A Love Letter to Joan

When you reach a certain age, at least in my case, you have this desire to release feelings inside you. You don’t want them silenced for eternity. You want people, mostly the ones you love, to know exactly how you feel and who you really are. Several years ago, I wrote a column thanking my wife Joan for everything she has done for me, mainly saving me from an empty existence deprived of love and bringing me out of a shell in which I thought I would be trapped for life. I realize now that the column only scratched the surface and much more needed to be said. Not enough layers had been stripped away. I am now rectifying that at the expense of any reader who wishes to continue. But even if no one reads it, that is OK. It is still out there, a living entity formed by words and emotions that will never die. This is the only outlet I have to express it, so let’s just say this one’s for me.

I can point out the exact spot. It was just as you pass the administration building at Belmont Park that I saw my wife for the first time. The only problem was that I only saw her from the back. I recognized the voice of her co-worker  (who I had spoken to many times on the phone as librarian for the DRF) as they passed by me. They worked for Photocommunications, a Madison Ave. firm that handled all the publicity for the New York Racing Association, sending out photos, captions, and releases and the occasional feature.

I knew they were going to be at the track and wanted to meet me. I turned around and watched them walk away, too shy and insecure to go after them. I remember the image like it was yesterday -- tall, blonde, wearing a beige raincoat and high heels. “What a jerk you are,” I said to myself. Joan’s co-worker was the one who called me more regularly, but mainly on a personal basis. I had spoken to Joan a few times, mostly for business, and felt I would be more interesting as a voice on the phone than in person. So I just kept on walking, the coward that I was.

It was the fall of 1977. Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew was on the sidelines, Forego was still going strong at age 7, and a pair of 2-year-olds named Affirmed and Alydar were establishing quite a rivalry.

As for myself, I was becoming heavily involved with European racing at the time and was making some important connections over there, having attended the Epsom Derby in 1976, Royal Ascot and the Irish Derby in 1977, and the Epsom Derby and Royal Ascot in 1978. I also was freelance writing here in the States, mostly for the Thoroughbred Record, and was writing a column for the now-defunct Sporting Chronicle in England, reporting on all the European horses who were racing in America. I was able to land that gig by presenting them with an offer they couldn’t refuse – I would work for free.

By the following summer (1978), after returning from my trip to Royal Ascot, I was hired by longtime editor Peter Towers-Clark to be the American representative for Stud & Stable magazine, the European equivalent of The Blood-Horse and Thoroughbred Record.

So, this was my existence at age 31 -- single for life, whether I wanted to be or not; still shy around women, still cloistered away in the Daily Racing Form library, and having found a new outlet as a freelance writer in America and Europe. It was easy to convince myself I was content, but I still hated myself for the void I had created and the inability to fill it. Here I was a hopeless romantic with a heartful of romantic feelings suppressed by shackles of inferiority and insecurity. So I resigned myself to my fate and continued to immerse myself in racing and now freelance writing.

My low point had come that day at Belmont when I couldn’t bring myself to approach this woman, whose beauty was confined to my imagination having only seen her from behind. Just the thought of that perceived beauty being a reality sent waves of cowardice up my spineless back. So I sheepishly walked away.

Our phone conversations increased, and I was again able to be the dashing, charming person I always wanted to be and how she perceived me to be. She seemed to enjoy our talks and I was not about to jeopardize that by actually meeting her and seeing that look of disappointment on her face, especially when my bumbling attempt at conversation contradicted the voice over the phone.

Our conversations eventually expanded from the office to the home. She was starting to get to know the real me, but I dared not cross that long distance line that separated us and protected me from being exposed.

In the spring of 1978 I left for my three-week trip to England. I came to miss our conversations and sent several postcards. When I returned, we spoke for four hours catching up. This beautiful woman who I had never really seen became more beautiful than ever. It didn’t matter that it was only in my mind. I had created my dream girl in my imagination and she began to take on that persona.

I couldn't help but think of my favorite musical, Man of La Mancha, and the passionate, but heartrending lyrics to the song Dulcinea that so aptly described what I was feeling -- "I have dreamed three too long. Never seen thee or touched thee, but known thee with all of my heart."

