The offices of Caplin and Drysdale were impressive. The building, cool and austere, hugged Thomas Circle, off 14th Street, about a half mile from the White House. Some call it “the new downtown.” The firm specializes in tax law. Mortimer Caplin is a former commissioner of the IRS. Douglas Drysdale is a tax lawyer with more than 4 decades of experience. The firm employs dozens of lawyers.
I stepped off the elevator into the reception area, a wash of cool gray in the walls, the carpet, the furniture, and the mood. The receptionist invited me to take a seat. “I’ll let them know you are here, Mrs. Joynt,” she said. I was not exactly sure of my role. A part of me believed that even if there were an audit the case went to the grave with Howard. Maybe the lawyers planned to pay their respects, have me sign some documents and wish me well.
It had been at dinner on New Year’s Eve that Howard first mentioned the audit. “I can’t tell you any details,” he had said, “But you don’t need to worry. It’s bad, but I have a plan.”
“Hello, Carol.” An attractive woman walked toward me wearing a silk blouse with a bow at the neck and a smart, straight skirt. She was of a certain age and confident. She introduced herself as one of Howard’s lawyers.
I followed her along a short hall until she stopped at a room, stood back and gestured for me to enter before her.
It reminded me of the first time I walked into a bedroom with a man and all I saw was bed. Here all I saw was the big, dark conference table. It was long and it gleamed. There was a credenza along one wall and on it was a tray with sodas and designer waters, glasses and a bucket of ice, and a phone that was configured in such an elaborate way it could have been at the Pentagon.
There were several people standing at the table, all men. The only man in a tie was my accountant. I was curious why he was there with the lawyers in advance of me. One by one the men introduced themselves.
There was a moment of almost Japanese politeness as we stood and nodded toward each other. I realized they were waiting for me to sit. I looked around the table wondering which seat was mine, until it dawned on me: my seat was the one at the head of the table. I was the client.
They offered condolences, hoped Spencer and I were doing well, and said they knew this was a hard time for us.
Then they revealed, in careful language, that when he died Howard was under investigation for federal tax fraud, that the case covered both our personal taxes and the taxes of the business. I gave an informed nod, a mother being told by the principal that her bad boy is a bad boy.
“Of course, as his will is written, with you as the sole heir, the case is now your responsibility,” the criminal lawyer said.
I stopped nodding.
“At one point we thought he might be indicted,” he said, “but we were able to clear that up. They didn’t have a strong enough case for a criminal indictment.”
“Did Howard know that?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, “that was decided before the end of the year.”
“Does that mean the case is closed?” I asked.
“Hardly,” he said. “There’s still the debt and penalties. We got rid of the criminal charges, but we’ve got a long way to go. This case is attractive to them because it’s a big number.”
My composure cracked a little.
“Is it bad?” I asked.
“We don’t know the final number, but it is large.”
I pressed for a dollar amount and all he said was “in the millions.”
I sat there at the head of the table, stunned.
In a professional but almost breezy way the lawyers recommended how I might proceed. “Sell everything,” they said, “pay the debt and get this behind you.”
“If I sold every last thing,” I said, “and I mean everything - homes, cars, books, clothes, art, toys, knick-knacks and my wedding ring – I wouldn’t be able to come up with millions of dollars.”
“Where’s the money?” a lawyer asked casually.
“What do you mean, where’s the money?”
“There must be money somewhere. He had to do something with the money. Is it in offshore accounts?”
I almost laughed. Offshore accounts? Did they know who we were talking about?
“Howard didn’t save money,” I said, “He liked to spend money. He liked to spread it around. He didn’t want his money stashed somewhere far off. He wanted it near, and available.” I sat silent.
“What happens to me if I can’t pay?” I asked.
The group of them stopped and stared.
“Well, you could go for ‘Innocent Spouse,’” one of them said, “but you wouldn’t stand a chance with that.”
“What’s Innocent Spouse?” I asked.
“It’s a code in the tax law that is designed for cases where a spouse who has committed, say, fraud, dies, but the surviving spouse doesn’t know anything about the fraud. The surviving spouse is innocent. When that status is awarded, the surviving spouse is absolved of responsibility for the debt.”
“Why wouldn’t I qualify for that?” I asked.
“Because…,” the lawyer said with a pause, “You had to know. How could you not know?”
“But I didn’t know,” I insisted.
“All of this is new to me. Howard just told me he was being audited and that the lawyers told him not to talk to me about it. I assume you are the lawyers who told him that.”
When the ordeal was over, the accountant walked me to the car, which was parked at a meter out front. He said, “Don’t be in denial, Carol.”
That got under my skin. It all got under my skin. It scared me, too. But at that early stage I didn’t know just how much good reason I had to be scared. That would come later, when I returned to Caplin and Drysdale for a follow-up with the lawyers.
The federal agent on the case for the IRS, a woman named Deborah Martin, planned to submit her full report to the lawyers on April 15th. The date she chose amused me. But when national tax day arrived she couldn’t get away from IRS headquarters downtown.
“They need her to sit at a desk and deal with people coming in off the street,” one of the lawyers told me that morning.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said. “What is she, a clerk?”
“No, but she is a junior agent. This is her first big case. That’s why she’s so eager to get a big dollar amount. This is huge for her.”
Great, I thought, I’m destined to be an IRS agent’s trophy.
I knew enough to value this news as important, though. Deborah Martin had come upon a case, possibly by chance, that could make her career. For a junior agent, a multi-million dollar judgment was a landmark success. Ambition works the same in all of us. She’d smelled blood and was on the hunt and wasn’t likely to suddenly go soft. Under other circumstances, perhaps working on a story, Deborah Martin and I could find each other useful. She could be someone I talked to on background, a source. We might even like each other. But here and now I viewed her only one way: as my executioner. She had me in her crosshairs and I did not feel safe.
“Do I get to meet with Deborah Martin?” I asked.
“No. We’ll keep you away from her. No contact. That’s what we’re here for,” one of the lawyers said.
Deborah Martin handed in her report the next day, April 16th. The lawyers met me that afternoon. I wore my black suit, my widow’s weeds, because it seemed important to dress in a professional way. I wanted to be seen as a grown up. That was a mistake. Everything I did was wrong. The stylish hair, the nice handbag, the good suit, polished shoes, neat make-up, and the manicure only emphasized the image of me as a co-conspirator in tax fraud - the client who “had to know.”
The lawyers viewed me as precisely the person Deborah Martin wrote about in the open of her report, when she derided my “lavish” and “lux” lifestyle. She pointed out that I drove a “new” Range Rover. When I wasn’t off to a luxurious holiday on a private jet or yacht, she claimed, I sunbathed by the pool at my “estate” on the Chesapeake Bay, or relied on my domestic staff of a nanny, a housekeeper, and occasionally a cook.
The facts were true, if embellished. Deborah Martin’s report read like the tumescent tabloid profile of a shallow, newly minted starlet, but it was me. And Howard. It detailed every dime he spent in the last five years. All his credit card charges, all the checks, money he’d deposited, his stocks and bond investments. It was spender’s pornography. High roller horror.
The report explained how Howard ran his expenses through Nathans and thus operated the business at a loss. The only annual income reported, essentially, was mine, which created a discrepancy of a couple hundred thousand dollars. While he took federal withholding taxes out of his employees’ paychecks, he did not send that money on to the government. He kept it for himself, for Nathans, and for some favored employees. There was a section that documented which employees got money “off the books,” with their names and the amounts – documented because Howard, amazingly, gave them the money in checks. Pink checks.
Even a Dodo like me knew that when you pay under the table you do it with cash. What was he thinking?
My jaw hung open. My eyes popped out. I turned each page with increased doom and dread. When I got to the part where it showed how he wrote off the nanny’s wages as “trash collection,” and some of my Christmas presents as “uniforms,” I could read no more. I felt humiliated, embarrassed, ashamed, and guilty.
The facts about the way we lived were technically accurate. I disagreed with the interpretation, but Deborah Martin had the authority to paint us any way she wanted. She had performed a thorough and proper investigation. She analyzed the information to the best of her ability and reached conclusions from her perspective as a federal agent whose job was to get the bad guys. She caught someone who broke the law, who committed tax fraud against the United States government, and even though he was ashes, the merits of the investigation still stood. She had a case. The government wanted its money.
