Over martinis and foaccacia on the outdoor terrace of Café Milano, an always busy Georgetown restaurant, my friend Marvin Jawer gave me his thoughts on tax law, tax fraud, tax lawyers and life as a defendant in the jaws of the Internal Revenue Service.
“Don’t try to show good faith. Don’t go giving them any money on a silver platter, because they’ll take it and they won’t care,” he said about the government.
I had launched my own “listening campaign,” just like Hillary Clinton at the start of her Senate run in New York, and Marvin was my first stop. Rather than listen to constituents rant about a public works referendum, I sought wisdom from people who survive by going for the throat, who could explain the Byzantine schemes of the real world: crafty businessmen, long-time restaurant owners, lawyers who play the angles, friends who’d been audited in the past. For 30 years I had observed society from the protected perch of the media’s watch tower. Now that fate dropped me into the middle of the shark tank, I had to function in the real world.
Marvin Jawer is intimately connected to the world I had to learn about, because he is a businessman. He owns a lot of real estate in Washington, some of it in neighborhoods that are being reborn. He knows his way around. He works 12-15 hour days. He runs a no fluff operation. He’s lean and mean. He lives elegantly, but works seriously. He keeps strong bonds with the city government, because he knows where the favors come from. He’s respected, or feared, by every politician who comes close and they all want to come close because he’s smart and generous. He’s not a fool. He expects a return on his investments.
I sipped my martini, and told him I wanted to be a different kind of businesswoman at Nathans, that I wanted to work with my staff. I didn’t want to be an ogre.
“They will rob you if they can,” he said. “If they think they can steal from you they will. They won’t think twice about it. All they will think is whether they can get away with it and if they can they will. What comes in the back door goes out the back door. That’s the business you are in.”
Marvin ate his food, drank some wine, and measured his words. “I don’t mean to wish anything on you, and God forbid, but in going up against the federal government it would be really good if your health were failing. If you had some bad health problem. That would really be hard for the IRS.”
He paused and looked at me.
“It would be helpful if you really were not well.”
Fred Thimm, another friend, viewed the restaurant business not from the basement office but from the board room. As President of Palm Management he ran Palm restaurants throughout the country. They are meat and potato steakhouses and stick to a successful formula. In a good year, the Palms haul in about $75 million in gross receipts. We sat across from each other in puffy leather chairs on chrome swivels in the company’s large, wood-trimmed conference room, with Nathans financial papers spread out between us on a long, broad mahogany table.
“Carol, you’re in denial and you’ve got to get over it,” Fred said. “This is your problem. It’s your problem and nobody else is going to fix it for you but you.”
Fred looked through the computer print-outs, spread sheets with profit and loss numbers, and copies of the “daily sheet,” which showed a more specific breakdown of day to day business.
“This doesn’t even tell you how many covers you did! How do you find that out?” Fred asked in a perplexed tone of voice. “All this tells is the dollar number. You need more information. What’s here just serves the guy counting the money, makes his job easier. Do you know what it costs you to open each day? Has anybody told you that?”
I shook my head.
“I didn’t know to ask.”
“Well, you’ve got to find that out. You’ve got to know what the costs are of your rent, food, payroll, wine and liquor, taxes, all of that. That has to be inside your head. You have to know it and understand it.”
I wondered whether I could comprehend numbers the way he expected me to. I flunked high school math.
“Right now, looking at these numbers, it looks to me like you have some days where you’re just working for your staff. You open up for the courtesy of paying employees and vendors, but not yourself. You’ve got a lot of tightening up to do. Your payroll is way high. I can’t believe Douglas is getting one percent of the gross. Where did that come from? Oh, I bet that’s hush money. I bet that’s look the other way money. Of course, he had Howard by the balls, didn’t he? If Howard didn’t pay him enough, overpay him enough, he could walk and talk.”
Fred talked rapidly, forcefully and with confidence.
“Do you get along with him? I bet you don’t. I bet in his head he’s the only one who knows how to do it and he hates having you there.”
I listened, took notes and sputtered the occasional word or two.
“Fred, I’ve looked around the restaurant and I see places where I can make a difference. I want to get it painted. I’m going to buff up the back room. We need more fresh flowers.”
He sighed and shook his head.
“That’s the fun stuff, Carol. You’re not there yet. All your focus right now should be in the office. That’s where you have to pay attention.”
Fred grabbed a piece of paper. “This is what you have to do,” he said as he wrote quickly.
When he finished, he took the piece of paper and turned it toward me. On it he’d written:
1. A new lease.
2. A bookkeeper – (are you making or losing money?)
3. Settle with the IRS.
4. A strong general manager.
5. Rebuild Nathans – its brand, its image.
6. Sell, or learn to enjoy it.
“You think I can do all this?” I asked.
“I know you can. You are smart enough and strong enough. But you have to stop being a victim and a martyr and start being a survivor and a winner.”
After my meeting with Fred I picked up Spencer at nursery school, took him home to the babysitter, returned to Nathans basement office, made some calls to Larry King Live and asked Douglas Sullivan, the general manager, to sit with me. We met upstairs in the quiet back room, the dining room, which was empty in the lull between lunch and dinner. His mop of blond hair was wet at the ends. He’d just returned from the health club. We sat at the round table by the windows that look out on busy M Street. Bright afternoon light streamed in. The sidewalk outside was crowded with people.
“We have to find a way to work together,” I said to him. “It’s not good for the staff to sense we are at odds.”
“I know,” he said. “It’s hard for me. It’s just so difficult not having Howard here.”
“There’s nothing that can be done about that. I’m a fact. I’m the reality.”
“I just worry that you don’t know what you are doing,” he said. “And I worry you will go up to New York and meet someone and get married and he’ll take my job.” It stunned me that he would think or say such a thing. My husband was barely dead and Doug’s big concern was that I was already husband hunting? If he knew me at all, or had any sensitivity to my predicament, he’d the only husband I wanted was the one I just buried.
