Whoosh! A gust of chilly night air sweeps in as the doors open onto the theater lobby on a rainy, bone-chilling night that only the most fashionable would battle in order to keep a social engagement. A throng of movers, shakers and those who aspire to be both turn collective heads to see who’s walking in, and the tittering and air-kissing, previously a polite hum, kick up a notch.
The ex-wives of Alan Markowitz have arrived.
Film premieres don’t happen in Philadelphia very often, and while this isn’t exactly a film premiere—just a tidy little gathering in Old City for a hundred or so of the most influential, fabulous and, judging by the pulled and pinned complexions, well-preserved faces in Center City and on the Main Line—it’s close enough. Karen Jacobson and Babs Snyder, two women whose names at the top of an invitation command this sort of attention, have arranged a private screening of the buzzy new silent film The Artist, and the Social Whirl has shown up in force to see it.
Among those mingling are willowy interior designer Barbara Eberlein, power hostess Lynn Shecter and her lawyer husband Howard, Comcast exec Eric Grilly, Barnes Foundation fund-raiser Linda Scribner, and Rittenhouse socialite Wendy Rosen, wife of lawyer-to-the-stars Paul. Also nibbling the free popcorn and candy are Hilarie Morgan, wife of Bryn Mawr real estate mogul and heavyweight Republican fund-raiser Mitchell, developer Craig Spencer and his wife BJ (the daughter of disgraced fashion designer Albert Nipon), Andrea Freundlich, the wife of rheumatologist Bruce Freundlich, and a healthy contingent of Binswangers, always good for a party.
Ann Kiser, who was the first Mrs. Markowitz, dives into the throng, an imposing and elegant beauty who, with her alabaster skin and gamine neck, looks like a cross between a Brontë heroine and actress Elizabeth Hurley, accented with blond hair and artsy John Lennon glasses. Amy Burnham, who was the second Mrs. Markowitz, follows with her own round of glad-handing, though she comes off as slightly less delicate, a politician-on-the-campaign-trail-style greeter. Amy is in a snug gray sweater dress, tights, and Italian suede-and-patent-leather boots, but what’s most immediately noticeable about her are her impressive porn-star boobs, which she alternately calls “the girls” and “the tires,” as in, “I have to go in to have the tires rotated,” a metaphor for a trip to her plastic surgeon. Amy is constantly saying things she shouldn’t, which has made her both a lovable exotic attraction, like a zoo panda, and a popular party guest on the Main Line social circuit.
A graying gentleman nattily dressed in tweed comes up and grabs both of Amy’s hands. “Ann! How lovely to see you! It’s been ages.”
Amy laughs. “Wrong one,” she says, pointing across the lobby to Ann. “The first one’s over there.”
Such confusion is to be expected, perhaps, given that the Lucy-and-Ethel friendship of Alan Markowitz’s ex-wives—who only a few months ago were sunbathing topless together while on vacation in Arizona—is a novel construct in the tight-smiled cabal of the Main Line. But then, Amy Burnham, the former boarding-school bad girl and Saloon waitress who has used muscular wiles and a sharp tongue to parachute into the lives of some of Philadelphia’s most powerful people, is nothing if not novel.
Amy scurries up to Ann, leaning in to her ear. “Drama!” she whispers. (Turns out a guy across the room is a former flame of Ann’s.) Just before the lights go down to start the film, Amy yells a few times to a woman in front, “Hi, Patty! Good to see you!” The woman waves back. Later, Amy will discover the woman actually isn’t Patty, which she’ll find uproariously funny.
Early in the silent film, the lead characters begin to fall in love while dancing. Onscreen, they’re trying to be serious, but they keep cracking one another up. “Ohh, I love that,” Amy remarks.
“It’s like you and Alan all over again,” I say.
Amy snorts. Another thing, among many, that sets Amy Burnham, 46, apart from other Main Line wives (and ex-wives) is that she’s a big snorter. “If I had been silent,” she deadpans about her marriage, “it might have worked.”
