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Part of me wanted to rush home right then and try to retrace the story, to follow the Flannigans' trail north. I could Google the town of Grouard. Or look up Mike's name in the records of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. But even as I plotted my search, I realized its results would be irrelevant. Mrs. Mike might have played a lesser role in my life had I known it was, at least in part, fabrication. But Kathy—the reality, the invention, the symbol—had been there when I needed her most. And if I still needed proof that real, ordinary people could choose bold, unconventional lives, all I had to do was look at the Freedmans, whose story was as enthralling as Kathy's—maybe more so. They had lived so fully, experienced so much, crossed paths with so many great names of their day. Nancy had played Juliet in a production of Shakespeare's play staged by Fanchon and Marco, the brother-sister dance team who'd launched the careers of Cyd Charisse, Judy Garland, Doris Day, and Bing Crosby. Igor Stravinsky himself had chosen her to dance in Petrushka. She had studied under the director Max Reinhardt.

Meanwhile, Benedict's father, David, had created the character of Baby Snooks for Fanny Brice, written a Broadway hit, and was head writer of Eddie Cantor's radio show. When, at age 13, Benedict needed a date for a school dance, his father tried to fix him up with the burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee (who, informed of the boy's predicament, responded, "Well, for Dave's son..." and flipped a breast out of her bra; Benedict did not pursue the opportunity).

David died when Benedict was 16, leaving gambling debts that bankrupted the family. They left their tower apartment in Manhattan's swank Beresford building (the unit is now owned by tennis star John McEnroe), and Benedict, the eldest of three, dropped out of school to help support the family. He worked for an actuary by day, and wrote scripts at night and on weekends. Eventually, he snagged a job as a junior writer on the Marx Brothers' film At the Circus and headed off to Los Angeles. He wrote gags for Mickey Rooney, Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante. He spent 12 years with The Red Skelton Show, moving with it from radio to television, and wrote episodes of My Favorite Martian and The Andy Griffith Show. He and Nancy collaborated on writing eight books. They still spend hours a day working side by side, Benedict on his humanitarian manifesto and Nancy on a novel.

"Tell her about the time you met Howard Hughes," Nancy said during that first visit, and I listened, rapt, to how the famous eccentric instructed Benedict to shower, sponge himself off with rubbing alcohol, then shower again before their meeting. It was a fine anecdote, but I was more impressed that, at 44, with three kids and a wife to support, Benedict had walked away from his Hollywood paycheck—with Nancy's blessing—to pursue an early dream, the one he'd abandoned when his father died: studying advanced mathematics. He enrolled at UCLA, eventually earning a PhD in mathematical logic and teaching for 35 years at Occidental College in Los Angeles. The man had the courage to reinvent himself at midlife, to refuse to be ruled by regret. Maybe, I thought, I could do that, too.

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