Desperado’s Wife, Katie Couric and Me

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Dennis Danzinger already knew what it’s like to be married to a woman who is the ex-wife of a convicted murderer. And then along came Katie Couric. 

Nine days ago my wife was flying from LA to New York City to appear on Katie and I was nervous wreck.

It’s not like I was appearing on the show. I’d done nothing special to merit an invite. I teach English in a public high school and the most extraordinary thing I’ve done lately is managed to hang onto my job in the midst massive spending cuts.

Still I was feeling skittish.

My wife, Amy Friedman, wrote a memoir called Desperado’s Wife. “Desperado” was one of the words tattooed on her ex-husband’s forearm. She met him while she was a newspaper columnist in Ontario, Canada, penning a series of articles about prison; he was serving a 13 to life sentence for murder.

It’s the story you’ve heard time and again: nice Jewish girl from Shaker Heights, Ohio via Barnard College marries an inmate in the chapel of a federal penitentiary.

Amy and I met through a mutual friend. After we had emailed more than 200 pages from LA to Ottawa and back, she flew out so we could meet in person. Things were going swimmingly when Amy said, “Before this goes any deeper, there’s something I should tell you.”

I took several deep breaths.

“My ex-husband served 14 years in prison. He was a drug dealer. He killed another drug dealer and went to prison. I thought you should know that.”

I thought, “Do I want to live the rest of my life homicide adjacent?”

And quickly I began searching for the relationship emergency exit door.

When I expressed concern for the safety for my children and myself, Amy calmly explained that her ex not only was on a lifetime parole, all he wanted was to live a quiet life. And then there were the girls, his daughters who Amy helped to raise.

♦◊♦

That spring, which was still winter in Canada, I visited Amy and immediately connected with the girls. Sarah and I shared the same inability to keep ice cream and chocolate chip cookies in the house for more than 15 minutes without eating them all, while Cass and I bonded over our feigned terror of driving with Amy who drove so close to the cars in front of her we claimed we could hear the words of the songs from their radios.

It’s the story you’ve heard time and again: nice Jewish girl from Shaker Heights, Ohio via Barnard College marries an inmate in the chapel of a federal penitentiary.

And over time, I got it—understood that my images of prisoners and their families came from tabloids and bad TV (MSNBC’s Lockup came to mind).  In real life, everything is more complex, more layered. And as I grew to love Amy (and her girls), I realized that they, and scores of prisoners’ families and friends were shamed and ostracized for crimes they did not commit.

A year later Amy and I married.

And for the next decade Amy worked on Desperado’s Wife. An excerpt was published as an essay in the NY Times’ Modern Love column. Then another excerpt was in Salon. Then the book was picked up by an agent, then another agent. But it never sold.

That’s when “Katie” called. Well, Jenna, one of Katie’s producers, called.

That was April 2012.

Jenna wanted to know if Amy would be interested in being interviewed by Katie Couric on national TV.

Uh, yeah.

Following months of enthusiastic phone calls and emails, Jenna delivered the good news—Amy was booked to appear on December 4, 2012.

Amy faced two immediate problems: Katie planned to give a copy of Desperado’s Wife to each of her 160 audience members. Terrific. Except Desperado’s Wife existed only as a file on Amy’s computer.

And Amy had nothing to wear on a national TV show. What woman does?

Now, in the day-to-day world I’m fairly useless. I can’t balance my checkbook, drive on freeways or properly grill meat. But in a crisis, I’m aces.

“You’ll self-publish,” I said.

Two years earlier I had self-published my novel A Short History of a Tall Jew and I knew the ropes.

“Ask Gary and Laura Dumm to draw the cover art. Then see if Melissa Roth or Joyce Mott have the time and interest to line edit. You’ll use my printing company and your books can be in Jenna’s hands in 30 days.

Sadly, I am the world’s worst Jewish businessman and should have recused myself from the next series of decision.