After the film (and yet more air-kissing), Andrea Freundlich, the doctor’s spouse, goes with the ex-wives for a drink across the street at Positano Coast, where, upstairs, Amy bumps into Center City psychoanalyst Anthony Tereo and his wife, who looks like a former Miss Universe. Not to be outdone, Ann dashes around the bar to say hello to several Pacificos, of auto-family fame.
Which leaves me sitting alone at the bar with Andrea, who, as a Dominican woman who married a wealthy white doctor and moved to the Main Line more than 30 years ago, knows a thing or two about what it’s like to be Other in the peculiar caste system that exists along Lancaster Avenue.
She casts a wary eye over at Amy, who’s throwing her head back in laughter—something she does almost as much as she snorts—with Dr. Tereo. “I worry about her,” Andrea says. “Because she is so good, and so kind, and such a wonderful free spirit.” She shakes her head. “And it is very, very difficult to be a free spirit on the Main Line.”
“I’M A LITTLE HUNG OVER, that’s why I’m having trouble getting the words out,” Amy tells me over the phone. It’s the day after the Eagles (surprisingly) demolished the Cowboys on national television at the Linc. She sat in a box with banker Richard Green (his ex-wife Marla, she says, “doesn’t talk to me. Whatever”), and was down on the sideline with her friends Jeffrey and Christina Lurie—she and Christina are having tea next week. Amy is very good about making liquid dates—tea, coffee, usually something far stronger. This is just one of the ways you become Amy Burnham in the first place:
You know how to rock a PDA calendar.
She tells me she bumped into Georges Perrier on the sideline and asked how things were, only to have Georges thunder back in his patented Georges way, “That beetch is leaving me!” “That beetch” would be his second wife, another Andrea. Amy also bumped into a high-profile heir whose relationship is evidently going kaput. “I don’t know what’s going on,” she says breezily. “There must be something in the water. Everyone’s splitting up.” She and I are trying to make a lunch date, which with Amy can be difficult, precisely because she’s so adept at it. And if you’re not on a certain level of the Main Line food chain, it can be downright impossible. “I’ll email you some dates, Lovebug,” she says, and I can almost feel the air kiss swirling through the phone. She started calling me this a few years ago—after we first met—for reasons I can’t recall. (I sometimes also get “Puddin’.”) I sort of like it, though, in part because it’s better than a lot of other names I’ve been called, and in part because earning a pet name from Amy Burnham is, in its own way, proof that you’ve edged into her inner circle. And, people, Amy Burnham’s inner circle is so worth edging into.
This is evident when she shows up for breakfast at Parc two weeks later, wearing a leopard-print blouse that shows off those impressive boobs, skin-tight denim (a trademark; the woman doesn’t own a pair of pants she doesn’t have to paint on), and thigh-high bitch boots that make her look like she’s just crawled off the car in a Guns N’ Roses music video. She wears almost no makeup, and just a smear of lip gloss.
She has an appointment today with WIP’s Howard Eskin, to get some advice on how to achieve her latest scheme: breaking into TV. That she has no media experience whatsoever, and that this might prove problematic, seems immaterial to her. She’s producing a series of webisodes about her take on life under the title Skewed View, which she hopes to have on YouTube by the spring; she’s hoping those, in turn, will help her launch a weekly program on Comcast SportsNet called The Extra Point, in which she, her girlfriend Iris Simms (a model on the QVC network) and a random gay guy will pontificate about sports in a decidedly non-sports way. (Think Miss Clairee from Steel Magnolias, opining about whether the new uniforms in Chinquapin Parish are grape or aubergine.) Ed Rendell—whom she speed-dials constantly, and who officiated her 1999 Gladwyne wedding to Alan Markowitz—already got her a meeting at Comcast. “Most people know the struggles I’ve had over the last couple of years with [the divorce from] Alan,” she says in her distinctive husky voice. “And they also know I’ve tried to show good humor. If you can’t laugh at your circumstances to some extent, and you can’t laugh at yourself to a big extent, then you know what? You’re fucked everywhere. Because that’s all you’ve got. And that’s why I’m trying to make a go at something I have, which is looking at the world pretty clearly and calling it like it is.” It’s not that she’s reinventing herself; she’s simply finding new outlets to be herself. “As Ed said to me, ‘You’re not going to make it as a mathematician.’”
