Nothing to Fall Back On: The Life and Times of a Perpetual Optimistby Betsy Carter
Successful and smart, Betsy Carter was not only the ultimate "New York Woman," she also founded a magazine by that same name. For nearly 20 years, she led a high-gloss life that others only dream of travel, fashion, parties, power until things started to go terribly wrong. Carter faced a series of catastrophes: a devastating car accident, a failed
Successful and smart, Betsy Carter was not only the ultimate "New York Woman," she also founded a magazine by that same name. For nearly 20 years, she led a high-gloss life that others only dream of travel, fashion, parties, power until things started to go terribly wrong. Carter faced a series of catastrophes: a devastating car accident, a failed marriage, a house that burned down. Then her magazine folded and she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
This moving story, set against the gossipy and often hilarious world of magazine publishing, reveals what it is like to be stripped bare, to wander through the rubble, and to finally put yourself together again.
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- 18 Years
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Nothing to Fall Back On
The Life and Times of a Perpetual Optimist
By Betsy Carter
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Betsy Carter
All rights reserved.
On one of those perfect days in September, when the full summer air and coolness of autumn make you wistful and optimistic at the same time, I got married. It was the second marriage for me, the third for him. I was forty-five, and felt that finally, I had met the man I was meant to be with. He was brooding and handsome with curly black hair and eyes the color of sea urchins. Although his name was Gary, my friends called him "Thank God for Gary." It was supposed to be a joke, but it wasn't, really.
My friends thanked God because Gary was funny and kind; on a good day—say the Jets and Giants had both won—he could be downright ebullient. He was smart and large and could carry you through a crowd if the going got tough. A real catch.
But they thanked God because now I'd be someone else's problem and because they worried that I was not a good catch. Not after the blaze of bad luck I had just run through. They figured that with his physical strength and the sureness of his love, Gary had the power to reverse my misfortunes and beat back the bad karma. And I thought they might be right.
The morning of our wedding, Gary and I played two sets of tennis (I won the first, he won the second). We picked up a lunch of smoked turkey sandwiches, iced tea, and potato chips, then brought it to the beach, where we had a picnic on the sand. It was 2:34 when I looked at my watch. "At two thirty-four every Saturday for the rest of our lives, let's always remember this time and this place and how perfectly happy we were," I said. Gary held out his pinky, a little finger that weighed about a half pound and was covered with hair—if you could call it a pinky. "Pinkies," he said. "Pinkies," I answered. It was a rule left over from my childhood: Never make a wish or swear a promise without sharing pinkies first.
We were getting married at a restaurant that overlooked a harbor; the metal clips clanking against the masts of the small sailboats sounded like bells. Upstairs was a changing room where a few friends had come to help me put on makeup and get dressed. Victoria painted my lips Coral Blush and dabbed concealer on the deep furrow between my eyes, while Lisa read us a story from The National Enquirer about a boy who'd raised a family of pigeons in his closet for two years before his parents found out. I pulled a blue garter over my thigh, slipped into my white silk dress, and stepped out onto the balcony. There, a photographer snapped pictures of me staring out at the late afternoon sky.
From my perch, I looked down and watched the guests come in and shake Gary's hand. There was my friend Ron Rosenbaum. He showed up two hours early and paced around the parking lot, not wanting to be the first guest to go inside. Everything about Ron seemed to be stoked by a ferocious brain—his wild red hair, his fierce brown eyes, the way he couldn't stand still—it all kept the engine going. Ron had written personal ads for me in case no one asked me out after my first marriage ended.
He needn't have worried about arriving first. My ex-husband's parents beat him to it. They walked in, smiling and as gracious as the day I married their son. At that wedding, she was still a flirtatious beauty who'd welcomed me into a large family unlike any I had ever known. He had bright blue eyes and was never afraid to tell someone she was wrong or that he loved her. Now a demure silk dress covered her hip replacement. The light in his eyes had dimmed and he had a slight limp—the result of a recent stroke.
Gary was bringing his eighty-nine-year-old mother over to meet them. She was large boned with big ears, and had a loopy smile. She was him without the beard. She hung on Gary's arm as he introduced them, and I wondered what she might say. Weeks earlier she had told me in her broken Viennese English that when she found out at forty-three she was pregnant with Gary, she'd considered having him "destroyed." I hoped that she wouldn't bring that up again today.
At the far end of the bar, my boss was scrutinizing the labels on the wine bottles. Was he thinking about the precarious fate of the magazine I ran? My oldest childhood friend was standing on the deck right beneath me. She held her cardigan close to her chest and looked around uneasily at the room full of people she'd never met. I heard her ask her husband, "Do you think it will rain?" in her familiar high-pitched voice. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, but she always was a little anxious. When we were eighteen, she made me promise that we would become lesbians together if we weren't married by the time we were thirty.
