Marlo Thomas, Phil Donahue share the secrets of celebs’ successful marriages

New book by the couple, wed 40 years, gathers advice from famous spouses from Jesse Jackson to Jamie Lee Curtis.

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Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue will celebrate 40 years of marriage in May.

Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue will celebrate 40 years of marriage in May.

HarperOne/Courtesy Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue

He was the liberal king of daytime talk shows in the 1970s. She was an actress — the single, fiercely independent, free-spirited daughter of a legendary comedian/philanthropist. He was recently divorced and raising four teen sons and not contemplating another trip down the aisle. Marriage was something she never wanted.

And when they met during an interview segment in 1977 on his Chicago-based gabfest, everything changed.

Four decades later, Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas are about to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary on May 21 and, from all signs, as over-the-moon about one another as they were on their wedding day.

Not that it’s been unending wedded bliss at every turn. Like any married couple, they’ve had their share of fabulous times and heated arguments. And as the milestone event approached, they pondered the eternal question: What’s the secret to a successful marriage? The search for the answer led to their first book as co-authors, “What Makes a Marriage Last — 40 Celebrated Couples Share with Us the Secrets to a Happy Life,” (HarperOne, $29.99).

WhatMakesAMarriageLast_book_cover.jpg

“I had to convince Phil [to do the project] because we’ve never spoken publicly about our marriage,” Thomas said during a recent chat with the couple from their New York home. “If you Google it you won’t find much about it. ... Everyone’s always asking why our marriage lasts? What’s the ‘secret sauce’? And we decided it would be easier to find out everybody else’s secret sauce. It’s hard to look at your own marriage and see a secret sauce.”

Thomas and Donahue turned to 40 famous couples whose marriages have stood the test of time. And hardship. And sickness. And rehab and arguments and infidelity and money problems and raising children. And just about every curve ball life can serve up. And yet, all remain happily married.

The list of interviewees runs the gamut from celebrities to politicos and more: Alan and Arlene Alda (married in 1957); Billy and Janice Crystal (married in 1970); President Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter (married in 1946); Ray and Anna Romano (married in 1987); LL Cool J and Simone I. Smith (married in 1995); Rev. Jesse and Jacqueline Jackson (married in 1962): Elton John and David Furnish (a couple since 1993; married in 2014); Viola Davis and Julius Tennon (married in 2003); Charlotte and John Henderson, married in 1939 — the oldeset living married couple, according to the Guinness Book of World Records).

Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas on their wedding day in 1980.

Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas on their wedding day in 1980.

Courtesy of Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue

Thomas, who wed Donahue when she was 42 and he was 44, makes it clear she was not “waiting to get married”; she was never going to get married. “I thought marriage was too constipated a place for me. But once Phil and I got together I realized maybe marriage was a roomier place than I thought.”

Donahue adds that at the time, “it was very un-Catholic in a way for Marlo,” Donahue adds. “If you’re Catholic girl and unmarried by the time you’re 22, your mother started a novena. Marlo dated a lot of people. More than I like to consider. And I’ve met many of them and they’re all nice people.”

Thirty-five guests attended the 1988 wedding of actors Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon.

Thirty-five guests attended the 1988 wedding of actors Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon.

Courtesy of Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon

The book’s journey taught them a lot about their subjects, but it also served as a sort of mirror to their own marriage, Thomas says.

“What we’ve picked up is ways to get through certain situations,” Thomas says emphatically. “James Carville [interviewed along with Mary Matalin, his bride of 27 years] said if you’re going around and around on an issue and you can’t resolve it then just kick that can down the road. Behind every successful marriage is a whole trail of kicked cans. And I think that’s true. Not everything has to be or can be resolved.”

Thomas said what surprised her most over the course of the project was the honesty each of the couples delivered. “Jamie Lee Curtis [married to Christopher Guest since 1984] just floored me when she said, ‘You don’t realize how much hate your marriage can tolerate. ... You can hate something your spouse does, but you have to tolerate that and move on.’

“I first met Jackie when we were in college. She was into modern dance and was a heavy user of the library. And he was just beautiful beyond measure. A mutual friend told me I had to meet her,” said Rev. Jesse Jackson about his wife of 58 years, pictured on their wedding day.

