Christopher Reeve was allergic to horses. It is one of the stunning ironies in a life filled with them.
Among them: He would likely not have been remembered in iconic terms had his life not been upended by a 1995 horseback-riding accident that left him paralyzed.
That, at least is the view of Washington, Conn., author Christopher Andersen, whose new book, “Somewhere in Heaven: The Remarkable Love Story of Dana and Christopher Reeve,” chronicles the romance between the couple.
“All the things I (write) have a dark side,” said Andersen, author of 28 books and 13 New York Times bestsellers. “But there wasn’t a dark side to this. This was a genuine love story.”
Love at first sight
“Somewhere in Heaven” tells the inspirational, tragic story, of the coup de foudre love affair that ignited between the Reeves when the actor first saw Dana in Williamstown, Mass., through the last moments of Reeve’s death at 52 in 2004. It follows the incredible diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer in Dana, a non-smoker, and her death 17 months later at 44.
Speaking of the pair of tragedies, Roxbury playwright A.R. Gurney invoked John F. Kennedy’s famous line, “Life is unfair.” But, said Gurney, Dana’s death, which left the couple’s 13-year-old son an orphan, seemed “brutally unfair.”
Like most of his last stack of celebrity biographies, “Somewhere in Heaven” is the story of a marriage, laced with pathos and resilience. And, like most of them, there are a few startling revelations — that Reeve wanted to die when he learned the extent of his injury, that his mother concurred and that his wife convinced him to try for at least two years. But mostly, the book is an elegy to a marriage Andersen clearly finds exceptional.
“In a world of celebrity divorces where people leave each other because of the way they butter their toast, this was something that lasted,” he says, sitting in his spacious office, where toddler-sized posters of his book covers stand like totems. “The degree of resilience and commitment they had had a super human quality to it. Look at what they had to endure and what she had to endure.”
The feminine pronoun here is crucial. Andersen considers women to be the most exotic and interesting gender, and says that books that examine a relationship, like his “Bill and Hillary: The Marriage,” “George and Laura” and “Jack and Jackie: Portrait of an American Marriage” offer an opportunity to tell that story.
“Women are unexplored and ignored and this is one way to get at them,” he said.
Loren, Bacall, Fontaine … and Hepburn
Anderson, 59, is slender and boyish-looking, despite his silvering hair. A former contributing editor of Time and senior editor of People, Andersen has walls dotted with framed black-and-white photos of his interview subjects — Sophia Loren, Lauren Bacall, Joan Fontaine, Gloria Swanson and perhaps his favorite, Katharine Hepburn. Clever and sharp-witted, with a meticulous eye for detail and a mental Rolodex of celebrity anecdotes, Andersen said he kept a notebook of questions for Hepburn in his top drawer for a year and a half, before the icon summoned him to her Turtle Bay home, impulsively, just as his exhaustive research suggested she would.
Hepburn is a frequently invoked name in the Andersen household. He and his wife, Valerie, named their first daughter after her, and Andersen frequently circles back around to the Connecticut native in conversation. Her pithy quotes, her slicing invectives, her lioness-like support of her lover, Spencer Tracy, inform Andersen’s dialogue, and, to a certain extent, his current book.
“These are people of substance,” he says of Tracy and Hepburn and the Reeves. “(Tracy) was such a mess and she was there, and maybe she was a doormat in the end. She told me, ‘For a relationship between a man and a woman to work, someone has to be willing to take a back seat. Let’s just say that where change was required, I adjusted.’ I don’t know that Dana would ever admit to it, but she was his savior in the same way that Hepburn saved Tracy.”
Hesitant to commit
It had been eight years since Reeve had first played Superman when he first set eyes on Dana — literally, across a crowded room at the 1896 House cabaret. He was in Williamstown, performing at the annual theater festival held at Williams College. She was singing “The Music That Makes Me Dance,” from Jule Styne’s “Funny Girl.”
He later said, “Right then, I went down hook, line and sinker. She just knocked me out.” A fellow actor confirmed the diagnosis. “He was totally hit between the eyes. She took his breath away.”
But Reeve, who had just ended a 10-year relationship with British modeling agent Gae Exton, was unwilling to commit. Dana Morosini insisted the couple go through therapy, which Andersen says helped Reeve exorcise the demons of his childhood. The couple were married for eight years before the riding accident that shattered Reeve’s first and second Vertebrae, an injury that Andersen writes “was roughly equivalent to the spinal injury suffered when someone is hanged.”
“Spinal cord injuries, unlike cancer or heart disease, is kind of a hidden thing,” said Andersen. “People don’t think about how delicate creatures we really are. When you have a spinal cord injury, you have all these degrading moments. I mean it took him two-and-a-half hours to get him into bed.”
“Somewhere in Heaven” chronicles the anguished efforts at Rehabilitation Reeve underwent, including trying a new drug that could have helped him. The first time he tried it, he ended in potentially fatal anaphylactic shock. But determined to walk before he was 50, he tried it again.
Andersen says that it was Dana Reeve who saw the superhuman qualities in Reeve, giving him a reason to endure when he considered ending his life. “She was the one who saw his destiny,” Andersen said. “She was the one who saw that he could be a crusader.”
Dana’s death ‘so unfair’
Five months after Reeve died of heart failure on October 10, 2004, Dana’s mother died of ovarian cancer.
Four months later, Dana Reeve, aggravated by a persistent cough, had a chest X-ray that revealed a mass in her lung, which turned out to be malignant.
“It was just so unfair,” said Andersen. “She’s a non-smoker. She did think she was going to beat the thing. The idea that she would leave Will an orphan was, I think, too much to bear.”
Will Reeve, now 16, lives with neighbors and friends, as his parents requested.
“It’s mind blowing that they turned this tragedy into something that inspired so many people,” Andersen said.
Andersen’s “Somewhere in Heaven” (Hyperion, $23.95) debuted last week at No. 12 on The New York Times bestseller list.
BY TRACEY O’SHAUGHNESSY REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN