Nothing Left Unsaid
Chris Christie was in San Diego late in April 2004, some 2,800 miles from home attending a conference of federal prosecutors, when he got an urgent call from his brother, Todd. Their beloved mother, who was fighting an uphill struggle against cancer, was in St. Barnabas Medical Center, surrounded by family members. Sandy was one tough patient, having survived breast cancer a quarter-century earlier and a brain aneurism in 1996, but the dizziness and headaches she’d started enduring that winter turned out to be the result of two large tumors in the back of her head. Chemotherapy and radiation hadn’t worked. Now, Todd alerted his brother that things had taken a turn for the worse. Mom had only days to live. So Chris hopped a red-eye flight to New Jersey and went directly from Newark Airport to her bedside, where he found his mother fading in and out of a coma.
At one point she gained consciousness, recognized her oldest son, and began a conversation with him, as he later recalled:
“What day is it?” she asked.
“What time is it?”
“It’s ten o’clock in the morning.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m here to visit you.”
“Go to work.”
“Mom, I’d rather spend the day with you if you don’t mind.”
“Go to work. That’s where you belong.”
“What, are you worried that you’re not getting your taxpayer’s money’s worth today? I’ll make up the time, don’t worry about it. I’d rather stay here with you.”
She grabbed her son’s hand. “Christopher, go to work. It’s where you belong. There’s nothing left unsaid between us.”
Christie frequently recalls that story in a style that leaves audiences hanging on every dramatic word and pause as a way of explaining what makes him tick—and his pull-no-punches attitude. “My mother sent me to work because that’s the values she taught me,” he says. “There was nothing left unsaid between us because she was Sicilian—so you know there was nothing left unsaid between us. If you’re wondering who I am and where I came from and why I’m doing this and why I understand New Jersey the way I do, it’s because of her, because she taught me don’t leave things unsaid. She taught me: Be yourself today, and then tomorrow you won’t have to worry about you got it right or wrong and who you told what version of the truth to. One thing for sure: I will always tell you exactly what I think and you never will have to wonder where I stand.”1
* * *
Expressing opinions on matters large and small is rarely a hesitation for Christie, whose say-anything style would cost him his first job in politics, draw attention to a crusade in his second, and seize the national spotlight in his third.
But it’s not all flash: Sondra Grasso Christie, who died at age seventy-one just days after that bedside conversation, and her husband, Bill, infused in their children—Chris, Todd, and Dawn—a work ethic and sense of purpose from the time they were small. Sandy had no patience for complaints and no problem pushing her children socially and intellectually. “She was very opinionated. She loved to argue. You had to learn how to argue or you got run over,”2 Chris remembered.
Sandy’s independence and bluntness can be traced to her mother, Anne, who was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1909. Anne’s parents, Salvatore and Domenica Scavone, had emigrated from Sicily around the turn of the twentieth century. The family, including Anne’s widowed maternal grandmother, Annie, a brother and a sister, moved in the 1910s to Camden Street in Newark’s 6th Ward, where Anne’s father worked odd jobs as a laborer, eventually catching on at Port Newark and then with the city.
Friends and family called Anne’s mother Minnie. Her father was called, “Yes, sir,” jokes Sandy’s brother, Joseph Grasso.
“Grandma was this tiny, little, wonderful caring lady, and Grandpa was a real chauvinist. My grandma had to shine his shoes, iron his underwear, dump out his spittoon. When we had dinners, he’d sit there and have a jug of wine on the floor and pour it into the soup that she’d made,” recalled Joseph, known by friends, family, and colleagues as Joe. “Then afterwards, we had to put on a show, all the kids. We couldn’t talk though dinner. If Grandpa talked, you responded. You couldn’t talk to your siblings. You didn’t start a conversation with your sister. So he was a real tough cookie. Respectful as hell, but Grandma was his slave. Boy, he ruled the roost.
“Grandma was the most loving, caring little person. She would come and sit on the bed with you at night, always had the rosary beads, would say prayers,” Joe said. “My grandfather just put the fear of God in everybody. If you stepped out of line, you were going to get whacked, whether you were a kid or not. I don’t ever remember Grandpa showing a lot of love to anybody. He was just this staunch guy who sat in his chair—he was the king, and this is the way it was going to be.”
By age twenty Anne was working as a clerk in the courthouse. She married Philip Grasso, who had arrived in Newark’s 14th Ward with his parents, Santo and Santa, from Italy shortly after his 1905 birth—born on the Atlantic Ocean on his family’s way to America, according to Bill Christie. It was a marriage arranged by Anne’s domineering father. Philip, the second of ten children, worked a series of factory jobs—as a hatter, as head of a fur shop—and as a laborer before meeting Anne, a small woman, maybe five feet tall, with tiny hands, and a disciplinarian with strong political opinions. Together they had three children, Sandy being the oldest—then got divorced in 1941, which was unusual in that generation.
