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09.19.11

Eleanor Mondale’s Zest for Life

Actress, TV and radio personality, animal lover, political campaigner, and a woman with a checkered love life, the former vice president’s flamboyant daughter blazed an exuberant trail.

Eleanor Mondale, 51, former vice president Walter Mondale’s glamorous and flamboyant daughter, who died of a brain tumor after a long battle on Sept. 17, created her own special aura and lifestyle.

She was an actress, television host, and radio personality, and her career was a stunning break from the longtime family tradition of commitment to public service. Besides serving as vice president, her father was a U.S. senator and ambassador to Japan. Her older brother, Ted, is a former Minnesota state senator and her younger brother, William, is a former Minnesota assistant attorney general.

But Eleanor was different—a free spirit, an accomplished horsewoman, who loved animals and frequently rode her horse around the grounds of the vice presidential mansion. She was ambitious and restless and sought out the high life and the limelight.

“I wanted to be an actress,” she told Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine. “I think it had a lot to do with being a kid and watching how every time my dad would stand up to talk people would applaud... that was pretty cool.”

Her acting chops were visible early on, according to film producer Helen Bartlett, a childhood friend. “Every Christmas Eve our families would get together and perform skits and Eleanor was always the star. She was Miss Perfect, steady, studious and made the rest of us look really bad,” recalls Bartlett. “It’s really hard to believe that Miss Goody Two Shoes went on to become such a wild, blond bombshell.”

She was also a savvy campaigner. “Bright and funny,” says Finlay Lewis, a journalist and Mondale biographer, describing Eleanor on the 1976 campaign plane. ”She was kind of a gofer and baggage handler, always willing to help out—sometimes schlepping things for drunken reporters.”

No matter what the circumstances, Eleanor’s straitlaced parents never blinked.

For Michael Berman, Mondale’s White House counsel and deputy chief of staff, who babysat Eleanor and her brothers, she was ”vivacious, fun, and really enjoyed life. An atypical Norwegian daughter. She was definitely not laid back. She moved in the fast company of the entertainment world, but never lost control of her life.”

After attending St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., the leggy blonde headed to Hollywood where she landed bits in various TV shows, including Dynasty and Three’s Company, and walk-ons in a couple of unremarkable movies.

Launching her career in journalism at a Los Angeles television station, she gained the reputation of a club-hopping Paris Hilton type and femme fatale by dating a series of extremely high-profile men: Arnold Schwarzenegger, rock star Warren Zevon, James Belushi, entrepreneur Ron Perlman—and by marrying and rapidly divorcing football player Keith Van Horne and then Greg Malban, a DJ known as Greg Thunder. And though she paid her dues working for various stations in Chicago, the Today show in New York, and finally for WCCO in Minneapolis, the media considered her a party girl and dubbed her “Wild Child.” It stuck.

The ultimate headline-grabbing episode was a meeting with Bill Clinton in the White House on Dec. 6, 1997. According to the Starr Report, Eleanor and Clinton met for 40 minutes while Monica Lewinsky, who was having an affair with the president, was told to wait in an outer room. Apparently a Secret Service agent told Lewinsky about the tête-à-tête and she was so outraged that she stormed out, went to a payphone and yelled at Betty Currie, the president’s private secretary. Currie was so upset, according to the report, that she told the agents that Clinton was “irate” over their insensitive disclosure and warned a supervisor that “someone could be fired.”

Rumors of a romance between Mondale and Clinton had been circulating and denied for years. “What’s funny is every time I’ve seen the president, there have been at least five other people in the room,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I don’t think we would have carried on this so-called affair right in front of Barbra Streisand and people like that!”

No matter what the circumstances, Eleanor’s straitlaced parents never blinked. “I think they were probably perplexed by her life, they were very proper Minnesotans,” says journalist Elizabeth Drew, a close friend. “But they were very supportive and if they disapproved they never let on.”

Eleanor suffered her first grand mal seizure during a camping trip in 2005 and was diagnosed with brain cancer that year. With chemotherapy and radiation she went into remission.

“It worries me,” she told Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine, ”the thought of this whole thing coming back. I’ve been lucky. But you don’t get another pass like I did.” A tumor returned and she underwent surgery in 2009.

Shortly after her original diagnosis, Eleanor married Minneapolis rock musician Chan Poling and moved to a small horse farm south of the Twin Cities, complete with an assortment of rescue animals and nine miniature horses.

Reflecting on her past marriages and ill-chosen boyfriends she has said she spent too much time and energy trying ”to fix” needy men. “That’s one of the things I like about Chan. He’s a real person. He’s had his own experiences and he isn’t threatened by mine.”

The former vice president and his wife, Joan, emailed friends, ”Our wonderful daughter Eleanor Mondale Poling, after her long and gutsy battle with cancer, went up to heaven last night to be with her angel.”

A memorial is planned for early October.

Berman, who spoke regularly with the former vice president throughout Eleanor's illness, believes that she no longer needed the attention or applause. “Fritz told me she was quiet, settled, and happy in her marriage,” Berman said. “She had found peace on her farm in Prior Lake.”