Catching Up With Maria Shriver
By Dayna Dunteman
Posted on October 31
Vince Bruce / Getty Images
From the moment he took office last November, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger rescinded, froze, launched, proposed, negotiated, persuaded, charmed and swaggered his way into a reputation across the political spectrum as an action figure. But this action figure is not sold separately. He’s packaged in a boxed set alongside a kinetic kindred spirit: his wife of 18 years, Maria Shriver.
Shriver’s verbs as California’s first lady have yet to be fully enunciated, but given her drive, political savvy, pedigreed background, professional connections and inherited sense of noblesse oblige, she’s bound to embrace the state’s causes with the muscle of Schwarzenegger at his bodybuilding best.
Face it—we are enamored with the 48-year-old Shriver in a way that we’ve never been with any other first lady, and not just because she’s married to a Hollywood icon. Just having her in Sacramento—and hearing her say she and Arnold are thinking of moving their family here—launches this city’s glam quotient into the no-gravity zone, all but obliterating our inferiority complex. First of all, there’s the whole Kennedy mystique. Shriver is the daughter of Eunice Kennedy Shriver—sister of the late President John F. Kennedy and founder of Special Olympics—and Sargent Shriver, Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern’s running mate in 1972, and chief organizer and first director of the Peace Corps. Maria herself sits on a number of charitable boards, including Special Olympics, Best Buddies and After-School All-Stars. We know her best for her nearly two-decades-long career as an award-winning journalist for NBC News and “Dateline NBC,” which she quit in early February to focus on her duties as first lady.
What many people don’t know about Shriver is this: She also is an author whose books have enjoyed significant success on the national literary landscape. Among her works are New York Times best seller Ten Things I Wish I’d Known—Before I Went Out Into the Real World and two best-selling children’s books, What’s Heaven? and What’s Wrong With Timmy? Her third children’s book, What’s Happening to Grandpa?, debuts in bookstores this month.
When Sacramento magazine publisher Mike O’Brien and I catch up with Shriver in mid-February over lunch at—where else?—that petri dish of political power, Esquire Grill (Schwarzenegger is eating here today, too, at a separate table), we learn just how autobiographical these books are in that they mirror episodes in Shriver’s own life and give us a glimpse into how she might approach issues such as death (What’s Heaven?), disability (What’s Wrong With Timmy?) and Alzheimer’s disease (What’s Happening to Grandpa?) with her four children.
Our conversation with Shriver reveals a woman who is smart, informed, confident, candid, voraciously curious and, like many of us inching toward 40 or 50, philosophical in an Oprah sort of way. She emanates potency and status like a musky perfume and yet, speaking with warmth and sensitivity about her books’ themes of love, hope, faith and acceptance, is kicked-back enough to be one of the girlfriends. And to answer the No.1 question all my girlfriends are asking: Yes, dressed in black pinstripe slacks, a black shawl and a trio of delicate necklaces—one with a charm in the shape of a cross—she is as tiny as she looks on television.
Between bites of Cobb salad (minus the blue cheese and avocado), Shriver tells us about Grandpa, the product of her own struggle coming to terms with Alzheimer’s in her family. Her 88-year-old father announced last June that he had been diagnosed with the disease and was experiencing early stages.
Shriver’s book, illustrated in baby-blanket-soft strokes by Petaluma artist Sandra Speidel, offers a poignant look at a 10-year-old girl’s family, upset by a grandfather’s memory loss. It is meant to give enlightenment, comfort and hope to both children and adults who may be dealing with Alzheimer’s in their elderly loved ones. (Heads up: Remove your mascara, unless it’s waterproof, before tackling this one with your kids.)
“It’s about trying to keep a dialogue open with children,” Shriver explains, her vowels tinted in shades of East Coast establishment. “How do they understand if someone asks them the same questions over and over, or if someone doesn’t remember what they just did? The book for me was a way to be able to explain the issue, but really also a way to encourage relationships between grandparents, the sandwich generation and children. As it says on the first page, to me, family was everything—still is. That was how I was raised, and that’s how I’m trying to raise my kids. And yet because we’re such a transient society, we lose touch with older people who spend a lot of time alone and maybe aren’t feeling so great. Maybe this book will start a conversation like, ‘Maybe we should call Grandma and Grandpa’ or ‘Maybe we should reach out to an older person down the road and include them, because they probably don’t get invited out a lot.’”