“I first met Jackie when we were in college. She was into modern dance and was a heavy user of the library. And she was just beautiful beyond measure. A mutual friend told me I had to meet her,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson about his wife of 58 years, pictured on their wedding day.

Courtesy of the Rev. Jesse and Jacqueline Jackson

“I was impressed with people who didn’t look for the escape route when things got tough,” Thomas continued. “Hopefully the book shows you some marriages you can relate to, whether it’s money issues, infidelity, illness, in-law issues.”

“Kyra Sedgwick said something that I really love,” Thomas continued. “She said you can’t go into marriage with a Plan B. I think most people, the reason their marriage lasted is because they didn’t press the eject button or look for the escape route. They worked through it together. And when they came out of it they had this bond, like a braid of love and passion and trust and steel. It’s unbreakable. ... When you work through things with eyes open and trust you will end up with a very strong, unbreakable bond.”

Donahue revealed he thought of an escape route especially in the early years of his marriage to Thomas, but it never materialized.

“I’m more of a pouter. I’m a silent Sam after a blow-up,” he said. “Marlo is a steady force in our marriage. She’s the reason it’s lasted 40 years. I thought I would hit the eject button but I never did. And I feel very very lucky that I never did because as each year went by [the marriage] got easier.”

Marlo Thomas Phil Donahue book excerpts
What some of the couples had to say about marriage:

Comedian/actor Ray Romano: “The reason this marriage works is because, thankfully, she knows that I love her. And for women who have to hear it out loud, it’s not going to work that well when you’re married to a guy like me. ... In this business, where everyone is either phony or kissing your a- -, I know that’s not going to happen with Anna. Whether it’s showbiz-related or anything else, she’s going to tell me the truth and not be mean about it — and that’s exactly what I want.”

Actress Tracy (Mrs. Michael J. Fox) Pollan: “Give each other the benefit of the doubt. Know that you love this person and they love you, so assume the best, not the worst. Carve out time together but also carve out time for yourself because it will inform the time you have together.”

Kyra (Mrs. Kevin Bacon) Sedgwick: “The person you marry is not necessarily going to be the same during the whole trajectory of the marriage. Let each other grow. Let each other change. If you don’t, that’s when trouble happens. ... I think the foundation [of our marriage] is that we really f——-g love hanging out together, and we really love each other, and we really want to spend time together.“

Kevin (Mr. Kyra Sedgwick) Bacon: “I think people should put as little focus on the wedding as possible. .. If you put the wedding in a pie chart, it’s just a four-hour window over the course of 30 years. ... People get so freaked out about the wedding. Ours definitely didn’t define our lives together.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson: “I think many marriages don’t last long because they have no roots. They cannot withstand the fierce winds that blow in our lives. And if you don’t have a foundation and shared values, that’s when the tree topples.”

Rebecca (Mrs. Dr. Sanjay) Gupta: “I also think it’s important to be humble in your marriage, because humility and empathy give you perspective toward your partner and gratitude for all you have.”

John Henderson (107 years old and still married to his beloved 105-year-old Charlotte): “You have to be kind to each other. You have to respect each other. And it goes on and on like that.”

Courtesy: “What Makes a Marriage Last”


The couple admits their marriage started out with all the usual suspicions, questions, doubts: Who will dominate whom? Am I giving in too much? But “when all that power struggle goes away you realize that’s a lot of energy wasted on nothing,” Thomas said. “You change constantly. And you have to.”

“I’m not as jealous as I used to be and that’s a really big thing for me,” Donahue said. “You realize jealousy really drains you. It’s not good for your health. That took a while. She made a movie with Kris Kristofferson and it had a love scene in it. That was the longest love scene I’ve ever seen in the movies. [Laughs] I’m past all that. I’m a big boy now.”

In the end, it all comes down to the wisdom of the ages, as each chapter of the book reveals. Marriage is something you grow into. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Be kind to each other. Respect each other. Accommodate and accept your differences. Go dancing. Say those three little words to each other every night before you go to sleep. It’s all good, even the tough times.

“It’s not the other person’s job to make you happy,” Thomas said of marriage. “Your job together is to build a life together.”

“And laugh a lot,” Donahue said . “We laugh a lot.”

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