The Halo Effect

updated 05/17/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/17/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

SOPHY BURNHAM HAD HER CLOSEST ENCOUNTER with an angel in the French Alps back in 1965. The 28-year-old writer and her husband were skiing down the slopes when she fell and began plummeting, headfirst, toward a precipice. Then, miraculously, she was jolted to a stop, halted by the sturdy legs of a man dressed in black. Burnham got to her feet, uttered a polite "merci beaucoup" and looked into his eyes. "They, too, were black," she says, "but full of such light I could not move." Without a word, the mystery man skied away, never to be seen again.

Burnham lived the next 23 years in denial, she says, convincing herself that her life had been saved by some silent local hero. But in 1988, when Burnham was having trouble selling a manuscript about experiences she now considered mystical (such as her alpine rescue), she and her agent concluded that the book should be about angels instead. Only then, she says, did she really declare her savior on skis to be a divine messenger. "One reason I disguised it from myself," she says, "was because I didn't want to be singled out as either a saint or a nut."

Burnham's epiphany led to 1990's A Book of Angels (Ballantine), an examination of celestial beings in art and history as well as in her own life. That in turn led to Angel Letters (1991), a collection of other people's communications with Burnham about their own brushes with heavenly visitors. Both books are still on Publishers Weekly religious best-seller list. In 1992 she published a mystical novel, Revelations. Meanwhile, Angels has been translated into five languages and optioned for a Broadway play. All of which suggests that plenty of people believe that—be they seraphim, cherubim or just plain old angels—there is someone who'll watch over them.

Burnham says that angels can appear "as animals and human beings, with wings or without, male or female, as visions or voices, as that little whisper at your shoulder saying, 'Don't go down that road.' " Burnham herself has seen angels in many guises, including a swan whose appearance, she says, coincided with the untangling of an anchor line from the propeller of a rented 30-foot sloop when she was sailing off Long Island Sound. "It takes a quirk of the imagination, a suspension of disbelief," to see angels, she adds.

One of three children of George Cochran Doub, an assistant attorney general under President Eisenhower, and his wife, Sophy, Burnham was raised in Owings Mills, Md. "I grew up in the normal, everyday 19th-century landed-gentry life of cockfighting and fox hunting," she says. She graduated from the exclusive Fox-croft School, and from Smith College in 1958.

At a Washington party that year she met David Burnham, a newspaper reporter who would eventually break the story for The New York Times on the New York City police-corruption scandal brought to light in part by undercover cop Frank Serpico. "Our eyes met across the room, and I knew he would come and talk to me," she says. He did, and they married two years later. The couple moved to Manhattan in 1964, and while raising daughters Sarah and Molly, Burnham began freelancing for magazines.

The family moved back to Washington in 1973 when David was sent there by the Times. But Sophy rebelled. "I thought I would lose all my contacts in New York," she says. In fact she wrote several plays and books for children. Nonetheless she went through a period of great despair—"a Dante wilderness," as she puts it. She sought some relief in religion, studying Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. But her spiritual quest—"It was like a volcano, throwing up a lot of debris and turning everything upside down," she says—helped create a rift in her marriage. David didn't recall the skier in black and never thought the swan was anything but a bird that happened to be nearby. They divorced in 1983.

Burnham now lives alone in her Georgetown town house. (Sarah, 28, is a graduate student at the University of Maryland, and Molly, 26, is an aspiring actress in London.) When she isn't writing—another novel, The President's Angel, is due this fall—or working for the Fund for New American Plays at Washington's Kennedy Center, she enjoys hiking and flyfishing and spending time with her boyfriend, whom she will describe only as "a scientist and engineer." Indeed, these days, on the wings of her angel books, Burnham is counting more than her blessings. "It's nice to see a royalty check that actually has some digits," she says. "It makes me very happy."


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