NOTHING IN THEIR NUMEROUS JOINT TV PROJECTS ON PARENTING had quite prepared Good Morning America co-host Joan Lunden and her husband, producer Michael Krauss, for the sad task before them. Gathering their three daughters, Jamie, 11, Lindsay, 8, and Sarah, 4, in the master bedroom of their brown-shingle suburban New York house, they delicately broke the news, that their 13-year marriage was coming to an end. "Mommy and Daddy don't hate each other," Lunden began softly, following the advice of the girls' pediatrician, Dr. Jeffrey Brown, whom they had consulted the day before. "We're still very good friends, and we're still going to be Mommy and Daddy to you. But Mommy has another house now, and you're going to live part of the time with Mommy and part of the time with Daddy."
Six weeks later, Lunden still isn't sure how much sank in. "It's hard to tell with little kids," she says. "The 11-year-old probably wasn't that surprised, because there hasn't been a lot of togetherness in our house for a long time. I'm not sure how much the 8-year-old understands. I think the 4-year-old understands a lot more than we thought because she asked a lot of questions. She wanted to know, 'Is it like getting fired from marriage?' "
"No," Lunden reassured Sarah. "It's just that we are not going to live together anymore. Sometimes that happens."
Five days after informing the kids, Lunden installed herself in a brand-new six-bedroom, 8,000-square-foot leased house in suburban Connecticut, only 15 minutes away from her former residence. Shortly after she moved in, she took off her wedding ring, substituting a three-band gold ring that her children had given her for Mother's Day four years ago. In her new home, she didn't have to oil the hinges of the bedroom door, which she had respectfully done since her marriage so that she wouldn't wake Krauss up when she left the house each weekday morning at 4 A.M. to go to work at GMA. "I haven't been alone in a house for 13 years," says Lunden. "Last night the girls went to Michael's. I came in the house, and the cat was there. That was it. I was rambling around in this big house all by myself."
And now, though relieved, she admits to no little trepidation. "To be out there on your own is really scary," she says. "You also wonder if you're going to be alone for the rest of your life."
The news of the split between Lunden, 41, and Krauss, 52, was as puzzling to Lunden's fans as it was to little Sarah. Viewers, entranced by Lunden's friendly manner and well-scrubbed good looks, had cheered her through three pregnancies during her 16 years on GMA and followed her progress as a mother on the syndicated and cable shows that Krauss created for his wife: Mother's Minutes, Mother's Day and Everyday with Joan Lunden. Apparently she had it all—perfect career, perfect family, perfect life. Her corner on the wholesomeness market not only brought her a multimillion-dollar contract with ABC but attracted dozens of offers to pitch such products as Beech-Nut baby foods and Vaseline Intensive Care lotion.
In reality, though, there was a chink in the armor of the Great American Wife and Mother. "I hate the supermom thing," Lunden says. "It's as though somehow I'm held two rungs above everybody else. Because I've had my babies in front of people, it's kind of like I couldn't let my marriage fail. But nobody can handle the whole thing perfectly." Lunden has not often revealed such a melancholy appreciation of reality. "Joan always seemed like the perfect wife," says Janice Kaplan, a producer on the syndicated Everyday, the one-season flop that, insiders say, strained her marriage by forcing too much togetherness. "She did everything for Michael. His office was filled with presents from Joan. Fabulously expensive pieces of artwork. A drum set, because he plays the drums. This big popcorn machine from Hammacher Schlemmer. She surprised him with a red Porsche in the driveway for his 50th birthday."
But Lunden's most important gift to Krauss, her associates agree, was Something to Do. When they started dating, he was a seasoned Good Morning America producer and she was learning the ropes as an occasional reporter on the show. "I think Joan turned to Michael at the beginning for security and confidence," says Kaplan. "And certainly he helped her with that." But her career quickly surpassed his. Kaplan adds, "Michael has said many times that the Mother's Day kinds of things that Joan did made her reputation and career. But I think most people see it quite the opposite. Joan was extremely successful and was willing to do all these projects because it was what Michael wanted."
