Gossip is a hot commodity in the restaurant business. The lore of the women’s beauty parlor pales when compared to the saloon grapevine of bartenders, managers and barflys. It is fueled and pollinated by deliverymen and salesmen who gather their secrets at one business and carry them to the next and the next, adding a coat of embellishment along the way. Besides, restaurant people are busy only twice a day. They have plenty of time to talk. So it was no surprise in the first months after Howard’s death that rumors spread around town about the IRS investigation. By August, they were outrageous.
A regular customer approached me at the bar and said he’d heard on good authority that Howard killed himself. “I heard it was suicide. That it was the only way out.”
His his words and his certainty shocked me.
“Where would you get that idea?” I said.
“There are rumors all over town,” he said. “And from what I’ve heard he was in quite a bind. I heard that if he hadn’t died this place would already have been seized by the government.”
“No. No way was it suicide,” I said. “It’s just not possible, unless you can give yourself pneumonia.”
“Maybe so, but you can choose to neglect it when you have it,” he said.
“Howard was just as surprised as I was to find out he had pneumonia,” I said. “If he thought he had pneumonia he would have raced to the doctor. I promise you that. He wouldn’t kill himself for the federal government. He had a lot of reasons to live.”
But when I mentioned this to his sister, Martha, she didn’t immediately jump on it as preposterous.
“I wonder, too,” she said. “I can’t understand why he didn’t go to the doctor.”
Apart from me, Spencer and Martha, Howard let few people into his life. Among the few he did let in was Terrence Smith and his wife, Susy. The friendship began when Terry and I worked together at CBS News and it flourished when the four of us became neighbors on the Chesapeake Bay. Sailing was a common bond. Terry, who left CBS to become the media correspondent for the Newshour with Jim Lehrer, was a friend I could talk to about anything. He was one of the few friends who I told about the sailboat Howard owned, but that I didn’t know he owned. Terry had gone sailing with Howard on the Hinckley. He’d been duped, too. Together we didn’t know whether to be appalled or amused or both.
One night, when Susy was out of town, he came over for dinner at the Bay house. I was happy to have a man to cook for. He arrived after Spencer’s bedtime, allowing me a few minutes to get lost in food preparation.
But when we ate, the conversation was serious.
“There are rumors going around that Howard committed suicide,” I said.
Like me, he was surprised.
“He didn’t have that kind of personality,” Terry said. “You don’t believe that, do you?”
“No, I don’t, but I also believe he didn’t have to die.”
We ate at the kitchen table. I made a grown-up dinner: coq au vin, garlic mashed potatoes, a tomato and basil salad. It was relaxed. Rain fell outside – a light, steady rain.
“You know what I think?” I said, as we finished one bottle of old red Burgundy and started another. “I think he thought he had lung cancer. He lived in constant fear of lung cancer, especially after my mother died. My mother’s death horrified him, the way the cancer spread, the way the treatments affected her and made her insane, the depression, the deterioration. He thought it was a barbaric death. He talked about it a lot. He quit smoking after that. When he had a cough or a cold he would fret. He would say, ‘I hope this isn’t lung cancer.’ The lung cancer thing was the only area of his health where he acted like a hypochondriac.”
“I remember him making references to lung cancer,” Terry said. “Joking, of course.”
He listened as I went on, writing a scenario that had been in my head for months.
“This will sound gross over dinner, I know, but there were occasions when he would ask me to look at phlegm he’d coughed up, to see if I thought there was any blood in it. This was on his mind a lot.”
I got up to clear the plates and make some coffee. The large glass sliding door was open and through the screen we heard the rain and a distant wind chime. The wind chime sounded like a buoy, clanging on a rolling sea.
“After he died I did some research into the kind of pneumonia he had. The doctors told me the cell type, or strain. One of the symptoms was pink-tinged phlegm. I’m sure he was coughing up that very stuff and looking at it and thinking, ‘this is it. I’ve got lung cancer.’ I think that’s why he wouldn’t go to the doctor. He didn’t want to hear the news. He wanted to put it off, probably until I got back from New York. He probably figured, ‘if I’m dying, what difference does it make if I wait two days to go to the doctor?’”
“Carol, even I noticed he was good about going to the doctor,” Terry said. “Wasn’t he? He was so conscientious about the Lyme Disease. He worked so hard to get well.”
“I know. I know. He took antibiotics even when he didn’t need them. In fact, he had some leftover Keflex or something like that in his bathroom and started taking that for his cough over Christmas. He thought nothing of dosing himself.”
“Did you talk to the doctors about this?” he asked.
“I did. I talked to Peter Levit, who was so wonderful in explaining Howard’s disease to me. I was beating myself up about staying in New York. I felt if I’d not gone, or if I’d come back on that Wednesday, I could have saved him. I still feel guilty about it. Maybe I always will. But Peter said that even if I’d come back on Wednesday and got Howard to the hospital it would have been too late. He said if he’d come in at the beginning of the week it may have been too late.”
“Could he possibly have been too sick to recognize how sick he was?” he asked.
“That’s it. I mean Peter said blood poisoning had probably begun when he was at home. That can put you out of your right mind, but not so much that it would make you lie to me and say you’d been to the doctor when you hadn’t. I’m certain that was Howard being paranoid and thinking he had lung cancer. Remember, all the pain was in his lungs. His lungs had to feel like they had bricks in them. He would equate that with lung cancer.”
“The doctor is right, don’t beat up on yourself. He was a big boy,” Terry said. “He was old enough to get himself to the doctor.”
“This is one I’ll never know: What could I have done to change his fate? I had been nagging him. Over Christmas and New Year’s I nagged him so much about getting the cough checked out that he actually got mad at me. I never had to nag him about going to the doctor.
“I worried about him,” I said, “Not because I thought he had pneumonia. I didn’t like to see him sick. He was not a man who did well with illness. At a certain point, he tended to roll over and not fight it. I wanted him to fight. I wanted him to do something.”
I sat silent for a while, holding my wine glass, listening to Terry try to make me feel better. The conversation we were having was new to me. I said things I had not spoken before.
“When I went to New York I was very frustrated with him. I was almost angry with him. For a week I’d been begging him to go to the doctor and he wouldn’t, and then when I was supposed to leave, and Spencer and I came into the city, and it was the 11th hour before my departure, he said he would go. But I was in the city and he was at the Bay, and I didn’t get to see him. I believe that if I’d seen him, if I’d laid my eyes on him, I would have been able to tell whether he was being straight with me.”
“Carol, you did the best you could do. You did everything you could do. You’re probably right. He thought he had cancer and he was avoiding the issue, putting it off, hoping it would go away. He probably didn’t want to tell you his fears because he knew you would laugh at him and push him into the doctor’s even harder.”
“I would have. Absolutely.”
I said, “Suicide is simply not a possibility, and for one good reason – Spencer. Howard would never abandon Spencer. He found with Spencer a happiness that had eluded him. He was the light of his life. He wouldn’t have done anything that would break that boy’s heart. He loved him too much and Spencer’s happiness meant everything.”
We moved on to the issue of the tax fraud, and tried to make sense of that, too.
Terry couldn’t help but think that Howard, at least in part, innocently got in over his head.
I told him about the write-offs and the money he took from Nathans. “It’s hard to accept how this happened,” I said.
Terry gave me a knowing look. He’d grown up in New York, he was the son of a sportswriter, the famed Red Smith of The New York Times, and long before Howard came into his life Terry had been exposed to men who live life like a roll of the dice.
“Carol, dear, with all due respect, Howard was doing what they all do. It’s just the way it is in the bar business. Only, he got caught. You’re not supposed to get caught.”
