The Write Stuff
The funny, touching, intriguing and occasionally harrowing stories behind the stories
Writing can be a thankless job. There’s the scheduling (and often rescheduling) of interviews, hours of staring at a computer screen waiting for creative genius to strike, and just when you think you have every i dotted and every t crossed, revise requests from your editor. But it is a labor of love. In the end, it all miraculously comes together and you have a concrete body ofwork that informs, entertains and sometimes even incites the readers. You have impacted the way people see the world, if even for a moment. And that makes it all worth it.
In honor of our sixty-fifth anniversary, we asked some of our longtime writers to take a stroll down memory lane and tell us about the most memorable stories they’ve written for Greenwich. Needless to say, they had a tough time narrowing it down. Our articles run the gamut—issue pieces on domestic violence and divorce, personality profiles of actors and philanthropists, celebratory stories on teens and triathletes and everything in between. Our goal is to introduce you to the interesting, inspiring and colorful people of our town. And we couldn’t do that without the talent and dedication of our writers. Here, a little behind the scenes peek at what they go through to bring you the story.
The Verdict Is In
Mickey’s Monkey, October 2002
If I lose this case,” the criminal defense lawyer Mickey Sherman told me, “I’m gonna hang myself.” Sherman was sipping Tanqueray and tonic at the restaurant Barcelona in the spring of 2002. The case in question, just underway, was State v. Skakel, and Sherman’s TV pundit friends were already predicting he’d rack up a decisive win. No sensible jury, they said, would find Michael Skakel guilty of killing Martha Moxley with his dead mother’s six iron twenty-seven years ago.
I spent a good deal of time with Sherman in those days. I enjoyed his company, as most people do, and in the bargain I got a close-up look at the most notorious murder case in Connecticut history. As we made the rounds, there was one thing I witnessed that pundits apparently did not: the widespread assumption of Skakel’s guilt.
Here was a typical encounter, at the Four Seasons bar in New York: Attractive Blonde: “You’re Mickey Sherman. I know all about you.”
Sherman: “Tell me about me.”
Blonde: “You defend child killers.”
Sherman: “Alleged child killers.”
Blonde: “I used to think you were honorable. But you’re so, so... mercenary. [Blonde introduces Sherman to her girlfriends.] This is Mickey Sherman. Know who he is? He’s defending that f—ing murderer.”
Sherman: “Alleged f—ing murderer.”
Blonde: “Shut up. You’re so cute. Isn’t he cute?”
And then Sherman lost. He didn’t hang himself, but he did take it hard, having believed strenuously in Skakel’s innocence. Almost always, when we profile people in Greenwich magazine, we profile success. Sherman agreed to sit down with me at his most vulnerable, three weeks after losing the case of his life. Intimate views of public figures in defeat are rare. They generally don’t want to be seen that way—at their most emotionally naked—even if that is the view that most evokes sympathy.
“I don’t think I ever had a chance,” Sherman said, looking as if he’d spent nights replaying the trial in his mind. Which he had. “I feel so responsible for him being in jail. I know I did everything I could; I know I did my best, but you don’t get credit for doing your best. You get credit for winning. The frightening part,” Sherman went on, “is that there’s not a lot I would have done differently.” He drummed his fingers restlessly on the bar top. “I’m still in a nightmare that I can’t wake up from.”
Skakel’s appellate team of Hope Seeley and Hubert Santos is preparing to argue, in a last-ditch bid for a new trial, that Michael Skakel received ineffective counsel back in 2002. So perhaps Sherman’s nightmare continues.
On Cloud Nine
The Ultimate Wingman, November 2010
Hundreds of levers and lights looming on the dashboard in front of me, an air-traffic controller issuing directions through the headphones on my ears, a notebook and pen jiggling on my lap, a Greenwich model citizen seated next to me—I pondered whether this might be one of the most memorable experiences I’d had while researching an article for Greenwich magazine.
I recalled Stuart Weitzman posing in a sea of shoes on the floor of his showroom in New York, cracking jokes and recounting his favorite family game of “Airport Roulette.” That was entertaining. Having Lara Spencer’s dog hop into my minivan and then chatting with the Good Morning America co-host star, as she sat cross-legged on her couch, pooch in lap—surreal. Seeing David Tutera in action at an opulent fundraiser he hosted in his hometown of Port Chester—enchanting. Lunch with designer Reed Krakoff at Barneys—fab. Brioni CEO Joe Barrato, my first interview after relocating from the city to Connecticut, making me feel so welcome in his home—wonderful.
