How Marvella Bayh Lived and Died
Wednesday, November 7, 2007 11:17 AM CST

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By Pat Colander

The end was the most intense, so that’s where the story starts now. For those who still grieve for Marvella Bayh, the pain is as sharp and clear in their minds and voices as if the loss were recent. That profound a loss and the way it shaped the future is impressive. Marvella Bayh died at age 46 in 1979. She had breast cancer she fought to a standstill once, and then it reoccurred. She was one of the first celebrity spokespeople on a subject that was off-limits at the time, lurking in the shadows and most of the time too scary for words.

Senator and former presidential candidate Birch Bayh and the closest person to Marvella, says that the last years of her life—the years when she thought she had beaten breast cancer followed by one year when she knew she hadn’t—were undoubtedly the happiest of her life.  

Senator and former Indiana Governor Evan Bayh’s father, Marvella’s husband, remembers every “very traumatic” detail: how he got a call at a meeting in 1971 at the Friar’s Club in New York and came on the shuttle because he had to vote on something and then got on a plane and flew down to Miami because the “mayor there was going to run our Florida campaign,” and he got back and flew into Washington at 2 o’clock in the morning. “Marvella and I had to be at the Mayo Clinic by 6 o’clock, so it was certainly a short night.”  The lump had showed up negative on the mammogram, but the doctor was uncomfortable with how it looked. “He said it was just going to be a biopsy, but told me a half hour later he had to take her breast off,” Birch Bayh explains. “I remember standing at the foot of her bed and she’s saying, ‘Will you love me now that I only have one breast?’ and I’m saying, ‘Honey, that’s one more than I have.’ And within 24 hours we brought the campaign to a standstill.”

This was not the first time that Birch Bayh was singled out by a demon cancer: his mother died of cervical cancer when he was 12 and she was only 40 years old. His father was in the Air Force, so he was raised on a farm in Indiana by his maternal grandparents. “They believed a man works from sun to sun and a woman’s work is never done,” he says. “My grandfather would be there on the porch smoking his pipe. When I got married I got a crash course in discrimination against women. Here was a woman with such a fantastic record; as a girl she had gotten Harry Truman’s autograph in the Rose Garden and she never had a chance to let all that out.” Until the American Cancer Society realized the value of a celebrity spokesperson—having previously enlisted the actor Peter Graves—and asked Marvella Bayh if she would come and work for them. “So she went around talking to groups of women about prevention and protection those next few years.

“We were confident we had beaten the thing,” he says. “It had been eight, seven-and-a-half years, and Marvella was such a prominent part of my life. She was smarter than anybody who had ever worked for me and always involved in every decision-making process. And now she was the one and I felt so happy for her.” So, Birch Bayh entered the 1976 campaign late, but was determined that he wasn’t going to do anything to prevent her from her work for the ACS. And then he came in second in Iowa.

“At the end of five years, her doctor had served her champagne,” explains Mary Lynn Kotz, Marvella Bayh’s coauthor on her autobiography Marvella: A Personal Journey, when describing the final round of bad news. Kotz was one of Marvella’s closest associates during the last couple of years of her life. Some time later, Kotz recalls, “he told her that he had bad news. She asked the question every patient asks and no doctor should answer. He said a year, and she had a year. She fought it until the very end and came back to the importance of prayer and religion. While it was not to be that she would survive this, she readily acknowledged the importance of family and friendships in getting through it.”  

So the last presidential campaign of Birch Bayh ended, and as Senator Evan Bayh  wrote in his autobiography years later, his mother’s illness was ultimately the reason—at least in the eyes of the college-age Evan Bayh—that his father Senator Birch Bayh started late in the primaries and eventually dropped out of the race altogether. Evan expressed his opinion in a paper for a college class and his mother read it. “To be judged harshly—and inaccurately, I now know—by her son was a difficult and hurtful thing. She asked me to sit down with her to discuss it, which we did. I can only regret that she didn’t live long enough for me to fully recant my thoughts, but it taught me an important lesson. Words once uttered—even when prompted by temporary emotion—are hard to ever fully take back. And sometimes life doesn’t give you a chance,” he writes in From Father to Son: A Private Life in the Public Eye.

“Why does a child die? Why does your mother pass away in the prime of her life with everything to live for? My mom had been very devout, and in the months following her death, I kept a Bible beside my bed at law school and read a passage every night before going to sleep. I kept looking for answers, but eventually I began to believe that there aren’t any answers . . .” This was a defining moment, the end really of what had been an idyllic upbringing.

