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Martha Teichner, Author of WHEN HARRY MET MINNIE, on Friendship, Dogs, and Building Community

When Harry Met Minnie is a memoir of love and loss, of being in the right place at the right time, and of the mysterious ways a beloved pet can bring people together, from CBS Sunday Morning news correspondent and multi-Emmy-Award-winning Martha Teichner.

Celadon Books: When Harry Met Minnie is a story of love (between two dogs) and friendships (between their owners). Tell us about Harry’s owner Carol Fertig and why you became so close in such a short time.

Martha Teichner: If you saw Carol Fertig on the street, you wouldn’t be able to keep your eyes off her. She was very tall, not pretty by any definition, but striking, larger than life. In the book, I describe how accompanying her was like walking around the block with Big Bird. Without trying to attract attention to herself, she did. She was flamboyant. Her hair was short, a cap of grey ringlets. She had a great eye and a look only she could pull off. She wore giant, black glasses, bright red lipstick, and chic, retro-looking clothes she either designed herself or were vintage couture. Some of her designs are in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of her heroes was Diana Vreeland, the legendary editor of Vogue magazine and fashion icon, but as an artist and designer, she created not only clothing and jewelry, but also furniture, home accessories, even stationery. Her apartment was featured in magazines.

Carol had a wonderful gift for friendship. She was strong-willed, opinionated, judgmental in some ways, very smart, with a sharp and occasionally biting wit, but she also had an almost childlike innocence about her, a vulnerability. Instinctively, her friends understood she needed and loved them. She had fights with some of them. They didn’t speak for months, but in the end, they always made up, and it was clear, when I met them as her death approached, they truly loved her. She had friends she’d known for decades and others, like the younger women I call THE THREE GRACES in the book, who’d gotten to know her more recently. These women lived in the building where she lived and, along with Carol, belonged to a dubious mahjong group that was less about playing mahjong and more about letting Carol be their ringleader in goofy escapades that took their minds off trying to juggle careers and families. She mentored them, made them laugh. When she got sick, they took care of HER.

When I encountered Carol’s friend, Stephen, at the farmers market, and he told me that Harry needed a home, it never occurred to me that Carol and I would — or even could — become friends. She was dying, after all. I saw the possibility of taking Harry as a transaction involving a dog, nothing more. I felt sad about Carol’s cancer and was sympathetic. It could have been me. I couldn’t imagine having to consider putting my dog, Minnie, down because I was dying and nobody was willing to take her, but I had been wanting an older, male bull terrier as a companion for Minnie. Carol had just such a dog, Harry. It was perfect, and what a coincidence! Chance, fate, whatever. Not so simple though… the dogs would have to get along. I wasn’t at all sure they would, and I was concerned about Harry’s health and behavioral issues. Carol and I took our dogs to the same vet. He told us to socialize them gradually, meaning there would be nothing transactional about what was unfolding, nothing instant. Their blind date had to be the beginning of a courtship.

Before Carol brought Harry over for the first time, I emailed her that I’d given Minnie a bath, so she’d look her best for her date. Carol replied that she’d tried to put “Eau Sauvage behind Harry’s ears, but he refused.” She was still fun-loving, playful, busy living. When I met her, I liked her immediately. We had in common a love for bull terriers. No small thing. Bull terriers are not for everybody. They’re loving and comical but also stubborn, willful, strong, real trouble if they get bored, and too smart for their own good. You have to have a perverse streak to appreciate them. So, from the start, Carol and I understood each other. We needed each other if we were going to be successful dog matchmakers, but the urgency of our undertaking provided a shortcut to friendship. Close to the same age, we’d forged our lives and careers at a time when women had to break down barriers to achieve our goals. She was a news junkie, addicted to TV. I work in TV news. We’d read the same books, loved good food, the theater, movies, and conversation. Every time the dogs got together, we talked and laughed and sometimes forgot that Carol was dying. Her gift for friendship, like an open channel into her soul, allowed her to overlook the obvious and let someone new into her life. Because of the way I live, on the road, here-today-gone-tomorrow, I make snap judgments. I like who I like, and that’s it. We had no time to waste.

Celadon: Ultimately, why did you decide to adopt Harry?

Teichner: Carol described Harry as “a money pit,” because of his various health and behavioral issues, all of them wildly expensive to deal with. I told myself that I would have Harry for the sad period of his life. I would have to make the decision to have him put down. But Harry and Minnie got along. Harry made Minnie happy. He was very sweet. He made himself welcome. And the more I got to know Carol, the more I wanted it all to work out. Carol loved Harry more than anything. It mattered to me tremendously that I had the ability to grant her dying wish, that he would be loved and cared for. How could I say no? Taking Harry was my gift of friendship to her.

Celadon: Readers could view this story as a tragedy, as Carol lost her battle with cancer. Do you see it that way?