While all the impressions those warm and talented interviewees made are indelible, it’s hard to compete with the guy who flew me 15,000 feet up in his Pilatus aircraft to offer an aerial tour of our splendid corner of Connecticut, including two circles past my actual house on Compo Beach. Since 170 of the 180 hours Joe Howley had flown that year were in the capacity of a volunteer pilot for his charity, Patient Airlift Services (PALS), I was flattered to be in the copilot seat for the half-hour of fun flying he might fit in that month. I also had just learned, during an interview in his stately stone Colonial in midcountry Greenwich, that the average 200- to 300-mile PALS flight costs him $2,500. And I thought filling up the minivan was bad.
At one point during our excursion, red lights on the control panel started blinking and a voice warned, “Traffic alert! Traffic Alert!” I may have panicked about the plane flying 400 feet below us, except I also had just learned that Joe Howley had 2,800 hours of flying time and once landed on a short, gravel airstrip in the middle of Port-de-Paix, in earthquake-ravaged Haiti. (He risked that landing after learning that the orphanage there had been out of food for eight days.)
Knowing Joe Howley spends most of his free time saving lives, I wasn’t worried about the safety of mine. He calmly adjusted our altitude. I came down to Earth some hours after we landed.
I never did write anything in that notebook on my lap. No matter. I remember it all by heart.
Tribute to the Fallen
We Will Never Forget, September 2011
Contrary to what some people seem to believe, few journalists look forward to stories about tragedy or interviewing those who have suffered great loss. If you’re doing your job faithfully, every story like that takes a piece of your heart and leaves you wrung out for days. At the same time, for someone to share with you their deepest hurt is a trust and responsibility, even an honor, of high order. That’s certainly how I feel about my interviews with family members of the people with ties to Greenwich who were killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The story was for the tenth anniversary of that sad day. But for the individuals I spoke with, the events of 9/11 had hardly dimmed. I talked at length with five survivors.
One had lost her husband. Another would never see her father again. Two suffered the deaths of grown children. Another mourned her brother. They each discussed the day itself. Everyone remembered staring at the television in shock. There were frantic telephone calls to try to reach their loved ones in the Twin Towers. And all recalled waiting in vain for word that their missing family members were safe.
Ten years after the cataclysmic events, their stories held—and continue to hold—certain lessons for the rest of us. Some of it has to do with pushing on—and maybe for a time grimly hanging on—in the face of tremendous grief. Some of it has to do with how they held themselves when thrust into a public spotlight they never wanted. And some of it has to do with how the memories of the people they cared about helped keep them afloat through the years afterward.
Susan Wohlforth, who lost her husband, Buff, chose an abiding gratitude for the blessings of this world over anger for that which was taken. Ralph Sabbag found ways to keep his son Jason’s smile with him, right down to cheering for the young man’s favorite college basketball team. Louisa Fisher and her family each year would blast miniature cannons, family heirlooms of a sort, in memory of her father, Ben. Sally Maloney saw her son Teddy in the eyes of his two daughters. And Maureen Colligan decided to exchange attendance at the annual 9/11 memorial service for a nostalgic walk through the streets of Scarsdale, where she and her brother, Kevin Cleary, grew up.
For me, these folks were never just subjects for an article. They were neighbors and friends and powerful voices reminding us what we all lost that day.
Flight of Frenzy
Come Fly with Me, September 1995
A postcard afternoon, just a hint of autumn in the air, not a cloud in the sky. A perfect recipe for fear. The assignment from editor Donna Moffly was a simple one: Go write an article about these people from Greenwich who go on balloon rides. For some, this meant an aerial tour of Bordeaux, for others, a floating honeymoon in Italy. I called up a few weekend aeronauts and got lovely stories about landing in cow pastures and having champagne picnics. Donna wanted more. In the interest of educating our readers, she wanted firsthand information about the balloon-riding experience. She wanted me to go up myself.
A brief word about myself: I am a total acrophobe. Heights of any kind scare me. I get dizzy on stepladders and fidget on planes. So when Donna presented her suggestion, I made a little cry in the back of my throat. A pilot in upstate Connecticut agreed to take me and photographer Bob Capazzo up on a dawn ride. My hopes rested that morning on rough, drizzly weather, and no chance to reschedule before the deadline. Alas, the weather proved perfect. A nice trailing breeze, the balloon master said. Visibility unlimited. Ugh.
The flame was lit, the large white canvas envelope filled with hot air and suddenly the basket I stood inside of rose gently from the ground. People will tell you a balloon ride is a calming, peaceful thing, passport to a world of total quiet and serenity. These are the same people who told you they would save your seat for you in high school. In short: Liars. Or maybe not. Truth is, I couldn’t hear how quiet anything was with my heart pounding so hard. I know Bob enjoyed the flight, or at least he did until he saw how white and shaken I was. Then he really started to enjoy it. “Hey, Bill, are you OK?” Or, later, “Did you just hear something snap?”
I don’t remember much about the flight, except for the creak of the wicker basket I stood in and the singular creepy sensation of watching a formation of geese flying below me. I was just happy I didn’t pass out. Or fall out. When the eagle finally landed, I made my way to the nearest tree just to hold something connected to terra firma. Donna’s smile was in especially high beam the following week: “Didn’t I tell you, write for me and you’ll go places?”
