This piece about my experience on Oprah! was published in the Austin Chronicle way back when – nobody else would touch it with a ten-foot pole. And believe it or not, this is the short version.
The Oprah Diaries
Thursday, April 11, 1996
Marian Brown, the Pantheon publicist assigned to promote First Comes Love, called today to say I'll be hearing from a producer from the Oprah Winfrey show. She was ecstatic, said this is every writer's dream – that Oprah has the power to make a book an overnight hit. "They're very interested," she said, "but they're going to need you to come up with three or four other people to go on the show with you."
"What do you mean?"
"Other guests, other women who knowingly married gay men. I told her you know lots of people like that because they come up to you at readings and stuff."
I was dubious. Can my experience really be thought of as an example of a widespread phenomenon? I don't have a handy list of phone numbers of suffering sisters. And won't it sort of classify the book as a trashy tell-all rather than at least some kind of attempt at serious writing? Did Mary Karr go on Oprah?
Tuesday, April 16, 1996
Amy, the Oprah producer, is bouncy and enthusiastic, though she hasn't yet had time to read my book. Meanwhile, we have to find these other guests, because even though the show will focus on First Comes Love, we need some related stories to fill up the end of the hour.
Yet as I have learned in my recent research, most straight people who are involved with gay people and do not have a book on the subject to sell don't have the faintest desire to go on Oprah and discuss the details of their personal lives. So far, only Margaret Moser, my editor at the Austin Chronicle, whose first husband, father and brother were gay, and Deb La Riviere, who was in love for many years with our gay friend Kerry Jaggers, seem to be possibilities.
I don't think this is going to work out, and now, in spite of myself, I've become obsessed with it.
Friday, April 19, 1996
So Amy calls. "You know, I still haven't had a chance to read your book," she says, "but I understand that it's about your monogamous marriage to a gay man, right?"
"Yes," I reply, wondering what she's getting at. "Well, monogamous until 1992, of course, when things really went to hell. But that's all in the book. When you read it —"
"This is going to sound funny," she says, "but I've been on the phone all morning with a guy in San Francisco who says he was your husband's lover for years."
"He says he's a friend of yours. Cary something."
"Yeah, that's it."
"Well, maybe at the end..."
"No, he says it was over a long period, the whole time he knew you and Tony."
There is a silence of several seconds, during which I realize that I am both extremely angry and on the verge of tears. Before we had the kids, when I was pregnant, when I was happy, when we were having the best years of our lives? I tell Amy I have to get off the phone.
When I talk to Kerry, he insists that he thought I knew about this all along, but he's full of shit. He was obviously seduced by the possibility of being on Oprah and dumping all the juicy dirt he could think of. "Anyway," he tells me. "We weren't really lovers. We were fuckbuddies."
I feel so much better now.
Sunday, April 21, 1996
I find the shock and nausea I felt when I first heard the news about Kerry and Tony has worn off quickly. In a way, this information has the salubrious effect of making me feel a little more cynical, less weepy and traumatized about my new life as a professional widow. But what a bizarre experience, to confront one's spouse's adultery posthumously and to get the news from an Oprah producer! Surely a sign of the end of civilization.
My second phone call with Amy on Friday, after I'd talked to Kerry, was very emotional. At first, I was indignant and furious about them throwing me on a set with my husband's lover for the cheap theatrics it would produce. She said Oprah would never do anything like that. She's not like other talk shows. By the end of the conversation, I was acting like she was my friend or my therapist, trying to explain how I rationalize this new info, talking about Tony's sexuality and how it was so blocked in a way, so reliant on drugs and drinking, blah, blah. Embarrassing.
She still has not read the book.
Tuesday, April 23, 1996, en route to Washington
The Oprah taping finally got scheduled for this Thursday, two days from now, which wreaks havoc with the book tour schedule but nobody seems to care since as soon as I go on Oprah, First Comes Love will be an instant bestseller. It happened to Rosie! It happened to Spiritual Abundance! It happened to some other guy whose book had been left for dead years ago until Oprah whipped it out and clutched it to her breast!
