In the restaurant business, little things mean a lot. At Nathans, little things meant an awful lot. As the calendar moved from September to October, the IRS put liens on our bank accounts. Vito Zappala got delayed by a personal matter and could not start his "systems analysis" of the operation until late October, and Douglas Sullivan did not renew the liquor license. Whether he did it on purpose or out of ineptness, he put the business in jeopardy.
I found out about it from two of my lawyers who had seen Nathans name posted on the “delinquent” list downtown.
Nathans liquor license was a piece of gold. They are hard to get and hard to keep; a valuable element of bureaucracy that can’t be taken for granted. They come in many forms, some for only beer and wine, but most the standard kind that covers beer, wine and spirits. Nathans liquor license belonged to me personally; it came with Howard’s corporation, Moustache, Inc., and the business. In Washington, DC, the liquor licenses were renewed annually. A fee was paid. It’s a bureaucratic process and was a pain in the ass but it had to be done. Nathans had an ABC “tavern” or “CT” license, as opposed to a “restaurant” or “C” license. What it meant was that Nathans wasn’t required to serve a lot of food to operate, whereas with a “C” license food sales had to represent almost half of the total gross receipts. With the tavern license we could have served boiled eggs and beef jerky and kept within the law. That’s what made our license golden.
When Nathans first opened in 1969, a tavern license was the standard for bars in Georgetown. Back then it was a sleepier neighborhood and no one considered bars a threat to the social landscape. But over time, as bars began to proliferate, the citizens of Georgetown became alarmed. Legislation got passed that put a block on the issuance of new Georgetown tavern licenses. That law meant any existing business that had a CT license could keep it, but any new business would have to apply for a “C” or restaurant license.
Under the law, my tavern license couldn’t be replaced. If it expired, or if I failed to get it renewed, the ABC board would technically be able to put it on the shelf and force me to qualify for a standard “C” license. For that reason renewal was critical.
When I learned through Jake Stein and my ABC lawyer, Steve O’Brien, that the renewal was past due, I was dismayed. When I asked Doug, he said, “I forgot.” Caroline the bookkeeper said, “I reminded him about it two weeks ago.” The only thing that saved me was some fancy dancing O’Brien did downtown, but it was no way to run a business.
“Do you think he did it on purpose?” Caroline the bookkeeper asked.
“God knows,” I said. “I wish I could figure out how to motivate him, to get him on board.”
Caroline told me that he had not given her any of the inventory numbers she needed to prepare an up to date financial statement the lawyers were asking for.
While Doug did seem to be working against me in covert ways, I tried not to be paranoid, because I had no hard evidence. It was just as possible that these slips and failings were ineptness. Maybe he needed Howard to keep him on his toes.
The IRS lien on the Nathans bank account was scary. It was a levy for money due on a related but incidental tax issue. Miriam Fisher, my tax lawyer, said “Pay it.” We did. But I was now officially aware of how easy it was for the government to come in and put their clamps on our bank accounts.
The delay in Vito Zappalla’s arrival was out of my hands. It was a private family matter. I had to be patient. Soon, I hoped to be signing the new lease and after that I wanted to be ready to deal with Doug.
The good news is that it was autumn and the sun set early, the busy season. Nathans was packed from the cocktail hour until closing. On Friday and Saturday nights there was a line to get in the door. It belied the notion that the place was on the ropes. In fact, we were busier than ever. It stunned me how a restaurant could carry on in two realities. In the office we struggled while upstairs in the busy bar and dining room Nathans appeared to be a success and profitable.
In the bar on a Friday or Saturday night it was packed six bodies deep. The bartenders, three of them, moved in an alluring choreography of bottles and glasses and ice and beer taps and speed pours. They deftly avoided crashing head on. The customers reached for drinks and each other with bold gestures. Cigarettes were shared and lit. Conversations were animated and lively. Men and women, young and old, pressed together in a hot, humid, and intimate crowd of humanity. Everyone was happy. The jukebox kept pace. If a song didn’t keep up the tempo, a bartender pushed the reject button and went to the next song.
It has to be seen through their eyes, I told myself. To the outside observer, the customer, this was an awesome experience. It was what Fred Thimm at The Palm called the “fun stuff.” Upstairs was the life of the place, the show. Not being a natural showman, it was difficult for me to switch gears from the misery of reading the dismal profit and loss reports to the gaiety of watching my satisfied customers. I feared it showed in my eyes. Howard was a natural showman. He had the gift. He was able to make even the worst of days seem like the best. He had the knack to stay on top of the place, to ride it like a wave, and to make the customers feel like they were on that wave with him.
“You gotta spend money to make money,” he said, adhering to a well worn philosophy espoused by high rollers looking for an excuse to spend. But that kind of philosophy required a gut I didn’t have.
“He’d come in here and if he was in the mood he would just sweep his hand along the bar,” one of the bartenders told me as I sat and watched him set up the bar. “Everyone knew that meant drinks were on the house.”
“How did he know who should get a free drink and when?” I asked.
“He just knew,” he said, while wiping down the varnished wood. “He was inordinately generous for a saloon owner. He let some tabs go on forever. If he had a soft spot for someone, he just let it go altogether.”
He sorted the “bevnaps,” as the cocktail napkins are called, and the “sip” straws, and set out the containers of sliced lemon and lime wedges, olives and maraschino cherries; one for each end of the bar. The beer glasses were stacked high; the liquor bottles wiped clean of dust so they could tempt with a gleam.
I saw Howard one way while “Howard’s Fan Club,” the society of Nathans employees, regulars and fellow saloon owners saw him another. To me he was a beloved husband and devoted father, a man who would rather be at home than out on the town, a man who preferred a solo sail in the Chesapeake Bay to a poker game or a lark about at the racetrack, a man who doted on his wife, child and dog as though we were all babes in need of love, indulgence and shelter.
Men in particular marveled at his bravado. What impressed them most was that he looked like an Ivy League prince but had the larcenous heart and soul of a buccaneer. Perhaps because he grew up with infinite safety nets he did not worry about consequences. It was a charmed life and he charmed the men who flocked to the bar to be near him. He made it look so easy. The grace and style, the humor and wit, seemed effortless. Once upon a time it charmed me, too, until I learned how much of that bravado was a well crafted performance designed to give toughness to a shy and thoughtful personality. I may have been charmed by the bravado, but it’s the shyness and thoughtfulness that won my heart.
One of the loyal barflies said, “He operated by a different set of rules than the rest of us. He was larger than life. But he shared it; he shared it with everyone.”
In so many conversations after his death, people talked to me about Howard’s “selflessness.” Again and again I heard a variation on this comment from one friend or another: “Whenever he talked to you the conversation never drifted to himself, it always concerned you, and there was nothing you asked him for that he wouldn’t do.”
Another customer told me, “I was given a case of Vodka for my birthday and I wanted to share it with my friends. I asked a few bars if I could bring it in. They all whined about it being a violation of ABC laws. Not Howard. All he said was ‘make sure you bring it in the back door.’ That night I had the best time. I overtipped everyone triple and I’ve been loyal to Howard ever since.”
“I saw so many Saturday and Sunday sunrises with him,” a drinking buddy told me. “He hosted great after hours parties in the early years, and he liked to get behind the bar and make everyone a Sherry flip. He loved that drink and it was perfectly Howard – elegant and old world.”
The stories about him were often outrageous to begin with but benefited from embellishment in the retelling, whether it was about him carpeting the bar with fresh sod on St. Patrick’s Day or hiring limousines to shuttle the regulars to the track, or redesigning and rebuilding the back bar on an all-nighter. With the exception of the IRS, and maybe even including the IRS, so much of what he did was purposefully done to show he could break the rules, and no doubt that made the saloon business attractive to him. Much of life to him was like exceeding the speed limit. He did it because he could. He thought a lot of the rules were silly, in place to make lawmakers happy and to keep the citizens down rather than under control.
The stories about him were entertaining and endearing, but as time went on I listened to them with detachment. A legend was being burnished while for me the real man was coming into focus. Not only was he not the legend his admirers were making him out to be, apparently he also wasn’t entirely the man I had made him out to be. Or, was he? I couldn’t be sure and it channeled through my thoughts and my grief. Was he this or was he that? Did he do this on purpose or by accident? Who did I bury? What was I grieving? Was I grieving for the man or the marriage?
So much of what I missed was what I had, what I thought I lost, and Howard was the symbol of all that. But what I had, that life, went to the grave with him.
To fill the void at Nathans I wanted to be like him, but it was laughable when I tried. I was not him.
For example, buying a round of drinks on the house.
On a sunny day, a good day when I had a spring in my step, I came in the door and walked the gauntlet of the bar, where the regulars sat hunched at their stools. They each had their own stool, their own place. “Hello, Carol,” they called out, and I was touched they had learned my name. To me they were all sad cases because they were drinking in the middle of the day, but I’d become used to them. The woman who used to be a network news producer, the writer whose last book was published twenty years earlier, the presumed hit man who asked for his 151 proof rum in a snifter, the fellow who was briefly U.S. ambassador to some spit of land but who everyone still called “Mr. Ambassador,” the woman who never talked and never smiled but seemed grateful to be included, the computer whiz who amazed us with his genius but kept it dimmed with alcohol, the pair of business sharks who were always running schemes and running away from their investors.
