Jennifer Frey drank herself to death.
Frey’s obituary in the Washington Post, her last full-time employer, merely gave “multiple organ failure” as the cause of her March 26 death. But alcohol killed her as surely as a bullet killed Lincoln.
She died abusing a drug that kills millions of people every year. But the life of Jennifer Frey was not a common one.
Frey was a can’t miss kid in sportswriting in the early 1990s. Just months out of Harvard, she was subjected to a high-profile episode of sexual harassment on the job. In response, Frey spoke forcibly and with righteousness for her gender and her profession in print and on national television as the controversy over women in locker rooms crested.
“There is a lot of talk about the players’ indignation at being forced to allow women into their dressing room,” Frey wrote while still an intern at the Miami Herald. “Few people are aware of the indignities felt by women beat reporters who are frequently harassed by athletes who do not understand that the women are there to do a job, not enjoy a peep show.
“It is not fun for a woman to go into a male locker room. It is not exciting. It did not ‘turn me on’ when a major-league baseball player dropped his pants and asked me to evaluate his anatomy.”
Soon after, she was wowing her elders at the Philadelphia Daily News and New York Times, and, in an era before the internet, writing reported stories at a blogger’s pace. Frey was also living like someone ready to take Manhattan and then the world. Everybody who knew her through the 1990s remembers Frey as both the organizer and the life of every party, and a party could be found in every town Frey filed copy from.
“Along with everything else she had, she was so much fun,” says Chuck Culpepper, a writer at the Lexington Herald Leader when he met Frey at a 1991 NCAA tournament game. “My God, was she fun.”
Mike Wise, who first worked with her at the New York Times in the early 1990s, vouches for the good times that awaited anybody lucky enough to be near vintage Jennifer Frey. “Being around her, you were just in awe,” he says. “If friends are going out for dinner, she would find the best place, and it didn’t feel like you were meeting her for dinner, it felt like you were in a parade going down Broadway and she was leading it.”
Frey was recruited from the Times by the Washington Post in 1995, at a time when the sports section was as stacked with big names as at any time in the history of the newspaper. Frey was set to become as big a deal as anybody on the masthead.
That never happened.
“She was incredible, a shooting star,” says Jeff Bradley, an assistant athletic director at Harvard when she was sports editor at the school paper. “And then she just fell off the face of the earth.”
It turns out that Frey’s hard living outlasted her usefulness as a journalist. The Post’s obit contained glowing quotes about Frey from a 1997 column by David Carr, the future New York Times icon, who back then was editor and media columnist for Washington City Paper: “Frey is a certified prodigy who can do it all: X’s and O’s, empathetic profiles, and hard takedowns when the situation requires it,” Carr wrote.
Yet other parts of that same Carr column, unreferenced in the Post’s obit, foreshadowed Frey’s fall, hinting all those years ago that her admirers were so blinded by her talents that they were ignoring the closeness of her relationship with booze.
Jody Goldstein, a former Houston Chronicle reporter who became a running buddy of Frey’s in the 1990s, was among a few friends from journalism who stuck with Frey after her bylines stopped. She says Frey’s alcoholism never loosened its grip.
“I asked Jennifer once, ‘What made you drink today?’” says Goldstein. “And she said, ‘That’s just what I do. I get up. I drink.’ That was her life.”
And Frey kept drinking even after it cost her a career, custody of her child, her house, and most of her friendships. Whenever doctors told her she’d die if she didn’t give up alcohol, she tried to call their bluff—until earlier this year, when she was told her liver was beyond repair.
Frey hoped to get a new organ through donation, but her application was rejected. Being kept off the transplant list was a death sentence. Lots of people who considered themselves close to Frey during the early, enthralling portions of her career were brought up to speed by an internet posting from Goldstein earlier this year explaining that the end was near and asking for money for Frey’s only child. Jaundiced but booze-free, Frey hosted visitors in her hospital room to talk about the good old days. Her final audiences reminded longtime friends what they’d lost years earlier.
No appreciation of her life appeared in the Washington Post, as noted by a commenter on its website who rhetorically asked if one was coming. (“If not, shame on you ALL,” the reader posted.) Perhaps nobody at the paper wanted to write it. Intellectually, her former colleagues know they weren’t equipped to fight the alcoholism and mental illness that took Frey down; many nonetheless have guilt that she was allowed to slide so silently.
“I still can’t wrap my arms around her quiet exit and decline,” says Vinnie Perrone, a longtime Washington Post writer who was close to Frey before and during her time at the paper. “She was brilliant, she was a worker, she lit up any room she was in. She knew everybody and was liked by everybody in the business. We were all moths to her porchlight. There was a time when all these people would be glad to see her and be around her. But when the need arose, when she needed people, where were they? Where were we?”
“The smartest person I’ve ever met”
Frey’s earliest national notices as a sportswriter came in 1990, all thanks to then-Detroit Tigers ace Jack Morris being a chauvinistic ass.
Her journalism career started years earlier, when she answered a want ad in the Olean Times Herald for an internship. She was in 10th grade at Allegany Central High School, and stayed with the paper through graduation. Her job description entailed far more than compiling scores and game summaries from high schools in a western New York community best known for St. Bonaventure University.
“All that stuff was beneath her,” says Times Herald sports editor Chuck Pollock. “We had her covering everything—football, girls and boys soccer, girls and boys basketball. I’d never had somebody like that. Jenny could do it all. And she did it all with charisma and this dynamic quality.”
Brains ran in the family. Frey’s father—a math PhD and St. Bonaventure professor—and her schoolteacher mother divorced when Jennifer was in elementary school. But Jeff Frey, her older brother and a Cornell grad, says that before the parents split he and Jennifer competed nightly at the dinner table to solve arithmetic brain teasers from Dad. (Frey’s father died in an auto accident in 2000; her mother, younger brother and daughter declined interview requests.)
