreciate, in other words, some of what Betty must have been feeling in November 1989. Even so, I can’t find any justification for what she did.
In the years since Betty’s conviction, there’s been a growing public identification with women’s righteous anger in the wake of a bitter divorce. Less than two years after Betty became a household name, Hollywood embraced a new kind of female avenger. In 1991, the year of Betty’s second trial, some of Hollywood’s biggest stars got even with their men: Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in Thelma & Louise, Julia Roberts in Sleeping with the Enemy. When the movie The First Wives Club was released in 1996, one newspaper columnist wrote that it might as well “be called the Betty Broderick Club.” In the film, Ivana Trump says, “Ladies, you have to be strong and independent. And remember, don’t get mad—get everything!”
By 2002, when Jennifer Lopez starred in Enough, a thriller about a young mother on the run from a violent husband, even the marketing slogans read like rallying cries: “Self-defense isn’t murder.” “Everyone has a limit.” Then, in 2003, Charlize Theron won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her sympathetic portrayal of a serial killer in Monster. The movie put her vile acts in the context of repeated battery at the hands of men.
Since the Broderick murders, such dramatic portrayals have been accompanied by plenty of real-world pain. Nicole Brown Simpson divorced her husband O.J. in 1992, claiming he had abused her—a charge that became all the more chilling after she was killed two years later. O.J. was acquitted of the murder but found responsible in a civil trial. In 1993, Lorena Bobbitt took a carving knife and severed her husband’s penis after intercourse that she charged was rape. He was acquitted. By reason of insanity, she was found not guilty of assault.
When the Dixie Chicks sang a hit called “Goodbye Earl,” about two friends who murder one of their abusive husbands, it made people laugh and cheer. She held Wanda’s hand / As they worked out a plan / And it didn’t take long to decide / That Earl had to die, the Chicks sang, telling how they poisoned Earl’s black-eyed peas, wrapped him in a tarp, and stuffed him into a car trunk—then got away clean because It turns out he was a missing person who nobody missed at all.
That same spiteful fantasy spawned a mini industry of products, Web sites, and a Broadway show. After Scott Schmeizer, a Long Island executive with a housewares firm, got divorced in 2004, he worked with a designer to manufacture the Ex, a knife rack that resembles a corpse with multiple stab wounds. It sells for about $70, complete with five knives.
Such novelties prompted Angie Schmidt to start an online “breakup boutique.” Called Smashing Katie (smashingkatie.com), it is named after the woman who Schmidt says stole her ex. Top sellers include a wedding ring coffin, used to perform symbolic burials of the past; voodoo dolls; coffee mugs that say Boo Frickin’ Hoo; and an After the Breakup Wheel O’ Wisdom, which the site describes this way: “Where most self-help tools optimistically focus on healing—the end of the process—[this product] also acknowledges the human need to wallow in pain and/or seek revenge.”
At the same time, there has been a sharp increase in Internet sites about divorce. For a while, one even bore Betty’s name. In April 2006, Bettybroderick.com appeared out of the blue. Clearly homemade (but not by Betty—she has no computer access), the site featured a photo of her and asked, “Do you think Betty was sentenced fairly?” In a chat room, opinion was divided. Before the site shut down earlier this year, 40,000 people had visited. Other sites focus more generally. Darndivorce.com is a blog on “the dreaded D-word.” A recent post: “How to Handle Post-Divorce Tweeting: Beware of the Bitter Twitters.” Then there’s the social networking site FirstWivesWorld.com, which hit the jackpot last year when it was written up in the Sunday Styles section (aka the women’s sports pages) of The New York Times. The site, created by producers of this summer’s First Wives Club: The Musical and widely covered on daytime talk shows, declares on its home page, “FirstWivesWorld is a community for, and by, divorced women.” Common topics: Haggling over custody. Learning how to date again. Forging a relationship with your ex’s new spouse. Attempting, as a woman alone, to give your kids both discipline and love.
Betty is by no means responsible for all of this, but her fame helped fuel it. So did a movement that Betty seemed to ignore completely: feminism. Betty embraced a ’50s ideal of marriage at a moment—the mid-’60s—when many other women were questioning it. Then in the ’80s, when her marriage failed, she spouted some of feminism’s don’t-tread-on-me messages but didn’t have a full grasp of the tenets on which they were based. Feminism, after all, is not about blaming men. It is about celebrating women and treating them with equal respect. Killing your ex-husband isn’t a route to empowerment. Standing strong on your own is.