The debt to the feds came to just over $2.5 million, and the meter on interest and penalties had not stopped. Uncalculated amounts were owed to the District of Columbia and the State of Maryland. When the dust settled, the total was a breath shy of three million dollars.
I stared at the numbers, speechless as the words of the lawyers and accountants flew back and forth across the table.
“Well, she still has the issue of the promissory note…”
“…we’re going to have to comb through that, but I don’t think it will fly.”
“The withholding is the big issue, and that’s where most of the debt is…”
“But we can try to flip that one issue with another…”
“No, it won’t work…”
“I think we go back to Deborah and ask for some back-up on a few of these numbers…”
“…at least Carol has her job at CNN. That looks good.”
“You can’t take this into a courtroom. It’s a slam dunk against her.”
It was as if I wasn’t even there.
There’s a scene in the movie Funny Girl where Barbra Streisand, as Fanny Brice, bolts from the train station in Baltimore because she realizes her chance at true love, Nick Arnstein, is on a ship to Europe and she wants to be with him, not on the road with the Ziegfield Follies. She stops, tells everybody to quit giving her advice, and belts out a song. She ends up on the bow of a tugboat, still singing, as the vessel charges through New York harbor to deliver her to Nick’s ocean liner. It’s a wonderful, memorable declaration of independence and a certified show stopper.
I was not on the bow of a tugboat nor did I sing, but I did finally stop the show in that conference room.
“Wait!” I said in a way that demanded attention. “Stop! Listen to me!”
They stopped and looked at me.
“I don’t understand any of this,” I said, with a gesture at the documents on the table, the pages of damning evidence and the numbers that toted up the debt. “And I don’t understand half of what you are saying.”
They remained silent.
I looked from one to another, “Doesn’t anybody understand I didn’t do this? They’ve got the wrong person. The person who did it is dead. This is all new to me. I only found out two weeks ago that we have mortgages! I’m completely in the dark. There wasn’t anything about our lives that struck me as inappropriate. Yes, we lived well, but it wasn’t outrageous, it wasn’t ridiculous, it wasn’t gross and over the top. My husband had a successful business. He had an inheritance. It all made sense. There weren’t bags of money around the house, packets of cash stacked in the closets. There weren’t trips to Vegas. There weren’t gold watches and shady characters. I’m to be condemned because I had a nanny for my son? I work. I’m allowed to have a nanny. Is that criminal?
“I don’t know what Howard did,” I said, exasperated. “I hope that whatever it was he didn’t do it on purpose. I can’t ask him. He’s not here. But I know this: I didn’t do it. My son didn’t do it. I’m innocent.”
“But you signed the tax returns,” the criminal lawyer said.
“I know I did, but they were filled out by an accountant,” I said, glaring at the accountant, who grimaced, sheepishly. “Why wouldn’t I sign them? I didn’t feel I needed to pore over them if they were properly put together.”
The accountant shifted in his seat and cleared his throat. He said, “I was working with the numbers Howard provided to me.”
“So was I!” I yelled.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” the criminal lawyer said.
“We’ll talk to Deborah Martin,” another said.
“But what happens now?” I asked.
“They can put liens on your accounts. We’ll try to stop that. You should find out how much you can come up with. What if you sell your house? What will you get for that? And the art? You have a lot of antiques, right? What would that add up to?”
“My house?” I asked. “Just sell it?”
“That’s one way of getting this paid,” they said.
“I want to keep my house,” I said, meaning it.
“What about the life insurance?” one of them asked.
“There is no life insurance,” I said.
“What? No life insurance? How can that be?”
“Howard didn’t believe in life insurance,” I said. “He thought it was bad luck and a rip off. Look, I only got him to sign a will a year ago. Before that he wouldn’t do it because he felt it would jinx him, that he would die…”
I smiled at the irony of that, and shrugged. “…it looks like he was right.”
“I can’t believe you don’t have life insurance,” the woman lawyer said, with a sigh.
Well, this is just dandy, I thought.
We agreed to meet again in a couple of weeks.
The criminal lawyer walked me to the elevator, his arm wrapped casually around my shoulder.
“Now, Carol,” he said, “don’t leave here depressed.”
I had a fitful sleep last night, but that I slept at all is probably a bigger headline. What kept me awake was the enormity of my problem. It just loomed. It has completely replaced my grief over Howard’s death.
I ran this morning. Went to work at LKL. Sort of just put all of this aside and concentrated on show work and some Nathans stuff. I wrote a long memo about changes in office procedures and gave it to Doug, who took it, glanced at it and then set it on a stack of miscellaneous papers.
“I actually wrote that with the hope that you might read it,” I said.
Thankfully, went to a dinner party tonight at the home of Tina and Sonny Small. Friends. Humor. Comfort. Good food. Salvation. I used to talk babies with the wives and now I talk business with the husbands. I realized that for the men I’ve become a living and breathing business page. My story is so unbelievable that they can’t get enough of it. They wanted to talk to me instead of with each other about sports. More, more, they cry. They are compassionate. They want to kick people in the teeth for me. These are successful businessmen who have maneuvered their ways up the ranks. They know the angles. They know how the system works.
Instead of flirting, the men coddle me with advice and recommendations. I told them about the advice from the Caplin and Drysdale lawyers. “Don’t pay them another dime,” said Fred Thimm, a fellow restaurateur. “Don’t pay the lawyers. Don’t pay the accountants. Make them earn it. Tell them they aren’t going to get anything until they start to do something for you.” I liked his attitude. “You’re going to have to fight,” Fred said. “You are going to have to do the driving. If you don’t they will make all the decisions and run you right into the ground.”
Unfortunately, he’s right. I have no stomach for this, but I have to roll up my sleeves and go in there and do the driving. This is not the role I wanted in life.
The yacht yard that was near us on the Chesapeake Bay sent out a periodic newsletter. The content was mostly focused on the skills of the mechanics, carpenters and other craftsmen they employed and there were a few classifieds. It was not something I usually read, but when the new issue came out my attention was drawn to the front cover and a small box in the center with Howard’s name. It was a tribute, saluting his sailing skills and his attention to detail when he refurbished a boat. At the end it said, “We will always remember his lovely Hinckley Pilot 35, Penguin, and how beautifully he spruced her up.”
A Hinckley Pilot 35?
We didn’t own a Hinckley, and the sailboat we did own, a little 18 foot day-sailor, was named the Carol Ann. There had been a Hinckley Pilot 35 at the yard a year or so earlier. Howard took me out on her and announced she was for sale. “Should we buy her?” he asked. It was a lovely black-hulled boat, and I knew he considered the Hinckley yard to be the end all and be all of boat building, but we already had a sail boat and a power boat, we didn’t need another, and I was fairly adamant. “No,” I said. “Not now. Maybe if we sell the other boats.”
And, as far as I knew, that was that.
I put down the newsletter and called the yacht yard. I talked to the yard manager and thanked him for the nice tribute to Howard, and then said, “I’m going to ask you a question that may sound dumb, but please answer me honestly.”
He was silent.
“You mentioned the Hinckley Pilot 35, Penguin, in your write up.” I paused. “Do we own that boat?”
“Well, yes you did. Mr. Joynt had her here for a while. He had a lot of work done on her. Made her really sweet. Sold her at a good price, too.”
“He sold her?” I asked.
“Yeah. Sold her up in Maine. That was earlier last year.”
I thanked him for the information. I couldn’t tell him how idiotic I felt. Clearly, when Howard took me sailing on the boat and asked me whether we should buy her, she was already ours. I remembered the times we would walk the dock and I would say, “Look, that Hinckley is still here.”
Still there because Howard was the owner!
I mentioned it to Martha and a couple of Howard’s sailing buddies. They were stunned, too. He’d taken the men sailing, also, but never let on that he owned the boat. This discovery rattled me. The IRS, a boat – how much was there that I didn’t know about my husband? What was real, what was fake?
“Are you setting up a home office?” asked the owner of a stationery store when I stepped up to the cash register, my arms brimming with binders, paper, folders, labels, pens, highlighters, agendas, notebooks, paper clips, stapler, hole puncher, and more.