Pollock recalls introducing Frey to another Times Herald writer at a lunch at the Beef n’ Barrel, an Olean eatery. After the meal, the other writer told him, “That was the smartest person I’ve ever met.”
Pollock says Frey made it clear that her dream college was Georgetown University. That might be the only goal Frey went for and never achieved; her admission application was rejected by the school. Pollock says he wrote a mostly angry letter to the Georgetown president telling him they were making a big mistake by not taking his star intern, and asking for reconsideration. He never got a response.
So she settled for Harvard.
Frey had also told him she wanted to be a corporate lawyer when she grew up. “Jenny called me and said, ‘I changed my mind: I want to be a sportswriter,’ and she wanted to work for the New York Times,” Pollock says.
Jeff Bradley watched Frey work during Harvard’s 1988-89 hockey season, while he was assistant AD and she covered the team all the way to its first NCAA title. “Everybody was smart, but she was just different from everybody else there,” says Bradley, who after a quarter-century sportswriting career now flacks for Toronto FC of the MLS. “She was so good, and she had this blue collar attitude that you really didn’t see in Cambridge. She was doing a full load of classes, getting the interviews and writing the stories you didn’t expect from a college kid, and doing all this while working nights waiting tables at a German restaurant [the Wursthaus] in Harvard Square. I was taken by her, no question.”
Frey took a summer internship with the Detroit Free Press upon graduating in 1990. She got lots of attention almost immediately—though not the kind she would have hoped for. No, Frey owed her first national notice to an ace pitcher being a jerk. She was at Tiger Stadium before a game and approached Jack Morris in the locker room for an interview. Slightly varying versions of Morris’ exact phrasing were published at the time, but the consensus quote had him telling the intern, “I don’t talk to women when I’m naked unless they’re on top of me or I’m on top of them.”
Frey told her editors what had happened. Neal Shine, publisher of the Free Press, wrote a letter about the incident to Bo Schembechler, who became president of the team after a legendary run coaching Michigan football. Neither Schembechler nor anybody with the organization disputed Frey’s version of what the player said. But instead of apologizing, Schembechler wrote back attacking Frey and her bosses. He told Shine that “your intern watched men from 20 to 65 years of age undress and dress for more than half an hour without asking questions.”
“Your sports editor’s lack of common sense in sending a female college intern in a men’s clubhouse caused the problem,” Schembechler wrote. “I really wouldn’t doubt that the whole thing was a scam orchestrated by you people to create a story.”
Schembechler said he wouldn’t let any female member of his family into that locker room “regardless of their job description.”
M.L. Elrick, who befriended Frey when they both were Free Press interns and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize with the paper for coverage that led to the resignation and imprisonment of Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, remembers Morris’s behavior becoming a “big deal” at the paper. “We had that letter from Bo posted on the newsroom wall,” says Elrick. “That was just caveman shit.”
Frey’s run-in with Morris was a big deal elsewhere, too: Sports Illustrated reported on Morris’ behavior. After all, these matters had already been litigated years before. MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn had claimed that banning female sportswriters from baseball locker rooms was necessary for the “preservation of traditional notions of decency and propriety,” only to have the federal courts inform him in 1978 that his ban was unconstitutional. Frey’s mistreatment incited the neanderthals’ last stand. Her story soon blew up because of two NFL locker-room incidents that fall. In September 1990, Lisa Olson of the Boston Herald was taunted in the New England Patriots locker room by a mob of players. Olson said tight end Zeke Mowatt flashed his genitals at her and said, “Is this what you want? Do you want to take a bite out of this?” while his teammates yelled, “Give her what she wants!” When she complained, Patriots owner Victor Kiam reportedly said, “I can’t disagree with the players’ actions” and called Olson a “classic bitch.” After an NFL investigation led by Watergate investigator Philip Heymann, the league fined three players and the team a total of $72,500 for the treatment of Olson.
Frey won the Free Press Intern of the Year award, then left Detroit at summer’s end to take another internship at the Miami Herald. Right away she wrote a piece on the Morris and Olson matters and the state of women in sportswriting: “Male sports writers have lined up to defend Olson, as they did for me in late July and early August,” Frey wrote. “Their anger at her treatment and their words of support are evidence of the changing attitudes within the sports journalism field. But that field is still predominantly male, and it still operates according to rules and traditions instituted by male sports writers and male athletes. One of those traditions—the locker-room interview—remains the basic means of covering a professional sports team. Women sports writers did not create the rules, but their job descriptions require that they follow them.”
The day after the Miami Herald ran Frey’s story—and clearly as a reaction to the media firestorm around the abuse of her and Olson—Cincinnati Bengals coach Sam Wyche flaunted his bonehead bona fides by barring USA Today reporter Denise Tom from his team’s locker room after a loss.
Phil Donahue quickly invited Frey to face off against Wyche on Donahue, his popular syndicated TV talk show. (According to NBC Universal, which now owns the Donahue archive, all official video of the episode with Frey was lost in a 2009 fire. I acquired a transcript of her appearance through an online auction house.)
To his credit, Wyche kept up the cretin act on national television. “Believe me,” Wyche said, “there is no reason for a female to be in that locker room.”
After Frey went over Morris’ behavior, and spoke common sense—reporters of any gender need access to the locker room to do their job—Wyche tried patronizing her.
“I can’t tell you how much I want to be on your side,” he said. “I’m trying to find a way so that you can be doing your job even better, even faster, and in a more—in a comfortable situation for both sides.”
