His father worked for Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, a ruthless political boss who controlled Atlantic City during Prohibition, and as a child he eavesdropped on the conversations of men who gathered around his family’s humble kitchen table in Hammonton.
Decades later, J. Garfield DeMarco rose to become the Republican party boss in nearby Burlington County.
His nickname — God. A notepad kept on his kitchen table had pages that said “Message from God.”
But it was not until he died last month at age 80 that DeMarco’s spectacular fall from grace and fortune spilled into public view.
DeMarco, who built a multimillion-dollar fortune while managing the nation’s third-largest cranberry operation and sitting on the Ocean Spray board of directors, died penniless. Nearly three years ago, he was evicted from his home and his car was repossessed when he defaulted on loans, legal bills, and taxes and declared bankruptcy.
Adept at keeping secrets throughout his life, DeMarco hid his deteriorating finances, kept up the guise of a lavish lifestyle and nurtured an image that exuded business savvy and steely control.
“Garfield squandered millions and many of us got to enjoy that extravagance," said nephew Anthony DeMarco in a eulogy before a crowd of fewer than 50 people who attended DeMarco’s Funeral Mass at St. Mary-Mt. Carmel Parish in Hammonton last month. “It was fun to eat seven courses and drink thousand-dollar bottles of wine. We would sit in the front row of a Broadway show. He had a $25,000 fountain pen. He tipped 100 percent.”
In disbelief, some in the pews shook their heads.
Garfield DeMarco had been forgotten over the years by people in power and the legions of loyal followers who revered him when he was the powerful GOP chairman from 1974 to 1990.
His nephew went on to praise “Uncle Gar" for his generosity, intellect, political skills, and devilish sense of fun. Anthony DeMarco said his grandfather had been an influential politician — switching from Democrat to Republican to Democrat — and a successful cranberry farmer whose death at age 61 in a car crash led Garfield DeMarco to take over the family business when he was 26. As CEO, DeMarco, a freshly minted Yale-educated lawyer, doubled their land holdings in South Jersey.
But the good times were followed by family squabbles. In 1994, DeMarco’s brother, Mark, a prominent attorney, sued him, alleging mismanagement of the company and excessive spending.
The fight escalated and continued for years.
“Garfield didn’t just hire a lawyer, he hired a firm,” said Don Ogle, a crew leader on the cranberry farm and close friend who took DeMarco in and cared for him in his final years. “When he got in the middle of something, he didn’t stop until he won.”
The brothers eventually reached a settlement, but it was overturned on appeal. Their battles resumed. They came together briefly to sue Ocean Spray and neighboring cranberry farmers in 2001, and fought the state when A.R. DeMarco Enterprises was fined $600,000 for environmental violations. But they also fought each other again in 2003 over the sale of the family’s 9,400-acre farm to a conservation group for $12 million — half its assessed value.
When the litigation ended in 2004, the year his brother died, Garfield DeMarco had lost his family ties and alienated other cranberry farmers.
Legal bills from high-powered firms contributed to his financial undoing, along with his exorbitant spending habits, which continued even after the income had stopped.
His one-third share of the $12 million from the land sale, and the $7.2 million a state agency paid the family to preserve the land didn’t last. He frequently traveled by limo, treated people to dinner at expensive restaurants, and rode the Concorde to London to purchase tailored suits, friends said.
In September 2014, DeMarco quietly filed for bankruptcy. He had defaulted on an $1.6 million loan he had taken out in 1998 when he purchased a 19th-century Victorian house and launched a $1.5 million restoration. As his finances spiraled, the bank took the house.
But DeMarco kept up appearances. In a December 2014 Press of Atlantic City story, he said he was selling the property and hoped a buyer would “treasure” the house, which was built in 1882. Since then, it has begun to crumble and the asking price is under $400,000.
DeMarco had obsessed over every detail, hiring a crew of 100 to return the Victorian Stick style home to its full grandeur, with elaborate wooden latticework and fanciful trim. He had it placed on the national register of historic buildings and turned it into a museum to hold the thousands of artifacts, historic manuscripts, rare books, sculptures, and other art he had collected with zeal, his friends said.
But few were invited in to see his private collection, the excess.
“Wow, he had magnificent pieces in there," said Bob Shinn, a friend who ran for county freeholder at DeMarco’s urging. He said the house was used as an office and a gallery and not too many people saw the interior.
“I was stunned, stunned, when he told me he was selling things. ... The whole thing breaks my heart," Shinn said. “I knew he was in serious trouble, but he asked me to call his attorney to answer any questions I had. It was a pride thing; he wasn’t proud of the situation he was in and wanted someone else to tell me.”
The bankruptcy triggered yet another court battle, as Sterling Bank’s successors contended DeMarco illegally sold off his collateral and asked that his possessions be auctioned off by Sotheby’s. They obtained an order to evict him and seize his possessions in 2016.
Billy Wilson, 55, who married DeMarco a year earlier in a small ceremony, recalled the day six armed sheriff’s officers arrived. They came to evict DeMarco from the house where he had spent his childhood and still lived, Wilson said.
DeMarco, sitting in his recliner, heard the commotion and Wilson said he turned to him and whispered, “Are there men outside the house?”
As the officers entered through an unlocked back door and began ruffling through drawers, DeMarco told Wilson to call his lawyer. “It was heartbreaking, so sad," Wilson said.
The lawyer arranged for a delay to give DeMarco more time to find housing.
Wilson said DeMarco had not told him he was bankrupt. For the first year of their marriage, DeMarco had supported him and now Wilson had to find a job. DeMarco suffered from respiratory and heart problems associated with his weight of 350 pounds, and Wilson said he could not take care of him and also work.
The couple had been together for more than a decade, but until their marriage in 2015, DeMarco had not publicly disclosed his sexual orientation or their relationship to the media. After the eviction, Wilson got a job with the Camden County Parks Department and moved away, but said that he visited DeMarco at the Ogles’ house.
“He was generous to a fault and also kind,” Wilson said.
When DeMarco died, the richly detailed obituary of his long and impressive career contained this jarring but telling detail: The family was seeking memorial donations toward his mausoleum burial.
DeMarco still owed $155,000 for a loan he took out against the family’s mausoleum trust, after he purchased a mausoleum with marble pillars before his bankruptcy.
In recent years the family reconciled with Uncle Gar but couldn’t help him get out of debt, his niece Barbara DeMarco said. “I hope he finds peace,” she said. “His life was a movie in the making.”
About 150 people attended the viewing where there were photographs of him posing with President Ronald Reagan, New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, and family. Most were there because DeMarco had given them and their families jobs. Few dignitaries showed up.
When DeMarco finally realized he had to move out of his home, he turned to Ogle, his former employee and friend for 35 years. DeMarco had treated him, his wife, Karen, and their two children to trips to Disney World and invited them to shows, the opera, and dinners over the years.
The couple were happy to repay his kindness.
The Ogles put him up in a modest home in Hammonton that they had inherited. They cooked for him and took care of him his last three years.
“He was almost like family," Ogle said. “He needed help and he had no one to turn to. I was so surprised because I saw it coming on for years, but we never spoke about it.”
Ogle said that they often talked about the good times and that DeMarco told him "no one enjoyed life like I did” and that he had no regrets about his spending habits.
For Karen Ogle, it was tough to watch his decline. “He was lonely and would say, ‘Where did everyone go?’ ... He knew hundreds of people, but there weren’t more than 10 who visited him in his last year,” she said.
Her husband agreed. “When all the glitter disappeared," he said, "the people went with it.”