Her mother’s divorce compelled Sandy to take on added responsibilities early, helping with her younger sister and brother. Anne’s mother moved in with the family after Salvatore died, but for the most part Anne was raising three children—the youngest, Joe, born a year before the divorce—on her own. She had a tough time in the job market as a divorced woman but did land a few jobs—at the War Department, then working for a friendly attorney, and as a customer service representative with the IRS, a position she would hold for twenty-five years until retirement. Anne was a voracious reader, though she hadn’t completed high school, and socked away $10 from every paycheck in an envelope in her drawer, enabling her eventually to sightsee her way on trips through Europe and go on cruises, and to spend time—much as her grandmother and mother had done years earlier—with her daughter Sandy’s children, who called her Nani. She was at the Christies’ house every weekend, allowing Sandy and son-in-law Bill to go out together each Saturday night, and often during the week. “Chris and I just sat around and listened to her talk about what it was like growing up during the Depression,” Todd said. “She was blunt about when my grandfather left her and her unhappiness with raising three kids on her own.”
How unhappy? Her son’s given name was Philip but she refused to call him that because it was her former husband’s name, and instead referred to her youngest child by his middle name, Joseph. He used his middle and confirmation names on things such as his passport, rather than Philip. And when Joe named his second son Philip in 1987, at the suggestion of his wife, Victoria, who didn’t know the full backstory, Anne refused to use that name in conversation. She would call his house and ask, “How’s the baby?” When her grandson outgrew the label, she dubbed him “Handsome Harry” although his middle name is Thomas. Sandy, perhaps in solidarity with her mom, referred to her nephew little Philip as “the brat.”
“All I heard was all these things about him—some of them well deserved, as I grew up to find out,” Joe said of his father. “She had a very difficult time dealing with the way he treated her, and why they divorced. One time he tried to run her over. I probably saw him ten total years of my life. He’d come to visit, and he’d never come on time. She was very bitter.”
Philip Grasso remarried, had no more children, and died of cancer in 1969. Anne never did remarry and died in 2001 at age ninety-two. “She never remarried because she didn’t want to have another man bringing us up. And at the end of the day, it was pretty sad she spent sixty years alone,” Joe said.
“Look, she was the strength behind all of us and Sandy picked up all of those traits. There weren’t any two ways about it. My mother was pretty calm and she wouldn’t take any crap from anybody.”
Sandy and Joe bracketed a sister, Minette, who had a complicated family life. She married as a teenager and had three children, two daughters and a son, in a rocky union that ended in divorce.
Minette’s second husband, John, had a brother who made an unwelcome cameo in Chris Christie’s eventual political career—Tino Fiumara, a ranking member of the Genovese crime family. “John really stepped up to the plate and became a real good person and gave up a lot,” said Joe. “He was kind of bordered on being a wiseguy, because of his brother Tino. But Minette said to John: If we’re going to get married, you can’t do that. And he didn’t. He never had that life, but he was kind of on the edge with Tino.”
Christie said he first learned about Fiumara’s line of work at age fifteen by reading the newspaper. “It just told me that you make bad decisions in life and you wind up paying a price. Really, for most of my life, he spent his life in prison. That teaches you a lot.”3 In 1991, Christie, then twenty-nine, was asked by his uncle to visit Fiumara in a Texas prison while he was in the state for a football game. “My best recollection is we updated each other on what was going on with the family,” Christie told a reporter when news bubbled up about that branch of the family tree.4
Joe said mobster Fiumara wasn’t around the family often. “It was all blown out of proportion. I can tell you, I was going to visit Tino once, I had a customer in Kansas City and he was in Leavenworth at the time. And when the papers came that I had to sign to go through all this crap I said, ‘I’m not going to do it, because I don’t want it hampering my career.’ When I became a member of the New York Stock Exchange, I got investigated by the FBI, the whole megillah. So I didn’t go and visit Tino, and he understood. The story with Chris, they all blew it out of proportion. If he saw Tino ten times in his lifetime, that was a lot.”
Christie said he had seen Fiumara at large parties in his aunt’s home as a youngster and ran into him once in a restaurant when Fiumara was out on parole. Fiumara was due to be released in 2002 but was indicted again by U.S. Attorney Christie’s office on charges of helping another criminal evade prosecution. Christie recused himself from the plea negotiations, which ended with Fiumara heading back to prison for eight months. Fiumara was released in 2005 and died in 2010. Minette had died of breast cancer in 1991; her husband, John, the governor’s uncle and Fiumara’s brother, died in 2011.
Joe Grasso is a retired investment professional who manages the governor’s blind trust from his home in California. He volunteers his time traveling to poverty-stricken nations for Rotaplast International. Founded by a friend, Dr. Angelo Capozzi, the organization helps treat children with cleft lip and palate anomaly who otherwise would not receive surgery. He has coached running for the Special Olympics for thirty-two years and worked for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. It’s his way of giving back to a great country that has been good to him and his family, he says.
Once the baby of the Grasso family, then its prince, and now its patriarch, Joe rose from painting cars and houses—“You’re too smart to be a grease monkey,” his mother and grandmother used to tell him—to become partner in a major California-based financial firm, despite never having gone to college.
“I probably had a very unusual relationship with my sisters and my mother, that most people don’t have. We talked all the time. Even when I moved here, I would call them once a week, or my mom twice a week,” Joe said. “They were very protective of me, and when I grew older, in my twenties, I was protective of them. I don’t ever remember us fighting and not talking afterwards. If we disagreed or argued, we never went on our merry way and didn’t talk at all. We’d always resolve it, whether we agreed or not. And we’d always talk. We always, I felt, showed a tremendous amount of respect for each other, as we did for mom.
