Confessions of a Main Line Housewife: Amy Burnham Tells All

How a former Saloon waitress used brass, sass and flirting with Ed Rendell to obliterate the image of the suburban wife—and become the unlikely new face of power on the Main Line.

YES, I HAVE A BIRD ON MY shoulder,” Amy says as she opens the door to her quaint oversized cottage in Radnor. The bird is a sun conure called Mango. Perched on the shoulder of her ribbed vanilla turtleneck, it gives her the appearance of a particularly chic pirate. With her shapely curves (she’s in another pair of ridiculously tight jeans, this time off-white) and streaked blonde tresses, up close she can give off a vibe of hardened Ivory girl. Her house, a series of burnished pine-plank floors, curving staircases and gingerbread rooms, has a quaint fairy-tale feel, like the old woman who lives in the Jimmy Choo.

Her road here was hardly linear. The daughter of a Harvard-educated Delaware entrepreneur who once owned the Society Hill Club, and the granddaughter of the football coach at Purdue, she was no stranger to the country-club world when she was growing up, though she never felt she fit inside it. Sent off to the prestigious St. Andrew’s boarding school in Middletown, Delaware, where her classmates included Amy Dilsheimer, daughter of developer Dick Dilsheimer, and Margaret Kelly, daughter of Philadelphia City Councilman John B. Kelly Jr., she ran into her dorm on the first day yelling, “All right, I’m here! Where’s the party?” She was 14. She became a squash champ but a disciplinary nightmare, constantly punished for her smart mouth and skirting of the rules. At the University of Delaware, she “ran with the Rich Gannon crowd” (the quarterback who went on to play in the NFL) until she jetted off to Spain her sophomore year and came back with a Spanish boyfriend in tow. She had no idea what she wanted to do with her life, only that she wanted it to be creative and interesting. She ended up graduating with a journalism degree from Temple in 1988, eventually taking a short-lived job as a teacher at a private school. “The headmaster thought the class was taking on my personality,” she recalls. “Didn’t go over too well.”

It was as a waitress at the Saloon in Queen Village that she began to get her bearings. By the late ’80s, the restaurant had become a must destination for celebrities and folks-about-town, and Amy found herself waiting on everyone from Sylvester Stallone and Billy Joel to Joey Merlino. (Years later, she was at a lawn party in Longport when a dark sedan pulled up and the guests all stared to see who was in it. A rear tinted window rolled down to reveal Merlino, who yelled out, “Yo, Aim!”)

She was, by her own admission, a terrible waitress. She added tips onto the bills of parties of two or more and told them it was Saloon policy; she once mistakenly served swordfish and passed it off as salmon, explaining, “It’s just not as pink as you’re used to.” “Once, a woman wanted to know how the roasted potatoes were made. I said, ‘What don’t you get? They’re potatoes and they’re roasted.’ That was my first firing.”

“She used to keep coming back even after she was fired,” remembers Sandy Bartolo, who’s been a manager at the restaurant for more than 25 years. “She would just show up, and we’d say, ‘Okay, Amy, go to work.’ She was always late, she never had the right clothes, she talked too much to the customers. She just did whatever she wanted.” But she kept getting rehired. “We all kind of liked her,” Bartolo laughs. “And people requested her. She was a character, and that keeps a lot of customers coming back.”

Her knack for disarming people opened the door to romances with a striking roster of studs, from Flyers star Eric Lindros to Rod Stewart’s bassist, Carmine Rojas (“A brief encounter,” she says delicately), to impressively tressed singer Michael Bolton (who, she jokes, threw her over for Nicollette Sheridan).

It also allowed her to lay the groundwork for her next job, selling ad time for Shadow Traffic, which was then owned by the hippie-ish, rarely-wearing-shoes Alan Markowitz. Her clients were almost all “car guys,” white, doughy middle-aged men who ran dealerships for Barbera’s, Pacifico, Kerbeck and the like; she schmoozed them with shameless flirting and a “See what the boys in the back room will have” gumption, taking them to boozy lunches and the occasional night out at Delilah’s. “Who am I to buzz-kill a party?” she says. “Look, I didn’t do lap dances for them. And I did not have lap dances done on me. And occasionally I rolled my eyes. But at the end of the night, I had the contract signed.”

“She was up-front and frank and was not your typical by-the-book salesperson,” says Al McGowan, then the president of Shadow Traffic. “She had great relationships, and she knew how to get clients to become her friends. She was lightning in a bottle. You try to look for people like that in sales.”

While teaching, she had moved into a carriage house in Bryn Mawr adjacent to the estate of Martha and Ed Snider, where her roommate was a young businessman named Anthony Weiss, whose sister was Christina Lurie, whose husband was in top-secret negotiations to purchase the Eagles; after starting at Shadow Traffic, she moved to the ultimate rich-kid dorm, the Dorchester.

