Donna’s Riskiest Role

“For several years, it was difficult to participate in Rudy’s public life because of a relationship with one staff member” – Donna Hanover

The strange thing about this whole drama is that we knew. The mayor’s relationship with Cristyne Lategano was, if not a matter of public record, at least one of common knowledge. The bigger mystery was Donna Hanover herself. Behind her blonde hair and her camera-ready smile, she was a cipher. We felt for her without knowing – indeed, without even being able to imagine – how she felt.

I’d known Hanover casually for a number of years, and last spring I approached her about profiling her for this magazine. Her interest was in a piece that would give her exposure as an actress and journalist, as a woman whose career was gaining momentum. I was interested (as was New York) in understanding this woman who was the mayor’s wife and not his wife.

Talking to Donna Hanover can be a spooky experience. On one level, she’s as bland and cheerful as any TV anchor. You sense that she wants to be liked and will like you back if she can. But on another level, she’s supremely, even obsessively, guarded. In lengthy negotiations for our interviews, she ruled out discussing the mayor, the Senate race, or anything political. And almost any question that could be remotely construed as personal could flip a switch. (“What was your maiden name?” I asked her at one point. “I’m trying to think if there’s any reason to not tell you that for the article,” she responded.)

A couple of years ago, it was widely noted that Hanover had stopped using the surname Giuliani. Now she seemed averse to even speaking his name. When she talked about the future, “we” referred to Donna and her children, Andrew and Caroline. There was never a mention, in hours of conversation, of “the mayor,” “my husband,” “the kids’ father,” etc. If I prodded her to talk of the man she’s been married to for sixteen years, she’d do it reluctantly. For Donna, whose demeanor tends to be unerringly pleasant, saying the name Rudy appeared to require some effort.

In fact, the portrait Donna painted of herself was of a hardworking single mother, much like many others in the city, juggling her career and her two children, determined to acquit herself honorably on both fronts. The fact that she lived at Gracie Mansion as the city’s First Lady was almost incidental.

“Is he supportive of all your work?” I asked. She thought for a moment. “He’s never created a problem. You know … I do what I do.”

As a mom and morning-show correspondent for Fox’s First Edition and Good Day New York, Donna has to be highly disciplined. Her wake-up calls are at 3:30 or 4 a.m.; then it’s straight to the treadmill, where she runs about four miles a morning, watching taped episodes of The West Wing and Chicago Hope that she misses in the evenings. “I often go to bed at the same time as my children do,” she told me. “Nine-thirty or ten at the latest.”

Being home for the children as close to six nights a week as possible is a priority for her. When she’s doing the morning shows and has to leave the house before they’re up, she will sometimes come home between First Edition and Good Day, even if it’s just for fifteen minutes, to give them “a hug and a kiss.” If she’s working and can’t be there, she’ll try to give them a wake-up call. “They really prefer it if my voice is the first voice they hear. They like that very much. So when I can, I do that.”

“Do they see their dad in the morning?” I asked.

“Often they do. Often they do. They’ll say good morning to him. But I’m the caregiver, and if I’m not there, then I’ll have my babysitter.”

I asked her if the mayor joined them for family dinners.

“Occasionally we will – maybe once every two weeks – have a family dinner,” she said.

But her career is also a high priority for her, and a part of her strategy for handling her publicly eroding marriage.

“I think of myself as a professional person,” she said carefully. “I think of the whole combination of things that I do – journalism and mothering and acting – as multitasking. People have learned how to do more than one thing at a time and found that it’s a good way to live. Because whatever is going wrong, something is going right in your life if you have a lot of things going on – generally speaking.”

Over the past year, Donna has been juggling episodes of In Food Today on the Television Food Network, Good Day New York, occasional articles for Good Housekeeping magazine, acting jobs, and a weekly acting class. Last fall, she added another gig, hosting chores on House Beautiful, a new syndicated program on A&E. She has made guest appearances on The Practice, Ally McBeal, and Family Law. In 1999, she earned $239,450, a third more than the mayor.

“You’re always kind of thinking, Okay, is there going to be enough work for me to do in the next six months, in the next year, so that I can take care of my children?” I asked whether, by that, she meant financially. “Yes,” she said.

Her acting career seemed poised to take off in 1996 when Milos Forman, a friend from the Czech community, cast her as Ruth Carter Stapleton in The People vs. Larry Flynt. The film, and her performance in it, were widely praised (though the movie isn’t likely to be among the mayor’s favorites). Her numerous acting roles have been pretty much under the radar since then – until she was cast in The Vagina Monologues (a show whose title is in fact the only thing provocative about it).

While the decision to accept the part was widely portrayed as a passive-aggressive move designed to embarrass her husband, anyone who knows her would find it completely believable that she saw the chance to follow such acclaimed actresses as Glenn Close and Cate Blanchett in the show as simply a smart career move. There is nothing Donna Hanover wants more than to be taken seriously as an actress. “Be sure,” she bade me, “to let people know I’ll travel for work.”

