Madonna had arrived in the West Village in the late eighties, establishing herself first as a graphic designer for Esquire and other magazines before joining Calvin Klein’s in-house ad agency. It was the brand’s heyday, and she recognized and stoked the emerging sexualism of the culture, creating the iconic black-and-white Marky Mark underwear campaign. She had left to found her own agency before her 30th birthday. She and Matt fell in love, and she helped foster his career. They bought an apartment off Union Square, which was where Matt’s mother, visiting twelve years ago, abruptly collapsed on the front step. So that, as he stood there watching her die, he felt a pang of mortality, which Madonna felt, too, and both of them, approaching 40, agreed it was time to start a family.
Work became its own self-fulfilling success loop, which had him gone in South Africa when Lily began having anxiety attacks at school at P.S. 3 in the West Village. Specialists determined she was dyslexic, and that she would do better at Windward Academy in Westchester County. The commute was onerous. Matt and Madonna fought over the decision to send the other two girls there when it was determined their reading skills, too, were deficient. Matt’s work took him abroad more often. When he was far from home, he gambled and strayed. She found out. They sat the children down at the table to explain they would have two homes, two birthday parties, two Christmases. In December 2010, Madonna paid $1.725 million for the 3,349-square-foot, five-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath house at Shippan Avenue, and began commuting into the city. Matt moved into his apartment in Battery Park City. On December 21, 2011, their marriage was officially dissolved.
Two weeks later, he watched as she walked to the altar, glanced at the three caskets, and brushed back her hair. In clear, halting diction, she recalled her “little girl tribe,” her greatest fear that they “would be forgotten.”
She recalled Lily, her firstborn, whom she carried through the city in her BabyBjörn carrier, who sang before she could speak, who constantly made up songs, who was shy and loving. She recalled Sarah and Grace, who were born minutes apart and who called each other “Rara” for the common sounds in their names—Sarah, more gregarious and popular in school, and Grace, fearless, with an earsplitting scream, the first to dive into deep water, who loved bugs and spiders and was curious about everything, who asked Santa for a telescope and microscope she did not live long enough to receive.
Standing before them all, clutching tissues, Madonna recalled instances of her young daughters’ grappling with the concept of death. Grace had asked her repeatedly “if she would die before me. And I told her, ‘No, that is never going to happen.’ But it did, and I wonder, ‘Why?’ ” Once, she had taken Lily to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see an exhibit of Pietà statues. Lily was transfixed by the image of Mary cradling Jesus’ lifeless body. She demanded her mother tell her when she herself would die. Madonna was at first dismissive. Lily lay on the floor. She began crying. She begged her.
“And I told her, after a lot of not knowing what to say, that life is a mystery, and it’s a total mystery, that we will never know when we will die.
“And she accepted that,” she said, “and I did, too.”
The St. Thomas choir sang “Amazing Grace,” and Rufus Wainwright sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from the balcony. Eighteen members of the Stamford Fire Department acted as pallbearers. Punctuating the sea of black were many of the girls’ 200 classmates from Windward, legs dangling in their pews. When it was over, Madonna and Matt followed the three coffins down the long center aisle, her yelps filling the soaring space.
If Matt Badger is right, and all their lives were fated for this, then by the time a six-foot-four-inch military policeman with aqua eyes and a deep southern accent approached Pauline McCarthy’s desk at the base commander’s office at Ernest Harmon Air Force Base in Newfoundland in 1961, it was already well under way. They were, the two of them, hurtling toward tragedy.
Lomer “L.G.” Johnson was born in 1941 in Louisville and raised by a single mother. When he was 17, he went to his father’s new family’s house to ask to borrow money to buy a suit to take a girl to the prom, and when his father said no, he rode the bus across Louisville, won the money in nickel pinball games, and soon thereafter cut off contact with his father. He joined the Air Force, ending up in Newfoundland, where fighter jets escorted bombers flying nuclear weapons over the North Pole, and where he made the acquaintance of Pauline. The second youngest of eight, she’d grown up in Newfoundland in a house with no running water, her father rowing his boat each morning to check on lobster traps. Sent to Montreal for high school, she clandestinely dropped out, adding a year to her birth certificate in order to secure a secretarial job back home. The Cuban Missile Crisis postponed their wedding, but two months later, on Boxing Day, they emerged from a chapel beneath drawn swords, Lomer walking backward in front of Pauline down the snow-cleared path, holding her hand. They had a child and named her Madonna.