Teichner: No. 9/11 was the tragedy, the catastrophe that caused Carol’s cancer and ultimately her death. The events in this story were the opposite of a tragedy. The chance encounter that set it in motion. Luck, serendipity, or maybe Fate??? When Harry met Minnie, a dog nobody wanted found a home, and a dog who was sad and lonely found a companion. As a fan of CBS Sunday Morning, Carol knew who I was and discovered I had bull terriers. When she was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, one of her first thoughts was, “Wouldn’t it be great if Martha Teichner took Harry?” And guess what? It happened. Carol and I became close friends, each one of us enriched by our friendship. I was able to give her the contentment of knowing that Harry, whom she treasured more than anything, would be loved and cared for after her death. Yes, I had to have Harry put to sleep. The time Minnie and I had with him was too short, but we had him. Minnie and Harry were the loves of each other’s lives. This story is no tragedy. It’s a New York fairy tale with the city as its vivid backdrop.  

Celadon: When Harry Met Minnie is also a story about chance encounters and community. In your experience, how can one's love of animals help build a community, even in a place as large and anonymous as New York City?

Teichner: When I moved from London to New York, friends told me I should leave my dog behind, give him away. They said he would be difficult to keep in the city and would hinder my social life. The opposite was true. If you walk a dog in New York City, people talk to you. They know your dog’s name, even if they never ask yours. If they see you without your dog, they might not recognize you. Dogs are ice breakers. I know my neighbors and have made friends because I have a dog. I look at my street with different eyes than I would if I had no animal on a leash.

When Piggy, the dog I brought from London, died, I retreated into my empty apartment. I was lonely. I didn’t go on nightly walks. It occurred to me that had I moved to New York without Piggy, my whole perception of living in the city would have been different. I doubt I would have liked that New York. I never would have seen the sky at dawn over the Hudson River. Without my dogs, I never would have met Stephen, Carol’s friend who walked his dog, Teddy, at Chelsea Piers in the morning. Little did I know that several years after he moved to a different neighborhood, and our daily conversations stopped, he would turn up by chance in a place I’d never seen him before and launch the events in this story. If you have a dog, New York is not large and anonymous. New York is its neighborhoods, and the dog people are a community within each neighborhood. The city is a small town in lots of ways.

Celadon: You are an award-winning journalist with a long and illustrious career at CBS News, yet this is your first book. Why is this the story you felt compelled to write?

Teichner: It just seemed so rich, so personal. I lose myself in the stories I cover. Of course, my personality is evident in them in some way, but they’re other people’s stories, not mine. My job is to find the best way to tell THEIR stories. This was my story and Carol’s, Harry’s and Minnie’s. It has everything a great story should have: a chance encounter that changes everything, joy, sadness, love, friendship, all played out against a spectacular backdrop, Manhattan. Long ago, a writing teacher I had in college gave me the advice every aspiring writer gets: Wait ‘til you have something to say, and write about what you know.

I don’t have the expertise or wisdom to write about politics or the Middle East, big world events, even though I’ve covered my share, but I know this story. I know how living the events I describe in the book felt, how intense and consuming. New York City is a big city filled with small but very real personal dramas, invisible when you look at the skyline. I didn’t want this story to get lost. I admired Carol and liked her and wanted her to have a legacy, and who would remember Harry and Minnie if I hadn’t written about their love story?  

Celadon: What do you hope readers take away from your book?

Teichner: Dogs do have love stories that deserve to be told. This is a book about friendship and community in good times and bad. It doesn’t matter how old you are or what your circumstances might be, there is room for new friendship. Although Carol’s friends included men, who were devoted to her and loyal to her to the end, for example, her friend Stephen, who was valiant; in many ways this is a book about the power of friendships among women.

Being Carol’s friend, even for a short time, is something I will always treasure. I believe our friendship is something she, too, valued and needed. THE THREE GRACES, Carol’s gal pals from the mahjong group, took care of her, protected her, cleaned up after her, fought the medical establishment for her, at the expense of their own families sometimes. Their love and devotion were remarkable. Carol and I are examples of a generation of women who forged our careers and our lives in a world still dominated by men and managed to live interesting, full, independent lives, on our own terms, not in the shadow of husbands or partners. The price, of course, for Carol, was that when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she had no one who wanted Harry. That could have been me. That may still be me someday. But the lesson of the book is that the families and communities people create for themselves can be as durable and supportive as blood ties.

Celadon: How do you know that Harry and Minnie loved each other?

Teichner: They would sleep side-by-side on the floor, their paws intertwined or their heads on each other. They would sit with their faces together, cheek-to-cheek. They seemed to be able to communicate almost telepathically. With absolutely no jealousy or aggression ever, they romped and rough-housed with each other. If Harry didn’t feel well, Minnie would sniff him all over or vice versa. A few weeks before I had to have Harry put down, the dogs and I were in South Carolina. It was warm, and I had the doors open, so that Harry and Minnie could go out on the deck and sun themselves. Suddenly, I heard Minnie racing up the stairs into the house. I came running. She barked at me so hard, her front feet rose off the floor. She was frantic. Something was wrong. She had never done anything like that before. As soon as she had my attention, she turned and rushed back across the porch and down to the deck. She wanted me to follow her. I saw why. Harry had collapsed. He was spread-eagle on the bottom step, immobile. Minnie wanted me to rescue him. As I lifted him to his feet and helped him up the stairs, she stayed right at his side. When he died, for weeks she looked for him. She wouldn’t step on his bed. She pined for him. Maybe I’m anthropomorphizing, but I think that’s all evidence they loved each other.

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