Shriver confesses that by writing Grandpa, she also was able to solidify the soup of her own emotions. “That’s why I wrote the book,” she says. “My dad, if he were sitting here, you could talk to him; he’s still an extraordinary man. But I needed to understand that my dad isn’t the same, and that that’s OK. Arnold said to me, which I thought was really good, ‘Allow your dad to be who he is. Why are you getting bogged down with he doesn’t remember this or he doesn’t remember that? Just accept who he is now and be grateful.’ And I said, ‘You are absolutely right.’ You can’t be like a 20-year-old kid with your dad at 50, and then have that image stuck where he’s always going to be 50—and then be mad at him and your mother that they’re not 50 anymore. I think it’s probably one’s own fear because you want to be the kid all the time. You want to be accepted as a grown-up, but you want [your parents] to be there and offer you advice—at least I did—and to play the role that they had played their whole life for me. And of course they’re getting older, they can’t do everything for me that they’d done before, and I didn’t like that.”
Shriver finds it immensely rewarding that her books seem to resonate with readers in a way that 20 years of journalism never could. “As a journalist,” says the Peabody- and Emmy-Award winner, “you’re always a communicator; you’re the middle person. The books—that was my voice.”
Covering the Columbine tragedy in 1999, she was deeply affected by the sight of several high-school students clutching her then-new book, What’s Heaven?, as they milled around the Columbine High School parking lot. “I was touched that somebody felt that that might make somebody feel better,” she says.
Ironically, Shriver never set out to write children’s books. Her first one, What’s Heaven?, was the result of her not getting her way at NBC, and a testament to her tenacity and resourcefulness in skirting obstacles.
“I wanted to do an hour [show] on death,” she says. “I wanted to deal with the whole hospice movement. I wanted to deal with living wills, about how the whole culture had changed regarding death. And they didn’t want to do the hour because they said people don’t want to watch a show about death. They’re not interested in the subject. And I was like, ‘OK, I’ll go write it myself. And I’ll write it as a kids’ book.’”
Little did she know, Shriver was just warming up. The ideas began to pour, many gleaned from family dinner-table conversations. She says, “My daughter said the other night, ‘Everything that happens, you say is a book! You turn everything into a book!’”
It just so happens, Shriver is flirting with another book idea—possibly a sequel to Ten Things, which was a collection of her reflections, confessions and advice about navigating life, including getting fired and struggling with her weight. (The book was derived from her 1998 commencement speech at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.) Last fall, shortly after Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy in the recall election of Gov. Gray Davis, Shriver said on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” that she married Arnold in part because “I tried to find somebody who would take me as far away from the political world as possible”—never in a million years dreaming she would wind up the first lady of California. If that isn’t fodder for a book, what is?
“I think the first thing I would say,” Shriver says, “is let go of the plan. There are so many things happening in your life that are not part of your plan. Death could affect you; that’s not in your plan. You could have a disabled child, and that certainly wasn’t in your plan. You could have a husband who runs for governor and that throws off your plan. What I’ve learned is you have to have a kind of flexibility in your life and in your mind and in your heart. These past three or four months, my whole plan has gone out the window.
Everything about it—my job is different, my husband’s job is different, we’re living in different cities. Yet I say to myself, ‘OK, let’s figure out how to navigate this one.’ Maybe I don’t know what’s in this plan yet or where it’s going to take me, but I’m not going to get overly concerned about it.
“My whole life in many ways prepared me for the campaign of the fall and where I am today. My entire life, having been spent in campaigns and being of service, was incredible. My journalism is a valuable tool. I don’t know anybody who could have that kind of training.
“I know who I am, I know what my values are, my ethics, my principles. I know what I expect of myself. And the rest I’m going to be open to try to navigate.”
The din of the dark-suited lunch crowd—which up to now has been just a few decibels shy of Arco Arena during a Kings game—skips a beat, like a rest in a lively musical score, and soon we know why: Gov. Schwarzenegger has finished his lunch in the back room and is now sweeping in our direction, entourage in tow. He spies his wife, kisses her and slides into the booth next to her, his broad form filling up most of the space.