“Nope,” I said. “I’m preparing for war.”
At the apartment, I cleaned off the top of Howard’s big partners’ desk. Away went the silver pen holder, the antique toast rack where he sorted the mail, the silver ink well his father gave him. I set out black plastic file racks, plastic “in” and “out” bins and a stack of binders. The den was transformed into a “situation room.” I felt like I had some control.
But the feeling didn’t last. “You know, if the IRS wants to they can put liens on everything you own,” a smart friend informed me. “They can take your car. They can freeze your bank accounts. They can shut you down. They can come into your home, kick you out, seal it and sell whatever they want to.”
I knew nothing about the IRS or tax law, about my rights or protections. The lawyers had made me feel charged and convicted. My friend’s words stirred my paranoia. I conjured images of SWAT-suited IRS agents bashing down the door, dragging me away in chains while Spencer sobbed and pulled at my ankles. I viewed everything I owned as evidence of my putrid lifestyle, my excesses – my guilt.
I’d been living a lie, a sham. Nothing that was mine was mine. I looked at the furniture, the art, the clothes, the plates, the rugs beneath my feet and thought, “These belong to the federal government. They don’t belong to me, if they ever did.”
I’m not prone to hysteria, but when my friend warned me of the power of the IRS I went berserk. I thought THEY would come get me.
After Spencer went to bed I stayed up all night, frantic, and hid things. My modest collection of jewelry was stuffed in a bag and shoved under the cushions of the sofa. The good paintings were removed from the walls, carted to the basement storage bin, and replaced by modest prints we had in a closet. Other pictures were stacked against a wall to be “loaned” to a friend. I re-arranged furniture. I hid silver picture frames and Howard’s collection of gold pens.
This was silly behavior, because if the guys in the SWAT suits did come through the door they would likely find everything. I was silly. I was out of my mind with silliness.
It was late and fatigue amplified the stress. My hair in a mess, dirt on my face and hands, I crouched on my knees on the floor beside Howard’s desk and pulled out every drawer and every piece of paper. He was so amazingly organized. He had one drawer that was only cancelled checks, going back years. I pried open envelopes, pored over documents, fingered through manila folders, and without a clue as to what I was looking for.
The clock hands moved from midnight to two and three a.m. I went on this way throughout the night. The dog looked at me, head cocked, wondering.
I did find a relevant piece of paper. I recognized Howard’s precise prep school scrawl. It was a list of things we owned and beside them he’d jotted amounts of money. At the bottom of the column was a total. It looked like a calculation of how much money he could come up with if we sold everything. And he listed everything. Homes, cars, boats, stuff. The total was $1.2 million. Distraught, I tossed the piece of paper across the room.
“You fool,” I said out loud. “Not even close, darling.”
I welcomed the dawn.
A man arrived at Nathans today who said he was there to take care of the quarterly tax payments for unemployment, etc. When he was done doing whatever he did in the office, he said, “Can we go upstairs and sit for a moment?” He said he wanted to talk to me.
For the better part of an hour we talked about what people seem to call my “situation.” It’s all new to me, but apparently not to a lot of them. He talked about the different ways Howard was writing checks out of Nathans, what he was paying for, what he was writing off or not and how most of the way Howard ran the business “he had in his head.”
I know he was trying to help me make sense of all this, but it is so complex and so depressing and so enormous that no matter how much someone helps me I end up feeling more helpless.
Then, at the end, he said, “Well, I’m going to bill you, but Howard always gave me a periodic $5,000.”
“Can I afford that?” I asked.
“I don’t know if you can,” he said, adding. “He also let me run a tab.”
I went back downstairs and Doug was waiting for me. “We need to talk about the staff and you,” he said. “Some of them have come to me with questions.”
“Yeah, Doug, about what?”
“Well, you know, just questions.”
“About the IRS?” I asked.
“No, more about what’s going on here, and that you have been asking them to do things without going through a manager.”
“Well, I am the owner. Can’t I ask them to do things?”
“Yeah,” he said, nervously shuffling papers at his desk. “It’s just different from the way it used to be.”
“Yes, it is different. It can’t be the way it used to be. I am going to manage in my own way. It will be different from Howard’s way. You should tell the staff to do their jobs. I’m doing everything I can to keep this ship afloat so we all have jobs. I’d like everyone to keep that in mind.”
He was quiet.
“What more can I say?” I asked.
“No, that’s clear,” he said.
I sounded tough but I felt utterly alone and awful and weak.
“Howard had his own way of doing bookkeeping. That’s why he liked to count the money. You know, sort of one for me, one for Nathans.”
Douglas Sullivan talked to me while I watched him count the money from the night before into stacks of 5’s, 10’s, 20’s, 50’s and 100’s.
“I know,” I said. “He liked 100 dollar bills. He used to say anything smaller was a waste of time.”
“He could say that,” he said, as he ripped open the envelopes with the cash from the night before.
“Yup,” I said. “Believe me, that’s not my philosophy. I’ll take them big, small and smaller.”
We were in the basement office with the door closed and locked. I learned that was standard practice, so no staff or delivery men would walk in and see all that cash on the table. The office was small, cramped, and with gray paint and low ceilings, claustrophobic and dreary. I was at my desk and Doug was across the way at his.
He counted the money well, with skill and confidence. Doug liked preppy clothes, good wine and to have people believe he was a kind of shadow owner. His ruddy Irish face was crowned with a mop of sandy blond hair, which seemed always to be wet from the shower when he started work in the morning or returned from an afternoon visit to the notorious health club. He lived in the suburbs outside Georgetown with his wife and their children from previous marriages. On more than one occasion Howard caught him headed out the back door with a bagful of New York strip steaks and a couple of bottles of good Bordeaux, but he let it go.
Whenever Doug screwed up, Howard made the same excuse: “He’s dumb but he’s honest.” Apparently, in the wacky science of the saloon business, stealing money was dishonest, but stealing a steak was not.
Nathans is more bar than restaurant, which means there is a lot of cash. I learned the cash is counted twice – first by the bartenders in the wee hours after closing and again, the next morning, by the manager who opens. The bartenders divide the paper money into bundles of like denominations, wrap them with elastic bands, attach adding machine tape with their addition, and put the bundles in an envelope. It helps if their addition works out, but occasionally the count is over or under. The day manager counts the credit card receipts and the cash, reconciles any mistakes and makes the bank deposit. On a typical morning after a good weeknight’s business, the cash count is between $1500-2500, and much more on the Monday morning after a weekend.
“You know what else?” he said. “He was very particular about the bills. He only wanted the crisp, clean ones.”
“Yes, I do know that,” I said.
My thoughts traveled back to when Howard sometimes called me in the middle of the count, his tone sardonic.
“We had a nasty crowd in here last night,” he said.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“It’s all 20’s and 5’s and 1’s, and the bills are dirty and crumpled,” he said. “We made money, but the hard way.”
He explained his theory to me. A penny-pinching, low-roller customer likely wore jeans, used 20’s and 5’s, and stuffed the cash in his pockets, whereas a big-spending, high-roller wore a suit and had 100 dollar bills neatly folded into a wallet.
Howard carried his own crisp, clean 100’s in his right front trouser pocket, neatly folded in half. When he had fewer than 3 bills he complained he was out of money. On those occasions he stopped at the bar in full view of everyone and gamely asked the bartender, “How many ones have you got? Give me what you’ve got.” He never carried coins. He thought they made an unseemly jingly sound in his pocket. He tossed spare coins in jars and canvas bags around the office and home, and every now and then hauled the bags of change into the bank for cash.
In his back pocket he carried a thin, red leather wallet that was made in France. It held his credit cards, driver’s license and membership cards. He had a small silver Tiffany key chain with swivel bits on the ends. It had three keys: one for each apartment and one for the house on the Bay. He did not carry family photos, but on the wall next to his desk at Nathans he tacked up a dozen pictures of Spencer at different stages of his growth from newborn to 5 years old. In there among them were a few of the dog and me.
Douglas Sullivan continued his count of the money. He filled in the so-called “daily sheet,” and explained to me that it tracked all the incoming and outgoing money in a day’s business cycle, including liquor, food, equipment and incidental services.
