ALBANY, N.Y. — She blushes, smiles, emphasizes, demonstrates, exudes excitement, is passionate, has a hearty laugh, is warm and gracious and open to learning and being interested in other people and what they’re doing.
Silda Wall Spitzer, wife of Governor-elect Eliot Spitzer, is a Southern belle from North Carolina who graduated from Meredith College, a Baptist women’s college located in Raleigh, N.C., before getting a law degree from Harvard. She then joined the Manhattan firm of Skadden Arps, Slate, Meagher, and Flom to work on mergers and acquisitions. Before becoming a stay-at-home mom, she was an international counsel at Chase Manhattan Bank.
The incoming First Lady of New York met her future husband during a ski weekend in Vermont. “I did not start skiing until I happened to go on a ski trip with some friends from law school. It was the end of law school, and that is where I met Eliot, who had skied all his life,” she recalls. “But I am not a skier, so I don’t know what I was doing on this trip. I just thought, sure, I’ll go out and ski. But he really taught me to ski.”
The Spitzers were married in 1987 by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Workman Sweet, and they made their home in Manhattan, where Eliot served as an assistant district attorney before becoming New York’s attorney general.
Here, Silda Wall Spitzer, 48, discusses her background, the foundation she and her husband founded, her fashion tastes (as reported, she will wear Neil Bieff at the inaugural) and why her daughters don’t like to hear her sing.
Spitzer is the eldest of three children and her North Carolina roots remain important to her. Her mother and father, Trilby and Robert Wall, have realized one of her dad’s dreams: They recently built a log cabin in West Jefferson in the Appalachian Mountains on the banks of the New River, which Robert Wall claims “is the second-oldest river in the world.”
“We used to always go on vacation to the beach, and I loved it as a child,” Spitzer remembers. “These are the things that you learn about your parents that you never knew when you were growing up. So we went back a few years ago, and Dad said, ‘I hate the beach. I’ve always hated the beach. I don’t like the sand, and I love the mountains, because I like it to be cool, and I get too hot at the beach.'”
So the retired hospital administrator built his own mountain cabin.
“I’m a person of faith,” explains Spitzer, but she is reluctant to talk about what faith.
“It’s private and personal for me,” she adds. “I was raised a Baptist, my mother was Methodist, my uncle was an Episcopal minister, my best friend was Catholic.”
Asked what she saw in the future for herself and her family relating to any organized belief, Spitzer explains, “Eliot is coming from a different religious background than I am. What I would say is that we are very inclusive.”
This may be the reason why the traditional religious service will be an interfaith one on inauguration day on Monday and will be held at the Westminister Presbyterian Church in Albany.
“I’m not a good ‘fashionista.’ I like clothing that looks nice and enjoy wearing things that look nice, but it’s really not something I would say I’m an expert in by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not been my focus. But I do enjoy clothing that looks nice, that’s comfortable.”
Asked if she owns any hats, Spitzer says, “I do own a hat or two. I do not wear them very often unless I need them for cold. I grew up being put in hats by my mother, and they would have the little chin strap underneath that used to really irritate me. This little chin strap. I just never liked the idea of a hat. They always got in the way, so I’m not a good hat person. And I’m not big on carrying purses, either.
“I like shoes. Shoes are fun. Again, it’s not about a designer or a particular fashion. It’s about what looks good and is comfortable. But I enjoy a good pair of shoes.”
Spitzer explains, “In the course of campaigning we’ve done everything, from addressing large crowds of people, which obviously requires a more appropriate business dress or other dress. Then we’ve also worked in the aftermath in the floods in Conklin, N.C., cleaning up. We were wearing our jeans and T-shirts and getting quite dirty. It’s just like any other life — you have to wear what’s appropriate for where you are.”
Eveningwear appears to have taken a backseat to cocktail or business attire, however. Spitzer says she finds that, when she dresses in the morning, she often needs the outfit to go through the entire day, so it’s usually something that can be worn for different functions. “Usually if I go to a black-tie event, I’m wearing what, in another era, was considered more cocktail attire, with short, it’s not the long gown. There are too many places to go and if I’m going to do that, I’m often doing something before as well. There is a Theory outlet very close to here, and the clothes travel very well. Theory is the brand, but basically I wear whatever works, whatever fits and preferably whatever is on sale.”