Frey was in no mood to be patronized. She interrupted Wyche, and said, “Locking me out of the locker room when you let the men in is not the answer.”
Frey got peeved with the host late in the broadcast for coming out of a commercial with a scene from Steel Magnolias featuring the characters played by Olympia Dukakis and Shirley MacLaine in a football locker room. Dukakis spends her interview time asking a team official only fluffy questions about uniform colors, while MacLaine ogles naked players as they walk by. “You set the show back an hour!” Frey told Donahue.
Donahue was impressed with his young guest.
“Boy, you have thought about this one, haven’t you?” Donahue said.
Frey came out of the Morris encounter okay. “We always say a man had balls. Well, Jennifer had uterus,” says Wise, her Times and Post colleague, who now writes for ESPN’s The Undefeated. “And she had a lot of principle when it came to being a woman in the profession, how they deserved to be treated equally.”
Morris left Detroit for the Minnesota Twins for the 1991 season. Frey was at the Philadelphia Daily News by then. The two crossed paths while she covered the Minnesota vs. Toronto series in the ALCS. She told friends that the Twins’ Kirby Puckett had to keep Morris from physically attacking her.
“She told me when she ran into Morris, he said, ‘You’re a bitch!’ And she said, ‘You’re an asshole!’” says Culpepper, a friend of Frey’s since the early 1990s who now writes for the Washington Post. “One of those was true—and she wasn’t a bitch.”
Morris is now a broadcaster with the Minnesota Twins. Team spokesman Dustin Morse said Morris “will not be responding” to Deadspin’s request for comment on his run-ins with Jennifer Frey.
“We were all thinking, ‘Wow, we’d sure like to be Jennifer Frey.’”
Frey’s co-workers in Philly, where she had her first staff job as a writer, knew about her from the Morris kerfuffle. But she wowed ‘em fast with her aggressive reporting and getting people to talk after a car crash involving Lenny Dykstra and Darren Daulton of the Phillies. The local heroes were seriously injured in the wee hours of May 6, 1991, when Dykstra drove off the road after leaving teammate John Kruk’s bachelor party. Kruk wouldn’t divulge who else on the Phillies roster was at his bash. But, hours after the crash, Frey showed up at Smokey Joe’s, the bar in Wayne, Pa. where the party was held. Colleagues recall that Frey coaxed the bar’s regulars to stop protecting the players and out the drinking-buddy teammates. Her story retraced the drunken escapades that led to Dykstra’s $92,700 Mercedes slamming into two trees at high speed. Dykstra’s blood alcohol level was later found to be more than twice the legal limit.
Her work in Philadelphia was cited by the Associated Press Sport Editors in year-end best-of roundups, and enhanced the reputation she’d gotten from the Morris flap. Sandra Rosenbush, deputy sports editor at the New York Times in the early 1990s and now with ESPN, says that she first noticed Frey during the Morris drama, and kept watching her in Philly. Rosenbush told her boss, Neil Amdur, the Times sports editor from 1990 to 2002, that he should hire her. Amdur had been given a green light by the paper’s highest-ups to expand the section so it could compete with other, historically more sports-focused papers in the market.
Amdur looked at Frey and agreed. “I was looking to hire aggressive young people who could compete against the tabloids,” Amdur recalls. “I thought Jennifer was of that mode. I mean, pull her clips. She wrote it and nailed it. She had really strong journalistic chops.”
Mark Kram Jr., who shared bylines with her on the Dykstra/Dalton stories, tried to talk her out of leaving Philly for New York. Didn’t work.
“I think she looked at the Daily News as a stepping stone,” says Kram. “But I can still remember talking with her that day, how full of exuberance she was, full of excitement. She was on her way, you know?”
(Frey, several years and two newspapers later, wrote a long feature on Kram’s father, the author and top-shelf sportswriter Mark Kram Sr., for the Washington Post after publication of his 2001 book on Ali-Frazier, Ghosts of Manila.)
When Frey accepted the Times’ offer, her pal Culpepper admits, he and all of her friends were awed, and, sure, envious of the attention she was getting from folks at the top of their profession, however much she deserved it.
“Jennifer was barely 24 years old, and it was like everybody in the world wanted her,” says Culpepper. “We were all thinking, ‘Wow, we’d sure like to be Jennifer Frey.’”
Frey told her family she was the Times’s youngest staff reporter when she was hired, and that the paper gave her a signing bonus hefty enough to pay off her student loans. She called up Pollock, her first boss at the Olean Times Herald, to let him know she was going to the New York Times, just like she told him she would as a teenager. “I knew she’d get there,” says Pollock. “I didn’t think she’d get there that fast.”
Frey was put on the New York Rangers beat, working alongside Joe Lapointe, the paper’s lead hockey writer. Lapointe had been at the Detroit Free Press before leaving in 1989 and heading to the Times. He says he’d followed the Morris saga, and that his friends in Detroit had told him all about the kid from Harvard who’d break big stories on whatever beat she was filling in for. “Her reputation preceded her,” he says. “She was somebody that everybody in the business knew as an up-and-coming-star.”
To Lapointe’s eyes, she lived up to her billing immediately. He still crows about how she took time out from finishing her deadline story on a New York Rangers/Washington Capitals game to help him with his piece about a blood feud between the Rangers’ Alexei Kovalev and Dale Hunter of the Caps.
“Jennifer was the best teammate I ever had,” he says. “She realized that on a beat, there was enough to go around for everybody. There was nothing petty about her. And she had amazing leadership qualities. After the game she’d tell me or [fellow Times veterans] Dave Anderson or George Vecsey what she was going to write, and then suggest stories for us. And she’d always leave you thinking that she gave you the best story idea. Then she’d go get you quotes that fit perfectly and made your story better. To me, she was a genius.”