“We had a very happy family. We didn’t have a lot of material things, but we had more love than most,” Joe said.
* * *
Bill Christie, the governor’s father, was the third child of four in a family with roots in Germany, Ireland, and Scotland that had been in New Jersey—specifically in Newark, almost exclusively in the city’s 12th Ward—for generations, for one part of the family back to the future governor’s great-great-great-grandparents, who arrived around 1850.
Bill’s grandfather Hugh, a coppersmith, was an alcoholic, which compelled Bill’s dad, James, the oldest of what would eventually be seven children, to leave school in the sixth grade to support his family. In an era when Newark was an industrial force, Bill’s father later worked making camel hair belts that were woven on looms and used in manufacturing. He never took a day off. “In those days there wasn’t welfare or if there was they didn’t get on it. Dad was a serious dude,” Bill recalled. Even so, he took time to read the newspaper every day and keep up with events.
Bill’s parents were Roosevelt Democrats. His mother, Caroline “Carrie” Winter, was the first of four children born to John Winter and Caroline “Carrie” Lott, both of whom were born in America. Like most people of that generation, John had moved from job to job—as a rigger’s helper, a tacker at a leatherworks, even a stint as a brewer at the Hensler Brewing Co., according to his 1918 draft card for World War I. Carrie Lott was the third of seven children born to Zerriak Lott and Walburga Ernst, who had arrived in the United States in 1880 from Baden, Germany. John’s parents, Charles and Christine, emigrated from Bavaria and were married in 1880.
The Christies lived in the Ironbound section of Newark dominated by Italian immigrants, which helped prompt Bill as a nine-year-old to adopt a baseball team from a Midwest state he’d never visited. With nearly every kid in his Ann Street School neighborhood a New York Yankees fan, driven largely by ethnic pride in their star Joe DiMaggio, as well as local interest in the club’s AAA minor league affiliate the Newark Bears, Bill—in a small act of rebellion—adopted the St. Louis Cardinals during the 1942 World Series.
“I didn’t want to be a Yankee fan. I didn’t want to be like everybody else,” he said. “So the Cardinals in ’42 beat the Yankees in five, and I said, ‘That’s my team.’” It’s a tie that remains strong today—though even in the aftermath of the Cards’ 2011 championship, he kids that being a Yankee fan might have been the better way to go.
* * *
Sandy and Bill had met in the late 1940s, when they attended rival high schools—she in Newark, he one town away in Hillside, where his family had moved when he was in the eighth grade. “I was a cheerleader. She was a flag twirler,” Bill recalled. “Our schools played against one other, so we got a little bit acquainted there. We didn’t go out at all, but we kind of looked at each other and said a few words.”
Before they would connect, Bill went from high school to Breyers ice cream company to the Army. The Korean War was being fought, but Bill’s ability to type led him out of the infantry to a noncombat support job known in the service as a Remington Raider. “I became a typist and part of three warrant officers who ran the place. So touch typing was a big plus, inadvertently,” Bill said. “I got all my maturity in the Army. I think every guy ought to go to the Army. I met guys in there that let me know, and I drew from them, that I had to get a college education, for sure.”
That was a lengthy process. Upon returning to civilian life, Bill attended night school on the G.I. Bill—first at Columbia University in New York because he wanted to be a broadcaster and the university had a relationship with NBC. On Wednesday nights, rather than go to Columbia, Bill would go to NBC. Still, the broadcasting dream eventually faded. “I guess I wasn’t ambitious enough to be a broadcaster, because it would have meant sacrifice if you wanted to start. You always went out of town,” he said. Plus, the cost for classes had jumped—from $25 per credit his first semester, to $30 and then to $50. (These days, it’s more than $1,000.) The tuition benefits for Korean War veterans, $110 a month, weren’t as generous as the direct tuition payments made to colleges for World War II vets. “So now it was costing me bucks,” Bill said.
Instead he followed a favorite uncle, one who had first impressed upon Bill the value of higher education, into accounting. “He was the kind of guy that said to me, when I wasn’t going to school, pre-Army, ‘How much change do you have in your pocket?’ He was one of those guys that wanted to tell you that if you keep doing what you’re doing, your pockets aren’t going to be as full as if you go to school,” Bill said. “So he was the one that inspired me to go to college, before I went to the Army. But I wasn’t really ready to go to college. When I went into the Army and came out, I was serious.”
It wasn’t until more than a decade after they’d first met—after Sandy had been married to a nice guy but divorced—that Bill and Sandy were reintroduced by mutual friends. “We later met at a dance,” Bill said. “I used to play a lot of basketball. I was a pretty good basketball player, so I used to go to West Side High School, which is where she was, and I got to know guys over there. So we met at a dance and went out for a spell. And then I said, not only do I love this lady, but she’s going to be a great mom.”