“I’m trying to do the best I can here. I’m not planning to remarry. My entire focus is Nathans, the IRS, Spencer and the show. That’s all. I have no room in my life for anything else.”
“Are you going to lose the business?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, honestly. “I hope not. I have new lawyers and I’m hoping for the best.”
We did not talk about the money he shook me down for. The fact of it hung in the air smell of a dead rat, but neither of us said a word.
“Well, I know you can’t run this place without me,” he said.
I knew I would fire him. I didn’t know on what day or under what circumstances, but I knew I would get there. It was just a matter of time. Fred Thimm was right; I couldn’t be a victim anymore.
Spencer and I plod along, trying to keep each other bucked up. A wonderful grief therapist, Ellen Sanford, specializes in children who have lost a parent. I’ve hired her to spend an hour with Spencer each week. She’s seen him a few times. The good news is: she says he’s healthy. The bad news is: that’s because he’s miserable and crying and wanting to die and go to heaven with Howard. “That’s to be expected,” she said. “This is not unusual behavior.”
She had him draw some pictures. One was of a hillside. At the bottom he drew himself, me and the dog. At the top he had Howard, wearing wings and a halo.
“He said that’s Daddy up in heaven looking out for you,” she said.
I told her he gets mad at me a lot and for no obvious reason.
“He is very attached to you. You are very special to him and you play a special role in his stories. He feels it is very important to keep you safe. He doesn’t want anything to happen to you.
“He doesn’t want to do anything to make you sadder,” she said. “That’s why he doesn’t talk to you a lot about his own sadness. He wants to keep you strong. It’s important for his sense of security. But he’s healthy. He’s actually grieving quite a lot.”
Therapy must be good for him because I asked what is his favorite day of the week and he said, “The day that Ellen comes.”
I need him to be okay. I need that more than anything.
Trish and Mark (Malloch-Brown) invited me to the movies with a friend of theirs. A man! Oh My God, It was awful. Nice guy. Adult, attractive, successful, intelligent, charming. But I couldn’t do it. I sat next to him in the dark theater and was completely unable to get comfortable. I fidgeted in the seat. I squirmed. I couldn’t figure out where to put my arms, whether to cross or uncross my legs, whether to rest my hands in my lap or my chin on my hand. It was a nightmare. I was comic. They dropped me off after a quick dinner and I fled into the apartment. I was so sad.
Patrick and Rinehardt (Patrick O’Connell and Rinehardt Lynch, the witnesses at our wedding and Spencer’s Godparents, own The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va.) took me to dinner at Lespinasse. The three of us got all dressed up. The chef, of course, had to do a tasting menu and Patrick (privately groaning) was a good sport. But the sweetest thing of all was Rinehardt announced that they’d decided because Howard and I had been to the Inn so many times – “more than anyone” – they were giving Spen and me frequent flyer miles.
“Little Inn Frequent Flyer Miles,” Pat said.
“Anytime you and Spencer want to come out, and if we’re not full, you can have a room and dinner. Just ask,” Rinehardt said.
“You two are amazing,” I said. “That’s so wonderful. It means so much. I promise not to abuse the privilege … too much.”
I told Pat I want to hire a chef.
“Why do you want to do that?” he said. “Chefs are such a pain in the ass.”
“No kidding,” Rinehardt said. “Look who’s talking?”
They made me laugh. It was a wonderful night out.
In late May Washington came alive. The azalea bushes bloomed in vibrant shades of fuschia, orange, red and purple. The white and pink dogwood blossoms sat delicately on their leafy branches. Spring arrived and the capital was its most beautiful. I ran each morning – hard. The force of my feet on the pavement reflected the pace of my thoughts. I skirted the Potomac River, passing below the Watergate apartments and the Kennedy Center and up and round the Lincoln Memorial. Sometimes I stopped at the graceful and brooding slash of black marble that is the Vietnam memorial, known as “the wall,” and touched the names of friends long gone.
My tax case was in transition from one law firm to the next. Deborah Martin at the IRS was on hold until Sheldon Cohen and Miriam Fisher were up to speed and ready to negotiate. Miriam had me stop at her office to sign a power of attorney. In the quiet reception area she sat next to me on a sofa while I signed the paper. “We’re gonna get through this and we’re gonna buy you some time,” she said.
I shuttled between home and the restaurant in Georgetown and the CNN building on the other side of town near the Capitol. In the process, and for the first time in my life, I became a driver. In all my adult years driving a car was never part of my routine. My father discouraged me early on, when he sat beside me as I drove, fretting and stewing, until I pulled over, got out and said, “Here, you drive.” Howard always drove – always. I was the passenger. In too many ways, I was the passenger.
The car became a sanctuary. I made phone calls. I listened to music. And when I needed to, I cried. Sometimes at a stoplight the driver in the car one over would notice me, blubbering at the wheel. I was oblivious to stares. The cry was what mattered. If I had a good enough cry I arrived at my next destination – home, school, restaurant, show, lawyers – refreshed and ready to move on.
I asked my sister-in-law, Martha, “Do you cry?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Where do you cry most often?”
“The car,” she said.
I needed an escape, though, and an opportunity. New York became my escape and Larry King Live was the opportunity. Wendy Whitworth, the executive producer, needed me to go to New York to negotiate interviews and to occasionally be there at the 8th Avenue CNN studio to hand-hold high-maintenance celebrity guests before a live broadcast. I welcomed the trips. They were usually for one or two nights. Spencer was in good care in Washington with Tricia McPherson, his babysitter, and I was in good care in a New York hotel room with fluffy towels, a well-made bed and room service.