Good as she was at gamers, Frey had already mastered the takeout story, too. She favored profiles of folks going through brutal times. Early in her stint at the Times, she flew out to Southern California, to interview Rangers star Bernie Nicholls in a hallway of the pediatrics ward of a Long Beach hospital, where his two-month old son lay comatose with no chance of survival. On day 10 of this death watch, Frey found Nicholls debating whether to stay with his family until the end or to rejoin the Rangers. He decided to fly back to the team. “You have to let go,” Nicholls told Frey. “It’s a tough thing to think about, but the reality is, you have to. Playing will be good for me.”
She crossed the country for another soul-crushing story in 1994, a profile of Glenn Burke, the first former Major League Baseball player to come out as gay. She found Burke broke, drug-addicted, and dying of AIDS, shortly after he had been taken off the streets to live with his sister, Lutha Davis, in a cramped Oakland apartment.
From the story:
Lutha Davis rubs her little brother’s feet on the days when the pain gets to be horribly bad. AIDS attacks where a person is weakest, and Burke is weakest in his right leg and foot, where his body was pinned together with iron rods after he was struck by the car in 1987. His feet are swollen to three times their normal size, his insteps and calves covered with large, purple-black lesions. “It scares me, it hurts so much,” Burke said. “All I do is lie in bed and cry and holler for Lutha.”
And a year later, she profiled Curt Blefary, who had been the 1965 American League rookie of the year with the Baltimore Orioles, as the ex-ballplayer was losing his decades-old fight with alcoholism. Her lede: “He started around 8:30 A.M., shortly after his wife, Lana, left for work. For Curt Blefary, the drink of choice was whisky, a blend called Philadelphia. He took it with barely a splash of water and a handful of ice. By noon, he would have finished more than a quart.”
“I had a problem when I was playing, but nobody ever had the guts to tell me,” Blefary told Frey. “Back then, people were more likely to bring you another drink than ask if you had a problem.” (Blefary died in 2001 of pancreatitis, caused by his alcohol abuse.)
Lapointe was among many floored by the ingenue. “She could do twice the work anybody else would,” says Lapointe. “She would come off one story and immediately fly across the country to do another. I was with her on one flight and she had 10 newspapers with her, and spent the whole flight taking the sports sections out and tearing stories out and pulling them all together.”
Frey was on the Rangers beat in 1994 when the franchise won its first Stanley Cup in half a century.
Mike Wise says Frey, new as she was to New York, acted like she owned the city. He recalls sitting with Frey in her apartment in Brooklyn Heights after she’d thrown a party, and just being really happy. “We’re looking out the window at the Statue of Liberty, just this amazing view,” says Wise. “And Jennifer said, ‘It’s a pretty good life isn’t it?’ It was.”
But Frey soon wanted more.
“I think she saw herself in a larger place”
The more traditional route to stardom in journalism had gone north on I-95 from D.C. to Manhattan. So you’d think George Solomon, longtime sports editor of the Washington Post, would have had a tough time prying Frey from the Times. But in 1995, the Post’s sports section was enjoying a heyday, loaded with current and future sports-media superstars including Tony Kornheiser, Michael Wilbon, John Feinstein, and Christine Brennan, and was viewed as a very friendly spot for sportswriters and sportswriting.
Solomon, who now directs the sports journalism program at the University of Maryland, tells me he’d been reading Frey’s work and hoping to bring her in for a while. “And a job opened up,” he says. Solomon made a pitch to Frey, who after the Rangers won the Cup was in her first year on the New York Mets beat.
Amdur now says he wanted and tried to keep her in New York, but the Post’s offer was hard to match. “Jennifer was a very ambitious, very aggressive, and very talented young woman,” says Amdur. “I think she saw herself in a larger place in journalism than as a baseball beat writer. I think George could offer her things that I couldn’t, like work as a columnist.”
She had friendly faces to look forward to seeing in D.C., also: Post deputy sports editor Tracee Hamilton held the same position with the Detroit Free Press when Frey was the star intern there. Frey took Solomon’s offer, and Solomon put her right to work. She was banging out previews and gamers in every time zone and on everything from NCAA basketball to the tennis tour to the Indy 500 to the Kentucky Derby to title fights. In the pre-blogger era, the volume of her copy was as impressive as its range. Just one example: While covering her first U.S. Open tennis tournament for the Post, she had 12 bylines between Sept. 5 and Sept. 11, 1995.
“She could do it all, and everybody knew it,” says Vinnie Perrone, her colleague at the Post through the 1990s.
Asked to pick any nights where her tools seemed particularly sharp, Perrone recalls working alongside Frey at the Hector Camacho vs. Sugar Ray Leonard fight in March 1997.
“She’s writing as the fight’s going on, she’s synthesizing what’s going on in real time,” Perrone says. “And reading the piece the next day, she made the fight a metaphor for [Leonard’s] life, and it was just so good, and I’m like, Jesus. What a mind. What a talent.”
She did columns, too, with no limit to her topical range. Her first column for the Post blasted a Northern Virginia high school baseball team that for years had been intentionally using a Ku Klux Klan logo as its good luck charm. Also right out of the gate, she wrote an appreciation of Mickey Mantle upon his death; Frey argued that Mantle, who died soon after undergoing a liver transplant necessitated by alcohol abuse, deserved hero worship despite his own assertions that his personal foibles made him an unworthy role model. Another early Frey column had her telling the story of Bobby Joe Edmonds, who was trying to come back to the NFL after a five-year absence because of his alcoholism.
