Growing up in the Irish Catholic, rough-and-tumble streets of Dorchester, a South Boston neighborhood, Sullivan learned early that if he ever wanted out, he'd have to be shrewd, smart, and different. Despite his working-class roots, young Sullivan gained an impressive education. He went to high school at the academically challenging Boston Latin School and won an academic scholarship to College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He graduated with an economics degree in 1962 and later studied finance at Boston University. Three years after completing school, he married Catherine Murray and the couple had four children in short order. Sullivan worked in the comptroller's department at Jordan
Marsh, a Boston department store, and later at Peat, Marwick and Mitchell accounting firm.
Sullivan moved to Macon in 1973 when his childless uncle, Frank Bienert, asked him to help run Crown Beverages, a successful wholesale liquor distribution company Bienert founded in 1962.
In Macon, Sullivan's swagger, charm, and ambition helped him carve a niche among the city's movers and shakers. Although many Maconites found his brashness offensive to their old-boy approach to business, Sullivan gained headway in the community by working with the Chamber of Commerce and charitable organizations.
When Bienert died in 1975, Sullivan became the sole heir to the distributorship. Less than a year later, he and Catherine divorced, citing irreconcilable differences. She got custody of the kids, one thousand dollars a month in child support, and moved back to their home near Boston.
James Vincent Sullivan and Lita LaVaughn McClinton met in early 1976 when she was working as an assistant manager at T. Edward's, an upscale clothing boutique in Lenox Square. He wore polyester pants, thick horn-rimmed glasses, and a mop of curly hair, but he was charming and affable, with a thick New England accent.
To Lita's friends and family, it seemed an odd union. Jim was white, an outsider, rough around the edges. She was from a prominent, politically active African-American family in Atlanta. A former debutante, polished and trim, Lita went to private schools and cotillions, a social girl who made friends easily. She had recently graduated with a degree in political science from Spelman College. He was thirty-four and she ten years younger.
Always impeccably dressed and passionate about fashion, Lita set to work updating Sullivan's wardrobe, teaching him how to fix his hair and convincing him to ditch the glasses for contact lenses. Though Sullivan lived in Macon and Lita in her hometown Atlanta, they began dating. He brought her gifts, took her to dinner and dancing, movies and basketball games. The relationship blossomed and a few months later, Sullivan proposed.
Jo Ann and Emory McClinton, Lita's parents, had misgivings about Sullivan from the start. "Jim was not readily accepted by members of our family," says Jo Ann, who has been a member of the Georgia legislature since 1992. "But Lita wanted to marry him and, as a parent, well, you can't see into the future, you can't see what's going to happen."
Emory, a retired regional civil rights compliance director for the Federal Highway Administration and now on the board of the Georgia Department of Transportation, says he was immediately suspicious of Sullivan's arrogance and self-aggrandizing. He worried about the ten-year age difference, and the stress a mixed-race couple had to endure.
Lita had already accepted James's proposal when she found out about his ex-wife and children. "Of course we were shocked," recalls Jo Ann. "That's just the beginning of his deceit, his lies," adds Emory.
On December 29, 1976, Lita and Sullivan married in a small ceremony in Macon. Not long before, Sullivan surprised Lita, over drinks and dinner, with a prenuptial agreement. Lita's divorce lawyer Richard Schiffman Jr. would later describe the agreement as "rather one-sided." He said, "in essence, Mr. Sullivan receives everything and Mrs. Sullivan receives virtually nothing." She was in love and naive; without reading the details, she signed.
Lita worked as a buyer for Rich's in Atlanta, commuting back and forth to Macon on weekends. She later quit her job and moved permanently to Macon. The Sullivans moved into a spacious, columned mansion overlooking the Ocmulgee River at 1276 Nottingham Drive, in the mostly white, affluent neighborhood of Shirley Hills. They filled the home with Louis XVI furniture, Gorham silver, and Baccarat crystal. Although he was making a decent living as the owner of Crown Beverages, the couple lived beyond their means, spending to keep up with the society in which they both aspired to belong.
The interracial marriage provoked mixed reactions in Macon, even prompting disapprovers to throw garbage on the Sullivans' lawn. Lita knew how to persevere. No stranger to racial tension, she grew up in the thick of the civil rights movement. Born in Atlanta in 1952, she was the eldest of three children. Along with her siblings, Valencia and Emory Jr., Lita was one of the first black students to attend St. Pius X High School.
Even though he was a Northerner and she a black woman, the Sullivans attended fund-raisers and charitable events and became embedded in Macon's upper echelons. Lita worked with the American Heart Association, counseled unwed mothers, and helped in the Macon beauty pageants. Under Lita's tutelage, Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Yvette Miller was the first African-American woman to be crowned "Miss Macon" in 1979.
To outsiders, the marriage seemed happy, but inside that house on Nottingham, things were starting to fall apart. The generosity Sullivan first showed Lita began to wane.
In December 1982, six years into their marriage, Lita found a Christmas card sent to Jim from a woman signed, "missing your kisses at Christmas." Jim was away in Florida and Lita was distraught; she hadn't wanted to believe the rumors that he'd been seeing other women, but she couldn't deny this overt confirmation. Lita later testified that she drove to the return address on the envelope, and waited for the woman to come home. Her worst fears were realized when the woman confirmed she'd been having an affair with Sullivan since the summer.
Devastated, Lita went to Atlanta and met with lawyer John Taylor, an acquaintance and friend of the Sullivans. He suggested she confront Sullivan and when she did, he denied the allegations, even getting angry that she'd ever accuse him of infidelity. She wanted to trust Sullivan, wanted to make the marriage work, and Sullivan agreed that he did, too. Taylor suggested the couple sign a postnuptial agreement, one that would supersede the prenup and supposedly give Lita more financial security should the marriage dissolve. The postnup gave her $300 a week, plus $30,000 for three years if they ever divorced. Again, without examining the details, Lita signed the agreement. Its validity, and whether she was coerced into signing, would become a contested topic later.
Despite her instincts to leave, she'd come from a home where family values and loyalty meant everything. She stuck with the marriage.