I knew we had reached a point where I had to meet her. A man doesn’t talk to a woman for four hours on the phone and still find ways of avoiding meeting her. Even I couldn’t be that pathetic. Actually I could, but I had run out of excuses. What made me tremble with fear was finding out she used to be a model. I had never teetered on the edge of doing what was right and normal and doing what was safe and abnormal.

To demonstrate how far apart our worlds had been in our early twenties, I was at Saratoga to see Arts and Letters win the Travers in 1969 the same day Joan was about 65 miles down the New York Thruway at Woodstock. Not only was she surely beautiful, but cool as well. There was nothing cool about taking an Adirondack Trailways bus up to Saratoga to see your favorite horse run compared to driving a graffiti-splattered Volkswagen Bug to a rock festival with hundreds of thousands of scantily clothed girls.

In preparation for our long overdue meeting, which I still had not suggested, I knew she was disgruntled with her job and was looking to get out. She was a gifted writer and photographer and well schooled in public relations. I contacted our head of advertising and got several references to give her, mostly as a crutch in order to have something to talk about. So, we decided to meet outside her office building on Madison Avenue for lunch. D–Day was June 28, 1978. Needing to give this my very best shot I wore a tie and three-piece suit even though the temperature was somewhere in the vicinity of 95 degrees. It didn’t matter. I needed every advantage I could get to assure she would not cringe in disgust or at the very least set a track record in eating lunch -- “Oh, I just remembered, I have all this work I have to finish in the next half hour. Goodbye and good luck, and, oh, by the way, I’m changing my phone number.”

So, I waited outside her building, and when she came out and I realized it was her, with that long blonde hair flowing in the hot summer breeze, let’s just say I was in my mind the equivalent of a $5,000 claimer facing a grade I champion.

But we went to lunch, and despite having talked for months and learning all about each other, I no longer was a faceless voice on the telephone. I was me and not happy about that one bit. I quickly needed to come up with a sharp opening line, but Ralph Kramden had a hold of my tongue, complete with quivering jaw and a sole vocabulary of “hamanahamana.” We had so much in common on the phone and talked so openly, but now it was me and this gorgeous lady and I no longer knew her. But unfortunately I knew myself, and as predicted, I was tongue-tied, my mind had gone blank, and my palms were sweaty. I somehow was able to fight Ralph off and managed to actually speak in a semi intelligent manner: “So, how many floors in your apartment building?” Oh, my God, I was more pathetic than I thought. Did I actually say that?

Behind Joan’s beautiful smile was a “Who the heck cares? This loser is the cool guy I’ve been talking to for so many months, who I have shared intimate secrets with?”

I tried to save one last shred of dignity by giving her the names and phone numbers our advertising manager had written down for me. Actually, come to think of it, I believe she asked for it in order to steer me off the embarrassing course I had taken -- “So, where’s the list?” Ouch.

So, the phone romance was over. I had been exposed. The following morning, my friend and colleague, Jack Zaraya, who was my driving companion to work every day for the one hour and 40-minute trip from Brooklyn to Hightstown, N.J., asked me how it went. He had been excited for me that I was taking this drastic step.  My reply was as succinct as I could make it: “Forget it. I’m totally outclassed.”

The relationship was over. Well, at least in my mind. She actually called me again at work and I was able to crawl back into hiding, once again Mr. Cool with the sharp sense of humor; a voice of compassion, and someone who was easy to talk to. But to my utter shock, she actually still seemed interested. I figured with her having just hit the “30” furlong pole, she was, in her mind, getting a bit too far from the starting gate and her clock was ticking, feeling it’s better to catch a guppy than wait around for a marlin.