“When you lead the league in punt returns—which Edmonds did in 1986 and 1987—life is one big party,” Frey wrote, “and it seems like no amount of beer can take that away.”
Frey was still in the party phase.
“Only if we get two.”
Wherever Frey was, booze was sure to flow.
“The parties were always in Jennifer’s room,” Chuck Culpepper says, “and they always went into the wee hours, and they were legendary. She was unforgettable.”
Derby parties became a staple for Frey. “She’d get a massive suite and the bathtub was filled with ice and booze,” says Perrone. “And it wasn’t just journalists at her parties. The principals from the race would show up. Everybody knew about Jennifer’s parties.”
There was also March Madness revelry at whichever regional Frey was sent to.
“We were at an NCAA regional in Arizona and went out to dinner,” says one writer, “and Jennifer ordered a bottle of Jack London cabernet. I said, ‘Isn’t George [Solomon] going to say something if you expense that?’ And Jennifer said, ‘Only if we get two.’ Then she smiled and said, ‘We might get two.’” They got more than two.
Culpepper remembers the aftermath of covering the NFC championship game in 1995, in which the San Francisco 49ers hosted the Dallas Cowboys. Frey, who was also in the Bay Area for work, joined him on a spontaneous post-game two-day trip to Alaska, conceived only because Culpepper had already been to every other state. “We didn’t even have coats,” he says. “The key with her was, if you suggested such a thing, she was right there with you, uncommonly alive.” Much of the mini-voyage was spent in an Anchorage bar called Darwin’s Theory, where they “just talked to locals.”
And that time Frey couldn’t make it to the 1995 Kentucky Derby because she was covering a Mets game in Cincinnati. She asked Culpepper to place a $20 win bet on Thunder Gulch. Her horse came in, so Frey drove down to Louisville after filing her gamer and collected her $510 winnings. She spent much of it on a night out in Kentucky before driving back to cover baseball the next afternoon.
Though working for newspapers in different cities, he and Frey made lots of trips together in 1990s, including one to the 1993 Derby where his father also came. Culpepper and Frey shared a Louisville hotel room that weekend, and Culpepper says he always wondered if Dad assumed or hoped they were a couple. Any such romantic speculation, however, ended when Culpepper, with Frey’s support and counsel, came out to his family and peers as gay. Years of being another sort of rare bird in the same profession gave her empathy others in the field lacked, Culpepper believes, citing her 1994 Glenn Burke profile as proof. “That was when papers didn’t tend to do gay stories about sports,” Culpepper says.
Culpepper says he craved being in Frey’s orbit in the 1990s, and was hardly alone among sportswriters. Her ability to foment good times, he says, “made her, to borrow a Brit term, a legend among us.”
Frey’s party prowess left impressions with lots of reporters during the Nagano Olympics in 1998.
“I was sitting outside the press building, waiting for a bus after one of those 16-hour workdays that everybody works at the Olympics,” says Lapointe, “just hoping to get six hours of sleep. And here comes Jennifer out of the lobby leading a group of 12 journalists, yelling, ‘Joe, let’s go! I found a place that’s open 24 hours!’ I said no. That was Jennifer. Her energy was unbelievable. Thank god I was so much older than her, or I might have tried to keep up with her. She would have killed me.”
Nobody ever thought of telling Frey she might be killing herself.
M.L. Elrick, who interned with Frey at the Free Press back when the Jack Morris incident occurred, says they were close enough that his mother socialized with and loved Frey. He now surmises that what made Frey so driven on the job wasn’t so different from what led to her self-destructive behaviors away from work. He concluded that Frey’s career choice, mixed with whatever demons and diseases she entered the field with, made for a “toxic cocktail.”
“She was an inspiring person, somebody so smart, somebody who’d always say things that made you go, ‘Oh, man, why didn’t I think of that?’” says Elrick. “I loved being around her. But you look back, it was like Jennifer always felt she had to prove herself in every way, had to do more than everybody. Being a woman in sports, where she had to know every room you’re going into is a hostile room. And then she put so much on herself, too. It was always like, ‘I can jump more buses than you!’ And she could! But at some point there’s one bus too many. Eventually, you’re not going to stick that landing.”
I first met Frey in 1997, after she’d moved to D.C to take the job with the Washington Post. I was freelancing for the paper, covering horse racing in Maryland. She came to the press box at Pimlico one day, and I was introduced to her by Perrone, then the Post’s regular turf writer. I already knew a lot about her, as everybody in D.C journalism did—her résumé, laden with Harvard and the New York Times, made her seem overbred even for the Post. Everybody I knew figured her superstardom here was imminent.
I was the lowest man on the sports section’s totem pole. So I remember being giddy just to see Frey walk in the room. She came over to where I was sitting with Perrone and immediately began asking Vinnie about an upcoming poker night among Post sportswriters. She was unimpressed by the guest list on at least one front.
“I can drink everybody under the table,” Frey announced to me and Vinnie and anybody else in the room in a voice as big as her personality.
It was a memorable first impression, nothing like what I expected from somebody of Frey’s pedigree and, fair or not, gender.
While freelancing at the track, I was also writing a sports column for Washington City Paper, a D.C. weekly. The week after I met Frey, I told my City Paper editor, David Carr, about her booze brags.
Carr had come to town at about the same time as Frey. He soon began writing a media column, Paper Trail, and enjoyed using it to make enemies in the local press. As I recall things, nothing he wrote at City Paper brought him more heat from other scribes than a 1997 column he devoted to Frey. That piece, titled “Blood Sport,” was triggered by a report in the New York Daily News that a Hoboken, N.J. judge had issued a restraining order against Frey at the behest of Mike Freeman of the New York Times. Freeman and Frey had briefly dated several years earlier. Freeman, Carr wrote, told authorities Frey wouldn’t let him get on with his life without her.
