In 1991, Henry Maury decided that he had been a bachelor long enough. He was in his early forties, and he didn’t want to grow old alone. So Maury placed an “in search of” ad in the May 1991 issue of The Washingtonian:
“Very Intelligent Lady Sought—with warmth, energy, and understated care for looks (hyperachievement not required)—for long-term relationship. I’m SWM, 5'6", 43, GS-13 bureaucrat, occasionally talkative, usually a good listener. Love skiing, snorkeling, cycling, travel, extended families. Like historical novels and SF, work, politics, Jagger, Baez, Chopin, dogs.”
Linda Hannick had read that it takes five years to recover from a divorce. She had just passed the five-year mark, and a friend persuaded her to dip a toe into the dating pool. She began reading the “in search of” ads, or ISOs.
Hannick looked at a lot of ads before she responded to Maury’s. Most had a laundry list of what they were looking for but told very little about themselves, she recalls.
She figured that her PhD in science qualified her as a “very intelligent lady.” “Everything else he mentioned, I loved,” Hannick says. It helped that Maury loved extended family—Hannick had five daughters.
Hannick and Maury did not get together right away. “First I had coffee with three other ladies,” Maury recalls.
“I answered four ads and went out with three people,” Hannick says. Two were self-absorbed. The third was Maury.
Before their first date they spent more than four hours on the phone. On July 21, 1991, Hannick and Maury agreed to meet at 6 pm at Roasters coffee shop in Hannick’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.
There was only one problem—when they arrived they discovered that Roasters closed at 6. They headed for a restaurant across the street, intending to stay only long enough to have a beer. Then a summer thunderstorm struck and they couldn’t leave. Drinks led to dinner. “I kind of think it was arranged for us,” Hannick says.
After their second date, Hannick was scheduled to leave for a three-week bicycle trip. Maury brought her two bon-voyage gifts—a rose from his garden and a bicycle-chain tool. When she returned from her trip, Maury was waiting with a welcome-home note and a bouquet.
“I knew I had a good one,” she says.
They were married on October 24, 1992. Hannick made her own wedding dress, and Maury helped with the fitting.
For more than 30 years, many Washingtonians looking for love or a reasonable facsimile turned to the pages of The Washingtonian and the personal ads.
The magazine stopped publishing the ISO ads last October. Such sites as Match.com and eHarmony have taken over the matchmaking world, offering instant gratification, not to mention lots of photos. But in their heyday these ISO ads produced about six marriages a year—probably more, but not every couple wanted to reveal that they’d met through an ad. The year Hannick and Maury got married was a banner year; the magazine congratulated 11 couples on their weddings in 1992.
As recently as the early ’90s, advertising that you were in the market for a special someone still seemed daring. It required some audacity and optimism for the men and women who placed ads and those who responded to them.
For area residents, The Washingtonian often felt safer than other publications offering personal ads. “I knew The Washingtonian attracted a certain clientele, people who were interested in the culture of the city,” Maury says. “It was at the right place in the food chain,” explains another advertiser, who met his wife when he answered an ad in the October 1983 issue. Washingtonian ISOs attracted a more educated, affluent audience, the man says, than the “just-graduated-from-college, sleeping-on-a-futon crowd.”
Ads placed by men outnumbered those placed by women in the ISO pages. Men tended to advertise to meet younger women. Some, like Blaine Readler, felt ISOs were a way into a wider social world than they found in their daily lives. “I was an engineer, so I didn’t have many opportunities to meet women,” Readler says. He had spent a few years in Germany, married a German woman, returned to the States, gotten divorced, and found himself foundering socially.
He wrote an ISO ad for his ex-wife. After she met someone, he decided to write one himself. In February 1990, he placed this ad in The Washingtonian:
“A KIND HEART—DWM, 36, 5'10", educated professional. Not much for pretentious sophistication but appreciates simple elegance and honest quality.”
Readler got dozens of responses. A colleague who had had a falling-out with his girlfriend was bunking down in Readler’s house in Sterling. Every Friday, a thick envelope of letters from women arrived for Readler. “It was our Friday ritual,” Readler recalls. “I separated the letters into three piles: call right away, second string, and not a chance.”
