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“I’m Monica Kaufman and Here’s What’s Happening”
On the air she’s Atlanta’s most visible newsperson. At home she’s just Monica with a dream and a wish list.
It was a good thing that her preschool daughter spent the night before with Clinton Deveaux, the municipal court judge who is now her ex-husband after a disappointing six-year marriage, because for Monica Kaufman, the most visible media personality in Atlanta after 10 years as co-anchor at WSB television, this is not a day for dallying.
Photograph by David Carter
She begins it by walking through the early morning rain from her roomy old mansion of a house in Ansley Park to catch the bus for a downtown session with a lawyer about making out a new will (“I figure at 38 it’s about time”), then a stop at a Ford dealership to pick up her faltering, new, pale green Thunderbird, and next a long drive out to the province of Dunwoody to continue interviewing financial advisers who would dearly love to show her how to invest her $175,000 salary. Finally, the personal stuff out of the way but no lunch in sight, by 1:30 on a warm but drizzly Thursday afternoon she finds herself stepping over winos on the steps of the fierce, granite St. Luke’s Episcopal Church at Fifth and Peachtree and entering a disheveled annex to do her weekly volunteer bit for the Junior League: tutoring two teen-age inner-city girls in math.
She is wearing what she’ll wear this evening on the 6 and 11 o’clock news shows – two-piece tweed suit, frilly mint blouse, demure pearl necklace, hair in a short, springy, boyish cut – but to the girls she might as well be wearing jeans. Kokethea (black, chubby, 17) and Christy (blonde, smacking gum, 14), both in jeans and loose tops, brighten and say hello to Monica when she enters the room, but they seem to have no time for celebrity worship.
For the next hour, her jacket off in the musty old room, Kaufman moves back and forth between the two girls. “Decrease means to subtract, take away,” she says to Kokethea, who is new at the personal computers. “That’s the minus sign. OK? D for ‘down,’ decrease …. How’d you do, little one?” she says to Christy, who is taking a test, using the printer. “It may take us 50 years to do it, but if you’ve got the time so do I. … You getting tired, honey?”
“Sleepy,” Kokethea says.
“Rain does that to you,” Kaufman tells her.
“It does, it really does. Everybody’s sleepy on rainy days.”
It has been 10 years now since she slipped into town, an effervescent young black woman with a marriage, four years of newspapering and two years of television experience behind her in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and in that decade she has built a following that is perhaps unparalleled in Atlanta’s broadcasting history. Until two years ago, when most ratings showed W AGA-TV (Channel 5) wresting the lead from WSB-TV(Channel 2) during the 6 and 11 o’clock news slots, Kaufman was Atlanta television personified. As the credits rolled and the music died at dusk each weekday, it was as though she had just stopped by for a chat: “Hi, I’m Monica Kaufman, and here’s what’s happening.” Monica is people. Says Tom Houck, the curmudgeon talk-show host at WGST radio: “I venture to say that there’s a lot of crackers whose only thoughts about blacks had to do with slavery who say Monica’s great without even giving it a thought. … She’s the queen. No doubt about it.”
The talk of “civic involvement” “Miss Community Service” – comes up repeatedly in conversations about her, and with good reason. She averages 140 speaking engagements a year now (it was nearly double that before her daughter Claire came along), all over the state, accepting no fee except the $20 and mileage paid by WSB. She is an active Junior Leaguer and a member of everything from the NAACP to Goodwill Industries. The list goes on: United Way, National Association of Black Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi (the fraternity of journalists, where often she can be found stuffing envelopes and licking stamps). She has received four Emmy awards (one, “The Making of Nightline,” leading to her unbounded admiration for ABC’s Ted Koppel). One must understand that she manages to juggle all of this around a schedule that requires her to check into the station around 3 o’clock on most weekday afternoons and stay there until midnight. Still, she is a pushover for what she calls “the other stuff.”
After saying goodbye to Kokethea and Christy, again promising to come back for the appreciation dinner that night, Kaufman dashes to her car for a quick drive to a studio where she will tape a Junior League Public Service spot.
