Sara Kushnick was 3 years old when her twin brother, Samuel, went to the hospital with respiratory troubles. He had always been the sickly one of the pair, subject to inexplicable earaches, sore throats, fevers, growing more slowly than his robust sister. Finally, his short lifetime of medical problems was diagnosed. He had AIDS. He died on Oct. 13, 1983, days after his diagnosis, becoming one of this country’s first pediatric victims. He and Sara had been premature, and both had gotten blood transfusions from multiple donors; only Sam’s was tainted. When Sara was 8 years old, her father, Jerrold Kushnick, died at 57, less than two years after being diagnosed with colon cancer. Then, days after Sara turned 16, her mother, Helen Kushnick, succumbed at age 51 to the breast cancer that had stalked her for almost a decade. By the time she was a junior in high school, Sara had lost her entire immediate family.
I had met Sara once, very briefly, when she was a little girl, and in the many years since, I wondered what happens to someone who has suffered so much so young. I hoped she’d had loving people to take her in and that she had turned out all right. I worried how easy it would be for things to go wrong. Then recently, I decided to see if I could find out.
Sara’s parents had been partners in their entertainment management company, and after Jerry’s death, Helen carried on solo. Her primary client was a young comedian, Jay Leno, whose career she had carefully nurtured. Helen had positioned Leno as Johnny Carson’s heir apparent, and even before the legendary Carson announced his retirement, she had gotten NBC to secretly sign a contract naming Leno as his successor. Helen would be the show’s executive producer. She had been raised in a working-class family in Harlem, N.Y., dropped out of community college, and started out as a secretary. Now she was one of the highest-ranking, most powerful women in the entertainment industry.
When Helen became The Tonight Show boss 21 years ago, I was a freelance journalist living in Los Angeles. I got an assignment to profile her for (the now-defunct) Working Woman magazine. I spent a day at her office, and then she let me visit her fabulous home in Hidden Hills, Calif., a gated community whose residents have included Jennifer Lopez and Sean Penn. After our arrival, 11-year-old Sara came in dressed in equestrian gear—she was an accomplished young horsewoman. She was bubbly and delightful and told me that “Uncle Jay” was a frequent guest at their house; he would come over for dinner and make her laugh.
But after only four months on the job, Helen was fired, banned from the lot in a showdown with the network bosses. They said her feuds, temperamental explosions, and punitive booking practices were threatening the show. She’d expected Leno to leave with her—at Jerry’s funeral he repeated the deathbed promise he’d made to look after Helen and Sara—but he stayed. Afterward I’d read and heard Helen’s interviews in which she acknowledged that she was a forceful personality but asserted that the entertainment business’ boys’ club just couldn’t tolerate a powerful woman. It was a much-written-about fall, including a best-seller, The Late Shift, by New York Times reporter Bill Carter, which was made into an HBO movie with Kathy Bates as Helen. Then, in August of 1996, I saw Helen’s obituary in the New York Times.
When Leno’s real and final retirement from The Tonight Show was announced this year, I decided to search for Sara. It took only minutes on the Internet and there were the outlines of her life. She had taken her husband’s name and was now Sara Gorfinkel. She was 32 years old, the mother of two little girls, the director of a Jewish philanthropic foundation. And we lived about 20 minutes from each other in suburban Maryland.
I got in touch and said it was a relief to see what looked like the outlines of a happy personal and professional life. Sara confirmed that her life is good. She agreed to let me spend time at her office and her home, just as her mother had more than two decades ago. When Sara greeted me at the door of her house, I could immediately see the resemblance to her mother. Sara has inherited Helen’s large almond-shaped eyes—Sara’s are agate green, Helen’s were brown—and her strong nose. She has masses of dark hair and a quick smile. Her two adorable girls, Nora, 3, and Raia, 1, came toddling over, and there were Helen’s eyes appearing on yet another generation. Sara and her husband, Ron Gorfinkel, were preparing for a move, so much of their household goods had been boxed up. As Sara took me for a tour, we stopped in Raia’s room, where on the wall was a family tree illustrated with photographs. On it was her brother, Sam, a sandy-haired boy with down-turned blue eyes like those of his father. “It’s really important to me that my children know my family,” Sara says.
She says as she’s become a parent and been named the head of an organization, she’s been acutely missing her mother’s counsel about these milestones. “The loss of my mom at 16 is not the same as now as a 32-year- old,” she says. Then she adds a wry observation: “On the one hand, I don’t have anyone telling me how to parent. On the other hand, I don’t have anyone telling me how to parent.”
Sara recalls the day after Nora was born she called one of her mother’s few friends who has stayed in her life, entertainment executive Jane Rosenthal, crying hysterically: “I was really, deeply missing my mom. Jane got on a train and came down.” Sara needed someone to tell her she could do this, that her instincts were right. Jane, who has two daughters of her own, recalls, “I showed her how you get the onesie over her head. How you do the diaper one-handed.”
It was time for Nora’s ballet class at a nearby school, so we went together and sat on a bench outside the classroom. I’d brought the copy of Working Woman, and Sara read the profile of her mother, annotating it with her own memories. There was a picture of her mother stroking one of her horses, so I asked her to start there—after all, the last time I saw her, she was coming in from the stable. Sara says she doesn’t tell her story to everyone. Of course those close to her know, but with acquaintances when the subject of family comes up, she says, “I never lie,” but to deflect inquiries, she sometimes says, “My family is still in California.”
Like a lot of girls, Sara was enchanted by horses. When she returned from summer camp at age 9 and said she wanted to ride, her mother didn’t sign her up for lessons—she took Sara to buy a horse. Eventually she had 10. “My mother never did anything a little bit,” Sara laughs. From an early age, Sara, like her mother, possessed an unusual focus and determination. Most girlish enthusiasms are passing things, but Sara spent every summer from the time she was 11 to 16 in Kentucky training. She lived at a motel and was supervised by a babysitter at first, later her trainers. When she was 13, she won the world grand championship in her division at the American Saddlebred Competition.
We are interrupted when the precocious Nora bursts out of the room with two announcements. One, she has to go to the bathroom. Two, “My name is Nora Helen!” Her mother laughs and replies, “You certainly are Nora Helen.”
There is a fable-like quality to the first half of Sara’s young life, the wealth and privilege, shadowed by misfortune and death. She says, “I have vivid memories of seeing Jay one time after Mom was fired. She probably forced him to do it. I sat on his lap. He said everything would be fine. It wasn’t fine.” It was the end of a brief time in Sara’s young life of things being fine.
Helen threw herself into domesticity. “There was a short period of her making my lunches. She entered a baking contest in Hidden Hills, but the dog ate it. She was making me elaborate fruit smoothies. She was bored out of her skull. It wasn’t comfortable for either of us,” Sara says. The would-be idyll soon ended. Helen was sick again, the cancer snaking its way through her body. She had become a pariah in Hollywood, nearly all her friends had fallen away. Both she and Jerry had been from the East Coast. Jerry had two grown daughters who despised Helen and had no relationship with Sara. Helen was estranged from her brother, her only sibling. Still, Helen decided to go back to New York, where Sara could at least reconnect with the remnants of her family.