“You know darn well that if Georgette ever changed teams and said ‘yes’—I’d walk to China for Georgette!” Rosie O’Donnell barked into the telephone to gossip columnist Liz Smith.
“When I met her”—“her” being Georgette Mosbacher, the red-headed cosmetics doyenne and Republican fundraiser—“I said, ‘I just met the woman of my life!' ” O’Donnell continued in her familiar Long Island-ese.
Who knows whether she was joking or not—this was, after all, Rosie. She was occupying a vast bungalow at the Langham Huntington, a hotel in Pasadena to tout her new HBO documentary, A Family Is a Family Is a Family, at the Television Critics Association press tour.
Of her ex-partner Kelli Carpenter, Rosie O’Donnell said: “She’ll be fine. She’ll find someone who plays tennis and likes to wear nice clothes.”
Gossiping with Liz was part of the day’s agenda, as was addressing other members of the media who were all chomping at the bit for face-time with the brash, always news-making comic who has remained relatively out of the spotlight in recent years, dedicating more time to her family—which, until recently, included her marriage to her partner of 10 years, Kelli Carpenter.
That O’Donnell’s breakup with Carpenter, an attractive blonde with whom O’Donnell has four children (three are adopted, one is biological), has been made public in the months before her film about the importance, and lastingness, of family is coming out—it airs on HBO on January 31—is greatly ironic. And, one would think, uncomfortable for O’Donnell.
But then, nothing seems uncomfortable for a woman who’s made her name on the kind of in-your-face candor that is usually polarizing and always hilariously funny—as a talk-show host, an actress, and a gay activist. (It was this breed of shock-value honesty—or “neediness for communication,” as O’Donnell prefers to call it—that ultimately didn’t sit well with O’Donnell’s co-hosts on The View, which O’Donnell acrimoniously left in 2007. Things hit a point-of-no-return when O’Donnell began elaborating on her 9/11 conspiracy theories.)
Indeed, as O’Donnell spoke with The Daily Beast—following her colorfully uncensored conversation with Smith—she was straightforward and thoughtful about her relationship with Carpenter. If there is stürm und drang behind the scenes, which the tabs have suggested, she wasn’t letting on.
“Gay people, at least women that I know who have children, they’re all friends with their exes. You know, it’s not the same heterosexual paradigm, where they break up and everybody’s mad and nobody talks and there’s tension. It’s not like that,” O’Donnell said, as she stretched out in a chaise, holding a pillow to her chest, and resting her clog-clad feet on a coffee table. Her bare ankles revealed a patchwork of colorful tattoos.
“We worked for a very long time to try to find a solution, and when we realized we couldn’t, we worked to have a transition into something different, so it’s been a long process and everything’s OK.”
(With Smith, O’Donnell was a bit more tart on the subject of Carpenter, saying, “She’ll be fine. She’ll find someone who plays tennis and likes to wear nice clothes.”)
A Family Is a Family Is a Family is a musical-documentary inspired by Marlo Thomas’ 1970s kids TV show Free to Be… You and Me, which celebrates familial configurations of all colors, cultures and genders. In A Family, O’Donnell diplomatically, if not effusively, addresses the situation with Carpenter. During a scene in which O’Donnell talks to her young daughter Vivienne, she says, “Even though Kelli and I aren’t living in the same house anymore, family is forever.”
“I wanted to touch on the situation without exploiting it,” O’Donnell said at the Langham. “I didn’t want to ignore it and pretend it wasn’t happening, but I also didn’t want to exploit it in any way.
“I think how we did it was good. That’s how we talk to the kids, both Kelli and I, we tell them the truth. And, you know, the sentiments that I express in that piece with her is what I truly feel, that a family is forever.”
Asked if she’d ever tie the knot again—where laws allow it (O’Donnell and Carpenter wed in the window of time that gay marriage was legal in California)—O’Donnell said, “I don’t know. I think it’s hard. I think marriage is hard. Half of them don’t work. At least half, right? But I do believe in the concept. I do believe in love and happily ever after and forever. But when it doesn’t work, you have to make adjustments.”
As to what didn’t work with her own marriage, O’Donnell talked about meeting Carpenter at the height of her fame hosting The Rosie O’Donnell Show, and how, after she decided to end the show, “I was home a lot, and, you know, a lot of things changed.”
“It’s like, you climb to the top of Mt. Everest and people have to come with you, and there’s no air up there. So you have to climb back down.”
O’Donnell, now 47, said that her goal for 2010 is “authenticity.” It’s thus fitting that in A Family, she’s shown in dialed-back, at-home mode, looking like most moms do: wearing no makeup and sweats, and surrounded by toy clutter.
It’s the gear where, for now at least, she’s the most comfortable. Although she thinks about TV (and is a crazy-mad fan of Glee), there are no immediate plans to return to it. Her main day job is at home in Nyack, New York, where she tapes a two-hour radio program for Sirius, a job she was prodded to do by one-time arch enemy Howard Stern.
Although the two are cut from a similar cloth, O’Donnell said that Stern “hated my guts for so many years, and used to call me horrible names. All his fans used to say horrible things to me at the mall. I was afraid of him. And Mia Farrow is a mutual friend, and she kept saying, ‘You guys would get along.’ And I was like, ‘No way.’”
Eventually, bygones were bygones and O’Donnell agreed to be on Stern’s own Sirius show. Not only was a friendship born, but O’Donnell found a new calling.
“With the radio show, for two hours a day, I actually get to be authentically emotional,” she said, again using her new favorite word. “I was crying during the whole show about Haiti. I don’t know, it’s very fulfilling for me, more than I thought it would be. I had no idea if I would like it.”
Not to suggest that O’Donnell is mellowing. That day she, very authentically, eviscerated Jay Leno over the Tonight Show debacle at NBC in front of a roomful of press. And when the subject came up during our interview, and O’Donnell began to let loose (“Conan never had a chance with the 10 o’clock lead-in of Jay Leno’s crappy show…”), her über-publicist Cindi Berger marched over to intervene.
“OK, boss,” O’Donnell said, and smiled sweetly.
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.