It is hard for Carol Ross Joynt to decide which was the worst day of the last 2 1/2 years. There are so many to choose from.

The day her husband, restaurateur Howard Joynt, died at age 57 after a short battle with pneumonia was certainly one of them. Another was the day, two weeks later, when she learned that aside from not having any life insurance, he had saddled her and his restaurant, Nathans, with a whopping tax bill. Or when--after settling with the IRS--she found that changing the restaurant's license from his name to hers would require the D.C. Council to pass a special bill.

Nathans, after 30 years at Wisconsin and M streets NW, has thus survived, one of the last owner-operated bistros in Georgetown. The familiar red-check tablecloths have been replaced with easy-care maize, and the menu is no longer just Italian. But the bar is still filled with a mix of visiting travelers, blondes in skinny pants and neighborhood types grousing about the price of Scotch. Some nights they still turn on the sound system and dance between the tables.

But it hasn't been easy. Each time Joynt thought one problem was resolved, another would arrive, snarling. Her once-glamorous life--a 20-year romance complete with yachts, exotic vacations, fabulous homes and her own benign ignorance of financial matters--was replaced with a grinding treadmill of awful surprises.

Life as she knew it not only vanished, some of it turned out not to have really been there in the first place.

There have been smaller-scale bad days, too, like the time she discovered that running a restaurant can also involve breaking up a fight between the coat checker and a cook. She had a small, heartbroken son to nurture, and her own grief to assuage. Her career as a television producer for Larry King was nearly swallowed by the demands of lawyers, accountants, tax collectors, city regulators, bereavement counselors, chefs, bartenders and mortgage brokers.

There are many widows who learn too late that a beloved spouse has left them with unexpected debts to complicate their bereavement. But the mountain that Carol Joynt has climbed has been higher than most, with each new foothold leading to yet another avalanche. She does not wear the victim's mantle--to go from having a Mercedes, a Jaguar and a Range Rover to just the Rover is not, after all, being impoverished. To trade a house on the Eastern Shore, two town apartments (one for the nanny) and a boat for one house in Georgetown is not homelessness.

She knows that. But money does not necessarily make an ordeal less heartbreaking.

"I think of myself like one of those chocolate animals you buy on holidays," she says. "You can buy cheap ones, that are hollow inside and crumble when you touch them. That's what I was. Now I'm solid chocolate. You can't break me."

It Was a Wonderful Life

Before the bad times, there were the great ones.

When Carol Ross met Howard Joynt, he was already a Washington character. Tall, urbane, and a bit of a pirate, he came from a well-to-do Alexandria family. His parents were famous for their multimillion-dollar collection of antiques; he was known, in his youth, for drinking too much and getting kicked out of college. He wore exquisite suits tailored for him in New York and London, expensive silk ties and hand-made shoes, and he always owned a Jaguar, which he drove too fast.

When Carol met him in 1977, he was married to the glamorous Nadine, a Parisian-born beauty of Spanish and Russian parentage; the couple lived in a big house in Georgetown, with a swimming pool and zebra-skin rugs and a great deal of monogrammed silver. Years ago, a reporter for this newspaper asked him about the rugs.

"Okay, but they're so damned beautiful, see? They were already dead and so I might as well be the one to buy them, see?" he said.

Howard and Nadine cut a swath in the more-provincial Washington of the early '70s, as Nathans became a hot spot for the young, famous and wealthy, for a while a locus of the cocaine cowboys so much a part of that era. Nadine worked for various charities, and Howard worked--sort of--at the restaurant.

But within three weeks of meeting Carol at a party, Howard left home and moved into a hotel, a split recorded in the gossip columns. He predicted Nadine would be so mad she would take him for everything he had, and he'd be lucky to be left with a pair of Gucci loafers.

"Howard has 53 pairs of Gucci loafers and I'll be happy to give them to him in a minute if he wants them," Nadine retorted.