Before the summer ended, Spencer and I took a small vacation. Aunt Martha and Uncle Vijay rented a house on Chappaquiddick Island, off Martha’s Vineyard, where we were their guests for a week; freeloading was the only kind of holiday we could afford. The cottage was bare and primitive, with limited electricity and plumbing, and I loved it. It was on a promontory with water on three sides. To get there required negotiating a long sand road followed by a 300-yard stretch of beach. It was a challenge to anything but a 4-wheel drive vehicle. My little rental Mercury was up to it, but just barely.
The house had been a bunk house for hunters, and the “bedrooms” upstairs, such as they were, had partitions instead of walls. From our bunks we looked up at the same rafters in the ceiling. The furnishings were simple and slight. The best feature was a “great room” that served as kitchen, dining room and all purpose hang out. It had wrap around windows with views of water in every direction. We spent most of our indoor time there, eating, talking, reading, washing the dishes.
We spent good quality time with Martha, Vijay and their son Zal. Having family around gave us a boost. We ate lobsters and fresh baked berry pie and slept well. During the day, Spencer and Zal went clamming. I walked the beach and thought, or sprawled on the sofa and napped. It was the laziest of holidays and good for both of us. Spencer had me all to himself whenever he wanted me. There were no meetings for me to go to, no phone calls to make, no jobs calling me away. We were a mom and her son.
In Edgartown there was a coffee shop named Espresso Love. After a run, it was where I stopped for a hot latte. Beside the cash register was a plate with small cards on it. Each card had a word, a word for the day. On more than one occasion I picked up a card and got the same word: “Courage.”
Tough time after dinner tonight. Spencer very angry. Lots of rage. In one fit of frustration he said, “I hate you. I wish you weren’t my Mommy.” Later he said, “I loved Daddy. Not you. I still love Daddy. I love Daddy more than you. I wish you were the one who died.”
I don’t know whether I handled it well. One part ignoring to one part reprimanding to one part “let’s talk about these feelings you’re having.”
At light’s out he started to open up and said he was angry and wished he could die. “I wish all Joynts could be dead, and everything they own. I wish all the furniture and paintings and clothing and food of all the Joynts could be smashed to bits. I wish all the Joynts never did exist. I wish there could be a fire here in our apartment building and we didn’t hear the fire alarm and we were inside our apartment and all burned to death.”
I asked if that included Teddy the dog and the goldfish.
“Yes. Everyone. All Joynts.”
So we talked about this. I told him I didn’t want him to die and his father certainly wouldn’t want him to die or to feel any pain, and that his father would want him to lead a big, good, happy life and would want him to accomplish all the successes he dreamed about for him. I told him I didn’t want to die because I loved him so much. I wanted to be with him all my life.
“You’re right, Mommy,” he said. “I don’t want to die. But I am angry. I am very angry.”
I told him I understand. “And talk to Ellen, too.” He said he did talk to Ellen and “she understands.”
For Spencer there is a tremendous frustration in being with me on the weekends out in the country. On the one hand he has me all to himself, but it’s just the two of us and we’re in this big house and there’s all this stuff I have to do. The chores keep me from him.
From the moment we arrive I am busy with chores, which range from throwing out dead mice to going through the mail and dealing with the bad news there and checking the phone messages and dealing with the bad news there. I have a phone stuck to my ear while I put away groceries, open windows, sweep, straighten and organize.
When I finally get outside to play with him I am whipped, spent, wasted and brain dead. But he’s saying, “Come on, Mommy, let’s play divers. Let’s dive for treasure.” I stretch out on the side of the pool, but that’s not good enough. I have to be in the water. Eventually I kick it into gear and we play but I’ve used up the last of my fuel.
Teddy and Spencer follow me around as close as pilot fish, with Spencer saying, “Will you play with me? Will you read to me? Can I go swimming?” Teddy whines because he wants me to go outside and throw his ball. At one point I went to the bathroom and they both stood right outside the closed door, pawing it.
I love them both so much but this routine is ridiculous, and that’s why he gets mad at me. There’s not enough of me to go around.
Miracles came our way in late August. One came in the form of an obscure provision in inheritance law that ultimately would be the foundation of our survival. The other came in the form of a house. To me they were the first signs of turning a corner, of a positive future, of life after death.
Washington was sweltering in a heat wave. A crowded meeting was held at the lawyers’ offices. I had my army at the table. Miriam Fisher started it off. “I have some good news,” she said.
“Bring it on, Ms. Fisher,” I thought.
She sat upright, pert in her summer suit. Her delicate hands caressed the stack of papers before her on the table. She looked up and smiled.
“The house is yours, Carol, not the estate’s. Even though it’s in both your names, at the moment Howard died ownership reverted to you. It’s called T and E, Tenancy by the Entirety, and it’s a law that is honored in Maryland and the District of Columbia. The house is yours and the apartments are yours and all the furnishings are yours. If you win innocent spouse status, you should be able to keep them, or the proceeds if you sell them. But everything else, everything in Howard’s name – stocks, bonds, bank accounts, savings, boats, cars, whatever else – belongs to the estate, and therefore the government.”
I wanted to get up, walk over, throw my arms around her and plant a big kiss on her cheek, right then and there, but I learned one doesn’t do that with lawyers. I was so happy I lowered my head in thanks. The news was a great fat blast of sunshine.
“Now, if you don’t win innocent spouse status, you won’t get to keep any of it,” she said, “I don’t think. We have to do some more research. I have to find out if the IRS can take precedence over T&E. I don’t think so.”
I decided to be optimistic.
I put our home on the Chesapeake Bay on the market, officially. Photos were taken for a brochure and a listing was written up. Interested buyers would be able to start touring the house after Labor Day. What had seemed in the spring like an impossible and heart wrenching decision became in summer a rational and logical choice. I had cut the cord of emotional attachment to the place. Spencer had, too. We were ready to move on.
In Washington, I put our two apartments on the market and resumed the search for a house of our own. We needed just one roof over our heads. Real estate agents continued to treat me like I was radioactive. For them, having the IRS on your back is less than appealing. Nonetheless I chose to be honest about it with them and hope for the best. An agent named Jeanne Livingston was cooperative, perhaps because I gave her the apartments to sell.
The most sensible option was to stay in Georgetown. The restaurant was in Georgetown, and I needed to be near the restaurant, not only to manage it every day but to feel close to it. In the evening I was a full-time mother, but if we lived near Nathans possibly I could zip back and forth as needed. If a VIP came in I wanted to be able to get the call, wing over, say “hello and thanks,” and then get back home.
In 1997 the Georgetown real estate market was in a slump. For the most prized residential neighborhood in the Washington area there were bargains to be had. Most of the houses we looked at were too big. I didn’t want a huge house like we had before. The life of excess was in my past. I wanted something just the right size for a boy and his mom. I wanted something small, manageable, affordable and, if possible, charming. We poked around, with Jeanne often asking, “But can you afford this?”
After two decades of not worrying about what things cost, I had to adjust to that question.
The truth was I didn’t know what I could afford because I didn’t know what I would have when the IRS was done, but I felt I had to go forward as though somehow, someday, something would come our way. The good news from Miriam gave me hope.
That’s when the other miracle happened, while I sat by a swimming pool with a friend.
The Washington Hilton Hotel is a large, plain tourist and convention hotel in downtown Washington that has been there for decades. It is where President Reagan was shot by John Hinckley in 1980. It has a ballroom the size of a small village and it’s where big business associations like to have their Washington conventions. Even though a President was shot outside, the security has been strengthened enough to win approval of the Secret Service. Time and again, every President since Reagan has made speeches there.
