New York's Next First Lady?
Sandra Lee’s no-fuss recipes have earned her fame as well as criticism in the food world. But her relationship with state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo could land the Food Network dynamo in the Governor’s Mansion.
Four afternoons a week, Sandra Lee appears on the Food Network, where she bounces around in tight pastel-colored outfits while making barbecue pizza with Pillsbury dough, chicken pot pie with frozen mixed vegetables, and sweet-and-spicy Cornish game hens flavored with pineapple juice from concentrate. The idea behind her homemaking philosophy is to present recipes that women on the go can make without a whole lot of fuss.
Rather than using a TV soundstage, Lee began shooting the show from a house in Millbrook, New York. But soon, she may be broadcasting from another location: the New York Governor’s Mansion.
Lee has the kind of indestructible self-confidence that means the only place she is going is up.
In addition to being a lifestyle guru, Lee, 43, is the live-in girlfriend of New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who by all accounts has the inside track to become the state’s governor in November, extending the Cuomo legacy his father began in the 1980s.
Although the two haven’t exactly been open about their relationship, which began four years ago, they have been seen at movie premieres, charity events, and various events for her numerous projects. In November, gossip columnist Cindy Adams ran into Lee at Elton John’s annual AIDS benefit and reported that Lee “left her flat” when Adams asked her if she and Cuomo would be getting married. Perhaps they are reticent because Cuomo met Lee after an extremely acrimonious divorce from Kerry Kennedy. Or perhaps it’s because Cuomo’s never truly been an extrovert. As the New York Post pointed out in September, “Cuomo, like his father, carefully limits his social circle to immediate family members, a few longtime friends… and his highly successful significant other, the Food Network's cooking-show host Sandra Lee.”
For Sandra Lee the governor's mansion would be a fairy tale ending, with a backstory that’s equally Hollywood-ready.
According to her 2007 memoir, Made from Scratch, Lee was the result of a teenage pregnancy. When she was 2, her mother, Vicky, dropped Sandra and her younger sister, Cindy, at their grandmother Lorraine’s in Santa Monica, California, and didn’t return for about four years.
When Vicky finally came back, she arrived with a boyfriend who was physically abusive to Sandra and her mother. More kids followed, as did financial hardship. The family became Jehovah’s Witnesses, and moved to several states (Washington, Wisconsin, etc.); Vicky became manic depressive and got hooked on Vicodin and Valium.
To compensate, Sandra became the family caretaker. She cleaned the house and cooked for her younger siblings—with frozen goods she bought with the family’s Food Stamps.
In Made from Scratch, Lee writes: “Mostly, it was up to me to stretch the limited buying capacity I had shopping with Food Stamps… I had to ration the food… We made simple bargain cuisine not because we wanted to, but because we had to.”
A college dropout, she wouldn’t be poor for long.
By 1992, Lee had created a product called “Kurtain Kraft,” which allowed people to make “elegant, professional-looking windows” without gluing or sewing. After filming an infomercial that appeared on QVC, her business took off.
In the late ’90s, she began doing work for KB Home, one of the biggest home-building businesses in the United States. There, she was introduced to Bruce Karatz, the company’s then-married CEO, one of the best paid executives in America. Over time, they became involved, and as things got more serious, a source says, she began studying Torah and later converted to Judaism for him. In 2001, they were married in a lavish Beverly Hills ceremony with scores of bridesmaids and a whole bunch of extras cast as nymphs.
The marriage turned out to be a fortuitous if temporary union.
“I never wanted to be married,” Lee told Los Angeles magazine. “[With old boyfriends] I kept thinking, ‘Oh, no. You’re cramping my business.”
According to the magazine, by the time she’d finished her first cookbook, in 1999, “Lee counted several influential figures in her circle of friends, thanks in part to [Karatz].”
She began to approach publishers, not all of whom were won over by her. “I had no doubt she’d get everything she wanted, but I wanted no part of her,” says one publisher who met with her and recalls Karatz attending the meeting with her. “I got the sense that she was manufacturing herself mainly because she had done her homework and decided that this was the way she was going to make it.”