And there were my dentists, both in dark navy suits. I'd never seen them in anything but white. They were much better looking than I'd ever realized. Come to think of it, I'd never seen either of them in daylight. A few feet to their right was the shrink who once told me that I ought to consider having an exorcism. She was wearing too much makeup and overlarge hoop earrings, and was talking to my dour lawyer, whose eyes kept darting around as she spoke. He was the one who told me on the day that we met how we were destined to become close friends because with my life, I'd always need a lawyer.
When we were putting together the seating plan, Gary and I had decided to put my shrink, my dentists, my lawyer, and my doctor at the same table. Gary had suggested that we drape black cloth over their table and put up a sign that said: "The Dark Years." "The Dark Years" had become our code phrase for the seven years when my luck went haywire and everything I held dear came apart. Let's just say that several years later, when I told Ron how, during a bike trip, a bolt of lightning had hit the roof of the building next to me, causing it to burst into flames, he slapped me on the back and said, "Congratulations! A couple of years ago it would have been you that burst into flames!" You get the picture.
So while no one actually said it, I knew everyone there that day saw this wedding as a celebration of survival, an amen to a time they had all been part of, or at least witnessed like horrified rubberneckers. I appreciated how they had stuck by me during those years, and thought how they deserved this party as much as I did. How else to explain why a person with a sound mind would throw a wedding extravaganza more appropriate for a giddy young virgin than a divorced middle-aged career woman. The white roses framing the chuppah, the water gently slapping against the nearby sailboats, the sweet sound of Van Morrison singing "Have I told You Lately," would surely put a lump in the throats of even those of my friends who reveled in dark humor.
I walked down the stairs as the band started to play "Long Ago and Far Away" ("I dreamed a dream someday, and now that dream is here beside me."), then watched from the doorway as Gary loped down the aisle—a long winding deck on the bay. I took my father's arm. He was so frail. He was unsure of his steps and leaned on me to help him. I couldn't remember when we'd ever been this physically close for this long a period. The last time I'd walked down the aisle, it was with a jubilant stride and a parent on each arm. My mother whispered in my ear, "Sweetie, you should try and slow down a little." Now my mother was too sick to leave home and the walk seemed stiffer and sadder than I had expected. My sister, Miriam, was waiting for me under the chuppah, and we shot each other half smiles, as if to say, "How can it be that we're here again?" Gary and I exchanged our vows, then he stomped on the ceremonial glass so hard that the entire deck shook. Even the rabbi had to laugh. We put our arms around each other and walked back down the aisle, my legs trembling underneath me. All the while, the sunset was a frenzy of reds, violets, and oranges. For me, there's never been another one like it.
We had planned that before we joined the party, Gary and I would have a private moment upstairs in my changing room. It would be our first time alone as man and wife, and I imagined there would be a passionate kiss and a teary embrace. As Gary walked in and closed the door I heard something strange. How do I put this? I was honking. Suddenly, I was doubled over wheezing and gasping. "I can't ..." There were no words left, just wild hand motions trying to conjure up the right gesture for "air." "I can't breathe," I finally gasped. From the look on Gary's face, I realized that he wasn't expecting me to have an asthma attack in the middle of our wedding.CHAPTER 2
My mother used to tell me that I was born happy. "It's your nature," she would say, as if that explained everything. "You inherited my family's happy-go-lucky attitude," meaning that I carried none of the dark Teutonic baggage from my father's side. "You would lie in your crib for hours smiling and not complaining even when your diaper was reeking," she'd laugh. "You were happy even when you were full of shit." My mother told me that long before I could even speak, my grandmother, the one from the happy-go-lucky side of the family, would stare at me and shake her head. "She's awfully cute, but so dumb," she would say. "Thank God she's a girl." And my father, who from as far back as I can remember, talked about me in the third person, would look at me, then turn to my mother and ask, "Why does she have such a maniacal grin?"
No one ever asked me why I was so determinedly upbeat, but here's what I think. Even in the womb, all my fetal instincts were telling me it was dark out there, that I needed to figure out how I would find my way. Ten years earlier, my parents had to flee Hitler's Germany. They came to this country in 1936: she was twenty-two, he was twenty-six. They had no money and no prospects. Now they were sharing a tiny apartment with a newborn baby and a five-year-old with a bad case of scarlet fever. My mother, once an adored only child, had lost her father two months earlier. It was probably beginning to dawn on her that making a living would be her responsibility. My father, once the heir to a department store fortune, felt demeaned by working as a stock boy or a clerk, and eventually found a way to let whomever he was working for know it. So what choice did I have, really? I had to be cheerful, even downright incandescent sometimes, if I was to stay afloat when the family undertow threatened to suck me under.
