Longform

Return of the Black Widow

Page 4 of 13

"Surprise!" Sandra popped out of a closet to the astonishment of the guest of honor. The occasion was a dinner party thrown specifically so that the young widow could meet Bobby Bridewell, the son of a wealthy oilman. Knowing Bridewell owned racehorses, Sandra had boned up on Thoroughbred breeding lines. Bobby, reeling from the discovery that his wife was in love with her horse trainer, became fascinated with Sandra.

After Stegall's death, Sandra began looking for a man the way other people looked for a job. She told one friend the names of three millionaires she wanted to meet. Men, in turn, seemed enthralled by her.

"She truly does make you feel special," Dick Romine, an Oklahoma oilman who dated Sandra briefly after she left Dallas, told me. It wasn't that she dressed provocatively or was a great beauty. It was the way she patted his arm, focused her dark eyes on his and hung on his every word. "She's very forward. It's nice to have someone touching you. It's absolutely powerful. And she makes herself very vulnerable."

Other men loved her frank sexuality and unabashed aggressiveness. One wealthy bachelor who met her on a blind date described Sandra to a friend as the most "sexually insatiable" woman he'd ever met.

During the fall of 1976, Sandra researched wealthy restaurateur Norman Brinker, then in the middle of a divorce. She maneuvered a 7:30 a.m. encounter with Brinker at a car wash. They had their first date that night. Sandra began regaling friends with tales about Brinker's ex-wife breaking into her house and writing threats in lipstick, destroying her collectibles, even throwing a knife at her. Brinker briefly hired a bodyguard for Sandra. But some friends were skeptical, noticing that none of the broken knickknacks was valuable. (Brinker has never spoken publicly about Sandra.)

Though her loyal friends saw the Sandra who was caring and thoughtful, who adored her children and made sure they had the best of everything, others saw Sandra as predatory. She began to get a reputation as someone who befriended other women only to go after their husbands--and was not above blackmail.

After a short relationship with a well-known Dallas financier, Sandra told the man she was pregnant; when marriage wasn't forthcoming, she asked for money for an abortion. That scenario would be replayed many times over the next 15 years. But according to one of her best friends at the time, in January 1977, a year after Stegall's death, Sandra had undergone a hysterectomy.

In June 1978, Sandra married Bobby Bridewell, who adopted her children. The marriage didn't bring her instant wealth; Bobby filed for bankruptcy not long after they wed. But he soon conceived the idea to convert the old Sheppard King mansion into a luxury hotel. After Bobby sold Rosewood Hotels on the concept, it turned the Italian-style villa into The Mansion on Turtle Creek, which became an instant success. Bobby signed on as a six-figure consultant.

The Bridewells bought a large house on Lorraine Street in Highland Park. Sandra was getting close to her dream of Dallas aristocracy. But their happiness wouldn't last; in 1980, Bobby was diagnosed with lymph cancer. Sandra's friends rallied around the family, helping her care for her ailing husband, taking her children for days and weeks at a time. Marion Underwood, an older friend, even took Bobby into her home while Sandra was having central air and heat installed.

But compassion for Sandra soon turned to disgust when her friends discovered that while her husband was dying, Sandra was having their entire home remodeled. Despite Sandra's insistence that her husband wanted the work done, it appeared that she didn't care enough to nurse her sick husband. Bobby made excuses for her, but he never returned to the house they'd shared.

After learning that Bobby had spent weeks at the Underwood home, Bridewell's father moved his son into a hotel he owned. At age 41, Bobby died at Baylor hospital on May 9, 1982. Sandra threw her arms around one friend and sobbed, "No one is ever going to love me again!"

The Best Friend

During Bobby's illness, Sandra became close friends with his oncologist, Dr. John Bagwell, and his wife, Betsy. Shortly after the funeral, Sandra appeared uninvited at the Bagwells' doorstep in Santa Fe, where they were vacationing, then seemed ever-present wherever they were. Betsy initially felt sympathy for Sandra. Though there had been nasty rumors, clearly no one could blame Sandra for Bobby's death.

But Betsy's compassion turned to exasperation. Sandra attached herself to the Bagwells like a leech. Betsy told her friends she felt smothered by Sandra's frequent calls and requests for help or child care--and Sandra seemed far too interested in Betsy's husband. Sandra had orchestrated an encounter with the doctor at the Anatole Hotel, asking him to rent her a room because she didn't want to return home to the memories of Bobby. He declined and told Betsy to pull back from the relationship.

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Glenna Whitley