George and Trish first met in November 1966, on a group date to a Peter, Paul & Mary concert. She was a junior at Boston University. He was a third-year law student at Harvard. Over drinks, she made what she thought was a throwaway joke. He laughed hysterically.
Judging by his reaction, Trish thought George had never heard a joke in his life.
She was dating one of his classmates, a fact George considered only a modest obstacle. He offered her and her boyfriend a ride home and dropped the guy off first. George and Trish talked for hours, and a few days later he asked her out to dinner. On their third date he told her, “I think we’re going to be married someday, but I don’t think you’re persuaded of that yet.”
Trish thought: This man is nuts.
Her parents agreed. So did his. Joseph and Bea Lerner were influential Jewish Democrats. George and Bee Vradenburg were Protestant Republicans from Colorado Springs who traced their lineage to Peregrine White, the first English child born in the New World, delivered aboard the Mayflower while it was docked in Provincetown harbor.
“What’s his name again?” Mrs. Lerner asked Trish after their first date.
“Vradenburg,” Trish said.
“B-E-R-G or B-U-R-G?”
“There must be different ways of spelling it,” her daughter said. But then, on their second date, George asked Trish what she was getting her mom for Christmas.
The Lerners came to Boston to meet the Colorado Republican who was not a Jew.
“Your mother was crying all night,” Trish’s father told her. “You’re killing her. Is that what you want to do?”
“Yes,” Trish replied. “That was my specific plan. To kill Mom.” Bea Lerner went home, Trish says, “and put her head in the oven on ‘keep warm.’ ”
George inundated Trish with love letters. She sent him a card saying, “Soon, maybe not tomorrow, but soon.”
Bea Lerner and Bee Vradenburg joined forces to find a wedge that they could drive between their children. “You generals can meet as much as you want,” George told them. “But we privates are going to decide how this war ends.”
George’s grandmother threatened to disinherit him of $1 million if he married Trish. “It’s your money,” he said. “You make your choice.” His grandmother backed down and finally consented to attend the ceremony, but she refused to wear her real jewelry.
George understood why Trish’s parents wanted her to marry a Jew. He, too, wanted his children to have a consistent spiritual narrative, shared traditions. So he spent nearly a year studying Jewish philosophy, customs, holidays, food. Along the way, he decided that any people who had survived for millennia in the face of repeated efforts to wipe them out and who managed to keep their culture and identity intact must be here for a reason: Tikkun olam—to repair the world. It’s the Jewish sense of spiritual purposefulness, and George wanted it in his life, just as he wanted Trish. In November 1967, eight months before they married, George converted to Judaism.
Whatever misgivings Bea Lerner had, George settled them. He absorbed more knowledge of Judaism than anyone Trish knew in her family. “He became a Jew to the max,” Trish says. And this must have moved her mother. Because later, even in her near oblivion she would flirt with him. She couldn’t remember herself or her daughter, but she somehow remembered George. And he never forgot that.
George spent the first ten years of his law career at the white-shoe firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore in New York City, then became general counsel for CBS. He oversaw the successful defense of the network in a landmark freedom-of-the-press case brought by General William Westmoreland, who sued the network for libel over a 1982 documentary that argued he had misled the President, Congress, and the public during the Vietnam War. George also helped fend off a hostile takeover by media baron Ted Turner in 1985.
Trish became a writer, penning humor columns for the Boston Globe and the New York Daily News, a steamy romance novel called Liberated Lady, a screenplay about a man frozen in ice for 20 years after his plane crashed in the Andes, which was optioned by MGM.
While living in New Jersey, Trish enrolled in a writing class at the New School in Manhattan. She sat next to an ex-writer from Saturday Night Live who offered to send her ice-man script to the producers of Kate & Allie, a new CBS sitcom shooting in the city. They hired Trish to write a script, which the producers thought was so good that it became the season-two opener. Trish always had an ear for dialogue, even if she had trouble remembering names. (“I made my kids wear name tags,” she says.)
Her work landed on the desk of Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, old friends of the first family of Arkansas, Bill and Hillary Clinton. The Thomasons hired Trish in 1986 for a two-week gig on their CBS show Designing Women. The job ended up lasting the rest of the season. Shuttling back and forth across the country, Trish found herself in demand as a scriptwriter. At the high point of her career, she was making as much money as her husband. But she turned down enticing offers—even a seven-figure deal—so George and their two kids, Alissa and Tyler, could stay back home while she remained bicoastal. “When my ship came in,” she says, “I was at the airport.”
A few years later, Barry Diller, the chairman and CEO of Fox, asked George to move to Los Angeles to help him build his growing company into the fourth broadcast network. George and Trish decided to move. The kids were older, and Trish’s mother was so firmly in the grip of Alzheimer’s that she would never know her daughter was gone.
On January 22, 1992, Bea Lerner died in a convalescent home in New Jersey. She was 76. The New York Times, which remembered her as “a leader in Jewish, cultural, and charitable causes,” wanted to know the cause of death.
There’s a euphemism people employ: “died after a long illness.” It erases the last few messy years and protects a legacy. In the years to come, Trish would hunt for the phrase in obituaries, and when she came across it she was angry. She saw the disease hiding in people’s houses.
Trish decided that if her mother’s death was to have any meaning, she had to own it. So she started with the words. The Times reported that Beatrice Lerner “died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.”
Trish wrote for four more years. On April 14, 1996, her play The Apple Doesn’t Fall . . . opened on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre. It’s a punchy veiled memoir about a television producer and her overbearing mother, who ladles out parental guilt and sitcom-worthy one-liners as she succumbs to Alzheimer’s. An experimental drug brings the mother back to lucidity long enough for an emotional reunion with her daughter. Trish thought the play wasn’t ready. But she had a backer, and her friends told her you don’t pass up a chance at Broadway.
The critics savaged it. FORGETTABLE COMEDY ABOUT ALZHEIMER’S IS TRULY THE PITS, proclaimed the New York Daily News, Trish’s old paper. “To write a comedy about Alzheimer’s disease suggests a lack of taste, and Vradenburg lacks it in spades.”
“Ms. Vradenburg,” said the Times, “seems to have no gift for finding the particular natures within generic types. [The characters] are sitcom prototypes . . . .” The play was “ghastly.”
It closed after one performance.