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THREE years ago, at the age of 42, Ruth Harding, widow of millionaire football boss Matthew Harding, faced the revelation that her late husband had not only one mistress (whom she knew about) but two - and a child by each. Today she is happily remarried, to a younger man. Ruth talks to FIONA JAMES about marriage, middle age and motherhood...

RUTH Harding was married to tycoon Matthew Harding for 20 years. At 16, they had been childhood sweethearts. They had four children: Hannah, who is now 21, Luke, 18 and 15-year-old twins, Patrick and Joel.

Matthew started as teaboy in an insurance office and made his fortune in the reinsurance markets. He also had a pounds 50 million stake in Chelsea Football Club, where he was vice-chairman.

When he was killed in a helicopter crash in October, 1996 he was worth more than pounds 125million and was the 89th wealthiest man in Britain. He and Ruth owned a large estate in Sussex with a tennis court, swimming pool and wonderful views over the South Downs.

Ruth lived there all the time but Matthew came home only at weekends. During the week he lived in London with his Ecuadorian mistress Vicky Jaramillo and their daughter Ella, now five. After his death, it was discovered that his PA had also had his baby.

"There are two illegitimate children," says Ruth. "So it's a complicated situation. Only after he died did I know about the second child. There's just a few months between them. Incredible, isn't it?"

Ruth knew from the beginning about her husband's affair with Vicky Jaramillo. She had to tolerate pictures of Matthew and his mistress in the papers when they attended social events together. She was bitterly hurt but she's proud and strong and she kept her powerful feelings to herself.

"I did scream sometimes," she says, "but only at home. I got rid of destructive aggression by getting in the swimming pool and doing 50 lengths. That's the way to cope rather than shouting in front of the world."

In their early, happy days together, Matthew worshipped the ground Ruth walked on. He was a loving husband and a doting father. "He was a good dad for a long time," she says, "then for a lot of years, he wasn't."

At Matthew's funeral she accepted the presence of Vicky Jaramillo, though they exchanged no words. Matthew's great friend, Tory MP Francis Maude, gave the funeral address and said: "Matthew was driven, competitive, creative, touched with a bit of genius. Like many people born with a capacity to do great good, he could also cause hurt."

Ruth listened dry-eyed and wept in private. Later, she was punctilious about ensuring that her husband's mistress and their child were provided for. She has uttered not one critical angry word, although she still prefers not to speak to Ms Jaramillo.

The fact that Matthew Harding wasn't even faithful to his mistress has in a strange way made things easier. He was mercurial, restless and as he approached his 40s, he wanted to hang on to his youth. One day, Ruth is going to write a book about men who deal with the onset of middle age by taking a mistress.

She plans a series of interviews with wives who have faced similar situations with strength and dignity. Two of her great friends are the ex-wives of David Mellor and Glenn Hoddle. The sweet-natured Anne Hoddle is now radiantly happy with a 28-year-old.

"If your husband leaves you for somebody else," says Ruth, "you can't help but lose your self-esteem. It takes a lot of energy to put on the make-up, do the hair, walk out and hold your head up. But it's important to try to battle on and to keep your dignity. People respect you for that so then you begin to respect yourself again.

"When you're 40 and your husband leaves you for another woman, you do think, 'Gosh, what have I got for the rest of my life?' You look at yourself and you haven't got the body of a 21-year-old any more. The future seems bleak."

She learned the painful way over several years how to put on a bright face even if she was distraught. When Matthew died, she was trying to protect her devastated, grieving children from headlines about their father's other life and new family.

She also had to deal with her own feelings about a man whom she had once deeply loved. He'd achieved so much but seemed to have lost sight of what was really important in life.

Painfully, Ruth came to realise that it wasn't her fault or her problem. Matthew had wealth, four super children and a loyal, attractive wife but when he was nearing 40, Ruth believes he suddenly felt terrified of missing out.

"It happens to a lot of men. They think: 'Gosh, there's a whole wide world out there and the grass is greener.' They usually realise it isn't but they have to find out for themselves. But by that time, they've caused a lot of unhappiness.

"The longer it is since Matthew died, the more I'm aware I didn't know what he was thinking, really. Even as a young man, he was different. I knew he'd be a success but he only made half a success of his life, didn't he?

"Some people count success in money but I count it in terms of happiness. I think he had one but not the other. If you'd asked him if he wanted all he'd achieved, he'd have said 'no' but he couldn't stop. He was driven."

