Meredith Vieira: Walking Away from 'Today'

More than a year before she officially announced she was quitting the Today show, a sob story about Meredith Vieira was being peddled by the tabloids. “HUSBAND’S FAILING HEALTH MORE IMPORTANT,” declared one headline-one of many that described the anchor as poised to leave her job to tend to her ailing husband, journalist Richard Cohen, who has multiple sclerosis. The stories claimed that Vieira, faced with Cohen’s “fading health” (he is also legally blind and a two-time survivor of colon cancer), would be dumping her career to be a “full-time caregiver” to, as one article put it, a husband who “needs her more than ever.”

It makes for a moving story. But on a recent Friday afternoon it’s clear that Vieira and Cohen aren’t interested in playing out soap-operatic scenes of spousal devotion. When Cohen, 63, arrives at a PEOPLE photo shoot where his wife is being fawned over by hair and makeup artists, he walks unaided except for a simple wooden cane. Instead of rushing to his side, his supposedly devastated and doting wife, 57, doesn’t even rise from her chair. She does, however, raise an eyebrow. “That’s the shirt, huh?” she asks, assessing his checked, untucked attire. “This is a good shirt! I picked it myself!” Cohen protests. “Yeah, I can see that,” Vieira deadpans. As Cohen shrugs, Vieira walks over and gives him a kiss. “No, it’s a good shirt,” she says. “It’s good.”

No, Vieira isn’t leaving behind fame and fortune to play Cohen’s nursemaid. Yet her decision to depart Today is partly motivated by health: Cohen is actually faring well these days, and she doesn’t want to miss a minute with him (and kids Ben, 22, a recent Stanford graduate, Gabe, 19, and Lily, 18, who is about to leave for college). Those hoping for a more sentimental love story will be disappointed. When the photographer encourages Vieira and Cohen to nuzzle closer together, they roll their eyes for a moment before Vieira erupts into laughter. And while there’s no attempt to whitewash Cohen’s health issues-his cane stays in the picture-both reject the idea that, as Cohen puts it, “she’s the martyr and I’m the victim.”

A few hours later, wearing scuffed clogs and a sweatshirt so old it could date to the beginning of her career, Vieira continues to dismantle her Saint Meredith image. “As I’ve become more high-profile, that’s become the secondary story: ‘Oh, Meredith … with her sick husband.’ And I always felt it diminished me and diminished him. It was being distorted, because it looked better to make it ‘Poor Meredith, she triumphs through it all,’ and that wasn’t the case. And Richard’s saying, ‘What is this? You never tend to me! You won’t even get me a cup of coffee!’ I said, ‘I know! This scam is working!’ But enough gets to be enough.”

The grueling Today schedule has also brought her to a breaking point. For the past five years, Vieira says, she has woken at 2:30 a.m. to prepare for that day’s show. “If I get up at 4 a.m., I’m facing 20 e-mails, and I don’t handle that well,” she says. “I’d rather absorb the material, read it thoroughly, feed the cats and dog, get the kitchen in order. I have to leave the mother’s manual for everything, I need to feel on top of the day, and the only way I can do that is by getting up at 2:30. I always thought, if I could’ve figured out a way to cut corners a little bit, it would’ve been easier, but I couldn’t.” Making matters worse was her nocturnal nature; most nights she rarely falls asleep before 11 p.m. “So I’ve been going on three hours a night for the past five years,” she says with a rueful laugh. “It was starting to wreak havoc on my health, and Richard was also starting to align himself with that schedule. If it was damaging to me, you can imagine what it was doing to him.” Agrees Cohen: “The alarm goes off on both sides of the room-it’s been a very difficult five years. I have to admit, it’s a bit of a relief that she’s leaving. It’s not a natural way to live.”

Still, sleep deprivation was not the main reason Vieira decided to leave behind a reported $10 million salary. She’s learned the hard way that some things are more important than money. In addition to Cohen’s health issues, Vieira’s brother Steve, five years her elder, now has Alzheimer’s disease and lives in a nursing home; her late father had Alzheimer’s as well. “Dealing with chronic illness, and Richard’s [multiple sclerosis] is secondary progressive, we don’t know from day to day what might happen,” she says. “So why not enjoy life now? It’s very precious, and anyone living with any kind of illness knows that. Health is fleeting, and you need to celebrate it while you still have it.” Echoes Cohen: “I have no illusions about the problems I could have in the future. It seems like now is the time to go forth and do things, while we can.”

Cancer-free for years now, Cohen knows he’ll have continuing challenges to his mobility caused by his MS. Still, he is “fiercely independent. Nobody is doing triage for anybody else,” he says. “Asking for somebody to help me button a couple of buttons on my shirt isn’t the same as being helpless, yet people get this image of me in an iron lung and Meredith wrapping bandages.” Vieira has the same clear-eyed description of their union, explaining, “We’re both very stubborn, and we both have slightly warped senses of humor.” Indeed, fumbling at one point to remember a word, Vieira looks at her watch and quips, “Well, there’s the Alzheimer’s, right on cue.” Though Vieira says she and Cohen “would never be lovey-dovey-that’s not our style,” when she discusses her husband of 25 years, she can’t help but gush a little. “When we met, my first impression of him was that he was a jerk. But at the same time, I thought, in an instant, that I was going to marry him. There was just something about him; we have a connection.” Cohen told Vieira he had MS (as did his father, who lived to be 90) on their second date. “There’s a very deep love there, and it’s grounded in the adversity that we’ve dealt with,” Vieira explains. “It’s helped define us as a couple and as a family, to shape us and the way we see the world and relate to it, the way we raised our children, and who we are as a couple.”

As a couple, they have always placed a strong emphasis on family, reflecting Vieira’s own upbringing. Born in Providence, the youngest of four children and the only daughter of two first-generation Portuguese-Americans, Vieira adored her mother, Mary Elsie, and idolized her father, Edwin, a doctor. She first gained prominence in the early ’80s as a reporter for the CBS bureau in Chicago, where she met Cohen, but she got more attention in 1991, when she notably left her job on 60 Minutes when pregnant with Gabe. Reluctant to leave her kids early each day, she later turned down repeated offers from the CBS morning show during her nine-year stint on ABC’s The View. Those same family-first priorities helped make the departure from Today easier for Vieira, who tends to fret. “I worried my kids would think less of me for leaving this job, which is crazy. They couldn’t care less,” she says. “I have to remind myself: Do not define yourself by your job. It didn’t define you five years ago, it won’t define you five years from now. In my gut, I know it’s the right choice.”

Still under contract at NBC and continuing as host of the syndicated version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Vieira is unsure of her next professional steps. “I sometimes wonder what’s wrong with me that I don’t know,” she says with a sigh. “But when you’re on the treadmill you can’t think; I need to get off it long enough to focus.”

Vieira plans to start focusing this summer, with her family at their cottage on Cape Cod. “I’m looking forward to getting up in the morning and walking in my flip-flops with our dog Jasper to this incredible little bakery nearby,” she says. “I’m looking forward to finding myself again.” Acting as a sounding board, as always, will be Cohen. “Where I get emotional, Richard is levelheaded,” Vieira says. “He’s very patient; he’ll let me go on and on. But he’ll also snap me to my senses and not let me wallow.” Seems tending to each other works both ways-and that tabloid claim that Vieira will now be a “full-time caregiver” may be at least half right. “Caregiving doesn’t have to mean hot food and bedpans,” Cohen says. “Caregiving is emotional support. We’re caregivers to each other.”

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