“I’m going to buy a round just like Howard,” I thought, and waved my hand over my head in that graceful way Howard did that the bartenders seemed to immediately understand.
Like Howard, I did it behind the backs of the group at the bar so they wouldn’t see me. I waved my hand over my head like it was a lasso – just like Howard. I felt cool, in the know, except the bartender looked at me dumbfounded. I did it again. He still looked clueless.
“Carol, can I help you?” he asked.
I went to the end, to the service bar, and gestured for him to come close.
“I thought that was how I let you know to buy them all a round,” I whispered.
“Oh,” he said, “Is that what you were trying to do. I thought you were telling me the lights were out.”
“No. I want to buy them a round of drinks. I was trying to look cool.”
“Do you want to try again?”
“Nah. I don’t think it comes naturally to me. Maybe you should just tell them I want to buy them a drink, after I’ve gone downstairs.”
I was the embodiment of the accidental restaurateur.
Weekend brunch at Nathans was fun but also gave me anxiety attacks. I helped out on the floor one Sunday and came away with notes and questions. “You have to take the dead flowers out of the flower vases before service,” I told Mike, the brunch manager. “And what’s with the wacky way we serve the meal, with different items on different plates?” I asked. We served the eggs on one plate, the waffles on another, the sausage on yet another.
“Why?” I asked.
“Yeah, you noticed,” Michael said with a smile. “Well, we kinda think it makes it look like they’re getting more food.”
Vito Zappala showed up toward the end of October and his presence made a difference. He poked his nose into everything and because of that the staff perked up and seemed to work in a more professional way. Even Doug was showing up and answering questions and pulling out files and seeming to be helpful.
I got out of the way and busied myself with the pursuit of a chef. More than ever I wanted to make my statement of ownership through the food. The bar seemed to take care of itself. It wasn’t broken and I wasn’t going to try to fix it. But the food – that was an area where I could make a difference. I wanted my own chef.
It was literally the 11th hour of my search when I received a call from Paul Wahlberg. He’d been referred by Nora Poullion, the chef/owner of Nora’s, an acclaimed and inventive Washington restaurant. The place where he worked had closed and he was ready, willing and able to be Nathans head chef. Moreover, he had the qualifications.
Paul came to see me and we hit it off right away. He was from Boston, complete with the accent. His manner was unassuming, almost shy. I can say he looked like the older brother of the movie star Mark Wahlberg because he was, in fact, the older brother of Mark Wahlberg. He did not boast and brag. He did not have a book of clippings. He told me he did not drink. He’d worked hotels and restaurants in the Boston area before moving to Washington. His wife had been relocated to Washington by the Crate & Barrel company, where she was a manager. He had substantial experience as a chef and as a kitchen manager. He was in his mid-30s, pleasant and madly in love with cooking. His exuberance was infectious. I couldn’t wait to have him cook for me.
On the day of his try-out he showed up on time, dressed in a clean, white chef’s jacket, got along well with the line cooks, and prepared several delicious American dishes.
“What do you think?” he asked, standing beside me at table number 9 in the bar, where I sat alone, sampling his food.
“I love it,” I said.
He made a spring roll of potatoes and crispy duck that was inventive and good. He made a salad of julienned prosciutto, goat’s cheese, roasted red peppers and pine nuts on romaine that was delicious. He made salmon in a broth of fennel and truffles that I wanted to eat every day.
“Will you make me an omelet?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, enthusiastically, and after a few minutes it was delivered from the kitchen and was just right: small, delicate, rounded, runny in the middle and yellow, not browned, on the outside.
He sat down with me at the table. I was satisfied.
“I wanted to make you some fried clam bellies, but the clams weren’t right. But I think I do fried clams better than anyone,” he said.
“I can’t wait,” I said, already imagining the salty sweetness of clam and the fry.
“I’m not very good with desserts,” he said. “There are a few things I can do, some puddings and berry cobbler, but I’m not a pastry chef.”
He asked me if I would consider hiring a pastry chef.
“If it fits in the budget. If it saves me money. Right now all our desserts come in from out of house. If we made them in house it could be more cost effective.”
“I promise you,” he said, “If you give me a budget I will stay within that budget.” I believed him.
The next day I offered him the job and he accepted.
Paul Wahlberg agreed to work six days a week, lunch and dinner, for $40 thousand a year, health insurance and parking. He said he would take off on Tuesdays. He was also prepared to start right away. This worked out well for me because some of the cooks had given notice. They were not keen to work for me. I wasn’t Howard, and they preferred working for Howard. Their departures made it possible for me to pay Paul and trim payroll.
Vito Zappala, observing the operation from all corners, thought the hiring of Paul was a good move.
If Douglas Sullivan was wondering about all this activity and what it meant to him, it didn’t show. With or without him, I moved ahead. The scenario the lawyers were giving me at this point was that if the IRS let me keep the business I would probably be making payments to them for years to come. It was essential that Nathans become as profitable as possible. Every choice and decision I made was based on that goal.
Across town at Larry King Live my control dwindled by the day. The biggest setback happened when three important bookings slipped away. I worked hard on all of them.
First was Ralph Lauren, who I had pursued steadfastly for months. I wooed him with flowers and letters. I met with him in his surprisingly small New York office. We hit it off, and I thought he seemed favorable to an interview. But, in the end, Hamilton South of his staff told me, “He’s decided to go with Diane Sawyer and Prime Time Live. He feels more comfortable with the taped format. He’s afraid he won’t do well on live television and that he’d make a fool of himself.”
That was a disappointment.
Then the possibility of Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford began to fade. In the summer, their public relations man, Howard Rubenstein, assured me that if they gave an interview “Larry would be the one.” Now in the fall he told me “they’re leaning towards Barbara Walters. Frank feels she’s been good to him.”
I said, “If he talks to Barbara she’ll want him to cry.”
Howard said nothing.
I kept pedaling.
“Okay, let’s say Frank goes on Barbara. Let’s say that’s a done deal. Here’s my idea: Have Frank go on Barbara and cry and apologize and then have Frank and Kathie Lee come on with Larry to make up? And do it just before her Christmas special. It will be more in the spirit of things and America can believe Kathie Lee is happy again.”
Howard said he didn’t know. He’d find out. No promises. The sum of our conversation was that Larry King would not get the first interview with Frank and Kathie Lee. That’s all that mattered to Wendy Whitworth, the executive producer.
The biggest loss was the Duchess of York, the infamous Fergie, who we should have had first, according to the commitments she’d made before the death of Princess Diana. In September I was told she would keep her commitments and told Wendy we would have the Duchess’ first interview. Then in October, when I met with Jeffrey Schneider, her American publicist, he told me “it’s now between you and Oprah.”
I went to New York and sat across from him in his office while he called London and negotiated with her office on Larry’s behalf. I heard him tell Fergie’s people “Larry King Live should be first.”
But then she, too, decided to go with Diane Sawyer at Prime Time Live.
I still had Marv Albert in the pipeline and Howard Rubenstein said “that looks very, very good” as a second interview after Barbara Walters. That would be okay with us because we would be able to promote it not as Marv’s second interview but as his “first live interview.” We could always find an angle.
Rubenstein pointed out that Marv had been offered opportunities from every major interviewer. When I was in the middle of my spiel about relative merits of Larry versus Barbara, Diane, Katie or Oprah, he said, “Well, let me tell you who else has asked for the first interview. You won’t believe this: RuPaul!”
RuPaul was a celebrated, beautiful and amusing drag queen.
“That stops it right there, Howard,” I said. “That’s who I would go with. Hands down.”
Nonetheless, while I found humor in my booking pursuits Wendy understandably focused on the ones that got away. She was livid about Fergie and the Giffords and disappointed about Ralph Lauren. She didn’t expect Lauren to pull big ratings but it would have been a prestigious and important interview.
“I need to talk to you,” Wendy said, inviting me into her office for a chat. I sat in the chair across from her desk. Becky sat on the sofa against the wall behind me. With Becky in the room I felt a chill.
“The McKinsey people have done a study of CNN and they have looked hard at our show,” Wendy said in a tone of voice that expressed more frustration than anger. “Atlanta isn’t going to tolerate anymore the way I have you on the staff. I’m going to have to make you freelance.”
I could feel my career exploding into pieces.
“I feel bad about this,” I said. “Can I think about it over the weekend?”
“Don’t. Nothing’s going to change,” she said. “This arrangement will be better for you. You can concentrate on what you do best.”
My long career in network news had taught me many things; one of them was that when a boss said “this will be better for you” it meant nothing of the sort.
“But, Wendy, I have been able to give much more time to the show lately. I’m working the same amount of hours as when Howard was alive.”
“But you are just not very productive. You have only booked Rosie and Calvin Klein,” she said, shorting me by several good bookings. “And what about the Pope? You haven’t gotten the Pope. And, do you know, he’s the number one target of Barbara Walters?”