Although the book about Marvella Bayh’s life—she had a very fascinating story long before her illness and before her husband ran for president—deliberately contains little about Evan Bayh (who was in college when the book was written) or the Bayhs’ family life, Mary Lynn Kotz had some insight. She says, “They were strict parents, not permissive. They felt they had a very smart, strong . . . they had a very special boy. He wasn’t a genius child, just very, very smart, and they wanted for him to have a normal childhood and every advantage that would give him the tools to develop a terrific intellect. As a little boy, his father took such an interest in helping develop his athletics and spent a lot of time playing games with him. They did not get caught in the Washington trap or the urban trap of farming out their child. They were strict but loving parents, and I had a little boy myself at the time and was taking a few lessons from the Bayhs.

“They were keen on getting him the best educational opportunities that they could. I was around when he was learning to drive, and was out in the car. She was like every mother, concerned about his safety with his driving.  She wrote in her diary, ‘We have invested so much of ourselves into Evan, and I just don’t want him to be reckless as a driver.’ She worried and I remember those worries.”

Mary Lynn Kotz went on to explain that her husband, like Senator Evan Bayh, and now his twin sons, had gone to St. Albans in Washington and identified so strongly with the Midwestern guys there. Likewise, the Bayh family had and has the Midwestern values of civic responsibility. “It’s the ‘This is my country and I can do my part,’ ambition,” Mrs. Kotz says. “That was her [Marvella’s] ambition; she was just an extraordinary public citizen. You could just feel the energy in Chicago for culture, in Iowa City and then Des Moines, the energy coming through. I can see why Evan wanted to go to school in Indiana for college. My contact with Evan was when he would come home from Virginia [law school]. He had graduated and decided on law school. This commitment to service was something that he felt because he had been schooled in civic responsibility and public service, he felt a commitment from her life as well as his dad’s, Marvella said to me.

“And then she said, ‘I hope that if he wants to go into politics he will go into law first and he will go into a private law practice first and make a cushion of money so he would not have to struggle.’ So many people in the East are skeptical about public service, and it’s popular now from the right wing to say we’re anti-Washington. But, unless it’s changed in the Midwest, in Minnesota and Iowa you were very much a part of your community. When the Bayhs got to Washington they saw the government as part of you and your folks from Indiana. They were an idealistic family, but that’s not unusual. They would hope more idealistic families get a chance to feel democracy is participatory government of the people. It never occurred to Marvella, and to Birch, that they could not achieve anything in life that they aspired to. That came through in the diaries and in the speeches and in what I know of their family life.

“I was touched by the way that she wrote [in her diaries] of her worries and concerns and small triumphs, all through her writing she was so proud of Evan. Evan had the energy of a little train and when he was a little boy she couldn’t keep up with him. She worried that he was hyperactive and took him to the doctor and had him tested. And the doctor said, ‘Mrs. Bayh, your son is a little boy.’ And Evan having been an only child, Marvella was greatly relieved.

“When she had the diagnosis of a year [to live], she decided to take her son on a cruise that was what she really wanted to do. She had spent so much time with doctors—he was a senior [at IU] at the time and she said that they had many conversations on that trip, adult to adult, and it was so thrilling, and she said, ‘If nothing else, I have produced a fine man. The orchestra was playing one night, and with great beautiful manners that we had spent so much time on, he invited me to dance; on the dance floor my tall son looked down and said, “Mother, you really have class,”’ and that just thrilled her.”

Recently, Senator Evan Bayh remembers that he read the book after it came out (posthumously), “like everybody else . . . and I [still] look at it. I have a couple of cases saved for my boys and wish we had more. I remember the cruise very well. When she had the recurrence I was at Indiana University. She had always wanted to take me back to Scandinavia. (She was fluent in Norwegian.) She had family there and she had saved up her money so that summer we could go to Norway.”  

Evan Bayh said the single biggest benefit was that he and his mother were relating to one another as adults. “It meant a lot to her,” he says, “and I’m so glad we did that.” The trip was in the summer; by the following April she was dead. “My mother had health problems all her life: double vision, back problems . . . but she had this irrepressible spirit. If life gives you lemons [you make lemonade]. Facing the difficulties in her life, taught me that life is short and filled with unexpected events. She taught me to be hard-working and decisive, but also to take the time and not have everything rush by. There is no cookie-cutter approach, you need to find a way to embrace life and she embraced it . . . and along the way she was successful, accomplished and all that, too.”

Just as Marvella and Birch Bayh had no other children to compare their son to, Senator Evan Bayh doesn’t know how it would have felt to have ordinary, non-rock stars for parents. He had grown up in two parallel universes of the powerful (and privileged) life under the Washington media microscope, and the more sharply drawn world of small town, rural, industrial and individualistic Midwestern Indiana local politics. Marvella Bayh was the quintessential Today show guest of that era. She was smart and pretty and a feminist. She could and did debate Phyllis Schlafly (in case you’ve forgotten who she was, Schlafly is generally given credit for bringing down the Equal Rights Amendment for women, though she was a walking, talking, career-obsessed lawyer, the embodiment of a “liberated woman.”) Marvella Bayh, originally from Oklahoma, was a forensics champion, who met her future husband at a debating contest at the Congress Hotel in Chicago in 1951.

