August 27, 2010
The â€˜Housewivesâ€™ Husband Who Wishes He Said No
By SARAH WILDMAN
EARLIER this summer, as he stood alone in the lobby of Washingtonâ€™s Mandarin Oriental hotel with a packed car parked out front, there was no one to say goodbye to Charles Ommanney despite a decade of life in the city. Six months earlier, he had a wife; two children; three dogs; a house in Chevy Chase, Md.; and a gaggle of cameras following him around.
Every Thursday night, you can still see that earlier version of Charles Ommanneyâ€™s life, like a â€œTwilight Zoneâ€� episode in which, in a strange quirk of post-modernity, his previous life continues to play out in real time even as his current life runs in the opposite direction. Thatâ€™s because Mr. Ommanney, on Bravo at least, is Cat Ommanneyâ€™s spouse on â€œThe Real Housewives of D.C.â€�
â€œI havenâ€™t seen it, but Iâ€™ve seen the previews and I made a promise to myself to not sit and watch my ex-wife,â€� Mr. Ommanney, sounding miserable, said by telephone from Miami. â€œItâ€™s just too painful. Iâ€™ve got eight more weeks of hundreds of Facebook requests from people I donâ€™t know. Iâ€™d almost like to go and live in Katmandu. I have very few regrets in my life, but this is the one.â€� Once, he points out, if you Googled â€œOmmanney,â€� you would have discovered three centuries of naval admirals going back to his great-great-great-grandfather. Now you find rumors about the marriage breakup and snarky tattling on the show.
Before the divorce, the Ommanneysâ€™ story was the stuff of rom-coms, or reality heaven. Known for bowling over presidents and women (George W. Bush nicknamed him Chuckles and, for his wild hair, Lion King) during nine years of covering the White House for Newsweek, he was an award-winning photojournalist who had chronicled wars in Rwanda and Bosnia, among other assignments. She was a summer fling from 1989, the glamorous baby sister of a friend, who got back in touch in 2008 after two children, an infamous kiss with Prince Harry that won her tabloid fame, and, between them, two marriages.
After a five-month courtship, Catherine followed Charles Ommanney to Washington with her children, where they rented a spacious pale yellow clapboard house with a wraparound porch. About a year later, Ms. Ommanney was being filmed in scenes of parties and polo, and Charles had become a father to the girls.
â€œD.C. has its own code of conduct, and itâ€™s all about who you know,â€� intones one of the housewives in the opening voice-over of the reality showâ€™s first episode. Mr. Ommanney, a reluctant TV presence, is the nearly invisible ballast for the cast, the one with real access to power in Washington, or at least to the Oval Office. His wife plays a putative mean girl (the showâ€™s answer to Danielle Staub of New Jerseyâ€™s â€œHousewivesâ€� and Jill Zarin of the New York franchise), thus far exhibiting racially awkward social skills. Onscreen, sheâ€™s wrapping up her book, a kiss-and-tell on leaving her first marriage. Sheâ€™s all brash British tell-it-like-it-is, and all very much in love with her dashing new mate.
But that was 2009. Since the show wrapped in November, the marriage has imploded after less than two years, the houseâ€™s lease has expired, the book is on hold and, while Ms. Ommanney will move from London back to Washington next week (her children, by custody agreement with their father, will remain in England), her television husband has fled the city.
â€œTo be a photojournalist at the highest levels like that requires a great deal of innate political skill,â€� said Jon Meacham, the former Newsweek editor in chief. â€œYou have to at once make people so comfortable with you that, at hours of great tension and great trial, they let you into the room. Then, once you have talked your way into the room, you have to disappear. Itâ€™s a very tricky skill set. Charles has it.â€�
But it is just that ability to fade into the woodwork that Mr. Ommanney has lost by becoming a cast member. Now he stands out wherever he goes, even if heâ€™s with the vice president.
â€œWith any reality show, you have to be careful â€” you can lose control of your own reputation very easily,â€� said Chris Edwards, the White House director of press advance under President George W. Bush, who worked closely with Mr. Ommanney and remembers him as well-respected and well-liked even if his political views â€œdidnâ€™t matchâ€� those of the former president.
Described by friends and colleagues alike as never one to step in front of the camera, even to promote his own work, suddenly Mr. Ommanney has become the story. As the weeks of filming progressed, he stopped contacting friends. â€œPrimarily I was embarrassed,â€� he said. â€œSecondly, people didnâ€™t want anything to do with it. People were like: â€˜Are there going to be cameras there? I donâ€™t want dinner. Are there people from Bravo filming it? Are you miked?â€™ â€�
Itâ€™s hard to believe that Mr. Ommanney, after years in the news media, was really so surprised. Washington is a city where quiet power often trumps the kind of visibility other parts of the country crave. â€œIn a way, I was naÃ¯ve and foolish to sign off on doing this,â€� he said. â€œBut, at the end of the day, it was innocent. I wanted happiness for someone I was in love with. I put all my reservations aside and said: â€˜Go for it. Do it if it makes you happy.â€™ Then I regretted it. I lost touch with everyone, and mix that with my marriage falling apart and the show taking over, it was very sad.â€�
The trick of this sort of docudrama is a sense of vÃ©ritÃ© mixed with a dash of humor; we all know the scenes may be staged or reshot, we all know the friendships are encouraged or discouraged by editors and producers, directors and lights.
The trade-off is success. Many of the women of â€œReal Housewivesâ€� of other locales have spun their screen time into fame, fortune, their own shows. Even some of those whose relationships fall apart profess happiness with their television life.
But what happens to the ones whose private lives play out onscreen more because theyâ€™re entwined with a character than because theyâ€™ve sought fame?
Christopher Morris, a close friend of Mr. Ommanneyâ€™s who covered the Bush White House for Time magazine during both terms, describes the reaction of fellow correspondents as â€œshock and dismayâ€� that Mr. Ommanney had signed on for reality television. â€œCharles is a very solitary person,â€� said Mr. Morris, noting that Mr. Ommanney often skipped White House correspondentsâ€™ events. â€œHeâ€™s low profile, so being thrust into that environment, it seems odd.â€�
Richard Wolffe, a close friend and a former Newsweek colleague, said: â€œHe was doing it for her, he was very reluctantly involved and I think that comes across. He wanted minimal participation. Preferably none. But you canâ€™t. You canâ€™t be half pregnant with these shows.â€�
Ms. Ommanney, reached by phone in London, said she was pleased with the show, and her new friends, but called watching her short marriage on television â€œabsolutely heartbreaking.â€�
â€œThe fact that I am set up to be the villain, I could probably have lived with if I was still in my life with my husband and family,â€� she said. â€œBut having all that gone has been incredibly challenging, and Iâ€™ve had to do a lot of soul searching about how weâ€™ve got to this point.â€�
â€œEvery time I see Charles,â€� she added of watching the show, â€œespecially last week, when he comes and surprises me on a photo shoot, and the look of love for him I have, and the admiration I had and in some way still have â€” itâ€™s painful.â€�
On that, at least, the two still agree.