Constance Bumgarner Gee's new, 351-page memoir spills the privilege, stress and heartache that came with being married to one of the country's best-known college administrators.
Her self-published story capitalizes on one of the most controversial events of her time as first lady of private Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.: smoking marijuana in the Gees' university-owned home to relieve the effects of Meniere's disease, an inner-ear disorder.
"Higher Education: Marijuana at the Mansion" drips with detail of her life at, first, Ohio State, where she met her future husband at a reception for new faculty, then Brown University in Providence, R.I., and finally, Vanderbilt.
At all three she struggled to build a career as a faculty member, usually in the arts, while maintaining a dizzying social calendar of up to six events each week, many at the couple's home.
At Ohio State, her husband eventually saw that she got the same assistance that his late wife, Elizabeth, had before succumbing to breast cancer — up to six assistants to help her with her responsibilities as hostess, world traveler and faculty member.
It was a lavish, generous lifestyle, she remembered. She oversaw the remodeling of their homes at all three universities at the employers' expense. The tab came to $6 million for the Vanderbilt project alone, she eventually learned.
Travel was routine. The Gees took two extended overseas trips each year, representing Ohio State, for example, in Hong Kong, South Africa and Uganda. Five-star hotels and fine dining were the norm.
The couple was treated like foreign dignitaries, with state dinners, motorcades, audiences with heads of state and receptions at the homes of ambassadors and corporate leaders, she wrote.
Their personal life, at first, seemed promising. Gee pursued her and she basked in his attention.
"We were good together," she wrote simply of their first night as a couple.
But there were cracks in the couple's seemingly idyllic life, she recounted.
The couple was forced to depend on others to manage their busy lives.
"I believe it is almost impossible to live such a life without becoming dependent, and worse, arrogant," she wrote. She found herself lashing out at staff, "the ones trying their best to help."
Marriage to Gee included becoming a stepmother to his adopted daughter, Rebekah. The two had a rocky relationship.
Gee's husband disappointed her at times, getting a vasectomy —a surprise to her — right before their marriage. He also required her to get rid of her beloved English setter and dwarf rabbit before he would seal the deal.
When near the end of their marriage she asked him if he would rather she be sick than smoke marijuana to relieve the anguish of illness, he was unsympathetic. Yes, he would rather see her sick, she reports he said. Vanderbilt officials were aghast at what was going on in the president's home.
When Gee left Vanderbilt for his second round at Ohio State in 2007, Constance Gee stayed at her tenured job while the turmoil died down and the couple's 13-year marriage came to a close.
"I was left on the roadside like a greasy taco wrapper," she wrote.
She eventually decided to tell her side of the story.
"I'd been silenced by the university (Vanderbilt) and my then-husband," she wrote in an e-mail to the Akron Beacon Journal. "So on the most personal level, I had to write my story in order to regain my voice and move forward."
She could not find a commercial publisher for her memoir. They deemed it "too regional," she said. She didn't consider a university press, as hers was "at times, an unfavorable rendering of a fellow institution of higher education" and would be viewed as professional betrayal, she said in an e-mail.
Now 59, she has moved to Massachusetts and campaigns for the legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational purposes.
"One day this country will look back in disgust at the barbarism of denying those in pain and misery this simple, effective and inexpensive medication," she said in her book.
Ohio State released a comment from Gordon Gee about his ex-wife's memoir.
"She writes with grace, humor and honesty," it reads. "The book does focus on the tragedy and triumph of our time together and the struggles we faced in the intense crucible of public life. Through it all we have managed to maintain our friendship and respect for each other."
Spokespeople for Vanderbilt and Brown declined to comment.
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