The point she’s making—or at least the one worth taking away—is that she has succeeded, and absolutely believes she will succeed again, whether in love or money, by sheer force of will. Amy Burnham is, in many ways, your archetypal Main Line ex-wife: blond, surgically enhanced (though the nose is hers, and she’ll punch you if you suggest it isn’t), stylish, raising kids with suitably precious names (Piper, nine, and Colton, 10) and taking her turn as classroom mom. But she’s also far more than that. In some ways, she’s no less than the new face of the Main Line wife, a woman who is forceful instead of a woman who merely went to the right college, married the right man (or the wrong one), and decorates with the right flair. It’s moxie as the new Main Line currency.
Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Our collective image of the Main Line wife is stuck somewhere with that of breathy Betty Draper Francis, with her chintz furniture and Bryn Mawr diploma. But it’s worth remembering that it was saucy Helen Hope Montgomery Scott whose friendship—and party invites—everyone craved. While many of her neighbors fight over what school committee to land and whether the Coach or the Burberry backpack is the one to buy for the coming school year, Amy Burnham is on the phone with Ed Rendell, swearing and laughing and making plans to elbow her way onto the air and into the halls of the biggest company in town.
“The words ‘Main Line mom’ immediately cause the hair on the back of my neck to go up,” she tells me as she stabs a fork into her bacon, eggs and salad greens. “Because there are a lot of moms out there who are super-cool and super-fun, and they can be the mom out front and can be the bitch in the bedroom, and I don’t think that comes across when you say, ‘Main Line mom.’ I think there’s a whole wild, Harley-H.O.G. group of us out there. We’re all undercover, and you don’t know it yet.”
We’re learning. Since her divorce in 2008, Amy Burnham has been doing something that would have been unthinkable for a Main Line divorcée only a generation ago: not only airing her dirty laundry, but washing it in public and daring anyone to say something. By refusing to set limits on what’s socially acceptable and what isn’t—she emails sex jokes to her friends (in one, a 1950s wife says to her husband, “My gynecologist says I can’t have sex for two weeks,” and her husband replies, “What did your dentist say?”) and has a plaque prominently hung in her kitchen that reads, “I’ll have a cafe mocha vodka Xanax latte to go, please”—she’s done something truly remarkable: become a Main Line power player, throwing out the prim rules of faux civility and resolutely, unapologetically being herself. “She’s a whirlwind, but she’s a good whirlwind,” says Anne Hamilton, who, as the daughter-in-law of one of the Main Line’s most legendary doyennes, Dodo Hamilton, knows a thing or two about the workings of the social strata. “When Amy is in a room, she commands attention. You know she’s there.”
“She’s salty,” says socialite Iliana Strauss. “She’s like Sandra Bernhard, only much better-looking.”
“Amy is not from the Main Line; she married into it,” adds Daniel Kalai, an independent TV producer and friend of Jesse Rendell’s who’s talked with Burnham about her TV aspirations. “I think there are a lot of women like that. There is this stereotype of the Main Line wife, that they’re all quiet, rich women who won’t do anything and who all live in this bubble. I don’t think that’s true. I’ve met some extremely fascinating women on the Main Line: doctors, lawyers, women who run hedge funds. What you find are motivated women with the means to do things.”
Like forge a television career. Amy wants to do it because she thinks she’ll be good at it, yes. But she also wants to do it for practical reasons: to earn her own money (she had a pre-nup with Alan, so she didn’t take him to the cleaners) and, she says, to be a role model for her kids, show them that you can always reinvent yourself, that there’s always another door to open. “You can’t wait for people to give you permission,” she says. “You just have to go in and barrel ahead.”
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.”
“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.”