The pool at the Hilton sells summer memberships to non hotel guests. Members get summer use of the pool, gym and tennis courts. It is a convenient way for city dwellers to get some sun and fun. George and Frederica Valanos had a membership. George and Frederica are the kind of couple an advertising agency would pick to be in a spread promoting a sleek car or a deluxe hotel. She is as beautiful as he is handsome and they exude a serene vitality. Frederica walks four miles every morning while George, when he’s not surfing on ocean beaches, rows his scull up and down the Potomac River. She is an interior decorator, he is a developer. When tour buses cruise through Georgetown the guides often talk about Jackie Kennedy and point out the houses where she lived. If the tourists are fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of Frederica walking her dog, they get to see a wisp of that Jackie glamour in a modern Georgetown matron.
In late August Frederica invited us to come to the pool so Spencer and her son, Teddy, who were good friends and classmates, could jump around and swim while we sat in the sun and talked.
Frederica was in a happy mood.
“Well, we closed on our new house,” she said.
“What do you mean your new house?” I asked.
“We bought a house on Dumbarton, a block over, and it’s great, or, will be great after the renovation,” she said, sighing about the work to be done.
“What about your old house?” I asked.
“We’re putting that on the market this weekend,” she said.
“I want it,” I said, instantly. “Don’t sell it to anybody else. I want it.”
I knew the house. It was a modest yellow brick townhouse with a big bay window looking out to the street. I’d been there only a few times, dropping off Spencer for playdates or to visit George and Frederica, and it had the potential to be the perfect house for the two of us. Much smaller than what we were used to, but a good house. It had two bedrooms, and we needed two bedrooms. Best of all, it had a grass lawn in the garden. While I was at peace about moving Spencer from the bucolic setting of the only home he’d known, I wanted him to have some grass to play on in the city. He needed grass. I needed grass. The dog needed grass.
“Can you do it, with the IRS and all?” Frederica asked.
“I don’t know, but I’m going to find out,” I said.
I had never bought a house before, and in the next seventy-two hours I got a crash course in how it’s done. I was weak and dizzy when it was over, but I learned how to buy a house.
It may seem odd that I did not have a better understanding of the details of home-buying, but I had been sheltered. Howard took care of all the big decisions, which included buying property. Certainly I played a role in deciding what we would buy, but he did all the negotiating and paperwork, and I was glad of it. I had been a lousy math student in school, having to repeat algebra, and in my adult life I purposefully avoided anything that had to do with financial equations.
When we were about to buy the house on the Bay, knowing there was a competitive bid at the same price, my role was to write a letter to the owners telling them how much we loved the house, how good we would be to it and the small community it was in, and beg them to choose us. It worked. We got the house. But writing the letter was much like my TV booking job, only I was begging for a house instead of an exclusive television interview. It had nothing to do with the numbers.
To start the process of my first home purchase Jeanne, the real estate agent, Spencer and I went to see the house together. No sales hustle was necessary. We liked it. Spencer loved it. We wanted it. Teddy was there with his parents when we did the tour. When he found out they were selling and moving, he burst into tears. Teddy was crying and Spencer was smiling. We convened on the back porch, calmed everyone, and George talked to us about the price.
George’s profession was land and real estate development. I figured the best way to go with him was straight ahead.
“It seems to me that most people, when they sell, ask one price but expect to get another,” I said to George. “What’s the price you are looking for?” He told me. I nodded. Considering that I didn’t know whether I had access to money, any price was too high. But from what I’d seen around Georgetown, if I could find a way to make it happen, this was the right house for us at the right price.
The easy part was saying I wanted it. Then, all the paper work began. My head was reeling. I could compute about half of what the agent was talking about: “Sign this for that, sign that for this, initial here, initial there, this is a contingency for that, this is a ‘kick out’ for the other, this is if you change your mind, this is if they change their minds.” If she’d said, “this is for whether the sky is blue tomorrow” I would have nodded. All that before we got into reams of provisos regarding lead paint. I asked a lot of questions.
The next step was more rattling. She told me I would have to go to a bank to get a loan and the bank would have to “like” my financial profile.
“Do you mind if they do a credit check?” she asked.
“What are they going to check?” I asked. “What kind of credit history have I got? Nothing. It’s all Howard’s.”
She explained about getting loans and the kinds of loans, whether to offer this much of a down payment or that much, what my offer should be and what I would pay at closing. She told me I would need to get a settlement lawyer.
(I wrote in my journal: I need another lawyer like Clinton needs another Paula Jones. Well, I got another lawyer and he got Monica.)
“And do you want to close before December 1 or after January 15th?” she asked.
“Before I do anything else I have to talk to my tax lawyers and find out if I can even dream about this,” I said.
I faxed a letter to Sheldon Cohen and Miriam Fisher basically asking for their permission to buy a house, which was really asking them to ask the IRS for permission to buy a house. Of course it was complicated. I explained that I would be putting the Bay house and the two apartments on the market and, in effect, downsizing our living arrangements to what we could afford. Everyone knew this was necessary. What I wanted to know was whether I could use money from the estate account, or from Howard’s stocks and bonds, to make a down payment on the house – money I would repay when I sold the bay house, hoping the government ruled my way on the innocent spouse issue.
It was a huge gamble. We knew the worst case scenario was the IRS would get everything; if I bought the house, “everything” would include it, too.
In my letter I said, “It is very important I know the proper way to go on this. I want to get us under one roof. It will bring our living expenses down considerably. I have been frank with all the parties involved. They know my IRS situation. They know my income. They know about my mortgages and the limited cash I have available. They know I am trying to fly right. My mortgage guy feels that even with all of that I will be able to get a mortgage.”
I signed off saying everyone was waiting to hear their verdict.
Later that day, driving out to a mall in Virginia with Spencer and Tricia, the babysitter, the car phone jangled. It was Sheldon and Miriam.
“We’ve reviewed your letter. Can we go over it?”
“Yes,” I said. They were on the car’s speaker phone. We all listened.
“We don’t think you can use the estate money,” they said. “Can Nathans make you a loan?”
“Nathans doesn’t have any money,” I said. I could imagine them looking at each other and nodding agreement. “The estate is the only money I have access to.”
They said they would consult an estate law expert and get back to me, “but you may not be able to do this. It could be a violation of the trust.”
I hung up. We continued driving to the mall. Tricia sat beside me up front. Spencer was in the back seat, talking, as he often did, about Star Wars. I tried to keep up with his lively chatter, but I couldn’t concentrate. Tears welled in my eyes.
“Guys, I need a minute,” I said.
“You cry if you want to,” Tricia said.
“Don’t cry! Don’t cry!” Spencer shouted from the back seat.
Tricia turned to him. “If your Mom wants to cry she has every right to cry, Spencer.”
So I cried. It seemed everywhere I turned, everything I did to try to put our lives in order got stopped by the words “In Violation of the Trust.” It made me feel I was breaking the law and that at any moment I would be carted off to jail. I felt we had no way out.
“Are you still crying?” Spencer asked.
“I’m trying to pull it together. I’ll be okay in a minute. Spencer, just remember how you cried when you watched ‘Mars Attacks’ and how the Martians scared you,” I said.
“Yeah,” from the back seat.
“Well, that’s how I feel right now. Just as scared, like Martians are after me.”
“Are we going to be poor?” he asked.
“Poor? Maybe not poor, but certainly poorer. We’ll be okay, though. We’re gonna get through this. We’ll be humble and happy.”
