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PROVIDENCE — It’s been 36 years since the divorce. Thirty-six years since Sheila Bentley was known as Mrs. Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., the only wife of the city’s charismatic, rogue mayor.

Yet decades later, Cianci’s identity still follows her.

When strangers ask if she’s “Buddy’s wife,” Bentley brushes them off: “I tell them, ‘She’s much older than me.’ ”

She’s never spoken publicly about her life with Cianci. As he rose to national fame for his political talent, then crashed hard over wide-ranging corruption scandals, Bentley kept her silence. Even after the decade-long marriage was well over, she stayed away from the spotlight.

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Now, at 79, Bentley has decided to open up. “It’s a freeing feeling,” she said recently.

The love died early in their volatile marriage. What remained, up until Cianci’s death in 2016, was fear.

She remembered the night a friend and a local doctor helped conceal a bruise from when Cianci hit her face, so it wouldn’t be noticeable during the swearing-in for his second term.

She recalled the glee he took in manipulating others, even making up a checkerboard on their white carpeted bedroom floor, using pieces to represent real people, which he moved around as he figured out their vulnerabilities.

How he also controlled her movements, dictated her appearance, assaulted and threatened her, and had her followed, even after their divorce.

How the celebrity masked her loneliness.

Some of the abuse was alluded to during grand jury testimony in 1983, when Cianci was accused of assaulting a man he believed was having an affair with her. Sources told Mike Stanton, author of “The Prince of Providence,” about the fights and fury between the couple. And now, scenes from the Cianci marriage are playing out on stage, in a Trinity Repertory Company production of the book, showing to sold-out crowds.

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It has turned Bentley’s life with Cianci into its own kind of theater, with her cast as the supportive wife of an ambitious politician.

“It is very strange, because it’s what people think your life was like,” Bentley said, “and it really wasn’t.”

She had a reason to stay silent all this time.

It wasn’t just Cianci she feared, but the vast network of allies he’d amassed around Rhode Island. If Cianci was alive, she said, she would still keep her mouth shut.

.  .  .

The Ciancis at Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr.’s inauguration in 1975.
The Ciancis at Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr.’s inauguration in 1975.Will Collette

Sheila Bentley and Buddy Cianci met more than 50 years ago at the Copper Galley, a nightclub in a hotel just over the city line in Cranston.

Bentley, who had three sons and was going through a divorce, was out with a friend. Cianci was a second lieutenant in the Army, stationed at Fort Devens, and wearing his dress blues.

The two hit it off, both of them quick-witted and fun. “We got along great in the beginning,” she said.

Bentley was a secretary and Cianci, now an Army reservist, was making a name for himself as a hotshot prosecutor going after the mob. Cianci was close with Vincent Vespia, a young state police detective who worked on organized crime cases with him. Vespia and his soon-to-be wife, Judith-Ann, frequently socialized with Cianci and Bentley.

“He was crazy, she was crazy, and that’s what made them click,” Vespia recalled recently. “And we had wonderful times together.”

Bentley said they were in love, but her Irish mother and Cianci’s Italian mother didn’t approve. Bentley became pregnant in the spring of 1973, and they wed a few months later, on Sept. 30, 1973.

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“He said to me, ‘I’m going to try to be everything I told you I am,’ ” Bentley recalled.

Their daughter, Nicole, was born in January 1974. By then, Buddy held ambitions for political office. Sheila was his beautiful blond wife, holding their chortling infant in a campaign commercial for his first run as the Republican candidate for mayor.

They were elated when Cianci won. But by then, Bentley said, she was starting to see how dangerous he was.

As they rode around the city in the mayor’s limousine one day, Bentley said, she asked him, “Who are you becoming?”

.  .  .

The Ciancis in 1978, after Buddy won a second term as mayor.
The Ciancis in 1978, after Buddy won a second term as mayor.Associated Press/File/Associated Press

Ten months into the marriage, Bentley said, she knew it was over. She won’t say what happened, just that she couldn’t forgive him.

“That’s the worst thing, when it goes bad and all of a sudden . . . , ” Bentley said, pausing. “I think what it is with me is, I believe what someone tells me about themselves. And then when I find out that it was all a fabrication, I resent myself for being so stupid.”

But Cianci needed her to stay. In the 1970s, divorce wasn’t an option for a married man in politics.

They renegotiated the terms of their marriage over and over, Bentley said.

First, it was they had to remain together until another prominent politician got divorced. Then, Cianci wanted to run for governor in 1980. And when he lost, he wanted her by his side as he ran for a third term as mayor, in 1982.