“I guess I’ll have to learn how to do that,” I said. “But I’m really, really lousy with numbers.”
“Oh, it’s easy. There’s a formula,” he said, and paused. “I can’t believe you don’t know how to do this. Howard didn’t teach you any of this?”
“We had separation of home and business,” I said. “Howard probably knew more about my television work than I knew about Nathans. Really, I don’t know anything about this place. I’m starting at zero.”
People took for granted that Howard shared his business life with me. He didn’t, except when things went wrong. I knew the names of the habitual thieves in his employ, and which customers were drunks or wrote bad checks. He would be buoyant when business was good and anxious when it was not. He went to Nathans at 10 o’clock in the morning and returned home promptly at 6. We ate meals there only occasionally.
“How would you like to have dinner at your office?” he asked. “Besides, how long are we seated before someone is at the table to tell me the men’s urinal is backed up or the ice machine is busted, and they want me to fix it?”
Nathans was a “boy’s club” kind of business; Howard’s place. When I was there with him I took it at face value. I smiled at the employees, learned some of their names, and had the attitude that in many ways the place sort of ran itself.
But now, as the owner and with the IRS on my back, that simplistic view no longer worked. I had to become engaged. I had to get involved. I had to learn how it worked and how it didn’t work. The first thing I learned was that the restaurant business really wasn’t about the public spaces. It was about the office. It wasn’t about food; it was about who counted the money. It was also, in a more sinister way, about managing theft. I sat at Howard’s desk, pulled open drawers, shuffled through files, poked my nose over shoulders and asked questions nobody wanted to hear.
Douglas Sullivan was the employee who was least happy to have me in his hair. He’d been there almost 15 years and during that time we had an adversarial relationship as the owner’s wife and the owner’s manager. With Howard dead, he was perfectly happy at the helm alone. And I might have let him be had it not been for the fraud case and my liability. His manner toward me was correct but disdainful. He recognized I owned the business, but only as a fact. Where Nathans was concerned, he considered himself the “Widow Joynt.”
“I’ve never understood why Howard let his general manager work the same hours he did,” said a neighbor restaurant owner, who offered advice over dinner at his place. “My theory is the G.M. should work in prime time. Doug left every evening about an hour after Howard, around 6 o’clock, just when dinner business is beginning, just when he should be on the floor. I don’t get the logic of that. It’s just a management point, but you should change his hours.”
I said I would.
“He certainly gets a good salary,” he said. “Howard gave him one per cent of the gross, which is very generous. I’ve heard of G.M.’s getting a percentage of the net, but not the gross.”
“I didn’t know any of that,” I said. “I have no idea what he makes.”
“He makes about $100K,” he said. “That’s top dollar in this town.”
I absorbed the information.
“He’s okay, though,” he said. “I think he’s honest, and that’s rare in this business.”
Another person’s opinion was not going to change my mind about Doug. I thought he was a sycophant and a worm. My impression of him over the years was that he did what he wanted to do, not what Howard asked him to do, except when Howard screamed at him. If Howard said, “No, you can’t buy that piece of equipment,” Doug bought it anyway. If Howard said, “Fire that bartender. I saw him stealing,” Doug dragged his feet until Howard had to do the deed.
When Howard complained about him, I asked, “Why don’t you fire him then?” The reply was always the same: “He’s honest and he knows what’s going on.”
“You can’t find another honest general manager?” I asked.
“It wouldn’t be easy,” he said, and the subject would be dropped.
It was interesting to me that as much as Howard and other saloon owners mentioned honesty, they never mentioned loyalty. Perhaps it was overly ambitious, but I wanted both and I wanted to get them without having to yell or threaten.
After the IRS case landed in my lap, I decided Doug served another role in Howard’s business life: the job of looking the other way. He had to have been complicit in whatever it was that Howard was up to, and there was no way Howard could fire someone who knew he wasn’t paying taxes. Doug had to have known, and what he knew earned him a big salary and infinite job security. That is, until Howard died. But he was already thinking about survival when, within a month of Howard’s death, he hit me with a pitch during a meeting at the accountant’s office.
The meeting was supposed to be routine, to help bring me up to date on Nathans financial picture. I gave Doug a ride to the accountant’s, and in the car we made casual small talk about the restaurant. He gave no hint of what he planned to spring on me at our destination.
The accountant’s office was cramped. Cardboard boxes were stacked and strewn around. I noticed that “Nathans” was scrawled across most of them.
“What are those boxes?” I asked the accountant.
“Nathans checks,” he said. “They are being coded for the IRS.”
“Oh,” I said, completely dumb about what that meant.
The meeting had only just begun when Doug spoke up.
“Howard promised he would make me a partner in the business. He said he would give me 5 percent of the business.”
“I didn’t know that,” I said.
“He talked to me about it. I figured it was going to happen soon. I’m prepared for it to happen.”
This stunned me. It came out of nowhere.
“I don’t know, Doug. I’ll have to think about that.”
Even the accountant seemed stunned by Doug’s statement. Later, privately, he said his surprise was “not that Doug would ask for it, but that Howard would have offered. I don’t believe that for one minute.”
This much I knew: Howard wouldn’t give anybody 5 percent of his business. If it was on his mind he would have talked to me about it. Howard did not believe in partnerships. He mentioned it in the past but only to tell me that Doug was “hassling” him about it. He dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand.
“He’s out of his fucking mind if he thinks I’m going to give him a damned thing,” Howard said. “He’s overpaid as it is.”
Whether Howard meant what he said or whether Doug was imagining what he claimed Howard said were gray areas. A lot got said in the office at Nathans – by Howard, to Howard, with or without Howard in the room. With him suddenly dead, there was ample opportunity for people to come to me with their versions of events, their claims of promises from Howard, especially as rumors spread about an imminent IRS bloodbath. Employees were scared. Doug was scared.
The fact that I never warmed to him, or him to me, mattered now. We both needed each other. I couldn’t run the place without him. He knew that. I hoped he would come to me and say, “I’m here for you. Whatever you need, just ask. I’m grateful to have the job.”
Instead, while Howard’s ashes were still warm, he campaigned for a piece of the action. My gut told me I should tell him “no,” and when I did he bristled. He stewed for a few days and then a letter arrived for me from his lawyer.
In careful language it made clear Doug knew details of the IRS investigation. It mentioned rumors of illegal practices that went on at Nathans about which, the lawyer wrote, “Mr. Sullivan was completely unaware.”
The letter cited the pink checks Howard gave to Doug and others, and said Howard had promised to cover the taxes Doug owed on the unreported income. The amount was many thousands of dollars. The letter said Doug expected me to honor Howard’s promise. The lawyer made ominous references to what would happen if I did not pay. It was lawyerly and guarded, but the message was clear: pay up or Doug will talk.
It was blackmail.
I faxed the letter to the lawyers at Caplin and Drysdale, and they took it seriously enough to convene an immediate conference call. A few of them at one end, me at the other.
“While it’s clear this is blackmail and it’s awful, you better pay. We don’t know what he knows, but he knows something. It could be damaging to you.”
“But it’s blackmail!” I said. “Why do I have to pay blackmail? I mean, he says he knew nothing about illegal acts but he was taking the pink checks…for God’s sake. Why can’t I just fire him?”
“That would be a mistake,” one of them said.
Disembodied voices came at me.
“You have too much at risk,” another said.
“Keep him. Find out what he knows. Don’t let him wander off the reservation.”
“Don’t the landlords like him and trust him? That’s something you need right now.”
“I hate this,” I said. “It’s completely counter to all my instincts. You’re telling me I have to keep a rat in my midst, and feed it.”
In a reply to Doug I said I would “loan” him the money, and that it would be paid to him in stages, not a lump sum. I stressed it must be paid back. That demand was a folly, of course, but it made me feel good.
One morning I looked in the mirror and saw a woman who was haggard. I hadn’t gained back the weight I lost at the hospital, and though I generally preferred to be thin, my cheeks were hollow, my skin was dull and colorless and my eyes were tired. I needed vitamins, sunlight, and a laugh.