Eventually, through her new friends Barbara Guggenheim and Bert Fields, Lee was introduced to Tina Brown, then the editor in chief at Talk/Miramax Books (and now editor in chief of The Daily Beast). Brown was charmed by Lee’s go-go energy.
“Sandra Lee showed up at Miramax Books with so much dynamism I had to lie down after every meeting,” Brown says. “She had this wonderful raw energy which, combined with the long legs and blond hair and a claim to be the blue-collar Martha Stewart, caused her to walk out of there with a two-book deal with Harvey Weinstein.”
Around that time, Martha Stewart was in serious legal trouble, leading to a scramble in the industry to find the next lifestyle czar. Lee seemed like a good bet, with simple ideas about decorating and cooking that felt like a relief from some of Stewart’s often complicated creations. Moreover, Lee was young and pretty, with blond hair like Stewart’s and a curvy 5-foot-9 body that required two different sizes of bikinis. “She needed a size 10 top and a size 6 bottom,” says Barbara Guggenheim. “One day I got a package from her with a size 6 top and size 10 bottom that she didn’t need. We laughed about it.”
After Brown left and two books later, Talk/Miramax parted ways with Lee. This led to a certain amount of legal wrangling over the rights to her brand. Eventually, Lee explains in her memoir, she bought it back for more than she felt she should have to pay but not enough to ruin the next five years of her life.
Thankfully, things began to look up for her.
On the heels of her success at the Food Network, Lee scored a new publishing deal at Wiley & Sons, where she began banging out more books with titles like Fast Fix Family Favorites and Money Saving Slow Cooking: 20-Minute Meals aimed at busy women with limited budgets.
When Time magazine called her for a story about who might ascend to Martha Stewart’s throne, she was in no doubt about who should have it: “I think there’s always been a brand or an identity that people can relate to, whether it’s Betty Crocker or Julia Child or Martha Stewart or Sandra Lee. You need to be able to identify with people who make sense to you. You can't identify with Mr. Clean!”
It wasn’t the only time she’d speak of herself in the third person.
Much like Martha Stewart and Rachael Ray, Lee has detractors who don’t entirely buy into her populist sensibility. Some warn that many of her recipes have an unhealthful reliance on processed ingredients.
Amanda Hesser, reviewing Lee’s second book for The New York Times in 2003, wrote, “She offers a recipe for a Hollandaise sauce made in a blender. So, rather than preparing it classically with simply a saucepan and a whisk, you have to wash your blender and all its parts. It leaves the reader wondering just how much cooking Ms. Lee has done.”
And television super chef Anthony Bourdain has said so many mean things about Lee at this point it’s hard to keep track of them. As he wrote in a blog post recently. “I’ve said far too many and far too terrible things to ever apologize for. Plus, I pretty much meant every word.”
But Lee has the kind of indestructible self-confidence that means the only place she is going is up.
Sometime around 2005, Lee’s marriage to Karatz ended, with a divorce settlement one person who knows her well believes to be in the mid-eight figures. The same year, KB hired Martha Stewart to appear in their ads. (Karatz, now 64, was convicted on April 21of mail fraud and backdating stock options.)
Not long after her divorce, Lee met Dick Parsons, then the CEO of AOL/Time Warner. He was charmed enough by her to get his editors at Time Inc. to meet with her about starting a magazine there, says a source who worked for Parsons at the time. Nothing came of it, though Lee’s recently published a series of magazine specials with Hoffman Media.
By the end of 2006, she began seeing Andrew Cuomo. “We met at a mutual friend’s house and he had his kids with him,” Lee told Joanna Molloy of the New York Daily News. “He walked in with these three beautiful girls. It was as if they were one unit. They came in bouncing, bubbly, bopping off him like popcorn. Just one big ball of fun.” Lee and Cuomo now live together.
Will she campaign with her beau, the News recently asked? “Anything he asks me to do,” she replied, “I will do.”
If Lee has any doubt about winding up as the (not quite) future first lady of New York, she’s not letting on. Back in October, talk-show host Wendy Williams asked Lee if she would cook in the Governor’s Mansion. To which she replied, “I will cook, and do you know what I’m going to bring when I go to the Governor’s Mansion? Great garnishes!”
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.