Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Washington Social Diary: Love, Loss and Valentine's Day

Diane Rehm receiving the National Humanities Medal from President Obama in 2013.
Diane Rehm, On Her Own
by Carol Joynt

She has 2.5 million loyal radio listeners and has been on the air for nearly four decades, but Diane Rehm plans to shut down “The Diane Rehm Show” (thedianerehmshow.org) after the November elections. She’s ready, too, and looking forward to this transition in her life with commitment and resolve; as she turns 80 years old she plans to focus on the right-to-die movement.  She will miss her daily NPR show, she says, and her listeners, but she is equally passionate about the fight for laws that allow human beings to control their own deaths with dignity. 

Rehm’s passion is fueled by a horrific experience. Her husband of 54 years, John Rehm, died in June 2014, as much by his own hand as was legally possible. Crippled and weakened by Parkinson’s disease, residing in an assisted living facility, unable to use his legs or arms or to feed himself, John Rehm did not want to live another day. He was ready to die and he asked his doctor for help. But the doctor said “no,” that due to Maryland law and medical ethics he could not provide assistance.
John and Diane Rehm on their wedding date in 1959.
According to Diane, the doctor “explained that the only alternative John had was to stop eating, drinking fluids, or taking medications. He could bring his life to an end through those means, but no one could do it for him.” And that’s what John decided to do, after consulting with not only the doctor but also Diane and their two children, Jennifer Rehm and David Rehm. He asked how long it would take and the doctor said from ten days to two weeks. He was dead in just over a week.

“I sat by my husband’s side as he slowly died,” Diane said to me over lunch last week as we did an interview for my show, The Q&A Café, before a packed house at The George Town Club. The audience members were especially attentive as Diane recounted the experience, as she also does in her new book from Knopf, “On My Own,” an extraordinarily personal and candid memoir of her marriage, her husband’s death, and affirmations on mortality. Diane revealed at lunch that it will make its debut on the New York Times bestsellers list this Sunday at number 11. She also revealed that from the moment she met John in 1958 when they both worked at the State Department – he was a lawyer, she was a secretary – she knew he was the one “and I wanted to have his babies.”
CJ interviews Diane Rehm at a taping of "The Q&A Cafe" at the George Town Club.
Diane Rehm talks about her new book, "On My Own."
After her long career with NPR, Diane Rehm plans to focus her attention on the right-to-die debate.
Diane, up close.
Their long marriage, most of the time humming along, but like any real marriage also complicated, is a thread through the memoir as she gives context to the role balance that shifts from the traditional “husband in charge” to her having to take control as time passes, they raise a family, their careers change, he retires, becomes ill, and eventually has to be moved from their condo to assisted living. It is also played out against a backdrop of her ascending success as a radio personality and the demands of a daily, live, two-hour broadcast, and a workday that starts when the alarm goes off before dawn.

“I rage at a system that would not allow John to be helped toward his own death,” she writes. “Why should it be that only a few states allow aid in dying with help from a trained physician willing to offer the ultimate gift? Why should my husband have to starve himself to death .... I cry at the loss of what might have been this final intimacy between us, replaced by a long descent into oblivion, unaware of his family and friends beside him offering a loving farewell and wishing him a peaceful journey.”
In 2002, John and Diane Rehm wrote a book about their own marriage, "Toward Commitment: A Dialogue About Marriage."
During the interview I asked why she didn’t take John to Oregon, where a Death with Dignity Act was put into place in 1997. Also, since 1998 she has gone to Oregon for treatment for spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological voice disorder that strains the speech. Her doctor is in Portland; she has connections there. “No, no, no,” she said. “There wasn’t time.” Oregon has residency requirements, and the trek itself would have been too arduous for her husband. His only real option was to stop eating food and drinking water. “You can last a long time without food,” she said, “but you can’t last for long without water.”