At WSB they speak of her schedule as B.C. and A.C., “Before Claire” and “After Claire,” because the child has wrought major changes on her life. “Clint lives in Renaissance City, very close to the house, so it’s easy for us to swap Claire back and forth almost every day,” she says, talking above the mild FM rock music on the car radio and the purring of the windshield-wiper motor. One is struck by how much smaller she seems in person than on television. “She and Clint are a hoot together. And me, well, I’m an only child, so that makes her the love of my life right now.” It doesn’t matter that Claire was adopted at the age of 6 months, she says. “We just don’t make a big deal out of it. She knows. But I don’t want her to win a Pulitzer Prize, or go to jail for that matter, and have people call her ‘adopted daughter of Monica Kaufman.’ “
Kaufman doesn’t just enter a room; she claims it. There are three fellow Junior Leaguers waiting for her in the cozy little anteroom, each of them white and 30ish and dressed in their Buckhead Junior League uniforms of severe A-line suits and white lace collars. When they see her they begin babbling like sorority sisters. When one of them asks about Claire, Kaufman quickly passes around the latest snapshot. She asks directions to the ladies’ room “so I can put on my face” (“But I thought you already had it on, Monica”) and when she returns with her etui, in less than 10 minutes, there is no discernible difference except for a slight blush to her cheeks.
“You mean you do your own makeup?” one of them asks.
“Sure,” she says. “It’s the contact that take so long.”
“I thought you’d have your own hairdresser and all.”
“Oh, no, that’s in New York. Ten years ago when I came here we were only the 16th-rated market in the country. Now we’re 13. Maybe in another five years we’ll be 10th and I’ll get a dressing and the works so I won’t have to go to New York.”
“Say it isn’t so, say you won’t leave us, Monica” is the look on their faces as he is whisked down the hall to a cubicle studio. She is back in 10 or 15 minutes (“Hi, I’m Monica Kaufman, and I can tell you who the Junior League is,” was her leading to the promo), swiping a turkey sandwich from a table (“We’ll call it lunch”), pausing long enough to leave them with a Claire story. She hustles away, into the rain again, for the drive, finally, to WSB for another night’s work.
All of this is a long way from Smoketown, a crowded black neighborhood on the east side of Louisville, where Monica Rosie Lee Jones was raised by her mother after her parents divorced when she was 4 years old. While he mother worked at a multitude of jobs, one of them requiring her to walk or take buses all over downtown Louisville to deliver false teeth for a dental lab, Monica was attending an all-girls Catholic school. Staying afloat wasn’t easy.
No sooner had she finished high school and enrolled at the University of Louisville, to major in English and philosophy (“I thought I wanted to be a teacher”), than she got married. “I was 19 and my mother nearly died. But, you know, when you go to an all-girls Catholic high school and you grow up in a strict family,…” His name was Jerry Kaufman, 21, a 6-foot-8, 240-pound accountant who had been a basketball player at Drake University, and when they married in 1967 Monica dropped out of college and took a job with a bank that happened to be directly across the street from the daily Louisville Times and Courier-Journal newspapers.
Then the first of a series of mentors, Frank Stanley Sr., publisher of the black-oriented Louisville Defender, stepped into her life. “He was taking a lot of black kids under his wing then and he told me, ‘You will learn how to type.’ So I learned how to type and he let me write columns for the Defender He and his wife even sponsored me in a beauty contest once.” On a whim, bored with the bank job, she walked across the street and got a job as a “go-fer” on the Louisville Times: answering phones, writing obituaries, serving as “newsroom clerk.”
Thus began a remarkable string of fortuitous incidents which have greased her career ever since. Soon after she arrived at the Times, the editor of the newspaper’s consumer column abruptly resigned and the job fell to young Monica Kaufman. Not four months later the executive editor of the paper told her to apply for the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism’s 1969 summer program for minorities, and she won. When she returned from the summer in New York she was first put on general assignment at the Louisville Times but then moved over to the women’s department. She stayed with the Times for three more years, working on her college degree again, singing “Nancy Wilson and Sarah Vaughan stuff” in nightclubs to bring in more money for college – before she quit and took a public relations job with a Louisville distiller. Then, in 1973, when she was 26 and restless, Monica Kaufman crossed paths with television.
“I’d auditioned with the NBC station in Louisville and they said no and I asked them why and they told me. ‘You’ll never be on TV, you don’t look the part, you don’t sound the part, forget it.’ So I took a charm course: makeup, doing hair, how to dress, the visual things. Part of the course was to work one day of the week with no pay, to literally sell the clothes off your back, and you learned to memorize a lot. I’d walk down the hall of this restaurant, dressed in something from Byck’s Department Store, and I’d go up to a table full of women and say, ‘Hello, I’m Monica Kaufman and I’m from Byck’s Department Store. Getting ready for the holidays? Can I show you this outfit?’ And ‘da-da-da-da. . . .’ A woman named June Dorsey was in there one night and she asked me, ‘What do you do when you don’t do this?’ So me, not being shy, I gave her my whole history. She said, ‘OK, I want you to meet my husband, he’s news director at WHAS.’ And I got my job.”
She spent two years at WHAS-TV, first as a reporter, then as a weekend anchor and within months as the full-blown anchor, and then “a couple of things happened.” She finally completed the work for her degree at the University of Louisville, nearly eight years after first enrolling, and one month after being rejected by Atlanta’s WAGA-TV she got a call from WSB-TV which was looking for a female co-anchor, and thus one marriage was consummated while another died. “Jerry (Kaufman) said, ‘Great, Atlanta’s a great town,’ but when they offered me the job it was the beginning of the end of the marriage. He said, ‘I’m not following a woman all over the country.’ He’d had a devoted, traditional wife for eight years, but suddenly she had changed on him. My mother said, ‘Honey, good jobs are a lot harder to find than good men.’ ” So they divorced and she moved on to Atlanta, working first as a reporter so she and the city could .get to know each other, and three months later, in December 1975, Monica Kaufman sidled up next to John Pruitt on the set at White Columns and debuted as co-anchor on the 6 o’clock news.
Showtime at White Columns. She has called ahead from the public service taping to say she is running late, and when she bursts through a back door to the WSB-TV newsroom she finds the place jumping. The big story of the day is a hurricane blowing on the Gulf Coast and the major issue for Kaufman and her co-anchor, Terry Wood, is whether there will be live film or will they have to talk their way through the first broadcast.
She and Wood have identical cubicles side-by-side in the very center of the newsroom – 4-by-8 “work centers” with plastic desk tops and hanging drawers and typewriters and telephones – and while Wood goes to confer with the news director, Mark Engel, about the status of WSB’s “up-link” (meaning, film or no film tonight?) Kaufman digs into the rest of the turkey sandwich and a heaping pile of messages. She can see dozens of snapshots of daughter Claire push-pinned above her desk, and an array of feminist buttons and samplers (“A Woman’s Place Is in Control” and “Uppity Women Unite”).
Terry Wood, Kaufman’s co-anchor, also looks different in person: a sort of frumpy, short, puppy-dog fellow with softly coiffed hair and a plain open face and, on this night, wearing cotton khakis and crepe-soled shoes. He has been with WSB for a year and a half, having come in from Salt Lake City, and he seems eager to talk about his cohort. “Putting on a newscast is essentially the same, as far as choreography is concerned, from place to place. Oh, there’ll be some differences here and there in the staging and the cue cards. But Monica helped me tremendously, from the first day, and I’ll tell you that’s saying something. In this business there’s a lot of ego, a lot of jealousy. I’ve got a buddy in Philly, he lasted eight months before the co-anchor did him in. Monica and I, though, we get along and I think it shows on the air. She has amazing adaptability.”
By 5:35, with news time fast approaching, Kaufman has shut down the incoming calls and is touching up her makeup at her desk. At some point she hustled to the set and did a live promo for the upcoming 6 o’clock news, and she also phoned Claire.
Then she slips into her tweed jacket, trundles into the studio and takes her place beside Terry Wood, larger than life now in his gold-buttoned blue blazer.
If there is a void in her life – forget about the money, her beloved Claire, the celebrity – it is the lack of the man. She will joke about it. “So here I am at 38, all my parts working, but nobody to produce with – and I just bought The Joy of Sex to improve my technique,” she says with an easy but hearty laugh.
But when she talks about the men in her life to date, from Jerry Kaufman through Clinton Deveaux to her current mystery suitor, it is clear that a powerful and lasting ‘ relationship with a powerful and lasting man has become almost an obsession. Not surprisingly, it goes back to her absentee father: “He came back into my life after I had graduated from high school. He’s in Indianapolis now, remarried, with five children from his second marriage. My mother never said anything negative about him, and that’s how I learned how to deal with a spouse who’s no longer at the house. That’s why I wanted joint custody of Claire. Clinton is responsible, he wouldn’t leave the city, but I wanted it made clear that he’s legally as responsible as 1. The last time I saw my father he said, ‘I’m proud of my other children, but I wonder why they haven’t done what you’ve done.’ And I said, ‘Because they had you there, and I’ve been trying since I was 4 or 5 to prove to you that you made a mistake by not staying in touch.’ “
On Clinton Deveaux: “We met when I first came to Atlanta and I covered the Legislature: It was a whirlwind, that’s probably what was wrong with it. May to September. Jerry didn’t want kids, but Clinton and I did, so I went through the whole fertility workup and had corrective surgery but still nothing happened. So we adopted Claire when she was 6 months old and we moved into this house and about halfway through our six years together the marriage began falling apart. That’s something I won’t discuss.” But then she does. “I knew I’d made a mistake the day I got married. I was late for my wedding. A girlfriend and I were sitting at the breakfast table, running our mouths, and my mother and Clint had to tell me to please hurry up and get dressed; If I had been the strong person I think I am I would’ve just stood up and said, ‘I’m sorry, but we can’t get married.’ I’ve told Clint that. Clint is a wonderful conversationalist, a great dancer, excellent with Claire. He’s a very nice man. I just don’t want to be married to him.”
And the new man in her life: “I’m dating someone I love very much, but I don’t want to marry him. I’m afraid to get married again, really scared. I wanted a longstanding family with a houseful of kids, but maybe it’s too late for another kid. Anyway, with this man, it’s nice to have somebody who can basically say, ‘I can buy you and sell you and I don’t care what you do.’ He is as busy as I am. His children are grown and married, he’s 55, and he lives out of town. And I think that’s a concern in the marriage part, that he is out of town, because I don’t want to move. He’s very special. Oh, it sounds like I’m 16 again. He’s strong, affectionate, owns his own business, is likely to fly in if he senses I need cuddling.” She giggles like, indeed, a teen-age girl. “I’m a real hard person to live with. You have to hold your own with me. I need someone whose personality is just as strong as mine, because if not I’ll run over you roughshod.”
So what about it? Will Monica Kaufman hear an offer she can’t refuse from the man of her dreams or the network of her choosing – or has she, in her own words, “stayed too long at the fair”? Engel, WSB’s news director, says he has “a piece of paper here that says I can force her to work here, but I’ll never have to use it because she loves it here. She’s part of Atlanta.” But that contract, which comes up for renewal in August, has a “network out” in it and, says Monica, “God knows what might happen between now and then.” For years, or at least since Claire, she has been asking to be excused from the 11 o’clock show in order to live a more nearly normal life; but there is no disputing WSB’s runner-up status at 11 at night, meaning there is little chance she will get that wish.
She has a wish list, sure, but it is so fanciful that she may never see it come true. “My dream job would be early morning anchoring,..’ she says. “Ted Koppel, I’d work for him as a researcher. Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw, I could work with them. And Dan Rather, but I don’t think he could work with a co-anchor. But those jobs don’t open up. And for a black woman? Give me a break. Nobody’s had a chance since Barbara Walters in that 6 to 7 slot. You haven’t seen another woman. If anybody does it, interestingly enough, it might be Diane Sawyer of Louisville, Kentucky. I should have moved two or three years ago, if I wanted to do it, but I didn’t. I’m not in the pipeline.”
Following the 6 o’clock broadcast there is the usual 20-minute “critique” of the show in Mark Engel’s office, where Monica and Terry and the other principals talk about what went right and what went wrong; she announces that she will be at the Parish Hall of St. Luke’s (“I’ll have my beeper on”) and drives to the appreciation banquet. Scores of kids are there, dressed in their finest, and many of them rush Kaufman when they see her enter the hall. Afterwards there are speeches and entertainment. The 11 o’clock news is closing up on her, but Kaufman lingers, and when she sees that three of the girls she knows — Kokethea among them — are planning to take late-night buses back to their apartments, all of them in rough parts of town, she won’t hear of it. She takes each of them home in her Thunderbird and it doesn’t bother her that she barely makes it to WSB in time to do the 11 o’clock broadcast. What worries her is hearing that one of the boys who had been at the banquet went home and was stabbed to death by his father.