She set a record for the fastest march to a million dollars in sales ever, which attracted the attention of Alan Markowitz. The two began a covert romance that ended up with a splashy wedding for 250 on the old Dorrance estate, which Markowitz had bought from manufacturing magnate Ira Cohen and his chef/TV personality then-wife, Hope. It featured a Garden of Eden theme executed by eminent wedding planner Carole Powers Gordon, two bands, and a who’s-who-y guest list that included the Luries, the Greens, the Rosens, the Shecters, the Banners, and seemingly anybody else who qualified as a boldface name in the city or on the Main Line. “That was a wedding,” Amy says. “To this day, Alan doesn’t know what that really cost.”

It was officiated by Rendell, who would become a large presence and key ally in Amy’s life post-Alan. “I feel like Ed is used by so many people that to just call him and not want anything from him, to just want to grab a bite, he appreciates that. And I also call him on his shit,” she says. “And yes, I’m shapely and blond. I mean, that doesn’t go by him.” She shifts into a growling Rendell impersonation: “‘Looking good, Amester! Lookin’ good!’” She laughs. “When he officiated my wedding, he forgot he had his microphone on, and I had on one of those old-fashioned­ push-up wedding gowns, and he looks right down the front and cracks, ‘Nice dress, Amester!’ The entire congregation heard. And I was like, ‘Really, Ed? Now?’ But that’s just Ed. He makes no excuses, no apologies.” Which perhaps explains why they’ve remained such close friends. I ask her if Ed would want to date her if she weren’t involved with someone else now, as she is. She thinks about it a second, then shakes her head. “No, Ed would not want to date me.” I give her a stare, and she laughs. “Okay, Ed would want to date me.”

As with many Main Line marriages, the first few years of the Markowitz/Burnham union were happy, filled with trips and shopping and long leisurely lunches and glamorous parties. Then came the children. “After I had the kids, something had to give, and Alan felt it was him, that he was sort of being pushed down the totem pole, somewhere between the cats and the plants. The marriage was great until I had my own kids. And then … ” She trails off. “Alan had already done that. And even though he thought he was up for a second family, I don’t know. I mean, he loves his kids, make no mistake. But I think at that point in his life he wanted a playmate, a constant companion. And it just wore me down.” (Reached on his cellphone, Alan Markowitz declined to comment for this story.)

While their divorce in 2008 was reasonably pro forma (there was that pre-nup), the custody battle devolved into the kind of ugliness that has become infamous. (See: McGreevey, Jim and Dina.) “The divorce was not ugly. It was the ever-after that got ugly,” Amy says, recalling the court battles over custody arrangements, visitations and holidays, even the car line at school. “If texting had a screaming font,” she says, “I’d be hoarse.”

She found an unlikely ally in Ann Kiser, Alan’s first wife. Their budding friendship quickly became a curiosity. But Ann says they bonded over, among other things, how to raise their children amid the privilege of the Main Line, a place filled with cautionary examples of offspring given too much, too soon. Early in her marriage, Ann says, she and Alan moved back East from Bel Air, California, “because I was not going to raise kids who turn 16 and get a new BMW with FIRSTBORN on the license plate. That was not happening with my children.”

“Philadelphia is such a small community,” Amy says. “Forget Kevin Bacon. You could do three degrees of separation from anybody. And on the Main Line, it’s either recycle or get recycled.” This is one of her favorite expressions, a voicing of why she does what she does: the relentless networking, the constant top-hat-and-cane lunches with her girlfriends, the nurturing of her kids, even the burden of her current long-distance relationship with Tom Brown, a hedge fund manager who lives on a $6.3 million estate in Greenwich, Connecticut, and whom she calls Hedge Fund Tom. She won’t, can’t, end up as one of the stereotypical divorcées in Bryn Mawr or Rosemont, swirling a vodka tonic and clutching her pearls, talking about “that bastard I married.” The world is too inviting, too interesting, too fun for someone like Amy Burnham, and she’s already done the hard part: She’s in with the right people. It’s staying there—and working every angle, every connection and yes, every flirtation—that’s the challenge in front of her. “What’s important to know in a divorce on the Main Line is that for the most part, there’s a line in the sand,” she says. “I’ve been so fortunate that people haven’t shut me down. Because typically, people tend to go where the money goes, and that’s life. I have been super-lucky that people have been great.”

She hasn’t been super-lucky. Tactical, smart, even funny, yes. But the luck she’s had, she’s made. “Compared to the people of Greenwich and the people of Philadelphia, she’s an honest person. What you get from Amy is who she is,” says Hedge Fund Tom. “And she listens. In our world today, we have a lot of people who talk. A friend of mine once remarked, ‘There’s a reason God gave you two ears and just one mouth.’ I think Amy knows that.” He pauses, chuckles a bit. “Though Lord knows she can talk.”

Whether Comcast will pay her to talk remains to be seen. I ask her if she’s worried she has zero experience, worried she’ll fail. “No, I’m not,” she answers declaratively. “It’s the same thing as waitressing and the same thing as teaching and the same thing as selling. To me, it’s just one more thing I’m trying to do and not get fired from.”