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So, Bentley said, the couple had then-Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Thomas Paolino draw up an agreement in early 1982; it was later referred to in their divorce papers. The deal dictated the number of public functions they had to attend together as a couple, and dinner as a family once a week at Joe Marzilli’s Old Canteen “where everyone could see us,” she said.

And, the most important part: “We could live separate and apart as though solo and unmarried, maintaining an ostensible family unit for the sake of his political career,” Bentley said, reciting from memory. “Which meant, he could date anyone he wanted” even as the two continued sharing a home.

Cianci would later admit to a grand jury in May 1983 that he’d been involved with other women during his marriage. In reality, Cianci’s affairs, and the fights with Sheila that followed, had begun before they were even married.

When they were dating, she caught him half dressed with a woman and drew a gun.

“Dance for Jesus, Vincent,” she commanded, and smashed a framed sketch of their Saint Bernard puppy, Panda, over his head.

It was one of the few incidents between the two that later became public.

Bentley said she knew he had liaisons in suites at the Providence Biltmore Hotel and the Holiday Inn. She was furious about his late nights and the many times he left her and their young daughter alone.

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After he failed to come home until 4:30 one morning, Bentley said, she flushed his toupee down the toilet. “He went ballistic,” she recalled.

Cianci kept reporters waiting for hours at a press conference until his hairdresser could get him another wig.

No matter what was happening privately, the couple had a public front. But some things were hard to cover. Such as on the night of Cianci’s second swearing-in, when she and her friend Judith-Ann Vespia were upstairs in the Ciancis’ Blackstone Boulevard mansion, trying to mask the bruise and swelling on Bentley’s face.

Bentley no longer remembers why Cianci struck her, just how she dealt with it. She said Vespia told her to take her hair down and put on some makeup. “And my doctor, who lived across the street, said to come upstairs, and they fixed it so it didn’t show.”

Bentley said another friend told her to take advantage of the arrangement.

“She said, ‘Sheila, if I were you, I’d pass him in the hall and say, Vincent, I need a charge card, precious love of my life. How are things going with you?’ ”

She didn’t dare. Bentley said he didn’t give her money. She took what she found from a money clip Cianci hid under his toupee when he took it off at night.

He wanted her fingernails painted red, and her hair as long as she could grow it, Bentley said. She wore her hair up to spite him and started calling him “Fats.”

She felt trapped, but she couldn’t break free.

“Because he was omnipotent. He was God,” she said, biting off the last word.

.  .  .

Rebecca Gibel (left) plays Bentley in the production, which is based on the life of the former Providence mayor.
Rebecca Gibel (left) plays Bentley in the production, which is based on the life of the former Providence mayor.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

After nearly a decade with Cianci, Bentley had had enough.

They danced together for the last time at the inaugural ball for his third term, in 1983. She wore a long green dress, long gloves, and a smile. “I was smiling, because it was almost over,” Bentley said. “And Vincent said to me, ‘My beautiful wife. My wonderful wife.’ ”

Bentley soon filed for divorce, on the grounds of “extreme cruelty,” according to the divorce complaint that was only unsealed in 2018. Cianci counter-filed.

The Vespias, who’d been witnesses at the Ciancis’ wedding, testified in family court about the couple’s “irreconcilable differences.”

Vincent Vespia declined to comment recently, aside from saying there was “marital discord.” But Judith-Ann Vespia confirmed Bentley’s accounts of abuse and called her longtime friend “a survivor.”

In March 1983, after the Ciancis were granted a preliminary divorce decree, Cianci turned his wrath on a Bristol contractor who he believed was having an affair with his soon-to-be ex-wife.

The story about Cianci’s vicious assault on Raymond S. DeLeo, using a lit cigarette, a fireplace log, a glass ashtray, and his fist, would become Rhode Island lore. Cianci demanded that DeLeo pay him $500,000, about equal to what Cianci was supposed to pay in the divorce through the sale of their mansion and child support for Nicole.

When DeLeo testified before the grand jury about the attack, according to court records, he told the jurors that he was a friend to Bentley, who had confided that Cianci had abused her and tried to strangle her.

“He was like my best friend, my closest confidante,” Bentley said recently about DeLeo, who died in 2013.

She confirmed that she’d told DeLeo about the day Cianci tried to strangle her at their mansion.

“I was supposed to have a pack of Parliaments opened every place he sat in the house,” Bentley said. But a friend of hers had taken one of the packs during a visit, and Cianci was furious. They fought, and Cianci held her over the bannister, when the handyman happened to come up the back stairs, Bentley said.

She said the man pulled a knife on Cianci and ordered him to stop. “He said, ‘You may drop her over that bannister, but this will be in your heart before she hits the floor.’ ”

Other testimony about abuse came up during the DeLeo grand jury. A state police lieutenant testified about police being called to the Cianci house because Cianci had followed Bentley home and was terrorizing her.