“Freeman reportedly briefed the cops on what he claimed to be all the manifestations of Frey’s fatal attraction to him: hundreds of harassing and drunken phone calls, two death threats, and a not-so-whispered campaign to discredit him among his colleagues,” Carr wrote.
Bruce Sanford, long among the top First Amendment lawyers in D.C., represented Frey in that matter and defended her in Carr’s piece. Sanford recalls that his representation was awkward since he’d previously handled several cases for the New York Times, but he took it on “because I thought she was being treated unfairly at least in part because she was a woman whose talent and drive threatened some people.”
“She was a blazing star,” Sanford says via email, “bright, shiny, energetic and ambitious without being filled with herself. I believed her version of the dispute with Freeman, which both irritated and dismayed her. She attributed it to professional rivalry and his fear that she might be hired back by the Times in a higher, better position than him.”
Freeman declined an interview request from Deadspin.
Carr used the reports of the conflict with Freeman to point out that Frey had hit a few other potholes while on the fast track to journalism’s top tier. She had been pulled over by police in Florida for speeding during spring training in 1995. Bobby Bonilla of the New York Mets, the team she was covering for the New York Times, was her passenger. Carr wrote that Bonilla had received “fawning treatment” from Frey in print in New York. She came to the Washington Post soon after the traffic stop. (An item in the New York Daily News’s Rush & Molloy gossip column linked the Bonilla incident to Frey’s departure from the Times. Carr’s column made no such connection; Amdur, the Times sports editor who hired Frey and was there when she left, says he recalls no link. The gossip column’s authors, George Rush and Joanna Molloy, say they have no recollection of the Frey/Bonilla item.)
Carr’s column hinted that Frey’s lapses were part of an overall pattern of erratic behavior that had some folks at the Washington Post worried about Frey, but maybe not as much as they should be. Carr found others who’d heard the same boasts that I’d heard her make at the racetrack about her tolerance for alcohol; pretty much all of her friends had heard them.
“Her colleagues say she plays even harder than she works and is prone to bragging about her Runyonesque ability to lay low those who try to outdrink the only girl at the table,” he wrote.
But her talents and output had everybody at the paper wonderstruck. Carr’s column said Tony Kornheiser regarded her as the “real deal”:
“Check the bylines and check the datelines,” says Kornheiser. “She has been more places and done more stories than anybody around here, including me. I love her to death. I think her work is terrific. I think that she is really smart and funny and bright—and her work reflects all of those things. She works hard.” And plays hard? “That’s not my department.”
Carr was blasted by Frey’s colleagues after the story came out. Some Post staffers thought he wouldn’t have written the same piece about a male journalist, at least the parts about drinking. Mike Wise, who worked with her at both the New York Times and Washington Post, remains upset by the piece to this day. Wise says some of his anger comes from knowing that Carr himself had dealt with serious chemical dependence issues, and therefore he could have more obviously considered that Frey’s drinking was a symptom of a disease, and not a character flaw.
“David Carr savaged her. He had no compassion or empathy,” Wise tells me. “He just looked at her like she was running wild and out there, promiscuous and rabble-rousing.”
For the saddest of reasons, history has been kind to Carr’s column.
An immaculate conception
Within a few months after she got back from Nagano in early 1998, Frey began telling friends she was pregnant. She had never been married or had a child before, and wasn’t in a relationship at the time, but Frey told folks she was excited by the development. She also immediately seemed to enjoy leading colleagues on a guessing game about who the father was. She gave different versions of who helped her get pregnant, though never any specific names or enough information to fact-check her claims. She told some folks it was an NHL player, others that it was a European media mogul, and lots more that it was just some guy she met in Nagano. When her daughter was born in the fall of 1998, Frey showed her off everywhere, and pretty soon, the kid really did look exactly like her. So Frey’s favorite tease became saying, “It was an immaculate conception!”
Colleagues say she took impending motherhood seriously at the start—there was no drinking at the 1998 Preakness, says one writer—and that for a time after the baby came, she was really good at it. The clearest indication of her commitment: During her pregnancy, Frey got a transfer out of the sports section. The days of globetrotting were over so she could be with her daughter.
She quickly accepted a book deal to co-write Chamique, a memoir from Chamique Holdsclaw, a star with the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. Frey’s first and only book, released in 2000, told of Holdsclaw overcoming being taken out of her family’s home and removed from her parents’ care as a youngster by child protective services because her parents were alcoholics.
She became a feature writer on the Post’s Style desk. And her periodic longform work over the next few years was stellar. She got kudos all over for her story on Seabiscuit author Laura Hillenbrand’s battle with chronic fatigue syndrome. Friends say Warren Beatty so liked Frey’s 2004 profile, timed to that year’s Kennedy Center Honors gala feting him, that he called her regularly after the story ran, just to chat.
She stopped doing the long takeout stories not long after the Beatty piece, however. The Post archives show she spent a few years writing mostly short movie reviews, and then there was nothing. Officially, she left the Washington Post in 2008. Peter Perl, a longtime Post writer and editor who was handling personnel issues at the end of Frey’s tenure, declined to discuss her departure, other than to say she “voluntarily left.” I could find no other Style editor willing to even say that much about Jennifer Frey.
The only byline that I could find from Frey after she left the Post, and the last story of hers I could find anywhere, came in the Daily Beast on December 25, 2010, under a blog post about Christmas shoppers headlined “Holiday Coupon Generosity.” The author bio on that piece, Frey’s only story in the Daily Beast archive, gave a nutshell version of her sterling résumé, and ended by saying the she was “currently writing a memoir.” No memoir was ever published.