Lunden admits that the breakup didn't happen overnight. "There are no horror stories," she says. "Michael and I didn't leave each other for anybody else. We've been growing apart for years. I probably stayed in it much longer than I should have."
Last year Lunden confided in her friend and GMA cohost, Charles Gibson. "We had breakfast one day," he says. "She began to tell me what distress they were in. And I asked her, 'Do you want to save this?' And she said, 'Yes.' And I said, 'I think the thing to do is for you and Michael to get into marriage counseling right away.' "
They did. "We went three times a week—Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays," Lunden says. "In the first few months I was really optimistic. Counseling taught Michael and me the things that were bothering each other. But it didn't mean that we could resolve these things."
Lunden and Krauss never fought, Joan says. "We just didn't talk. That was part of the problem." In fact Lunden told her nanny that she planned to leave her husband before she broke the news to Michael. "Our nanny has been with us for seven years, and I got her to guarantee me that she wouldn't leave before I made my decision," says Lunden. "She said, 'I want to be there to help the children through it.' " Immediately afterward, she told Michael her decision.
"I didn't really discuss this with many people, which wasn't necessarily healthy," Lunden concedes. "My mother didn't even know about it until after I told Michael. I didn't want to burden her. I told her a day or two before it hit the papers."
On Jan. 27, when she was safely on vacation and unreachable by the press, Lunden announced publicly through her lawyer, Stanford Lotwin, that she and Krauss were separating and that they would share custody of the children. That week, she literally began redesigning her life.
After signing the lease on her new house, Lunden stopped at a suburban Bloomingdale's and summoned the store manager and head of the interior-design department. "I said, I have a new house. It's very large and it's very empty. I want it to be completely full in 10 days. Can you do that? If the answer is no, tell me now, and I'll move on.' This was not the old me talking. This was a new person." Bloomies obliged, and Lunden pointed out what she wanted: funky and eclectic bedroom furniture, dining tables, sofas, chairs—totally unlike the serious, traditional pieces that she was giving up.
Next stop was a home-electronics store. "I said, I want seven TVs—two large-screen and five small, with VCRs in them,' " she remembers. " 'There's just one small catch. Cable TV is coming tomorrow at 2, so the sets have to be in my house tomorrow morning.' The guy said OK. I had never done anything like this before. It was a great feeling."
Finally, Lunden bought sheets, pillows, a toaster and dishes.
Her mission was to offer a warm new home to her children without dismantling the decor in their father's house. "I couldn't move out and take everything with me," says Lunden, who brought along nothing but her treadmill ("And I felt completely guilty for doing it") to her new digs. "My children still go back to the house and live there with their father. I want their old rooms to be exactly like they were before. I went out and bought the kids almost all new clothes, because I don't want them to say, 'Oh, I can't get dressed here because my black shoes are at Daddy's.' Thank God I am one of the most organized individuals on Earth, which was a pet peeve of my husband's. During that week, all these deliveries came. I can relax now. It's done."
Still, Lunden isn't going lonely cold turkey. "Michael and I continue to get together with the girls for dinner a couple of times a month so that our kids still have us as a family," she says. "But I'm getting on with my life. I'm not a person who looks back."
If she wanted to, Lunden could look back with pride. Born to surgeon Erie Murray Blunden and his wife, Gladyce, in Sacramento, Joan and her brother, Jeff, now 42 and a fishing guide who lives in Sacramento, got an early taste of independence. Their father, a seasoned pilot, died in 1964 when the plane he was flying back from a business trip crashed, and their mother went to work selling real estate. "I've always felt that need to be responsible for myself," says Lunden, who got her associate's degree from American River Junior College in Sacramento and began her TV career at 23 as a weather girl on KCRA in Sacramento. When she was hired away by New York City's WABC-TV in 1975, she changed her name to Lunden, on the advice of station managers who felt that Blunden might be mispronounced "Blunder."