After a short courtship, Bill and Sandy were married in 1961, in their late twenties, and found a place to live in Newark. Money was tight, Bill said. “We didn’t have two nickels to rub together. We actually took out a loan to buy furniture and that sort of thing.” Bill rode the bus to his job at Breyers ice cream during the day—first calling stores to encourage them to stock the company’s ice cream, as in the “Breyers calling” advertising jingle of that day, then as a sign-shop supervisor. At night he would attend classes at Rutgers University in pursuit of an accounting degree. Sandy had been working at the Kearfott Co., a defense equipment manufacturer, when she and Bill met for the second time, then worked at Remington, the company that made the typewriters Bill had used in the Army—where she made a contact that got Bill’s career started on the right foot.
“She was in the office, being the gal who handled a bunch of salespeople. So Remington Rand in those days sold their equipment to Peat Marwick. And now I’m going for accounting. And Sandy said to me, ‘Gee, you know I know Wendell’—and again, she made friends easy—so she and Wendell had this fun relationship, so she said, ‘How’d you like to interview with Peat Marwick?’ And that’s how I got into public accounting,” he said. Still more than a year shy of getting his degree, Bill was put on the staff in 1961 doing proofreading and other tasks. “I got to meet a lot of the other guys on the staff. So they let me get on the staff before I had my degree,” Bill said. “It worked out well. Actually, I took a decrease in pay to go to public accounting. But I thought it’s going to be a brighter future.”
Bill Christie’s 1962 Rutgers graduation photo includes a pregnant Sandy, carrying their first child—expected by all concerned to be a daughter, not because of an ultrasound, which was still in development then, but because of a needle that swung in a circle, rather than back and forth, when dangled over Sandy’s belly. That old wives’ tale, perhaps not coincidentally, was paired with Sandy’s stated desire to have a daughter and so they prepared for the anticipated October birth with a list of potential girls’ names.
The baby arrived about a month ahead of schedule on September 6, 1962. Not only did the 4 a.m. contractions catch the Christies by surprise, but the young milk deliveryman was not expecting to see anyone on the usually deserted apartment stairs that morning. “Whatever flight it was, he’s coming around not expecting to see anybody, and not only did he see somebody, but there’s this woman with this baby about to deliver,” Bill said. “I can remember he really looked frightened.”
Bill figured this might be good time to discuss alternate names with his wife. He had been skeptical about the twirling needle method of gender detection and being a practical kind of guy, thought they should be prepared for a son.
“On the way to the hospital, I said to Sandy, ‘In the event there’s a boy, would you mind if I named him after my dad?’ And I’m not inside Sandy’s mind, but I have a feeling that she said, ‘What the hell? It doesn’t matter, it’s going to be a girl anyway. Yeah, all right, sure, name him after your dad.’ I’m not sure that’s what she was thinking, but Chris is born. She never reneged on anything, so we were going to name him after my dad.”
Bill’s father was named James Christopher, and Bill’s older brother—Chris’s godfather—was James Christopher Jr. His brother’s wife was also pregnant at the time and he was planning to name his son James III. The governor would later say in interviews, including one on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night NBC show, that his father and uncle had argued over who had dibs on the name, but that’s not how Bill recalls his conversation with his free-spirited brother.
“So I called him and I said, ‘I know you’re the junior, but I want to name him after Dad,’” Bill said. “And he said to me, and I can remember these words, because they were important, he said to me, ‘I don’t care, because what’s the worst thing that can happen? When we’re out together, we holler, “Jimmy!” and two kids come running.’ That’s what he said.
“Anyway, I said to myself, ‘No, that doesn’t sound right.’ So I switched them. That’s how Christopher James came out,” Bill said. “Chris used to say to us, when he was younger, ‘What were you thinking?’ Kids used to bust him about that, Chris Christie, so he used to ask us what we were thinking. Now he loves it. At some point in time, it got to be a good thing, right? It’s kind of easy.”
The governor said his mother “claims to have never thought about the nickname until they got home, and my grandmother was there. And my mother said she picked me up out of the bassinet and said, ‘Look at little Chris Christie.’ And my mother said she nearly passed out. ‘Oh my God. Chris Christie.’”
That wasn’t the only dilemma with the name. Bill’s sister-in-law was named Christine Christie, so now there were two Chris Christies in the family, temporarily. “My uncle divorced her, though, so she was not a factor much longer,” the governor said with a laugh. “By the way, the real kicker to the story is that my uncle had two girls. So there is no James Christopher III. There is no James Christopher of that generation.”
* * *
Two years later another boy—Todd—was born to the Christies. The twirling needle got that one wrong, too. In 1967, the Christies and their two children, then ages five and two, moved out of Newark. The procession was a common one for the city’s middle-class white families, as racial tensions built in New Jersey’s largest city, then boiled over in that summer’s riots. Bill and Sandy borrowed $1,000 each from each of their mothers to put a down payment on a $22,000 ranch-style house in Livingston, just a few towns away but seeing itself as having far more in common with Morris County to the west than the troubled urban centers to the east.
Years later, as part of his pitch for revamping public education, particularly though not exclusively in urban areas, Christie would say his parents’ decision to move out of Newark was crucial to everything he’d later accomplish. “I don’t think I’d be governor,” he said.