When I stepped onto the Metroliner at Washington’s Union Station I left behind Carol the Tax Fraud Defendant and Restaurant Owner and became Carol the TV Producer. Three hours later, when the train pulled into Penn Station, I was enthused and strong. New York, and the work I did there, made me feel in control. In New York I was a success. In New York I could make something happen on my own steam, I didn’t need an army of lawyers. My schedule kept me moving. A typical visit would include a walk over to Broadway to PMK Public Relations, the firm that handles publicity for most of the top stars, to beg Leslee Dart for Woody Allen or Lois Smith for Robert Redford. From there I walked to 6th Avenue, rode up to the 33rd floor office of Howard Rubenstein, a PR master, to pitch interviews with Leona Helmsley, Marv Albert, Kathy Lee and Frank Gifford, and the Duchess of York. Before or after lunch, I’d stop in at Rogers and Cowan on Park Avenue in the 30s to plead with Fran Curtis for Mick Jagger.
In the spring of 1997, at the top of my list, was the auction of Princess Diana’s dresses. Christies Auctioneers agreed to let Larry King Live have an exclusive first look. We planned a live show from the main floor of their Park Avenue auction house. Cindy Crawford accepted an invitation to co-host with Larry. Larry would be in the studio and Cindy would be at Christie’s, among the dresses. This show was my baby. I had booked a similar show with Sotheby’s when Caroline and John Kennedy sold an assortment of possessions of their late mother, Jacqueline Onassis. We did a preview show and a live broadcast the night of the auction, with Larry under a tent outside Sotheby’s front door, interviewing celebrities like Joan Rivers and George Plimpton and successful bidders. The ratings were monstrous.
During one trip, I had a light work schedule and used the free time to get together with two of my Washington girlfriends, Trish Malloch-Brown and Deb Johns, between them the mothers of 7 young children. We plotted a whirlwind New York schedule that put us on the sets of some of their favorite television shows. They gave me a wish list and I used my contacts to get tickets for tapings of Rosie O’Donnell and David Letterman. We also watched Dan Rather broadcast The CBS Evening News, but we didn’t need tickets for that. I had bloodlines with that show, where I started out in TV 25 years before.
At Rosie’s show, we took our cues to scream loudly and applaud wildly every time she so much as winked. I was jaded about the hoopla, but nonetheless jumped in with Trish and Deb and joined the fun. The last time I’d been on a talk show set – this kind of talk show – was Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show in 1972 when it still originated from the East Coast, from the same building as Rosie, at 30 Rockefeller Center. I worked for Time and tagged along with a reporter who was booked as a guest. I was there to take pictures of him on the set with Johnny.
We sat in the green room, which was actually a green room, in fact, the original green room. I tip-toed on to the set to watch Johnny do his monologue. Quietly, I thought, I fired off a few snaps of his performance and slipped away. The next day the Tonight Show office called the Time Inc., PR office and read them the riot act. I got in big trouble because Johnny hadn’t liked the “click click click” of my Nikon camera.
For all I knew my girlfriends and I were in the same 30 Rock studio where Johnny did his show, and where I behaved so badly. For Rosie I behaved. I sat and watched and screamed and applauded.
We arrived at the CBS Ed Sullivan Theater in the early evening. On Thursdays David Letterman tapes two shows, one for that night and one for Friday night. We were booked for the second show. A friend, Peter Lassally, who had been Letterman’s executive producer, got us special tickets, but we had to stand aside and let the regular folks be seated first. That was a nice touch. The folks who stand in line should come first. I was warned that Letterman kept his studio as cold as an icebox, and it was not an understatement. It was freezing. By the end of the taping, which featured Griffin Dunne and Sammy Hagar, my teeth chattered.
Letterman’s set was crowded with cameras and stage hands. They blocked the view from our front row seats and it was difficult to see Letterman, but I was fascinated to glimpse him during the commercial breaks, when the cameras pulled back and he became “off-camera Dave.” On this night, at each break, he whipped off his jacket and got attended to by assistants who dashed out from the wings. They didn’t fuss with him. He conferred with them without smiling or laughing. As the countdown was shouted out by a stagehand Letterman deftly eased back into his suit jacket and resumed the smiling public face we all know on the air. I wondered what it meant to him to get out of that suit jacket for all of 3 minutes. Relief? Release?
The on-air people I’d worked with, Larry, Ted Koppel, Charlie Rose, Cronkite, David Brinkley, Dan Rather, were generally pretty much the same people on and off camera. Sure, they might ratchet down a little when the red light was off, but what I sensed in Letterman was a need to momentarily completely shed his “air” self. Or, he simply wanted to get colder. It was interesting. I’d heard he was a complicated personality. Brilliant but complex. I sat there in his ice box and got to see a frame of his changeable parts.
It took the entire 15 minute cab ride downtown to stop shivering. We had reservations at a restaurant that belonged to a friend who Howard and I had known for 12 years. I’ll call him Paolo. He’d been in business under his own name at the Tribeca location for four years and was a big hit. He was the critics’ darling and their raves attracted enough clamoring customers to keep his tables filled night after night after night. Howard and I had our New Year’s Eve dinner at his restaurant. A few times Paolo and his wife, Marceline, went with us to check out a new place.
“Madame Joynt, it is good to see you,” said Michael, the maitre’d, as he greeted us. Big smiles. Trish and Deb said hello and excused themselves to the ladies room. Michael seemed relieved.
“I must tell you something: Paolo is not here…” he said in a whisper, as if no one should know but the two of us.
“…he got called away very quickly to a function where we are doing the food. Something went wrong and he had to go there. But he took care for your party. I hope that is okay.”
“Oh, that’s okay. I’ll miss seeing him,” I said. “We will be fine.”
I was disappointed, though, because I’d talked with him on the phone about the business and wanted to consult with him as one of my new army of “experts.” I’d even brought a set of Nathans financial papers I had hoped to have him analyze.
Trish and Deb thought nothing of Paolo’s absence. They were not expecting an audience with the chef. Michael led us to a round table in the middle of the large square room, leading us through the crush of packed tables. We were in a room full of New Yorkers, who talked with energetic voices and animated hands. Banquettes lined two walls. The room was colored in shades of terracotta with green and brown trim. There were candles on the tables and bright flowers. Though we were very much indoors, it felt like an outdoor terrace in Tuscany. A waiter brought a bottle of champagne to the table and filled our glasses.