AT 45, Ruth is extremely rich but wealth has made her more humble than arrogant. "I do what I can for the community," she says. "All the local children come and swim in the pool. If you have such a lovely place you have to share it, don't you?

"I try to keep normality as much as possible for me and my children. It's very important or you get swept away into an unreal world. I'm just an ordinary girl who went to college and became a teacher."

When her husband died, Ruth never thought she'd marry again. She hid behind her public face and looked strong and invincible. In fact she was vulnerable and lacking confidence but she forced herself to go out.

"I was told, 'Don't turn any invitation down', and it's good advice. I was invited to a Labour Party evening where I knew nobody. But within minutes, somebody talked to me." She didn't know then but she was to fall totally in love with a younger man. She's remade her life and in July she remarried.

Her new husband Richard Gist, 37, works with sexually abused children and when they met he was an area manager for the NSPCC in Coventry. Matthew had donated pounds 50,000 to the NSPCC centre for abused boys and after he died, Richard invited Ruth to see the work that was being done.

When they met, they surprised each other. Richard had expected an aloof lady of leisure and Ruth had envisaged a rather earnest, serious character. Instead she was faced with a devastatingly attractive charmer and he was disarmed by her natural, enthusiastic sweetness. Initially, the vital NSPCC work drew them together. "I went to Coventry and Richard showed me round. Richard is an Arsenal supporter so we obviously got talking about football.

I REMEMBER saying: 'You need some pictures on the walls. Shall I get you a signed photo of the Chelsea team?' About a month later I phoned Richard and said: 'I've got the photograph - can I bring it up?'

"I went back to Coventry and he talked about his work and the NSPCC. I said: 'I've only recently met you but I feel I've known you for years.' Later we went to a football match and then he came here to the house and we went to Brighton and walked along the seafront."

It was the beginning of romance and passion. They went to dinner and to the opera. Richard, who is divorced, met Ruth's children and she met his eight-year-old son.

Finally Richard asked her to marry him and the normally cautious Ruth had no doubts. Last July, she became Mrs Richard Gist. She was married at home and Lindka Cierach designed her glorious white lace wedding frock.

After a brief honeymoon, they returned to Ruth's rambling house where Richard's son often comes to stay. "The twins are 15 and Luke's 18," she says. "Luke was in a state after Matthew died but he's fine now. He did a year at college learning motor mechanics and he's working at a garage and loving it.

RICHARD gives them a lot of time but he also leaves them be when they don't want to know. The twins are talented footballers who play for Sussex. Hannah's the eldest, training to be a nurse, so she's okay. They've got to do it for themselves otherwise what do they achieve?

"I'd have liked to have had another child with Richard but it's not possible. Years ago, I had an emergency hysterectomy."

After her husband's death, Ruth was asked to become patron at Chelsea Football Club. This gave her an enormous amount of pleasure but Matthew and the club's chairman, Ken Bates, had had many vicious disagreements. In what seemed like an act of spite, Ken Bates told Ruth that he no longer wanted her as patron.

"It's very sad," she says. "He didn't give any reason." Ruth still goes to games at Chelsea but she remains angry with coach Graham Rix, who was convicted of having unlawful sex with an under-age girl. He has served his jail sentence and has now been reinstated.

"He's not a close friend of mine but his wife and four children are," she says. "They are now separated and my heart goes out to the children because they've got to live with what their father's done. When this dreadful situation happened at Chelsea, I was the only one who said, 'Graham Rix is guilty'. Now society has turned on the girl and said, 'It was her fault, she shouldn't have worn short skirts, she shouldn't be drinking, shouldn't be smoking'.

"I think Graham does a great job at football, but the sadness is that he's probably wrecked that girl's life."

Ruth is now involved in the NSPCC's campaign to raise money for the millennium in aid of the most desperate children in Britain. "Until I met Richard, I knew nothing about sexually abused children. A vast number of people have been abused as a child but because people don't talk about it, it festers away inside them."

Ruth is probably happier than she has ever been. She looks a decade younger than she did when her husband died. She's a much trendier dresser under Richard's influence.

"I've been very lucky," she says. "Anne Hoddle and Judith Mellor and I have all survived."

Donations to the NSPCC can be sent to the charity at 42 Curtain Road, London EC2A 3NH. Daily Mail Weekend Magazine
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:James, Fiona
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 13, 2000
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