Music, Sports and the Arts
“One of the big pieces in the arts that I’m interested in is entrepreneurship in different areas as economic engines for the state, and among those would be arts, the history of the state and the culture that’s here. There’s just so much there that already is powerful as an economic engine, but I think there’s so much more potential for that. And so those are interests of mine and also of Eliot’s — something he’s been talking about for a long time now.”
As for her own artistic talents, Spitzer says, “I can pick out something on a piano. I would not say I’m in any way a pianist — I wish. But I played the French horn when I was in high school and a little bit in college, and I always sang with a choir. But I haven’t done much, except drive my children crazy in the car. They always say, ‘Mom, will you stop singing?’ And all the songs that they play now are remakes of our songs. They’re our words. But the girls are like, ‘Mom, would you stop? Mom … ‘”
All the Spitzer children have played musical instruments at various points. “We’ve all tried the piano. Our second daughter, Sarabeth, played the violin for a number of years but has recently given that up in favor of basketball, cross-country and track. We’ll see if she goes back — I have not given up hope. Our youngest, Jenna, is a cellist, and she’s been enjoying that. Elyssa played the piano for awhile and sang in the chorus, but she has also moved on to being a three-season track person. So she runs cross-country, winter track and spring track.”
Asked if she gets up and jogs with her husband at 5:30 a.m. or 6 a.m., Spitzer laughs and says, “I don’t get up and jog with him. I try to jog a bit, but I prefer to do a combination of walking and running, and then I do a workout in some classes occasionally — not as often as I should. But what Eliot and I try to do, if we can, at the end of the day, we’ll go down and work out at the little gym in the building.”
The Executive Mansion
The governor-elect and incoming First Lady are still learning about the executive mansion in Albany. While she has had a recent tour, Spitzer says, “As anyone who’s been in the house knows, it’s an ongoing process of restoration and decoration. So I think of necessity, we will be working on it to make sure that it is maintained in the way that it should be. It’s of enormous historic significance. Do you know there’s a pool there that was built for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and when he went to the White House he had one built there in the same pattern after what was in Albany? I think Al Smith built it to get FDR to run. And Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller built the pool house. It’s a really fun space, and it looks great.
“There are just so many things that are of historic importance in the house and in the state, and that’s one thing I’m very interested in: having people feel like they are connected back with the history of the state and the history of the house. We’ll do what we can to make sure that we honor, respect and preserve that history as much as we can and to get it out for the people to see. We’re going to have tours of the house. We will have on display the original state constitution and the version of the constitution that was given to the 13 colonies.”
Life on the Farm
Spitzer and her husband share the chores when they are upstate at their 160-acre farm in Pine Plains. “He takes great pride in shopping and grilling over the weekend. He likes preparing the Saturday evening meal,” she says.
The Spitzers consider this family time but sometimes have guests for dinner. Their three daughters — Elyssa, 17; Sarabeth, 14, and Jenna, 12 —don’t have a chance to get bored in the country. “They would if they didn’t have so much homework from Horace Mann School. We have them bring their friends up, and I think they enjoy that a great deal. And because of their sports and other things that are going on, we’re in the city some weekends and we’re up here some weekends. We’re usually back and forth. They’re very different experiences, each one is fun, but they’re both different. In Central Park, you do a lot walking or running, a lot of watching other people enjoying the experience, also. In the country, it’s just quieter, because there are fewer people around. I do a lot of reading and painting when I’m up in the country,” says Spitzer, who paints in acrylic.
“I do enjoy cooking,” she continues. “I don’t get a chance to cook very much these days, but I do like it. I like to bake. There’s a particular kind of sugar cookie that my mother would make at the holiday time of the year that I like to make with the girls. It’s a butter cookie. I also enjoy making Brunswick Stew, which is a very North Carolina dish, made with chicken, corn, tomatoes and lima beans. It’s delicious.
The Spitzers purchased the farm in early November after renting the guest cottage for 12 years. And farming is something she wants to do. “Sheep and cows would be good and perhaps a few horses,” she says. “Eliot and I are discussing these possibilities.”