“Wendy,” I said. “Seriously, do you believe that if the Pope were to do his first television interview it would be with Barbara Walters?”
I tried to defend myself. “You could give me a lot more. All I have are people who are really hard to get. You can’t be that productive with a list like mine.”
“I have to end this,” she said. “I have a call I have to make.”
The turn of events was heartbreaking, but more than that it was humiliating. I sat there talking to her but I also stood outside my body and watched myself begging for my job, pleading for mercy, while Becky sat behind me and said not one word.
When I could get time with her alone we talked some more. Once again we reviewed my job performance, my successes and my failures, my falling star. I didn’t want Wendy to give up on me.
“My God, Carol, you have a full-time job at the restaurant and a child to raise. I don’t know how you think you can do all this.”
“I’m doing the best I can,” I said. “When Howard was alive you had 100 per cent of me. Now it’s down to 85 per cent, but it’s still a lot. But my targets are all tough. I don’t have anything that’s easy.”
“I didn’t hire you to do the easy stuff,” she said, and she was right. Her argument was stronger than mine. I was trying to hold on to something that was already out of my grasp.
“Carol, tell me something. Is it that you want the job or that you need the job?”
“Wendy, it’s both. I want and need the job.”
“We’ll talk tomorrow,” she said. “We’ll try to work something out.”
The next morning I went for my usual run. Along one of the prettiest stretches of the running path, where it skirts the Potomac River in front of the Kennedy Center, I took a bad fall. I tripped and lost my balance and flew into the air with arms and legs splayed. I landed on my palms and my knees, ripping open my running pants and tearing the flesh. I pulled myself into a sitting position and rested my back against the black railing by the water. My hands and knees were bloody. People ran by but nobody stopped. I sobbed like a little kid who had fallen down on the playground, but I wasn’t crying about my physical wounds. They weren’t what hurt.
I hope this week marks a low point and that the cycle will now turn back up. I’m drained. I am doing so much and I am spread so thin and I have so much to think about and worry about – compounded by having wrenched my back when I fell running – that the slightest thing can bring me way down.
I look in the mirror and see the face of exhaustion.
And to think, just a couple weeks ago in New York I felt not a day past the spring of youth.
Today was just a bag full. Started off well enough. A run, despite my back and bandages on both my knees. I joined Spencer’s class for a field trip to the zoo. The look on his face when I walked into his classroom was a treasure. I remember my parents never coming to my school. My mother said, “They will still teach you even if we aren’t there,” or, “I’m not going to be one of those mothers who’s always making cookies and having tea parties.” Well, she certainly wasn’t. I so envied the kids who had moms who showed up with cookies and went on the field trips. On the rare occasion when mom did show up her discomfort was tangible, at least to me. She felt every other adult was thinking, ‘there’s Olga Ross, Romanian, high school drop out, Catholic; give her a wide berth.’ But they weren’t. It was in her head.
Spencer and I treated ourselves to breakfast at the Four Seasons Hotel yesterday. I wanted to check out what they’ve got. In the middle of our meal he got up to go investigate a young girl at another table. “I think I know her,” he said. He walked over and lurked by the large round table of what appeared to be the gathering of a big family, from very young to very old.
When they paid no attention to him I called him back to our table. “Why don’t you come be with your family,” I said.
“But Mom, I don’t have a family,” he said.
“You have me,” I said. “We have each other. We are our family.”
He looked at me without batting an eye and said, “But you have to have a Dad to be a family.”
I know how he feels, but I can’t let him know. I don’t want to emphasize the negative.
I’m so betwixt and between. An important part of grief is the stage where you get on with your life. But how can I get on with my life when so many issues have a noose around my neck? In the next 12 weeks I have to divest furniture, art, and heaps of other stuff, move from one home to the next, sell the apartments and the house, get Nathans on the right track, resolve my job in television, settle in some way with the government. Though there are lawyers and movers and employees and bosses, I am, at the end of the day, doing it alone.
Sometimes I feel I am just one step ahead of complete collapse. I can’t give in to that, though. I have to survive. I have to be strong. I have to keep my head up and go forward. I have to get up out of bed each morning and get through the day.
How I yearn to go sailing. How I wish I could go off somewhere with Spencer to laugh and sleep.
The IRS stepped up the pace in late Autumn. Deborah Martin, the agent investigating Nathans, moved toward a resolution and a verdict in the case. She contacted some of the staff who received the notorious “pink checks” off the books. She wanted to talk to them. They were as scared as I was when it first hit me back in February.
Withholding tax was taken out of all the employees paychecks. They didn’t know that Howard kept the money, rather than sending it on to the federal government. That money was kept in an account that had pink checks. Some favored employees were given money out of that account, presumed to be under the table, even though they were given a check. For some reason, I presume on advice from Howard and Doug, no one reported the money from the pink checks as income. Deborah Martin had tracked down all of them.
Douglas Sullivan wanted to know how to ease their fear. “What do we tell them? Do they have to take lawyers with them?”
We were in the office, displaying our usual complicated body language. He was at his desk, I was at mine. I tried to busy myself with inconsequential papers, using them as a distraction, as a means to keep my cool. He had the uncanny ability to make me flare, and I had to resist.
“If they declared the income then no, they have nothing to worry about,” I said. “If they didn’t declare the income then they should take at least their accountant.”
“Well, no one declared the income,” he said, looking at me. He wore a pink oxford cloth shirt and a flowered tie. It looked like he hadn’t shaved or that he was trying to sport some fashionable stubble.
“I figured that,” I said. “But, Doug, don’t any of you know that if you get money as a check there’s a paper trail? It can be traced?”
“This was Howard’s doing,” he said.
I concentrated on my paperwork. “Don’t blow your top,” I thought. “Keep your cool.”
“Well, you didn’t declare it as income,” I said. “So, I imagine a lot of the staff did whatever you did. But honestly I don’t want to know. I want to keep a step away from this if I can, because I don’t know. I don’t want to give bad advice.”
Miriam Fisher agreed to come to Nathans to talk to the staff who were affected, to answer their questions, to try to calm them down.
“Am I personally liable for their debt?” I asked her.
“No,” she said. “You have your own debt, and the corporate debt, and that’s that. You got what they got a thousand times over.”
One of the managers, Steve, expressed dismay that the IRS was coming after his money.
“What do you think I have been dealing with for the past several months?” I said. “This is precisely what my IRS problems are all about. This and much more.”
Miriam arrived on a Thursday morning wearing a dark suit and carrying her briefcase. She looked like a lawyer. The staff who received the pink checks filed into the office, finding places to sit on the tattered sofa or on chairs they brought in with him. Some leaned against the counter that held the copy machine and the paper cutter. With the gray paint and the low ceiling, the room felt especially cramped. Everyone was silent, expectant. When Miriam spoke one of the Latino staff quietly translated for some of the others. To me it underscored their vulnerability. Miriam’s talk was tough love.
She stood in front of my desk and I sat behind her. It was sad to sit and watch the faces of the staff as they listened to her. Their expressions were helpless when she told them they could each owe thousands of dollars. I could have been tough myself and said, “Hey, you should have declared the income,” but when I was face to face with them I did not feel that way. They were duped, just like me. I was certain they were told they did not need to declare the money. To them it was found money. Those who didn’t have tears in their eyes sat and stared blank faced.
A full half hour after the meeting began, Doug ambled in, eased his way through the group and tossed his keys down on his desk.
“Because this income was not reported the IRS now expects you to pay the taxes that are owed,” Miriam said in so many words, standing in the middle of the room, composed and certain of her authority.
“You may want to hire a lawyer to represent you in this matter,” she said.
Doug started to go about his business, behaving as though we were not there. Miriam and I both gave him the eye and he straightened up and began to pay attention.
When it was over, after the various bus boys, cooks, waiters and managers had gone back to their jobs and after Miriam packed up her briefcase and prepared to leave, Doug made a show of clearing his throat. “There’s something else,” he said.
“Yes?” Miriam said, turning to face him.
“Some of the kitchen staff get two checks under two different names,” he said. “I thought you might want to know.”
Miriam’s expression was “what next?” So was mine.
“Has this gone on a long time?” I asked.
“For a while,” he said. I wondered how many other secrets were unknown to me.
“Have you put a stop to it?” Miriam asked.
“No,” he said, “but I will.”
“This may be a problem down the road with Hours and Wages,” she said. “We’ll deal with it when we get there.”
That night my home phone rang at dinnertime. It was a man who worked as a manager for Howard before I inherited Nathans. He had been the bookkeeper. He was among those who received pink checks and he had heard from Deborah Martin.
“You bitch, you fucking bitch, you selfish bitch, I can’t believe what you are doing to us,” he screamed at me before I could even finish the word “hello.” I was with Spencer in the den, in the midst of helping him put away his toys.
“You dump this on employees who don’t have any money and you don’t offer to pay it for us and just who the hell do you think you are?” he asked. His voice was a blast of fire.
“Do you know how much money I owe?” he screamed. “I don’t have this kind of money. I’m married with a baby and the IRS wants almost $5 thousand from me. Where am I going to get the money? You are a goddamned selfish bitch.”
