Kuku: A Love Story

I remember, with unusual clarity, the first time I met Kukula Kapoor, the woman I would eventually marry. It was the winter of 1982. I was a grad student at Northwestern University. She was an associate producer of a talk show on the Chicago PBS affiliate. We were both twenty-four. A mutual friend brought me by her rooming house in Evanston. Kuku made us tea on a hot plate. She talked fast, with an emotional intensity that I found almost worrying, though intriguing. I also noticed her exotic good looks: big eyes, café au lait skin, hair cut short Liza Minnelli style, and short shorts, too, revealing thin, shapely legs.

Ethnically, I couldn’t quite place her. She looked Greek, like me, but while her first name sounded Greek, her last name definitely didn’t. Turkish, maybe? Arab? During the conversation, she mentioned being “born in Tibet.” Hmm, I thought, so that’s what Tibetans look like.

Not quite. Over the next year, as we got to know each other—we were dating other people at the time but saw each other socially—I got a more accurate fix on her.

She had indeed been born in Tibet, but her father was an Indian diplomat who had helped the Dalai Lama escape and then took the same route himself—on ponyback over the Himalayas—with his family, including two-year-old Kuku. (She was named for the cuckoo bird singing outside the window the morning she was born.) A series of foreign postings followed: Switzerland and Germany (where her parents had previously been posted at the end of World War II); Senegal, where Kuku attended a Baptist missionary school and developed a love of all things American; Syria, where she witnessed dogfights between Israeli and Syrian jets; and then, finally, back to New Delhi, where she happily studied at a Catholic boarding school. She then attended Indiana University, where her aunt and uncle were on the faculty. She graduated with a degree in journalism and political science, and soon landed her TV job in Chicago, waiting tables at night to make ends meet.

I found her life story impossibly romantic—certainly way more so than my own childhood in suburban St. Louis. We were different in other ways, too. She was passionate; I was cerebral. She was a strong partisan Democrat, politically engaged by predisposition as well as background: her mother, a successful entrepreneur and diplomatic hostess, was a Congress Party activist who knew Indira Gandhi. I had no real political loyalties, my vaguely leftish inclinations balanced by a streak of middle-American conservatism I got from my parents. She revered journalists and journalism; I had no particular interest in the profession. (I don’t remember ever reading a newspaper in college.)

I did have ambitions to be a writer, though, and soon learned that Kuku had a voracious appetite for fine fiction and a gift for language. I remember her once describing Norman Mailer, a guest on her TV show, as “walking like a pugilist, on the balls of his feet.”

Eventually, I made my way to D.C., interned at the Washington Monthly, and caught the journalism bug. One wintery day in 1984, on a visit to Chicago, I called Kuku up. She invited me over to her place—she now had a one-bedroom apartment, with an actual kitchen—and cooked me a dinner of beef curry. We talked and talked and talked, and eventually—well, let me just say that we didn’t leave her apartment for three days.

A year and a half later, we were married. My family fell in love with her, and as I watched them do so, I began to grasp something fundamental about Kuku: she had an immense capacity for love and empathy. She was a hugger and a hand-holder. She drew people in with kind, joyful eyes, drew them out with gentle questions, and made them feel appreciated and understood. She remembered the details of everyone’s lives, especially their children and families. She could even recall the hard-to-parse names of all my parents’ many Greek American friends. (Even I couldn’t quite do that, and I had grown up with them.)

After the wedding, we moved to D.C. I went to work as an editor under Charlie Peters at the Monthly, she as a staffer for Ralph Nader. We were doing similarly heady (if not very remunerative) work for famed Washington crusaders in the depths of the Reagan years. But we came at things differently. I preferred policy to politics; she was the opposite. She felt Reagan’s rise threatened everything she believed in; I felt it was a sign that Democrats needed new ideas. She thought liberalism needed to be defended; I thought it needed to be reformed. For the next thirty years, this would be the primary axis around which political discussion in the Glastris-Kapoor household turned.

