Ina & Jeffrey: A Love Story
Jeffrey Garten can admit this now: He thought his wife's first big appearance on national television was going to be a complete disaster. It was the summer of 1999 and Ina was backstage at the Today show, getting ready to talk to Matt Lauer about her first cookbook. Jeffrey was watching the show in his hotel room as disco legend Donna Summer hit the stage at Rockefeller Center for Today's summer concert series — right before Ina's segment — and the woman just rocked the place. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh, Ina's going to follow this?' I was heartbroken for her."
But Ina came out and did what she has done countless times since then: She won everyone over, instantly. "You just forgot that Donna Summer was ever there," Jeffrey says. "It was unbelievable."
There are a lot of unbelievable moments in Ina and Jeffrey's life, and when you see the two of them together, laughing about the craziness of their decades-long marriage, you get the sense that they still can't quite believe it themselves. It's wild enough to find someone you actually want to be with for 50 years. But Ina and Jeffrey's partnership has become much more than that: It's a cultural phenomenon. In the past 17 years, Ina has sold close to 10 million copies of nine different cookbooks, and every one of them has been inspired in part by her life with Jeffrey. Her tenth and latest book, Cooking for Jeffrey, is fully devoted to him. And although these two have been offering fans a glimpse of their storybook marriage for years, neither ever imagined that "You're the Jeffrey to my Ina" would end up on letterpress Valentine's Day cards.
To understand the magic of this duo, consider the scenario Jeffrey describes as the single best moment in his life with Ina: He had flown overnight from New York City to Paris in May 2002, caught a cab to the Seventh Arrondissement and found himself in front of a building he'd never seen, pressing the buzzer to his own apartment for the first time. Ina had bought the place a year earlier and overseen a massive renovation without showing Jeffrey a single photo or telling him one detail about it. "The secret to a happy marriage is that he trusted me," Ina says. "I wanted it to be a surprise." When he finally made his way up to the fifth floor, he found French music playing, and hot coffee and croissants in the kitchen … and he was home. "She had made everything so warm and so beautiful. Within five minutes, I felt like I'd lived there forever," he says.
They had come a long way since their somewhat awkward first date. Jeffrey met Ina — or rather, first caught a glimpse of her — his freshman year at Dartmouth, when she visited her brother on campus in the fall of 1964. Jeffrey was gazing out the library window and he said to his roommate, "Look at that girl, isn't she beautiful?" The roommate knew exactly who she was: Ina Rosenberg, the younger sister of a friend, and he had a date with her that night. But when the date didn't turn into anything, Jeffrey swooped in and started writing letters to Ina, hoping to meet her someday. "She looked really smart and she looked nurturing," he says. "She looked like she would take care of me."
Months later, the date finally happened: Jeffrey picked Ina up at her parents' house in Stamford, CT (she was still in high school), and she suggested they drive to Port Chester, NY, because you could drink in New York at 18, and surely a college boy would think it was cool to go to a bar. "It was a disaster," she says, laughing. "I had never been to a bar in my life! The guy at the door says, 'Where's your ID?' and I thought, 'What ID?'" They drove back to a coffee shop in Westport and had what Ina says was "a perfectly good time." Jeffrey then proceeded to court her with more letters and invitations to visit him at school. There were so many letters. "He wrote to me, like, every day. I couldn't keep up with it!" she says.
In time, Ina started visiting Jeffrey at Dartmouth and became a fixture on campus. She was in college at Syracuse, and she'd take the bus about six hours each way to spend weekends with him. She became one of the gang, and Jeffrey likes to point out that of the incredibly successful Dartmouth class of 1968, "Ina became the most famous and beloved of all of us." The class includes several Rhodes scholars, a former cabinet secretary, and of course Jeffrey himself, who held senior positions in multiple presidential administrations and went on to become a managing director at Lehman Brothers and dean of Yale's School of Management.