People thought Nadine was his second wife, married after a union that was a youthful mistake. In fact there were two youthful impetuosities; one marriage was annulled. Carol would become his fourth wife.

When she met him, Carol Ross was 26 and a night assignment editor at NBC's Washington bureau, a veteran of reporting on '60s turmoil. She'd skipped college and gotten a job at UPI, covering street demonstrations. "I lived for the smell of tear gas," she remembers. She'd already burned out and taken a year off to go sailing by the time she met Howard Joynt, who was of another lifestyle entirely.

"He would pick her up at about 11 at night in a limousine," remembers a friend from those days, Susan LaSalla, now the senior Washington producer for the "Today" show. "There'd be caviar and champagne. They'd go to the airport and get on a private plane and go to New York. For the night! The next day she'd be back at work. I thought it was so glamorous!"

Carol doesn't remember it quite like that. He did send her Dom Perignon and a pound of beluga caviar one night at work.

It was a life lived fairly large. For a while they lived in Upperville, and he left the restaurant largely to others. Carol began to live a more leisurely life. But they got bored with the Virginia countryside and moved back to town, resuming more focused work lives.

Two months after Howard's death, Carol looked through old photos with tears running down her face. She wrote that night in her journal of all the places the pictures reminded her of: "Georgetown, Bermuda, the West Indies, London, the Orient Express, Venice, Paris, Monaco, the cross-country drive, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Burgundy, Stowe, the Adirondacks, Maine, Newport, Edgartown, Nantucket . . . sailing here and there, Christmas after Christmas, us in the snow, us in the sand, us in the mountains, us in the desert, us in our city mode, us in our country mode . . . every station of the cross two people can hope to have together except for the last part, growing old together."

Some of his conferees in the restaurant world wondered how he could live so well--Nathans was a modest restaurant, with a popular bar on one side and a tasteful 62-seat dining room decorated in art nouveau on the other. Not exactly a cash cow. But who knew? Wasn't he independently wealthy?

Carol didn't ask questions. He took care of all the finances; her broadcasting salary went for food and dry-cleaning bills and other incidentals. Sometimes he'd ask her to sign something and she would, she says, never asking what it was. She loved him. She was crazy about him.

After moving back to the city, they lived in two apartments on 30th Street NW; one served as an office. After their son, Spencer, was born in November 1991, it also housed the nanny. There was a weekend nanny, too. And a cook and a housekeeper and the country home by the water in Galesville, Md. Late fatherhood--this was his third child--was a boon to Howard. For Spencer, he took the time to become totally involved, and his life centered more around the family.

Two weeks after returning from an idyllic sailing trip in the Caribbean, Howard thought he had the flu. Carol was scheduled to go to New York the following week with Larry King, lining up guests to appear on his show. There would be dinner with Al Pacino, and a party with Woody Allen. Howard promised to go to the doctor.

When Carol called mid-week he said he was taking antibiotics. But when she came back on Friday, she found Howard stretched on their bed, ashen and nearly comatose. When she called his doctor, she learned that her husband had not told the truth. He'd never even made an appointment.

She took him to Sibley Hospital, and the first ordeal began.

A Sad Turning Point

Before she had even returned to the emergency room from parking her car, he was hooked up to an oxygen machine. By midnight, a doctor told Howard's sister, Martha Joynt Kumar, that the prognosis was poor. The only hope was to get him on a double lung machine--Washington Hospital Center had one, but it was unlikely it would be able to take him, and besides, it was a Saturday.

Not for the last time, Carol Joynt put her contacts and her journalistic skills to work. She called King, the man who knows everybody. It seemed to her that within 20 minutes a helicopter was landing on the roof of Sibley to fly Howard to WHC. As the attendants rolled him past her, he muttered something. They were his last words.

"I'd rather be in the Caribbean."

For three weeks a team of doctors fought the pneumonia that had invaded his lungs. His immune system was weak, the result of an apparently mild case of leukemia that had been diagnosed 10 years earlier. It became clear that he would not survive.