On Friday, as we did every Friday, Spencer and I drove out to the house on the Bay. We left in the afternoon, after his school day and my dual workday at Larry King Live and Nathans. With the sun still high when we arrived, Spencer promptly dragged me outside to play. I collapsed on a chaise lounge – a zombie, drained by the week. I wanted to be pampered. I yearned for down time, a person to talk to, someone to solve my woes. Spencer hollered, “Mommy, come play with me. Mommy! Come on, don’t sleep, play with me.” It was so damned hard to find the energy to play with my child. This drummed my guilt, of course. I dragged myself off the chaise and chased him, happy for the wind in my eyes that hid my tears.
One of his favorite pastimes was to play with his kiddie tools in the small area of forest we had along one side of the property. It was not deep woods, but deep enough to thrill a five-year-old. He called the area “Spencer’s Lair.” He fancied himself a woodcutter and carpenter, just like his heroes Norm and Steve on “This Old House.”
As I sat on a log nearby, Spencer focused on his “tooling,” and talked to me about Howard. I moved leaves around with a stick, head down, and listened.
“Do you think Daddy is watching us?” he asked.
“I hope so,” I said. “I know he’s always watching you. He’s always watching you and loving you and looking out for you.”
Spencer worked on his project, and pretended to saw one piece of wood with another. He listened to me closely, though, and considered my words.
“If he can see me, why can’t I see him?”
“Because he doesn’t exist as a person anymore. He’s a spirit. But that’s good. That’s how he can be wherever you are. If he were a person your teacher might ask him to leave the classroom or the playground. But because he’s a spirit he can always be there, invisible, and no one else has to know but you.”
“I like that,” he said. “But I would rather have him here as a person. I miss Daddy.”
“Oh, me too,” I said. “All the time.”
I picked up a small, sharp rock that Spencer had unearthed and tossed aside. It was shaped like an arrowhead. I stood up and worked with it on one of the trees, carving words. I stood back and looked at my work.
Stacked one above the other were the words:
It’s amusing how hanging out with a bunch of celebrities can take one’s mind off anguish for a night.
I went to the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner, as the association’s guest; payback for helping them book Jon Stewart as the entertainment after Rosie O’Donnell bailed on them at the 11th hour. It was awful of her to do that, but thankfully, and amazingly, Jon was able to fill in. I sat at a table with his mother, his girlfriend and Al Franken. Franken sat beside me and was smirking because Clinton did such a boffo job with the jokes – all written by Al. I died for Jon, up there on the dais beside Clinton, watching as the Prez went through all the same bits he’d put together in a marathon of preparation. He called me for two nights running, fretting about his jokes. How awful to have to follow a President whose jokes are written by a professional comic like Franken. What’s another comic to do? They should just book a singer, for God’s sake.
Jon was good, but Clinton got the first, best laughs.
I rode over to the Hilton with Larry and Shawn Southwick, his new love. He kept saying, “Get used to her, Carol, cause she’s going to be around.” I feel like Larry is the one who should be listening to those words. Just when he gets used to them he’s tired of them. But Shawn is very pretty and sweet and I liked her right off, especially when she said she wished she could go back to her hotel and change her top. It was a strapless tube thing. I think she was freezing. But I bet it photographed well.
Later, at the Vanity Fair party, I talked to Kevin Costner. I couldn’t believe it. He has crooked teeth. A big movie star like that. Friendly, certainly handsome, but not a lot of wit … or at least not a lot of wit for me.
The best part of the evening was when I found myself at the bar with Robert DeNiro on one side of me and George Clooney on the other. I’d met George about 10 minutes earlier out on the terrace with Larry.
I was getting a glass of champagne and DeNiro turned to me and asked:
“Do I know you?” Pause. “Are you a journalist?”
Clooney leaned in across me and said, “No, this is Carol. She’s not a journalist. She’s with Larry King.”
I wanted to say, “Wait one big minute there, George. I am, too, a journalist.” But then I thought, who am I kidding?
DeNiro broke into a big grin.
“I love that show,” he said. “Watch it all the time.” He skipped a few beats, smiled shyly and added, “…but I’m not ready to do an interview.” He put a hand up like a stop sign.
“You would be great, though,” I said.
“I don’t have anything to talk about,” he said.
“Larry would take care of that,” I said. I paused. “By the way, you have a lot to talk about.” I then led DeNiro out to the terrace where Larry was and had the privilege of introducing them, which was sort of silly because the moment one celeb see’s another it is instant recognition and they are off and running.
DeNiro is still handsome, but his face shows a lot of wear and tear. Clooney, on the other hand, has surprisingly delicate, almost porcelain features. Handsome, but not boldly so like DeNiro. To me it’s always interesting to meet actors, to see their faces, and to appreciate that quality in their features that finds dimension on camera.
Clooney was sweet and so forthcoming. He gave me his home phone number as an assist in reaching him to get him on the show. Heavens, if only they were all like that.
I met and talked for a while with Gerald Levin, our new lord and master at CNN. Very easy to talk to. Wants to help me book Madonna. Go Gerry!
Larry wanted to introduce me to Ellen DeGeneres and her girlfriend, Ann Heche, who were making quite a splash of themselves the whole night. I dunno, I just backed away. I mean, what do I say to them? Since I barely know what to say to these celebrities to begin with – except something about their latest work – it was just too much. What was I gonna say? How’s this lesbian thing working out for you two? No. I just said, “No thanks, Lare,” and moved on to someone else.
I was hoping Nick Von Hoffman would be there. That would have made my night. He was there a year ago, but not tonight. I missed seeing him.
I didn’t book anyone, but I had a lot of good conversations and some fun and my mind was only on that the whole night.
THE NEXT DAY
This is a snapshot of me this morning:
I love being alive.
I love Spencer.
I love that I had a glorious run with the sun just beginning to peek through spent rain clouds. Spring is in the air.
I love that we have great friends who think about us, check on us, want to help us.
I love that we have our health and good spirits.
I love that I couldn’t get my mind around all my sorrow and problems this morning, that there just wasn’t room because I was full of good feeling and optimism. I love all these feelings. How they happen, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I went out last night and had fun.
Or maybe I am losing my mind.
My work in television was a welcomed diversion. It was a release from the mystery and misery that was Nathans and the IRS. Television news was what I knew how to do. I was strong and capable when mired in booking guests for Larry King.
In early spring of 1997 I was in the middle of negotiations for several big-ticket interviews: Rosie O’Donnell, who had a brand new hit talk show; Calvin Klein, who was always good with Larry; Marcia Clark and her book about the O.J. Simpson trial; Leona Helmsley, who had been mum since she got out of prison for tax evasion. Christies Auctioneers were about to announce an auction of Princess Diana’s dresses and I wanted them to give Larry King Live a first, exclusive look at the duds. These were front burner “gets.” I had another dozen or so long-term projects: Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, John Kennedy, Jr., Doris Day, Sting, the Duchess of York, Marv Albert, Kathie Lee and Frank Gifford, the Pope, Queen Elizabeth.
My list of targets always prompted titters from anybody I mentioned it to, but these are the kinds of guests cable chat shows thrive on. They translate into profitable ratings. Admittedly, the Pope and the Queen were farfetched, but Wendy Walker Whitworth, the show’s hard-charging executive producer, took them seriously as potential interviews. She regularly queried me about my progress with the Queen and the Pope – and with a straight face – and engaged me in hopeful banter about tactics we could use to get these gets.
We were encouraged when Cardinal O’Connor agreed to meet with me in New York to talk about the Pope. He didn’t burst out laughing, but he did term the prospects of a Pope interview with Larry King as “improbable.” When I asked the Cardinal about the chances of Barbara Walters snagging the interview, he said, “equally improbable.” This kind of discouraging news was better received by Wendy when I could point out that our competition wasn’t in the running, either.
Booking guests for Larry King was great fun. He was a good sport. He made my job easy. He loved his show, he loved being on the air, he loved the guests, loved the sport of the interview. We spent a lot of time together and he was well-informed, good natured, and curious. He had his moments, but everyone does. The red light of the TV camera zaps part of the brain of people who go on-air. It can take a reasonable ego and make it monster size. Larry wasn’t a monster.