Printing costs broke down like this:

250 copies @ $10 per copy = $2,500

500 copies @ $8.50 per copy = $4,250

1000 copies @ $7 per copy = $7,000

“What do you think?” Amy asked.

“Say you order 250 copies. You send 160 to Katie. All you’ve got are 90 copies and on Katie you’re going to be seen by over two million people.”

“So 500 or 1,000?” she asked.

“A thousand. If you sell one copy for every thousand viewers, one-tenth of one percent of her audience, that’s 2,000 copies.”

“You’re sure?” Amy asked.

“Positive,” I said.

“Would you put it on your credit card…you get air miles…”

And that’s how Katie Couric, a woman I’ve never met, put me out seven grand. Plus tax.

♦◊♦

Then came a more daunting task.

Amy returned home a few days later following what she described as an “exhausting afternoon of shopping.”

Now, every Saturday Amy and I play doubles tennis. That’s tiring. Ten years ago we (very slowly) ran the AIDS Marathon in Honolulu. Really tiring.

But I don’t understand how slipping on blouses and skirts and yes, shoes, belts and accessories can be exhausting. It wasn’t as if she was fighting over designer clutch bags at a Ross for Less After-Christmas sale.  It wasn’t as if she had to run around Beverly Hills in high heels— trying on shoes at Jimmy Choo, cardigans at Chico’s and finishing the day with a Botox injection at Forever 41.

This is LA where everyone knows someone who once worked in wardrobe at Warner Brothers and now sells clothing “by invitation only” out of her house.

Amy shops in wardrobe stylist Ellie’s air-conditioned home. In Studio City. And  that was exhausting?

I sat on our bed and watched the fashion show. First, the French blue blouse. With the stretchy black slacks. Then French blue blouse with flowing gray skirt. Then French blue blouse with stretchy black slacks and black sandals.  Whose long, sleek straps snaked half way up her shins. Then French blue blouse with stretchy black slacks with black, buckled boots.

Black, buckled boots or sleek, sexy sandals?  Sandals with skirt?  Or boots with slacks? And if she opted for boots with slacks, did slacks tuck into boots?  Or did slacks cover boots?

I managed a thought. Which I kept to myself.  “If slacks cover boots why bother buying boots? Save money, wear flip flops.”

And just as I thought my home version of America’s Top Model was winding down, out popped the alternate outfit. Green see-through vest-like thing with an ecru, skin-tight, long-sleeved shirt, and, of course, multiple pairs of shoes.

Now I was far too wasted to help prepare dinner, so I ordered two Tandoori chicken platters from Agra, and after dinner I was too wiped out to grade my students’ papers. I fell asleep in my clothes—all of which I had ordered from Zappos.com.

The books arrived ahead of schedule. Most nights I prepped Amy for her interview by sitting her down and pretending I was Katie Couric, though with a less flattering figure.

Some nights I played Inquisitive Katie:  Goodness, weren’t you terrified when you

first walked into a maximum security prison? An attractive woman surrounded by felons.

Other nights I portrayed Sensitive Kate:  You poor thing, here you are in love and well, it’s not like you can go out for dinner and a movie, and then back to his place. How tough was that?

Katie rarely throws hardballs at her guests’ heads, but just in case, I readied Amy for Appalled Katie:  You graduated from a Seven Sisters’ School, earned an MFA in creative writing and you fall in love with a murderer? Girl, what drugs were you on?

Just when Amy felt she could handle any question, Jenna wrote to say Katie was scrambling to cover the stories of Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath, and Amy’s show was being pushed a month—January 2013.

No problem.

In fact, a bonus because this gave Amy time to spread the word that one could buy Desperado’s Wife on Amazon.com, at selected bookstores, or in our garage, “by appointment only.”

A week into the New Year and Jenna wrote to say that Katie’s executive producer, Jeff Zucker, former President & CEO of NBC/Universal, was leaving Katie to head CNN Worldwide and Jenna was going to accompany him. She handed Amy off to her able assistant, Teresa.