Schwarzenegger stays seated just long enough to flip through a couple of Sacramento magazine issues publisher O’Brien has given to Shriver. The governor’s finger, with its lapis lazuli ring, settles on a piece in last October’s issue about 30 powerful local women. Smiling, the governor glances from O’Brien and me to his wife and back again as if to say, “This year, let’s make that 31.”
But at this point, just a few months into her Republican husband’s administration, this Democratic wife is less concerned about making her mark—for now—than about maintaining stability, smoothing the transition, for the sake of the couple’s four children, Katherine, 14; Christina, 12; Patrick, 10; and Christopher, 6. It is Shriver’s belief that if you don’t get the mom thing right, not much else matters.
As Schwarzenegger departs for a meeting, our conversation drifts toward Shriver’s home life and how the family is coping now that Dad is governor. Shriver describes a routine that, oddly and refreshingly, doesn’t sound that much different from my own, even though I’m pretty sure she hasn’t had to plunge a toilet lately or figure out how to stop an army of ants from goose-stepping into an open box of Lucky Charms.
Shriver tells us she’s been coming to Sacramento once a week; much of the rest of her time is spent at home in Brentwood while Schwarzenegger bunks at the Hyatt Regency. It’s going to be this way at least until the end of the school year.
She says, “People have said to me, ‘Well, why don’t you move up there?’ And I said, ‘Well, first of all, there is no home.’ And everybody I’ve mentioned that to is shocked by [no permanent governor’s mansion]. And I can’t really put four kids in a hotel and expect that that would work for anybody. But I’ve said that I haven’t ruled out the notion of moving here if I could actually get a home and get myself organized. But it didn’t work to move my kids mid-schoolyear, and for them it’s enough of an upheaval.”
Day-to-day routine seems to be the saving grace for this family still tingling from their daring polar-bear plunge into the frothy waters of California politics. Not since the Reagan administration has there been a California governor with children living at home.
Shriver says, “Somebody asked me the other day, ‘What do we want to say are your accomplishments for your first 100 days [as first lady]?’ And I would say that, ‘I kept my kids sane and normal.’ No matter what I did, whether I stayed working or was a full-time first lady, that had to be my priority. It’s huge; I mean, everything is different and yet you try to keep everything the same. We put a hotline in Dad’s office that’s just for the kids. A lot of government leaders have a hotline to the National Guard; Arnold has a hotline just for the kids. Our 10-year-old son uses it numerous times. Arnold said, ‘Shouldn’t there be some limits on the hotline?’ I said, ‘No. There can’t be any limits on the hotline.’ You want your kids to feel that even though Dad has changed jobs, they’re still the focus of your world.”
As with most moms of school-age children, much of Shriver’s life is a blur from the driver’s seat, ruled by the almighty to-do list attached to her dashboard. “Arnold says, ‘You’re insane the way you drive around with this.’ I say, ‘But that’s my life!’ That’s a lot of women’s lives,” Shriver says.
Shriver spends a great deal of time ferrying the kids to their sports events, trying not to cheer too loudly because it embarrasses them, and resolving not to care that some other kid’s domestic-goddess mother brought homemade brownies in a basket for a snack while Shriver herself (who admits to lacking both time and culinary skills) could only manage Ritz Bits. She has learned to let it go.
“I try not to set myself up as someone who can do it all,” she says. “I feel like I’m trying to achieve balance. I know how to be successful at work; that’s easy for me. What’s hard for me is how to be successful at work, and successful in my marriage, and successful in my kids. I feel like women often set themselves up comparing themselves to other people. We compare ourselves to these women who are on the cover of Vogue and [Harper’s] Bazaar. My daughter will say, ‘Wow, look at Paris Hilton!’ I’m like, yeah, I feel bad. Well, I’ve had four kids; I’m [older]. You have to snap out of it. The only advice I have is to be you. Don’t feel less than because someone else may be doing it better. So a single mother of four should never compare herself to me because it’s an unfair comparison.”