Believe it or not, she wanted to further our relationship and it was me who was reluctant. I use reluctant as a substitute for scared, gutless, and insecure. I even sank so low as to write her a letter telling her my budding writing career as American representative for a British magazine took precedence over anything else, especially romantic involvement. Every word of that was a lie. That was my inferiority complex talking. But she strongly suggested I read the book “The Thorn Birds,” and that changed my life completely and gave me the courage to follow the old adage, “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

I knew after reading the book I couldn't live with myself if I blew this opportunity. I remember closing the book and feeling its effect on me. I was Father Ralph and Joan was the beautiful Meggie, who dared to attempt to penetrate the wall between them. Father Ralph finally succumbed to the siren call that had reached deep into his heart. He couldn’t suppress his feelings any longer. He couldn’t live with himself without knowing what it was like to act out one’s desire to love in the physical sense.

I was scheduled to go to Charlottesville Virginia in about a week with DRF cartoonist Pierre Bellocq and his son Remi to watch Remi ride at the Foxfield hunts. I immediately called Joan and asked her if she wanted to go. I couldn’t believe it when the words actually left my mouth. She said yes without hesitation. This was it. I had crossed the line that I’d drawn as a youth and had always been afraid to cross. If I was going to be embarrassed and exposed this would be the time, but at least I could look myself in the mirror and then safely retreat back into racing and writing.

I never did retreat. It is now 41 years later. That phantom beauty I had created in my mind, whose real beauty surpassed my imaginary figure, is still as beautiful as the day I met her.

We climbed the first plateau when Joan invited me to spend Christmas with her family in Connecticut. When everyone was asleep and we were alone watching “A Christmas Carol,” on TV it began to snow. Yes, just like in the movie “White Christmas.” We went outside and ran through the snow, throwing snowballs at the lamp post. It was like an out-of-body experience. Scenes like this only happen in the movies. A week later, we celebrated New Year’s in a magical place called Fox Hollow in the Berkshires in Massachusetts. We cross country skied, sat in front of the fireplace listening to Johnny Mathis sing “Twelfth of Never,” and took a sunset ride on a one-horse open sleigh through the snowy fields, led by a horse named Odd Job with a beautiul Husky running alongside the sleigh. As we sat close together snuggled under a blanket it hit me. I was for the first time a real person leading a real life, even though it all felt like a fantasy. That was the weekend that opened the portal to a new life.

As I progressed in my writing, which eventually led to numerous awards and finally to induction into the Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor, every word I wrote was inspired by Joan.

Joan went on to work as public relations coordinator for the New York Racing Association for three years. During that time, she caught the eye of DRF executive columnist Joe Hirsch, who would constantly ask her out on a date. She politely declined every invitation, including several to the swankiest spots in New York City, such as Studio 54 and Regine’s. You couldn’t get into these places unless of course you were Joe Hirsch, who roomed for years with New York’s most eligible and famous bachelor Joe Namath. Was I actually competing with Joe Hirsch? Me? One night Joe called Joan and asked her out while I was there. She told him she was involved with one his colleagues, Steve Haskin. All Joe said was, “Good man,” and that ended that.

Working for NYRA meant three glorious summers in Saratoga, where I finally proposed in 1979, with a great deal of persuasion. I guess you never completely lose the coward in you. We broke the news to her entire family at the Wishing Well restaurant that same night. The following night we were having dinner with her parents when her mother casually asked her in front of me, “So Joanie, are you sure you're doing the right thing?” Uh, hello. 

We were married in 1980 on the Connecticut shore and spent two weeks in France on our honeymoon. After a week in Paris, concluding with the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, we took an overnight train down south to Toulouse, where we rented a car, and I proceeded to drive over a thousand miles, staying in the ancient town of St. Emilion in the wine country, the historic city of Poitiers, the more modern city of Tours in the Loire Valley, visiting most of the surrounding chateaus, and finally to Bayeux, which was our base for our drives down the Normandy coast and the D-Day beaches, the American cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, Pont du Hoc, and the town of St. Mere-Eglise, where the 101st Airborne parachuted, landing in the center of town. It was an unforgettable experience and we both kept diaries.

That was followed over the next few years by trips to the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone National Park, and Acadia National Park in Maine.