Rising to the Challenge
Scaling Walls, February 2008
The phone rang at 7:30 one morning in late November five years ago when I was working as an editor at Greenwich magazine. On the other end of the line was PepsiCo’s communications officer, who said he had some bad news. The writer I had assigned to do an article on the company’s famed CEO, Indra Nooyi, had just called him to say she was stuck in a pileup on the Merritt and had to cancel the meeting with Indra set for 8:00 that morning.
This presented a problem, a big one. Not only was Indra Nooyi going to be our cover story for the February issue, she could not reschedule the interview anytime soon. After a few moments of panic, I said that I’d get there as soon as possible and write the article myself. I quickly got out of bed, dressed and drove to our office on Lewis Street to pick up my tape recorder. I remember trying to think of questions to ask Indra as I was driving to PepsiCo’s headquarters in Purchase, New York. When I arrived at her office, our art director and photographer had already finished taking her photograph.
Indra welcomed me warmly but was waiting to start our conversation immediately. So I plunged into my first question: “When people ask you to describe yourself, what do you say?” After replying, “I’m just a normal person who lives life to the fullest,” she gave me one of the best interviews I’ve ever had.
The February issue appeared with Indra Nooyi on its cover next to a line reading: The Pepsi Challenge. In more ways than one.
Mr. Nice Guy
The Right Direction, January 2011
The first film director I ever interviewed was one of orneriest, manipulative troublemakers to ever crash into Hollywood’s hall of mirrors. His very name—Sam Peckinpah—still evokes memories of angry bloodbaths. It left me always on the lookout when approaching directors. Something about the job has turned a few of them into tyrannical lion-tamers.
Thus, meeting director Ron Howard here at his production office in downtown Greenwich was just peachy. Within moments we were sailing along on a sea of sunshine.
It was also startling. It was like running into a favorite cousin. I felt like I’d grown up with him, because in a way I had. Watching him act over the decades in The Music Man, The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days, I’d seen his childhood dimples merge into a thoughtful adult smile. He was right there in the living room, wasn’t he?
Even his office has a warm, familial feel to it. Wearing beat-up denim that looked as comfy as his favorite jammies, he sat down to the office lunch table and, like old cousins, we were off talking a mile a minute. Although he doesn’t act anymore, he still has the actor’s extra-alert style of noticing things and bringing it all back with a flourish and a grin. Reading up on him, I’d noticed that he’d worked a million years ago with cinema great Bette Davis. Well, of course he had a great Bette Davis tale. But he also had stories about the minor crew characters. I think I could have asked him about the guy who changes the oil in his car and he’d have responded with a rib-tickling yarn.
Such a gift. People meet him and within moments feel great. Who among us would not appreciate possession of this quality? But, as it is with loved ones, you find that you’re saying goodbye too soon. His assistant says there are deadlines, calls, appointments. And I just wanted to say, “We’re not finished talking.” I mean, he’s family and all, right? I wanted to take him home.
From Castles to Kathie Lee
Back in 1992 a friend sat beside Donna Moffly on the train to Washington for an ERA rally and talked me up as a writer. Her response was, “Oh, please, everyone wants to write for me. Have her send samples.” Samples? I had a children’s book and a fistful of columns for the Greenwich News. I met with Donna, we took to each other in a heartbeat, and my first assignment was 3,000 words on the Greenwich AKC dog show, for which I was paid $250—and I was thrilled to get it.
This was before e-mail. You took hard copy and a back-up disk to the cozy rabbit warren of offices at 39 Lewis Street, left it in the Mofflys’ Sealtest milk box, or, best of all, delivered it to the Associate Editor Cinnie Coulson’s house where you were greeted by lovely leaping dogs and stayed for dinner. I quickly learned that Greenwich magazine was—and is—a key that opens many doors. I have toured all three Greenwich castles, most notably the one on Brookside Drive, and kept a straight face when the current owners proudly displayed how they’d be removing every vestige of the 1920s, including the Steinway on which Rachmaninoff played, and carted the enchanting Lalique glass-paneled solarium to the dump. I did history, gardening, décor and fashion, profiles of the great and near-great, and tromped the hills of Putnam Cemetery on a blistering August day with Bob Capazzo looking for Ezio Pinza’s grave.
Lauren Bacall was everything you’d expect. Uncompromising, earthy and glamorous, she broke ground with “Who says a woman can’t have an affair after sixty? Bullshit!” and we printed it. Kathie Lee Gifford was a revelation, every inch the Southern hostess, and we bonded over hot flashes and Sondheim. The day before our interview my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I’ve always been enormously grateful that for three hours she made me forget. It has indeed been a grand ride.