I tried to stay calm. Shouting back wouldn’t help. I let him scream at me for as long as he wanted before I spoke. Spencer looked at me, wanting my attention. I wondered whether he could hear the man’s loud voice through the plastic phone receiver. He was ready to climb up my arm to distract me. I held up my index finger to my mouth.
“Look, I’m sorry,” I said, “I wish I could pay everyone’s debt, but I can’t. I also wish all of you had reported the income. You did the books, for goodness sakes, if you were getting money on a check didn’t you know there would be a record? If it had been cash, that would be different. But these were checks.”
“Thanks for the sympathy, Carol.”
“Hey, it’s not that I’m not sympathetic, but I’m up against the wall, too. I’ll trade places with you, how’s that? Did you know I owe the government almost $3 million? Why don’t you take my debt and I’ll take yours?”
He made a sound like air escaping.
“I had no idea,” he said. “You mean, this landed on you, too? Oh, fuck.”
“Yes, it landed on me, too. It landed on me like a steamroller.”
“You must be so damned mad.”
“No, well, there’s too much else on my plate right now. Most of the time I’m scared.”
“Carol, I’m sorry I said what I said. Really, I had no idea you were in the same boat. Please forgive me.”
“Of course. I understand. If people want to call and yell at me, that’s okay. They can’t yell at Howard and there’s no point in yelling at Doug.”
“That smug little fucker,” he said.
Spencer and I ate dinner at the kitchen table. He talked nonstop about whatever was on his mind. Usually this enchanted me and we chatted back and forth. But on this night I played with my food, staring in the middle distance, lost in thought. “Mommy, don’t ignore me,” he demanded.
“I’m not, angel, I’m not. I just have a lot on my mind. I never ignore you. Honest. Even if I look like it.”
But I did ignore him. In my head all I heard was the rage of that phone call. The violence in the man’s voice shook me, even though he eventually calmed down. It wasn’t an experience I was accustomed to and I tried to find a place to put it. I felt terrible for the employees. I feared their anger toward me would undermine my effort to move Nathans forward. I wished I had money to pay their debts, to make everything right, but I could do nothing except try to save the business and protect their jobs.
That day’s mail included a letter from a lawyer for one of Howard’s ex wives. At first I put off opening it, because I saw it was from a lawyer. Not another lawyer. I’d reached my threshold for bad news. I did a dozen other things and then came back to it. The letter said that the ex-wife and their two sons were filing a claim against the estate. I didn’t expect this and it was distressing, because when Howard died his family inheritance passed on to these boys. They were well taken care of. Spencer was not in the family trust because he was born after it was drawn up. Their claim seemed greedy. I found Miriam’s home phone number and called her, but she was nonplused. She applied her usual clear logic.
“They can stand in line behind the federal government,” she said, “They always get their money first, and when they get done with Howard’s estate there won’t be any money left.”
Miriam and I had a bigger task to face, anyway, and that was my defense. Over lunch one day, in booth #26 in Nathans dining room, I told her the story of my life, with particular emphasis on the story of my life with Howard. This would be the heart of my defense: who was I, what did I know and when, if ever, did I know it? What they needed to prove was that I did not know – could not know – that my lifestyle was fueled by ill-gotten gains. The lunch crowd had thinned. We had privacy. Miriam sat with her face toward the window. She was lit by the daylight from the street, and it made her short blond hair glow. She took notes on a yellow legal pad, but also looked up at me as I talked. She asked me questions; she led me where she needed me to go.
It wasn’t a courtroom, but I was on the witness stand. I had to tell the hard truth as I knew it. Cold, plain facts. Her questions were lawyerly. I gave her the particulars of my upbringing, meeting and marrying Howard, our lives together, as well as the main points of my professional life. After getting that down she had a list of critical questions.
“Do you have a college education?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“Did you ever study accounting?”
“Do you have any training in business or finance?”
“How did you handle your banking? Balance your checkbook? Handle your investments?”
“I did my own banking. Howard balanced my checkbook and did all the investing.”
“Did you two share credit cards and checking accounts?”
“No. I had my own credit cards and I paid them myself. I also had my own checking account.”
“When you met Howard had you ever owned a car before?”
“Had you ever owned a home or had a mortgage or a bank loan?”
“Were you involved in running the restaurant?”
“No, I had my own career.”
“Did he discuss the operation of the restaurant with you?”
“Only in the most incidental ways, usually about employees or customers.”
“Did he show you the books?”
“Did he talk to you about the money?”
“Only if sometimes I called and he was counting it. He liked to count the money.”
“Did you ever get money from Nathans?”
“Only rarely, and with Howard’s permission. I would get money from a bartender and sign a slip for it.”
The questioning went like that until she put down her pen, placed her palms flat on the table, smiled and said, “I think that does it. I will write this up and when I have a draft I will send it to you for you to look over before it goes to Deborah Martin.”
I was relieved to have it over. That was all I could do – tell my story.
“I hope we’re lucky with Deborah Martin,” I said to Miriam.
“Luck has nothing to do with it,” she said. “Carol, you deserve Innocent Spouse.”
Miriam’s confidence gave me hope, but I didn’t take anything for granted.
She was back to me within a week with her report, and it was weird to read another person’s interpretation of my life story. I wasn’t proud of what I read, but not because she got me wrong. She got it right. What Miriam showed in her report was the truth, and the truth hurt. As I read my defense it was clear that in my marriage I had no control over my life. I came across as a concubine. Sheltered would be the polite word. Idiotic seemed more like it. A sampling:
“Throughout her career and her adult life Carol steadfastly avoided getting involved in financial matters, because she knew they were complex and she did not understand them. She would hire professionals or defer to her father or husband.”
“Carol met Howard in May 1977 when she was 26 and he was 38 years old. They fell in love almost immediately. Carol was enticed and overwhelmed by Howard’s ability to make decisions and get the job done, and his obvious comfort in a good life she had never before experienced.”
“For a girl who had worked since high school and who furnished her apartment with camping equipment, this was an exciting and exotic new world. At 26 Carol had never owned anything, never had investments, never had a loan, never owned a car; her only financial responsibilities had been rent, food, clothes and the phone bill. She fell in love with Howard believing he would be able to take care of her and would never let anything happen to her. That was her Faustian pact.”
And there it was, in words from the hand of a lawyer, the truth that was haunted me and I had been unable to speak: Faustian pact. It was that. It always was that. I’d sold myself out for what I thought would be a better life, and in terms of possessions and the roof over my head it was a better life. I loved my husband. We were a match. I was a good wife and homemaker and mother. I stuck with our marriage when it was rough and savored the pleasures when it was good. But it hadn’t been real. None of it was ever mine. Maybe it would have been had I taken a more active role in the finances of our lives. Just because Howard didn’t let me help run the household books wasn’t an excuse. He had no right to keep me out. I should have demanded a role. I should have been involved. But I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to know. I wanted to exist in a pretty and luxurious world where I was safe and protected and, well, innocent. But there are all kinds of innocence, and while I was clearly a qualified candidate for Innocent Spouse, it wasn’t so much because I was innocent as much as stupid and silly. I had nothing to be proud of. I’d been a dupe.
I told Miriam the report was fine but, “I think I should pass it by Martha. She needs to read the parts about Howard’s life before me, his life growing up and his life with his other wives. She will know all of that better than I do.”
Martha and I met for dinner at Nathans and, as usual, slid into booth #26. She ordered her standard: a glass of Merlot and a glass of Diet Coke while I sipped some white wine. I wasn’t particularly hungry. My anxiety level was high. I wanted to hear what Martha had to say. She sipped her drinks and read while I watched her face for reactions. They started almost immediately. She stopped reading and looked up at me.
“Howard didn’t graduate from Choate,” she said.
“He didn’t?” I asked. “He told me he did.”
“No. He was at Choate and then returned to Washington and graduated from St. Stephens.”
“You’re kidding. That was such a big deal to him. He talked about it a lot, graduating from there.”
“Well, it’s not true.”
She read some more and then stopped again.
“He didn’t go to Harvard,” she said. “Did he tell you he went to Harvard?”
“Yes. He said he went there for six months before getting kicked out for drinking and then he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania.”
“That part is true. He did go to Penn. But he didn’t go to Harvard, unless I missed a big chunk of his life, and I don’t think I did.”
“Why would he say that? It’s not like Penn was second rate.”
Martha stopped reading again when she got to the part where Miriam wrote about the Joynt family trust and Howard’s inheritance. Miriam reported what Howard told me: that he received $20 thousand a month from the trust. Martha’s jaw dropped.
“That’s just wrong,” she said. “That’s just plain wrong. It’s not even close to that much.” She laughed. “That’s quite an exaggeration. It’s ridiculous. Why would he do that?”
We both looked at each other.
“Of course, because it was coming from here,” I said, referring to Nathans, “and that was his cover.”
“This is amazing, Carol,” Martha said. “I had no idea he told so many fibs.”
“But why?” I asked. “Why did he do that? Everything he had was good. Why would he need to make anything up or exaggerate?”