Carol told her then 5-year-old son that Daddy would not be coming home. Spencer wanted to say goodbye, so she took him to the hospital, and cleared a path through the tubes and wires so that he could get close. She left him alone with his father. Listening from behind a screen, she could hear Spencer talking, and then she heard her son singing a song to his dying father.

"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine . . . "

Howard Joynt died Feb. 1, 1997.

Trying to Pick Up the Pieces

Two weeks later, the new widow, dressed in a black suit, sat in a conference room at a big law firm. She was about to begin her next ordeal:

She hadn't realized the apartments were mortgaged to the roof.

She knew the IRS was auditing the restaurant, but Howard had told her it was a routine matter. Now she learned that her husband had almost been indicted for some kind of tax violation. And that the audit was nearly complete.

Then the results came in: The IRS was asking for more than a million dollars.

What on earth had been going on?

"The best I can answer is that Howard ran the restaurant in a sort of old-fashioned way, sort of out of his back pocket," Joynt says.

Others are not so kind. Howard kept the books himself, and they were a mess. It looked like he had been underreporting both the restaurant's profits and his own income, and much of the cash had just gone right into his wallet.

"I see it as financial irresponsibility in every way," says Fred Thimm, president of the Palm Management Corp. and one of the friends Carol turned to for advice. "He left his wife and child buried in financial obligations, and a cantankerous old restaurant. . . . I don't want to be the guy who bad-mouths Howard Joynt. I liked him, and he is well respected in town, and he's dead. But obviously there were integrity issues with Howard. No taxes, no life insurance, mortgaging to the hilt. . . .

"There was an old-school way of running restaurants that really does not exist anymore. People used to take advantage of the fact that there was a lot of cash. It's almost like a pyramid scheme on yourself. But cash flow and income are not the same thing."

The lawyers advised Carol to sell everything, make a deal with the IRS, close the restaurant and carry on with her journalism career.

She didn't want to do that. "Nathans is an institution in Washington," she says. "People have met their spouses here. Children have been named after it. It's one of the few owner-operated places left in Georgetown. And it was Howard. I couldn't just close it down. If I did what the lawyers suggested I'd have nothing."

Joynt hired some new lawyers, former IRS commissioner Sheldon Cohen and his partner, Miriam Fisher. They hired an accountant to unravel the records. And during the next nine months they worked with the IRS to reach a settlement, for both the personal and business tax debt. The key victory came in January 1998, nearly a year after Howard's death, when Carol was granted "innocent spouse" status, which essentially absolved her of liability for tax debts he had incurred without her knowledge. That meant the assets in his name only--the stocks and bonds, the boat--had to go to the IRS to settle his personal taxes, but things they owned jointly did not.

The whole experience was crushing. "There were a lot of days when I couldn't find time to cry. I couldn't cry in front of Spencer, or at the restaurant. The only time was when I went running. Cry and run at the same time. It was very efficient," she says wryly.

It was hard for some of her friends to believe that there was so much about her husband's finances that she did not know. She, too, cannot quite connect the blithely passive spouse she was with the hardheaded businesswoman she has become. "She's certainly not the first person to be comfortable in ignorance," says her friend Mark Furstenburg, owner of the Bread Line cafe.

The restaurant--not the building, which Howard did not own--was an asset of his personal estate, and thus had two IRS axes hanging over it. His wife could have just given it to the government, but what would the IRS do with a liquor license, pots and pans, and the name Nathans? In the end, the amount she paid was less than they'd asked for, but still "hundreds of thousands of dollars," says Fisher. "They got all there was."

Now here's some news: Carol Joynt has no complaints about the IRS. They were just doing their job, she says. The agent assigned to her case was fair and patient and smart. However, in the process of transferring the old corporation, Moustache Inc., to a new, debt-free corporation, as the IRS required, Carol encountered her next trial.