Efforts to have another child, perhaps adding that daughter Sandy hoped for, proved frustrating. Three pregnancies ended with miscarriages. Finally in 1973, the Christies learned they’d been approved to adopt a girl, then two years and three months old. “She was half–Puerto Rican, so the social worker said—and I’m very socially liberal, I don’t know where that came from,” Bill said. “So I said, ‘Puerto Rican, what the hell is the difference?’ Sandy and I were on the same page when it came to that kind of stuff.”
“We had an aboveground pool in the backyard,” Todd recalled, “We heard my mother screaming in the house. She comes running out and said, ‘Oh my God, you’re going to have a sister! I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.’ There was this tension in the house—what does she look like, what is she gonna be like? My mom hounded the adoption agency so much from that Thursday that on Saturday a woman stopped by the house, which she wasn’t supposed to do, and brought one picture of my sister. I remember the four of us sitting around this circular kitchen table and my mom taped it to the wall and we all kind of like sat there and stared at the picture and said, ‘This is going to be unbelievable.’”
The addition affected the family dynamic. “We changed a lot because of the difference in Dawn’s personality. We knew Mom and Dad were intense and both had tempers, and we knew where the line was in the sand and when not to cross it,” said Todd. “My sister had to learn that line, so for the first year or two we’d be shooting her a look like: Oh man, please, don’t go there.”
The boys were extremely protective of Dawn. Both remain so now, Todd particularly. She is the mother of five children close in age to Chris’s children and stays in the background, so much so that even many close followers of the governor don’t realize he has a sister. Dawn is guarded, very private, and happy to remain supportive behind the scenes, such as by making phone calls on her brother’s behalf in the 2009 campaign.
“In the beginning of the campaign I think it bothered her that sometimes people didn’t know he had a sister,” said Todd. “She is very different from Chris and me, and I sense all she ever wanted to be was a mom. My own psychological analysis of my sister is when you spent the first two years of your life in a foster home with a bunch of other kids and don’t have that kind of intense love that parents can only bring in the first couple of years, I think it affects you.”
* * *
Bill passed the CPA exam and had a series of accounting and finance jobs, including a stint at Arthur Andersen, winding up as an administrator in the back office of a Wall Street investment firm called Wertheim & Co. His brother-in-law, Joe Grasso, got him the job; Joe himself had gotten in at Wertheim through his aunt’s friend. Joe later left the firm after a partner in the company recommended that Joe become a partner—only to be told by colleagues that Joe would never be a partner because he wasn’t Jewish and lacked a college education. Sutro & Co., a San Francisco–based security brokerage house and investment manager, selected him for a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, then later made him a partner. “Two years after I was a partner, Wertheim called and asked, ‘Would you like to come back as a partner?’” he said. “I said, ‘I’m the same Gentile without a college education. Thank you very much, no.’”
To get to Wertheim each day, Bill would drive to a train station and ride the rails, then reverse that commute for the way home. Every day the children would ask Sandy what train he was taking so they could gauge how much time they had to play. When Dad got home dinner was almost always a family affair, often between eight and nine. Sandy was like her mom, neither liked to cook—but she always did, Bill said.
“They both were fairly strict and most dinners were not a relaxing experience,” Todd said of his parents. “It was a Q&A of what your day was like, and very much a reinforcement of whatever they were trying to do. Whether it was talking to us about school, whether it was talking to us about whatever sport we were playing, whether it was talking to us about whatever flak we may have given our mom that day, which was never dealt with very well. Dinner was not like let’s just sit back and talk.”
The Christies were demanding parents who would clash often, with Sandy inevitably winning most of those arguments. Bill says he can only remember two times when a dispute ended with her telling him that he was right.
“Sandy and I had an argument one time when the discussion got along the way, and she says, ‘Yeah, you always say you’re sorry.’ And I finally got sick of hearing that and I said to her, ‘Well, you know, let’s talk about all the sorries I said. You know why I said I’m sorry?’ And she said, ‘No.’ ‘Well do you know the number of times I said I was sorry when I wasn’t, I just wanted us to continue to talk?’ She says, ‘No, how many?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, it’s in the 90 percents.’
“And it’s true. You get to a point, I think you can kind of determine who’s madder. I know I could. And I think she could, too. So one of us got off our horse,” Bill said. “We were strong, did have disagreements, but it was a great marriage.”
Chris explains his parents’ relationship with customary humor: “This is what you need to understand: While my father is a wonderful guy and incredibly successful in his career, my father was merely a passenger in the automobile of life. You have a Sicilian mother, she drives the car. You’ll notice all the different bits of advice I’m giving you are coming from my mother. Not because my father didn’t give great advice, he just couldn’t get it in.”
After he said that before an audience at a Washington Post leadership forum, he was asked who drives the car in the governor’s household. “The interesting thing about our relationship is my wife’s a really successful businessperson on her own, so we’re really copilots.”
The questioner complimented the response.
“I’m blunt, but I am not stupid,” Christie replied.
While Sandy dominated a room or a marriage through force of personality, she didn’t do so through intimidation, except when necessary. Typically she was smiling, making friends, and dishing out the unvarnished truth.