They did have some precious moments in the long good-bye. “On the day John made his decision, I brought him a photograph album I’d made for him many years earlier recording his childhood and youth, from his birth in Paris, where his mother and dad had met, to his graduation from Friends Seminary in New York.” The family lived in Paris because John’s father worked for the Paris Herald Tribune.
Diane and John in 2005.
Diane, on the other hand, is a Washington native, born and raised in DC. She first went to work at her mother ship, WAMU-FM in 1973, volunteering on a broadcast called the “Home Show.” In 1979 she was made host of another show, “Kaleidoscope,” which became “The Diane Rehm Show” in 1984. Her guests are a broad spectrum of notables, including presidents and other world leaders, the powers of Congress, government, media, medicine and science, business, entertainment and especially authors. She’s won the Peabody Award and the National Humanities Medal, among other honors.

Rehm’s on-air batting average is remarkable, but nonetheless she beats herself up over a glaring mistake made in an interview last year with Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. She says she relied on a Facebook posting, later proved erroneous, that said the Vermont senator had dual citizenship in the U.S. and Israel. Sanders was on Skype for the interview. She says the moment she mentioned the dual citizenship “I could see in his eyes” that she had it wrong.
Diane Rehm has hosted her own NPR broadcast since 1979. She plans to shut it down after the presidential election. She prefers to not use the word "retire."
Sanders, who is Jewish, bristled. “No, I do not have dual citizenship with Israel. I don't know where that question came from. I am an American citizen, and I have visited Israel on a couple of occasions. No. I'm an American citizen, period."

Rehm apologized that day, the next day, and continues to review the episode with painful regret. She calls it “the most difficult two days of my professional life.”

Click to order “On My Own."
It will be a difficult day, too, when she hosts her last broadcast. We talked about that, too, but she had no revelations about how she’ll handle the farewell, whether it will be one big show, a week of shows, a week of re-runs of greatest hits. None of that has been decided, she said. Also, she won’t be choosing her successor or how her two hours will be remolded by NPR after her departure. It’s precious real estate, and NPR’s call.

There are lessons to be learned, of course, in how CNN bungled the 9 PM hour after “Larry King Live” came to a close in 2010. He was replaced by Piers Morgan, who never got ratings traction, and now the hour is sometimes Anderson Cooper and sometimes something else. In other words, squandered.

Rehm hopes NPR does not chop her two hours into segments, various shows, though she knows there is a chance that will happen. While she didn’t say this, there’s also speculation that if NPR names a singular successor to host the two hours it will most likely be a woman of color.

In our hour of talking, she gave the distinct impression she won’t be looking back over her shoulder. She will be focused ahead on the Right-to-Die debate, working closely with the organization “Compassion & Choices.” Right now her very public role as an NPR host limits what she can say or do about the issue, but come the next chapter, the restraint will be off.  Somehow I’m hearing, “Katy, bar the door.”
Diane Rehm loves her Champagne, and so a glass was raised at the end of the 45 minute interview.
A VALENTINE’S PARTY

A quartet of Washington socialites gathered together their equally social friends on Valentine’s night to welcome a maestro to town. The party at the St. Regis Hotel was in honor of Ivan Fischer, music director and founder of The Budapest Festival Orchestra, and was hosted by Aniko Gaal Schott, Jane Cafritz, Manuel Martinez and Karon Cullen.

Fischer, formerly a principal conductor of the Washington National Symphony Orchestra, conducted a special performance the Kennedy Center last night, in advance of a Thursday performance planned for Carnegie Hall. The New York Classical Review praised the concert in advance: “It’s hard to think of an orchestra that can stir greater thrills than the Budapest Festival Orchestra.” The New York Times said it “might be the best in the world.”
Surprisingly, there was not a preponderance of ladies in red, though there were two standouts, our hostess, Aniko Schott, and guest Lila Sullivan. Her husband, Williams & Connolly boss Brendan Sullivan, boasted that there were tiny specks of red in his tie. Well, yes, with a magnifying glass. It was a pleasure, too, to see Anna Weatherley, with her husband George Contis.

