What can I tell you? It’s a classic Cinderella story, except that my ballroom was a newsroom and the glass slippers were sensible flats. The carriage was my rusty 1976 Datsun B-210, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I grew up in Suffern, New York – a sleepy little town an hour north of the city. The hot spots were the drive-in theater, Carvel’s ice cream shop and Nicky’s Pizza. Our street was new construction, ranch-style homes with big yards that were perfect for neighborhood ball games. (I'm second from the right. Love the station wagon!!!)
The families were all young with lots of kids – the suburbs were the American dream then. My parents worked hard to keep the dream, sometimes two jobs, to pay the bills. My Austrian grandmother lived with us, too, and helped take care of my brothers and sisters and me. (That's us on Easter. I'm in the yellow dress!) Our parents were both very young when they married. They met on 71st Street in New York City. My Dad had a black leather jacket and a motorcycle (still does) and my mother couldn’t resist him. My Mom was beautiful and brainy (still is!), he was smitten.
I spent summers with my Italian grandparents (Tony and Millie DiFalco-- loved Millie's beehive and Muu-muu) in upstate New York, a tiny little place called Saugerties right outside of Kingston. It’s not far from Woodstock, and this was the 70s, so you can imagine – lots of hippies, love and pot. My grandparent’s house was a precarious little A-frame at the end of a dirt road on the bank of Esopus creek. There were aunts, uncles, cousins and stray friends all running rampant and there was very little supervision.We were close with the families who rented the cabins across the creek, too, and paddled rowboats back and forth -- it was like a commune. Sometimes the plumbing didn’t work, and sometimes we got our water by filling up empty milk jugs from our friend Jeannie’s house down the road. We wore cut-off shorts and t-shirts all summer and spent most days swimming and jumping off the rope swing, or fishing from the dock. I had my first sip of beer there, my first cigarette, my first crush, and my first broken heart. Those summers were wild and unhampered, a kid’s dream.
I was a quiet but ambitious student. I was a Brownie and then a Girl Scout, I played the flute in band, and did gymnastics. When I was 12 I started babysitting neighborhood kids for money, and at 14 I lied about my age to work at Wendy’s, flipping burgers and making Frostys. At 15 I landed a job at Caldor’s, the local chain department store. The pay was better and I had some power. I handled returns and customer complaints. If your blender was defective or you bought sheets the wrong size, I took care of it. I was practically middle management. :) I paid careful attention and followed directions because I had the sense that those skills would be my ticket out of my small town.
I’m not going to lie, I’m not even going to exaggerate -- I didn’t grow up longing for lights and a stage. I never stood in front of a mirror accepting my Oscar, or put on shows for my parents & their friends. The extent of my showbiz career was a bit part in Oliver! (I played a chorus orphan boy) and the 7th grade talent show where my best friend, Linda, me and my sister Elaine lipsynched to Captain & Tennille’s Love Will Keep Us Together…not exactly a star turn. It was evident very early on that I had neither the stomach nor the talent for performing.
I did, though, want to see the world beyond my town limits sign and by the time I hit my teens, it was all I could think about. My high school years were uneventful. A short stint in the marching band, and a schoolgirl crush on my gym teacher, Mr Buono (he's the guy on the right) , was followed by uneventful college years.
I went to Hunter College in New York City where I was an English major – I’ve always loved writing and stories – and I waitressed at the Bee Bop Café on 8th Street. Somewhere in there I met Billy. He was a high school baseball star, and a real catch. We dated for five years, that’s a lifetime when you’re young. That's us on the right. You gotta love his 70s mustache, and my 80s perm!
Then everything changed. Through varying amounts of design and chance I landed an unpaid internship at ABC News with the magazine show 20/20. I had a pile of college loans and $300 in my bank account and I moved into a cheap studio apartment over the Raccoon Lodge on York Avenue. I was broke. I lived on Cup O’Noodles and hard-boiled eggs. But after six months of answering phones, delivering coffee and transcribing audiotapes, I got a paying job with Peter Jennings’ documentary unit – for $225 a week. And I knew this was exactly where I was meant to be.
Life happens fast. I make it a point to not give advice – as Dorothy Parker said, wherever I go, including here, it’s usually against my better judgment – but when you get your moment, seize it. Don’t doubt and don’t second-guess. Here was my moment. I was going to not only see the world, but cover important events and get paid for it. I couldn’t have dreamed up anything so amazing.
