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.

“YOU COULD SELL SHOES TO DEAD PEOPLE.”

That’s Gladwyne interior designer Ann Arader talking to Amy Burnham, who is sitting on the other side of me, two stools down inside the Old Guard House Inn in Gladwyne, and pouring herself a glass from a magnum of champagne. Amy is wearing a snug red sweater that shows off the Girls to full effect, along with a Santa hat slung jauntily over her latest blowout from OMG. We’re in the post-game, as it were, of the annual “Bells and Belles” luncheon that Amy organizes every year just before Christmas for 16 of the Main Line’s most prominent ladies—including Ann Kiser, Anne Hamilton, Hope Cohen, photographer Debbie Bowden, realtor Kathy Hydier Straub, and Samantha Orleans, ex-wife of builder Jeff Orleans—who sit in a private room devouring healthy portions of designer salads and gossip. Predictably, Amy is leaving this luncheon with both a job lead (headhunting clients for Ann Arader) and a winter invitation to the Caribbean (from Anne Hamilton).

That Amy Burnham would likely not know a rich Ann or Anne if she hadn’t married onto the Main Line is hardly lost on her. The “date in/marry in” to the upper crust is a time-honored phenomenon; former Le Bec-Fin manager Roseanne Martin went from dating Ed Snider to dating Georges Perrier to dating Vince Fumo (and recently, back to Snider again). Iliana Strauss, the widow of Pep Boys chairman Benjamin Strauss and stepmother-in-law of Max Kennedy, a son of RFK, started out as a small-town girl from Pennsylvania Dutch country;­ Donna Coghlan, who was a waitress at the Saloon with Amy, is now a fancy event producer engaged to a King of Prussia developer. Both Strauss and Coghlan were at the Guard House lunch.

There are certainly people who think Amy Burnham and the new breed of saucy Main Line wives are nothing but old-fashioned­ scheming social climbers in KOP clothing. “She can prance around Gladwyne all she wants,” one woman who rotates in the same social orbit tells me. “But at the end of the day, it’s the same old story: She slept her way to the top, and once she pushed out the kids, she cut bait so she could live like a lady of the manor. She was completely mercenary in her pursuit of the life she got.”

Maybe. But in fairness, it’s the life she’s made since that’s infinitely more interesting. Because what has made Amy Burnham so successful, so transcendent in the role of the Main Line woman, comes from her looking not so much to Helen Hope Montgomery Scott for inspiration as, perhaps more fittingly, to Oprah. As I sit at the bar, watching Amy alternately joke and advise her various powerhouse girlfriends, something Hope Cohen told me earlier resonates. “I would say that Amy’s general demeanor is simply contagious,” she said. “She’s always happy. She has an amazing outlook on life—even when things aren’t so great, she always makes you feel like they will be.”

And perhaps that’s the secret to Amy Burnham’s unlikely rise as a power player on the Main Line, to her ability to straddle two formidable but very different worlds— to be the connector who can both organize the ladies’ lunch at the Guard House and knock back beers and tell dirty jokes with Ed Rendell and the boys from Kerbeck. Being disarming isn’t a trait, after all, but a skill. And it involves risk, because by its very nature it requires you to expose yourself to ridicule. By being an open book in a social milieu where secrecy has long been as de rigueur as Botox and Lilly Pulitzer sandals, Amy Burnham has disarmed everyone from every flank to become the Main Line’s most unlikely It Girl.

Can that translate into a successful career on TV? Difficult to say. But it’s certain to translate into success somewhere, because the world—and especially the world of the Philadelphia aristocracy—will always need people who know the Right People.

One afternoon, Amy walks ahead of me as we stroll into the Belrose in Radnor for lunch at the bar. Mayor Nutter’s name comes up, and I casually ask if she knows him.

“No,” she says. Then she tosses her blond tresses over her shoulder and glances back at me with devilment in her eyes. “But I will.”

 

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