Nancy Freedman, then 82, met me at her apartment door. A tall, slender woman, she carried herself like the actress she'd trained to be. Her hair was a dramatic white, her eyebrows dark above pale blue eyes, her features wide and vibrant. The beauty in the lines of her face was the best argument I'd seen yet against Botox. She greeted me as if we were old friends. Later I'd realize that full-throttle was the Freedmans' approach to everything—during their courtship, which took place almost entirely by mail, Benedict wrote "page 40" at the top of his first letter, as if they were already mid-conversation. "You gotta love a guy like that," Nancy would tell me. At that point they'd been married 61 years.
Benedict was on the couch in the living room, facing a window that overlooked a canal dotted with rowboats and waterfowl. At 83, he had difficulty walking, though you'd never have known it; he made his way across the room by leaning casually on the backs of strategically placed chairs. His mind, however, was still nimble: He had just finished his day's work on a nonfiction book titled Rescuing the Future, which he described as a plea, for the good of humanity, to focus on looking forward rather than bickering over past wrongs.
"What appealed to us about Katherine Flannigan's story," Benedict told me right off, "was how it paralleled our own." He and Nancy had met briefly in Los Angeles in 1939. He was a junior writer on Al Jolson's radio show; she was a 19-year-old ingenue about to move to New York. But after a few months of hoofing around Broadway, she was diagnosed with a lethal heart infection (now treatable with antibiotics) that forced a retreat to her native Chicago, where she was confined to bed. Benedict followed her there and, though he'd seen her a mere five times, proposed marriage. Nancy burst into tears; her father, who was a doctor, explained that she probably wouldn't survive three months. Benedict didn't care. "I just didn't believe she was going to die," he said. "Also, I felt even if it's only three months, we've got three months. Better than lying in bed staring at the ceiling."
Like Mike, who fashioned a bed on a dogsled for Kathy out of boxes and fur blankets, Benedict folded back the seat of his jalopy—a convertible with a beach umbrella for a roof—to make a chaise for his bride before they headed West for their honeymoon. For years, first in Chicago and later in Los Angeles, he would carry Nancy up every flight of stairs. "She couldn't walk," he said. "On the other hand, she was always full of life."
And like Kathy, Nancy never saw another doctor. Benedict took care of her himself. Three months turned to six, turned to a year, turned to eight. Slowly, she improved. The woman who should never have seen 1942 now has four great-grandchildren. She credits her recovery to Benedict's love—"He hauled me back to life," she said, "he really did"—and to Mrs. Mike, which they wrote together from her sickbed. I could have swooned from the romance of it all.
We Hear You!