“My mom was obviously a very strong personality,” said Todd. “My dad, similar strong personality. Now he has mellowed with age, but my dad was very strong and had, at least I always viewed, as much of an influence on us as my mom. My dad was an incredibly hard worker, very strong-willed and a big disciplinarian,” Todd said. “So growing up in our house was, I think, incredibly strict. They demanded a lot out of us and truly didn’t allow for much room for error. So it was a very tough, strict house.”
“It was kind of like my mother’s in charge, and my father—I don’t know that they agreed to do it that way, but my father would just not contradict my mother, I think out of fear more than anything else,” Chris said. “My parents had lots of conflict. For me, growing up, they argued a lot. And it clearly had an effect on all of us. They were both very emotional, emotive people.” Young Chris found himself “mediating a lot of those disputes, between the two of them or kind of just calming down Todd and Dawn in the aftermath of them.”
“Chris would be fighting with Bill all the time. He probably fought with Bill more than anybody,” said Chris’s Uncle Joe. “They always had this relationship, where Todd really didn’t have that. I think that Chris didn’t particularly like the way that Bill treated my sister, and Chris being who Chris is, it offended him and it hurt him, because my sister and Bill had battles all the time. This is not casting all of it on him, because Sandy could stir it up. But he’d just keep it up.”
Joe said that shortly before Sandy went into the hospital for the last time, he saw Bill and Sandy in a heated argument. “Here she’s on her dying bed, and they’re battling. Let her die in peace,” Joe said. “There was no compassion. And I think she probably initiated it. I can’t remember; we were all sitting, and she said something, and then he just went off. Bill used to go off the deep end pretty quickly, and I think he went off the deep end with Todd and Chris a lot. And that’s why they gravitated to Sandy.”
At one point while working on Wall Street, Bill took a risk that strained his finances and his relationship with Sandy. “He took a second mortgage out on the house and didn’t tell her and was playing the stock market,” Joe said. “And she called me and told me. [My wife] Victoria and I decided that we were going to put money aside for her so she wouldn’t lose the house, if it came to that, but we made it specific, and I think in our will, that it was for her only, not for him. We were that close, she’d talk to me about it. We discussed it and said, ‘Don’t worry about it, you’re not going to lose that house.’”
While the Christies argued frequently, it was one way they related to each other, there was no doubt they also loved each other. Once, as a Father’s Day gift, Sandy and Todd arranged for Bill and Todd to spend a weekend in St. Louis watching the Cardinals, Bill’s team since childhood, also adopted by Todd. She insisted on a hotel room that overlooked the stadium. “It was a great, great gift. It’s one of those things that shows she was special,” said Bill, who gets emotional talking about it. “As you know, the governor talks about her a lot. This is just another little human story. She was definitely different and very thoughtful.”
The Christie clan was a close-knit one that welcomed friends as if they were extended family. Rick Mroz, friends with the Christies since college, remembers the family as “embracing” literally and figuratively. “They’re huggers.” He said the Christies “treated me like I was family. They talked to me like I was a peer.”5
That outward affection has been handed down by the last generation, said Uncle Joe. “We hugged and kissed gentlemen on the cheeks way before it became popular in this country. That is what family was always about. There’s no boundaries,” he said. “My one brother-in-law, John, who passed away recently, he was this tough dockworker. But he’d always hug you and kiss you on the cheek and tell you he loved you.”
Perhaps none of those family ties was closer than the connection between Sandy Christie and son Chris, who says he still thinks about her every day. He quotes her advice constantly, in private and public. “She would talk to Chris about things that she wouldn’t talk to anybody else about,” Bill said. When she was minutes from dying, it was Chris, not Bill, who was left alone with her for a final conversation as the rest of the family cleared the room, coming back in for her final breaths after Chris let them know she was ready to let go.
The Christie home was a house divided politically. Bill is a Republican, Sandy was a Democrat. Sandy’s mom, Nani, was a liberal Democrat. The political discussions between Nani and Bill were heated, Todd said, wondering in retrospect how it was that his father allowed Nani to have so much influence on the kids. “She was there every weekend and sometimes during the week,” Todd said. “She was an incredibly interesting woman who had been through a lot and was someone from that generation who grew up with nothing. My memory of her is that you’d wake up in the morning, walk down to our family room, where she slept on the couch, and you’d see her saying her rosaries, every morning without fail.”
Joe Grasso says Nani, his mother, never talked about politics, except at the Christies’ house. She would debate about religion often, but not politics. “When Chris was growing up, they used to debate politics all the time. It was unbelievable,” he said. “My mother was just gravitated to him, because he was a—we call them a chiacchierone in Italian, it’s somebody who’s always talking. She’d say, ‘Oh, chiacchierone, this kid is going to be president one day.’ She did, bless her soul.”
Joe’s wife, Victoria, said she sees similarities in her nephew the governor, sister-in-law, and mother-in-law.
“There are some people who can relate to other people, and there’s no pretense,” Victoria said. “And that’s the way I see Chris and Nani. But she was quiet, she was a quiet woman. Where Sandy, I don’t think she was so quiet. Not at all. And Chris probably isn’t quiet, either. Some people just have that quiet strength. And Sandy had a louder strength.”