“Martha,” I said, “You’ve got to do me a favor. You’ve got to come with me and talk to the lawyers. You’ve got to tell them everything you’re telling me. Everything you’re saying is so important. As awful as it is for Howard, it will help my defense. It’s almost like he’s helping me from the grave.”
Once again I was in the big meeting room of a big downtown law firm. There were only four of us, four women in suits. Martha, me, Miriam and another lawyer from her firm. The room was gray, the air cool. I spoke first.
“Miriam, there are several areas in the draft report, areas where you address Howard’s past, that have inaccuracies. Martha’s going to give you the facts.”
Miriam, the other lawyer and I opened our reports that were on the conference table. I ran my finger down the words until I got to the parts in question and read them out loud, and the lawyers followed along. Point by point we went through the report with me citing what Miriam had written and Martha then countering with the facts. Miriam and the other lawyer took notes. Martha was not as effusive as she had been over dinner and I knew why. She loved her brother. She did not want to appear to be selling him out. She had been upset about every revelation in the IRS case since his death. Even though she was the younger sister she had spent a lot of time helping get her big brother out of scrapes, especially when he needed money from their father. Martha was always there for him, having to be the responsible sibling. Now she was here at a conference table, helping his widow out of scrape of her brother’s making. She knew her decision to speak was right, but her natural instinct was to keep family business private.
Her voice was quiet, her words well chosen. She did not enjoy the process.
“This is going to help a lot, Martha. These kinds of shadings of the truth show a pattern in Howard’s behavior that will help us back up the argument that he did not tell Carol how he ran his business. This will make a difference. I know it’s hard for you,” Miriam said.
“It is. I’m stunned by all this,” she said.
When the meeting was over, Martha and I walked to the elevators and stood waiting.
“Thank you, Martha. I know you didn’t want to do that but it will help so much,” I said.
“I hope,” she said. She looked uncomfortable and troubled. Her mouth was set and her eyes were darting around. I couldn’t figure out what it was, but clearly there was something on her mind.
“Carol,” she said. “There’s something else I didn’t say in there, and I didn’t say it because I figure you don’t need to know.”
The light went on and a bell dinged, signaling the arrival of an elevator.
“What was that, Martha? Try me.”
“I don’t want to cause you more pain.”
“Martha. That’s okay. I’ll be okay. What is it? You can tell me?” My curiosity was greater than my fear of more pain.
The elevator arrived and the doors quietly slid open, revealing its mirrored and mahogany interior. It was empty.
“Howard had another wife you didn’t know about. A first marriage. You aren’t his third wife, you’re his fourth wife.”
She started to step into the elevator but I put out my arm and stopped her, gently.
“You’re kidding,” I said.
“I didn’t want to make it look worse,” she said. “He was in high school. He forged her signature to get the license. It didn’t last long. Only months and then it was annulled.”
“Martha, this doesn’t make it look worse. This is better. Don’t you see? This will help our defense even more. That’s not bad news at all. We’ve got to go back and tell Miriam. Come on, we’ve got to go tell Miriam right now.”
At the end of October, Miriam finalized the report and submitted it to Deborah Martin at the IRS. Now my fate was squarely in her hands.
An exaggerated inheritance, deceiving the feds, shadings of the truth here and there, a boat I didn’t know about, and now there’s a wife I didn’t know about. It’s curious and interesting and compelling, but not hurtful or heartbreaking. I honestly don’t think that in his mind he thought he was doing this to me or that it would land in my lap. I mean, everything about Howard is heartbreaking because I miss him so, but all these mysteries I’m unearthing are just so interesting. The other side of the moon. If it weren’t so bizarre I’d probably be seething. But it is bizarre. He practically had another life. How do you tell someone your husband had all this going on and you didn’t know? And what’s so amazing is that we were together all the time, every day, for 20 years.
He was the stranger in my bed.
Of course, everything hinged on Deborah Martin’s ruling, but there were diversions while I waited. Nathans, Larry King Live and home life provided ample distractions from the progress of my defense.
At Nathans, Vito Zappala arrived early every day and made lots of notes for his systems analysis. He followed people around, asked them about their jobs, talked to vendors, observed the operation during the morning, during the day, during the night, before it opened and after it closed. At the end of two weeks he presented me with a five page “confidential” report on my restaurant. Bearded and round, smiling broadly, he handed it to me with pride. In sum it said that in every department of Nathans he saw opportunities for change and improvement. He outlined the steps that needed to be taken. He assessed the building (“falling apart”), the financials (“Nathans needs to make more money”), and the staff (“their good attitudes should be used to improve the restaurant”). He wrote, “What is needed is a view for change as well as a leadership to make the change happen.”
That was the version of the report I showed to Douglas Sullivan.
Privately, Vito said to me, “this place is like a ship without a captain. The staff get no leadership. When you are in the building, Doug performs, but as soon as you leave he stops doing anything.”
Jake Stein and I had a meeting with Dimitri Mallios, the lawyer for Nathans five landlords. All but one had signed the lease and we wanted to find out why the hold out. While Jake and I sat across from him the lawyer talked on the phone in a stream of Greek to two of the landlords.
Jake asked, “Will the landlords mind if Carol fires the manager, Doug?”
“All the landlords care about is that they get their rent checks on time,” he said.
I moved ahead and offered the manager’s job to Vito Zappala, contingent on my removing Doug. I wanted him to be ready to slide right into Doug’s chair, because after I fired him I did not plan to let him back in the building.
“How much time do you need to get your affairs in order?” I asked Vito.
“Give me a week or two,” he said. That was good. I could work with that. He said he would be okay if it took me longer.
I redoubled my efforts at Larry King Live to demonstrate to Wendy how much I wanted to keep my staff job. “Please don’t give up on me,” I said. I booked Dominick Dunne for his O.J. Simpson book. I booked Marv Albert. We would be second after Barbara Walters and possibly his first live interview, but the precise date was still up in the air.
“That’s good,” Wendy said, “But I want a date.”
I made progress with Donatella Versace, also. Ed Fillipowski, her publicist, said she would meet with Larry in November when she was in Washington for the annual Italian-American dinner. Wendy was delighted with this news.
Dean Sicoli, my colleague who took me with him to Gianni Versace’s memorial service in New York, said, “You’re back in favor. Wendy’s mellowing. It may be because Becky is away for three weeks. You can make this time work for you.”
Dean was right. With Becky away, I gained ground. It was better, but not without bumps in the road and odd requests from the office.
One morning, at Wendy’s behest, Dean called me at Nathans, where I was in the middle of a meeting with the deejay. I will give Wendy this: her ideas were fearless. She had the appropriate attitude for a boss – if you don’t ask, you’ll never know.
“The New York Post has an item saying Alan Dershowitz accused Fergie of being an anti-Semite. Will you call to see if she wants to come on tonight and defend herself?” Dean asked.
“Sure, Dean, I will do that,” I said with sarcasm. “Are you all out of your minds? Why would she want to wallow in that mud puddle?” I paused. “I’ll make the call.”
The deejay and I were mid-sentence, discussing what kind of music I wanted during dinner and for late-night. I said to the deejay, “Excuse me. I have to try to get Fergie for my other job.” He nodded. By now at Nathans the staff were used to my dual professions.
I called Jeffrey Schneider, Fergie’s publicist at Howard Rubenstein’s agency.
“I’m calling to talk to you about the New York Post item and to find out whether the Duchess wants to come on to defend herself against the accusation she is an anti-Semite. Before you say anything I want to be on the record as having asked.”
“You are,” he said, “And the answer is ‘no.’ But I want you to know that you and The Sun are the only two organizations to call and ask for an interview about this.” The Sun is an outrageous British tabloid.
“Well, what can I say? The best the brightest, eh, Jeffrey?”
“You’ve got it, Carol.”
“But, Jeffrey. Before you go, let me remind you there is always a chair on our set for the Duchess of York.”
The deejay and I resumed our meeting, specifically focused on dance music.
“It doesn’t have to be the most hard core new dance music,” I said. “We can mix in some hot oldies.”
“Doug told me you would want Frank Sinatra and big band to appeal to the older crowd,” he said.
“My God, no. I’m not trying to do dance parties at the retirement home.”
It had been a month since I’d been to New York. I yearned for the isolation of the train, the ease of a hotel room, the focus of my work and the vastness of Manhattan. Wendy, in a moment of compassion, said “New York is medicinal to Carol,” and she was right.
Larry and I needed to be in New York in November. It would be a long trip for me, almost a full week. Larry had shows to do and both of us had some important meetings. First was Howard Rubenstein and Marv Albert to try to talk Marv into a live interview. More seriously, and more interesting for me, was a meeting with Tariq Azziz, the deputy prime minister of Iraq. We wanted him to come on the show with William Richardson, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. This interview mattered to me because it got me back to my roots, hard news. Azziz had agreed to meet with Larry and me at Iraq’s mission on the Upper East Side.
There would be another meeting with the reps for Donnatella Versace.
