“We kind of snuck up on the boys unexpectedly,” Judee recently wrote in a draft for a speech she would give at a United Way banquet honoring her friend, career coach Molly Shepard. “We had no game plan — we didn’t really know what we were doing except we wanted to work, use our brain, make some money and have fun. We didn’t mind that we were women — never occurred to us that we were anything else.”
STABBING AT HER Caesar salad in a corner booth of Twenty21, the clubby restaurant just downstairs from Diversified’s offices on Market Street, Judee tells me that yes, of course when she was younger she felt all those pangs of guilt and tugs toward home that every working woman does. In fact, one of her most oft-recited stories (being the Ann Richards of Philly has made her a popular pick on the local rubber-chicken circuit) concerns her son’s graduation more than 20 years ago. Not his high-school graduation, mind you. His graduation from grammar school to middle school.
Judee was speaking to a group of women in Valley Forge on how to balance your life and was afraid of cutting it too close to the graduation ceremony. So she blew $1,000 on a helicopter. “I’ve never been on a helicopter in my life,” she told the women. “But I’m getting on it so that I can be over to Chestnut Hill Academy in five minutes so that when my little boy comes down the aisle, I will be right there on the aisle waving to him.” And indeed, she was.
The point she’s making — and I know this, even though she hasn’t said it outright, because I’ve spent enough time with her, watching her work and mingle and manage and, yes, flirt — is not that women have to go all out to make life work. It’s that people do. That if you want to get ahead, if you want your dreams to come alive, if you want it all, there’s a simple credo to follow: Make it happen. And this, I conclude, is why Judee von Seldeneck, against all odds, has ended up as the most powerful woman in Philadelphia. Because in a bootstrap city like this one, squaring your shoulders, forgoing excuses and delivering results can get you very, very far. As Rimel says, Judee thinks women “don’t face any inherent barriers to succeeding in Philadelphia.”
And if you can dollop effortless charm on top, so much the better. When we leave the restaurant, Judee remarks how sitting outside here in the summer with a glass of chardonnay is simply soooo lovely, and how she and I have to do that, and she says it in a way where I can picture us doing it. She might be the most schmoozy schmoozer the city has seen outside of Ed Rendell.
In a town that loves its characters, she’s one of its most colorful — down to the tawny skin, the color of a brown paper grocery bag, that makes her a cinch to spot in any crowd. When I asked Torsella to describe her, he said, “Brightly colored. Funny. Incredibly loyal. Very tanned.” I brought the tan up to Dan Fitzpatrick, who burst into raucous laughter, then immediately shifted into retreat: “Honestly, I’ve never had a discussion with anyone about that.”
So I ask Judee herself about it. As she signs the lunch check in her loopy schoolgirl handwriting (“Nobody picks up my checks,” she rebuffs when I reach for it), she shrugs. “What can I say? I love bein’ out in the sun.” I ask her if she ever goes to the tanning booth.
Her eyes dart up from the check. “Of course not!” she says, giving me The Judee Fold. Almost every weekend, she’s at her house in Naples, Florida, out on the links. “When I go to the doctor and he starts in on me, I just tell him, ‘Don’t waste your breath. I know what I’m doin’.’”