Inevitably, our conversation turned to husbands and I found myself trying to keep up with Trish and Deb, only everything said about my husband was in the past tense. When I said, “Oh, yeah, me too; I’d really get ticked when Howard did something like that,” they smiled and nodded. I tried to stop from doing it. I had to remind myself: Carol, you’re not in that club anymore.
At the hotel, after I took off my clothes, wiped off my make-up and got into bed, the phone rang. It was Paolo.
“I’m in the lobby. Can you come down for a drink?”
“I’ll be right there.”
I dashed around the room, jumped into jeans, a t-shirt and slip-ons. I splashed water on my face, combed my hair, grabbed a blazer, the packet of restaurant papers and headed for the door.
Paolo waited in the plush, red lounge, and stood up when I walked in. He looked tired, especially in the dark clothes he wore, charcoal pleated wool trousers, black suede shoes, dark knit polo shirt and black leather jacket. He looked like he arrived on the afternoon flight from Milan.
“You spoiled us rotten,” I said.
“Good,” he said, and kissed me on each cheek, the kisses of a friend. He smelled like caramel.
“Michael told you why I could not be there, yes?” he said.
“Yes,” I said, “but nobody knew. It was our secret. My friends loved it.”
He made a gesture of frustration. “We had so many problems at this dinner. So much went wrong, but I got there and it worked out. No one knew outside the kitchen.”
His father was from Northern Italy and his mother from Paris. His accent was Italian but his gestures were Gallic, a beguiling combination. I tried to detect which parts of him were Italian and which were French. His complexion was a light olive. Even an hour in the sun gave him a glow. His eyes were hazel. His hair was brown, pure brown, in contrast to my golden brown. We were the same height, about 5 feet 8. Maybe he had an inch on me. It didn’t matter. He was slender but muscular. It surprised me when I touched his arms one night in the kitchen. Through the starched white fabric of his chef’s jacket I could feel hard muscles. I asked him if he worked out. He raised two heavy copper pans in the air as the answer to my question. “This is my workout,” he said, as his eyes flashed. He had good cheekbones. His lips were expressive and inviting. The wire rimmed glasses made him look like a professor.
I was very happy to see him.
He gestured to the banquette and we sat. The waiter brought him a glass of red wine.
“Would you like to have some red wine, too? Or champagne?” Paolo asked.
I asked the waiter for champagne.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I brought the P&L’s for you to look at. It will only take a second. Just tell me what you see, okay?”
He nodded. He set his glass on the table, sat up straight, lifted his eyeglasses up to his forehead and took the pages from me. He held them close and studied them.
I studied him.
“These numbers are not bad,” he said, “but your payroll is too high.”
Line by line, he went through the numbers with me, explaining the different profits and costs and how they related to each other. He told me that based on these numbers Nathans average annual gross was approximately $2.3 million. Using that number, he then broke down the percentages: what I should pay for rent, what I should pay in salaries, what I should pay in food and liquor costs. The numbers were out of line with what they should be. “Your rent is very, very high,” he said. He talked as if it was all so simple, but I struggled to keep up with his tutorial. I asked questions. He answered them. I asked more questions.
“What I’m faced with is having to run it straight,” I said. “I don’t know whether it can be run on the straight. Howard never had to run it as a business. He succeeded because he didn’t pay taxes. I don’t have that luxury, plus I’m paying lawyers’ fees.”
He appeared saddened by my story. “It will be hard for you,” he said. “This business is difficult even when there are no problems.”
It got late, well past midnight, and I switched from alcohol to verbena tea. He did, too. Eventually, he set all the papers down and pushed them away, as if to say “enough.”
“I’m too tired for any more restaurant business,” he said.
“That’s fine,” I said. “You have helped me a lot. Every day I learn something … and so much from you.”
We were silent, side by side in our red chairs. A few couples walked through from the bar on their way to the main lobby. We watched them walk by. The waiter stood at his post in the corner, and waited to be summoned.
My hand was on the upholstered armrest of my chair. Without fanfare, Paolo placed his hand on top of it and kept it there. It was a discreet gesture, and I did not move, but heat shot up my spine, tingled round my face and flew out the top of my head. His fingers entwined with mine. I started to say something, and stopped. Our eyes locked. There was nothing to say. I blushed. He shrugged, and our silence continued.
“There are things I want to do that I cannot do,” he sighed, as only the Europeans were put on this planet to do, with passion and poignancy.
“I know,” I said.
We sat that way for what seemed a long time but was no more than 10 minutes. Neither of us said another word about our small intimacy. Instead, we talked about everything else -- life, travel, friends, fatigue -- with our hands entwined between us.
At 2 o’clock in the morning Paolo announced, “I am tired. I must go home.” Our hands slipped apart.
He leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. His face was rough with late night stubble and it scratched my skin. He moved toward my lips but I turned my head just a little.
I was too shy, timid and restrained to actually kiss him. How could I? It was too overwhelming. I made some sounds, half words really, little phonetic noises to acknowledge that something happened, but I pulled away, stood up and walked to the lobby.
He followed me to the elevator. He moved toward me and hugged me. He held on to me tightly and kissed my cheek again. My system was in overdrive. My breath shallow. My knees buttery. I eased out of his arms and toward the elevator, but he pulled me to him again. I let my head rest on his shoulder. The leather of his jacket was soft and cool. I felt safe. I pulled back, waved to him and said, “Call me.” He walked away across the shiny black and white marble lobby and disappeared out the revolving door.
In bed I caressed the thick pillow and had the fantasies of a 16-year-old girl with her first crush. I was consumed by the memory of being held by a man. One half of my brain knew I was off my rocker while the other half welcomed the stirrings of passion. It felt good to feel good. I felt alive.
I woke up with a cooler head.
On hotel stationery I wrote:
I am so tired this morning. I could have stayed in bed for hours. But thank you for coming to see me last night and for sitting and talking with me. It means so much to me to have our friendship. I would never do anything to jeopardize it, even though I might want to very much.”
