When corporate romance derails a career: Cunningham tells what happened at Bendix; Power Play: What Really Happened at Bendix, by Mary Cunningham with Fran Schumer. New York: Simon & Schuster. 286 pp. $15.95.
People don't stop growing up just because they are in their 30s. From what her new book tells us, it appears that Mary Cunningham has learned some big lessons - but still has maturing to do.
In 1980 a remarkable amount of press coverage was given to a rumored affair between the young Ms. Cunningham and her boss and mentor, Bendix chairman Bill Agee. There were a syndicated six-part series, front-page stories, continued coverage in major newspapers and weekly magazines - all to explore the alleged affair and the part it played in this attractive woman's rapid promotion at Bendix.
The whirlwind of implication upset personal lives. It also raised critical issues: Shouldn't a woman's achievements be judged on merit and not on appearance? How can a woman on the road to success protect herself from a Bendix scenerio? Should the board interfere with office romance?
Four years later, these issues haven't gone away. All the more reason for Ms. Cunningham to speak out.
She has been doing so - at her alma mater, at women's and executive's clubs, before distinguished economic groups.
Now she and Fran Schumer have tried to sum it all up in the new book ''Power Play: What Really Happened at Bendix.''
''Power Play'' is the kind of book that makes you wince at the potential it has but never fully achieves. There are successful parts to this book, and they occur when the authors allow the events to point to the issues. In the prologue, Ms. Cunningham cites the issues as the prime reason behind the book: ''There's a lesson - lessons - in this entire experience that ought to be made clear. The sexual accusations are serious ones. They can ruin personal lives and they can ruin careers. . . . That's why I'm writing the book.''
There's an audience ready to hear what she has to say about her experiences as a student at the Harvard Business School, and about her first interview with Mr. Agee, her initial introduction to the Bendix officers, her responsibilities there, and just why the board asked for her resignation - and got it - in October 1980.
Many of these recollections are educational, and even interesting, especially when Ms. Cunningham lets the facts speak for themselves.
For instance, her first major project for Agee, a month-long study on the company pension plan, received rave reviews from the chairman. However, she asked Agee to have the Bendix head of finance present the report before the board, because ''I was tired of being disliked.'' The board loved it, and the head of finance took the praise - until Agee pointed to the real source. She stops the story there. The discomfort and politicking are obvious; she doesn't really need to elaborate.
But too often, especially in the second half of the book, the focus shifts from the events to Mary Cunningham, herself - her anger, her grief, and her recovery, which eventually led to her marriage to Mr. Agee.
To an extent, we need to understand these things; otherwise we can't grasp the full import of the circumstances. But the incredible detail of her personal life is almost embarrassing.
She shares with us every emotional and physical effect of her ordeal with the media, business associates, and Mr. Agee. Each time she calls her mother for support, we hear about it. Each time she is feeling nauseated, we're there.
In the last chapter she writes: ''You learn not to deny the pain but to grow from it. In that sense, telling my story was the core of my recovery.''
This kind of soul-baring makes the story come off as her own therapy treatment instead of a legitimate treatment of a legitimate complaint.
The melodramatic high school diary writing only makes things worse:
''I felt like an insect imprisoned under a jar. At first the walls of the jar seem like protection but then they begin to seem like barriers. I felt that this protective jar was starting to suffocate me. But I didn't know in whose hand this horrible jar was. Was it the company's? The board's? Agee's? My own? Who was protecting me and who was trying to snuff me out?''
This kind of writing presents an immature Mary Cunningham. What's more, for all her abhorence of the accusations people made against her, ''Power Play'' shows her quite capable and willing to shoot some right back, and in none-too-pleasant terms.
Yet this does not sound like the Mary Cunningham who now faces the public. In a recent interview, she was controlled, graceful, articulate, impressive. That control seems to have extended into her present business life. Since her short career at Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Inc. and Mr. Agee's aborted attempt to lead Bendix in a takeover of Martin Marietta, the two have started their own venture capital and consulting firm, Semper Enterprises.
To this reader, the meaningful sections of the book are those that deal with the first half of the title: power play.
The sections that must mean a lot to the author are those that address the title's other half: what really happened at Bendix. Understandably, Ms. Cunningham wants to clear her name, and the book is chock full of testimony defending her character. One full chapter is devoted to her upbringing under the influence of her uncle, a Roman Catholic priest. She was always ''such a good girl'' as a child, and she constantly cites instances in adult life to substantiate her morality.
Her case is convincing, but does that really matter to anyone else but her? Ms. Cunningham may think she has something to prove, but her responsibility to readers is to point out where she stumbled and help others step clear.
It is in a short, final chapter that she manages to do this, discussing her mistakes and what she learned from them. These observations would carry more weight if they were made throughout the book, instead of popping up briefly at the end. But they are valuable nonetheless. Here are her conclusions:
She stayed too long at Bendix, ignoring the warning signals because of unbalanced loyalty to the company. She was ''extremely naive'' about the way people viewed her. She should have reported to other people besides Agee. She lacked self-confidence.
''So eager was I to prove to everyone else that I could do the job,'' she writes, ''that I hardly stopped to consider that it was my very competence that threatened them.''