In 1979, when Christie was a high school senior, Sandy developed breast cancer. She survived, thanks to early detection and treatment. Her story later became part of Christie’s 2009 race for governor, when Democrats aired misleading ads accusing Christie of wanting to eliminate insurance coverage for mammograms for some women, as Democrats spun his proposal to allow insurers to sell “mandate-free” policies that didn’t adhere to the state’s menu of required coverages.
* * *
Both Chris and Todd were athletic. Baseball was Chris’s passion, and he played organized ball as a catcher starting in Little League. He had a good bat and a good arm, rapport with his pitchers and the beginning seeds of leadership. For instance, when his Babe Ruth League team traveled to Maryland for a tournament as a thirteen-year-old, his teammates commissioned Chris to write a thank-you letter to the local paper thanking their coaches. He got home, put his bag down, and retreated to his room to write a letter—without his father knowing. Friends assumed Bill had done it until Bill set them straight. “My friends were calling me saying, ‘Wow, you wrote a nice letter for Chris.’ So he could write very well, too.”
Todd played baseball—a catcher, like his brother—as well as football, but Chris was limited to baseball by his parents because he had injured a knee when someone ran at him when he was riding a bike, making him fall off. He eventually needed arthroscopic surgery, and they didn’t want to risk permanent damage from football.
“Banged it up. It was swollen,” Bill said. “Anyway, we took him to a doctor, and it hurt to the extent that it atrophied, that big muscle we have. And when you atrophy it, it even causes more strain on the knee, so then he had to go through a whole bunch of exercises strengthening them. So it was serious.”
Chris became captain of his high school baseball team, the Livingston Lancers. The experience ended on a slightly sour note, though. Chris’s starting role as a senior was taken away by Marty Britt, who was Essex County’s best catcher and had transferred from Newark Academy to Livingston High.
“Once Marty came in, that was it,” said teammate Stephen Slotnick. “But it didn’t matter. Chris was a leader no matter what. His job was to keep us together, and that really is what stands out about him.”
After Chris lost the starting position he remained enthusiastic and was like a cheerleader. His father recalled, “Guys who are friends from Little League were sitting with me at the Greater Newark tournament game, and they said to me, ‘My kid could never have done what Chris did. No way if they lost a starting job. They probably wouldn’t have stayed on the team, never mind his attitude.’”
His running was something else again. “He was never known for his speed,” said Slotnick. “I remember once in junior varsity, he hit a long triple and then got picked off third base. The coach was furious and yanked him out of the game.”
The 1980 team was 28-2-1 and earned a trophy for the best team in the state. At a celebratory dinner to mark that championship, as well as one captured by the tennis team, the crowd gave a standing ovation to Chris, when he was recognized—by the tennis coach, actually—for his positive attitude and leadership after losing his starting job. “I want a kid like that on all of our teams every year,” a still appreciative Bill recalls him saying.
“We felt like every time we walked on the field, we were going to win. And we did, pretty much,” Christie said thirty years later. “Playing baseball, I think it teaches you leadership skills, it teaches you how to be a gracious winner and loser, it teaches you all that stuff—and I still carry that with me.”6
When they weren’t playing on school teams Chris and Todd played games often—sometimes Strat-O-Matic baseball inside, or Wiffle ball or touch football in the backyard or with other kids in the neighborhood. One of their childhood friends, Harlan Coben, became a bestselling novelist.
Another childhood friend, Chip Michaels, said the governor’s old friends remain amazed by his profile. “We break his chops a little bit, just saying ‘You’re the governor?’ It’s crazy. He grew up like everybody else in New Jersey, So to see him as a celebrity, it’s really odd. But he’s the same guy. He’s a grounded guy.”7
* * *
The Christies grew up in tony Livingston, but their lifestyle wasn’t affluent. Smaller than many homes in the township, there were three bedrooms and one bathroom in the 1,343 square feet of living space at 327 West Northfield Road. The boys and Bill would crowd in the bathroom together getting ready for their day, then Sandy and Dawn shared the facility. Vacations were rare, generally consisting of three- or four-day trips to relatives’ houses in Ortley Beach or Seaside Park.
“That’s what we knew, so it was great. We had a blast. It was great just to have three or four days alone with my dad, because he was working all the time,” Todd said.
“A lot of our friends lived in much bigger houses,” Todd recalled. “If they asked their parents for something, whatever the hot thing of the day was, they were getting it, and we weren’t. Whenever we hounded my mom about it she would say, ‘If you go into the backyard and find a money tree feel free to shake it because I could use some of that as well.’ My mom was an amazing woman in her frankness. When I hear Chris speak a lot of times it is my mom. My dad had a much better filter.”
Sandy didn’t want to hear complaints and would invariably respond to bellyaching with an unsympathetic “Poor you.” “It was like: ‘I have no time for complaining. I’m a busy woman. I have no time for complaining. Something bothering you? Do something about it,’” Chris said.
“You always knew where you stood, believe me when I tell you, whether you were family or friends,” Joe said.
Sandy was bold, brassy, funny, opinionated, and on occasion profane with language and raised finger gestures.
Asked by family members what help they could provide after she had her brain tumors removed, she asked for a cigarette. When she was near death, Joe and Todd were at the hospital nearly around the clock. To Sandy and her family, as a child Joe was their prince—and Todd, a gregarious storyteller and comic, sought to play off that image in an off-color joke to his mother, Joe recalled.