I signed it, put it in an envelope, asked the concierge to have it delivered by messenger, and headed to the railroad station for my journey home. That was that.
It is Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend. This will be a long, hard one for Spen and me. Most people are already off on a happy weekend. I have to meet with Nathans general lawyer, Jake Stein, today at 11 a.m. to discuss the restaurant’s lease negotiations. Tomorrow and Monday will be long and lonely but Tuesday everyone will be back in the fractured weekday world and that will be okay. I will be better by then, unless Miriam and Sheldon have nothing but bad news. That’s when I will get wacky and want to set up barricades around my home.
I talked to Paolo earlier. He got my note. And typical of our conversations, neither one of us spoke about it directly, but he said he wanted us to have our friendship, because our friendship was so important. He said we shouldn’t do anything to harm that. He said this in a very slow, deliberate way … as if the words were being forced out of him.
This is so bizarre. We had one get together and I’m left feeling like I just broke up with my boyfriend. I feel like I lost something very important to me. Could it be that stress and grief amplify otherwise normal emotions?
In the car last night, from the back seat, Spencer said to me: “Sometimes I wish it was you who had died instead of Daddy.” I asked him why. He said, “Because Daddy can kill snakes and take care of all the dangerous stuff. You can only cook and do things like that.” I asked, “If I kill a snake will that convince you I can take care of the dangerous stuff?” He said, “No, Mom, that’s okay. I don’t really want you to have to kill a snake.” That’s good. I’m not sure I would know how, anyway.
“Carol, it’s Beth,” my sister-in-law said in a late night phone call. “I’m in Seattle. You’re father just called us from Virginia and said your sister dumped him in a nursing home but he doesn’t know where he is or what’s going on. He’s afraid someone is trying to kill him.”
Beth is married to the older of my two brothers, David. They live on Bainbridge Island, outside Seattle, where David is an executive in the medical equipment industry. Though my sister and I were the oldest children, my younger brothers, David and Bob, kept up most of the family contact with my father after my mother died. I visited him in nearby Warrenton, Va., and we talked on the phone, but David and Bob were his official minders.
“What should we do, Carol? Is there anything you can do from there?”
Typically, a daughter would drop everything and run to her father’s aid, and certainly my heart tugged that way, but with my family, making an immediate jump into the fire is not necessarily the wise choice. There’s always so much more to the story, and this incident would be no different.
My older sister, who I’ll call “Sis,” is a professional grifter, or con-artist. She had come to live with my father several months earlier, shortly before Howard died, to “take care of him.” He had been in failing health for a while. Typical for her, she blew into town unheralded, followed soon after by a boyfriend recently sprung from an Alabama prison. He was not chasing her, though it seemed she was always being chased by someone, usually the law or the most recent victims of one of her cons. She’d been through about six marriages – six that we knew of.
Long ago my brothers and I gave up on our sister and our father’s relationship with her. No matter what she did he forgave her. He sent her money. He believed whatever she told him. But she was a liar and a thief, involved in hard drugs as a user and as a dealer, and we as siblings were more unyielding about forgiveness. She had used and abused our love and loyalty too many times.
Even with the many complications I considered ours a warm and loving family. Maybe I made a myth about it, because the truth is I escaped from the family home as soon as I could in my teens. But along a remarkably bumpy road there had been happy times and I valued the good memories. My brothers were very important to me and throughout the 20 years with Howard the four of us did many things together. Howard and I often hosted the whole family for Thanksgiving and Christmas, Easter and other special occasions.
Growing up my sister, brothers and I were fairly typical kids of the modern suburban era, except perhaps a little more rootless due to my father’s military career. And like so many other American families, ours was a melting pot. My parents were born in the late teens and early 20s of the last century. My mother was an immigrant from Romania, who lived initially in Connecticut with her brother, mother and father. The family name was Pappesceu, and changed to Popp and then Papp. My father, raised in Minnesota, came from Scots, Germans and Irish who were in the U.S. for almost a century. The name was Ross. He was a good student, the Minnesota state debate champion, and an eager early enlistee in the Army Air Corps.
My mother had a parochial school education that stopped at about 9th grade, when her mother trekked west to Hollywood to find out if all the celluloid fantasies were true. Her father returned to Romania, not to be seen by her again. Grandma Theresa opened a beauty parlor just off Hollywood Boulevard. My mother worked clerical jobs at movie studios, and dreamed of something more. What she got was a dashing Army pilot, in Los Angeles on leave, who she met through friends and married one week later. They spent the next 35 years trying to recapture the magic of that first week and blaming each other because they couldn’t. The passion and the blame often got fueled by alcohol. Debt and chaos were always at the edges.
My father continued his military service in the Air Force, and I was raised on or near air bases in the U.S. and Europe. The best was Germany, the worst was Ohio. At one point he was named military attaché to Israel, which thrilled my mother. She learned Hebrew and, much to my Episcopalian father’s dismay, wanted the whole family to convert to the Jewish faith. She thought it would be altogether better, and not an unreasonable concession since she had converted from Catholic to Protestant after marrying. What was one more conversion? The issue was a loud, nightly dinner table debate. When the 6 day war erupted in June 1967, the re-assignment was scrapped. We would stay where and as we were.
We moved a lot, but the single longest block of time was spent in the suburbs outside Washington, in a subdivision on the edge of Mount Vernon estate, where we were planted when I was in my teens and dad was finishing up his active duty at the Pentagon. The time spent living in a hotel in Wiesbaden, Germany, shaped me as an urban animal. To me suburbia was a ghetto of well-manicured sameness and I wanted out. My sister and I went to a nearby high school, where I was a freshman and she was a senior. I was the play-by-the-rules good girl, a preppie cheerleader in a neat, crisp round-colored blouse and pleated skirt. My sister was the glamorous break-all-the-rules, stay out all night, drinking, drugging, tough-girl in a beehive hairdo, kohl-rimmed eyes, tight black skirt and pink leather flats. On occasional weekend nights my father dutifully drove to whatever jail to spring her after the police arrested her in cars with boys, with booze, after curfew.