"It was very fashionable at the time for guys to date women who were going off to medical school or law school," Jeffrey says, "but Ina was sending me shoe boxes of brownies and making me sweaters. And all these guys who were after those other women — they were in my room all the time, asking, 'What did Ina send you this time?'"
Ina and Jeffrey got married at Ina's parents' house in December 1968. Ina was 20 and suddenly, a military wife: Jeffrey had enlisted as an officer in the Army and they were sent to Fayetteville, NC. Ina thought she had the perfect life — she'd married the man of her dreams, and she had plenty of time to cook for him. But one day Jeffrey came home and found Ina watching a sitcom, That Girl, at 11 a.m. "I just said to her, 'You have to do something. You won't be happy if you don't.'" It was a turning point: Ina got serious about finishing college, and about focusing on her passion for business and cooking. Then she and Jeffrey took a trip to Paris in 1972, and both of them discovered the extent of her innate talent as a cook: They were traveling on five dollars a day, so Ina had to prepare every meal on a gas camping stove. She'd make beef bourguignon like it was nothing, then set up elaborate buffets for dinner. "It was the first formative period in her cooking," Jeffrey says. "All those little shops in Europe — the boulangeries — Ina would walk through them and just glow."
The other formative years for Ina's cooking were the ones she and Jeffrey spent in Washington, DC, in the mid-'70s. They started inviting friends over — lots of them — and Ina would spend a whole week planning a menu while working during the day at the White House Office of Management and Budget. "People still talk about her parties," Jeffrey says. "They were legendary." In 1978, with Jeffrey's urging, Ina bought the tiny Barefoot Contessa specialty-food store in Westhampton Beach, NY, and started the business that would lead to the cookbooks and shows we all know today.
What many fans forget, however, is that Ina ran this business for more than 20 years before she published The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. It was a huge risk. Ina was a first-time author, and her deal with the publishing company, Clarkson Potter, required her to buy half the run — 5,000 copies — to sell at her store. "I wasn't really thinking about how many books that was," Ina says. "It was a major roll of the dice." She was nervous, but Jeffrey was as confident as ever, and he loves telling the rest of the story: The truck delivered the massive shipment to Ina's store and a mere three days later, someone called and said Ina needed to send all the books back immediately. The initial 5,000 copies — plus an extra 15,000 the publisher had ordered because of strong early press — had already sold out, and they needed more, pronto.
Jeffrey is most likely the only person who saw that coming. He believed in her because he knows how hard she works. "She has natural talent, but it's backed by so much effort and so much focus," he says. "When she had the store, she'd work until midnight all the time. The discipline of her recipe testing and how seriously she takes it — she doesn't settle for anything but the best. She's like a runner who collapses at the finish line even though she was ahead the whole race."
Ina has also, as Jeffrey predicted the moment he first saw her, taken great care of him. The real secret to their partnership is that she has been able to make him feel at home, wherever he is—and for many years of their marriage, they've had to spend time apart. When he was relocated to Tokyo by Lehman Brothers in the 1980s and Ina was still living in New York City, Ina hired a Japanese artist to replicate his desk chair, then she found other furniture that looked similar to theirs and arranged the Tokyo space to look exactly like their apartment on lower Fifth Avenue — right down to the music in the CD rack. When he joined the staff at Yale in 1995 and needed a commuter home in Connecticut, she decorated that one, too. He still has the place, in Southport, and it looks exactly as it did when she set it up for him, with one exception: He has created a shrine to his wife without her approval. "Ina doesn't like any evidence of her public life," he says, "so I collect all the newspaper and magazine articles. The walls are covered with pictures of Ina." Ina, an inveterate fan of TV police dramas, jokes that "it looks like some kind of crime scene!"
When Jeffrey thinks back to that first glimpse of her on the Dartmouth campus, he's still not sure why he saw the future so clearly. "I don't want to make it seem supernatural or anything," he says, "but I saw everything that was to be. I just knew she'd be the kind of woman I'd want to be around forever."
Photographs courtesy of Ina Garten, Clarkson Potter and Food Network Magazine