The Magazine

Life with Milly

Morton Kondracke's love story

Jul 16, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 41 • By J. BOTTUM
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MORTON KONDRACKE IS A REPORTER in Washington, D.C., and a name to conjure with: a writer for the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, a star on the political television program The Beltway Boys, an original member of The McLaughlin Group, a man who has followed the ins and outs of American politics for more than thirty years.

But his wife is dying-and dying hard, suffering through all the shuddering pain and indignity of advanced Parkinson's disease. What answer is there to that? None of his television fame, writing success, or political intelligence can abate her suffering or buy her the least gain of life.

Saving Milly: Love, Politics, and Parkinson's Disease is Kondracke's tale of his marriage, his career, and his sorrow. It makes almost unbearable reading. The book is in part a plea for increased funding for research into the disease, and it is in part a cry lifted up to God-a cry of anger and a cry of submission that recognizes our duty to the ill: to feed them, and bathe them, and comfort them, when they cannot feed or bathe or comfort themselves. Mostly, though, Saving Milly is a story of the eternal pity of the human condition. Milly Kondracke's life has been spared so far, but not the pain.

As Saving Milly describes her, Milly Kondracke was a lively, fun, hard-headed woman: a fireball and a
live wire; half-Mexican, half-Jewish, and entirely herself. Born Millicent Martinez, she was the red-diaper daughter of Chicago radicals. (Her father, a Mexican national, was deported from the United States for Communist activities when she was ten.) Kondracke met her when he was starting out as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times-but it wasn't love at first sight.

Or perhaps one should say that it was love at first sight, but Kondracke didn't want to believe it. He had plans. He wanted to be a "big-shot journalist." He carried a picture of the New York Times's James Reston in his wallet, and Reston had told him that marriage was important-important for one's career, which is the only kind of important that matters. If you can't marry a rich girl from Vassar, why marry at all?

Love has a way of getting around such questions, and a year later, in 1967, Kondracke, almost despite himself, married the impoverished but "irresistible" Milly. (Twenty years later, Milly would still remember: There was only one school to which her daughters could not apply for college, and that was Vassar.)

A fairy tale, as G.K. Chesterton once pointed out, always ends "and they lived happily ever after"-which is not necessarily the same thing as living peacefully ever after. The fairy tale's bride and groom can still be happy, even if, from time to time, they throw the furniture at each other. The Kondrackes had one of those happy, furniture-throwing marriages. They had a pair of daughters, Milly trained as a psychotherapist, and Morton became a success: the Sun-Times's White House correspondent, a Neiman Fellow at Harvard, a writer for the New Republic, and bureau chief for Newsweek.

Along the way, particularly during the "huge mistake" of working at Newsweek, Morton Kondracke began to drink hard. He had always suffered, he writes, from a debilitating "combination of snobbery and a lack of self-confidence." That is, of course, the disease nearly every writer has, the self-destructive mix of arrogance and jealousy, and Kondracke tried to cure it with alcohol, as so many other writers have. After a series of terrifying incidents and raging arguments that rocked their house, Milly convinced him to begin attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. It was there he quit drinking-and there as well he experienced the first spiritual feelings that would lead, eventually, to his Christian conversion.

It barely came in time. In 1987, Milly began to complain that her signature was changing. She had always had beautiful, ornate handwriting, and suddenly she couldn't form the letter K in "Kondracke" the way she used to. Although they didn't know it at the time, that was the first moment "the shadow of Parkinson's disease cast itself upon our lives."

From there, it has been a long, painful slide-the inevitable pattern of debilitating disease: one power lost after another; one new treatment after another, each bringing a small hope, each hope betrayed. "Parkinson's has kidnapped my wife," Kondracke begins his book. "She cannot walk, and now she can barely speak. She is being carried into an abyss, and I am helpless to rescue her."

Saving Milly is a small but powerful memoir of Morton Kondracke's joys and sorrows, and a moving memorial to his wonderful but dying wife. It also, however, has a political agenda-making a demand, from the foreword by the actor Michael J. Fox to the book's conclusion, that the government do everything in its power to increase funding for research into a cure.