We parked, walked into the mall and went to a place called The Rain Forest Café, which was done up to look like a rain forest with electronically animated gorillas and giraffes and monkeys hanging from the vines. It was a place designed to delight children, with childrens’ food. We had been invited there as a treat by the man who ran the vending machine company that provided Nathans with its cigarette machine and juke box. His name was Bob Rosen and he wanted to do something special for Spencer.
I could barely concentrate on the conversation, but Spencer was thrilled. Jungle noises intermixed with the sounds of children, parents, plates, silverware, glasses. At the table there was a lot of talk about Howard. Bob wanted to share his memories, but I wasn’t feeling in a very benevolent mood toward Howard at that moment. I wanted him to come back to life and walk in my shoes for a day, to find out what it was like to be in the mess he’d left us. But my anger was pointless. It had nowhere to go.
With all the noise, I could barely hear my cell phone ringing, but it was ringing. It was Miriam.
“Let me get to a quieter spot where I can hear you,” I said.
I searched frantically for some space in the mall that did not sound like a football stadium after a touchdown. Finally I found a janitors’ vestibule and darted in.
“Hi,” I said, “I can hear now.”
“I have good news,” she said. “You will be able to use the estate money because ultimately it was supposed to be yours.”
“We know it will never be mine,” I said.
“Right,” she said, “But when you get the proceeds from the sale of your home that money will go into escrow to pay back the estate. I wouldn’t put too much money in the house, though, because it might at some point have IRS exposure.”
I hated it when the lawyers used that word, and in my case they used it a lot. To me “exposure” meant my assets were hanging out there and the G-men could grab ‘em. I learned exposure was something a person in my position did not want to have. “The bottom line is you can get your house,” she said. Even though I learned to protect myself from sudden high happiness, I gave in on this one. My heart filled with relief, joy and wonder. The wonder was that something positive could happen in the midst of so much negative. To me the lesson learned was keep going forward, don’t give up, you’ll find that happy ending.
During the drive back to Washington I called Jeanne Livingston and told her to go ahead with the purchase of the house. Negotiations went back and forth about the price. George suddenly became a hard bargainer when I thought we had settled the price on the back porch. I learned no deal is a deal until it’s a deal.
When we finally came to an agreement, at a price only a fraction higher than what he told me he was looking for, it was a deal.
Later my agent said she had a message for me from George. “He said he was sorry he pushed so hard. He forgot it was not a commercial deal.”
“Does that mean he’ll drop the price back down?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” she said.
I decided I would take George’s negotiating tactics as a compliment. George and I were good friends and yet he played hardball with me. I realized he was dealing with me as though I were a man. The negotiations weren’t about doing favors. They were about selling a house. It was an example of my new role in life, my new independence and singularity, and why I had to become self-sufficient. I needed to be as prepared and willful as the person negotiating opposite me.
Though we had a deal, the real estate agent wasn’t finished. As encouraging as she had been about buying the house, she now felt she needed to remind me of the negatives.
“Well, you know it doesn’t have parking. It may not have quick resale value. It’s only two bedrooms. The kitchen is not great. The rooms are small,” she said.
“Yesterday it was all about the great garden, the charm, the beautifully finished rooms. What happened? Now it’s all bad,” I said.
“It’s my job to make sure you are aware of the negatives,” she said.
“Don’t take the wind out of my sails,” I said. “I love the place. We’re going to have a home.”
It had been three days since Frederica and I sat by the pool at the Hilton and she told me the house was for sale.
I came home and wrote in my journal: “A significant day. I’ve bought my first house. This is monumental. A huge event. It could be the first step of our new lives.”
That night I went to dinner with Harry Shearer and his mother, Dora, who were visiting from Los Angeles. Harry was giving his Mom a look at the nation’s capital. We went to a restaurant downtown and celebrated my good fortune.
My beeper went off. It was George Valanos paging me. Right away I called back, worried that something had happened to the deal.
“Congratulations,” George said. “We’re sitting in the garden having some wine. Do you want to come and see your new house?”
Harry, Dora and I finished dinner and headed to Georgetown. George and Frederica led us out to the garden where two other guests were sitting at a glass topped table, drinking red wine. It was a lovely September night. Crickets were chirping. There was a full moon. Cool air. The garden was beautifully lit from above and below. The house glowed from within. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I wanted to wrap my arms around the place, hug it, and be alone with it.
“It’s charming,” Harry said.
“Really? You think so?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, “You did good. You should be proud of yourself.”
Pride was something I had not felt in a long time. While booking people like Nicole Kidman and George Clooney for an interview with Larry King was good fun, it did not give me pride in accomplishment. It was more like eating cotton candy at the fair. Yummy while it’s happening and then quickly forgotten. Nor was there anything I’d done at Nathans that gave me pride. There was an abundance of fear and confusion, but not pride. Finding a house and making the deal – putting a roof over our heads – that did make me feel capable and proud. When Harry, Dora and I left the Valnoses that night, I stood in the street and looked back at the house.
“Please let us find happiness there,” I wished.
A week later, when we did the inspection of the new house, I was told by the real estate agent that this had to be done, but it bothered me. I didn’t want to hear anything but good. No bad news could change my mind, no matter what the inspector had to say, so I didn’t want to hear it. I dutifully followed him around into every room, nook and dark, dank cranny. The inspector was out of central casting with his low rider jeans, t-shirt, tool bag, clipboard, work boots and baseball cap. I’m sure it advertised Caterpillar tractors or the Redskins.
“Well, there’s rot here and mold there and this brick is loose and water is leaking from here and this mortar needs replacing and this gas burner doesn’t work and I can’t figure out the heating system for the life of me,” he said.
“Is that all?” I asked.
The lawyers and accountants advised me to put down as little money as possible and get a jumbo fixed mortgage. Again, this was to prevent too much “exposure.” I hired a mortgage broker who shopped around and found me a rate of 7 ¾’s per cent interest, and everyone at the table said, “that’s good, that’s great,” and I nodded, even though I had no idea whether it was either good or great. Back then I knew nothing about mortgages. I went with the flow.
George and Frederica Valanos asked if we could delay the closing date until after the first of the year, because they had to get most of the renovation completed on their house. This was good for me, because I wanted to get the Bay house and apartments sold before I moved. I wanted only one, not three mortgages to pay. Also, I had to sell a lot of furniture and other possessions and get downsized and organized. A delay was good for me.
“May I suggest a date?” I asked.
“Sure, what’s good for you?” they said.
“How about February 1?” I asked.
“That’s perfect,” they said.
And so, with the date set it meant the anniversary of Howard’s death, rather than having it be eternally about what we’d lost it would become the anniversary of our gain.
Howard’s magazines keep arriving and even though I have no time to read them, they make me think of him. I remember that one of the first things he did after we started living together was subscribe to a lot of magazines. I found that so stable and mature. I think at the time I’d had one magazine subscription in my life, when I lived in New York, to New York Magazine, and it may have been a comp. But Howard loved magazines. He loved to buy them and read them. He’s the only person I ever knew who actually read The New Yorker’s ads. He loved their ads. He loved the magazine, but especially the ads. He even advertised Nathans in The New Yorker, because that was the audience he wanted to reach.
It’s funny, especially now that Nathans can’t afford to advertise anywhere, to think about where he chose to promote the place. No Washington publications, except the Georgetowner. He ran ads only in The New Yorker and Gourmet.
The other night there were some people in the dining room who came because of the Gourmet ad. They asked to meet me. Isn’t that interesting?