“We try to eat in as much as we can, and this tends to be a more hodgepodge affair than I would like. When we do dine out, it’s a mix, because it’s about the company first and foremost. We spend a lot of time at Three Guys’ Diner, which is close to our apartment. But we like to try new things. We like American fusion, or whatever it would be called, so we often go to new restaurants. Most of the time there are a couple of local restaurants we go back to. There is Quatorze Bis on 79th Street, which is a very low-key bistro full of food, very good chicken and fries. But, by and large, we’re eating in most of the time these days.”
“I’m actually in two book groups,” says Spitzer, both of which focus mainly on contemporary fiction. “Dana Buchman, the designer, is in one, and she is a friend. We came to know each other because our husbands worked together at the DA’s office at one point. She’s wonderful, and I enjoy wearing her clothes. Her daughter did an internship at Children for Children, and she was great. She was really very insightful and interesting.”
The Working Mom
While officially not being a working mom, Spitzer says, “I feel like I work harder than I ever [have] in my life right now.”
Coming from a small town in the South, segueing to Harvard and now to Manhattan, she says she doesn’t feel like life is that different. “It’s just that the context is different, but the basic interactions of daily life I feel are very similar. The speed is much different, but I go back to my parents’ home in the hometown that I grew up in and where my brother and his family live, in Concord, N.C., and the pace of their lives is very fast. My sense is that maybe because of the technological advances, life for all of us has speeded up and become very full, wherever we’re living. There are more people concentrated in one place in New York City, so there’s a perception that it’s very crowded. But I find that wherever I am, the pace has always been busy.”
Raising her children in today’s environment is fast-paced as well. “I think they’re really exposed to a lot. So I think it’s very important to help them come up with the skills to be able to set limits for themselves and to have a very strong sense of their values and who they are.
“I think that at every developmental age, there are things you can do that are age-appropriate that help to kind of reinforce a pattern of giving and sharing and responsibility and also the problem-solving and critical thinking that comes from engaging in service. From a very early age, children can follow their parents, and as their parents are doing something as simple as, say, maybe baking cookies for a friend who is ill or to take time to thank the firefighters at the local fire department, and they could keep some cookies for home and then share some with the person who’s ill.”
Children for Children Philanthropy
“This was founded in 1996, before Eliot was elected to anything.” The foundation was created by a group of parents concerned that many New York City children grow up in insular environments without a meaningful connection to, or sense of responsibility for, their greater community. Spitzer began talking with her friends about these problems, and she and her husband founded the Children For Children Foundation.
“It’s really a not-for-profit 501-C3 charity, which means we’re a public charity, and it means we have to fund-raise. We try to maintain a very balanced portfolio. So basically, we fund-raise any way we can with different events like ‘giving programs.’ The way we started was having people make small contributions for something like a birthday that would then go into a pot that would be used to make resource grants to underserved schools. So this is a way that you can give a small amount and help a great number just by working together. One hundred percent of whatever came in through those programs, we would then take and make grants to schools for resources they needed. It could be anything from gym equipment to laboratory microscopes or art materials, pencils, paper or books. It depends on the income of the school.
“We started with nothing. It was a completely volunteer organization. The first year we raised something like $6,500 or $7,000. With that, we made five grants to five different schools and got some things, such as a computer, that we were able to get matched. So we were able to put two computers in a high school up in the Bronx, that was supposed to be a technical, technology-focused school. They were working on, for their electricity course, these grids that the manual that went with it was from 1968.
“I think things have gotten better over the years. When we first started this, there was an article in the paper every day about kids having to have their classroom in the janitor’s closet because there was no space for them. It was very frustrating for individuals reading about this. We felt that this was something children could relate to at whatever age, because they start in preschool, so young. They understand what it would be like not to have a pencil, not to have a piece of paper. That was part of the reason for the focus on education. Also, that every child needs an education.”
The Manhattan-based foundation’s budget has grown, and in 2006 it was $1.2 million and is expected to be $1.6 million in 2007 “to operate our programs.” To date, the foundation has made over $1.5 million worth of resource grants and in-kind materials, as well as helping to fund projects for kids in different schools to do.
“The heart of what Children for Children is trying to do is to engage kids across the socioeconomic spectrum from an early age in volunteering and giving to their community, because they gain so many personal skills that we feel it should be a basic part of every child’s educational experience, whether they get it in school, out of school or after school. It’s something that, along with math, reading and science, that this hands-on problem-solving experience of service is something that is a necessity.”