People keep insisting that I'm going to love Oprah and I've heard a rumor that her boyfriend Sherman or whatever his name is, is gay. So maybe this is why she's so interested. Just wait till she reads my book. I can't help thinking there will be some major breast-clutching involved.
Thursday, April 25, 1996
In the lobby of Harpo Studios, we are metal-detected, patted down and everything but strip-searched. Apparently people are now shooting one another on these shows. Upon our eventual clearance, we are asked to wait in the hall for a green room assignment, as Oprah is still taping the show before us – teenage girls with abusive boyfriends.
Something is strange. All three green rooms are jam-packed, bulging with people, vibrating with voices. The loudest of them belongs to a woman from Montreal who looks like Elvira, black hair, red nails, spandex shirt. She works the room, bonding with abandon while her partner fiddles with his earring. She befriends a young military couple from Florida – he yielded to his lifelong yearnings and cheated on her with a man one night, subsequently infecting both her and their unborn daughter with HIV. There are several older couples, a gay clergyman, a girl whose dad died of AIDS, a natty psychologist, dozens of others. My friend Margaret the Chronicle editor, the only successful candidate I put forward, is nowhere to be seen – apparently there is yet another green room in some other part of the building for audience members. The audience, it seems, is composed of runner-up guests, to be called upon if even the scores of stories offered by the main guests fail to fill up the hour.
I sink into a deep gloom. What can all this possibly have to do with my book? Clearly the focus of the show has broadened, to say the least. So why did they make us spend days on the phone trying to dig people up? What did they do, make a broadcast at O'Hare? "If you know or have ever known a gay person, meet the bus for the Oprah Winfrey show at Terminal C?"
Someone hands me a release form. Marian offers to fill it out for me. "Who do you want me to put as your next of kin?" she asks.
Hours go by. Not having eaten a thing in all the rush to get there, we begin to get hungry. But the "delicious low-fat snacks" we were told would be awaiting us – we pictured salads and sandwiches whipped up by Rosie herself – are nowhere in evidence. It's the same lifeless danish they have everywhere, only maybe a little more lifeless than usual. I begin a mental list: Top Ten Lies Oprah Told Me. Lie Number Ten. We are doing a show about your book. Lie Number Nine. There will be delicious low-fat snacks in the green room. Lie Number Eight. You're going to have a wonderful experience, everyone does. I have the terrible feeling I already know Lie Number One: Of course we'll read your book. Oprah prepares extensively for every show.
Amy comes to get me to record my voiceover. There is to be a montage of photos and video of Tony and me and the boys to introduce my story, with an explanation I wrote to go with it. She takes me through a series of heavy locked doors that recall the opening credits of Get Smart.
"Has Oprah had a chance to read my book?" I venture.
"Oh, I wouldn't know," she replies. "Unfortunately, she's been incredibly busy this week. She taped five shows yesterday. And she's fighting a cold."
In a small glassed-in sound booth behind the control room, she gives me my script and asks me to wait while they cue up the video. I notice a glass teapot on a tripod over a flame warmer, a matching mug at its side. How nice. I step over to pour myself a cup. It is hot, herbal, potent.
There is frantic pounding on the thick window overlooking the control room. Horrified faces stare at me. A young woman flings open the door of the chamber and lifts the cup from my hand. "That's Oprah's tea!"
"God, I'm sorry." She doesn't look happy. "I'm really sorry. Really."
She pours out the contaminated tea, shaking her head, and leaves.
Still waiting to record, I watch dialog scroll on a monitor in the next room. TODAY WE MEET WOMEN WHO HAVE HAD THE EXPERIENCE EVERYONE DREADS, WHEN THEY HEAR THEIR HUSBANDS SAY THESE WORDS: HONEY, I'M GAY.