In 1988, I took a job as Chicago bureau chief for U.S. News & World Report. Kuku went to work on Michael Dukakis’s campaign, wanting to fight the fight directly. That bittersweet experience ended around the time my part-time office manager/reporter left for law school, and Kuku took her place—after first giving birth to our daughter, Hope. For five years Kuku and I (sometimes with Hope in tow) worked together in an office overlooking Lake Michigan and traveled, separately and sometimes together, on reporting assignments around the Midwest. At night, over beers and burgers at our favorite bars, we’d talk about the writers we both loved—George Orwell, Somerset Maugham—and those we disagreed on. I admired V. S. Naipaul; she found him dreadful—“His soul is dark and shriveled,” she said. She tried to get me interested in P. G. Wodehouse, but I never quite did. She said I was “uncivilized.” She was not joking.

Mostly, though, we talked and talked and talked about politics and policy. Any friends and family members who came to our house for Kuku’s many dinner parties got sucked into this conversational vortex.

By 1994, both of us were eager for an adventure. When a posting in Berlin opened up, I grabbed it. We set up the bureau in our apartment, blocks from where the wall had recently been. While I traveled in and out of Yugoslavia covering the end of the Bosnian War, Kuku explored Berlin, learned German, cared for Hope, and hosted dinners for other journalists. She was the happiest I’d ever seen her, living a life she was bred for.

After the war ended, U.S. News shut down the Berlin bureau and offered us Moscow as consolation. Around that time, our friend Jim Fallows took over as editor of the magazine. With two young kids—our son, Adam, had just been born—we decided that living in Moscow with a newborn made less sense than helping Jim reinvent the magazine. Kuku had no love for D.C. (“Give me a real city,” she would say), but made the best of it, raising the kids and turning our little dining room in Glover Park into a dinner-and-political-debate club for friends. When Fallows was fired eighteen months later, I quit the magazine, a decision Kuku supported. I then went to work as a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, a decision she really supported. Finally, I was fighting the fight directly.

A White House job is all consuming. I was frequently out the door at 6:30 a.m. and not home until midnight. Kuku half-jokingly called herself a single mother, and that wasn’t far from the truth. But she was extraordinarily proud of what I was doing. To her, public service was sacred. She ultimately got to serve, too, doing press advance for Clinton’s trip to India. We figured her late father was smiling down from heaven.

Kuku was too much of a liberal to be sold on Clinton’s centrist–New Democratic agenda. But she adored the president regardless, because he knew how to win. She had no illusions about the need to gain and hold power, and about what happens when that power is lost. She found Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky disgusting, but she fumed at the liberal pearl clutchers who didn’t defend him, almost as much as the Republicans who impeached him.

Around this time, Kuku started having severe pain in her joints. Tests revealed that she had rheumatoid arthritis, an auto-immune disease in which the body slowly destroys its own connective tissue. Her bedside table soon became a mini-pharmacy. The various medications helped some, but seldom stopped the degeneration for long. Every few years for the next twenty she’d have to have a joint replaced—an ankle, a hip, a wrist, both knees. But few outside the family and our closest friends knew how much pain she was in. She simply didn’t complain. “I’m a tough Punjabi girl,” she would say. And she was.

When the administration ended, I took over editorship of the Washington Monthly from Charlie, who was retiring. Kuku, who was working as an office manager at our kids’ public school, agreed to help our new business manager, Claire Iseli, get a grip on our shaky finances. (The two of them brought in $46,000 in much-needed revenue from newsstands that hadn’t been billed for three years.) I then asked Kuku to take over the editing of our book reviews. It was a vital part of the magazine, and I knew she’d be great at it. I already relied on her editing: in all the years we were together I never published any story of significance without having her first read it and mark it up. She took the job, and my faith was borne out. She became a brilliant editor and made the book review section the place where some of the best thinking and writing in the magazine could be found.

It started with the choice of books to put out for review. As editor in chief, I had certain fixed ideas about this, which Kuku respected. But she was strong willed and had definite views of her own, and I knew when to get out of her way. She commissioned more books than I might have on foreign affairs, popular culture, the politics of religion, and American history, especially biographies—subjects she was passionate about and felt the magazine ought to weigh in on. The result was a much livelier and more interesting section.