And while Hanover has been remaking herself into an actress, she has also been remaking her appearance. Gone is the chipmunky reporter with the pixieish haircut. Gone are 25 pounds that used to render her almost forgettable. (How did she do it? Diet Coke. Vegetable casseroles. Egg-white omelettes. And, when she’s absolutely starving, popcorn and carrots.) She favors Nicole Miller, Ellen Tracy, and Escada – what she calls “professional clothes.”

Hanover works hard at being with her kids, too, making sure she’s a focused parent despite an obviously stressful situation. “Shortly after we moved to Gracie, I had a conversation with the kids,” she told me, “because I realized I was doing a lot of work during the week and then trying to get organized on the weekends. I said, ‘We’re not having enough fun.’ So every weekend we would have an adventure. Sometimes it was bike-riding in New Jersey. It almost always involved a trip to McDonald’s or Burger King. Or we’d go play Laser Tag, or roller-blading, or something. Now that’s kind of morphed into we do these wonderful vacations. I took them to Paris in March. Last winter, I took them to Ireland. I took them to Yosemite, and we camped out with my parents.”

I asked her if the mayor ever accompanied them.

“Mostly it’s me and the children, these big trips,” she said. “We’ve had a couple of brief trips, all four of us.”

The most positive things Hanover would say about her marriage concerned what amounted to a noninterference pact with her husband. “I let him speak for himself,” she said, “and he respects me enough to do the same.”

The strategy clearly backfired on her Vagina Monologues announcement and his apparently unilateral decision to separate. But last fall, she still seemed to feel it was working. “I like the way that that happens,” she said. “It’s about identity. Because I believe that your work, whatever your work is – if it’s raising your children, that’s your work – is kind of at the center of your soul.”

“Is he supportive at all of your work?” I asked.

She thought for a moment.

“He’s never created a problem,” she said. “You know … I do what I do.”

The closed doors and shuttered windows of Hanover’s Gracie Mansion life were unexpectedly flung open when I asked about the beginnings of her marriage. “I was anchoring news in Miami in 1982,” she said, “and I went to a wedding and met someone there who said, ‘I have a friend named Rudy who goes to Miami a lot. Would you like to go out with him? And by the way, he’d make a good interview.’

“So somebody from his office called, and I said, ‘Well, I thought I was supposed to go out with him, but we’ll set up the interview.’ But then Rudy himself called and said, ‘If you’ll go out with me, I’ll come the night before.’ So we went out to dinner. We went to Joe’s Stone Crabs.

“I interviewed him the next day. He was associate attorney general at the time in Washington. Then he came back a couple of weeks later. And within six weeks, he asked me to marry him, and I said yes. It was a whirlwind.”

Rudy, she said, was the one with the foot on the accelerator. “He was a little more urgent than I was,” she said. “He very much wanted, you know, that we should be in the same city. And he was smart and interesting. And I wanted children. I was 32 at the time. And I fell in love. And he was romantic. He sent me many, many bouquets of flowers.” Donna laughed out loud.

“Do you remember when he first told you he loved you?”

“Yes. It was on the telephone.” She laughed again.

At that point, Hanover’s career was in high gear: “I had sort of made a decision that Miami was a great news town. I thought there was enough pump in the news-business part of it, and I liked the outdoor lifestyle. I didn’t feel a drive to get to the Northeast, the way a lot of people do. So I was pretty much feeling that I was going to stay there for a long time.”

But Rudy’s relentless campaign won her over. Not without regret, she gave notice and moved to Washington, to live with him, in 1982. “That’s when I felt I walked down the aisle, when I left that job.”

After a few months, Hanover said, she told Giuliani, ” ‘I’ve got to get to work. So should I look for a job in Washington? Or are you planning to go to New York?’ That’s when the opportunity to become U.S. Attorney came up, and he made that decision, and then I started looking for work in New York City, ending up at Channel 11” the following May. In April 1984, after Rudy had worked out the annulment of his marriage to his first wife, Regina Peruggi, they wed.

When we moved back to the present, the shutters were closed once more. The most Donna would do was acknowledge that the pain that was hidden in her life required considerable strength to conquer. Being Donna Hanover – warm, cheerful, optimistic, tactful – was, under the unacknowledged circumstances, very difficult.

“Well, Lisa, there have been adversities,” she told me, “and you know there have been. But that’s for you to observe, and for other people to observe. You face them with as much grace as you can muster, and as much intelligence as you can, and as much kindness as you can – and that’s what I do.”

She went on to elaborate – obliquely, as always – on her coping strategies: “I’m the type who points out a problem gently and says, ‘How about next time we do it differently?’ That’s been effective for me in my career. I think that’s the best way to get action. Not to make people feel horribly, not to make it feel like you’re attacking them. And they want to fix it. I am always looking to how to make this happen right in the future.”