Teresa explained that with new producers, Amy’s show was being postponed

until March, and naturally a March date required a new wardrobe. No way could Amy wear her winter outfit for a spring taping.  Even I knew that.

In early March Amy returned from another bone-weary shopping day, this time carrying an armload of pastel.  Once again she modeled, and once again I refrained from looking at the price tags.

Then weeks passed with no word from the show. The dreaded “Pre-15 Minutes

of Fame Depression” set in.  Every few days Amy would look at me and say, “Be honest, I’m never going to be on Katie, right?”

And every time I said, “If you were cancelled, they’d have sent your books back. Keep the faith!”

♦◊♦

Yet during this lull something happened that was not Katie-centric. At Venice High School where I teach, Amy and I founded a club called POPS (Pain of the Prison System), a support group for students whose lives have been impacted by prison—kids who either have a loved one inside or who have done some time themselves.

POPStheclub started with 15 of my students showing up every Wednesday at lunch, sitting in a circle, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that Amy and I prepared that morning and sharing their stories:

Brian hadn’t heard from his dad since he was imprisoned 10 years ago. He didn’t know where he was, so we helped locate him in an Arizona prison. Now they are corresponding.

Steven’s mom, dad and sister all served time. He wants to break the family pattern.

E’majin fell in love with a young man who, several months into their relationship, was arrested and sent to prison.

Alondra described the bomb that hit her family when her dad was arrested. He served 72 days, and when he was released he came to POPS to tell his story and thank the club for helping his kids.

By spring break forty students were regularly attending our meetings. Four kids said attending POPS kept them from dropping out of school. Teachers came to us to ask what we were doing—how had we inspired such a change in so many kids?

But back home, April came with no contact from Katie, no books returned. Same for May.

And then out of the blue in early June, Marianne, Katie’s new associate producer, wrote a big-hearted letter apologizing for the delays. She didn’t want to waste another minute of Amy’s time, but they were putting together a show and Amy might fit. Would she be interested in talking?

Uh, yeah.

The Love behind Bars segments would lead off with 32-year-old singer Rachelle Spector, fighting to free her husband, legendary music producer 73-year-old Phil Spector who has been sentenced to 19 years to life for murder. Rachelle insists her husband is innocent.

A number of thoughts flooded my mind. Was this going to be played strictly for its sensational aspects? Did anyone in America think Phil Spector wasn’t guilty as hell? Was Amy going to be equated to a woman who married a celebrity felon?

Or would this show provide Amy with a forum to discuss what is at the core of her memoir: that there are millions of Americans whose only “crime” is that they love someone who is incarcerated–and that those loved ones should not be treated as criminals when they visit  and they try to maintain these relationships. After all, most prisoners are eventually released and the best chance at successful re-entry into society is to be surrounded by supportive friends and family upon release.

Regardless of Katie’s approach to the subject, one thing was certain—Amy needed a summer talk show wardrobe—ASAP.

Days later, Ellie the wardrobe stylist emailed to her clients a photo of Amy wearing a midnight blue blouse and matching slacks, a leather bracelet and a crystal necklace and earrings. My wife looked like a smoking hot member of the Jets in a middle-aged, all-woman revival of West Side Story.

Beneath the photo Ellie sent this text to her client list:

Amy Friedman is going to appear on Katie in July to promote her memoir. We wanted her to look professional but with a flair.  Shown here in a fabulous hand-painted Skif top @$190.00 over slim Lior pants @ $108.00.  The shoes are the perfect look with the skinny leg [email protected] Cuff is genuine alligator for $75.00 in black or brown. Crystal necklace from Paula Rosen @ $48.00.  And of course the “don’t leave home without one” long tank from A’nue Ligne in black.  Even if you’re not going on TV in the near future this look will work. My work is all about you finding your own individuality thru clothing and image. You do not have to be 6 feet and a size 2 to look amazing!!!  Love to show you this look and much more.    