I loved her and had wonderful memories of girlhood fun with her, but her drama dominated our lives. And her drama prompted lots of parent drama. If I’m tough at all, or have well developed survival instincts, it’s because I spent the years between 12 and 18 as the family hall monitor, ready to spring to action when Mom and Dad, Scotch-soaked and belligerent, were about to kill each other. I pried them apart, sent them to separate rooms, and got my brothers calmly back to bed after they woke up in tears because of the commotion.
The fights were always about my sister. I sat on a chair in the hall with my school books and studied until I was certain Mom and Dad were asleep, even when that took until dawn. David sat with me when it was a particularly harrowing night, or we’d curl up together on the sofa in the living room and make each other laugh.
Sometimes we were awakened in the middle of the night and asked, “Who do you want to live with?” Other times my mother or father packed a bag and a cab was called, but no one ever left. I went out in my nightgown and paid the patient driver and sent him on his way.
Even though it felt like we were always about to run off the rails, there was warmth and tenderness, too. Mom was beautiful and Dad was handsome. My brothers were straight-arrows like me, with good grades and lots of school activities. We went on weekend picnics and summer beach holidays. Our Christmases were riotous fun. Our family dinners were grab-at-the-food feasts where everyone talked at once. There were no rules or code of behavior. My Mother loved to say, “I am a gypsy and I don’t know about those things.” Later, as a young adult out on my own, I bought an etiquette book at Tiffany’s and taught myself in which order to use the forks and spoons and not to eat before the hostess. But as a child I was wild, and struggled to hide it from the seemingly well-behaved and normal people in the outside world.
I moved out when I was 18, foregoing college, straight to a job at United Press International – so I could have peace.
My sister was out on her own at 18, too, but with no discernable career path. She showed up randomly with new jobs, new addresses, new husbands. During one period she was a hotel assistant manager. At another point, after my marriage to Howard, she was an internet madam. Later, she showed up in the Silicon Valley, where she married a man who operated a small computer bookkeeping business with his mother. She cleaned out them and their clients before she disappeared in a black limousine.
My mother was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1986. She had surgery but the cancer had metastasized and the prognosis was bleak. She spent the last months of her life at home in bed with round the clock nurses. There were narcotics in the house in one form or another. She was on a morphine drip and also took a narcotic “cocktail” that was mixed up at the pharmacy and served to her by the spoonful. I don’t know the exact recipe but it was potent and potentially toxic.
When Mom had only a few weeks to live my sister appeared, “to take care of her.”
She said, “You know, I’m an EMS where I live in upstate New York.”
When we heard that my brothers and I rolled our eyes.
“I help a lot of people. I’ve learned all about administering drugs. I can help Mom with her drip and everything else she needs.”
David and I listened politely and guffawed privately. “I can’t believe any police or fire department would hire her. Don’t they do background checks?” he asked.
“She’s always in small towns,” Bob said. “She goes where she knows they won’t be able to catch on to her before she’s gone again.”
Within a few days one of the nurses reported the narcotic supply was dwindling rather fast. Some morphine was missing and the so-called cocktail could not be found. David and I gave each other the high five.
“What a big surprise,” he said. Soon after Mom died Sis hit the road again, until reappearing at my father’s home at the beginning of 1997.
I assumed life in Warrenton was under control, until Beth’s phone call. Now my father had been bitten by the very snake he claimed did not exist.
I listened to Beth and then to David. The fact that my father was in trouble only compounded my feelings of vulnerability. It was like madness. I suggested David come east from Seattle to handle Dad’s mess, because I didn’t have the strength to manage two messes.
“I understand,” he said. “Don’t you worry. We’ll take care of it.”
My father was not a rich man, but he had retirement money from the Air Force, from his decade as the head of the Airlie House think tank outside Warrenton, and another decade as the dean of business at Marymount University in Arlington. He had something, at least until my sister showed up.
A few days after Beth’s phone call, David and Bob arrived at my apartment eager to fill me in on what they had learned and resolved.
David lugged his laptop. Bob had a six pack of beer in a brown paper bag.
“I understand the beer, but this requires a laptop?” I asked David.
“Yes, it is show and tell. Yes, I do need the laptop. I have bank and credit card records you’ll want to see.”
My brothers and I had gone through so much with our parents and our sister that we had the camaraderie of shared misery. Long ago we learned to use laughter as salvation. Tonight would be no different.
“Well, to start off, where’s Dad?” I asked.
“He’s in a nursing home, but not the one where Sis dumped him. It’s one he knows and likes. He knows where he is.” My father suffered from diabetes and needed to undergo dialysis three times a week. I was relieved to know he was getting proper care.
With cans of beer in their hands we huddled around the kitchen table and let David tell the story. In an elaborate scheme involving credit cards and bank accounts our sister had managed to clean out dear old Dad. Simultaneously she and the boyfriend ran a drug operation out of the house.
“She had bank accounts in Warrenton, Charlottesville and one other town. Each was in a different name. She and the boyfriend had Dad’s will rewritten with her as the sole heir. She had Dad sign documents that gave her complete control of his affairs.”
David pointed to the laptop. There were all kinds of credit card and bank entries with amounts of money beside them. All I could think was how sick I was of looking at numbers and feeling the pain that came with them.
“She cashed his checks and funneled money into her secret bank accounts. She also kept signing him up for credit cards. One credit card company would send a card with, say, $5,000 credit, which she would use… then she’d start another card with the same offer to pay off that debt, and then another and another… until she rang up about $100,000 on his accounts … in his name.”
My brothers were right. It shocked me. I put my head down on the table and groaned.
My brothers said Dad’s house would be sold to cover the debt. They said he would be able to keep his military benefits, which would cover the costs of the nursing home. My sister disappeared with his car and there was, as there always was, a bench warrant for her arrest. But we knew better than to believe anything would come of that.