Keith Hernandez, the retired baseball star, called frequently since our dinner out a month before. Actually, he called more often than Paolo but, like Paolo, he called late at night. One night in New York Keith and I went to dinner at an uptown French restaurant. He was flirtatious and playful at the table. He asked to wear some of my lipstick, tried to kiss me with it on, nibbled at my ear, and got his hands all over me like a tickle monkey. When the check arrived he paid it and said, "let's go to Elaine's." I was up for that. Elaine's is a legend, and I had happy memories of visits there dating back to my first weeks in New York in the 70s. In the cab Keith put his arm around me and moved in for a kiss. When I demurred he did not push. "Are we going to have sex tonight," he asked, matter-of-factly. "No, no I don't think so," I said. "But we can still have some fun."
Elaine's was packed. We walked past Derek Jeter's table and joined the group at the next one over, a group that included owner Elaine Kauffman, the actor Chris Noth, his date, and Lauren Bacall's publicist. It was clear that Elaine was happy to see Keith. She lit up when he took the chair next to her. "Carol owns a bar in Washington," Keith announced. She acknowledged the information but clearly cared less. "She also produces Larry King." That got her interest. I watched her. She had eyes in the front, back and both sides of her head and they were locked on everything from the front door to the back door to the bartender and the waiters and the famous faces at a long row of tables. She watched them come and go and smile and frown, all the while jumping in and out the chatter at our table. She watched the action and I watched her. She was everything people thought I should be as a restaurateur and everything I would never be. I watched her and admired her but did want to be her.
Keith was affectionate and attentive but it was late and I was tired. It had been a long day and I would be up early the next morning. When I whispered to Keith that I wanted to go back to my hotel he was fine about it. He nodded and pulled me close. "Would it be okay with you if I just put you in a cab, didn't take you back to the hotel myself?" he asked in my ear. I was relieved. "Sure," I said. "No problem. After all, if you're not going to get laid you might as well get drunk, right?" He pulled back and looked at me and his eyes said, how did she know that? And then he burst into laughter and kissed me. Like a gentleman, he carefully put me in the cab, handed some money to the driver and blew me a kiss as we sped away.
While Keith became more attentive, Paolo was less. We talked, but not as much as before, and when we talked I could sense restraint from him. His words were still tender and loving, but there were fewer of them. Sometimes he would not call for several days. When he did call it would be well after midnight. Once he called at 2:30 in the morning to say, “I’ve been thinking about you.” Like Keith, he wanted to know when I would be in New York again. And like Keith, I said I would see him on this next trip.
“We will be good,” he said.
“Paolo, we’re always good. You won’t need to call the priest.”
Sometimes on my morning run I run across Key Bridge, as I did this morning. It’s a great way to greet the day, watching the sun rise over the Potomac River, the whole city gleaming with possibility. It gives me a charge of optimism, like maybe I can make it.
I booked Fergie!!! Finally. We’re after Oprah but she’s agreed to do us live, which is virtually unheard of for the fair Duchess. Jeffrey Schneider was beside himself with apologies and simply hoping that following Oprah wouldn’t get me in too much hot water. It didn’t. Wendy seemed fine about it. Larry was delighted. If Becky were around I’m sure she would remind me I almost didn’t have her a couple of months ago.
So, Wendy rewarded me by asking me to book King Hussein, Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat to come on together. Oh, and, “put in a bid for Saddam Hussein, too.” The easy stuff.
I suggested to Wendy that she give Fergie to the TV columnists right away so we can get the advance spin on it tomorrow, ahead of Oprah, as we did with Marv Albert before Barbara got it out.
We had our meeting with Donatella Versace. Larry, Wendy and I met her at her suite, the Presidential Suite, at the Four Seasons Hotel when she was here. It was a small gathering so she could get to know Larry and decide whether to confirm our interview set tentatively for December 4th. I think the meeting went well.
I arrived early and talked to her husband, Paul Beck, and some of her PR staff, Marcus Ebner and Emanuella Schmeidler, and a writer named Ingrid Sichy. She is a close friend of the Versaces and is writing Elton John’s biography. She was a little person in a dark suit and looked sort of like Elton. Paul Beck admired my outfit and said, “I have that same top.” No man has ever said that to me before.
Donatella is small and surprisingly sweet. I guess I expected someone a little tougher. She is like a little sister. Gianni’s name was in almost every sentence. Of course, who am I to judge? I am the same way about Howard.
She was awesomely thin, fashion thin, in a tight and short black cocktail dress, feet stuffed into stilettos that had to be a full size too small; very tan, very blonde, white blonde. Many diamonds. She sat on one love seat and Larry and Shawn sat on the other. Wendy, her husband, me and others were arrayed around them, watching. They talked. Made some jokes. She has this marvelous deep voice that is a match for her look. Larry told her how he started his career in South Miami. She told us how Gianni loved it there. Larry asked her how many Versace boutiques there are in the world and she didn’t know. “I am a creative person,” she said. “Not a business person.”
That’s probably what I sound like when people ask me business questions. It’s not a good way to be once you become the owner. I felt for her. It’s awful to end up the boss.
I accepted an offer on our apartment. It’s $5,000 below my asking price, but I guess that’s okay. I mean, it’s okay with me. Obviously I’d like to hold out for more, but I have to get these places sold as soon as possible. I think the term is “fire sale.”
Miriam said her meeting with Deborah Martin on Friday went well enough. “You never can tell with her,” she said. It’s still unknown whether she will accept the innocent spouse defense, but Miriam said, “If she doesn’t I’m confident we’ll win in appeals.” She said there was some ground gained on the Nathans debt, but “even if she accepts all our adjustments your debt is still so huge. We will figure out how we’re going to deal with that down the road.”
I am very encouraged by the new chef, Paul Wahlberg. I talked to the manager of his last restaurant, who said, “I kind of envy you. Paul is ready for what you are offering him. Look, he’s a good guy, and a good chef, and he’s not a drinker or a drugger.” It always amuses me how candidly people discuss these kinds of priorities in the restaurant business. In TV, that wouldn’t have been said. It doesn’t mean no one would be thinking it, but no one would recommend, say, Dan Rather, by pointing out “he’s not a drinker or a drugger.” Of course, Dan doesn’t wield hot pots and pans and have to remember to turn off the gas.
The hositility between Doug and me is growing at an alarming rate. He does less and less and I become more and more frustrated. This is an awful situation, because until that one landlord signs the lease I am held hostage. Then Caroline told me Doug’s wife lost her job, which puts more pressure on me. How can I fire someone whose wife just lost her job? I’m not cut out for this. A true business professional wouldn’t care.
I talked to Randy, (my father’s lawyer), and he said there is so much more to the story than I know. He thinks Sis started working Dad over when she arrived back in town. “She’s a real piece of work,” he said. “You take one look at her and you see a hard life.” He said he is in general district court a lot and every time he is there her name is called from the bench. “There are more than a few arrest warrants out for her,” he said. “What a life.”
Spencer and I were over at the Malloch-Browns, when Mark returned from a trip to New York. He was in his pin-striped business suit, carrying his valise, being the picture of a Dad returning from the business wars. The girls ran to him screaming, “Daddy, Daddy,” and I could see Spencer pull back a step. His yearning was tangible. Mark kissed and hugged the girls. I called Spen over and gave him a kiss on the top of the head.
While I stood watching all this familial bliss, the importance of a Daddy, of having him there, of his joy with home and children, I thought: I do not want to be involved in someone else’s marriage. I do not want to rock that boat. Paolo has home and hearth and love and commitment and he does not need me. He may not rank it as his highest priority, but I do. I can’t be doing that. I don’t want to mess with anyone’s husband. I just wish Paolo wasn’t someone’s husband.
I should let this go. Forget about him. Return to our friendship. As hard as that will be, I have to make it happen.
For Halloween, in addition to trick-or-treating and Spencer’s eating a bucket of candy, he and I watched Frankenstein on TV. There was a part about getting the correct brain for the monster and the doctors said “if it’s an evil brain the monster will look evil.”
I kissed him and said, “You must have a sweet brain because you look sweet.”
He looked at me and said, “You look beautiful, actually, so you must have a beautiful brain.”
When we arrived in New York Larry and I got right to work. We had an appointment at Howard Rubenstein’s office to meet sportscaster Marv Albert. The office is on the 33rd floor of a Sixth Avenue skyscraper. A secretary met us and led us down a long hall. On the one side were the agents’ windowed offices and on the other side of the hall were the cubicles where their assistants sat. Howard had an impressive corner office, beige, blond and tidy, with wall to wall windows looking out on Manhattan to the north and west. There were sofas and his big desk and a collection of caps and hard hats from some of the most powerful and famous people in the world. In the corner, where the windows met, was a round table. That’s where we sat. There were five of us at the table, Larry, our “line” producer Brian Todd, Howard Rubenstein, Marv Albert and me. I sat between Howard and Marv.
Albert had been charged in a lurid sex case in Arlington, Va., where a girlfriend of his reported him to the police after she claimed he bit her and sodomized her. In a sensational trial with sensational testimony it was revealed that Albert had a taste for dressing up in women’s lingerie. It was an outrageous case and was covered in detail on cable TV and in the tabloid press. In the end, Albert pled guilty to reduced charges, a misdemeanor, and was let go, and in the aftermath he was the momentarily the hottest “get” in the so-called “get” business.
