"She has not been the classic 'president's wife,'" says Tim Krauskopf (WCAS84, KSM99), a trustee and personal friend of the Bienens'. In fact, Leigh Buchanan Bienen's influence on Northwestern has run deeper, he says, than the usual responsibilities of Northwestern's first lady.
Bienen graciously hosts official functions held at Wieboldt House, the president's residence on Central Street a few blocks from campus. She brings fresh-cut flowers from the garden to University receptions — that is, when the deer haven't eaten them. But the pleasures Bienen takes in being the wife of Northwestern's president are also layered with her engagement in the intellectual life of the University.
Some know her as a senior lecturer at the School of Law, where she has taken a longtime interest in the legal and social aspects of homicide and capital punishment. Others know her as a writer and author of fiction and creative nonfiction. Her books include Crimes of the Century: From Leopold and Loeb to O.J. Simpson (Northeastern University Press, 1998), a survey of high-profile crimes and their effect on society.
On a deeper level, Leigh reflects on Northwestern's cultivation of the ability to cross disciplinary boundaries. As a young married woman, she found work connected to her University of Iowa Writers' Workshop degree, including a stint as an assistant to Saul Bellow (WCAS37, H62) while her husband was a graduate student at the University of Chicago.
When they moved to Princeton University, she decided to go to law school in Newark at Rutgers–The State University of New Jersey. Then when her husband did field work in Kenya and Nigeria, she accompanied him and did independent research on homicide and capital punishment based on homicide court records in Nigeria. This work led to several research projects on homicide back in the United States.
She later spent 15 years as a public defender at the Department of the Public Advocate office in New Jersey. Her interest in writing and her knowledge of homicide blended naturally. "For literary people and fiction writers, crime is pretty irresistible," she says. And when she joined the Northwestern law school faculty, her interest in capital punishment meshed with Northwestern's leadership in the area of capital punishment reform.
Combining intellectual interests with those of being the president's wife was harder, she admits. Wieboldt House was too big and rambling for her tastes, though she quickly converted an unfinished attic into her own study, and she worked hard with a decorator to make the Tudor house a suitable home for the family's books, art and antiques, many African, Japanese and Chinese.
Being "ambassador for the University 24/7" takes some doing, too. At first she felt on display all the time. "Now I don't think about it as much. I'm more comfortable."
As Henry Bienen prepares to retire, Leigh says their children and their families consider themselves part of the Northwestern family. She looks back on their years here with satisfaction — not with undue modesty (she's keenly aware of her husband's successes and talents, as well as her own) — but she is also a realist. When asked about the success of the Bienen years at Northwestern, she thanks, among other things, the "peacefulness, prosperity and tranquility" that have accompanied her husband's tenure. "Never underestimate the importance of luck," she says with a self-deprecating bluntness that would surprise no one who knows her. — J.P.