For my first assignment, they sent me to Cambodia. I barely knew where it was on a map. I look back at that girl and want to hug her. She was so naïve and inexperienced, and so young and brave and determined. I was alone on a plane to Bangkok with $10,000 cash in my pocket and a to-do list from my producer– there were no cell phones or Blackberrys. The documentary was about American foreign policy. It had good guys and bad guys, innocent victims and a culpable government. There were refugees, front lines, guns, dusty border towns and one of the most murderous groups in history, the Khmer Rouge. I spent nearly a month in Thailand and on the Cambodian border setting up interviews for Peter Jennings, meeting with humanitarian aid organizations, learning how to talk to guerilla fighters and negotiate with Thai military officials. This was serious journalism and it was more than I ever could have dreamed of. My first assignment, like my first love and first heartbreak, set the benchmark for all the rest.
There were so many incredible assignments. I traveled to the MiddleEast for the first Gulf War on SCUD missile patrol, sat on the Great Wall of China, reported on stories in Haiti and India and in
almost every state in America. I covered the War in Afghanistan when it broke out, right after 9/11 and flew there in a C-130 plane with the troops. I traveled with military personnel, ate MREs, swallowed malaria pills, held my breath in the latrines.
This was an entirely different life than I’d expected – nothing in Suffern or Kingston could ever have prepared me for it. And then, like Cinderella, a Prince, of sorts, arrived. How did a girl from Suffern meet a man with royal lineage going back four hundred years?
I’ll tell you how - we got assigned to the same story. A bloody murder, of all things. The Menendez brothers, remember them? Lyle and Erik Menendez were two good-looking rich kids who gunned their parents down in their Beverly Hills living room. Anthony Radziwill was a producer on the story, and I was sent to work on the team. I used to get asked all the time, “How did you and Anthony meet?” People were puzzled. Maybe they thought princes lived in castles and ordered in. Some do. Others have to work. And that’s where I met Anthony – at work. So much for fairy tales.
We had so much fun in those years. We were young and we both loved the news. It was an exciting and heady time to work in television news and we couldn’t get enough of it. We were lucky to have careers we were so crazy about. It felt like one long series of adventures. Sometimes we were assigned to the same stories, but most often we were not, and while that meant we were away from each other for periods of time, it also meant we were wildly excited to see each other – we loved comparing stories. We talked on the phone for hours when we were apart, telling each other everything.
Anthony was handsome, he’d take your breath away. But what I fell in love with was his sense of humor. He was sly, and merciless, he could always get you. He was a master of the practical joke. After we’d dated a few years, we moved in together – to a one bedroom apartment on 78th Street and I learned that Anthony liked piles of things here and there and I liked things, well, neater. He liked tomatoes in his salads, and I picked mine out. He woke up at dawn and was at the gym by 7am and liked to joke that I got up at the crack of noon. He was an early bird, I was a late worm and it worked. We were so different in some ways and in other ways so much alike. Those were incredible years, we worked hard and traveled to far away places. There we are in St. Barths. One of our favorite vacations spots. (I just noticed the girl behind us. Ha! No wonder Anthony loved Saline Beach.) We never thought those days would end. We got married in a big white wedding in 1994. In some ways, yes – it was like a fairytale.
And then … well, I don’t want to talk, here, about the end of that time. Cancer is a brutal disease. We had some really beautiful years. I have so many wonderful memories of Anthony. But there were also some very sad and very difficult times. I wrote some of it down. And I don’t talk about it much anymore.
Anthony died on August 10, 1999, three weeks after his best friend and cousin, John, and his wife, my best friend Carolyn and also her sister Lauren, all died in a plane crash near Martha’s Vineyard. They were all so young. And it was very painful to lose them all at once.
I had a hard time after that. I was aimless, I drifted. I tried to figure it out. I was a journalist so, of course, I wanted answers. I wanted to make sense of it. I left ABC and moved into a sublet in the East Village. I lived there for nearly a year. It was a lost time.
I eventually started to write about all of these things, and this became my first book “What Remains” It’s not the only story of my life, but it was a significant one. As I wrote in my book, after the losses of that summer, it felt as though the curtain had come down, the guests had gone home and I was alone on an empty stage.
