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Interview With Carol Ross Joynt on Reinventing a Life

Widow talks about recovery from financial ruin

Carol Ross Joynt's Innocent Spouse is the story of her IRS trouble due to her husband's financial mismanagement

In 'Innocent Spouse,' Carol Ross Joynt recounts her IRS trouble after her husband's financial mismanagement and early death. — Courtesy of Crown Publishing

En español | What you don't know can hurt you.

In fact, if there is a moral to Carol Ross Joynt's new memoir, Innocent Spouse, it is what you don't know that can destroy your life.

See also: Excerpt from Innocent Spouse.

In December 1996, she nestled against her husband's shoulder as their 63-foot sloop swept through the night toward the mountainous island of St. Bart's. Their 5-year-old, Spencer, on his first sail, lay asleep below in his bunk. She writes, "I had everything I wanted in the world." A month later, she was on the deck of a metaphoric Titanic, headed for the iceberg.

When Howard Joynt, a whip-smart rogue who owned the legendary Georgetown saloon Nathans in Washington, D.C., died of pneumonia at 57, his wife mourned her haven, her partner and the father of her only child. Yet, as Nathan Detroit, the fictional gambler for whom the saloon was named might have said, she had not seen nothing yet.

Not only was her castle built on sand, it was made of smoke and mirrors.

Carol Ross Joynt thought she knew her husband better than anyone. But, in her wildest dreams, she could not have imagined his secrets, including a multimillion-dollar tax debt.

As her husband's heir, Ross Joynt was left a single mom trying to run the restaurant and fight the IRS. It cost her her job as a TV producer for Larry King Live, where she was responsible for the big "gets" for King's show — such as Tom Cruise, Christopher Reeve and Elizabeth Taylor. And while Ross Joynt loved the lush life, she could live without it. And she did.

In a conversation with the AARP Bulletin, Ross Joynt discusses her book and reinventing herself at the age of 60.

Q. Howard's parents were very wealthy. Your father-in-law took pleasure in eating his breakfast cereal from Oliver Wendell Holmes' bowl. Why isn't Spencer doing that?

A. The will is written so Howard and his sister Martha would get the interest and the grandchildren would get the principal. The grandchildren were listed by name. Spencer was not born when the will was written. By the time he was born, Mr. Joynt had died and Mrs. Joynt had Alzheimer's. She died when Spencer was 4, a year before Howard died. I asked Howard to file to break the will, or something like that, to put Spencer's name in, but he would not do it.

Next: Age bias and starting over. >>

Q. How do you make a living?

A. I live on fumes.

Q. That doesn't make sense.

A. Yes. It doesn't seem to.

Q. I know you write about Washington for the New York Social Diary and you have your talk show, Q&A Café, but what do you rely on for income?

A. We're sinking. When I had to get out of Nathans, it cost me $250,000. I'm a big believer in having no debt, ironically. We owned our house free and clear. I had to get a $500,000 mortgage on it. New York Social Diary brings in a whopping $250 a week. It's good fun. And there's my show. That's $750 a month. Some of that loan I took out against my house went to Spencer's college for the last two years. Also, things happen; you need a new boiler. A great deal went to health insurance. And then I had cancer.

Q. Cancer? Do you have the feeling you seriously pissed someone off? Like Zeus?

A. My psychiatrist was musing about that, if I killed babies in a previous life. It was a stage zero, very early, very treatable breast cancer detected at a yearly mammogram — the kind we're not supposed to need — so early that my body wouldn't even have recognized it as anything more than tissue. I had a lumpectomy and am having radiation and there is every confidence.

Q. Yet, this is very hard. Surviving so much to need to survive more. What is the plan that you have now?

A. I don't have a job yet because my feeling was that I had to give myself to the book. I hoped I could make it till the book came out. I've made inquiries about jobs. People say, "oh, use your contacts. You have so many contacts!" But what happens when you contact them for that reason, they start avoiding me on the streets. As I get closer to the book coming out, when it's finished with its moment, I'm going to be out there with my hand out, hoping for a job doing what I do best.

Q. Writing.

A. Writing. And it doesn't have to be in Washington and it doesn't have to be for TV. What I do best and what makes me happy is writing. I've put out feelers. I've even been applying for jobs on Craigslist, and they don't even respond to my résumé.

Q. Do you think that age is an issue with finding work?

A. I hope not, but having been in the position of hiring people in television I know that if the person doing the hiring is in his or her 30s, it is tough to look at a 60-year-old old and see viability. But my age is irrelevant to me. After all, I was writing the CBS Evening News for Walter Cronkite when I was 22. Where's the logic in that? But I was perfectly suited for the job.

