(3 of 8)
Reno's popularity has taken her by surprise, but she had not spent any length of time in the capital before. It is a city that loves a character, and the early profiles of her Florida upbringing invited an instant mythology. Here she came, trailing swamp stories and reptiles, a self-described awkward old maid with a sensible name and big, sensible shoes, a bracing contrast to the precious professionals that the city seasonally absorbs. "I can be impatient," she told reporters last week, preferring to skewer herself rather than let them do it for her. "I do have a temper. My mother accused me of mumbling. I am not a good housekeeper. My fifth-grade teacher said I was bossy. My family thinks I'm opinionated and sometimes arrogant, and they would be happy to supply you with other words."
Reno comes from a long line of memorable women. "Mother's mother and Father's mother were absolutely indomitable," says Janet's brother Robert Reno, a New York Newsday columnist. "All the women in the family were. The men were strong too. They just had no talent for marrying spineless women." Janet's maternal grandmother Daisy Sloan Hunter Wood was a genteel Southern lady who lost her own mother and two sisters to tuberculosis and instilled in her children and grandchildren a passionate commitment to duty and family. In World War II, daughter Daisy became a nurse, landing with General Patton's army in North Africa and marching on Italy. Another, Janet's Aunt Winnie, joined the Women's Air Force Service Pilots, an elite corps of civilian flyers who tested combat aircraft, towed targets for ground artillery practice and trained male pilots.
Toward the end of the war, when the WASPS were disbanded, Winnie came back to Miami with some fellow pilots, a glamorous, tanned, confident crowd who lived in a group house and gave flying lessons. "I thought, 'I can do that, I can do anything I put my mind to,' " Janet recalled, "because those ladies went out and flew planes."
Janet's mother Jane, coming of age during the Depression, took a bachelor's degree in physics and at 24 was about to go to graduate school at Columbia when she met and married Henry Reno, a 36-year-old police reporter for the Miami Herald. Tired of having his Danish surname, Rasmussen, mispronounced, he had picked his last name off a map of Nevada. The couple built a house out of cypress logs in the woods of rural Dade County; 43 years later, it survived Hurricane Andrew without losing more than a couple of shingles. In addition to the now legendary alligators, there were cows, beagles, macaws, raccoons, goats, geese, ponies, pigs and skunks (not descented), all welcome members of the famously unorthodox Reno household. "Daddy would come out of the bathroom and say, 'Would somebody get this' -- and you can interject pelican, otter, & boa constrictor -- 'out of here so I can take a bath,' " explains Maggy Reno Hurchalla, Janet's sister, a county commissioner in central Florida.