Shortly after her death, the Post published a compendium of Frey’s best work. No story was less than a decade old.
“Do you remember Jennifer Frey?”
In October 2014, I got a call from Pat Hand, a D.C. lawyer and friend of mine. “Do you remember Jennifer Frey?” he asked.
I told him I sure did remember her, that I hadn’t heard her name in years and often wondered why she disappeared, and that I had thought for a long time about looking to see if there was a story in her disappearance. Hand told me Frey lived near him and he’d heard she wasn’t doing well. He gave me contact information for a friend of hers who would know what was going on. The friend told me that Frey needed help in a real estate matter that she wasn’t getting, and thought maybe some media attention would help. Frey’s problems went far beyond real estate, however.
Frey spent her days drinking, the friend said. She had been in and out of hospitals for years suffering from alcohol-related ailments, most recently pancreatitis, that kept her from working and had instigated her departure from the Washington Post. She had been in and out of rehab programs for alcohol, most recently after getting a DUI in D.C. She used booze to chase lots of prescription drugs, mainly Oxycontin and Xanax, which she’d been taking since being diagnosed as bipolar. She’d been surviving financially for years off disability payments and money from equity loans she’d taken out on her house. She talked about suicide often. She was living alone in the house, which had been foreclosed on and sold at auction. But Frey was refusing to leave.
“She’s a mess,” said the friend, who asked to remain anonymous. “She doesn’t have one thing falling apart, she has everything falling apart. But she’s so gracious and has such a heart.”
One of the last stories Frey ever wrote for the Washington Post, from 2008, was headlined “Bleak Past Catches Up To a Troubled Present,” and was about a movie, Kitt Kittredge: An American Girl, about an over-extended homeowner. Frey’s lede:
The new feature film “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl” might be a tale of childhood some 80 years ago, but it hits awfully close to home. Especially when that home has just been foreclosed upon. The movie, a Depression-era tale, highlights one effect of setting a fictional story in an all-too-real and relevant past: History lessons become current-event lessons.
Frey learned her lesson about home foreclosure the hard way, as D.C. Superior Court records confirmed. In August 2000, Frey paid $365,000 for the house, located in Spring Valley, one of D.C’s most affluent neighborhoods. Then in April 2005, she’d refinanced her mortgage through Countrywide Home Loans Inc., the company now known for almost breaking America with its predatory lending practices. The agreement she signed with Countrywide stipulated a 1 percent interest rate for the first year of the loan, with an aggressively escalating rate. That document also had her agree that if she missed a monthly payment, “the Note Holder may require me to pay immediately the full amount of Principal that has not been paid and all the interest that I owe on that amount.”
Bank of America, which acquired Countrywide in 2008, enforced the escalation clause in Frey’s loan agreement in 2013. According to court records, as of June 4, 2013, Frey owed $692,437.19 on the house, or nearly double what she’d bought it for.
Frey was one of thousands of people who fell prey to this scheme. In October 2008, Bank of America, paid $8.6 billion in what California Attorney General Edmund Brown called the “largest predatory lending settlement in history.”
“Countrywide’s lending practices turned the American dream into a nightmare for tens of thousands of families by putting them into loans they couldn’t understand and ultimately couldn’t afford,” the attorney general said.
Frey, alone and very damaged, was less able than most Countrywide victims to recover. The predatory loan settlement had forced Bank of America to set up programs to assist those who’d fallen prey to Countrywide’s schemes. Frey did not take advantage of any of those programs, her friend told me, or make any obvious effort to save her home. She gave me Frey’s phone number and told me to call her up but not say where I got it.
Somebody to blame it on
Hearing of her sorry state, I immediately thought back to my first meeting with Frey, and the drinking boasts she made. Carr’s 1997 column on her also came to mind. I had quit drinking cold turkey years earlier, feeling that booze, the way I used it, would eventually kill me. But as much as I drank in my youth and through my mid-20s, I couldn’t identify with somebody as clearly addicted as Frey was. I figured Carr could.
He had dug himself out of big holes in his life, the biggest being when his daughters were put in foster care as he fell apart from various addictions. He, too, was the life of every party, and paid for that with his health. But he famously cleaned up enough to get his kids, his life, and his writing career back.
So I emailed Carr, gave him a thumbnail sketch of the abyss Frey was in, attached a copy of the story he’d written about her, and told him how sadly prescient that article was. He called me from San Francisco, where he was attending a Vanity Fair new-media conference. He laughed about how there was no way the 2014 New York Times would let him write that 1997 City Paper story, even if he still had it in him to write such a thing.
I told Carr I intended to call Frey and maybe do a story on her, and wanted his thoughts on how or whether I should, given her circumstances. Earlier that year, the subject of a Grantland story had committed suicide, and her death was linked to the reporter’s conversations with her before the story was ever published. This was certainly on my mind.
Carr, who was the wisest people person I ever met, could tell that I mostly wanted him just to sign off on calling Frey so that if she killed herself I would have somebody to share the blame. But, he said, it sounded like a story. If she commits suicide, it won’t be because a writer called her up, he said.
“Maybe it’ll give her a kick in the ass,” he told me.
And so I called Frey the next morning. I introduced myself and started to say I was looking into writing about her, and she began yelling. And kept yelling. And yelling. She said that if I’d done my “homework” as a sportswriter I would know she hadn’t been a sportswriter for years so there was no worthy angle for any sportswriter to pursue and that she was no longer a public figure and that what she was up to was none of my business and even if it was my business there was no way she’d ever talk to anybody from City Paper because of the 1997 story about her. Then she hung up.