Much has been written about the confusion that gender equality has brought to romantic relationships. But if you ask me, I’d rather be confused than stuck, like Betty, in a disappointing, outdated fantasy of a June-and-Ward-Cleaver marriage. Both Betty and feminism, this odd couple, have raised the public consciousness. The result: Many women—yes, even divorced women—have moved beyond Betty.
The California Institution for Women in Corona was originally called Frontera, a feminine derivative of the word frontier—or new beginning. Built in the 1950s, when rehabilitation was in vogue, it has a campuslike design, spreads over 120 acres, and houses 2,600 inmates. For most of the last 18 years, it has been Betty Broderick’s home.
Betty is 62 and will have her first parole hearing in January. She is passing the time writing another book. It’s called “Telling On Myself,” she said in her letter. “The book explains who I am as a person, how I was raised, and the values I hold and how/why you get pulled in and trapped in abusive relationships that you can’t get out of. The book will be damn good if I can just finish it.... Longhand is like a chisel/stone process. Very tedious & slow."
Women do get abused by men. About that, Betty is correct. In recent years California has taken steps to better address this reality. Since 2002, a state law has allowed domestic violence survivors convicted of murdering their partners to petition for new trials if they did not have expert testimony about their battery. The new law—the only one of its kind in the nation—has freed ten women from prison. One of them is Hudie Joyce Walker.
A 48-year-old grandmother, Walker killed her husband in the Los Angeles suburb of Hacienda Heights six months after Betty killed Dan. Her husband had been beating her for years, but on Mother’s Day 1990, he kicked her awake at 4 a.m. That afternoon he told her he would kill her. “Today,” he said, waving a shotgun in her face, “will be your last goddamned day on this earth.”
In fact, it would be his last day. That night, after calling the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for help that did not come, Walker found herself wrestling with her husband for control of his .25-caliber handgun.
It went off, and he was dead.
She was convicted of second-degree murder, like Betty. But in May 2007, after 16 years in prison, Walker left a Pomona courtroom a free woman. Her passport to freedom was a writ by a three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeal. Two of the judges had denied a similar writ that Walker’s lawyers had filed in 1992.
Between then and now, society and the law had changed. “They actually overturned themselves,” Beth Collins-Burgard, the lawyer who argued Walker’s case pro bono, told me. With support from her firm, Latham & Watkins, she works closely with the California Habeas Project, which seeks to free victims of domestic violence by identifying women whose battery was not properly acknowledged at their trials.
It’s hard to imagine such a project existing pre-Betty. Which is ironic, since for all the reciprocal mean-spiritedness that exploded between the Brodericks, Dan did not physically abuse Betty. If anything, it was the other way around.
Not that Betty is any closer to conceding this today. Like an insect trapped in amber, Betty has stayed exactly the same. I’ve gotten four letters from her during the past year. If they weren’t dated, I’d never know 20 years had passed. The litany of Dan’s misdeeds remains at the top of her mind, complete with dates and times, which she scribbles in the margins. “He was a vicious evil person.... Manipulative, dishonest, and relentless,” she writes. “Here we are 21 yrs later and nothing has changed. I felt ‘Gang Raped’ all along—I expect the same at my [Parole] Board Hearing.”
Betty’s four children and two grandchildren are thriving, she says, enclosing a family portrait taken in prison against a backdrop of blue sky and puffy white clouds. Kim, Lee, Danny, and Rhett stand in a line behind a kneeling Betty, who is sandwiched between her two young granddaughters. They’re a striking family. The boys look a lot like Dan.
But there is one thing more: an end to her vitriolic obsession with her dead ex.
“Leaving your family at 40 is a huge mistake,” she writes, referring not to her own imprisonment but to Dan’s departure from their marriage. “It postpones ever looking at yourself and dealing with your personal demons. We all come to the day of recogning [sic] eventually. ? Growing up is Hard to do ? Neil Sedaka …. Dan couldn’t let go and move on…. Even if I stay here forever it’s an improvement over the HELL I endured in 1989. I have a whole new life now and I’m back to being the safe, happy, healthy person I was before Dan & Linda targeted me for destruction.”
Amy Wallace is Los Angeles magazine’s editor-at-large.
Illustration by Sean McCabe
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