Next: Preparing for the next stage of life. >>

Q. And now?

A. At 60, I'm just as perfectly suited for a job, however unlikely it might seem due to my age.

But yes, no question there is age and sex discrimination in the hiring of baby boomers. And intimidation, too, because we can spell without using spell-check and we have a knowledge of America and world history.

Q. Isn't there a special kind of hell about being in debt? Not just being in debt but knowing, for sure, that you can't pay what you owe?

A. I remember so well telling Spencer, "Don't answer the phone!" You never knew if it was one of the creditors. My life is changed. It's financially bereft. It's challenged. But I wouldn't take Nathans back for anything. If it was making money hand over fist, I still wouldn't take Nathans back. I had to give away half of every week's paycheck. I had to be the hard ass. I had to be the bad guy. I didn't like doing that.

Q. And it can't be argued that there is one set of behaviors if you have money, and one when you don't. And those who need it least …

A. …They have the most done for them. When Howard was alive, people said, "Yes, Mrs. Joynt, of course, Mrs. Joynt. We'll kick everyone else off the schedule and do it right now, Mrs. Joynt." After Howard was gone, if I'd call, they'd say, "You have to pay this bill first." That was because Howard walked on water.

Q. What allure was there for Howard to being one step in front of the law?

A. It's the lore, the romance. He had a very cushy upbringing, so to go into the saloon business was unexpected. For a lot of the guys, it was the Wild West. It's fun to make your own rules, run books out of your back pocket. Howard had a safety net. His father was there to pick up the shortfall. He never had to face the consequences until his father was gone. It breaks my heart that when he got caught, he couldn't talk to me about it. He told me there was trouble, but not to worry. If he had told me, I wouldn't have gotten the "innocent spouse" [status].

Q. You wouldn't want Nathans back. Would you want Howard back?

A. I would want my husband back. I would like to go out to dinner with him tonight. I have an awful lot to say to him. I think he'd find me a different person in a lot of ways. He'd like the life I've created for us. It wasn't the life we had. It isn't grand. But it's a solid life. We're not posh. Our address may be Georgetown, but it's a modest Georgetown. Our life now is much more planted in the real world.

Next: What every spouse should know about the major earner in the family. >>

Q. You describe yourself as close, loving, as mated for life as a pair of geese. But there was abuse, early in the marriage. Can you ever really forget a black eye?

A. You have to forgive to move on. Do you forget? No. Does it make you wiser going forward? Absolutely. After it happened it wasn't so much an issue of his being different but that I was different. Either I had to change or walk out, and I didn't want to walk out. If he wanted me to stay he had to do something about himself, be the man I fell in love with and not the asshole with demons inside.

Q. What happened?

A. My anger about him hitting me lessened substantially once he got help and learned to talk about it, and the Prozac. With his death the anger went away altogether. That particular anger. [Also] I think many more smart, accomplished and strong women are hit than would ever own up.

Q. Let's talk about what people should know, men or women, about the major earner in the family, and the family money.

A. If you are married to someone who is in a small business, you do need to educate yourself. If you're in the will, if you're the heir, however unctuous it might be to stick your nose in, you need to ask to see the audits. It's true particularly if you're not involved. I had nothing to do with Howard's business, and here I was the heir to it, not knowing anything about it at all. In a sense, I had enabled what happened to happen.

Q. What else?

A. Read what you're signing, even if it has been prepared by an accountant. There is nothing wrong with handing the financial affairs over to your spouse. But get educated about it. Find time to talk with your spouse about money, to check in every month, or three or six months. I did ask, what will happen to me if you die? And he said, "Sell Nathans immediately." In theory, that was great advice. But he left me in a situation where I couldn't sell Nathans immediately, in fact not for 12 years.

Q.What about your son?

A. Spencer. He had the parachute, emotionally. I made sure of that. Howard did too. He's got some demons, as we all do. I'm very proud of him. Every decision started with him.

Next: The need to survive. >>

Q. Does Spencer want you to get married? Not for him, for you?

A. For him, too! He says, why, oh why can't you find someone who occupies your time, and you can talk to him instead of me?

Q. You're optimistic, after all this. You're essentially upbeat.

A. If we went about being skeptical about every bloody thing, where is the joy in life? I need to survive. It's in my DNA. I need to move forward, to a place where people believe in me. I need to keep gaining ground.

Jacquelyn Mitchard, the best-selling author of 20 books, lives near Madison, Wis., with her family. Her next novel, Second Nature: A Love Story, will be published in September. She recently wrote about things she'll never wear again now that she's over 50.

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