I’ll keep The New Yorker forever, and in Howard’s name, just because. Maybe Gourmet, too. But he had so many others: Antiques, The World of Interiors, Architectural Digest, House and Garden, Southern Accents, Time, Newsweek, Town and Country, Vogue, Harper’s and Queen, Tatler, British Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Yachting, Power and Motor Yacht, Sailing, Sail, Country Life, Conde Nast Traveler, Chesapeake Bay, Harper’s, Food Arts, TV Guide, New York, W, The Wine Spectator, The Chronicle of the Horse, Historic Preservation, Bon Appetit. Gads. Really. He read them all. And now they keep arriving in the mail in his name. I wish I could forward them to him. I can just see him, with a big pile of magazines, in his comfy chair in the den, reading glasses on his nose, TV on, dog behind his neck, Spencer coming and going – happy as a man can be..
Mourning taught me to ride the emotional rollercoaster: up down, up down, up down. Life had become a hair-raising hyper-coaster. The biggest down was always after the highest up. Hairpin turns came suddenly, and then everything was upside down, the whole world on top of me with my feet in the air and at a high rate of speed. And then nothing. Full stop, before it started again.
It had been six months since Howard’s death, but I still could dissolve, quite unexpectedly, into a pool of tears. Little things, big things or absolutely nothing set them off. I was surprised by how I felt, good one minute and horrible the next. The main difference from the beginning of my mourning was that I now understood the mood swings, rolled with them and moved on. Spencer swung between being a happy-go-lucky perfectly normal 5 ½ year old boy and Damien, the anti-Christ. I rolled with that, too. Suicide still came up, and he repeatedly talked about feeling like he didn’t fit in with his friends, with the world he used to know.
“I’m the only boy who doesn’t have a father,” he said, which was true in the technical sense of a “living” father in our particular circle of friends and the immediate community. I told him “it won’t always be like that. As life goes on you will meet other boys who don’t have a father and you will be a step ahead and able to help them.”
We didn’t talk about our grief or the loss of Howard as much as we talked about the life of Howard. I wanted him to be part of our daily dialogue, as a reminder to Spencer that he did have a father and that his father was an important part of his existence. It wasn’t so much “remember” this or “remember” that, as much as it was this:
Spencer: “My favorite color is blue.”
` Me: “That was your father’s favorite color, too.”
Spencer: “Can we watch a movie?
Me: “Sure. Let’s watch Treasure Island. It was your dad’s most beloved movie when he was a boy.”
Spencer: “I don’t have a daddy.”
Me: “Yes you do. You will always have a daddy. It’s just that your daddy is dead, in heaven and watching out for you from there.”
I tried to be at Nathans during dinner at least three nights a week. (On some other nights I went to other restaurants to study the competition.) With a girlfriend I could catch up, gossip, talk about life, men, giggle and watch how my restaurant ran.
I sat at the same table, booth 26, with my eye on the door. If people waited too long to be seated by the manager on duty, I hopped up and tried to help. If someone I knew came in the door, I hopped up to say hello. If someone came to the door, looked around and then turned and left I wondered why they didn’t want to stay, how we failed to keep them for dinner? I wanted to chase after them and ask. People decide to stay or go in an instant, and I wanted to know what it was about my place that made them choose one or the other.
I asked Terry, the night manager, endless questions about how we did this, why we did that, what Howard would do in this situation.
I asked bartenders how they did their jobs. I asked waiters about their skills and training. Sometimes I would talk to staff and out of the corner of my eye I would see Doug, standing against the wall, watching.
“You are not completely out of place in this business,” he said one day, when we were going over the profit and loss sheets and other financial papers. “With your background you could do public relations work for the restaurant. We haven’t had a PR person for a while.”
“Doug, my background is in journalism, not public relations.”
“I don’t see the difference,” he said.
I adhered to my lessons of survival: get out of bed every morning, go forward, laugh, and try to get a dose of friends whenever possible. Friends made the difference between a horrible or wonderful day. Something as simple as an unexpected phone call to find out how I was doing, or an invitation to a dinner party, lifted my spirits substantially. When all else failed, I invited a group of girlfriends, all Moms, to come dance with me in the back room of Nathans. The deejay would be employed and sometime after dinner a dozen or so women in their 30s and 40s and 50s, occasionally one or two of them pregnant, would join me for raucous boogying. No slow dances. Few, if any, men. Not even much drinking. Simply wild, abandoned, exorcize-the-demons dancing.
Because it was critical that Nathans get a new lease – the one we had would be up in six months – and because I knew Doug had a good relationship with the five landlords, I asked him to please mind them for me. They were Greek and all in the same family. They came to Howard’s visitation at Gawler’s funeral home, and later the matriarch and her son of joined me for coffee and cakes at Nathans, and it was important to maintain the relationship.
“Call them every now and then, okay?” I asked Doug. “If you could do that I would be grateful. I want them to be happy, in the loop, and know that everything is okay here.”
He said he would. At the same time, I was meeting regularly with Nathans day-to-day lawyer, Jake Stein, to work on the actual legal negotiations for the lease. These negotiations were never easy. All Howard ever told me about them was that every ten years, when the lease was up, he sent one of his ex partners, the bookie who called himself “Nathan Detroit,” who was Greek, to meet with them. “I gave Nathan some Feta cheese, some Retsina wine and a bag of money and shortly thereafter I had a new lease.”
I knew, like everything else I inherited from Howard, that I would have to play the lease negotiations differently – by the rules and without a bag of money.
Friends brought up the question of dating, as in “when do you plan to start darting,” but I resisted. It was the last thing I wanted to do. With the kind of harrowing days I was having, there would have been no comfort in sitting down with a man to start a relationship from the beginning. Besides, as a date I would be just about the biggest downer. Worse yet, he might be turned on by my misery. The best companion for me was always Howard’s sister, Martha, who knew all of it, every detail, and our conversations picked up wherever we left off. Her most oft repeated comment was:
“What was Howard thinking?”
Yes, bless his heart, but what was he thinking?
“It would be different if we were both married,” Paolo said when he called late one night. “Then if we had an affair we would both be the same.”
“Well, we’re not going to have an affair,” I said, “And you’re logic is too European for me.”
“We are not in the same place,” he said.
“Perhaps, but we have the same feelings,” I said.
We had not talked in a few weeks, since the interlude in the vestibule of the linen shop. We were making an effort to cool down. I’d resisted urges to call him, but whenever the phone rang after midnight my first hope was that I would hear his voice.
When he did call the conversations started slowly. We talked about work and life. If he had been traveling he would give me a report. There was a celebrity chef event in Paris and another in Milan. He said whenever he was on the road he only wanted to be back in New York in his own kitchen.
“Andre Soltner had it right,” he said. “Do the job, stay at the restaurant, don’t get distracted by demands that aren’t about your business. But today, as a chef, you have to do these events. It is silly. It is fun to see friends, but it’s not good to leave the business.”
Soltner, now retired, was the long-time chef and owner of the legendary Lutece restaurant on the East Side who had a work ethic that did not allow for frivolous jet-setting around the world. He worked. He always worked. Lunch and dinner, he was in the kitchen or walking out to the dining room to say to a favored customer, “What can I cook for you today?” To young chefs like Paolo, he was a legend.
But I did not want to talk about Andre Soltner.
“I miss talking to you and I can’t help but think about you,” I said.
“I know,” he said.
“Are you successful in not thinking about me?”
“I try,” he said, “but no….Are you coming to New York?”
“After Labor Day, I think,” I said.