During her stay with NYRA Joan wrote the first ever feature on a young apprentice named Richard Migliore, she coordinated and put together the exhibit “That Belmont Look” at the New York Historical Society, and arranged for the city of Saratoga to proclaim “Affirmed Day” in 1979, with banners and posters all over town. She also helped bring the American-trained Grand National Steeplechase winner Ben Nevis to Saratoga in 1980, where he was brought to the lawn of the Reading Room adjacent to the track.

After Joan moved to Queens, we spent two fun years in our cozy apartment, complete with cardboard furniture in the bedroom. We then moved to New Jersey when Joan got a job as head of communications for Robert Brennan’s International Thoroughbred Breeders and was the go-to person regarding ITB’s purchase of Garden State Park. There we discovered birdwatching, going on several birding trips with the Bucks County Audubon Society.

We have shared many adventures over the years, traveling to places like Dubai, Uruguay, England, and Ireland, and all over America. We brought a beautiful and amazing daughter into the world who gave us a grandson last February. Through four decades we still are best friends. Everything I have in my life is because of Joan. In 1997, I was assigned to cover the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe for DRF, giving us an opportunity to have a second honeymoon and expose Mandy to the wonders of Paris. We even stayed in the same little boutique hotel we stayed at on our honeymoon 17 years earlier.

Together we have painted our own version of the Picture of Dorian Gray. I keep aging as Joan keeps getting younger.

Because of her inspiration I learned to believe in myself and somehow made it into the Hall of Fame, a far cry from the nerdy insecure librarian who fell in love with a princess.

To have Joan and Mandy, and our family and friends, share in that remarkable moment at the National Museum of Racing and seeing the look of pride on their faces is what made it such a special occasion.

As I get older and think back to reading “The Thorn Birds,” and how that changed my life I can’t think of beautiful Meggie without thinking of the Irish song, “Maggie,” and the words that tug at my heart every time I hear it. We are in our seventies now and married over 40 years and only the spirit and passion of my writing can shroud what I see in the mirror. But the beauty of youth still emanates from Joan as it did the first time I laid eyes on the vision that would encompass my life. As so profoundly stated in "Maggie:"

“They say that I'm feeble with age Maggie
my steps are much slower than then
my face is a well written page Maggie
and time all alone was the pen

”They say we have outlived our time Maggie
as dated as the songs that we've sung
but to me you're as fair as you were Maggie
when you and I were young”

Joan has never lost that beauty that both captivated and frightened me; a beauty I had at first envisioned that day at Belmont and then set eyes on for the first time one hot afternoon in Manhattan.

I often think of that day at Harkness State Park in Connecticut, standing on the rocks, placing a ring on Joan’s finger and declaring my everlasting love. "To cherish you for all time is what I live for. To live with you for all time is what I cherish."  It was that moment that inspired the poem I wrote to her 18 years later after we returned there for one of our many visits.

It’s as if the ocean has stood still through the passage of time
As if the clocks no longer tick and the bells no longer chime
There are no signs that 18 years have hurried by
The same waves nuzzle against the rocks; the same birds dance across the sky
Two lovers once stood upon these rocks and proclaimed before the sea
Their undying love until eternity
And those same words still echo through the waves, drifting forever with the tide
And there they will remain until the rocks have withered and the ocean has dried
In the breeze you can still see an angel with her halo of gold
A ring placed on her finger, a vision to behold
And from that precious soul and loving heart still flow
The same beauty and warmth that graced these rocks so many years ago
No matter how often she returns, everything remains the same
The sea still reflects her beauty, the waves still call out her name
And years from now when others stand here and are caressed by the ocean’s spray
Hopefully they will feel love that was shared on an enchanting September day

So, this is just my way of saying thank you for everything that I am and everything I will ever be. The song I have heard for the past 41 years is as beautiful as the song of the Thorn Bird.

As author Colleen McCullough described it: “It outsings the Lark and the Nightingale…and the whole world stills to listen, and God in his heaven smiles.”

On the rocks at Harkness State Park; our magical spot

Discovering New Jersey and Pennsylvania

How did I of all people get this lucky?

The most amazing day of my life

Sharing the culmination of my career

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