Busy as she is at home, Shriver hasn’t had much time to explore Sacramento or get to know many people here. But she is pleasantly surprised by what she’s seen so far. “I don’t feel that I’ve been able to go out and get a cup of coffee with four girls I’ve met. I haven’t been able to find out, ‘Where’s your kid in school?’ or ‘Where’s the best park?’ or ‘What do you do on Friday afternoons? Where’s the best movie theater?’” she says. “Even though I’ve tried to go to different restaurants and meet people and get a sense of the community, it’s not the same as when you’re driving yourself around and you’re in school and you’re settled, versus living in a hotel and going to meetings. Even if I had done it the other way, I wouldn’t feel at home two months into a place anyway. But I definitely really like it here, and I really like the sense of community here. I like the fact that people know each other here. I have liked [Sacramento] much more than I was led to believe I would like it.”
O’Brien and I cringe. Here it comes. Cow town.
“What were you led to believe?” I ask.
Shriver says, “People have said to us, ‘Oh, my God, you’re not going to move to Sacramento, are you?’ I said, ‘Sacramento’s much better than you think it is.’ There’s culture here, there are great restaurants here, there are great people here, there are great sports here. I say that to people and they’re like, ‘Really?’ I say, ‘Have you ever been there?’ And they’re like, ‘No.’”
Shriver never utters the C-word; that’s how strongly she feels against labeling anything, be it a city, a person or a group. She even carried her anti-labeling message into last fall’s campaign.
“People would say, ‘Oh, I’ve never voted for a Republican,’” she says. “I was like, ‘Would you ever say to your children, ‘You can only play with a Republican’ or ‘You can only play with a Democrat’? And they said, ‘Of course I would never say that.’ And I said, ‘But that’s what you’re saying as an adult. Why would you not play with the Democrats and the Republicans? Forget that you’re a Democrat or a Catholic or a Republican or a Jew or a black. Just accept people for who they are. We all get bogged down by our labels, just like Sacramento gets bogged down by its label. You can escape it if you don’t buy into it. And so for me, I look at Sacramento and think it’s a great community—a place to raise a family, a place to be connected, a place to have a sense of pride. The other label, I don’t use it. It’s not part of my experience here.”
As our meal comes to a close, a plate of chocolate-chip cookies arrives mysteriously at the table. Shriver laughs, explaining that the folks at the Esquire are indulging a standing request. She grabs two for the road: “I’m a cookie freak!”
You didn’t think action figures ran on lettuce alone, did you?
Maria Shriver: A Snapshot
In the Beginning
Full Name: Maria Owings Shriver
Birth Date: Nov. 6, 1955
Home Sweet Home(s)
Current Primary Residence: Brentwood, an upscale district west of the city of Los Angeles
Vacation Homes: Sun Valley, Idaho and Hyannis Port, Mass.
All She Wrote
Maria’s books include What’s Heaven? (February 1999), Ten Things I Wish I’d Known—Before I Went Out Into the Real World (April 2000), What’s Wrong With Timmy? (October 2001), What’s Happening to Grandpa? (May 2004)
From Plaid Skirt To Mortarboard
After attending Catholic elementary and high schools, Maria graduated from Georgetown University in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in American Studies.
Maria began her career as a news writer/producer for KYW–TV in Philadelphia in 1977. In 1978, she moved to WJZ–TV in Baltimore as a writer/producer on the station’s “Evening Magazine.” Later, she went on-air as a reporter in the Los Angeles bureau of CBS News and became the co-anchor of “The CBS Morning News” (from which she was fired because of low ratings). In 1986, she joined NBC News, where she became an NBC News correspondent, a contributing anchor for “Dateline NBC” and a contributing correspondent for MSNBC. She quit NBC in February 2004, saying that it became clear to her that as California’s first lady, her journalistic integrity would constantly be scrutinized.
Starry-eyed for Mr. Universe
Arnold at a Glance: Maria’s husband, Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger, was born July 30, 1947, in Thal, a village outside Graz, Austria. He came to the United States in 1968 at age 21. Arnold received a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Wisconsin, Superior, in 1979, and became a U.S. citizen in the early 1980s. The seven-time Mr. Olympia and five-time Mr. Universe (both amateur and professional) has been in more than 30 movies, including Conan the Barbarian, Predator, The Terminator and its sequels, along with Twins and Kindergarten Cop. Schwarzenegger was sworn in as the 38th governor of California on Nov. 17, 2003.
