06/20/2011 03:35 pm ET | Updated Sep 26, 2011

A Woman's Tale Of Survival In The Surf Of Death And Taxes

First-time author Carol Ross Joynt, a disarming, dishy denizen of Georgetown in the heart of the nation's capital, is a woman in full. I heard her say so at a Ritz-Carlton lunch during an interview on her captivating memoir, Innocent Spouse, about running afoul of the IRS when her husband died with the saloon he owned deeply in hock.  John Donvan, the ABC News correspondent, did the honors of the Q & A -- opening by questioning whether the book was just "chick lit."  Very nice.

Well, Reader, it's fine Vineyard fare, but more than that. And I do mean captivating -- for Joynt's stylish frankness in covering every step of the way in an odyssey of loss, struggle, spirit and reclamation. If I chose a few contemporary autobiographies of women to send back to the beloved 19th and 20th century suspects -- Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and George Eliot -- Joynt's book might make the cut. A literary masterpiece? No -- but a taut yarn not easily put down, by a media maestra who worked as a writer for Walter Cronkite early in her career. Later, she worked as a network news producer for Charlie Rose and Larry King. I enjoyed every moment of this tale, which was like a refreshing dip into a cold surf of reality: (with death and taxes churning like an undertow.)

My point is: it tells a lot of truth about the inner and outer lives of the (white) privileged women in our times -- yes, those meant to have it all. Austen, Woolf and Eliot portrayed the upper classes in England, so this tale is in a sense, a historical sequel. Patti Smith's lyrical Just Kids and Antonia Fraser's elegant Diary of her marriage to the late British playwright Harold Pinter, Must You Go? are other revealing selections I'd send the three best (deceased) British women novelists for a book club of their own.

Older than his fourth wife by a dozen years, Howard Joynt sure looked the part of dashing Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice -- but he took after another Austen character, the silver-tongued, seductive but deceptive Henry Crawford, in personality. "Howard was the embodiment of the irresistible rogue," his widow writes of him. He wore money well, she notes, and knew his way around the finest gardens and galleries. He made his cherished Nathans' a destination, a popular haunt literally at the crossroads of Georgetown: at M Street and Wisconsin Avenue in Northwest, a short walk down to the Potomac River. His wealthy family acquired the property for him, with an arcane lease and other perplexing details Joynt never knew until after her seemingly healthy husband died of pnuemonia in the winter of 1997. I remembered the month sharply, when President Bill Clinton was inaugurated a second time.

To be fair, nor did Carol ever ask Howard any questions about the business he ran with a debonair wit and only a few fleeting signs of gaping financial troubles. Largely, he hid them from her. The couple had one child, a boy of five named Spencer, who sang his dying father a song in a hospital room: "You are my sunshine." At that point, his mother's inherited troubles had barely begun. Gradually the family of two had to downsize and sell the fancy boat and house on the Chesapeake Bay and move to a smaller domicile in Georgetown. Carol had to learn the restaurant business in a big hurry -- or better yet, sell the place -- while her lawyers worked on a way to save her from ruin. Imagine the anger, mingled with grief and determination to weather the ordeal for the sake of Spencer.

"We lived in a house of cards... I know him (Howard) now better than I did then," Joynt told Donovan, having overcome the IRS icicle hanging over her head for years. Howard had left stacks of bills, mortgages and a total debt "a breath shy" of $3 million to his widow. To defend her, her lawyers successfully crafted the complex "innocent spouse" defense, arguing that Carol Joynt had no knowledge of her late husband's shenanigans. This is no Everywoman tale; as a savvy member of the Fourth Estate, Joynt knows the social landscape of this small town without a map. Among those who advised her was old friend Bob Woodward, from their lean and hungry reporting days. More to the purpose, the author received expert advice from the man who wrote the "innocent spouse" statute. Because of her personality and plight, Joynt was able to mobilize the best resources available, at times free of charge.

And here is where the criss-crosses between Joynt's life story and mine started. The smallest of these is that I waitressed at a nearby Georgetown watering hole one summer in the '80s -- The Third Edition -- and loved working full days as an intern at WRC-TV, biking back and forth. Just a block down the brick sidewalk, the romance between an NBC night assignment editor and an urbane bar owner had blossomed into marriage. When I later got my first job in journalism, I worked as an assignment editor at CBS News. In January 1997, I had just joined the Baltimore Sun and covered "enthusiastic Marylanders" in the inaugural parade. While the city was caught up in the pageantry, Howard's cough turned to a deadly illness that took him to an intensive care unit. When he first got there, he asked for water: "Evian, please." How could the life of the party die? He was just 57. Carol was suddenly a widow: in news parlance, "an incomplete line of type," as she wistfully notes.

In a handful of lies or deceptions he took to the hereafter, Howard told Carol she was his third wife, not his fourth. His bouts of chronic depression and domestic violence also colored the pretty picture darkly, but improved with therapy. I respect the author's ability to look these in the eye. Around the same time, I left a marriage that looked pretty perfect to family and friends one June day -- packing a knapsack and heading for my aunt's house over the bridge -- in a similar situation. In an age of "oversharing," violence in the home still happens under every class of roof, often silenced by women victims as unspeakable.

In Joynt's world, the birds sing secrets and walls come tumbling down. It's not all gloom and doom. This is her nature, and the journalist in her is reporting the story. In a vignette she tells with relish, baseball legend Keith Hernandez asked her out on several dates; once they went to Elaine's, which makes for a diverting passage. To alleviate the stress of the IRS review, she sometimes invited girlfriends to come to Nathans' after hours and dance, dance to their heart's desire. The "moms' dance party" fit into a simple survival strategy: "Get out of bed every morning, exercise, go forward, laugh, and try to get a dose of friends whenever possible." Joynt does not hold back on how Washington power dinner parties place (and practically police) comely single women a safe distance from attractive married males. She waxes freely on her first kiss as a widow and writes beautifully of encounters in a love affair with a married man in New York who was not quite her lover, but someone who adored her and brought her back to the land of erotic touch. Donvan confessed scenes of carnal desire in a widow made him squeamish. As a society, we've moved past the notion their bodies should be frozen in black mourning dress to make them untouchable, but not that far.

The moral of the story for Everywoman, beyond Georgeton's borders, is financial literacy. Far too many of us, me included, don't know the details of their investments, taxes, mortgages, pensions and debts. Joynt said she signed tax documents each year Howard was alive without a glance -- something she clearly paid dearly for.

Candidly, Joynt tells the reader, she misses her husband less and less. In the Q & A with Donvan, she adds to her posthumous portrait of her husband: "He'd get it," she said, meaning why she wrote the book.

But that didn't seem uppermost on Joynt's mind. Her message, delivered in part by the medium of joie de vivre at 60, is "all about going forward." Refusing to be a victim, she freed herself of shackles left by Howard's death. Her memoir is the latest in a genre women have come to own over time -- and the leap from writing diaries in secret annexes to autobiographies is a hop, a skip and a jump.

In England, Woolf was one of the greatest diarists ever. On American shores, Mary McCarthy wrote her memories of a Catholic girlhood. Frederick Douglass' autobiography is outstanding, but again, it emerges from an outsider class -- which is the salient factor. Women need to write -- and read -- more of each other's life stories and see how their paths criss-cross in a larger pattern. Joynt's book is a contribution to strengthening sisterhood through the written word. A memoir like this speaks directly to you, Reader, in a more vivid voice than a novel.

On a personal note, Joynt shows journalists on the broadcast side can write pretty darn well, too. Her story holds a lot of water and is very much of the moment. I recommend it to women and men alike.