IT’S FIVE AM on a Wednesday morning at MSNBC’s Manhattan studio, and Mika Brzezinski is trying to tell a story. It’s difficult because she’s also getting her hair washed and reading the day’s news-papers on her Black-Ber-ry. Brzezinski, head back, holds the device above her face while a stylist scrubs. “Your job,” I prompt. “How did you get your job?”
In a circus-worthy feat of multi-tasking, Brzezinski, who has to be on air in an hour, starts to talk—while still read-ing and being lathered—in almost perfect, ready-to-print sentences. She tells me that two and half years ago, she was facing the most stressful day in a television newswoman’s life: her fortieth birthday. It didn’t help that Brze-zin-ski was not, as she is now, cohost of both a highly rated morning show and a nationally syndicated radio show, and author of a forthcoming book. Her glory days at CBS News (as a correspondent for 60 Minutes and an-chor for the CBS Evening News) were over. She was, to put it plainly, well on her way to being another bit of blonde road-kill on the TV highway. Her family’s Christmas card that year depicted Brzezinski in a bathrobe, toting a bottle of vodka, with her two daughters holding up a sign that read, PLEASE FIND HER A JOB, PLEASE!
Although she looks like one of those golden, gorgeous creatures (even before makeup) who think a business obstacle is having to give up the corporate jet, the reality is that Brzezinski’s path to TV celebrity status has been complicated. In 1997, when she was 29 and the mother of a two-year-old, Brzezinski landed a plum gig: anchor of CBS’s national overnight news program Up to the Minute. She was confident she could balance a grueling, high-powered job and family life the way her parents had—dad Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, and mom Emilie Benes Brzezinski was a successful artist—but having it all turned out to be cruelly stressful. “I was weeping every day,” she says. Then, only months into the new job, she got pregnant again.
During Brzezinski’s six-week maternity leave, WABC in Manhattan hired her husband, television journalist Jim Hoffer, as an investigative reporter. This meant that when Brzezinski returned to work, both parents were pulling crazy, intense hours, commuting from their suburban Westchester home and working flat out at their respective studios. “Jim never slept. I never slept,” she says.
Two months later, Brzezinski’s exhaustion took a horrible toll on the family. She hurried home to relieve her nanny so she could take the afternoon off. “I rushed upstairs and grabbed my baby. I was talking a hundred miles an hour, and I walked right off the top of the stairs. I fell down the complete flight.”
Brzezinski landed on top of her daughter. The baby was not moving from the chin down.
Instantly, Brzezinski began to repeat: “ ‘She’s got to be OK. She’s got to be OK,’ because I knew Carlie wasn’t OK,” she says, tearing up even now, years later. “Her cry was all wrong. I thought she had a head injury. I took her straight to the hospital.”
There, doctors strapped the baby to a board and began tests. Brzezinski realized they thought the child’s back was broken, which meant she might have made the prognosis worse by moving her. “I fell apart,” Brzezinski says. “I slid down the wall. My face was on the floor, and I wept.” It took eight hours for the medical team to determine that Carlie’s main injury was a broken femur.
Still, the incident was serious enough that child protective services investigated Brzezinski on suspicion of child abuse. She felt so guilty that “when the social worker came to our house,” Brzezinski says, “I told her, ‘Put the hand-cuffs on me.’ ” The social worker interviewed her nanny and husband, inspected the home and examined the children. Then she recommended that Brzezinski get some rest and closed the case.