Meredith Vieira misses Lenny. Sitting with her husband, author Richard M. Cohen, on the deck of the couple's airy vacation cottage on Cape Cod, she recalls the crowd that collected outside the plate glass windows of NBC's Today show studio while she worked: tourists, gawkers, publicity seekers, and devoted fans such as the uni-monikered Lenny, a military retiree who stands a daily vigil in the Rockefeller Center throng.
"I had a lot of respect for those people," says Vieira, who left Today in June after nearly five years as cohost. The crowd, which begins gathering before dawn in all weather, was a humbling reminder of the 60-year-old show's place in American life, she says. When she stayed after to shake hands with crowd members — something she did every day — "a lot of people would say, 'We wake up with you every morning,' " she recalls.
"It is tough," interjects Cohen with a laugh. "I mean, I have to do that!"
And so Vieira's earnest reflection on her role in a TV tradition makes way for Cohen's needling wit — the natural order with these two. Married since 1986 and the parents of three young adults, the pair approach their life together with a levity that belies the grave challenges they've faced and continue to face.
On this bright morning, the deck looks out on a placid cove scattered with reeds, but Cohen can't see the vista. Instead, he sees only an impressionistic blur. Now 63, Cohen was diagnosed at 25 with multiple sclerosis, a nerve-destroying condition that is gradually stealing his eyesight, balance, and strength. He is legally blind due to MS's assault on his optic nerves, and his right hand is so weak that he can't even hold a heavy book — the arm would buckle. With a tangle of sandy-brown hair and a gold stud in one earlobe, Cohen looks almost boyish when seated. Upon standing, though, he gains decades: He walks deliberately, with a cane and a decided limp, and rarely for longer than one city block. "My life has been a continuous series of what I can't do anymore," he says matter-of-factly. In contrast to his wife's famously velvety voice, Cohen's voice has a scratchy warble to it — another effect of MS.
For years, when poor eyesight was one of his few symptoms, Cohen hid his condition in order to protect his job as a TV-news producer. He told Vieira his secret during dinner on their second date — if his illness was going to scare her off, he has joked, "Why waste money on dessert?" She responded with empathy and fatalism. There's no point worrying about an unknown future, she thought: "The future could be a bus hitting us tomorrow." While they were dating and both working at CBS News, Vieira remembers, "I would get people all the time asking, 'Why would you go out? He's such a snob. I'll walk by him, and he never acknowledges me.' I wanted to say, 'My God, he can't see you.' "
Next: Life after Today. >>