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Escape from New York

On hiatus from her busy Manhattan life as Morning Joe co-host, Mika Brzezinski relaxes at her shoreline cottage with her journalist husband and talks about lessons learned off-camera

BY LIZ GREY GODBOUT PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHRIS MORAN

It’s raining outside, but the sun is shining on Mika Brzezinski. She’s in a really good place right now— her treasured Branford cottage. They call it the “Crabby Shack,” a 1915 distressed-cottage Brzezinski and her husband Jim Hoffer renovated as a way to get away from it all with their two teenage daughters, Emilie and Carlie, and Cajun, their beloved rescue dog from New Orleans, which Brzezinski adopted after Hoffer said, “we need to do something as a family to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina.”

Being in a good place encompasses more than this homey hideaway, where they reconnect and retreat from their New York work week. The veteran journalist is finally at peace with it all—marriage, motherhood and MSNBC. The Morning Joe co-host has been married to Hoffer—himself an award-winning journalist (20 Emmys, one Edward R. Murrow and one Columbia University DuPont) with WABC—for 17 years now, and their roots run deep in Connecticut. They met as young reporters in the early ’90s working for Fox CT. “Back then we would run together through the streets of Branford’s Linden Shores and dream about having our own home here someday—we even picked the street we wanted to be on,” says Hoffer. They bought the 1,500-square-foot house in 2005 and went to work, virtually rebuilding it from the ground up while preserving its coastal cottage charm by keeping the stone fireplace and several of the original bead board walls.

The restoration was a challenge, but challenges are no stranger to this couple. Of course, in most cases the situation is caused by Brzezinski herself. “I am constantly causing a new challenge in the household,” she admits, though to Hoffer that is part of her charm. “Mika is never boring—there’s never a dull moment,” he says. There is much to love about her, Hoffer says, but what he loves most is the unpredictability of her world and work. Conversely, she admires that “Jim never changes—he is always the same person.”

Brzezinski is the product of two very ambitious parents who imparted their inner drive to her, but Hoffer says what motivates her is more than just ambition for its own sake. “It is critical for Mika to set an example for our girls as a self-confident, professional woman who works hard and shows you can reap the benefits of that hard work,” Hoffer says. Brzezinski‘s mother, sculptor Emilie Benes Brzezinski (grandniece of Czechoslovakia’s former president Edvard Benes) shelved her own ambitions when her husband, foreign policy authority Zbigniew Brzezinski, served as national security adviser for President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981. The 80-something grandparents (who continue to wear everyone out on family vacations) are Brzezinski and Hoffer’s marital model. “They have exactly the same type of marital negotiations that we have, but they were ahead of their time,” says Brzezinski. Her parents discussed major things like careers and identities at a time when women weren’t usually consulted. And that negotiation is still in evidence. “Dad has built her a studio to work on her art and she is traveling around the world with these massive pieces she’s been working on,“ Brezinski says. “She got that studio in exchange for running after him when he was working in the White House for four years!” Recently, Brzezinski returned to the White House for the White House Forum on Women and the Economy. As the moderator of the event, she was introduced by President Barack Obama as the better half of Morning Joe, but for Brzezinski it wasn’t about the presidential plug, but about focusing on the power of women and the economy. The concept was so important to her that she insisted her reluctant daughters accompany her to the event. “There were 200plus women working the room, and it was important for Emilie and Carlie to see that every single woman in the room worked as hard as I did to lift herself up, to lift her world up, to lift her business up, to help other people, to help the economy,” Brzezinski says. “And you know what? The girls got it. They got it!” Brzezinski should know about picking herself up. After a bitter firing from CBS in 2006, she spent a year out of work, driving herself and her family crazy. But that inner drive kept her going.” I couldn’t find a job. There was a whole year when my expectations went down, down, down. I had to start at the bottom. And I did.” She came back as an overnight news reader at MSNBC after working at the gold standard of television news, 60 Minutes , just a year before. “Once you get churned through this business you are a used piece of meat, and people look at you that way,” Brzezinski says. “It’s tough, but that’s just the way it is so, you have to push through.” Back then she was just glad to be working, thrilled to have “a friggin ID to get me through the door and into the building. You have to stop looking at what everyone else has and work on what you’ve got,” she says.

That overnight news position got Joe Scarborough to take note and earned her a seat at his table on Morning Joe. Growing up around the Brzezinski dinner table trained her well for her new role. She had to hold her own in debates with her parents and two older brothers—one was recently named ambassador to Sweden (Democrat), the other works on the Romney campaign (Republican).

The Williams College graduate wants her own kids to have interests and goals, while Hoffer stresses academics, but both want to instill in them the value of hard work. The couple agrees that they try to hold the girls to a higher standard, to help them do well in a generation whose success might not surpass that of their parents. But while she encourages the girls, Brzezinski prides herself on being hands-off. “I won’t sugar coat it: I’m not a helicopter parent, and if I walked into their school they wouldn’t know who I was,” she says.

As for their own future, when asked if they would entertain a return to Connecticut as a husband-and-wife news anchor team, Hoffer says, “that would be a great way to wind down our careers. In many ways Connecticut is home to us—it’s where we met and were launched. A move like that would really bring us full circle.” Brzezinski, already a bestselling author ( All Things at Once, Knowing Your Value ), is currently collaborating on a book with Connecticut’s own Diane Smith about women, body image and obesity due out next spring. And judging by the near-constant ringing of her phone, there’s no doubt another big project is already brewing.