How Maria and Arnold Met: At a 1977 charity tennis tournament at the home of Maria’s aunt Ethel Kennedy. She was 21; he was 30.
Hitched in Hyannis: Maria and Arnold were married before 450 guests on April 26, 1986, at St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church in Hyannis on Cape Cod, Mass.
Bridal Quote (referring to the groom, said to her uncle Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.): “Don’t look at him as a Republican. Look at him as the man I love, and if that doesn’t work, look at him as someone who can squash you.”
Nuptial Notes: Maria’s cousin Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, was the maid of honor. The bride wore tennis shoes beneath her Christian Dior gown because she had two broken toes. The wedding cake, a 7-foot, eight-tiered affair weighing 425 pounds, was a replica of the cake Maria’s parents, Sargent and Eunice Shriver, celebrated their “I do’s” with 33 years before.
House Full of Men: Maria was the only daughter born to Sargent and Eunice Shriver. She has four brothers: Bobby, Timothy, Mark and Anthony.
The Next Generation: Maria and Arnold have four children—Katherine, born Dec. 13, 1989; Christina, born June 16, 1991; Patrick, born Sept. 18, 1993; and Christopher, born Sept. 27, 1997.
Mom’s Mission: Maria’s mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver (pictured at right), is the younger sister of the late President John F. Kennedy. While Maria was growing up, Eunice ran a camp for mentally retarded children in the family’s back yard. The camp evolved into Special Olympics, which today serves more than 1 million developmentally disabled people in more than 150 countries. Maria’s brother Timothy is the program’s president and CEO.
Dad’s Deeds: Maria’s father, World War II veteran Sargent Shriver, became the founding director of the Peace Corps in 1961. Named by President Lyndon B. Johnson to direct the War on Poverty, he headed the Office of Economic Opportunity in the mid-’60s, and under its auspices launched Head Start, Job Corps, Legal Services for the Poor and VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). Shriver was the U.S. ambassador to France from 1968 to 1970, served as Democrat George McGovern’s running mate in the 1972 presidential election, and himself ran in the 1976 presidential primaries. He was president and chairman of Special Olympics from 1984 to spring 2003.
Other Famous Kin
John F. Kennedy: Maria’s uncle, the 35th U.S. president (1961–63), inspired Americans during his inaugural speech with the injunction, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” The youngest man ever elected President, JFK’s defining moment in office is considered to be the Cuban Missile Crisis, for which he is credited with preventing nuclear war with the Soviet Union. President Kennedy was assassinated Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, at age 46. Kennedy’s alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was shot and killed by Jack Ruby two days later.
Robert F. Kennedy: Another of Maria’s uncles, Robert F. Kennedy, served as the U.S. attorney general during his brother’s presidency. He later became a Democratic senator representing New York and a presidential candidate. He was shot on June 5, 1968, in Los Angeles after winning the California primary for the upcoming presidential election. He died the next day. Sirhan Sirhan is serving a life sentence for commission of the crime.
Sen. Edward Kennedy: This uncle, one of America’s leading liberal politicians, was first elected to the Senate in 1962 to fill the vacancy left by his brother, John F. Kennedy, when the latter became president of the United States. Edward Kennedy was critically injured in a plane crash on June 19, 1964. On July 18, 1969, he was involved in a car crash on the island of Chappaquiddick in Massachusetts. His passenger, campaign aide Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned.
Caroline Bouvier Kennedy Schlossberg: Two years younger than Maria, Caroline was born in November 1957. Daughter of late President John F. Kennedy and the late Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, she attended Radcliffe, trained at Sotheby’s Institute of Art and met her future husband, Edwin Arthur Schlossberg, while working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A graduate of Columbia Law School, she has co-authored two books, In Our Defense—The Bill of Rights in Action and The Right to Privacy, with author Ellen Alderman.
John F. Kennedy Jr.: Maria’s cousin “John-John,” son of the late President Kennedy and the late Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, was born Nov. 25, 1960. He was named People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” in 1988 and in 1995 launched George, a glossy political magazine. JFK Jr. was killed along with his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister Lauren Bessette when the single-engine plane he was piloting crashed near Martha’s Vineyard on July 16, 1999.