Even with the tragic ending, Marvella and Birch Bayh had a classic love story that included good, bad and hard times. “My husband,” she wrote. “Was there ever a man as dear as Birch Bayh? I didn’t think so. That breath-catching, love-at-first-sight feeling I’d had at nineteen lingered, and blossomed, until sometimes I felt my chest would burst. He left funny little notes around the house for me—and still does—brought flowers for no reason at all, sent telegrams to commemorate odd anniversaries, wrote loving, sentimental poems that I cherish. Looking at the back of his head as he walked out the door in his new business suit, at the cowlick cutting a cleft in his dark curly hair, watching him stomp around the back yard with Evan on his shoulders, seeing the farm-hardened muscles in his arm tense as he clenched a baseball bat—I’d feel I might simply explode with love for that man.

“There were other explosions as well. My father once said that he couldn’t understand how three such strong personalities as Birch, Evan and I could exist in one little house without the roof flying off. The roof quivered at the eaves more than once as we clashed wills, standing toe-to-toe, the Hern chin and the Bayh chin set at stubborn angles—until somebody budged. But somebody budged, sooner or later, and the storm would fly out the window.”

Some combination of sheer determination to make a difference, hard work and luck propelled Birch Bayh into state politics and he was Speaker of the House in Indiana by the time he was thirty, the youngest ever in the state. In 1962, he ran for the U.S. Senate against an 18-year Republican incumbent and won by a very slim 10,944 vote margin (1.8 million total votes cast). When she got the news, Marvella Bayh said to her father, “Do you know what this means? It means someday I may get to go to Europe.” Nobody in her family had ever been to Europe except an uncle who died there in World War I. Birch Bayh was 34, Marvella was 29, and Evan was almost 6.

The dramas in the years that followed were often Shakespearean in level, range and profundity. The Bayhs were natural allies of the Kennedys. Lady Bird Johnson became a dear personal friend and mentor to Marvella. So, they shared in those well-known traumas. But Marvella Bayh had two serious brushes with death in a bad car accident that left her plagued with headaches and double vision all the rest of her life, and a plane crash in which Ted Kennedy broke his back. (The Bayhs miraculously escaped serious injury.) Marvella Bayh also lost both her parents: First her mother died when her heart failed; six years later her father, who by 1970 was a deteriorating alcoholic, committed suicide after he murdered his new wife. This, while LBJ was offering Marvella a job she dearly wanted and had to pass up, and as Birch Bayh was challenging Nixon’s nomination of G. Harrold Carswell, a segregationist from Florida, to the Supreme Court (Birch Bayh lost that fight) and preparing to run for President.   

“In 1978 Marvella Bayh—whom I had just how-do-you-do’ed, who was quite well known because of Birch Bayh’s stepping down from the presidential nomination campaign (I had known that story from the newspapers)—asked me to have lunch with her,” Mary Lynn Kotz recalls. “I had declared the next book I was going to do would be feature writing, literary nonfiction was my forte. I decided to go ahead and have lunch even though I didn’t want to do it. She had been approached by an agent and she had read Upstairs at the White House and wanted me to do the book. I was not really interested until she told me something that really struck a chord: she was a feminist, a very ardent supporter of women’s rights. She told me in one sentence, ‘It took facing death to make me realize the importance of seizing control of my own life and by helping other women face this, I was so fortunate.’ Her very valuable contribution was in speaking to physicians associations and groups of doctors all over the country and telling them about treatment from the patient’s point of view. She told them what it felt like for a doctor to be just curt and dismissive to a patient, not understanding that you were going to be living with an ax hanging over your head for the rest of your life. Marvella’s had a big part in bringing breast cancer out of the closet.

“Betty Ford’s cancer came after Marvella Bayh, but at that time newspapers never used the word ‘breast.’ Birch Bayh’s announcement that he was withdrawing for the race and the reason he was withdrawing, was something that had been at best euphemistically referred to, largely due to the fact that breast cancer primarily affects women.

“Here was a rampant disease that was being practically ignored journalistically. And as a spokesperson she was so powerful. Marvella Bayh glowed. She had this Midwestern Oklahoman attitude, ‘I want to learn more about whatever it is in life.’ Marvella had that quality of intellectual curiosity, beauty and charm and no pretensions that I could see. She was a feminine feminist. On the one hand, she could stand up for women’s rights wearing lipstick and going to the beauty shop. She was just so beautiful. Every color was flattering to Marvella and she had no pretensions.

“At the end of doing the research, I became the person inside Marvella Bayh’s skin, I found that she was an extremely talented, vulnerable human being. One who was simply adored by all of her friends, that is where I entered.”