Suddenly, the montage of Tony and the kids and me seems unbelievably sappy, as does this script which I have trouble believing I actually wrote:
He was a professional figure skater: handsome, charming, and openly gay. I was a graduate student, a little crazy, a little romantic, 24 years old. But I knew from the moment I met him at Mardi Gras in New Orleans that my heart was his forever. What was even more surprising was that he felt the same way.
And so we began an extraordinary relationship – we lived together, we married, we traveled and worked; we had two adorable sons and a warm, happy home. It was almost ten years before the AIDS infection that lurked in his bloodstream took over his health and our lives, crushing all our happiness in its grasp. Now, a year and a half after his death, I am still trying to understand what happened to us – how and why the bright light of our love turned so dark, and how it is that I should go on.
On, indeed, to hair and makeup: apparently a special perk for only the top echelon of guests. Second-stringers are given just a quick once-over, and audience plants are lucky for a smear of pancake.
"God, what a beautiful blouse," exclaims the makeup artist.
This revives me a bit. "I bought it yesterday at Bergdorf's," I brag. "It's Isaac Mizrahi."
"What is it, silk shantung? That periwinkle color is going to look fabulous on camera. Especially with your eyes."
Ah, yes, perhaps things are back on track. I ask the hairdresser to put my hair up into a chignon and she produces a towering I Dream Of Jeannie number with the aid of a rat comb, several dozen bobby pins and two cans of hairspray. A pair of sparkly dangling earrings completes my look— "Bestselling Author" Barbie. There's no way I'll be mistaken for one of the hoi polloi in this get-up.
Monitors throughout the green rooms and make-up areas show the taping of the abused teenage girl segment. Having never actually watched Oprah before (maybe this is poetic justice: I don't watch her show, she doesn't read my book) I rouse myself to pay attention. A pale girl with blue eyes and a blonde ponytail is talking about how her boyfriend broke her arm.
"And what did your parents do about that?" Oprah asks with concern.
"They were afraid of him, too."
It does have that train-wreck quality: once you start to watch, it's difficult to tear your eyes away.
At long last, we are lined up and led through the high-security doorway system to the studio, where the lights are bright and disco music is booming and the already-seated audience cheers our arrival. The Montreal couple and I are miked and put in armchairs on the stage; other guests will be brought up during commercials. I look at my watch. It's almost 3:00; my plane to Boston leaves at 5:30. I ask the producer if I'm going to miss my flight.
"Oh, no," she reassures me. "We will definitely get you there on time. No problem." Is this Lie Number Seven or what?
"And now..." says the announcer, "Oprah!"
Like any self-respecting superhero, she enters to her theme music, wearing a wan smile, coughing, but otherwise looking swell: a see-through navy blouse with a dark bra underneath, slimming slacks, and diamond earrings the size of golf balls. She is not carrying a copy of my book and makes no eye contact with me as she passes the platform.
As she is miked and fussed over by her assistants, she banters with the adoring audience. After a particularly hacking series of coughs, she asks the producer for her tea, and a message is sent out to the control room to get it for her. Several minutes go by. No tea. Oprah is ticked.
"Where's the damn tea? I want to get out of here sometime this week."
"We're still looking for it."
"Well, make me some fresh, for God's sake, and bring it in the break."
I blush with guilt as her minions scurry.
Three, two, one, action. Oprah begins to read. TODAY WE MEET WOMEN WHO HAVE HAD THE EXPERIENCE EVERYONE DREADS, WHEN THEY HEAR THEIR HUSBANDS SAY THESE WORDS: HONEY, I'M GAY. Oprah delivers her lines with tons of expression and vivacity, but in between seems ill, exhausted, and almost as bored as I am. Zipping through the on- and off-stage guests, unable to find even a decent train wreck, she gives each eager soul-barer the bum's rush. You get your corny video montage, your three set-up questions, your facial or verbal reaction from Oprah (amusement? concern? disbelief at your stupidity?), and thank you very much, next case. The "stories," if they can be called that, are reduced to a string of non sequiturs:
"We had everything: a house, a yard, a finished basement..."