I moved to Oregon to write, a small suburb of Portland. I rented a run-down cottage with my adopted stray kitten Pumpkin, wore flannel, and wrote. (Check out the tube socks...not my best fashion moment). It rained every minute, it fit my mood. The process of writing was cathartic and devastating. I was telling a story and revisiting happy times, but living with the people I loved as I wrote and then losing them all over again when I finished, was very hard. I didn’t go out much, I didn’t see many people, I kept to myself for a long time.
And then my book came out. After that, well, I felt different. I felt better in a way. I thought, life has some momentum again. I spent some time traveling, and dancing in Paris nightclubs. I dated a lot of boys, making up futures I knew would never be, but it was fine, the not knowing. Life suddenly seemed colorful again. I learned that gay men can be the best men. They’re handsome and smart, they call the next day, and they almost never cheat. (My gay BFF loves a tiara!) And some friends became a new family to me.
I went back to Oregon to spend time with my sister-in-law, and also to get back to work. This time was much different. I stayed in a quaint old hotel on a tree-lined main street in wine country. Vineyards cloak the rolling hills, it’s absurdly picturesque. I crushed grapes in cashmere, I drank pinot noir by the pool. (Well, sometimes. I mostly drank Diet Coke.) I had dinners at a French bistro owned by a woman I grew up with in Suffern, small world. And I worked on my novel while my sister-in-law worked on hers (still untitled!) She’s a writer, too. We made up wayward villains and shady heroes together. We wrote on the rooftop of the hotel some days, where they made us the best guacamole. We came up with a gruesome murder mystery starring all the characters of this eccentric little town – Murder on Third Street.
Margaret came to visit (yes, I didn’t mention this earlier but along the way I got a dog – a sassy boxer. Watch for “Maggie & Me,” another work in progress. Don't you love Margaret's Glamour Shot by Deb. I got 75% off.) I worked slowly on my novel, this time, I made the story up. It’s called “The Widow’s Guide to Sex & Dating.” No, it’s not about me, though I did base some things on my experiences as a widow. But then I wildly embellished, that’s a perk of writing fiction. I like to say it’s about death, sex and love in that order. There’s a griot, a botananomist, a priceless sculpture and a movie star. Not in that order. I had a lot of fun writing it and you can read it this Fall. Yeah!!
But first, August 2011. Ring ring. Bravo calling. Hello? I was sitting in my kitchen in L.A. in the house I’d rented on Sunset to write a pilot script for a tv-series based on my book, The Widows Guide. Margaret was just back from the dog park and we were settling in for our afternoon nap. “You want me to do what? Contract? Salary? Cameras? Huh?” I’m a journalist, so naturally I’m attracted to spectacle: whether its war, politics, or pop culture. I’m also an experience junkie. It hasn’t steered me wrong. Bravo asked me to consider a new, kind of oddball adventure. I asked my friends for advice and one of them, the late great Sue Mengers – 1970’s Hollywood uber-agent – said this, which made me laugh, “Who the hell are you to walk away from a deal? You’re just a single girl with bills.” She was right, after all. She loved a deal. Touche Sue.
Is there a lesson here somewhere? Maybe. I grew up in a working class town. I moved to the city. I found my way into the halls of the most prestigious place in journalism, traveled the world, and fashioned a nice little career for myself. In one way, nothing that’s happened in my life has made sense and in another way, all of it has.
I was a shy girl. I wasn’t the valedictorian, I wasn’t the beauty queen. There is nothing I can point to growing up that would have groomed me for any of this. But I observed and I studied, and most importantly I took chances when they were offered to me. I followed Eleanor Roosevelt's advice – do one thing that scares you each day.
Most importantly, I follow my instinct. I’ve always followed my instinct - the feeling you have when something intangible is nudging you in one direction or another – and it’s as close as I come to a higher power. Here’s what I believe: Say Yes to what the universe puts in front of you, even when there’s no knowing how it will work out. Listen to your intuition with nothing less than awe. Don’t listen to those who judge you, quietly or not. Don’t listen to doubting whispers or negative self-talk, Who do you think you are? You’re a girl (or boy) with a dream, like me.
So … Happily ever after? How comfortable is a glass shoe, really? I’ll let you know how it all turns out. As they say in publishing, TK. (more to come)