We had only one issue to work out: live or tape. The interview was scheduled for the next day, Tuesday, and we wanted to do it “live” while Marv wanted to do it on tape. It’s not that he was afraid of live television. Hardly, he lived his life on live television, giving the play by play at basketball games. What he was concerned about, he said, were the calls from viewers. He knew the rule of the show was a guest who went live had to take the calls. I was often amazed by who was scared of the calls – Cher, for example, was worried someone would ask her about her cosmetic surgery. It was an unnecessary fear because the calls were carefully screened. After a dozen or so joke calls from Howard Stern fans over the years, few prank calls made it through the vetting process. Smart calls made it, interesting calls made it, but rarely the goof balls.
Nonetheless, Marv Albert would not reconsider. He did not want to take calls. Larry, Brian and I tried 10 different ways to convince him that live would be better, but we lost. We conceded to tape the interview the next day.
While we talked I scrutinized Marv Albert. I tried to imagine his kinky sex life, but there was nothing about his appearance that suggested the guy walked on the wild side. I tried to conjure him in full Victoria’s Secret kit, but, well, I couldn’t get the picture in focus. It amused me more than anything. His personal life had become a national joke. His career was in shambles. But he was a nice guy and I could understand why so many colleagues were loyal to him and wanted to see him get back to work. Marv, and everybody he knew, wanted to put the episode behind him.
But, our era being what it was, before he could resume his life he had to go on national, talk-show television and atone. Larry King Live was the national confessional.
That evening I went to dinner with an old boyfriend whom I had not seen in years. It was comfortable. We talked about the past. It was another stop in my journey of review. So much of widowhood was about processing the past. Taking it out, shaking off the dust, looking at it, and letting it go. There were no silver linings in widowhood, but there was this: I got to review my life. I got to make course corrections. Of course, I had no choice. My life would have to be different. But the more I talked about the past the more I looked forward to the future. It was a second chance.
The man I had dinner with had been my first great love, my big New York romance. It was a passionate, wild and doomed love affair. He wanted calm and I wanted chaos. He wanted nights by the fire reading novels and I wanted to dance all night at the newest disco. He was more successful, his career was solid and strong while mine was just off the launch pad. Only months after we began to live together in the Village I switched jobs. I went from being a Time Magazine “cub” to Walter Cronkite’s writer on The CBS Evening News. I think he perceived this new, big, high-paying network job as a threat. He thought I didn’t need him anymore. One evening he was gone. I came home and his stuff had been cleaned out of the apartment. All that remained was his old Harvard muffler, hanging forgotten in the closet. I wore it winter after winter for years.
We sat side by side at a window table, looking out on Lexington Avenue. Our conversation was warm and loving. All the pain was long in the past. Some new gray matter had developed in my brain that made me more candid and honest than ever before. “You broke my heart,” I said. “It took me years to get over you.” He said, “I’ve never loved anybody the way I loved you. I got scared and ran.” It was a single sentence but it put the final healing to a very old wound.
The next day was busy with important business. Larry and I went to the Iraqi mission to meet with Tariq Azziz. It was easy to spot the house because of the cordon of security and media. The press boys on a stake-out instantly recognized Larry and greeted him as if they were all old friends. Wherever I went with Larry people talked to him like an old friend. He took it in his stride. He had a word with the boys and let me ring the bell and arrange for our entry. We were let in by a butler. The interior was lovely, a classic and grand New York town house, with elegant marble and wood details. The décor was understated and of good quality. Period pieces with silk upholstery. I wondered whether the Iraqis bought it furnished.
We met in a large upstairs room. It looked like it had been designed as a ballroom. The meeting was a formality. We knew Azziz would do the interview. “But you won’t get Richardson to appear with me,” he said. “He won’t have the guts.” The Iraqis seemed primarily interested in having some face time with Larry. Small “instant’ cameras were brought out and Larry was politely asked to stand arm in arm with various officials while I took pictures of their smiling faces. The Iraqis wore expensive, tailored suits. Larry wore a windbreaker.
Later, back at the hotel, I worked out arrangements with the Americans. Azziz was right; Richardson would not appear with him on the set. In fact, when we did the interview we had to perform an elaborate hallway choreography which kept Azziz out of Richardson’s sight. The public information officer at the U.S. mission said, “We don’t even want to pass him in the hallway, because if we do he will put out his hand to shake Richardson’s and Richardson will not shake his hand.” We kept Richardson and his people in one room, Azziz and his people in another, and we posted staff in the hallway to make sure that the two men did not come face to face in make-up or the men’s room. The only time it got dicey was when we switched them. Richardson was hustled off the set, out of the studio and through the CNN newsroom to the elevators, and then Azziz was hustled out of his holding room, through the newsroom, into the studio and onto the set. This had to be done politely and deftly and within the brief few minutes of a commercial break. But we did it.
When the broadcast was over, the Iraqis said they were off to dinner.
“Where?” I asked.
“Harry Cipriani,” one of them said.
“Well, that’s right in the middle of the action,” I said.
Azziz said it was one of his favorite places.
I wondered what would happen if Richardson walked into the same restaurant. Would the maitre’d at Cipriani have to conduct the delicate choreography we just performed or was that form of posturing reserved only for the media? Later, as my cab passed by Cipriani, I saw the Iraqi limousines and imagined them inside, enjoying their wine and pasta and probably not fussing about the policies of the U.S. government.
My mind already was on something else.
Paolo knocked on the door at midnight. When I opened it, the first thing I saw was his hand, wrapped round the neck of an excellent dessert wine.
“I knew this would make you happy,” he said, as he followed through the door with a big grin. He kissed my left cheek and then my right cheek. He looked as I remembered him: dark, youthful, handsome, and slightly tired from a long night in the kitchen. He wore his leather jacket, a collared cotton shirt in a French blue, and jeans.
“Oh, liquid gold,” I cooed, taking the bottle from him. “Yes, that makes me so very very happy. You can leave now.”
He followed my laughter into the room.
“Tres beau,” he said, as he gave my blue dress a small tug. It was one of those little throw-over-the-head dresses that make the wearer look fresh and dressed when there’s no time to think about what to wear. I wanted to believe it made me a knock out.
Room service arrived with a set table and flowers and an assortment of cheeses and fruit. Paolo sat on one side of the table and I sat on the other. He poured the wine and we talked. We could not stop talking. We talked about work, the IRS, his travels and each other.
“I’ve missed you,” I said. “Sometimes when I’m having a particularly rough time, I let my mind leave my body and go to you. Then, whatever is happening doesn’t feel so bad. It’s better to see you, though.”
“We should not miss each other,” he said. “That makes me crazy.” The lights were low. I felt content with him there. In a way it didn’t matter what we said. The nearness of him was enough.
“I don’t know that we have much control over who we miss. I haven’t been able to edit you out of my heart,” I said.
He opened a box he’d brought with him. In it were perfect chocolate truffles. These were from his kitchen and they looked irresistible, like him. I kept my eyes on his as he put one in my mouth. Paolo seduced with food. It was what he did best. The chocolate came alive on my tongue. It was dense and rich.
I moaned. “That is luscious,” I said. He smiled, pleased with the reaction.
“I am leaving for Milan at the end of the week,” he said.
“That’s nice,” I said. “Alone?”
“Wouldn’t it be nice for us to meet there?” I said. “I would love to be in Italy with you. But I can’t get away then. I can’t ever get away.”
We both sighed.
“I think we’re at a point of having to go one way or the other,” I said.
“There’s only one way,” he said. “And it can’t be the way we want it to be.”
I nodded. It was interesting to me how the two opposing halves of his bloodline contradicted each other. The brooding French half and the passionate Italian half. It seemed clear, though, that the French half had the edge.
He sliced fruit for me. He cut pieces of cheese for me. He poured wine for me. Sometimes we said nothing and smiled at each other across the feast of food. When we were finished with the table he helped me push it out the door into the hallway. I stood holding the door for him and when he turned back he shut it and took me in his arms. He held me tight and nestled his head beside mine. He held me like that for a long moment before pulling back to kiss me. I could feel the firmness of his back muscles and arms as I moved my hands over the soft cotton of his shirt. We were tightly pressed together. His kisses were deep and eager.
Outside the open windows I heard the city: a horn, a trash truck, the crashing of glass bottles against each other, a distant shout. I thought about New York and how it suited me no matter my mood. It could be whatever I needed it to be.
Tonight I needed it to be the backdrop for romance.
The next day I had some time to myself and as I ran through Central Park in the morning, and later walked to some appointments, my thoughts were weighted down by conflict. Maybe because it happened so suddenly, widowhood did not fit easily into my life. It was a slow assimilation. Even though my aberrant status was an obvious and immutable fact, I resisted. To concede to widowhood was to concede to loneliness and despair, vulnerability and, worst of all, singularity. The concept of aloneness was difficult to compute after so many years as half of a couple, a pair, a twosome, a team, a happily-ever-after marriage. We did finish each others’ sentences. We laughed at the same jokes. Howard could read my mind. He did make me feel content and safe. I did know how to make him happy. We worked hard at our marriage and got the reward of comfort, ease and understanding. We loved each other the way we were. We could count on each other. He was there. He was always there.