Another source of solace has been her friendships with women, which she has enhanced with a series of dinners for prominent women at Gracie Mansion. “The dinners began because I was interviewing a lot of really fascinating women. I’ve probably had about 25 of them. Which is astonishing, when you think that there are that many wonderful, brilliant, dynamic women. I could do 25 more.

“You know, there’s a certain thing that happens with women that you see at the dinners, where women let their hair down a little bit, and they encourage each other, and they don’t need to talk about sports first. And if you ask them questions, they respond often with the real truth!”

She has woman friends, she says, from her television posts in cities from Columbus, Ohio, to Miami, and as far back as high school in Sunnyvale, California.

Ellen Eisenstat, one of Hanover’s closest friends dating back to 1976, when they both worked at WTVN-TV in Columbus, says Donna was always “very private. She really is a one-on-one or one-to-one kind of person, basically.”

The pressures of Gracie Mansion increased that penchant: “It became all the more important to her to have an area of privacy about her family and about herself,” Eisenstat says. She pauses a moment. “She likes it. She doesn’t want her personal stuff out there.

“Her personality hasn’t changed at all, adds Eisenstat, who wore a blue bridesmaid’s dress she didn’t like in the Hanover-Giuliani wedding. “She’s gotten a lot more sophisticated externally, more elegant and more polished, but she’s still a down-home person who interacts the same way she always did.”

When they are together, says Eisenstat, “we do heavy girl stuff. We do heavy shopping. We try on jewelry and lipstick and sit on the floor with her endless supply of Diet Coke. She’s very unaffected. She’s just a girlfriend. She very much enjoys people’s sense of humor.”

“Humor is a big, big thing in my life,” Donna acknowledged, “as are my friendships with women. If you said to me, ‘What have been your strategies in the last two years?,’ I would say those things have been my strategy.”

Eisenstat tells this story: “When my father died, she called and said, ‘Do you want me there?’ Caroline was 2 at the time, so Andrew was 6. ‘Don’t even think about it. Don’t come out.’ And she was on the plane the next day, shows up at my mother’s house with four bags of groceries including a pair of black stockings, in case I hadn’t thought of it, a bottle of wine, and everything from soup to nuts. She’s very dear that way. She inspires nothing but wanting to give it back to her.”

Her friend and manager, Sue Leibman, echoes those sentiments. She talks of their playing tennis and attending Knicks games together, and of Donna rolling up her sleeves and helping pack boxes when it was time to move. And when Leibman started her own management firm last year, Donna not only sent her cookies and lasagna but signed on, too.

In the past couple of years, Hanover has done half a dozen interviews for Good Housekeeping, all of them profiles of survivors: Nell Carter’s journey back to Broadway from drug and alcohol addiction, Pat Pepper’s battle with ALS, Jackie Speier’s path to recovery from the death of her husband. In a weird confluence of events, last year she interviewed Ali Torre about facing prostate cancer with her husband, Yankees manager Joe Torre. And she interviewed Kathie Lee Gifford about the brouhaha over her clothing line just days before the news broke about her husband’s affair with a flight attendant. Perseverance, stoicism, being there for the children are common themes.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the intelligence – or the determination – of this graduate of Stanford and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. “A professional person – that’s definitely something I want to be and hope to be,” she told me. “And to behave professionally, whatever I am doing – whether I am working as a broadcast journalist or an actor or devoting my time to helping a group of people. That sort of integrity and that sort of keeping-your-word approach to life is something that is important to me.”

“Considering what she’s been through, she’s doing great,” claims her friend Gail Yancosek, the executive producer of Good Day New York. Ellen Eisenstat saw her last weekend in California and sounds concerned but not worried about the redoubtable Donna: “She’s a resilient woman. She’s going to be great.”

In an odd way, none of the explosive announcements of the past weeks changes the big picture for Donna – not even last Friday’s double stunner of Rudy’s dropping out of the Senate race hours after the Daily News reported that Donna had hired divorce lawyer Helene Brezinsky to work out the separation. Donna will continue to live her life, pursuing her career and nurturing her children.

Long before the events of the past month, she’d been thinking about her future. I asked her if she planned to stay in New York if her husband became a senator. “Oh, yes,” she said. “I have an apartment that I rented out, and I would presumably go back to that apartment. Actually in the same neighborhood. You know, I raised my children in that park.”

The children, as always, were at the forefront of her concerns. She provided what might be considered a skeleton key to her thinking in the past couple of years. “I think when children are young,” she said, “a lot of the evidence shows that it’s difficult when there’s divorce. And you can imagine how difficult it would be to go from one house to another and not have either house be yours. I think a lot of people are trying to consider that when they think about their lives and the children – what they’re going to do.”

These were some of the things that have been on Donna Hanover’s mind over the past few months. It was mostly a matter of pride for her not to share them, except in the diplomatic code she had perfected. “In some areas,” she said, “I believe you keep your own counsel, if you have the courage to do that. And it’s best to have the courage to do that sometimes. And if people know that about me, then they know me.”

Donna’s Riskiest Role