Navigating the Bureaucracy

In January she discovered that under a D.C. law enacted in the 1980s, no more than six tavern licenses can be held in Georgetown, and even transferring one from a deceased husband to his widow counts as a new license. Nathans has always held a tavern license, meaning the majority of its business is from the sale of alcoholic beverages.

Carol needed special legislation to exempt her from the restriction. That meant persuading her council member, Jack Evans, to draft it (Bill #13-242), and it meant drumming up support. The Advisory Neighborhood Commission had to approve the exemption.

So Carol went around Georgetown knocking on doors, asking people to sign a petition or write a letter, explaining her situation. Eventually she produced more than 130 signatures and dozens of letters and faxes in support. Walter Cronkite, a former boss, sent a note, and so did National Gallery Director Earl A. "Rusty" Powell III. More than 20 supporters showed up for a City Council committee hearing on the issue. The display of approval dwarfed the objections of the Citizens Association of Georgetown, which wanted her to apply instead for a restaurant license, which would require her to earn a larger portion of her revenue from food.

The legislation was approved last month, and was signed by Mayor Anthony Williams yesterday after she personally picked up the document from a pile of items waiting for his signature and took it to his office. One thing she's learned, she says, is "get in their face and don't let up."

This being Washington, final approval must come from the D.C. financial control board and the Congress of the United States.

There's a catch to this, of course. Since a tavern license cannot be transferred, Carol will not be able to sell Nathans as is. Now, she has to make it work.

Living for Today

Carol Joynt considers herself a journalist, not a restaurateur. Through most of the past two years, she has continued to work on television assignments, most recently for MSNBC, booking high-profile guests for talk shows.

She does this work now from her office at Nathans, a subterranean nest a few turns off the kitchen. As a journalist, she believes that almost anything can be learned, but the restaurant business is well known as one only maniacs and dreamers undertake.

"I told her to get out of it," says the experienced Furstenburg. "The sheer number of irritations in the business is unbelievable. The air conditioning is not working, the dishwasher is springing a leak, the health inspector has arrived, the assistant manager is quitting . . . the things that happen in a normal restaurant."

One top of that, she needed to make changes--in the way business was conducted, in the tired, Italian-dominated menu, even the furnishings. She changed the lighting in the dining room and hoped no one would mind. The manager who was in place when she took over left and the manager who replaced him is also leaving. Last week she hired a new one.

Joynt is not without skills that may help her succeed in business. Knowing and cultivating people is one of them. She has scores of friends, and she has learned to ask them for help. Furstenburg recalls taking her to a book party for Cokie Roberts, thinking he would be introducing her around the room. "She knew everybody," he says. "It was fun to watch her."

One thing her friends remark upon is her disinclination to say bad things about her husband. "I was always amazed at her never showing anger or hatred," says Helen Hagerty, a one-time Nathans employee who now lives in Georgetown.

"Carol is a very positive person who doesn't waste time on negative energy," says her sister-in-law, Martha Joynt Kumar. "She can take a problem, analyze it, investigate all the possible solutions and head for the best choice. That is the key for her in being able to make it these last years."

With the resolution of the liquor license, Joynt's life has settled down to more predictable crises. Her father died in May and she delivered the eulogy at his funeral. Last week the show she had been working for at MSNBC was canceled--but she still has a job.

Last night she celebrated the mayor's signing her bill by inviting a group of friends she calls "the moms" to come to the restaurant and dance.

A recent e-mail concluded with these words:

"I do not miss the life I used to have. I love the life I'm living now. The one I fought for. And, I don't look back."

CAPTION: "There were a lot of days when I couldn't find time to cry. . . . The only time was when I went running. Cry and run at the same time," says Carol Ross Joynt.

CAPTION: Howard and Carol Joynt's 20-year romance was complete with yachts, exotic vacations and fabulous homes.

CAPTION: The Joynts in Charleston, S.C., in 1984: Carol, son Spencer and Howard.