Years before she became a distinguished Harvard Law professor, a nationally recognized consumer activist, and a presidential appointee, Elizabeth Warren was a working mother whose grasp on the first rung of the career ladder was slipping.
She had moved to Texas for her husband’s career and landed her first job teaching law school. But her toddler and 7-year-old had burned through seven child care arrangements in six months. Nobody was happy.
“My Aunt Bee had called me, and I started to cry,” Warren recalled. “And I said, ‘I just can’t do this. I think I’m going to quit.’ ”
Her aunt calmed her down and instructed her to wipe her nose, Warren recalled.
Then Aunt Bee told her, “ ‘Well, Sweetie, I can’t get there tomorrow. But I can be there Thursday,’ ” Warren said. “And she arrived with seven suitcases and a Pekingese and stayed for 15 years.”
By the time Aunt Bee moved in, Warren’s conventional life had already skipped the tracks. She had traded speech pathology and preschool teaching for law school, graduating at 27 years old and eight months pregnant again. Her life would veer even farther off its course when she filed for divorce from her first husband.
But as she pursued her increasingly ambitious career, she was steadied by the support of family and the grace of second chances. She had Aunt Bee. She had her parents, who moved to Texas to help. And soon, she had Bruce Mann, another law school professor who would become her second husband.
In Warren’s family lore, Bess Amelia Reed Veneck, Aunt Bee, was a character all her own. She never had children, but spoiled those around her, first Elizabeth and then her young children (above, in 1981).
For months, talk of Warren’s family has had a bitter, biting edge to it, following revelations that she had claimed a Native American heritage in employment forms and law teaching directories. She has said that her heritage claim, based on family lore and no documentation, did not bring her any career advantages.
But family did help Warren get where she is. Her experience as a mother informed her writing, including two books on family finances she coauthored with her daughter, one of which offered the damning conclusion that the best predictor of a woman’s financial collapse was having a baby.
Unlike her opponent, US Senator Scott Brown, who has increasingly relied on his camera-ready wife and daughters to vouch for his appeal to women, Warren’s family appears less often. Only her husband is out on the trail. Her grown children and her grandchildren live in California. Her son is not campaigning, and her daughter appeared with her only at the state’s Democratic convention.
“I didn’t even know if she had a family,” Rita Mercier, a former Lowell mayor, said from the stage at a Brown rally last weekend, “because I didn’t know where they were.”
But Warren’s campaign aides are eager to show the hard-charging bankruptcy lawyer’s softer side as a doting grandmother who shops at Target.
And Warren, who tapped her personal family experiences in her writing as a consumer advocate, often embroiders her folksy campaign speeches with scenes from domestic life. She got the call about her first teaching job, she recalls, while frying porkchops on the stove and trying not to slip on the crayons underfoot. She got her daughter potty-trained before her second birthday, because Warren was starting law school that day and her day-care provider did not accept toddlers in diapers. “I’m here today thanks to three bags of M&Ms,” she tells audiences.
Her colorful anecdotes, though, may take some liberties. Last spring, Warren was mocked for saying she had been the “first nursing mother to take a bar exam in the state of New Jersey,” an assertion she could not support. Her story about potty training says more about her daughter’s temperament than her own skills, she acknowledged. Her son still was not potty-trained at 3½.
“If Amelia had been more like Alex about potty training,” Warren said, “my life would have taken a very different turn.”
Returning to law school could be overwhelming, recalled Patricia Nachtigal, who, like Warren, had taken a few years off before attending the Rutgers School of Law-Newark, where they became friends.
“But I didn’t have all the responsibilities she did,” said Nachtigal. “I would occasionally think: ‘Holy smokes, she’s got a house. She’s got a husband. She’s got a daughter.’ It was a traditional arrangement. So she did all the shopping, all the cooking. She was in charge of all the child care.”
Warren had started dating her first husband when she was in high school. The late Jim Warren was a computer engineer, a long-distance runner, and a science fiction reader. He was, Warren hastens to note, “not a bad guy.” But it was the 1970s, and she was the mom.
“If I wanted to do something as crazy as go to law school,” Warren said, “then it was on me to figure out how to do that and still manage our home and our child.”
Her husband worked for IBM, a subcontractor for NASA, and when his project in New Jersey ended, he found a job in Texas. She wrote to the University of Houston Law Center and got a job teaching there.
The family moved in June. By the following spring, her husband had moved out.
“We never really fought and never really had hard words; it just didn’t work,” Warren said.