I wasn't naive enough to believe that happiness was anybody's birthright, but that fall, when I returned from marrying Gary, it was tempting to think I might be on a lucky streak. For the past five years, I'd been the editor of my own magazine, New York Woman. It was an idea I'd had one day while working at Esquire as its editorial director. A woman would never be editor of Esquire, I'd been told, and after six years there, I felt ready to be in charge of my own magazine. Running New York Woman was the most joyful experience in my twenty years of journalism. I started the magazine in 1986, during the swank years for Wall Street and New York. For a long time, New York Woman rode the coattails of those swank years—and so did I. There were parties on yachts, sales conferences in Aspen, and black-tie dinners where I got to introduce Mikhail Barishnikov and eat caviar tarts.
The staff of the magazine was a blur of energy that, when you came in close, consisted of ferocious organisms with curly hair ("There are lots of you here," my boss once said to me. "You know, curly brunette Semitic types."), linen jackets, black tights, little boy Ts from J. Crew—and raw, unharnessed ambition.
We developed the intimacy that breeds when any clique of women comes together in a small space for any length of time (which is what we were trying to capture in the first place). Hardly a day went by when there weren't tears over a boyfriend who wouldn't commit or a solemn confession of some extramarital affair. Then there would follow the reassuring hugs, the murmured words of comfort, and the inevitable lightbulb going off in someone's head signaling that here again, buried in the seeds of one person's heartbreak, was the germ of a perfect story idea. When we managed a break from our day-to-day traumas, there were birthdays to celebrate and anniversaries to mark. No occasion was too small for a party. After I told one of our young staffers that she was getting a raise, she jumped up and down and squealed, "Ooh, I'm so excited. I've never gotten a raise before." Within minutes, we were all sitting around my office munching on popcorn and chocolate chip cookies and lifting champagne glasses to toast the next Nora Ephron.
The magazine was gaining a reputation for sauciness, intelligence, and, some said, a kind of edgy neurosis. This was hardly surprising, since that was pretty much the personality profile of everyone who worked there. We only had one man on the staff, an honest-to-God bar-hopping, womanizing heterosexual. He tried valiantly to hold on to his masculinity by hanging a small basketball hoop above his desk and downing burgers and fries for lunch, but he was no match for the frenzy of estrogen that engulfed him each day. After less than a year with us, he got engaged. After that, it was a matter of weeks before he became preoccupied with china, silverware, and caterers. The hoop came down, the picture of the bride went up, and he started eating oat bran muffins. That was it: We had him.
Every now and then, an emissary from our corporate owners would pay a visit to our offices. It was usually right after we'd run a story about famous bimbos, or about male construction workers who dressed up in silk dresses and sling-backs on weekends. First we'd get a warning phone call from the downtown office telling us that someone was on the way, no doubt aimed at making sure none of us were running naked through the offices when he got there. We'd use the time to wipe the muffin stains off the wall and turn down the strains of the Talking Heads singing "Burning Down the House." Sometimes I would walk through the halls and look at posters advertising the magazine, or fondle the promotional candy bars with our logo spelled out in milk chocolate, and marvel at how something that was once just make-believe in my head had become this flesh-and-blood reality.
The night after I got back from getting married, New York Woman had a huge party to celebrate its fifth anniversary. I can still replay it all, like a video running through my mind frame by frame.
I am standing at the podium at Larabelle's, a disco in mid-town Manhattan, wearing a dress borrowed from the magazine's fashion closet. It is sleeveless with red sequins and a low-cut V-neck. My face is flushed under the floodlights, and I think of my smile as being a little bit too eager. I am presenting the Life of the City Awards, to "women who have changed New York." A parade of people comes up to the stage. They shake my hand or kiss my cheek. Here's Queen Latifah, Susan Sarandon, Donna Karan, The Guerilla Girls (in full gorilla costume), Wendy Wasserstein—on and on it goes.
When the last Steuben glass trophy is handed out, I look around at the giant blowups of the magazine covers and the sea of faces in the audience, and I feel for all the world like Billy Crystal at the Academy Awards. At this moment I see myself through the eyes of the girl who came to New York City twenty years earlier wanting more than anything to be a journalist. I have gone higher and farther than the girl could have imagined, and now that I've made it to this place, there is no reason to doubt that's where I'll stay.
The rest of the night is a blur except for the end. As the guests start to leave the club, I feel the adrenaline rush of being center stage, of people I've never met before shaking my hand and telling me how they love the magazine. "Don't leave this evening," I want to beg them. "Don't let the party end." The band is playing a hard-driving version of "Born to Be Wild." I am swaying and pumping to the beat by myself on the dance floor. One by one, the staff of New York Woman joins me. We are as exuberant and unself-conscious as kids at a band shelter on the Fourth of July.
Excerpted from Nothing to Fall Back On by Betsy Carter. Copyright © 2002 Betsy Carter. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Betsy Carter is the author of The Orange Blossom Special and a memoir, Nothing to Fall Back On. She is a contributing editor to O: The Oprah Magazine and writes for Good Housekeeping, New York, and AARP, among others. She formerly served as an editor at Esquire, Newsweek, and Harper's Bazaar and was the founding editor of New York Woman. She lives in New York City.
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