Another secret to her success was the relationships she built with a growing stable of talented reviewers. Convincing a busy writer to read a turgid 500-page book, wrestle their thoughts into a review, and go through several rounds of often tough editing—all for 10 cents a word—takes diplomatic skill. That Kuku had in abundance. But she also genuinely cared about her writers. She remembered the names of their spouses and kids and asked about them. She got into email back-and-forths with them about politics, baseball, and pasta recipes. She sent them books we got from publishers that we weren’t going to review but she thought they might enjoy. Her writers knew she loved them, and they loved her back. Because of this bond they were more patient with our editorial demands and worked harder than they otherwise might have.

Reviewing nonfiction public affairs books is more craft than art. There are formulas for doing it right: connect the book’s subject to something in the news; tell the reader what’s in the book first before launching into your criticisms of it. And there are certain talents a good book review editor ought to have: a broad knowledge of the world; an ability to challenge or improve a reviewer’s argument; a sense of what readers know and don’t already know about a subject. Kuku had, or developed, all of these talents. She also worked hard, often reading the book in question in order to fix an especially jumbled review.

But it was her literary sensibility that most distinguished her work. She had a highly tuned sense of language: how a sentence sounded; what word would bring delight; how the entirety of a review, when you got to the end, made you feel. That’s what most gave her the ability to make a serviceable review impressive, and an impressive one beautiful.

The editing gig was part time, which suited her, because her greatest passion was being a mother to our children. And not just the ones she had given birth to. She was the second mother to scores of Hope’s and Adam’s friends, who loved to hang out at our house because they knew they would be hugged, fed, and listened to. She treated our young Monthly editors like her children, too, bringing home-cooked food in during late-night closings. (I can still see a young Josh Green rubbing his hands in glee as Kuku walked into the office with a pan of pastitsio.)

Over the last few years, Kuku struggled even more with pain, as well as debilitating fatigue. She worked mostly at home, but continued to come into the office once a week or so to participate in meetings and have lunch with writers or publishing house reps (they loved her too, of course), and then recede into her office, surrounded by a wall of books and photos of her kids. Outwardly, she looked fine—great, actually. Inwardly, two decades of pain were starting to wear down her spirits.

Then, in early July, we both caught a flu. Mine went away, but hers got worse very quickly. (The medicines taken to combat rheumatoid arthritis suppress the immune system.) We took her to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with pneumonia and put in the ICU. Her condition soon escalated to Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, a condition in which the lung tissue becomes inflamed and damaged. She was sedated and put on a ventilator. She stayed that way for seven hellish weeks as heroic teams of doctors and nurses tried to save her life. In the end, they could not. On August 29, Kukula Kapoor Glastris, love of my life and mother of our children, passed away. She was fifty-nine.

During those harrowing and heartbreaking weeks in the hospital, and in the difficult weeks that followed, the love and generosity Kuku radiated her whole life came back to us in the form of astonishing support—from our extended families, our friends and neighbors, and the community of current and former Washington Monthly colleagues. Because of that support—the cast on our broken limb—the kids and I are doing okay. (To get a sense of that support, go to the page for Kuku put together by our friend Steve Waldman on LifePosts.com.)

Kuku’s empathy was not just personal, but political, as well. It was a reflection of her bone-deep belief in the liberal philosophy of inclusiveness, of caring for others, especially those who are marginalized and in need, of diverse peoples and faiths being all in this together.

Empathy, like other human traits, falls on a bell curve. Kuku was on one side of that curve, and this fed into and fueled her worldview. Yet it was hard for her to fully fathom that other people did not feel the same way—that they in fact felt threatened by the breaking down of barriers that made her so happy. I spent hours with her trying to make that point, and she could grasp it, for a while. But then her understanding would disappear. Her powers of personal empathy did not extend to those who lack this broader, cross-cultural empathy.

There are tensions in any marriage. Our good fortune was to have tensions that were, mostly, productive. Our three-decade-plus political debate was basically the same one the center-left has been having all these years, and continues to have. The truth is that we agreed on most things, and where we disagreed we influenced and fortified each other—though honesty compels me to admit that she pulled me more in her direction than the other way around.

Another way to put this is that I pretty much absorbed the whole of Kuku’s worldview—political, moral, aesthetic, all of it—into my own. In that way, and many others, she helped shape the publication you are now reading—from the ideas we champion, to the character of the young people we hire, to the way we treat those young people, to the way they look at the world when they leave here. Kuku is no longer with us physically, but everyone here at the Monthly feels her presence. And so, by reading, you will, too.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.