I also love news, love television, and love going “live.” My happiest moments have been in an over-chilled, brightly-lit studio at one minute to air. I love the cables snaking all over the floor, the cameras, the crew, the set, the countdown. The excitement, the anticipation and the immediacy give me goose-bumps.
Journalism was in my blood. At 14 I declared myself a future reporter, and it was all because of the Beatles. In 1964 they came to Washington and I chased them all over town, and only gave up when their manager, Brian Epstein, intercepted me as I crawled from a hotel’s back stairs to the Beatles’ bedroom door. When I learned that reporters had easy access to them, that was enough for me. On the spot I decided I would become a reporter, meet and then marry Paul McCartney. That didn’t happen, but the news seed was planted. In the 1960s, during the race riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination, during the Chicago Democratic Convention, and with the television images from the Vietnam War, my attraction grew deeper. I read newspapers and fingered bylines and datelines and dreamt about covering dangerous stories in far flung hot spots.
I never went to college, unless visiting a few night school classes can count as a college education. From my high school graduation in 1968 I went straight to the streets to cover the anti-war movement. One job lead to another and a year later, the same week in January 1969 Richard Nixon was inaugurated as President for the first time, I was hired as a cub in the Washington Bureau of United Press International. I took dictation from Merriman Smith and Helen Thomas at the White House. I begged the desk to assign me to stories. On my own time, I hitched up to a protest march and then phoned the desk with the story. Gradually I got my byline onto the A-wire and onto front pages all over the country and the world.
After their Washington bureau chief, Hugh Sidey, met me and read my clippings, Time Magazine hired me as a stringer in Washington, then moved me to their headquarters in New York, where I became a corporate trainee. For Time I covered many diverse stories. One night, outside the premiere of The Godfather, I had to ask other reporters, “Will you please tell me which one of the actors is Al Pacino?” because I knew politics not Hollywood. I went on the road with Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda as they took their antiwar campaign to college campuses. I was on the campaign bus with George McGovern during the New York primary. I covered Elvis Presley, and had this exchange with him at a press conference:
Me: “Elvis, what are you doing after the show tonight?”
Elvis: “I don’t know, baby, what are you doing?”
I covered Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, the introduction of the Gyro sandwich to Times Square, moon launches from Cape Kennedy and the memorable time Martha Mitchell, wife of Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell, ran away from Washington to the Westchester, NY, Country Club at the height of the Watergate scandal, claiming, I recall, that the Nixon Administration was trying to have her murdered.
With all of that, the pace of a weekly news magazine was too slow for me. I needed daily, not weekly, action. I’d met Walter Cronkite when I was working for UPI, after he answered my fan letter. We became pen pals, sort of, and friends. When I was with Time in New York we had the occasional lunch. When a slot opened up he offered me a job as one of his three writers on The CBS Evening News. I jumped at the offer. My last day at Time, in December 1972, was the same day Life Magazine – the original Life Magazine – folded. The entire day, as my colleagues mourned, I did not tell anyone I had signed on with television, the medium widely assumed to have caused Life’s demise.
Broadcast news, particularly CBS News, was everything I wanted it to be. Immediate, effective, important. In the l970s, apart from Ben Bradlee’s office, there was no more exciting place to be. The CBS News White House correspondent was Dan Rather. Roger Mudd covered Capitol Hill. Fred Graham was at the Supreme Court. Eric Sevareid did nightly commentary. Leslie Stahl, Connie Chung, Bob Schieffer, Daniel Schorr, Ed Bradley filled out the bench in the Washington bureau. Richard Salant was the President of the News Division and our bold, brave leader. William Paley was still the master of his domain at Black Rock, the CBS corporate headquarters. We were a force to be reckoned with and we knew it. Five nights a week for almost four years, beginning with the death of President Johnson, through Watergate, Patty Hearst and the fall of Saigon, I sat at Walter’s left hand and wrote his words.
Later, after Howard and I moved from Upperville and I resumed my professional career, I became a producer for Charlie Rose at Nightwatch, CBS’ Washington-based overnight interview program. Later I was a producer at ABC News, for David Brinkley on This Week and then briefly for Ted Koppel at Nightline. After Spencer was born, I got out of television and made documentary films. I worked often with J. Carter Brown, the director of The National Gallery of Art. I made a film for them about the Gallery’s 50th Anniversary, and another about the dime store mogul and art collector Samuel Kress. The American Academy in Rome, who award The Prix de Rome each year, hired me to make a film for their 100th anniversary. I liked documentary-making, but I missed live, television news. Larry King Live came my way in 1995, after Spencer started nursery school and I had more time on my hands.
My resume was rich, interesting and provocative. I’d seen and done a lot.
But none of it, not one day of it, prepared me to become the owner of a bar.
Because I could write did not mean I could write a menu. Because I could perform under pressure and meet a deadline did not mean I could convince a belligerent drunk that it was time to pay his tab and go home. Because I could sense which Congressional aide was most likely to betray his boss and give me a scoop did not mean I could interview a college student and sense whether he could wait tables, and because I could get Sharon Stone to talk to Larry King did not mean I could convince Mr. Garcia, whose trucks picked up Nathans trash each morning, that he should wait a day for his overdue check. Nope. None of that computed. My skills were useless.
Also, in the almost 30 years I’d been an employee in the news business, I had respect for the boss, certainly the position if not always the person. When I was given an assignment, even if I was skeptical about its value, I did it. I knew who signed my paycheck. Now I had a manager who treated me like I was in the way and a staff who viewed me as inconsequential. As a friend said, “They’re all still working for Howard.”
It scared me to answer the phones at Nathans. With taxes being paid, the business no longer had a fat bank balance. After the first time I was blasted by the rage of an angry bill collector, when the phone rang I let someone else answer.
But angry suppliers could not always be avoided. One day we needed the plumber, and I called him.
“When can you come?” I asked.
“When we can get there,” he said.
“Well, we have a serious problem. I need you right away.”
“I’d like to get paid right away,” he said. “When are you going to pay us?”
“We pay you,” I said.
“No, Howard paid us. You don’t pay us. Howard always paid his bills. You’re a deadbeat.”
I wanted to say, “Yeah, Howard paid his bills alright, but he didn’t pay the government, you asshole. Now I’m making up for lost time.”
But I didn’t. I kept my trap shut. I needed the plumber on my side.
Howard’s routine was to call the restaurant every night at 10 o’clock, no matter where he was. He checked in to get a report from the night manager. Who are the customers? How many dinners? Any problems? That’s what he wanted to know.
I did the same thing and tried to act like I knew what I was talking about. Most of the time the news was routine. The dining room seats about 60 people comfortably. The bar seats another 20 or so. On a good night, when the tables are turned twice, that translates to 120-140 dinners, a bell ringing number. On the other hand, 35-45 dinners means bring in the body bags. Dead. A waste to even open. I had to learn to roll with it. As with the stock market, a restaurant owner tracks the long-term averages. But it’s all bottom line. It costs a certain amount to open the door each day. If that amount of money is met and exceeded, the restaurant turns a profit. If it isn’t meant, the day is a loser.
Howard said the bar business attracts “the worst at their worst.” Those words hung in my head as I became more involved. There were so many little incidents: A woman claims her fur coat has been stolen when no one on the staff can remember her arriving in a fur. The bouncer pummels a customer for being only slightly unruly. An intoxicated sports star turns over his table, “just for fun.” Two young women vomit all over the bathroom before passing out in the muck. A waiter writes in his own tip on a customer’s credit card charge. Another waiter is stopped as he heads for the back door with a live lobster in his shirt. A regular bar patron, a generally calm fellow, rips the men’s urinal off the wall because, “I’m having a bad night.”
I had to learn to roll with these kinds of goings on. But other events were beyond my range.
One night stands out.
When I made my usual call to check on business, the night manager, Terry O’Brien, had a tale to tell. It involved one of the cooks, Dina, and the coat-check girl, Marian, who is African-American.
“Well, apparently Marian was downstairs using the employee bathroom when Dina came to the door and demanded she ‘get the fuck out,” the manager said. “She used the ‘N’ word.”
“Good. Charming. Nice employee relations.”
