Burning Bridges

The inside story of Robert James Waller’s not-so-novel mid-life crisis.

UP TO NOW, the gold medalist in Life Imitating Art, show-biz division, has been Woody Allen , who seduced teenager Mariel Hemingway on-screen fifteen years before he did the same offscreen to coed Soon-Yi Previn . But even the Woodman would have to acknowledge that he’s been outdone by Robert James Waller . The 58-year-old Iowan, who moved to the West Texas town of Alpine in 1994 following the release of his mega—best-seller The Bridges of Madison County , recently split with his wife, Georgia, after 36 years of marriage. The reason? According to several sources intimately familiar with the details of the breakup—including the couple’s only child, 30-year-old Rachael Waller —the novelist was having an affair with his ranch foreman, Linda Bow , a married woman 24 years his junior. Ironists will note that such a plot twist drives not only Bridges, a treacly novel about the pleasures and perils of mid-life infidelity, but also a subsequent Waller book, Border Music , in which a faux-cowboy protagonist, Texas Jack Carmine, takes up with a younger woman named … Linda Lobo.

Rachael says her father did not know Linda at the time he was writing Border Music. That has the makings of a stunning coincidence, though there’s no way to confirm it, since Waller’s agent, Aaron Priest , did not respond to a request for an interview. What is known, however, is that West Texas was buzzing about the affair as far back as last fall. Rachael, who is studying film at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, says that she and her mother confronted her father and Linda separately about the rumors, “but there was no proof, and they denied it.” The denial was apparently sufficient, because Linda continued to work for the Wallers through the winter and into the spring, when she accompanied them on a six-week trip overseas. “My mother thought she’d give her a chance to go somewhere she had never been,” Rachael says. On a stop in India, however, Georgia’s intuition told her something was up. When she confronted her husband, several sources report, he finally admitted to the affair. “Her heart was broken in a million places,” Rachael says.

Devastated, Georgia flew home and filed for divorce. After her husband returned to Texas in early May, she “had him removed—or her lawyer did,” Rachael says. Georgia stayed in the main house on their 1,200-acre Firelight Ranch , while Robert moved into the guest house. Some time after, he and Linda moved onto an adjacent piece of property that he and Georgia also owned, the 8,000-acre Del Norte ranch. Rachael, meanwhile, lives on another family ranch, the 350-acre F.S. Cekiya , on the other side of the Del Norte , creating the sort of awkward configuration that only a hack romance novelist could concoct: the Unfaithful Husband and the Other Woman flanked by the Wronged Wife and the Bitter Daughter.

Fortunately, this being West Texas, six miles separate the residences inhabited by the exes, whose marriage ended officially on August 15; and anyway, neither set of neighbors is speaking—not Georgia and Robert, and not Robert and Rachael. “How do you watch your hero fall?” Rachael asks. “I used to be a great defender of my father, but now he won’t talk to me. He told me in anger that I was taking my mother’s side because I was in it for the money. My mother is a wonderful, saintly person. The fact is, I’m a female, and I too feel betrayed.”

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