Monica Sexty, 30, had just broken up with a boyfriend who had announced that he wasn’t giving her a Valentine’s gift because he didn’t want to give her false hope. On Valentine’s Day, instead of arranging her nonexistent sweetheart roses, Sexty responded to three ads in The Washingtonian.
She included a photo. “In case we met, I thought one of us should recognize the other,” she explains.
Sexty’s letter ended up in Readler’s “second string” pile. “She was such a babe, I thought that she would never be interested in me,” Readler says.
It took weeks for him to call her. They met for dinner at the Fedora Cafe in McLean on March 13, 1990. He was relieved that she looked as good as her picture. She felt comfortable with him immediately. They talked for so long that the staff started closing the place down around them.
Both Readler and Sexty wanted to take things slowly. He was beginning to enjoy the dating scene—he had just replaced his thick glasses with contact lenses and begun to think of himself as more than a nerdy engineer. She was an independent-minded, divorced working mother taking classes at Northern Virginia Community College to expand her career options.
After three dates with Sexty, Readler went out with some friends to a happy hour at T.G.I. Friday’s. The joint was jumping, but Readler wasn’t. “I really don’t want to be here,” he shouted to a bachelor buddy. “I just want to be with Monica.”
Sexty was equally enamored but skittish about making a formal commitment. Readler persevered, finding ways to celebrate the 13th of each month as an anniversary. On February 13, 1991, they were having lunch at Clyde’s in McLean when their waiter arrived with a poem. It was Readler’s proposal.
Sexty said she loved him but she wanted a few years to make up her mind about marriage.
“She still wanted me to get down on one knee,” Readler says. He refused to do it in the middle of the restaurant. Instead, they got into the Clyde’s elevator; he stopped it between floors, knelt, and presented Sexty with a beautiful sapphire ring.
She took it. But she also took more than a year to set a date. They were married three years from the day they met, on March 13, 1993, and moved to San Diego in 1999. A framed copy of Readler’s ISO ad is displayed in their house. Their romance “was better than a storybook, because it was real,” Sexty says.
Not everyone who advertised was looking for a storybook romance. ISOs also inspired lots of other relationships and delighted readers who pored over the initials that advertisers used to describe themselves. Was a DWM a divorced white male or a Dupont writer man?
In 1975, when the first ads appeared, nobody had ever heard of political correctness. In October that year, one of the personal ads read “Dynamic entrepreneur, 32, Ivy League education seeks capable creative woman, hopefully of astronomic IQ and cup size for meaningful/meaningless relationship. Discretion assured.”
Washingtonian classified-advertising manager Ann Marie Grills recalls that MWFs—allegedly married white females—would get hundreds of responses. Married men advertising for assignations were far less popular. Certain words increased the number of responses—“physician” and “lawyer” for men; “voluptuous” for women. Sometimes Grills and her colleagues were asked to be love coaches—to help would-be advertisers craft their ads for maximum impact. A young woman consulting with a classified-ad staffer in The Washingtonian’s lobby was overheard asking, “Is it unsatiable or insatiable?”
Personal ads never had photographs. Instead, searchers had to paint word pictures, which were often very creative. One woman described herself as a “successful professional SWF, 28, 5'11", assertive semi-yuppie old fashioned southern belle.” In an August 1986 ad headlined hairy man! the love seeker said he was 5'11", 165, attractive, very intelligent, financially secure, loving, affectionate, and sensual with a good sense of humor. Then he added, “I’m well-built-tan, muscular (but not excessively bulky), and have an extremely hairy chest and body.”
Some advertisers, too modest to boast about their good looks, resorted to the “friends say I’m gorgeous” approach.
Some decided honesty was the best policy—a “skinny white guy,” a “horny balding Jewish male,” and a “chubette” assured potential sweethearts that they had other admirable attributes.
Those responding to ads looked for ways to stand out from the pack. Responses arrived on perfumed stationery, with stickers or lipsticked kisses on the envelopes. One woman sent 50 photos of herself walking on a beach naked to be distributed to men who advertised.
