Her Husband Died. The IRS Said She Owed His Debt -- $3 Million. Carol Joynt's Only Hope: Prove She Was an 'Innocent Spouse.'

05/16/2011 08:48 am ET | Updated Jul 16, 2011

When Carol Ross was 22, Walter Cronkite hired her to write the evening news. He had a crew of writers, but she was his personal writer, the one who sat next to him, just out of camera range. No fool he --- Carol Ross was not just young and talented, she was extremely attractive. Gossip followed, none of it true.

When I met her, she was 24. I had an instant crush, which resulted in a dinner or two. There were many guys meeting her after the broadcast that year, and I don't think she noticed any of us --- she was consumed by her job, and then she was consumed with leaving it to crew on a boat in the Caribbean.

Our next dinner was thirty-five years later. She had another name now, having married John Howard Joynt III. And a very different situation: Howard Joynt, the popular owner of a popular bar in Georgetown, had died. He left behind a five-year-old son and a very puzzled widow, for right after his death, the IRS showed up to demand $3 million in back taxes, penalties and interest.

Carol Joynt didn't have $3 million. And then there was the problem that couldn't be assessed so neatly --- she really hadn't known her husband. At all. He was tall and affable, quick to open the champagne, and he had cast himself as her protector, and she bought it all.

Oh, there were signs. Early in the marriage, he hit her. Pushed her out of the car at night, in a rainstorm, far from home. Drank himself into a hate-spewing jerk.

But then Howard would be his adorable self again. And Carol would go back to sleep.

There are many memoirs by women who don't know their husbands until they die --- for me, the biggest jaw-dropper and gold standard is Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal, by Julie Metz --- but none has the brutal irony of Innocent Spouse. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

The irony: She had to convince the IRS that she was an "innocent spouse." Let me translate that legal term of art into common English: The journalist who worked for Cronkite and Charlie Rose and Larry King --- the professional with an inborn knack for ferreting out The Facts --- had to convince professional skeptics that, in her personal life, she was spectacularly incurious. In a word: an idiot who signed tax returns she never read and was clueless about her husband's cavalier business practices.

It's to Carol Joynt's great credit that she writes as a professional. She knows what the peg of the story is --- how did a smart woman become so dumb --- and she confronts it head-on:

I wasn't proud of what [the IRS] report said about me, but not because the facts were wrong. They were right. It made clear that in my marriage, I had given over control of my life to another person. Sheltered would be the polite word. Idiotic seemed more like it, even stupid: 'Throughout her adult life, Carol steadfastly avoided getting involved in financial matters because she knew they were complex and she did not understand them.' When the report didn't make me feel like a fool, it made me feel like a concubine: 'Carol was enticed and overwhelmed by Howard's . . . obvious comfort in a good life she had never before experienced. . . . She fell in love with Howard believing he would be able to take care of her and would never let anything happen to her. That was her Faustian pact.' There it was, the truth I was unable to speak. I'd sold myself for what I thought would be a better life.

In these pages, you see her reach out to powerful friends, and you see them come through. You follow her efforts to run her husband's business long enough to resolve its tax problems. She works overtime to be a good mother to her son. She starts an interview show at the restaurant that is honest, satisfying work and becomes the invaluable Washington correspondent for She dreams of "widow sex" but fends off suitors.

This is not exceptional material. Sadly, it's all too common --- this is an old, old story. Happens every day. And will continue to happen as long as men feel the need to dominate and women can't summon the guts to confront.

What makes this memoir exceptional is Carol Joynt's unending honesty. She doesn't spare herself --- on many pages, she really does come off like an idiot. And you really do want to scream: How can you be so dumb? But she perseveres. She learns. She gets it right. Her son's okay. She's still walking.

And, in the end, she does the hardest thing --- she comes to terms with the father of her son, her lover, her protector, her fraud of a husband. As she writes:

I try not to carry grudges or to remain angry. Like sea anchors, they stop forward motion. I needed to move on to survive. Howard was dead. What good was it to waste time and energy on anger toward a dead person? For the longest time I didn't sense anger, and only toward the bitter end did I come to terms with how it nested deep inside me. I resented that he left me a bankrupt business and no road map, a manager who worked against me, landlords who didn't want me and who were incapable of trusting a woman as a business owner, and this financial mess he'd got himself into that consumed me, my resources, my energy and the time and happiness I should have had to devote to raising our son. I was angry at myself, too, and shared the blame. When I finally at long last was able to close the business and regain my freedom, I cut loose that last sea anchor: my anger.

I wasn't wrong to like this woman. You won't be either.

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