Though there were early suggestions that her success was due more to her looks than her talent, Lunden's star continued to rise, and she soon combined reporting duties on the local station with new-product stories on GMA, where she fell in love with Krauss. "Michael was a creative, gregarious, charming guy, not like anybody I had ever known before," says Lunden, who married him on Sept. 10,1978. Her position on GMA expanded in 1980 when she took over the No. 2 spot opposite the imperious David Hartman. (Lunden still bumps into Hartman occasionally at the private school their children attend. When they meet, she says, he is "pleasant.")
Yet even during her early years on the GMA set, when Lunden was regarded by critics as little more than a decoration (she was even called "David's lamp" by one), Lunden charted new territory for working mothers, staking out a room at the studio so that she could breast-feed at work. "In my day you didn't mention your children, and you certainly didn't bring your children into the studio," says Lunden's friend and colleague Barbara Walters. "People didn't even know when you were pregnant. I think one of the reasons why Joan is so popular is that viewers have lived along with her. She's real."
When Charlie Gibson replaced Hartman on GMA in February 1987, Lunden enjoyed full-fledged cohost status for the first time, and her career soared. But her private life had begun to sour. The most visible symbol of that secret stress was Lunden's dress size. "When I was turning 39," she says, "I basically said to myself, 'You've had three kids, and each time you've never lost the weight completely.' Each pregnancy had left an extra 15 lbs., so I was about 45 lbs. overweight. I said, 'You're not happy with yourself. You're not happy with your life. You've got one year. You can either turn 40 and hit the ground running and feel great, or you can be really miserable and depressed.' I hired nutritionists and totally changed the way I ate. I got myself a fitness trainer for two hours a day, three days a week, to do stretching, aerobics and weights for my upper body. I took up horseback riding and bought three thoroughbreds—Casey, Charlie [named after Gibson] and Sammy. Before marriage counseling, horseback riding was my therapy."
Lunden took off the 45 lbs. "My life totally changed," she says. "Subconsciously, I might have also been readying myself for whatever was to come. My husband, I think, really couldn't quite understand the whole thing. I think he wondered, 'Who is this new person?''
After her separation from Krauss was announced, hundreds of letters and phone calls began pouring into GMA. "Fans are unbelievably supportive," Lunden says. So concerned was Lunden with how much she should confide in viewers that she discussed the subject at a meeting with image consultants and ABC brass. "It was the advice of the bosses not to say anything," she says. "On my first show back after vacation, Charlie simply said at one point, 'How are you doing? You OK? We've all been thinking about you.' And I said, 'I'm doing fine and my girls are fine. Thank you for asking.' And that was it."
Not really. Lunden was furious three weeks later when supermarket tabloids linked her with Growing Pains star Alan Thicke. "Now they're saying that I was cheating on my husband," says Lunden. "They could have at least picked somebody that I knew well. I met Alan Thicke when Michael hired him for an ABC special. Then Disney hired him to host the Christmas and Easter parades with me. I don't know this guy personally from a load of wood.
"What really bothers me," she continues, "is that I don't want my girls to be hurt. But my kids have a sense of humor about it. Jamie said, 'Well, at least they could pick someone really hot, Mom.' "
Tabloid stories aside, the prospect of starting a new relationship frightens Lunden. "First of all, I'm older," she says. "Second of all, I have three kids. That narrows my universe right away. And the thought of getting involved in the dating game is really not something I'm looking forward to."
For now, at least, Joan appears content to go it alone. "I've talked to experts, or to stars, about their breaking up, starting a new life, being a single parent," she says. "But when you're all of a sudden presented with it yourself, you just go through it, hoping that you're going to make the right decisions. I know it's going to be a tough six months to a year, but I've got to make a life, and I've got a career ahead of me. Life's going to be different, but it doesn't have to be awful. Right now I'm doing great. I'm looking ahead."
SUE CARSWELL in New York City
- Sue Carswell.