But I couldn’t run from widowhood forever. I was a middle-aged solo parent with two jobs, some gray hair and diminishing mental and physical wattage. I had to face reality.
New York, Paolo, Keith Hernandez, partying uptown and downtown, getting a great blowdry, wearing the latest mini and stiletto, dancing with friends till midnight in the backroom of my restaurant, zooming from one role as a television producer to another role as a restaurant owner to another role as a tax fraud defendant and to another role, the most important, as mother, kept me in dizzying motion. If I moved fast enough, nothing could catch me, and there was the illusion of wholeness. At speed, it felt like my old life. But it was in fact a strange and unreal existence. It was like I was on helium, floating up in the air, or riding the crest of the longest wave, or hang-gliding between mountain peaks, or skiing down the steepest slope, or deftly dodging bullets in an open field. Constant motion, constant adrenaline, constant exhilaration. It couldn’t last. It was performance art. It was not me.
What was happening with Paolo wasn’t me, either. It was a part of me, certainly, and God knows it was good for me, but enough foolishness.
The next night he came to my hotel again, but it was a different evening from the night before. There had been a change and, interestingly, it didn’t need to be spelled out by either one of us. We just knew.
He arrived, as usual, after we were both done with work. He wore black. I always liked him in black. He was a Continental poster boy with his olive skin, good cheekbones, dark eyes, mussed hair and, naturally, the leather jacket. I’d bought a bottle of good champagne for the occasion, and while I pulled it from the ice bucket Paolo walked around the room and turned down the lights, lamp by lamp. I gently twisted the cork. He came up behind me, wrapped his arms around the front of me and rested his head against my back. He held me like that as the cork eased out of the bottle. I didn’t want to move. I wanted to savor the moment.
I poured the champagne and we made a toast.
“To my secret,” I said.
“My beautiful secret,” he said.
He took my free hand and led me to the sofa. He sat down and then I sat beside him and put my head on his shoulder. He moved me around so I could stretch out and put my head in his lap, looking up at him. He leaned down and we kissed.
I nestled my face in his chest. I unbuttoned his dark shirt and kissed his flesh. I looked up at him. We mumbled some words to each other about this being our last hotel rendezvous, and he sighed.
“You were the one who started this,” I said, “You were the one who kissed me.”
“I love you,” he said, quietly.
“Oh, God, Paolo, don’t say that to me. This is just terrible. Don’t you believe your heart has its own mind?”
Our champagnes sat on the coffee table, the bubbles fizzing to the top of the glass. Our focus was only on each other. My hands were pressed against his chest. I looked in his eyes.
“I can’t afford to let it,” he said. “It is easier for me to simply not think about you. I must just work. I can’t have my mind anywhere else.”
“I have to stop for a different reason,” I said. “I have betrayed no one, but I have avoided the truth. With you I was able to remember what it feels like to be happy, to feel good, to be adored. Of course I wanted to make love with you, but it wasn’t about sex. What I needed more than anything was to be held, to be kissed, and you gave me that. I needed it like blood in my veins. Like air.”
“I know,” he said, running his fingers across my face, pushing my hair back from my forehead.
“This has been a dream, a fantasy,” I said.
“I will always cook for you,” he said. I laughed. “Thank you,” I said. “I’d hate to come into your restaurant and have them bar the kitchen door. Besides, your love and passion are in your food.”
He kissed me and held me more tightly than ever. I held back the tears.
“I have a child, and a business to run. I have to settle with the government. I have to do something about my career. I have to move into my new home and start a new life. I’ve been avoiding all that. I’ve been escaping to New York and living in the past, but now I have to go live my new life, whatever it will be. I have to come back down to earth.”
“You will survive and I will survive,” he said.
We talked and sipped champagne into the wee hours of the morning. Eventually we were both yawning. We got up and put ourselves back together. I adjusted my dress. He buttoned up his shirt and tucked it in. We had a last sip of champagne. I got his jacket and helped him into it. We embraced tenderly. I said, “So, we go back to where we were. We meet in restaurants, not hotel rooms.”
“Yes,” he said.
The retreat of love. He stood by the door and looked at me for a very long time. We were the same size and shape and color. My two hands held his two hands as we both leaned forward and kissed. It was good-bye.
I gave him a deep look.
“I do love you,” I said, and he was out the door.
I had to come down to earth, and that’s what happened when I returned to Washington after that last trip to New York. When Paolo walked out the door of my hotel room that night it ended my charged and wild ride of pretend. I got up the next morning, packed my bag, boarded the train and returned home to the life I needed to be living.
I was, after all, a widow. My husband had died and left me with a handful. There was no escape. Everything had my name on it. I had responsibilities and obligations. My son needed me to be there with him – all the time. He was doing well, but that wasn’t the point. I wasn’t doing well. I had scattered myself all over the place, hoping to find an emotional rescue that was not going to come. I had to rescue myself.
My psychiatrist, Dr. Webb, let me off the hook a bit when he said, “So much got in the way of your being able to simply be a widow. The reality of the IRS got in the way of your widowhood.”
That was true. It was a nightmare on top of a nightmare. Double horror. Both took away huge chunks of my life as I’d known it. All my support was kicked out from under me. To fill the void, to get strong again, I danced and became addicted to the passionate embrace of a friend, and I did get strong again, strong enough to face the facts.
In the movie “Nurse Betty,” there’s a scene where Renee Zellwegger, playing the newly widowed Betty, snaps out of the widow stupor that is the crux of the plot. She’s on the Los Angeles set of the soap opera that she believed was her true life, and Greg Kinnear, who she believed was her lover, is yelling at her. Betty bolts from the soap opera set, returns to her apartment and packs her bag to go back where she came from, Kansas. Now in her right mind, she says, “I have to go fix what happened to my husband.”
I related to that moment. It was time to get down to the hard, miserable task of “fixing” what happened to my husband, or at least the aftermath.
I had to do something about Douglas Sullivan. I had to fire Douglas Sullivan. I had to figure out how and where and in what words. I had to settle with the federal government. The timing was somewhat out of my hands, but I knew a decision was imminent. The ruling of the IRS would determine my future. I had to do something about my job with Larry King Live. I had to find an exit strategy. Lastly, I had to get us moved into our new home.
The process started at Dr. Webb’s office, where I talked about Paolo and what I considered to be the end of my folly. I didn’t call it an affair, because it was so odd. But as I look back I think it probably was indeed an affair, a love affair. We had love.
Dr. Webb said the relationship would never have had a future, anyway.
I sat in the chair beside his desk, facing him. We made eye contact, as we always did. I wanted to understand what went on with Paolo, so I could put it away.
“You needed to feel some control in your life and you could go to New York and control him,” he said. “It was the one part of your life where you had some power. Now that you are beginning to feel more control, you need him less.”
It made sense to me, sort of.
“The thing is,” I said, “When he kissed me under that street light on Central Park West and brought passion back into my life – he literally relit my pilot light – and I couldn’t just walk away. To give that moment the value it deserved I had to build a relationship around it. I had to bring him into my life.”
“He didn’t want it all,” I continued. “He wanted to play and flirt and have romance from the edges rather than the white hot center, and that was perfect for me. I was finding my way, too. We fit together beautifully. But every widow who is going through hell should try to open herself to the possibility of that moment. It’s such a big step, to be open to your own passion and to not feel guilty. But it wasn’t about Howard. I wasn’t betraying Howard. Never have. I was being alive.”
Spencer wanted to show Ellen, his therapist, some video of himself as a baby. So today I set it up before she arrived. I found a tape from 1995. I didn’t know exactly what it was of, apart from the date. While Spencer sat in the kitchen and had his snack I went to the den and cued up the tape and pushed “play,” and suddenly there was Howard on the screen. All of him, fully alive. He was lying on the sofa, watching the O.J. Simpson trial on TV (Rosa Lopez was testifying), and Spencer was crawling all over him. They were playing and laughing. Spencer was drooling on him and getting a giant kick out of Howard’s goofy reactions.
I stood in the den alone, watching my husband and my son. It hit me so hard. I was not prepared for this. It was the first time I’d seen him in all these months. I pushed “stop” and left the tape as it was. I went into the kitchen and said to (his new babysitter) Erica, “the tape is cued up. When Ellen comes all they have to do is push the play button. You know what to do.” Then I looked at Spencer and said, “Watch as much as you want to, but when you don’t want to watch anymore you can just turn it off.”
I kissed the top of his head, left the apartment and walked to the elevators and while standing there, waiting for the lift to come, I burst into tears.
Later I asked Erica how it went for Spencer. She said he watched for a while with Ellen, laughing and smiling, then ran off to his room to get Baby and became more subdued. At bedtime I asked how it went and all he would say was, “Fine. I really liked the part after daddy when I was in the kitchen with you and you interviewed me about dinosaurs.”
I put my arm around him and snuggled with him and held him for a long time.