LAST MONTH, WHEN POLICE SHOWED up at syndicated talk show host Sally Jessy Raphaël’s Manhattan apartment to inform her and her manager-husband Karl Soderlund that their 19-year-old adopted son, J.J., had been seriously injured in a car crash (PEOPLE, Feb. 3), it was enough heartache for any parent. For the next seven days J.J. lay in a coma, while Sally kept a bedside vigil. Now awake, he faces a yearlong convalescence.
But no sooner had Sally and Karl gotten their lives back to normal than tragedy struck again: At 5 A.M. on Sunday, Feb. 2, the couple was awakened in their suburban Montrose, N.Y., home by a phone call from her longtime producer and friend, Burt Dubrow. He had just received word from Susan Tettemer, the manager of a bed-and-breakfast inn that Sally and Karl own in rustic Bucks County, Pa., 70 miles west of Manhattan. Gently, Dubrow delivered the grim news that Allison Vladimir, 33, the older of Raphaël’s two daughters from her first marriage, had been found dead in a small house behind the inn.
Allison and her boyfriend, Robert Ascott, 45, a computer engineer, had arrived Saturday morning at the inn, the 150-year-old Isaac Stover House, intending to stay the weekend. At 3:15 A.M. paramedics responded to an emergency call from Ascott, who said he was unable to awaken her. After medical efforts at resuscitation had failed, Allison was rushed by ambulance to nearby Doylestown Hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 4:46 A.M..
A report issued three days later by the Bucks County coroner, Dr. Thomas J. Rosko, said that Allison had died of respiratory arrest. Before she went to bed that night, she had apparently ingested an unspecified assortment of legally obtained prescription and over-the-counter drugs she’d been taking to treat her chronic back pain (which disk-fusion surgery eight years earlier had failed to relieve). A recovering alcoholic, she also was found to have a nonintoxicating level of alcohol in her system. And she was a heavy smoker. All of which had caused her to stop breathing, said Rosko. Yet he ruled out suicide or foul play, terming her death instead “a tragic accident.”
After hearing the news, Raphaël immediately went into seclusion and canceled the taping of her syndicated TV talk show for an indefinite period. (Shows currently on the air were taped before Allison’s death.) “She reacted as any mother would who had lost her child,” says Dubrow. “I think it’s every parent’s nightmare that you outlive your child.”
This child, Sally’s firstborn, had been special. “We named her Allison after Alice in Wonderland” says her father, Andrew Vladimir, 58, a former advertising executive who now teaches sales marketing and tourism in the School of Hospitality Management at Florida International University in Miami. “She enhanced our wonderland. She really lived up to her name.” Growing up, Allison and her sister, Andrea, now 28 and a masseuse, accompanied their mom on her career path from San Juan (where Sally divorced Andrew after five years of marriage in 1964 and married Karl) to Miami to Hartford, Conn., and eventually to New York City, as Sally’s career as a radio and TV talk show host sputtered, misfired and finally skyrocketed.
Sally’s success, though, caused her daughter distress. “They were very close, and there was a lot of friction,” recalls Vladimir. “I think Allison wanted desperately to live up to what she thought Sally Jessy’s daughter ought to be like. We couldn’t reassure her that we loved her for who she was.”
Such insecurity took its toll on Allison, who lived in White Plains, N.Y., near her mother’s Montrose home. “She had a lot of problems,” her father admits. “She was overweight. She had a bad back. She smoked too much. And for a while she had a drinking problem. But she overcame that. In fact, she overcame most things. She could take lemons and turn them into lemonade.”
Sometimes literally. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and Paris’s famed La Varenne school, Allison tasted success as a chef whose delicacies graced the menus of such posh restaurants as New York City’s Windows on the World, the Four Seasons Hotel in Seattle and the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Fla. Neil Myers, a former syndicated talk radio host at NBC and one of Sally’s best friends, still savors the memory of the Thanksgiving dinner Allison cooked at Raphaël’s home last November: “She prepared a leg of lamb with a rosemary sauce and then completely dressed it up as a work of art for some 40 people. It was a pleasure to watch her operate.” Sally, he adds, “was tremendously supportive” of Allison’s career.
Although lately unemployed because of her back pain, Allison had recently shed 25 to 30 lbs. from her 5’9″ frame, says her father, and was down to 200. “I think she felt she had her life together,” he adds. “She had found a young man she was going out with. She hadn’t felt good about having relationships with men because of her weight, and now she had one.”
After getting the news of her oldest child’s death, Raphaël went to the hospital to inform her youngest. “To paraphrase J.J.,” reports Myers, “he said to her, ‘What you’ve provided me with is an even bigger reason for me to get out of this hospital bed and support you and what you have to go through now.’ Sally was nourished by that.”
The day before Allison’s Feb. 4 funeral service, friends and family spun a protective web around Sally. “Our concerns were not with her folding under the pressure of being devastated,” says Myers. “It was just to be there so she could catch her breath and go on again.”
MICHAEL A. LIPTON
SUE CARSWELL in New York City and ANDREA FINE in Bucks County