Anna is proudly Hungarian and equally proud of her craft. I first met her ages ago when she designed the most beautiful chiffon dresses – Lady Mary Crawley would want each and every one – but switched her design talents from gowns to porcelain and with great success. Laura Bush chose her Magnolia pattern as the “informal” White House china. Anna Wintour had her do a special pattern as a gift for Princess Diana. Today her patterns are sold at Scully & Scully, Michael C. Fina, and other high-end retailers.
Jane Cafritz, Ximena Sanchez de Losada, Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada, and Aniko Gaal Schott.
Maestro Ivan Fischer made a stop in Washington this week on his way to New York and Carnegie Hall.
Food and Champagne were bountiful as waiters passed canapés and two bars were kept busy at either end of the intimate St. Regis ballroom. The whole glam party was courtesy of the hotel and its relatively new owners, the Rayyan Tourism Investment Co., of Doha, Qatar, who also own the St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort in Florida, from where I wish they’d also imported last night’s weather. Thoughts of Florida so preferred over the bitter cold and a new snowstorm. Still, the spirit of the party was quite warm and rosy.
The Valentine's arrangement at the St. Regis Hotel party for maestro Ivan Fischer
The guests swarmed into the room from the moment the party started, and the arrivals seemed to not let up. They included Stefan Englert, Rachel Ciborowski, Sandra Davis, John Jeppson, Stephen Benko, Radka Benko, Susan Bennett, Albert Beveridge, Madzy Beveridge, Mary Bird, Kevin Chaffee, Michael Cheroff, Amb. Jose Luis Costa, Gozalo Sanchez De Losada, Janet Donovan, Amb. Maguy Maccario Doyle, Permille Florin Elbech, Søren Elbech, Samia Farouki, Houda Farouki, Richard Fried, Rolland Flamini, Nancy “Bitsy” Folger, Amb. Claudia Fritsche, John Giacomimi, Toya Giacomimi, Rolf Graage, Stephanie Green, Diana Holman, James Holman, Peter Kalotai, Casie Kiel, Susan Kopits, George Kopits, Frank Koszorus, John Mason, Joann Mason, Mary Garrett.
Not a lot of ladies in red, but a warm and friendly Valentine's party nonetheless.
More guests included Selwa “Lucky” Roosevelt, Sandra McElwein, Ed Mathias, Olga Major, Josef Czímer, Gita Lee, Calvin Cafritz, Nancy Bagley, Laszlo Ballasy, Melina Bellows, Wendy Benchley, Jan Lodal, Elizabeth Lodal, Julis Varallyai, Zsuzsanna Takacs, Eric Motley, Kent Overholt, Deborah Overholt, Amb. Christos Pamagopoulos, Blaise Pasztory, Aniko Pasztory, Jeannie Rausch, Kinga Revesz, Bill Sadlack, Rosemarie Paul, Nina Pillsbury, Phillip Pillsbury, John Pflieger, Donna Pflieger, Hillary Shaw, John Stilton, David Singer, Nikolett Singer, Amb. Kenichirō Sasae, Sandor Karolyi, Renaud de Viel Castel, Anaïs de Viel Castel, Coralie de Clermont-Tonnerre.
Calvin Cafritz, Jane Cafritz, and Bitsy Folger with Ivan Fischer.
Ann and Lloyd Hand.
Calvin Cafritz, Meryl Chertoff, and Michael Chertoff.
Samia Farouki and Jeanne Ruesch.
Brendan Sullivan, Lila Sullivan, CJ, Mary Garrett.
Melinda Bellows, Rick Myer, and Karon Cullen.
Daniel Fischer, Karon Cullen, and Ivan Fischer.
Tarek and Shiva Farouki.
Paul and Annie Stern.
Debra Jean Overholt and Maury Tobin.
George Contis and Anna Weatherley.
Radka and Stephen Benko, of The Friends of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, with Mary Garrett.
Photographs by Carol Joynt & Tony Powell.

Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt