In April 1997, Couric found out exactly how ridiculous and irrational. That was when Monahan, her young, apparently healthy husband, who had become a popular criminal-justice TV commentator, went to the doctor feeling tired and achy. After months of covering the O.J. Simpson trial, Monahan thought he was just run down. He soon learned he had a softball-size tumor in his colon—a cancer that had already metastasized to his liver.
Lori Beecher, a coordinating producer at Katie who’s also a close friend, recalls how Couric became a one-woman crusade to save her husband. Kathleen Lobb, a college friend who is now senior vice president of the Entertainment Industry Foundation, was blown away because, she says, Couric’s “background is in humanities. But she instantly learned the science.”
Herculean as they were, Couric’s efforts did not turn into the stuff of a triumphal made-for-TV movie. In retrospect, she has said she wishes she and her husband had acknowledged “what we both knew was inevitable.” Monahan died in 1998. He was 42; Couric was 41. Their daughters, Ellie and Carrie, were six and two.
After one month of bereavement leave, Couric returned to Today wearing Monahan’s wedding ring on a chain around her neck. “I needed to have a piece of my husband with me,” she says. “I wasn’t doing it for sympathy. Or maybe I did. I was just trying to make it through, and it was hard to be on television again and interview [Secretary of State] Jim Baker or go to the weather with Al Roker.”
She received some 10,000 condolence notes—and a few doses of breathtaking criticism. “Michele Greppi at the New York Post. G-R-E-P-P-I,” Couric spells out. “She totally trashed me.” Indeed. Greppi wrote that Couric “should stop dangling late husband Jay Monahan’s ring on a chain short enough to choke a chihuahua on TV 10 hours a week if she is going to maintain that this is a private pain.”
Couric describes herself as “a natural pleaser” and admits that though she has tried to outgrow the habit, to this day she indulges in minor acts of masochism, such as reading nasty tweets about herself. “Pack it in!” “Give it up.” “You’re a loser.” “You’re ugly,” she recites. She doesn’t let them upset her but confesses that one recent criticism really hurt. During Superstorm Sandy, people asked what she was doing. Couric tweeted, “Now watching Diners Drivers and Dives. Good times.” She says people tweeted back, “You insensitive bitch. People are suffering.”
“I shouldn’t have sent that,” Couric says, “but I was just communicating as someone who was holed up. I later apologized because I actually think I am a very empathetic, caring person.”
Couric certainly knows what it is to be hit by a superstorm and suffer. Two years after her husband died, her oldest sister, Emily, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Like Monahan, Emily died within a year. “I remember someone saying, ‘You’re like the Kennedys,’ ” Couric says, but in truth, she recalls, she felt more like an alien. “It’s these parallel universes when someone you love is sick. Your world is this completely foreign place involving radiation and tumor markers. Outside, people are buying sweaters.”
Couric says that, contrary to her “perky” reputation, she is not at all Pollyannaish. Maybe it is just that as a journalist she has learned that a lot of bad stuff happens randomly. “So many people have been through so many tragedies,” she says. Furthermore, Couric believes, pain is like a bad drug: You suffer enough, you build up a tolerance. “I have become slightly inured,” she says. “That doesn’t mean if something else bad happened to me I wouldn’t suffer. It’s just that your threshold for suffering increases.”