We hugged a lot before they left. They both are taller than I am. Big, healthy men. David dresses like a businessman in suits and ties. Bob, an insurance investigator, is more relaxed and casual. They have Mom’s thick, dark hair and dark eyes and olive skin. David has a moustache, which hides his handsome face. I held on to them and felt crushing sentimentality, knowing they were the only link to my past and that what we have we have only with each other. As adults, our lives are separate and distant but when we are together I am their big sister and they are my little brothers.
“This is how we think Howard was working out the math,” Miriam Fisher said across the table in the conference room at her law firm, as she tried to explain the minutiae of his tax crimes. Sheldon Cohen was there, too. He said, “To him it made sense. He probably didn’t think he was breaking the law.”
The explanation required a brief history of Howard’s relationship with his father, John Howard Joynt, Jr., and Mr. Joynt’s relationship with Nathans, which he bought for his son in 1969. Mr. Joynt gave Howard the money to buy out Nathans founding partners, which made him the sole owner. Until then Howard sampled the good life with no particular career path. A week in New York, a week in Lyford Cay, a week in Marbella, a week in Georgetown. Though he briefly tried a coat and tie banker’s job in Manhattan, more often his profession was bartender. When he turned 30 his father took him to lunch and said, “It’s time you did something with your life. You seem to like to spend a lot of time in bars, so maybe you should own a bar.”
The Howard Joynt era of Nathans was launched, and to much success. Good reviews were standard. Critics loved the Northern Italian cuisine, which in the early 1970s was new to Washington. The Fettucini Alfredo, prepared by chef Giuseppina, was sublime. But even with booming business, Howard had financial problems. Nathans often needed money and Mr. Joynt obligingly provided an infusion of cash. He and his wife were proud their son operated a “successful” business at the best location in Washington. Though as old-line WASPS they personally loathed the idea of publicity, they were tickled to read about Howard and his glamorous Spanish wife in newspapers and magazines. The young Joynts were prototypical “media darlings.” The Washington Post Style section profiled the pair as the personification of Georgetown chic.
Mr. Joynt faithfully advanced Howard money, even when in 1977, just as we became involved, the Internal Revenue Service hit him with a bill for $700,000 in back taxes. I learned of this earlier IRS transgression from Miriam and Sheldon, long after the fact. They seemed to know more about my husband than I did. To me he was evolving into an intimate stranger – the man I married, the man I lived with but whom I apparently didn’t know.
Miriam explained that in the 1980s, Mr. Joynt, who died in 1989, advanced Howard even more money to keep the business afloat.
“His father had loaned him $500 thousand, and before he died he forgave the debt and gave Howard the promissory note and Howard was paying the money back to himself. He didn’t consider it income. He was repaying the debt. Also, he didn’t give himself a salary and figured what was Nathans money was his money, not unusual in a small business. We can work with this and we think the IRS will work with us, too.”
“And this will fly?” I asked.
“We don’t know,” Sheldon said. “That’s where we are.”
When Mr. Joynt died, Howard’s financial safety net vanished. He was on his own, without hope of bail-outs. He had an inheritance, but became greedy. The write-offs were outrageous, even for Howard. Earlier, when I first reluctantly scanned the report and read that Spencer’s baby nurse was written off as “trash collection,” and clothing he bought me as “uniforms,” I wanted to read no more. I didn’t want it to be true. I wanted to preserve my image of him in the amber of perfection.
He lost his way, and it pained me that he didn’t want to let me know. As I sat with the lawyers I kept these thoughts to myself.
Miriam and Sheldon did not pass judgment. They rattled off numbers and possible adjustments. The closest Sheldon came to disparaging Howard was when he said, “He got greedy, and he got caught.” He and Miriam were confident some of these items could be negotiated down or away. Where the IRS would not budge, they said, was in the matter of withholding. The government was understandably intolerant of an employer who withheld taxes from employees and then put the money in his own pocket. It was the government’s money. There would be no mercy.
“I’m selling things,” I told them. “I’ve sold one of Howard’s cars. I’ve put the boat on the market. I’ve talked to Christies auction house about coming to look over the furniture to tell me what will sell and for how much.”
“That’s good,” Miriam said. Her expression changed. The lawyerly veneer gave way to a more womanly and compassionate face.
“This is hard, isn’t it?” she said. “I know. But you’re doing the right thing. We don’t know how this will turn out, but you have to be prepared.” She moved her hand toward mine on the table. She didn’t touch me, but the gesture was sensitive. “How are you holding up?”
“I’m okay,” I said. “But I hate this. I don’t want to lose my home. I’m so afraid of that. I can’t imagine that happening and the effect it would have on Spencer. To lose his father and then lose his home.”
“Don’t worry about that right now,” she said.
“I want a summer there,” I said. “We need the summer.”
“I can’t say you won’t have to sell it, but have a summer,” she said. “I promise you that.”
Arrangements were made to inventory our possessions. Two strangers came into my home and fingered, fondled and assessed everything from books and lamps and silver to towels, appliances, clothing and carpets. What we owned, what was dear to us, was given a value and the information would be available to everyone: the IRS, the lawyers, anyone who made a claim on the estate. My closets and drawers were open to all.
Miriam said she would meet soon with Deborah Martin.
“…and, at some point, you have to tell me about yourself and your life with Howard. The whole story. This will be a large part of your defense. But I’m not ready for that, yet.”
I suggested she come for lunch.
A psychiatrist, Jeremy Webb, saw me once a week. That was barely enough. No matter what, I fit him into my schedule, even if it meant tearing through town at breakneck speeds to get to his office. Once, running late, I circled his block unable to find a parking space, crying and shouting, “fuck, fuck, fuck.” I parked the car illegally outside his front door and ran in for my session.
Just like Spencer’s grief therapist, Ellen Sanford, I couldn’t afford Dr. Webb – but then I couldn’t afford not to have him.
“Talk to me about anger,” he said in one session. “What are you doing with your anger?”
“I don’t feel any anger toward Howard,” I said, and meant it. “I try to understand what happened, but I feel sadness rather than anger.
