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Shirley Leung

For Jamie McCourt, divorce was a financial awakening

It’s a side of Jamie McCourt few had seen. The tough-as-nails executive sounded vulnerable as she recounted being unceremoniously dumped as president of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“I got to know everyone — business people, politicians, everyday citizens, actors, actresses, activists, and heads of state. I loved every single minute of it. Right up until the day I was fired. By my husband,” McCourt said last month at an MIT conference. “That’s right. He gave me a pink slip. And not the kind from Victoria’s Secret.”

McCourt went on to describe how little she knew about her household's finances until her divorce from Frank McCourt. She of all people — with her law degree and another one from MIT — should have been on top of things.

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“But I could not have been more ignorant or naive about my own financial situation, and I ended up paying dearly for that mistake,” she said. “In fact, I have a thesis that the smarter a woman is, the more she thinks she can handle everything and fix everything. And I’m here to tell you that’s not true.”

McCourt learned the hard way about her relationship with money, and it’s a lesson she wants to impart to all women, even if it means reliving the humiliating breakup.

Her story is quite a turnabout for those of us who remember the McCourts, the hard-nosed husband-and-wife team who used their parking lots in the Seaport District as collateral to buy the Dodgers in 2003. During their three decades of marriage, Jamie was always seen as an equal partner, maybe even the brains behind the power couple.

Jamie McCourt and her ex-husband once owned 24 acres of land in the Seaport District.
Jamie McCourt and her ex-husband once owned 24 acres of land in the Seaport District. (Michele McDonald for The Boston Globe)

But when the marriage disintegrated in 2009 — the details worthy of a Hollywood script, complete with Jamie McCourt’s alleged affair with her driver — her world unraveled. Two years later, unable to meet the Dodgers’ financial obligations, Frank McCourt filed for bankruptcy protection, as then-commissioner of baseball Bud Selig threatened to seize control of the franchise.

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“I had comingled all of my money — handed it over to him with no questions asked. I thought we were in it together, for the four boys. I could not have been more wrong,” she recounted. “I had to listen to him and his lawyers tell the court that, in spite of our 40 years together and 32 years of marriage, I deserved nothing. And I mean nothing. He said, and I quote, ‘She’s lucky to have been along for the ride.’ ”

Jamie McCourt is not crying poor. At 62, she is set for life. She got about $130 million in her 2011 divorce settlement. She remains in LA, living in the posh beach town of Malibu and reinventing herself as a venture capitalist, art collector, and vintner.

But the reason she is putting herself out there is a matter of principle. Weeks after settling with Frank, he turned around and agreed to sell the Dodgers in a court-supervised sale. The price tag? More than $2 billion. She went to court to appeal for more money but lost.

“It’s the fairness,” explained Bill Aulet, who was in Jamie McCourt’s class of MIT Sloan fellows and is now managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship.

Aulet, who remains close with Jamie, said with her children all grown and a new chapter before her, she’s thinking about her legacy.

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“It’s not about the money,” he added. “It’s about what you are going to do with that and how you are going to impact the world.”

Most people in McCourt’s position would take the money and run, especially since her divorce battle was so ugly and public. But that’s not Jamie McCourt.

“She’s not afraid of her past,” said Karen Firestone, another longtime friend who is a cofounder of the Boston investment firm Aureus AssetManagement. “She thinks she can benefit people in a positive way.”

Or is this all a not-so-subtle way to exact revenge on her ex?

“It has zero to do about it,” said Jamie McCourt in an interview later. “It truly is about what could happen to you.”

Frank McCourt, through a spokesman, declined to comment.

Jamie and Frank McCourt were an unlikely couple. She grew up in Baltimore; her father, Jack Luskin, owned a chain of discount TV and appliance stores. Frank grew up in Boston, his family running a fourth-generation construction company; his grandfather, Francis, was a part owner of the Boston Braves and helped start the Jimmy Fund in 1948.

Jamie and Frank met at Georgetown University, but because she’s Jewish and he’s Irish Catholic, the story goes, the bride’s parents boycotted the wedding. Frank eventually converted, and their sons were raised Jewish.

People around here remember the McCourts proclaiming in the 1990s that the South Boston Waterfront would be the next hot neighborhood. They owned 24 acres, a former railyard, along what is now Seaport Boulevard. They talked about waterfront living with cafes and tree-lined promenades, even before the Moakley courthouse was built.

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“People thought we were crazy,” Jamie McCourt recalled as we drove around the Seaport District last month. “We probably were, but we were too young to know.”

McCourt and I had lunch at the Envoy Hotel, which opened last summer on land she and her ex once owned. Remarkably, four decades after they purchased the property, development is just getting underway on the rest of the parcel.

“It’s a work in progress,” McCourt said. “We always said it would be a 50-year development.”

Still, McCourt seemed amazed by all the cranes in the sky and the prospect of a new district coming together. So any regrets selling?

“Everything has a time and a place,” she said.

McCourt, petite and lithe and an avid swimmer, chose the MIT conference — organized by the student group Sloan Women in Management — as a place to tell her side of the story because she feels comfortable there. As a 1994 alumna of an MIT graduate program, McCourt mentors students and invests in MIT-related startups. She delivered her remarks to some 200 MIT students, staff, faculty, and alumni, many of them women.

McCourt’s hope was that she could reach women early in their careers to tell them why they should want money and how they can get it. She even is exploring launching a national initiative to teach financial literacy to grade-school girls.

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McCourt believes money provides access to power, and women need to have money to control not only their own destinies but the national conversation about gender equity.

Since giving her 30-minute talk, McCourt has heard from many women and thinks her message is resonating. She plans to deliver a similar speech at Harvard Business School next month and other B-schools later.

She realizes she’s hardly the first to proselytize why women should care about money. But she believes she can be an effective messenger. “It’s one thing to say it,” she said, and “it’s one thing to live it.”


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.