Oprah explains that we are about to meet someone who actually knew her husband was gay when she married him, and has documented their "strange life" in her book, First Comes Love. (No positive adjective is applied to the book at this or any other time.) "Meet National Public Radio commentator, Marion Nik," she says, her eyes moving so quickly over the teleprompter that my last name loses one of its two syllables. (The one she and I share, for that matter! Winfrey, Winik: we're almost cousins.) Not only has she not read my book, she's never even heard my name.
After a few questions about how I could have done such a thing (So, you wanted to marry a gay man? Well, not exactly.) we get to the big one. "Did your husband have to get intoxicated before having sex with you?"
"What?" At first I don't understand where this is coming from, but then realize that in the absence of anyone reading my book, the question is based on my nervous-breakdown conversation with the producer about Kerry Jaggers.
She rephrases the question. "You know – did your husband have to be really drunk to make love to you?"
I can't think of an answer. We go to commercial.
Now Oprah leans toward me, her face animated. "I love that blouse!" she says.
"I'm so glad," I reply sweetly. "I bought it just for you."
"Don't forget to jump in any time!" the producer breezes by to remind us, and the woman from Montreal, seated beside me, takes this deeply to heart. She disagrees with everything for the remainder of the show. Somebody makes an innocuous assertion like "I met my husband in San Diego in 1975," and she cries out, "I disagree!" (Later Marian told me that this frighteningly vehement woman approached her in the green room and asked "What's the matter with the author? Does she think she's better than the rest of us?" I had to give her credit for noticing.)
Later, I sit in the empty gate at the airport holding my souvenir Oprah coffee mug, stunned by how the Amazing Story that got me on the show in the first place now somehow seems completely banal and sordid. Like the psychologist said, just another Mixed Orientation Marriage gone awry. And I can't imagine this will be anything but a total non-event bookwise – they might as well have introduced me as Marion Winik, inventor of the three-speed blowdryer. How can smart people in New York pretend that this show has something to do with books, people who read them, life as we as know it?
Would it be too melodramatic to say I feel cheapened by the day's experience? I think back to when I first talked about going on Oprah with my friend Robert Draper, Mr. Serious Investigative Journalist and Novelist. After listening to me grouse about how awful and vulgar it could be, he said, Well, just draw the line. Tell them it's wrong for you and wrong for your book and you won't do it.
I don't think there was ever a chance of that, at least for those of us who aren't Cormac McCarthy or Robert Draper. When Oprah calls, we go.
Monday, June 10, 1996
The book tour is over, the reviews have been written, the hype has been hyped and the stupid Oprah show has not been scheduled to air yet. I've stopped asking Marian, Marian's stopped calling Amy, and only my mother still asks about it, which causes me to snap. I HOPE THE GODDAMN THING NEVER AIRS, I scream at her.
Friday, June 14, 1996
Okay, it's scheduled. I try hard to forget everything I know about the experience and be optimistic. They'll see the book on the screen, they'll stampede from their houses like zombies to the bookstore, and I'll be in a twelfth printing overnight.
Friday, July 12, 1996
My pregnant sister went into labor at 3:00 in the morning yesterday, Jason was born at 10:59, and Oprah came on at 4:00. The three of us were watching on her hospital television when my sister said she didn't feel well and then she was hemorraghing and after that we kind of didn't pay attention. I did notice that they fixed the part where Oprah said my name wrong, and cut out the questions about Tony having to be drunk to have sex with me.
Not many people mention the show afterwards – even people at Random House maintain a discreet silence, with no spike in sales to report – but those who do say how much they loved the blouse. It is a really beautiful blouse. I'm so glad I bought it.