Sadly, I now knew how much 15 minutes of fame costs an attractive woman.

♦◊♦

A few nights before she was to leave for NY, Amy was in the mountains at an art school teaching a class on memoir writing. After dinner she was asked to give a reading/talk and then to sign copies of Desperado’s Wife.  Normally Amy sells a few books at such gatherings. That night, after the moderator added that Amy would appear on Katie, books flew off the shelves.

One woman said, “This doesn’t really feel like my sort of book, but if you’re on Katie Couric, it’s got to be good. Would you sign my copy, ‘To Maggie—all good things”?

I took that as a positive omen and expected smooth sailing for July 2 when Amy would tape the show.

The way I saw it, so long the show’s air date wasn’t interrupted by a President Obama Rose Garden confession that he was, in fact, born in Kenya, or an announcement that Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham flew to California, exchanged vows and became legally married, I bet Amy’s appearance on Katie would sell a lot of books. At least enough to recoup my investment.

And if Amy nailed the interview and was booked to do more TV, I’d drive her to Ellie’s, sit through an exhausting afternoon of shopping and pay for my wife’s next TV talk show ensemble.

And, of course, for more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for our POPS kids.

Premium Membership, The Good Men Project

About Dennis Danziger

Dennis Danziger - author of the novel "A Short History of a Tall Jew," working on a memoir, "5 Shows a Day - Dispatches from the War on Education."

Comments

  1. A wonderful essay. Funny and sends a message.

  2. Great post!

  3. Nancy Strother Thomas says:

    Funny and entertaining. I am pretty sure part of the point is the serendipity that helped start a life affirming group at Dennis’ high school. Went to jr high and high school with Dennis. I enjoyed your article about the true meaning of what you learned from your faith so much, and found you again, very funny in describing your Kips Big Boy non kosher meal.

    • Dennis Danziger says:

      Hi Nancy, and when is our next reunion? We really shouldn’t wait every ten years at this stage of the game.
      And thanks for going back and reading a previous post that I wrote for Good Men Project.

  4. Dennis Danziger says:

    I’d hope you would read more carefully about POPS, the high school club. It’s about that, too. And, oddly, writers like people to read their books.

    • Danny McClowry says:

      So glad i clicked and discovered you. I was into your story from before the first sentence. A compelling read and a breath of fresh air. You and Amy join my hall of heros – POPS. And Amy did look Fabulous – but more important, she gave me stuff to think about. Now I’ll go look for a Tall Jew at the bookstore or online.

  5. I love this story, but am shallow enough to want to know what happened. Did she go on the show and sell a lot of books? Hope so.

    • Dennis Danziger says:

      She went on the show…Embedded in the article is a link to her segments on the show. She rocked it.
      The day before Amy went on the show her book on Kindle was ranked 139,000…two days later it was 3,051. So yeah, it sold some copies….Thanks for writing. I’ve seen you perform. You’re hilarious.

  6. Dennis, you are the best. I loved reading this and I am totally thrilled with the good work you and Amy do for your community! Keep it up, the world needs your kind of people!

  7. Fran Friedman says:

    Love your description of this event, Dennis. It’s hilarious. And loved the part of the interview that I saw, Amy. You were articulate and wise, but that’s nothing new. And you looked sensational!! That’s nothing new, either1 Does Ellie help folks in Texas? I don’t have the book but will get it immediately. What an amazing mitzvah (good deed) you both have performed with your peanut butter and jelly lunches. “Whoever saves a single life, it is as if he / she has saved the entire world.”
    Folks reading this should know that although we share the same last name (spelled the correct way, not Freedman), we came to our relationship not having ever known each other and hence, not related because of common “Friedman” ancestors. You both are phenmenal!

  8. Dear Dennis,
    I discovered this article via Amy Friedman’s website. You are one funny writer while managing to sneak in helpful, informative information. Thank you for the article!

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