She did not file for divorce until the fall. By then, she had already met Mann at the opening reception of a small summer conference on law and economics in Florida.
“I saw this woman talking to someone, and I was just captivated,” Mann recalled. “I just walked right over. She barely noticed me. It took a couple of days.”
“You had good legs,” Warren interjected.
Mann, who was not previously married, had been teaching at the University of Connecticut for two years when they met. A graduate of Brown and Yale, he was a legal historian focused on 18th century bankruptcy and debt who later published a book called, “Republic of Debtors: Bankruptcy in the Age of American Independence.”
“There’s a conservativeness to him that is downright colonial; he just seems to think in the 18th century,” said Calvin Johnson, a University of Texas Law School professor who contrasted the couple’s divergent, complementary styles.
“He’s decidedly unexuberant,” Johnson said. “He’s a very sweet and gentle guy. But she’s got the exuberance.”
On the campaign trail, Mann seemed affable but awkward, hesitating while waiting to mention whose husband he was. Well-wishers mistakenly called him “Mr. Warren.”
But during an interview with his wife, Mann was assertive and wry, repeating his favorite bit of marriage advice: It’s always preferable to be a second husband, or “H2,” as he dubbed it.
“You will look great in comparison,” he said.
Mann and Warren married within six months of her divorce. Like many academic couples, though, they had teaching jobs that might have kept them apart. So Mann quit his tenure-track position in Connecticut for professorships at her schools in Texas before landing a job in St. Louis.
From the outset, Mann was close with Warren’s children. He flew back and forth almost every weekend, coaching soccer and attending parent-teacher conferences. They called him Dad. When Warren won tenure at Harvard years before Mann did, he commuted to Philadelphia from the mansard-roofed Victorian they bought in Cambridge.
Asked how they made it work, Warren said simply, “He did it all. . . . Bruce flew back and forth and back and forth.”
And then there was the help from Aunt Bee, Bess Amelia Reed Veneck.
Warren’s aunt emerged this campaign season in the debate over her family heritage. After Warren told reporters that Aunt Bee had always envied her mother’s high Indian cheekbones, the aunt’s death certificate revealed that Warren had identified her as white, not as American Indian.
In Warren’s family lore, Aunt Bee was a character all her own, a secretary who lived independently most of her life, but who married a man named Stanley, divorced, and remarried when he drifted back into her life. She never had children, but spoiled those around her, first Elizabeth and then her young children.
Even with help, Warren believed in being deeply involved in her children’s lives, said Sarah Barringer Gordon, a Penn Law School professor whom Warren encouraged to stay committed to teaching and “right on top of my kids’ lives and education.”
“She is a person who says don’t give any ground on either,” Gordon said. “She really has very, very high standards.”
One of Warren’s volunteer posts as a mother was serving as Girl Scout cookie chairwoman. She recalled how she got all the girls engaged in the math exercise, but could not resist double-checking their ledgers. “You hate to correct them, but you’ve got to back them up or it doesn’t come out right,” Warren recalled.
Later, she would work with both her children on her research. With her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, Warren coauthored two books, “The Two-Income Trap” and “All Your Worth.” Her son, Alex, designed and maintained the databases for his mother’s research.
Both children live in California. Alex Warren, 36, is a computer specialist engaged to be married in November, after the election. He did not return a call for comment, and Warren’s campaign did not make him available for an interview.
Tyagi, 41, runs a placement firm for high-level consultants and managers and is chairwoman of the board of Demos, a liberal think tank affiliated with The American Prospect magazine.
Last summer, Tyagi’s involvement with Demos became an issue in her mother’s campaign. Demos had sued the state of Massachusetts to enforce the National Voter Registration Act, and the state settled by mailing voter registration forms to welfare recipients. Brown charged that Democrats, through Tyagi, were trying to boost Democratic voter rolls and Warren’s turnout in the November election.
With her husband, Sushil Tyagi, a former film producer in India and the United States, Amelia Warren Tyagi has three children, Octavia, 11; Lavinia, 7; and Atticus Mann, nearly 2, whom Warren and Mann baby-sit regularly enough to describe their personalities and quotidian accomplishments in exhaustive detail.
These days, the baby in Warren’s house is Otis, the mellow golden retriever she walks around Fresh Pond with Mann when not on the campaign trail. Fortune, she says, has been kind to her.
“I can’t imagine anybody putting up with me over long periods,” Warren reflected recently. “It’s why I can never be cranky about Jim [her first husband]. I get it. Bruce not only puts up with me, God bless him, he seems to enjoy me.”Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @