The ancient Greeks said to count no man happy until he dies. After all, one never knows what unexpected turns a person’s life might take.
Two years after I moved to San Diego in 1984, the city chose as its mayor a perky 38-year–old woman named Maureen O’Connor. “Mo” was first elected to the City Council in 1971 when she was only twenty-five. She served in that capacity for eight years, and then had a five-year stint as commissioner of the Port of San Diego prior to becoming mayor. In 1977, during her rise to political power, she became the wife of Jack in the Box founder, Robert Peterson.
In short, by the early 90s O’Connor was respected, powerful, and wealthy. Currently the former mayor is facing prosecution for taking over two million dollars from her deceased husband’s charitable foundation—money that she gambled away, along with much of the fortune she inherited.
A deal struck with federal prosecutors allows the 66-year-old O’Connor to defer prosecution for two years as she attempts to repay her debt to the foundation. O’Connor, who underwent surgery for a brain tumor in 2011 and suffers from its aftereffects, now lives with her sister and is virtually broke.
The former mayor suffered the loss of her husband in 1994, and according to her attorney the deaths of several other close friends contributed to his client’s compulsive “grief gambling”—a habit that reportedly began around 2001. During the next decade she wagered, won, and lost over a billion dollars. But her net losses topped $13 million.
It’s hard to imagine the number of hours O’Connor must have been spent in front of lifeless video poker machines to reach those staggering figures. But gambling houses in San Diego, Las Vegas and Atlantic City were happy to accommodate a presumably wealthy patron who would occasionally drop $100,000 in a day. It’s a portrait quite at odds with the happy scenes conveyed by casino ads on TV.
O’Connor likened her gambling habit to heroin addiction and suggested that her brain tumor may have added to the compulsiveness. Federal prosecutor Phillip Halpern, however, observed that a ten-year fuse for a brain tumor is unlikely.
My own guess is that the absence of children, the loss of intimate friends, and separation from the reins of power all combined to create a vacuum for which even millions of dollars could not compensate. A politician out of power can be like an ex-athlete who misses the adrenaline rush of competition, cheers and victory.
And when those “celebrities” find themselves short on close friends, a video poker machine is cold comfort.