Deadspin's Dave McKenna takes a look at the messy, tumultuous life of Washington Post sportswriter Jennifer Frey, whose talent burned brightly enough that it consumed herself in the process as she died earlier this year from a two-decade long fight with alcoholism.
Jennifer Frey drank herself to death.
Frey’s obituary in the Washington Post, her last full-time employer, merely gave “multiple organ failure” as the cause of her March 26 death. But alcohol killed her as surely as a bullet killed Lincoln.
She died abusing a drug that kills millions of people every year. But the life of Jennifer Frey was not a common one.
Frey was a can’t miss kid in sportswriting in the early 1990s. Just months out of Harvard, she was subjected to a high-profile episode of sexual harassment on the job. In response, Frey spoke forcibly and with righteousness for her gender and her profession in print and on national television as the controversy over women in locker rooms crested.
“There is a lot of talk about the players’ indignation at being forced to allow women into their dressing room,” Frey wrote while still an intern at the Miami Herald. “Few people are aware of the indignities felt by women beat reporters who are frequently harassed by athletes who do not understand that the women are there to do a job, not enjoy a peep show.
“It is not fun for a woman to go into a male locker room. It is not exciting. It did not ‘turn me on’ when a major-league baseball player dropped his pants and asked me to evaluate his anatomy.”
Soon after, she was wowing her elders at the Philadelphia Daily News and New York Times, and, in an era before the internet, writing reported stories at a blogger’s pace. Frey was also living like someone ready to take Manhattan and then the world. Everybody who knew her through the 1990s remembers Frey as both the organizer and the life of every party, and a party could be found in every town Frey filed copy from.
“Along with everything else she had, she was so much fun,” says Chuck Culpepper, a writer at the Lexington Herald Leader when he met Frey at a 1991 NCAA tournament game. “My God, was she fun.”
Mike Wise, who first worked with her at the New York Times in the early 1990s, vouches for the good times that awaited anybody lucky enough to be near vintage Jennifer Frey. “Being around her, you were just in awe,” he says. “If friends are going out for dinner, she would find the best place, and it didn’t feel like you were meeting her for dinner, it felt like you were in a parade going down Broadway and she was leading it.”
Frey was recruited from the Times by the Washington Post in 1995, at a time when the sports section was as stacked with big names as at any time in the history of the newspaper. Frey was set to become as big a deal as anybody on the masthead.
That never happened.
“She was incredible, a shooting star,” says Jeff Bradley, an assistant athletic director at Harvard when she was sports editor at the school paper. “And then she just fell off the face of the earth.”
It turns out that Frey’s hard living outlasted her usefulness as a journalist. ThePost’s obit contained glowing quotes about Frey from a 1997 column by David Carr, the future New York Times icon, who back then was editor and media columnist for for Washington City Paper: “Frey is a certified prodigy who can do it all: X’s and O’s, empathetic profiles, and hard takedowns when the situation requires it,” Carr wrote.
Yet other parts of that same Carr column, unreferenced in the Post’s obit, foreshadowed Frey’s fall, hinting all those years ago that her admirers were so blinded by her talents that they were ignoring the closeness of her relationship with booze.
Jody Goldstein, a former Houston Chronicle reporter who became a running buddy of Frey’s in the 1990s, was among a few friends from journalism who stuck with Frey after her bylines stopped. She says Frey’s alcoholism never loosened its grip.
“I asked Jennifer once, ‘What made you drink today?’” says Goldstein. “And she said, ‘That’s just what I do. I get up. I drink.’ That was her life.”
And Frey kept drinking even after it cost her a career, custody of her child, her house, and most of her friendships. Whenever doctors told her she’d die if she didn’t give up alcohol, she tried to call their bluff—until earlier this year, when she was told her liver was beyond repair.
Frey hoped to get a new organ through donation, but her application was rejected. Being kept off the transplant list was a death sentence. Lots of people who considered themselves close to Frey during the early, enthralling portions of her career were brought up to speed by an internet posting from Goldstein earlier this year explaining that the end was near and asking for money for Frey’s only child. Jaundiced but booze-free, Frey hosted visitors in her hospital room to talk about the good old days. Her final audiences reminded longtime friends what they’d lost years earlier.
No appreciation of her life appeared in the Washington Post, as noted by acommenter on its website who rhetorically asked if one was coming. (“If not, shame on you ALL,” the reader posted). Perhaps nobody at the paper wanted to write it. Intellectually, her former colleagues know they weren’t equipped to fight the alcoholism and mental illness that took Frey down; many nonetheless have guilt that she was allowed to slide so silently.
“I still can’t wrap my arms around her quiet exit and decline,” says Vinnie Perrone, a longtime Washington Post writer who was close to Frey before and during her time at the paper. “She was brilliant, she was a worker, she lit up any room she was in. She knew everybody and was liked by everybody in the business. We were all moths to her porchlight. There was a time when all these people would be glad to see her and be around her. But when the need arose, when she needed people, where were they? Where were we?”
Having lost a grandparent to alcoholism 20 years ago, this story hit me kind of hard. There but for the grace of God go I.