By Kerana Todorov and Jeannine anderson
ROCKVILLE, Md. – Margaret Mary Ashley likes to reminisce about her encounters with the political elite in the days when she was the wife of a congressman.
She talks about sitting next to Eleanor Roosevelt at a Washington luncheon, and later meeting then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, on a day when she was wearing a blue dress. A few days later, she recalled, he invited her to lunch, remarking on the dress.
“I said, `Well, I’ve never met Mrs. Kennedy. I’d love to,’ ” she recalls with a laugh.
Four decades later, at age 72, Margaret Mary Ashley associates with quite a different crowd. The former wife of ex- congressman Thomas Ludlow Ashley – who chaired a housing subcommittee during his 26-year stint on Capitol Hill – is homeless.
She has been staying at two Rockville shelters since December.
A slight woman with blue eyes, graying hair and a no- nonsense manner, Margaret Ashley tries to make light of her situation.
“I am not Mary Poppins,” she said in a recent interview, “but there is no reason to be gloomy.”
But her voice takes on a bitter edge at times, when she talks about her former husband, who represented Ohio’s 9th District, and the two grown children she never talks to any more.
“I don’t want to bother my children,” she said. “They have their own lives.”
And the children and the former husband, all living in the Washington area, do not want to talk about her.
“I appreciate the call, but I have nothing to say,” said her son, Thomas W. Ashley, of Bethesda.
Her daughter declined to comment on the record.
Thomas Ludlow Ashley, 74, who remarried in August 1967, said in a brief telephone conversation he hasn’t seen Margaret Ashley in 30 years.
“I’ve met all my obligations [to her] and will continue to do so,” he said. “I’m not going to say anything further.”
Decades after their 1965 divorce, he still makes alimony payments, Margaret Ashley said.
Their story, pieced together from interviews with Margaret Ashley, court records, and interviews with a former landlord and shelter workers, is one of high hopes and dashed expectations. It also demonstrates how a series of financial and legal tangles and estrangement from one’s family can lead to homelessness – even for the former spouse of a Washington power player.
Margaret Mary Sherman, of Toledo, Ohio, fell in love with U.S. Rep. Thomas Ludlow Ashley, an Ohio Democrat, on a visit to Washington in the 1950s.
She said she wanted to thank him for helping to arrange an international adoption for her sister. He asked her out and they immediately clicked, she said.
“I fell flat on my face. I was crazy about him,” said the Ohio native, who had worked as a hotel cashier and a receptionist.
They married in the summer of 1956, but things quickly began to fall apart. “His constituents always came first,” she said.
Less than a year after the marriage, they were living under different roofs, Montgomery County Circuit Court records show.
The congressman filed for divorce in early 1964 on grounds of voluntary separation. The divorce was granted in Montgomery County on Aug. 15, 1965, court records show.
Margaret Ashley was awarded custody of the couple’s two children, an 8-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy. Thomas Ashley was granted “reasonable visitation,” the divorce decree shows. He also was ordered to pay $460 a month in alimony and child support.
In 1972, that monthly payment was increased to $1,000. She said a heart condition prevented her from working.
During their separation and after, Thomas Ashley, the great- grandson of Civil War-era congressman James M. Ashley, carved out a national profile in politics.
Elected to Congress in 1954, Thomas Ashley was one of only six congressmen in 1961 who voted to cut off funds for the House Un-American Activities Committee. As a member and eventual chairman of the House Banking and Currency subcommittee on housing and community development, he pushed to convert existing housing into low-cost living quarters for the poor.
In 1977, he was named chairman of the House Ad Hoc Committee on Energy that reported to House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr., and worked toward passage of President Carter’s energy plan.
Though he was ousted by his constituents in the 1980 general election, he moved on to become a lobbyist in Washington for many of the nation’s largest banks. And in the late 1980s and early 1990s he gave informal advice to President Bush and his son, Neil. Thomas Ashley had become friends with George Bush while both were studying at Yale University.
While Thomas Ashley gained fame, Margaret Ashley’s financial and legal problems were mounting.
In a deposition she gave in 1972, she said she had been evicted that January from her rented house in Leesburg, Va., for nonpayment, and had taken her children to live with her at her mother’s home in Ohio. Troubles followed her there.
Court records in Lucas County, Ohio, show that on June 20, 1975, she was found guilty of grand theft and of obtaining property by false pretenses. She was given a suspended sentence and placed on probation for four years. She also was referred to a court diagnostic and treatment center for a psychological and psychiatric report, but failed to show, court records say.
“That never happened,” she said Friday of the convictions. “I’ve never even had a traffic ticket.”
Much later, in February 1991, Montgomery County District Court records show Suburban Hospital obtained a lien against her, seeking $2,873 in money owed.
And last year, she was evicted from an efficiency apartment in Rockville that her landlord said she had lived in for about six years.
Margaret Ashley said she knows nothing about the hospital lien, but said she had paid the apartment rent. But Kevin Chambers, the manager of Bethany House, a low-priced housing complex for senior citizens, said that by the time she was evicted, she had paid no rent for six months.
Chambers had attempted to enlist help from Margaret Ashley’s son, correspondence shows.
But in a letter dated Sept. 25, 1995, Thomas W. Ashley wrote Chambers: “I can not offer you any assistance or advice with the problems you are having concerning apartment 207. In the past, I and other family members have attempted to provide assistance and counseling services to Margaret Ashley, without any success. I have not spoken to my mother in over 18 months, and I do not intent [sic] to speak to her, now or in the future.”
In an interview Friday at the Rainbow Place, an overnight shelter in Rockville, Margaret Ashley said she is hoping to soon leave that place and the daytime shelter she visits for breakfast and lunch. She said she recently received another alimony check from her ex-husband.
“This has been an experience,” she said. “I’m going to put it right out of my mind.”
She said she hopes to find a furnished room – somewhere where she can stay up watching television past 10 p.m., sleep without the company of 25 or 30 other women, and eat on real china. “I never want to see another paper plate or paper napkin as long as I live.”
She added she is looking forward to a new life and thinking about changing her name. “I’ve never liked the name Margaret Mary,” she said. “Margaret Mary’s never brought me anything good.” -30-