What happened after lunch? Marvella Bayh was in remission in 1977 when they got the book contract and the book was finished in December of 1978. In April of 1979, she died. “She had just been living for the publication of the book, she couldn’t wait to get the book out and get on television, get her message out to the public,” Mary Lynn Kotz says.

“It took a year to write,” she says. She was able to use a friend’s office who was also an author who made a career of writing about the CIA subjects. It was “a wonderful office across the hall from my husband’s office at 1211 Connecticut,” she says, and “had every reference book that I could need. Marvella had diligently kept scrapbooks and diaries, because she was so accomplished. She was an extraordinary speaker, of course. And she had enormous scrapbooks that she kept from the time of his very first campaign that she ran out of their garage. Her organization was amazing and her home was as impeccable as her style. She was a sponge for learning, even when it came to new ways of entertaining, of decorating, of reading about politics. She was an astute politician. I tape-recorded her every single day of the week until we started writing.”

When I asked Birch Bayh what he talked with Evan Bayh about during that last year of Marvella’s life, he says they didn’t really talk about the 500-pound cancer gorilla in the room. “We talked about, you know, sports, athletics, skiing . . .” he says. “We were very close and I don’t think we spent very much time talking about that. We thought we had it licked, until we got this cancer specialist telling us to come back. I was in the Senate and he called and said we have the test results and the cancer’s come back . . . and it’s terminal. I remember asking him, ‘What do you mean, terminal?’

“She worked almost right up until the day she died on the 24th of April,” Birch Bayh says. “Her last speech she made for the Canadian National cancer crusade was the 10th of December. Then we traveled all over the country to find doctors who had a special treatment. We were praying for a miracle and God just wasn’t ready to deliver right then. I happen to believe in miracles and I have to confess I have a really strong faith. But I didn’t do a whole lot of talking about it. I did think about how a loving God he or she could take away a wife, a mother from a family, could take Marvella at a time when she was doing his work, helping people to avoid the experience that she had.”

Mary Lynn Kotz says, “At the end, I was reading the manuscript to her, going through her life when she died. I did not realize she was dying. Birch did not realize she was dying. She just wanted to live so badly and what she really wanted to live for was Evan. (Evan married the daughter of a good friend of Marvella’s.) She wanted Birch to read the manuscript and the proofs. I felt so sorry for him: he was diligently following her request and reading the proofs of the book as people were coming into the house to pay their condolences.

“I was so inside her life every moment and not expecting to lose her. It was very painful for me; I had lost part of myself when she died.”

After Marvella Bayh died, Evan and his father set up a scholarship in her name for female graduates of the medical school at Indiana University to fund research and fight cancer. I asked him if he gets any push-back because to be eligible for the scholarship you have to be a woman. He smiled and said no. “Back in 1979 there weren’t that many opportunities for women and . . . we knew that’s what my mother would have wanted.”

Birch Bayh says that he couldn’t do much when his own mother died, but when Marvella died, he happened to be on the Senate appropriations committee. “I was very cantankerous,” he says. “When they would tell me that we could appropriate X, I’d say, ‘How about X plus 50?’ My driving force was not helping her, but to help others. The cure rate has gone up significantly and I keep believing that we will find some sort of vaccine or something.”

Senator Evan Bayh believes there might be a cure someday, too. Whether the cure comes from the scholarship or the breast cancer research stamp that has raised $53.8 million since 1998, or the $240 million in cancer research funding in legislation that has passed in the Senate and is still working its way through Congress, as his father says, “. . . it’s a labor of love.”


Here are the specifics of the funding for cancer research that Senator Bayh helped secure:

The Department of Defense Appropriations bill for fiscal year 2008 includes funding for the Department of Defense (DoD) Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs for the following:

$150 million for the DoD Breast Cancer Research Program

$80 million for the DoD Prostate Cancer Research Program

$10 million for the DoD Ovarian Cancer Research Program

These DoD programs support important biomedical research grants that fill gaps in ongoing research and complement initiatives sponsored by other agencies. According to a 2004 Institute of Medicine report, these research programs fill a “unique niche” in cancer research and have proven to be promising vehicles for forging new ideas and scientific breakthroughs for numerous diseases. These programs focus on providing funding to researchers who wish to improve current approaches to their areas of investigation—implementing innovative methods of research or developing novel adaptations of existing methods.

The DoD Appropriations bill passed the Senate by a unanimous vote last week. Because of differences with the House of Representatives version, it will go to a conference committee to work out the details. The House and Senate will vote again on the bill once those differences are worked out and then it goes to the president for consideration.

The provisions for cancer funding have broad, bipartisan support, so Senator Bayh is hopeful that the funding levels will be maintained in the final version of the bill.

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