“It gets better,” he said. “Or worse, depending on…well. Anyway. Marian flew out of the bathroom and slapped Dina hard across the face and then they got into a hair-pulling fist fight.”
“You are kidding me?”
“Enrique (one of the chefs) and Michael (one of the waiters) got down there and got them apart. Marian went back upstairs. She told Henry (her boyfriend, also a waiter) what happened and the next thing I know he’s running back downstairs after Dina and Marian is right behind him with a kitchen knife. Enrique and I grabbed Dina and Michael and Henry grabbed Marian and got the knife away from her.”
“And now? What’s happening now? Did you call the police?”
“No, no, no. It’s okay now. Everybody’s back at their jobs. Dina’s shift is done and she’s about to go home. Marian seems fine, I guess. She said she’s going to file a complaint with the D.C. human rights department. But I don’t know, you should talk to her.”
“Yeah, you should talk to both of them.”
“What about Doug? Will he talk to them?”
“Well, you know, I asked him, and he said that as the owner this was really your responsibility.”
“Oh, he did, did he? Okay. I’ll be in New York next week with the show, but tell them both I want to see them – separately – when I get back. Okay?”
“Sure. Otherwise, it was strong here. We were slammed. Have a good night.”
I fell back on my pillow and sighed. In all my years in journalism I’d heard of or seen some tense newsroom arguments, but I never saw anybody pull a knife. What strange new world was this?
My situation hit me today. Like a tropical downpour falling from a big black cloud. Just drenched with sorrow, fear, loneliness and hopelessness.
This while sitting outside on one of the lawn chairs, taking in our wonderful, glorious view of the Bay, on the most beautiful of spring mornings. The grass was green, baby leaves on the trees, a breeze, bright yellow sun, blue sky, glistening water. Spencer was playing in his sandbox, calling, ‘Mommy, Mommy, come here,’ because he wanted to show me some new discovery. I couldn’t get up and go to him. All I could do was put my head down in my hands and sob.
I want to wrap my arms around us and our home and protect us from the government, but I don’t see how I can do that. This is so much bigger than me and my abilities, my resources, my intelligence. Family can’t bail me out. Friends can’t bail me out. I have no special talent I can suddenly market for a cool million or two. I don’t know how to steal or scam or rob banks or win at Trump’s casino.
Last night I went through files and papers and receipts and documented everything that is most precious to me. If I sell them all they won’t bring the needed money. All I can do is sell the house and that’s our home and the only thing we have. It is the only home Spencer has known. He’s lost his father. I don’t want him to lose his home, too.
I can only imagine what Spencer thinks. This does not help a child to grow up sane. And we had got him off to such a good start. We were so dedicated to giving him the balanced, sound world neither one of us ever had. Perhaps that’s how Howard got us into this mess. He wanted us to have the best of everything. I miss him so much right now. I need him to tell me what to do; how to get out of this. He would know how to guide me. He would have a plan. And, I could cry on his shoulder.
“You should go to court. You’d be great on the witness stand,” Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward said to me across the table in his Georgetown kitchen. Spencer and I were having dinner with Bob, his wife Elsa Walsh, and their 2-year-old daughter, Diana. “A civil court in D.C. will rule against the IRS because the jury will be with you. Everybody hates the IRS,” he said. Elsa nodded.
Bob Woodward and I met in l970 at a suburban hotel where we were both covering a speech by Carl McIntyre, a fundamentalist pro-Vietnam/Nixon rabble rouser. Bob said he was impressed to meet a “big time” reporter like me, who worked for a national news organization like United Press International. At the time he worked for a chain of suburban papers. But that didn’t last long. Within a few months he was hired by The Washington Post and was on his way.
When he covered Watergate, Bob had his own moment under the IRS’ thumb - thanks to Richard Nixon. Both he and his reporting partner, Carl Bernstein, were arbitrarily audited by the IRS. It was a squeeze tactic widely used by the Nixon Administration against their perceived enemies.
“You would be good on the witness stand,” Elsa said.
“Are you kidding?” I said. “I think they would hate me. A seemingly rich white woman from Georgetown. Where’s the sympathy? There’s no sympathy.”
“But you’re a widow,” Elsa said. “How many women in Washington are single parents? How many women in Washington are raising boys by themselves? Women jurors would be on your side. You are more sympathetic than you realize.”
“Geez, I don’t know. I don’t know if I have the stomach to have my dirty laundry washed out in a courtroom. They would turn my whole world inside out and upside down. You should read what this agent wrote about me. That’s the tact they would take. They would hold me up as an example of selfish indulgence…and I don’t know if I would have a strong defense.”
It was scary to imagine myself on a witness stand.
Bob and Elsa knew Howard. They had been guests at our house on the Bay. I didn’t know Elsa as well as I knew Bob, but I liked her. She was smart, interesting and discreet. They are both as solid in the way they talk as they are in appearance. Bob is strong and stocky. Not fat, but broad and square. His good looks come the same way: solid, purposeful. Elsa has the lovely fair face of the Irish with strength shining through in her eyes. They both make eye contact, and all the time.
They wanted me to win – but against whom and with what and on what basis were areas where none of us had knowledge. I needed knowledge and expertise. I asked Bob to read the IRS report. He was the only friend I asked. I figured with his experience as an investigative reporter, he’d seen a lot. He would be cool to my dirty laundry. He would not make assumptions about Howard or me. He would read the facts and weigh them.
While the grown-ups ate at the kitchen table, Spencer and baby Diana goofed around, chasing each other from room to room. Between bites, Bob got down on the floor and played with the children.
When we covered antiwar protests together as young street reporters, sometimes we met late for dinner at a dive in Chinatown, two young upstarts, eating fried wonton and reading the “bulldog” edition of the Post. We talked about the news and the process of covering the news. We were in love with chasing stories. Once, when the Watergate story was in its infancy, he excused himself early.
“I have to meet someone in a garage,” he said. It was the individual who became known as Deep Throat.
Bob read Deborah Martin’s thick IRS report and got back to me with a plan.
“I’m sending it over to Sheldon Cohen. He’s my tax lawyer. I first went to him during Watergate, when Nixon had the IRS audit me. I’ve been with him ever since. He’s good. He used to be the Commissioner of the IRS during the Kennedy Administration. You’ll like him. Call him in two weeks.”
He gave me Sheldon’s number and two weeks later, to the day, I called Sheldon Cohen. His voice was calm and assured. His tone was fatherly. “You’re in quite a jam, aren’t you? Why don’t you come by and see me.”
Sheldon Cohen headed the tax law department of his firm, Morgan, Lewis and Bockius, where he was a partner. He was one of the sharpest, most respected tax lawyers in the country. There were solid reasons Bob Woodward, and other high-profile individuals, called him.
“I grew up in Washington,” he said, after we sat down. “My father was in the wholesale food business. I grew up in the business and know about restaurants. What your husband did is just what sometimes goes on in that business.” He was calm and reassuring, even grandfatherly. His suit and tie were understated.
“I don’t understand it at all,” I said.
“Well, that’s not unusual. It’s not unusual for a wife to be unaware of her husband’s business dealings. It happens,” he said.
“What do you think happened?” I asked. “How did he get in this mess?”
“Though I don’t know for sure because I only have the report, I would imagine he got a little greedy. It seems he ran the books in an old school style – out of his back pocket - and he used old school practices. That was fine until the tax law changed a couple of years ago. Businessmen couldn’t write off all those meals and that hit hard in the restaurant industry. That’s when he should have cleaned up his act, because the IRS knows that’s a good time to start looking precisely at small business operators like him. That’s how they squeeze them.”
“You have a couple of problems here,” he continued. “There’s the unreported income, that’s one thing. But what really gets under their skin, I’m sure, was not paying the withholding taxes, especially since he was taking the money from the employees.”
A woman charged into the room. She was slight, with short blond hair, modest jewelry, trim tan pant suit, tightly wound, smiling.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said, breathless, as she came to a full stop in the middle of the room. Like Sheldon, her demeanor was all business, but in a younger, hipper wrapping.
“Let me introduce you to Miriam Fisher,” Sheldon said. “She works with me. I asked her to take a look at the report. I wanted her to be in here with us.”
She said hello. I stood up. Our hands clasped in a firm grip. We looked squarely into each others’ eyes.
