Veteran journalist Marilyn Berger is not by nature an impulsive person. Her friends describe her as "measured," "very thoughtful," "an intellectual." Yet Berger, now 74, has fallen deeply, passionately -- and instantly -- in love twice in her life, with two strong-willed males who could not be more different from each other.
The first time around the magic moment happened when Berger, then a globe-trotting diplomatic correspondent for NBC, found herself fixed up with Don Hewitt, the brash creator and executive producer of CBS's 60 Minutes. They hit it off from the moment he called to make a first date -- to the point where Hewitt inquired, "If it works out on Thursday, can we have dinner on Friday and Saturday, too?" By the end of that 1976 weekend Berger had found her life's companion. "He was a really good-looking guy, full of vitality -- he laughed a lot," Berger recalls. "We went out for Chinese food and my fortune cookie read: 'You are doomed to be happy in marriage.'"
And indeed she was. Berger, who had been based in Washington, quit her job to be with him. She moved back to New York City, her hometown, and found a new career anchoring public affairs programs. She was 43 when the couple wed (Hewitt was 56), in 1979, a period before the advent of today's fertility technology. "I wanted to be a mother but never connected with the right guy," she says. "By the time I connected it was too late."
She put aside those maternal yearnings for nearly three decades. But a chance encounter far from home -- on a dusty Ethiopian street populated by vendors and beggars -- upended her well-ordered, adult-centered life. Berger had gone to Addis Ababa in January 2008 to research a magazine article on Rick Hodes, MD, an American physician who works in Mother Teresa's Mission caring for desperately sick children. Chloe Malle, the daughter of Berger's friend Candice Bergen and then a Brown University senior, tagged along on the trip and one afternoon suggested walking from the clinic to their hotel -- a mile away.
During that walk they saw a little beggar holding his hand out. "He was looking up, as dirty as he could be in a green T-shirt, with these long eyelashes," Berger recalls. But what really got her attention was the child's back, which was curved in a bizarre hump. Dr. Hodes, an internist now familiar with many third-world illnesses, would later explain to Berger that this deformity signified tuberculosis of the spine. Fatal if left untreated, it is common in Ethiopia but virtually unknown in America. As they walked away, Berger remembers, "I was just haunted by this little boy." Says Malle, "Marilyn had created this entire connection between her and that boy in her mind."