The Windsor Auction was my ticket back to New York, but Wendy Whitworth was losing interest in this event, and not without merit. It did not have the great universal appeal of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ possessions or Princess Diana’s dresses. It had come down to this with Wendy in regard to the auction: If I could bag an interview with Mohammed al-Fayed, we would do a live broadcast the night of the sale. His celebrity was rising quickly now that his son, Dodi, had been photographed kissing Princess Diana on a yacht in the Mediterranean. But no Mohammed meant no show. I told her our only best hope of getting him was for one of us, hopefully me, to go to the auction preview party and talk to him there. I considered al-Fayed my single most important target. I had to get him. His Harrods publicist, the friendly but slippery Michael Cole, said “Yes;” Fayed’s brother, Ali al-Fayed, said “No;” and Pat Kingsley of the PMK agency in Los Angeles, who al-Fayed recently hired to do additional PR for him, said, “I don’t know.” Pat, at least, was honest.
On a separate track I nailed down a two-fer: George Clooney and Nicole Kidman to appear on a broadcast together. It was for their new film, “Peacemaker,” and their handlers, again PMK, thought the Larry King Live format would be ideal. Alas, I didn’t need to use the private home phone number Clooney had slipped to me at the White House Correspondents dinner.
Also, I booked Carly Simon, but the booking was shaky. Her publicist was now saying that on the same date she was scheduled to do our show Carly wanted to be at a friend’s wedding on Martha’s Vineyard. Fair enough. But the publicist had already come to me with the booking, offered me the date, and I had confirmed it with Wendy and put it up on the board. It didn’t help me to lose an important booking right now, especially someone as famous as Carly Simon. I needed to be hauling them in.
Howard Rubenstein called me with some encouragement regarding our much sought after interview with Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford. He didn’t promise that it would happen, but he did say that if they decided to talk, “Larry is the one.” I passed that on to Wendy and Larry.
The fashion designer Donna Karan was considering an invitation to come on the show with Deepak Chopra. Somewhere I’d read she was one of his followers and this seemed like a nifty way to do both of them. Wendy liked interesting pairings like that, when we could find them. Though publicists often balked, these kinds of shows did very well for us and the guests, meaning they got ratings.
I had to work out a mix up with Anthony Hopkins. I had booked him for a live show, when the senior producer, Becky, told me to, but Wendy, when she weighed in, said “No, on tape.”
Becky, as the show’s senior producer, had authority over me. But for me any relationship we ever had hit the rocks back when she had suggested that widowhood made me crazy. As the weeks rolled on, Becky seemed to have elected herself as my executioner. When Becky was out of the office, Wendy and I got along well. When Becky was back in the office, Wendy treated me with suspicion and doubt. When Wendy was out of the office, Becky tried to marginalize me.
First she got me moved from my front row position at a desk near Wendy’s office to a cubicle in the back next to the show’s unit manager. I liked the unit manager. She was a good person. But it was clear my location was now “out of the loop.” Then I became the last to know about staff meetings. Gatherings would happen around the booking board and one of my guardian angels would come get me, saying “Carol, you better get in on this.” Colleagues could see what was happening. They didn’t want to get too involved because they didn’t want to get tainted by proximity to me – someone seen to be on the down slide – but they looked out for me.
Then I was removed from “Celebrity Service,” a subscription service reporters call to get phone numbers for a celebrity, along with their travel plans and guest appearance dates and locations.
A show like Larry King Live would pay for a subscription and then 3-4 producers would be able to call and get phone numbers. Only those named producers could call the service. I relied on Celebrity Service. I called them so often the staff and I were on a first name basis. It was essential for my job. Being removed was not only devastating; it was embarrassing because I found out by calling Celebrity and being told, “Carol, you are no longer on the list. Your show took you off.”
“With you not being able to work as much as before it just made sense to replace you with one of the full-time producers,” Becky explained. “It was a business decision.”
“Becky, I use them all the time. I need them for the assignments Wendy gives to me.”
“Well, it’s done. Just go to one of the other producers and have them get the number for you.”
Next she took away my laptop. Whether I was at home in Washington or on the Bay or traveling, I could log on to CNN, read the show line-up, read the progress of other bookings, read the headlines and, most of all, communicate directly with Wendy.
“You don’t need the laptop that much anymore because you aren’t working that much,” Becky said. “A producer in the L.A. bureau needs it more than you do.”
If I’d had any dignity left I would have quit, but dignity was no longer my concern. It was survival. In my head I was thinking, what if the government does not grant me innocent spouse status? I will need this job. What if I lose Nathans? I will need this job. I had a staff position, which included medical and other benefits. In my precarious position I could not afford to quit this job. So I told myself that I still had my super deluxe pager, which meant contacts could send me text messages anywhere, and I still had my phone credit card, which meant I could call them back from anywhere, and I still had an expense account and use of a CNN cellphone.
Wendy and I both knew my life wasn’t the same, but she did treat me with respect and sensitivity. When Wendy was in the mix, or when I was working directly with Larry, the troubling issues at the show didn’t matter. But I could feel my position of power slipping away.
Apart from getting a show on the air every night, much of our attention was now on Larry’s personal life, because he and Shawn Southwick got engaged. This made all of us very happy.
“I told ya, Carol, to get used to her. Remember?” Larry said when I called to congratulate him.
“You were right, Larry. And I got used to her. I think this is the best. I’m so happy for you.”
“Well, ya coulda had your chance, you know,” he said in his joking and flirting way.
“Aw, Lare, thanks. It’s my loss.”
I talked to Shawn, too, and she was almost breathless with happiness.
“The next time we’re all in New York I want to take you out to dinner to celebrate, okay?”
“We’re in,” she said.
“We’ll go to some fancy shmancy French place that will bore Larry but you and I will love.” We both giggled.
Paolo wasn’t the only chef on my mind. I’d begun the search for a full-fledged executive chef for Nathans, beating the bushes for candidates, calling and writing to friends and acquaintances at other restaurants in Washington.
In time, candidates began to come see me. One had been the head chef of a new restaurant and his food got excellent reviews from restaurant critic Phyllis Richman in The Washington Post, but a subsequent falling out with management had put him back on the market. Of all the candidates, I liked him best. He looked like Keanu Reeves, tall and lean and post-modern, but he talked about food with the passion of a classicist from the old school. He agreed to return to Nathans to work a shift, preparing for me some of his best dishes.
I called around to chef friends to check on his references. They all advised me to give him a pass.
“He’s a brilliant talent,” one of them said, “but he’s a drunk. He’s known to not show up.”
Sure enough, the night when he was supposed to cook he didn’t show up. I felt like a fool in front of the staff, especially Doug.
I interviewed more candidates. One was a Phillipino cook who had worked for the Navy. When I asked about his specialties, he said, “Spaghetti.”
“That’s it?” I asked.
“Well, I can do it many ways.”
The next gentleman was French, with eye-popping credentials. He’d worked in some of the best restaurants in town and carried a big book with pages of his recipes, menus and clippings.
“Why would you want to work here?” I asked. “This is basically a saloon. My menu is American saloon food with steaks and chops, grilled fish and pasta. You are a French chef.”
“Oh,” he said, “Then we would not work well together.”
The next fellow, a nephew of Arnoldo, the day cook, was good looking, fast-talking and smart. I found him appealing. But he had a good job up the street as sous chef in a hotel kitchen. He had a good salary and benefits, too. Why would he want to leave?
“I’m always looking for new opportunities,” he said.
“Good, because I have ambitious plans,” I said, “This could be a lot of fun for you. But I won’t be able to offer the benefits you are used to. It will be a little more basic, but you’ll get reviewed and noticed and you’ll be able to have a one on one relationship with the customers and you would run the whole kitchen. The kitchen budget would be your responsibility.”
“Good, I am interested.”
“Fine, come back tomorrow and cook for me. Work with your uncle.”
But the next day he didn’t show, which caused a problem, because I’d given one of the other cooks the day off to make room for the try out.
“Where is your nephew?” I asked Arnoldo.
“Oh, he told the hotel you offered him a job and they gave him a raise. So he’s staying there.”
“Nice of him to call,” I said.
It was clear Arnoldo was embarrassed. I did not blame him.
But I was bewildered by my bad luck in finding a chef. I’d thought it would be so easy, that qualified candidates would be lining up at the door.
I went to lunch with Phyllis Richman of The Washington Post.
“Meeting with you is against my rules, Carol, because eventually I will have to review you,” she said when we sat down. “But your situation is so unusual and interesting I decided we could do this once.”
“I’m grateful, Phyllis. I know you can answer questions and tell me things it would take me months to learn otherwise.”
“Have you considered a woman chef?” she asked.
“I would welcome a woman chef, but none has applied,” I said. “Nathans has a history with a woman chef, Giussepina, who was there for 20 years. One of her daughters is on the line now.”
We ordered, or I should say we ordered but with her politely nudging me toward my choices. The food came and we shared. Whatever I had she took a bite. It was an interesting process, watching her do her job as a critic. Toward the end of the meal, just before dessert, she noticed a couple of managers hovering around.
“Uh oh, I’ve been recognized. Darn.”
It was a corporate-type restaurant and the “suits” had arrived on the scene. The next thing we knew, the chef was coming toward us, looking scared.
“Oh no,” she said, “The poor guy. You know they are making him come out here.”
I was doubly embarrassed for him because here was Phyllis Richman eating his food with another restaurateur, possibly even a competitor. I tried to put him at ease and to let him know I was thrilled with his cooking. After all, I wasn’t the critic. He was very polite. Phyllis was very polite. He went back to the kitchen and then we were descended upon by waiters bearing too many desserts.
“Is it always like this when you are recognized?”
“No,” she said, “They are being a little more obvious, but I don’t think it’s the chef’s choice. I think its management.”
I told myself to remember that fact when and if Phyllis walked in the door of Nathans.
That afternoon, on the employee bulletin board in the basement of the restaurant, I tacked up a sign that said:
EVERY CUSTOMER IS PHYLLIS RICHMAN
This is the strangest thing and I can’t even believe it happened.
Someone, most likely employees, cut the rat screens in the basement. The building is old and there are all kinds of holes in the walls and we cover them with industrial strength rat screens. But the other day Doug said the early prep staff were noticing lots of signs of rats, and then more signs of rats and more and more and more. Critical rats. So he poked around and discovered all the screens had been cut.
This just freaked me out. For one thing, I sit down in the basement for hours when I’m there. But more importantly, what if the Health Department had come in?
Why would anyone do that? Sure, it’s bad for Nathans but it’s bad for everyone who has a job there, too.
Doug did a little investigating and got nowhere. Then, this afternoon, Arnoldo asked to see me before he left for the afternoon. He asked if we could go outside. So, we went out the kitchen door and stood out on the sidewalk on Wisconsin Avenue. He seemed supremely uncomfortable to be talking to me but very polite.
“Mrs. Joynt, I am afraid this business was done by some of the boys,” he said.
I knew he was referring to the young dishwashers, who are also Latino.
“I am very sorry and embarrassed,” he said.
“Why would they do that?” I asked.
“Because they are young,” he said. “They don’t know better. They are macho.”
“What can I do?” I asked.
“There is nothing. I have talked to them. It won’t happen again. But I am very sorry. This was very bad.”
“Arnoldo, tell them the next time I will call the police.”
Arnoldo is so elegant and proud and mature and I know it pained him enormously to have to tell me but I will remember his loyalty forever.
“I’d heard that,” Doug said, when I told him.
“Well, why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.
“I figured I could work it out and I didn’t want to bother you.”
“Why do you think they did it?”
“We’ve been cutting back their overtime. They are angry.”
“Great. Get the business shut down by the Health Department. That will help overtime a lot.”
The bookkeeper I hired, Caroline, had begun to teach me about the numbers, as Fred Thimm of the Palm suggested. Nobody, including Doug, could sugarcoat them anymore. The truth was all I wanted to hear – no matter how painful, and it was consistently painful. Nathans owed money to everybody, from the city government to the company that delivered paper towels and toilet paper. The city, the landlords and the liquor companies had to be paid on time or we would lose the ABC license, but everyone else got strung along, especially in the summer.
Our so-called aging debt, as Labor Day weekend arrived, was about $160 thousand. I found that to be astonishing. But Caroline was nonplussed.
“Everybody in the restaurant business carries a lot of debt,” she said. “That’s just how it is.”
I wasn’t comfortable with debt. I was beginning to understand why the restaurant business attracted the kinds of people it attracted -- people who don’t like to play by the rules, because there are no rules. They are made up along the way. It seemed that the standard was to string debt out as long as possible, play by whatever rules seemed to fit, and not get caught.
“Maybe this tightening up will help,” I told Doug.
“Maybe,” he said, “But we’re getting a lot of grief about the new menu.”
“People don’t like change,” I said. “Especially in restaurants.”
“Some customers say they didn’t think it needed to be changed,” he said.
“And others say they like it. We will have to tough it out. The old menu had so much waste. We needed to do this.”
I had chosen the Labor Day weekend as the occasion to launch the revised menu. It was still Northern Italian, but I had cut the items down by half. The items listed that were never available got cut. The items that never sold got cut. Everything that was popular and sold well was still there, especially the famous Lobster Fettuccini, a platter of house-made fettuccini noodles drenched in creamy and butter-rich Alfredo sauce and topped with fresh, steaming hot lobster out of the shell.
There were people who became engaged over that dish and who now came back to have it again as they celebrated their son’s or daughter’s graduation from college. I liked that.
“If we don’t make changes we won’t stay in business,” I said.
There were more Labor Day weekend changes, but they happened downstairs, in the office. We tightened up the schedules, we continued to cutback on overtime. Caroline went at the books with a vengeance, asking Doug all kinds of pointed questions about expenditures.
An office that had been a “boy’s club,” was beginning to look like a “girl’s club,” and I could see in their faces that Doug and some of the other managers found this an annoyance.
Nathans was like a big ship that was dead in the water. I had to fix the broken engine and props, crank ‘em up and get the thing going again in the right direction. All this with an enemy warship, the IRS, standing alongside.
My new rules were straightforward and fairly obvious: Managers who were working 4-day shifts now had to work 5-day shifts. Staff meals were no longer free, but offered at a fifty percent discount. Vacation time had to be requested in writing. A manager had to be on the floor at all times during meals. An office manager would be hired to oversee the delivery of food and beverages, bill-paying, and other routine work, to free up managers to work in prime time. The General Manager would be expected to be on the premises on Friday and Saturday nights. Paychecks would now come out every two weeks instead of every one week, in order to help the cash flow. We would consolidate all our checking accounts into one. All managers would be required to show up for the weekly managers’ meeting with me. We would institute more staff training, especially courses on wine and food. I would design new uniforms for the staff. We would replace the worn and tattered fabric on the walls in the dining room. We would get new lampshades and curtains. I would buy the flowers from a wholesaler and do the arrangements myself. I suggested we try some wine specials and perhaps a discounted “early bird” dinner.
I told Doug that his one percent of the gross would be changed immediately to ten percent of the net after my objectives were met, paid on a quarterly basis.
“What are your objectives?” he asked.