In 1992, The Washingtonian added a voice-mail option for ISO responses. Helen Szablya believes that she might never have met Chuck Dann without voice mail. “Chuck has a wonderful voice, but his handwriting sucks,” Szablya says. Here is the ad she placed in the July 1993 issue:
“BEAUTIFUL BRUNETTE—tall, slim, blue eyes, forty. Passionate, traveled, thinks globally, acts locally. ISO energetic, sincere, SDM not afraid to be challenged nor loved deeply—who’s up for adventure and commitment.”
Szablya and Dann faced a typical dating dilemma—she worked for the state of Maryland, and he was a lawyer in Baltimore. Neither felt comfortable dating anyone they met through their work, and work dominated their lives.
Szablya placed her ad in both Baltimore magazine and The Washingtonian. She got about 60 responses each time. “I was going to compare the two markets, write an article about it, and sell it to the Washington Post,” she says. Once she met Dann, she forgot all about the article.
Dann had been living north of Baltimore and had just moved to Columbia when he responded to Szablya’s Washingtonian ad. They discovered that they lived and worked within a mile of each other. At first Dann was much more into Szablya than she was into him. “I was a lawyer. Helen held that against me,” he says.
His niceness worked against him. Szablya had two children, ages 10 and 15, and both liked Dann. “I thought if a ten-year-old thinks he’s nice, how exciting could he be?” Szablya recalls.
It didn’t take long for Dann to change her mind. They met in July 1993, were engaged by Thanksgiving, and married the following May.
“I discovered he was extremely passionate,” she says. “He turned out to be a great stepdad and great fun now that the kids are grown and gone.”
Tim Hirt was a construction-company owner, a single father of three, and a self-described “president of the nanny-of-the-month club” when one of his childcare providers thought he was so desperate for a helpmate that she wrote this ad:
“A LITTLE BIT CRAZY DWM—31, business owner, overachiever (adult child), sincere, very attractive, nurturing, ability to share and be intimate. I am 5'8", 165, in excellent health & don’t care if you smoke. ISO S/DWF 25 to 40 pretty, petite, organized and funny. (No emotionally dead people please) Must enjoy spontaneity, kids, trips, hot tubs, and a life filled with laughter. Please send photo returned and a note.”
Terry Kobane responded with a note signed “TK.” Hirt answered and waited for Kobane to respond. She phoned Hirt, and that first conversation was not auspicious. It turned out that his construction company was renovating her office space. She told him that his foreman was entirely too friendly, that his work crew had never heard of a vacuum cleaner, and she had a few problems with their workmanship. She was also, she informed him, six years older than he was. Hirt was so taken with her sass and style that he never heard a word she said.
Kobane invited Hirt to pick her up at home for their first date. “She had beautiful blue eyes, and her blond hair was spiked straight up,” he says. “Then she smiled. She asked me to come in. I was in a daze”—so much that he and tripped on the stoop.
Only after a month of dating did Hirt dare to take Kobane to his house to introduce her to his children. His home life was so chaotic that he thought any sane woman would run for the hills. Instead, every day at work she regaled her friends with stories about her dates with her new boyfriend and his children.
“Terry took the ready-made family, the reverse age difference, and the wild-eyed boyfriend and made it work without a hitch,” Hirt says. They got engaged on Valentine’s Day in 1991.
Together they raised his children, had two daughters of their own, rehabbed two houses, and built a beautiful life. Kobane kept Hirt organized—with one exception. When their daughter Mackenzie was born a month early in December 1991, Kobane admitted in panic that she knew nothing about babies. “It was a funny role reversal with Dad showing Mom how to bathe, feed, and diaper a newborn,” Hirt says. But before long Kobane had the baby thing well in hand and enough energy to start a government-construction-contracting business in her “spare time.”
Ten years later, Kobane was diagnosed with metastasized cancer. She died in 2001.
Tim Hirt spoke at his wife’s funeral: “One of Terry’s friends asked me the other day—if you had known that she was going to die after 11 short years with you and your kids, would you have chosen to do it anyway? All I would have added was a million more kisses and a million more ‘I love yous,’ ” he said.
And an extra thank-you for the nanny who placed the ISO.