“Bob and Elsa think I should go to court and fight,” I said.
Sheldon smiled at Miriam.
“There are many things Bob is smart about,” Sheldon said, “but he’s not a tax lawyer. That’s why he has me. It would be wrong for you to go to court. You could lose. This is not an example of the IRS being mean-spirited or wrong. The IRS was doing their job on this case. They got their man and they got the evidence.”
“Even with the atmosphere as it is right now on Capitol Hill,” Miriam said, “where everyone is down on the IRS, where everyone is crying for reform, this would stand as an example of them behaving properly.”
“But I’m going to be cleaned out,” I said. “My son and I will have nothing. If I lose the restaurant we’ll be out on the street. I don’t make enough money at CNN to support us. I have a part-timer’s salary. I’ve used up all my savings. I’m getting a small salary from Nathans, but I’m having to use estate money to make ends meet. That’s money that should have been mine.”
“It looks bad to you, I know, but I read the report and I see a lot of opportunity,” Miriam said.
She did not sit down. She paced. She tossed out ideas, interrupted with questions. Even when she didn’t talk she still moved. She was younger than me but that wasn’t a divide. I sensed a kinship. Miriam and Sheldon traded ideas. I watched, listened, and wiped away sudden tears. I couldn’t help it. They gave me hope and the more hope they gave me, the more relief I felt. Perhaps this was my team.
Sheldon leaned forward in his chair.
“I think you have a colorable argument for Innocent Spouse,” he said. I was struck by the legalese of the word “colorable.”
“But at Caplin and Drysdale they said I didn’t stand a chance,” I said.
“I disagree,” he said. “I think you do have a chance, and I should know because I wrote the code when I was commissioner.”
“But you’re not sure?”
“We have to learn a lot more … about you. We have to prepare a defense. We have to fight for it.”
“Honestly, Sheldon, I was clueless about all of this.” I said. “I can’t prove it, because I did sign the tax forms. I know that’s my signature and I remember signing them… But I assumed if an accountant prepared them they were kosher.”
“Wives do it all the time,” he said. “They never read them, they just sign them. My wife used to be like that, but I told her she ought to start reading everything she signs and now she does.”
I interrupted him, “…but in so many ways financially we lead separate lives. I was not involved in his business. I did not ever see his books. We had separate checking accounts, separate credit cards. He paid almost all the bills. I liked that. I never complained about it. I wanted it that way. He was good at it.”
“…did you take money from the business?” Miriam asked me.
“Not really. Well, I guess, sure. Sometimes I would need some cash and Howard would tell me to ask the bartender. I didn’t question it.”
“Were these large amounts of money?” she asked.
“No. A hundred dollars here or there and very infrequently, months apart, and several years ago when I wasn’t working. I assumed it was our money.”
“That’s okay. There was no reason for you to not think that,” Sheldon said.
I jumped ahead.
“Can I switch law firms from Caplin and Drysdale?” I asked.
“Yes, you can,” Sheldon said.
“They treat me like I’m a criminal,” I said.
“On their behalf,” Sheldon said, “I would say this: They were used to working with Howard. He was the one who did it. And then suddenly you walk in the door. It’s not easy to change gears like that.”
“They didn’t want to try for Innocent Spouse,” I said.
“I think it’s worth a shot,” he said, and then launched into the history of the Innocent Spouse code.
“It was the mid-1960s,” he said. “They bring me this case of a woman who was a school teacher in a small town in Texas. She’s married to a fellow, they have one or two kids, and they make a decent living. But unbeknownst to her he has a second business in another town 50 miles away – and another wife and family!”
Sheldon explained that the husband paid income tax on only one of the families, family number one, and the IRS caught him and there were back taxes due for family number two. Because wife number one was the legal spouse, the debt fell to her.
“So, they come to me with this case and they say that because wife number one, his real wife, signed a joint return they have to take her house. She bought this house with a school teacher’s salary, she’s supporting the kids. I said, ‘don’t do it.’ I went to Congress and I said, ‘I need legislation to protect this woman and others like her,’ and I got it, and that’s how the Innocent Spouse statute was born.”
“Is it easy to get?”
“It gets granted thousands of times,” he said, “but it’s not given away. Most of the time it doesn’t work because the wife knows the income isn’t being reported or she participated in the business. She’s involved. She knows. She knew she was using ill-gotten gains.”
“It’s a tough code,” Miriam said, “but it’s changing. This is one of the very issues that’s being debated on Capitol Hill. There is a move to liberalize the interpretation of Innocent Spouse and I think it will happen, and you could benefit from that. Your timing couldn’t be better.”
“That’s a ray of sunshine,” I said.
“If you come to us with the case, this is what we will do,” Sheldon said. “I will build a wall around you and Spencer and try to save the two of you. The business won’t matter. If we save the two of you, then we will decide whether we want to save the business. But the first fight is to save you and your son.”
I left their offices resolved. The next day I called Sheldon and said, “I want you to represent me.” The choice was made. I dismissed Caplin and Drysdale and signed on with Sheldon Cohen and Miriam Fisher. I had my army . I was ready for war.
Last night Martha came over for a quick kitchen dinner. We had chicken and mashers and watched Marcia Clark on LKL. She was very good. So much better live than on tape. I worked hard to get her, but I liked Chris Darden’s book and interview better.
And LK became engaged last night. He says he will marry his beloved Shawn in December. So I get to go through a Larry marriage after all. I always felt a little gypped joining the show after all of Larry’s marriages and with him saying he would never marry again. All I got to experience were the girlfriends, and some of them were a little odd. Not Shawn. She seems to be aces. She loves him, too. Go figure.
I am moving ahead at Nathans. As I write this the spotters I hired are sitting at the bar. A bookkeeper referred to me by Fred Thimm is getting my books together. One law firm is transitioning to another. Spencer has been tested, interviewed and accepted at schools for kindergarten. Most of his friends will be at the same school.
My thoughts always return to Nathans. Now I know why I so often woke in the middle of the night, rolled over and found Howard wide awake, staring at the ceiling. That’s me now.
I’ve been told the night manager, Terry O’Brien, is drinking on the job. Again. I say again because Howard complained about his drinking. I thought he was on the wagon, Doug assured me he was on the wagon, but apparently he is hitting the Grand Marnier shooters and appearing pretty looped by closing. And he has a wife and children! This is not good. I talked to Doug and asked him to handle it. He seemed surprised. I’m sure he wondered how I knew, but I didn’t let on. I have my sources.
Also, I learned that one of the bartenders, Keegan, is working at another bar across the street, double-timing me. Now, excuse me, but isn’t that wrong? I find this so bothersome. I like Keegan, but I had Doug haul him into the office. Keegan sat there and with a straight face and said to me, “this is the way it’s done, Carol. You’ll have to learn. It’s not unusual for a bartender to work at a couple of places.”
“Across the street from each other?” I asked.
Boy, they must all think I am a dummy.
When Keegan left, Doug and I talked about it. “Is this done?” I asked. I wanted to be fair, but geez. How can he be loyal to me and work the bar directly across the street? Do my customers who like him leave when he’s over there? Is that the objective of the other owner in hiring my guy?
“It’s unusual,” Doug said. “There are guys who’ll work a place downtown at lunch and in Georgetown at night.” He said this was the first time he’d been presented with this issue. “Should we give him some more shifts so he’s making enough money here?” I asked. Doug said he would think about it. I’m going to think about it, too. Doug said that if I fire somebody so soon, especially a popular bartender like Keegan, I will be sending a bad message to the staff and up and down the street.
Even so, I think I’ll follow the old management principle that says no one is irreplaceable. If he forces the issue I’ll fire him. He can’t work at my place and across the street. It’s time to shake it up, bad message or no bad message.
I met with the kitchen staff, too. Apart from Lore and Arnoldo, no one speaks English. I talked. They nodded. A lot of smiling and nodding. Lore translated from English to Spanish. I asked if they had any questions about my thoughts on food, the menu, or how I liked the food plated. They nodded and smiled and had Lore ask me one question: “Do we keep our jobs?”
I did get them to improve the crab cakes. They actually look and taste like they have crab in them now. This is a big step.