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Mosbacher Family Affair


Robert A. Mosbacher Sr., served as secretary of Commerce under President George H.W. Bush and was one of the Republican Party's most successful fund-raisers. His daughter Dee, a psychiatrist and Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker, has consistently spoken out against the Republican Party's cultural war against LGBT people. Dee and Nanette Gartrell, her spouse of more than 30 years, were very close to Bob despite their political differences with him.


My father-in-law was the only person who knew about the affair. During the three months that I cheated on his daughter Dee, Bob took vicarious pleasure in my assignations. "I'm infatuated," I told him. "She's so adorable. I get goose bumps whenever I'm with her, and she is so responsive to my touch. I love the way she smells."

"You're so bad," he'd say, chuckling.

Fortunately, Dee never caught on. I kept an eye on her calendar, searching for the days when she was scheduled to be away for long meetings. Trying not to arouse suspicion, I double- and triple-checked her appointments as my window of opportunity approached, hoping that none had been canceled or shortened.

It was difficult to conceal my impatience as Dee headed toward the door. I conjured up a plausible explanation for my unavailability -- if she needed to reach me -- and I worried that my lies were too transparent. I knew that my betrayal would be exposed if I didn't give her enough time to return for some gadget she remembered she needed when she was halfway to her destination. Occasionally I waited over an hour, fretting that Dee might circle back and my ruse would be revealed.

The moment it seemed safe, I grabbed my purse and dashed outside. Sometimes I only had time for a quickie. Afterward I would call Bob.

"Hi, sweetheart. How are you?"

"I cheated on Dee again."

[Laughing] "Tell me all about it. I can't wait to hear."

As much as Bob enjoyed hearing about these escapades, he worried that I might spill the beans.

"You're sure Dee has no idea."

"Absolutely. In the 34 years Dee and I've been together, I've never been as good at keeping a secret as I have this time."

"I hope you can keep it up."

"I'm trying. But it's hard when you're in love. She is so cute. Have I told you how cute she is?"

"About a thousand times."

"I'm not the only one who feels that way. Whenever I take her out, people smile at her admiringly."

"How many miles to the gallon does she get?"

"I'm not sure, but I'm guessing around 40."

"Whoever manufactures Smart Cars sure came up with a great idea."

Bob had purchased the Smart Car as a gift for Dee's 60th birthday. She'd driven one in France nearly a decade ago and wanted one ever since. She followed the debates on Smart Car safety and even suspected the American automobile industry of lobbying to prevent gas-saving imported cars from being sold in the United States.

A few years back, during a trip to Paris, Dee insisted on visiting the Smart Car dealership, a four-story glass structure that looked like a gigantic Pez dispenser. "You know," she said while peering into one of the minuscule vehicles, "California license plates have seven letters. When I get my Smart Car, I think I'll call her SMARTDE if that's still available."

The only snag in pulling off Dee's surprise was that her Smart Car arrived in San Francisco three months early. Thankfully, I was able to rent garage space a couple blocks from our home. Between October 2008 and January 13, 2009 -- the day of her birthday fete -- whenever Dee was out for the day, I took SMARTDE for a spin to keep her battery charged. Driving SMARTDE was a bit like walking a cute dog. Strangers approached me with smiles, questions, and parking envy. "You probably can fit a car that size between any two driveways in San Francisco," they'd say.

Since I couldn't share any of this with Dee, I called my co-conspirator instead. Bob was busy concocting an even more elaborate ploy.

"Dee has played so many practical jokes on me over the years," he said. "Remember the time she got on her knees, put a sheet over her head, and rang my doorbell on Halloween? That little Casper knocked the whole basket of candy all over the floor. I couldn't believe it. What a brat, I thought. Dee gave herself away when she started giggling. She really got me on that one. We laughed so hard I think I started wheezing.

"Anyway, here's my idea," he said. "I'm thinking of renting a brand-new gigantic gas guzzler, like a Caddy. I'll drive it to your house and put a huge bow on it. We'll park the Smart Car on the far side of it. Then when she walks out of the house, she'll think that the Caddy is her gift. Knowing Dee, she'll try to hide her horror and pretend she's excited. I'll hop into the Caddy and move it so she can see the Smart Car. What do you think?"

I told him the spoof would be perfect retribution for all her pranks.

Bob made the arrangements. As January approached, he couldn't contain his excitement. I heard from several of Dee's siblings that Bob had disclosed the plan and sworn them to secrecy. By Christmas, our nieces and nephews were whispering about the surprise. With so many family members in the know, it was beginning to look as though it might take a miracle to keep Dee in the dark.

The first week of January, Bob had an abdominal CT scan because of pain in his abdomen that hadn't abated after a several-week trial of various over-the-counter remedies. He faxed us a copy of the report. It said, "Multiple pancreatic cysts. Rule out pancreatitis." Dee and I are both physicians, so when we saw the results we knew it was bad news.

Bob called from a car en route to the launching of the aircraft carrier named after his friend George H.W. Bush, the former president. Bob planned to attend the ceremony, then board a plane for San Francisco to celebrate Dee's birthday.

"How are you feeling?" we asked.

"Not too good. I have a lot of pain."

"How long have you had it?" Dee asked.

"It started right after Thanksgiving. At first I thought it was just a bug. But it's been getting worse. I don't even feel like eating. Next Monday, after I return to Houston, I'm going to see my doctor to figure out what's going on."

"Dad," Dee said, "I think you should turn the car around right now and head home. You need to get whatever's going on diagnosed and treated. Your health is more important than coming all the way out here for my birthday. I don't want you to wait another week."

"But I'd be sick to miss your 60th, sweetheart," he said, sounding defeated. "Besides, I'm the only one who has known you since the day you were born."

"I know, Dad, but the best birthday present you can give me is taking care of your health. Please, please do this for me."

Reluctantly, Bob turned the car around and headed to the nearest airport. He called my cell to speak privately about SMARTDE. Bob asked me to present his gift during the family birthday brunch. I promised to video so he could participate virtually.

Dee was as surprised to find a Smart Car parked in front of our home the morning of her party as she was saddened that her dad couldn't be there to share it. The following week, Bob was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, stage IV. He was a fighter, so he went after it with all the armamentaria that MD Anderson Cancer Center had to offer.

Family and friends rallied to boost Bob's spirits. One of Bob's hospitalizations coincided with Halloween. Above his bed I taped a large photo of Dee in the ghost costume that gave him such a kick years ago. At his request, Dee bought a ghoulish skull mask that he wore throughout the day, discombobulating visitors and staff who entered his room. Dee wheeled him around the floor with the mask covering his head, prompting another terminally ill patient to say, "Gee, Bob, it looks like your surgery didn't go so well." Dee snapped an iPhone picture of him in this getup. She e-mailed it to family members with the message, "Dad says to tell you that he feels better than he looks."

But by the end of the year, as his bowel obstructed, his liver began to fail, and his pain became unmanageable, Bob announced that he was ready to give up the ghost. He was proud to beat the odds, if not the disease. He died 11 days after Dee's 61st birthday.

These days, as Dee and I scoot about town in SMARTDE, my recollections of the affair are bittersweet. Bob and I were so successful in keeping our little secret. I just wish he'd been cackling in that Caddy when we came clean to Dee.

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