“Since we were sleeping there in the room with her, we’d go out in the middle of the night, two o’clock, to the Dunkin’ Donuts down the street, get donuts and coffee, and come back. So one morning, right before she died, she wakes up: ‘Where were you?’ Todd answered, ‘We went out, I had to get your brother a hooker.’ She didn’t miss a beat. ‘Not my brother!’ And she had the blanket over her, she stuck the finger up, and flipped him the bone. That’s typical Sandy. It’s the dead truth. You had to see the look on Todd’s face. ‘Not my brother. Maybe you, but not him.’ It was perfect Sandy.”
* * *
Mrs. Christie found an income-producing temporary job for the Livingston School District doing a census for the board of education. They liked her and she liked working outside the house. The census job evolved into others and eventually she became a receptionist at the board office, a position she held for the next twenty years. “She was the meeter and greeter,” said assistant superintendent Eunice Grippaldi, who worked with her for years. “She always had a stash of something special for the little kids when they came in. She was an institution here.”8
Besides her work at the school, Mrs. Christie was a volunteer with Little League and a leader of the Parent Teacher Association of every school her children attended. “Whatever we were involved in, mom wanted to be there to help,” Chris said. “She was tremendously supportive. She always told us that we could be whatever we wanted to be as long as we worked at it.”9
Ironically, Mrs. Christie was a member of the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union that would spend millions in an unsuccessful effort to keep her son from becoming governor decades later. “She talked about the dues being taken out and wondered what she was getting for that,” Todd said. Chris, too, worked for the board of education for two summers doing routine office chores. “He doesn’t talk about that too much,” Todd joked. “They probably do a psychological check now to try to anticipate what you’re going to do a little later on.” Chris s other part-time jobs as a kid included work at the Livingston ShopRite grocery, where Aunt Minette was the pharmacist’s assistant.
Chris was a straight-A student, his brother and sister average. Todd was smart but a free spirit—president of his senior class but always joking and talking in class. “Chris escaped some of the wrath at home, just because some of the antics that I had,” recalled Todd. Being the younger brother of an overachiever had a downside: “It was difficult following him because I always heard from teachers, ‘You’re not him.’”
While Todd was different from Chris, Dawn was different from both of them. Bill thinks it was primarily that girls are generally tougher to raise than boys, as he’d heard from nearly all of his and Sandy’s friends as parents. Or perhaps the Christies were just used to boys. But things were different—so much so that Bill recalls being shocked by the way Dawn and Sandy related.
“Sandy had a different relationship with Dawn than she did with the boys. We all did,” Bill said. “Dawn would talk to Sandy in a way that I couldn’t believe that Sandy allowed it. But she did. They’re different. And parents I think are somewhat different. As a matter of fact, I think the mistake I made was I treated her like a boy.
“The main thing about raising boys is you can scare them. I mean, you could. I could scare them both. I might get cross, and I’d be looking, and they said they could tell, my eyes started bulging, that it was time to be quiet,” Bill said. “Sandy was the same way. Sandy was tough on them, so that made it easy for us. In any event, I could holler at Dawn and I could just see the look on her face like, ‘When you stop, let me know.’ There was no scaring her. So she was different. She’s a great mom. She’s a doting mother, different from Sandy, big-time. Of course, she’s easier on her kids than Sandy or I were.”
Dawn’s rebelliousness as a child continued into her early adulthood, and Chris and Todd have helped her navigate a number of difficulties, including a car accident and a divorce. She has since remarried and lives happily in the same Morris County township as her brothers.
Bill, himself a middle child, thinks birth order influenced his kids’ personalities, with Chris, the oldest, being the most serious, the most studious, a natural leader from an early age.
“Dawn used to call Chris her second father because she was nine years younger. If I wasn’t around, Chris was watching over her,” said Bill, adding, “That’s what she hated about him. Todd was more emotionally friendly, emotionally with her, and Chris was more—very, very supportive but no BS. Big brother and no BS.”
Chris doesn’t dispute the “second father” description. “Yeah, I mean, I was. And still am, to some extent.”
“That’s really the start of being a leader,” Bill said. “To me, he always was more serious than his friends. Not serious serious—he had a great sense of humor, but he was extremely stable, easy to raise. Look, we knew he was a leader, clearly. He was very mature. He definitely controlled his siblings. He was Todd’s guardian. If we wanted to know how Todd was doing, we asked Chris.”
Chris and Todd were very close. “We shared a room together, a small room, thankfully we were both much thinner than we are now,” said Todd, who called his brother his best friend. “We would always talk sitting in bed at night, almost unusually close.”
Like most siblings, they “fought over everything,” as Todd put it—including baseball, with Chris an avid Mets fan and Todd adopting the Cardinals, perhaps as a way of sharing a connection with his father. Their parents didn’t mind if the boys argued, or even occasionally got physical, although Nani didn’t tolerate that. The parents’ rule was it had to stay in the house. “They would say,” Todd said, “when you get outside of here don’t let anybody think they can get in between you.”
Copyright © 2012, 2013 by Bob Ingle and Michael Symons