“If I’d found out about this while he was alive I would have killed him,” I said. “But what good does the anger do me with him dead? It’s wasted energy. I don’t have room for negative energy. I have to stay positive to survive.”
I tried to make sense of the mess he got himself into, the mess that was now my mess, and wondered what role I played in causing it to happen, if any.
“Did he think I wouldn’t love him if we didn’t have a Jaguar in the driveway or a suite at The Carlyle?” I asked Dr. Webb. “I didn’t love him for that stuff, and it agonizes me to think he may have believed that’s what mattered to me. All I wanted was him. The other stuff was icing.”
There was also the possibility he liked the pirate appeal of playing like a bad guy.
The Runyonesque romance of the saloon business encouraged good ole’ boy lawlessness, an attitude that laws were for grown-ups, not cowboys on barstools. Howard spent his days among the daytime barroom clientele - bookies and gamblers and drunks and others who live life in the margins. In that culture it’s easy to forget most people play by the rules.
Spencer recovered at his own pace. He had good days and bad days. Sometimes he was ahead of me, sometimes he lagged behind. I made time for us to be alone together. We took walks. We had picnics by the Potomac River. One night we slept in sleeping bags on the lawn of our home on the Bay. Under a starry sky we snuggled and talked.
“Do bugs live forever?” he asked. “I want to find out what lives forever and make it so everyone can live forever. I want you to live forever, Mommy. I don’t want you to die.”
“We all die,” I said to him. “That can’t be changed. Remember, ‘The Circle of Life?’”
“I’m going to change it, Mommy,” he said. “I’m going to invent something so you won’t die.”
I couldn’t hold him tight enough or drench him in enough love.
Another evening, in his bed, we listened through a toy stethoscope to each other’s heart beats. He asked me, “What was it like to feel Daddy’s heart stop beating?”
“It was very peaceful,” I said. “Like he was being lifted up by angels.”
I sat on the floor in the den and sorted through old photographs, putting them in groups and loading them into a storage box. It was all there in the photos: our life together. A Polaroid from our first picnic beside a stream in the Blue Ridge Mountains. My brother’s good pictures from our wedding, when Howard playfully kissed me with a mouthful of cake. The two of us on the rocky coast of Maine; on a sandy beach in the Caribbean; in Utah with a lame rental car during a cross country drive; on the California coast, my hair frizzled by the salt air; with Spencer only minutes after his birth. So many Christmases, birthdays, anniversaries. Laughter at dinner parties with friends, caught in a flash frame. Silly moments. Somber moments. A portrait here or there. The one of us young, older … but never old. That’s the part we’d never get to.
We were into summer but it didn’t feel like any summer I’d known before. There was so much to do. Douglas Sullivan and I paced around each other. He watched me. I watched him. The staff sensed the tension and I didn’t like that.
I asked a real estate agent to put the two city apartments on the market and help me find a house, “something not too big, not too expensive, but the right size for two people.” When I was honest and told her about my IRS issues she reacted like I was suddenly radioactive. I knew it would be this way now. Even if I was earning my own money fair and square, I was branded.
The 38-foot boat I knew we owned, Arcadia, sold rather quickly and I was delighted. Now I wouldn’t have to worry about whether it sank on my watch, or how I would pay to have it hauled in the winter. A dear friend, Randy Parks, helped us pack up the boat and take away our personal items. There was a lot of gear, books, and galley items which we put into canvas bags and passed from the aft deck to the car like a bucket brigade.
We sat in the cockpit after we finished unloading everything. It was comfortable, familiar and sentimental. In my hand I had a half full bottle of Mt. Gay Rum that had been in the galley.
“I think we should have a toast,” I said.
“That’s a good idea, Carol,” Randy said, “And I know Howard would agree.”
It was 11 a.m.
I poured the rum into paper Dixie cups and handed one to Randy. “To Arcadia,” I said. “To Howard,” he said. We tapped our little cups together and knocked the warm sweet rum back into our throats. It burned like hell.
“I want some, too,” Spencer said.
“Honey, it’s rum. You can’t have rum,” I said.
“I want to do a toast to Arcadia and Daddy,” he said.
“Oh, okay, I’ll let you do a little toast. But you aren’t going to like the rum. I promise you.”
I poured half a teaspoon of rum into one of the cups and handed it to him.
“To Daddy,” he said and then copied the way we tossed the rum down our throats. Before it got past his tongue he spit it back out. It flew out in a wide, hard spray.
“Aaaaaggghhh, that’s horrible,” he said. “I hate it.”
It brought a laugh to what was otherwise a thoroughly depressing project. I locked the hatch, fastened the canvas cover, and was the last to step off the boat. It was the first of many good-byes to the life we used to know. I was sad, but I decided if I didn’t look back I would be okay. Don’t look back, I decided. Go forward. Always forward. Forward. Forward. Forward.
This will sound bizarre, but sometimes I wonder whether Howard had to die. Whether it was pre-determined, whether it had to be. Was it to make me stronger? Am I here for some reason and I don’t know what it is? I thought it was to be with Howard, to be his wife forever, but obviously I was wrong.
Why did Howard die right at the moment when we were our happiest? Was it because we were so much more comfortable with each other than anybody has a right to be? My whole life I never had that kind of security and comfort, and just when I thought I had it in my grasp it was ripped away. I miss him so…
People are beginning to fall away from me. I’m sure it happens with all widows. There are fewer phone calls. I haven’t felt this way since I was a single girl in my 20s.
Sometimes I call my girlfriends to see if they want to talk or go out and they say they can’t because they have to do something with their husbands. It’s like a door slammed in my face. I can’t complain because nobody’s done anything wrong. But I think, “I used to be like that. I used to have that.” Honestly, I get angry. I told Dr. Webb that with one girlfriend, after she said she had to do something with her husband, I politely said “good-bye,” but then slammed down the phone and yelled, “Bitch.”
“Good,” he said, “That’s a healthy sign.”