The divorce was final on June 16, 1983 — “at 9:50 in the morning,” Bentley said.

Six months later, she returned to City Hall to change her name back to Bentley. She said the probate court judge laughed at her reason for giving up the Cianci surname. She’d written an Italian phrase that translated to “disgrace to your mother.”

Cianci found out and chased her to her car. “It was just a power thing,” Bentley said. “It was always power.”

Cianci was indicted for the assault on DeLeo and pleaded out to two charges. The conviction ended his first long run as mayor in 1984, while nearly two dozen other people were convicted in a corruption investigation connected to City Hall.

But he returned in 1990, winning election and reelection — until he was indicted in 2001 along with multiple others in the federal corruption investigation dubbed Operation Plunder Dome.

Bentley said she was offered a seat to watch the trial at US District Court, but refused. “This was Buddy’s show,” she said.

Cianci was convicted of racketeering conspiracy and was sentenced to federal prison in 2002. He was released in 2007 and ran unsuccessfully for election one last time, in 2014, his final act in politics. Altogether, he’d served more than two decades as Providence mayor, making him one of the longest serving mayors in the nation.

When Cianci died two years later, Bentley said, he was still wearing the gold engagement ring she’d given him.

.  .  .

Gibel held a T-shirt given to her by Bentley. It depicts the Ciancis dancing at an inaugural ball in 1981.
Gibel held a T-shirt given to her by Bentley. It depicts the Ciancis dancing at an inaugural ball in 1981.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Over the years, she maintained her refusal to speak to the media. She wouldn’t give an interview to Stanton for his book “The Prince of Providence.” She declined interviews with the producers of the podcast “Crimetown,” which explored the grip of organized crime in Providence.

Bentley didn’t intend to see “The Prince of Providence,” the play written by George Brant and based on Stanton’s book, when it opened last month at Trinity Rep. But Stanton persuaded her to meet with Trinity actor Rebecca Gibel, who is portraying her in the play.

Before rehearsals started, the women began meeting at the small bar inside the Cumberland House of Pizza, Bentley’s favorite haunt. Over “Sheila-tinis” — Grey Goose vodka shaken with ice and poured over a wedge of orange, with a sidecar on ice — Bentley came to trust Gibel and opened up about her life with Cianci.

“The danger, if I had not met Sheila, would have been that I was so swept away by the almost sensational story line and the larger-than-life aspects of this story,” Gibel said, “that I would have missed what the inner experience of it was, living through it as a human trying to survive, and not looking at it in the scope of this crazy, ‘Goodfellas’ aspect of entertainment.”

Bentley liked the younger woman’s candor. Against her first instincts, she decided to see the play.

She sat in the back row one evening, pretending the show was only a movie, even as she watched her past unfold on stage. In Gibel’s hands, this Sheila was powerful. This was who Bentley wished she could have been.

Later, Bentley told Gibel how much it bothered her that she’d been so afraid of Cianci.

“He was wielding incredible power,” Gibel assured her. “What were you supposed to do?”

Bentley confessed she could think of something: “I’ve often said that if I killed him, I would have probably been out in nine years,” she said.

They laughed, but it wasn’t clear if Bentley was joking.

.  .  .

Bentley with a cardboard cutout of her ex-husband on display for “The Prince of Providence.”
Bentley with a cardboard cutout of her ex-husband on display for “The Prince of Providence.”John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

On a recent afternoon at the theater, after one of several interviews for this story, Bentley posed for photos with a cardboard cutout of Cianci in the lobby.

“Hello, baby,” she cooed at the image of her ex. After the play ends, Bentley said, she plans to take the cutout home and place a basket under his outstretched arm to collect cash from guests.

She doesn’t know what to make of the current nostalgia for Cianci.

“He would love that people are still talking about him,” Bentley said. “There must be a flower blooming on his grave.”

The play has provoked strong reactions from some audience members, Gibel said. Some have thanked Scott Aiello, the actor who plays Cianci, for bringing the mayor to life. But one night, a man stood near the stage with both middle fingers outstretched and stared at Aiello during Cianci’s final scene.

It all made Bentley remember Cianci’s magnetism, how it drew people in, even those who hated him. She had been close enough to get burned.

And yet.

In the theater’s hallway, audience members are encouraged to “vote” their feelings about Cianci by dropping a piece of dried rigatoni into one of three jars; one labeled “Yeah Buddy!” and a second that read “No thanks” were equally popular.

Bentley didn’t hesitate. She chose the third jar.

The label: “It’s . . . complicated.”

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.