“Paying the rent, paying the IRS, paying the lawyers, paying me,” I said.
In a separate memo sent only to Doug, I wrote, “We are all in this together. It behooves no one in management to operate as if he is not my spokesman or advocate. If you sign on to be the general manager you sign on to the role of selling new policies and procedures to the staff, and with enthusiasm and authority. All the managers have that responsibility.
“You need to serve as a conduit between me and the staff. I have not asked anybody to do anything he cannot or should not do. Because it wasn’t instituted in the past does not mean a new policy is bad or wrong.
“I want a happy staff, I want camaraderie, and both can derive from the shared experience of a job well done, and the pride of having a room full of customers who are here because of the excellent food, service and surroundings we provide. We can achieve this, but the message has to be clear and it starts from the top.
“Motivation. Positive Reinforcement. Constructive criticism. Leadership. Respect. Pride. Service. These are the words that should guide us as we manage Nathans.”
“If only you could turn him,” Fred Thimm said on the phone. “I keep thinking at some point he’s going to wake up and get on board. But what does it take? I thought by now he would be thanking you for keeping him on the payroll.”
“Fred, he views me as an impediment. He sees me as competition. He thinks I want to be here. He thinks I’m enjoying this.”
“Have you had a heart to heart with him?” he asked.
“More than one. But he always ends up pissing me off. Just the other day he said to me, ‘If Howard had lived and I had died this place would have closed in a week.’”
Labor Day Weekend, 1997
Princess Diana is dead. Killed, so we’re told, by the paparazzi. A senseless car crash in a Paris tunnel and she’s gone and two boys are motherless. It’s so hard to believe and yet the television, awash with obits and grisly images, is convincing me it is fact.
Britt Kahn, who quit the staff at Larry King and who now works for ABC, called me shortly after 9 p.m. to tell me the news. I paged Wendy. She called right away. We talked. I called Mohammed al-Fayed’s spokesman, Michael Cole, in London. He could only confirm that Dodi was dead. I talked to Wendy again. Tried to call everyone else on the staff. Most were out. After all, it was the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend.
I mentioned to Wendy that it was Britt who gave me the early tip. Her voice was overtaken by winter. “How could you do that? You talked to Britt Kahn? She is a traitor. I can’t believe you did that. Oh, that was so wrong. Why did you talk to her?”
I was stunned by Wendy’s reaction. I said, “She called me. All we did was talk about what had happened.”
“Did you tell her what we’re doing?” she asked.
“Well, no. We aren’t doing anything yet. We don’t have a show until Monday.”
“Carol, I can’t believe you would do such a thing. Nobody at our show should talk to anyone from another show. Ever,” she said.
“Wendy, sometimes you tell me to call Katy Thompson at ABC. I don’t do it, but you tell me to,” I said.
“Not any more,” she said. “I have stopped that.”
She went on to talk about other things, but before we hung up she came back to how bad I was to talk to Britt. I had never had a lecture like that from an executive producer in network television. We can talk to whomever we want. I don’t give away show secrets.
The calls and TV watching went on most of the night. I talked to Pat Kingsley about Tom Cruise, who had phoned in to CNN. I talked to Michael Cole several times.
I talked to Dean Sicoli at LKL. He is easier to get along with than the other bookers, Donna and Hattie.
Then Donna called after midnight, asking for my list of names and contact numbers. She said she wanted to put it in the computer, in a master list of contacts. I suspected other motives. Diana and the al-Fayeds have been my targets for a while and no one cared, but now that Diana is THE story, Donna wants it. But I, good soldier, gave up what I had.
I got to bed at 4 a.m. and was up again three hours later, fielding calls and making breakfast for Spencer and our weekend houseguests, Yolande Fox and her family. Donna called early wanting more of my contacts and numbers. “These are for everyone, Carol.”
We did a staff conference call at 11 a.m. It was decided I would go after Tom Cruise, Madonna, Demi Moore, Michael Cole, Liz Tilberis, Anna Wintour, Zandra Rhodes, Elizabeth Emanuel, and Michael Jackson for Monday night’s show. Others would go after police and officials.
Wendy began the call, our first full staff conference call after the death of Diana, with an admonition: “If I hear of any one of you talking to our competition at the other networks you better start looking for another job.”
I had no luck with Tom Cruise. No luck with Madonna. No luck with Demi Moore. Reached Pat Kingsley again who was tired and in a bad mood and weary of us. Left messages for Liz Rosenberg re Madonna, Susan Magrino re Tilberis. Talked to Paul Wilmot about Anna Wintour. And I actually booked Michael Cole.
“Okay, Carol, I’ll do it,” he said. “I’ll rest up for you.” It will be 2 a.m. in London when we go live.
I made beds while on the phone. I served lunch on the phone. Played in the pool on the phone, holding it high in the air. Went crabbing at the dock on the phone.
Talked to Jeffrey Schneider at Rubenstein at about 3 p.m. He said The Duchess of York would not be doing anything for the moment but would “honor all her commitments.” That was good news, since she had a commitment to us.
I had to close up the house on the phone. Cart in the cushions for the furniture, clean around the pool, wash and dry the towels, close all the windows and doors, put everything else away – all on the phone.
Got back to D.C. just in time for another conference call with Becky and Wendy. Becky was much testier with me this time. “Why haven’t you called Tom Cruise at home?” she demanded. Well, I don’t have his home number. Besides, he’s in London starting a film. “What’s the film? Where’s he shooting? Where’s he staying?” I don’t know. I reminded her we didn’t care until this morning. I asked, “We’ve sent two producers to London. Can’t they chase that one?” No, Becky said, we have other things for them to do.
They were delighted to report that Steven Seagal was available. “He has stayed at the Ritz,” Wendy said. “He has been driven in that same car and he knew the driver, and paparazzi have chased him in that same tunnel.” He was delivered to us by Larry’s daughter.
“This is huge,” Becky said. “A great booking.”
So we have Seagal and Michael Cole and some eyewitnesses and we’re working on French police officials and Scotland Yard and a list of knowns and unknowns that runs about 3 feet long, small print, single-spaced.
The conference call rambled on for about 45 minutes. I said I had to get off if they were done with me.
An hour later I was told Becky wanted to talk to me and was patched through to her.
“Wendy only wants you to work on two people – Michael Cole and Anna Wintour,” she said. “Nobody else! We’re streamlining.”
“Okay,” I said.
Michael Cole is booked. Anna won’t do anything. Everyone else is working triple hard and I’m idled. Go figure.
We did another conference call at 8:30 p.m. Becky assigned about 30 targets to each producer – Donna, Hattie, Dean – and I got only two. She did this in a normal tone of voice, the telephone equivalent of a straight face.
After the conference call, Dean and I were talking on the phone when I heard Donna in the background, yelling, “Dean, don’t talk to her! Hang up now!”
He called me later to say that after we hung up Donna said to him: “Don’t talk to Carol. We’re not supposed to work with her.”
It’s not Larry. He doesn’t know about any of this. He hasn’t a clue, which is fine. That’s not his responsibility. He has to sit and talk for an hour on live television. That’s responsibility enough. And, in spite of everything, we get a good show on the air every night. But to marginalize a strong booker in the middle of a major story is silly.
Before midnight Dean called me again. He said he got to the bottom of what Donna was yammering about. She told him the instructions for no one on the staff to talk to me came from Wendy. “We’re not to work with you or talk to you.” He was sweet and thoughtful. “Why are they doing this?” he sighed.
At the end of the day all that matters to me is that two boys have lost their mother. She died a horrible death. We were charmed by her for a while and she’s gone.