I had expected to hear delusional ramblings in a near-dead, waify voice on the other end. But, just like in the Pimlico press box, Frey didn’t cater to my expectations. Anger and all, she sounded thoroughly lucid and made me feel stupid for calling. I thought back to Carr’s words about a story possibly giving her a kick in the ass. By the end of my conversation with Frey, I was sure that if anybody was about to get their ass kicked, it was me.
I never wrote about Frey while she was alive.
“Jennifer knew she was never going to stop the slide.”
A GoFundMe page went up on Feb. 24 asking for donations for Frey’s daughter. The pitch spelled out a tragic state of affairs:
This sweet child has been raised by a single mother her entire life. Due to her mother’s health problems, she’s bounced around from house to house and even spent time in foster care. A year and a half ago, she was reunited with her mother, whose health had seemingly improved. Now, at 17, she just got the devastating news that her mother has only a couple of weeks to live. There’s no father and no immediate family where she lives … Due to Jen’s illness, she hasn’t been able to work for years and her only income has been disability.
The pitch, written by Jody Goldstein, said the daughter was about to graduate on schedule—from her fourth high school—and was academically qualified for and hoped to go to college, but that her mother “has no real assets to leave her daughter” to pay for it.
When the plea for donations appeared, Frey had already been a patient at the Georgetown University hospital for several weeks. She went in suffering from what Goldstein says were the effects of alcohol abuse, as she had many times before. Since she couldn’t drink during inpatient stays, Goldstein says, Frey’s body would heal itself enough to get her back on her feet, back home and, even though doctors would tell her drinking was going to kill her, back at the bottle.
This time was different. Detox wouldn’t be enough. There would be no healing. There would be no getting discharged.
Frey was told by doctors that her liver was damaged beyond repair. To survive, she needed a new organ, and she wanted to get one. Like all prospective recipients at the hospital’s Transplant Institute, Frey went through a battery of tests and interviews to determine her viability for a donor liver. Georgetown rejected her application.
“A psychologist at the hospital told me they didn’t think she was going to quit drinking,” a friend of Frey’s tells me.
The GoFundMe page made the rounds among journalists via Facebook posts. Lots of old friends of Frey’s began contacting each other to go over the wreckage and wonder what went wrong and if they could have done anything to help. They soon realized that they weren’t alone in losing touch with Frey; when she left journalism, she disappeared.
“She just drifted away from her journalism friends,” says Joe Lapointe, “or they drifted away from her.”
Lapointe was one of the few old friends that Frey reached out to in the last several years of her life. And she didn’t make it easy to stick by her. Lapointe, who is now a journalism professor at the University of Michigan, says he hadn’t heard from her since the Nagano Olympics when she started calling him in 2013. The phone calls always came late at night, often lasted more than an hour and past midnight, with Frey doing almost all of the talking. “It was always very sad, always a tale of woe,” he says.
She’d pin the blame for her incessant drinking on, among other things, her upbringing, former boyfriends, Harvard, or her prescribed medications. She brought up suicide every conversation. Lapointe says during one conversation Frey stopped talking and he heard the phone fall and hit the floor. He called 911 from Michigan and asked for a D.C. police officer to check up on her. She hadn’t killed herself, it turned out. Frey stopped calling him in 2015.
“Jennifer knew she was never going to stop the slide,” Lapointe says. “She told me that often. I knew that, too. It was obvious.”
George Solomon, her former boss and the guy who brought her to the Washington Post, told me he hadn’t heard from Frey, or even anything about what she was up to, for several years before the GoFundMe page appeared. One former Post colleague, who asked that his name not be used, says he tried staying in touch with Frey for a time after she left the paper, and even drove her to AA meetings. But he cut off contact several years ago, worn out by her late-night drunk phone calls, worried about the psychological damage their talks were having on him and his family, and convinced that her war against her disease was already lost.
Goldstein, living 1,400 miles away in Houston, stuck by Frey even after they had both lost all hope for a recovery. She says Frey craved sobriety but never came close to figuring out how to get there. “She wanted to quit, believe me,” says Goldstein. “She went into rehab so many times. She just couldn’t help herself. Look what it cost her? My God. You think she wanted that? She didn’t want that. Some people can stop. She couldn’t.”
Many writers came to see Frey in Georgetown over her last days. Chuck Culpepper, who hadn’t seen Frey since 2010, visited her the Sunday before she died. He says they shared laughs about their whirlwind trip to Alaska and all the Derby get-togethers. “We just reminisced about the ‘90s,” he says.
Mike Wise used his last audience to remind Frey of that time after a party in her Brooklyn apartment when they were looking out the window at the Statue of Liberty, when she told him life was good and he agreed. Things couldn’t be more different now. When he was alone in the hospital room with Frey, Wise says, she looked at him and said, “This is surreal, isn’t it?” He agreed one last time.
Goldstein came up from Houston to spend time with Frey as the end approached. For any old friends or colleagues wondering if things might have turned out at all differently had they done something to try to help or even just stayed in contact, Goldstein assured them that life hit Frey with a one-two punch—alcoholism and bipolarity—that she wasn’t going to overcome.
“I got a glimpse of the girl I loved, the witty and fun and brilliant girl she was,” says Goldstein. “But the amazing writer, the amazing person, had been gone for a really long time.”
Culpepper was among those grateful for Goldstein’s absolution.
“I have no illusions about being able to fix things,” he says. “I just wish I’d sent more notes saying, ‘Hi, Jennifer. I love you.’”
At last count, the GoFundMe site had attracted 422 donations totaling $52,415. Earlier this fall, the post was updated to thank donors, and to say Frey’s daughter went off to college in New England, just like her mother.