The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At 92, Irene Pollin tells her story and spares no details

Irene Pollin, widow of former Caps and Wizards owner Abe Pollin, at her home in Bethesda. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

That year. A fog, a shroud, a horror.

Irene and Abe Pollin’s daughter, Linda, died at age 16, after surgery to correct a congenital heart defect. She was not the first child they lost. That would have been Kenneth Jay, known as Jay Jay, who died a decade earlier, at 15 months, also from a heart condition.

Three months later, Irene’s father collapsed, dead from a heart attack the day before his grandson’s bar mitzvah.

But the year was not over. Irene’s sister, Betty, her only sibling, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, the beginning of a decade inside psychiatric institutions. Eight months after her father’s death, Irene’s mother suffered a fatal heart attack. “Sixty-three, not a line on her face,” says Irene.

“How did I get through all that? I was a zombie,” she says, sitting in the sunroom of her elegant Bethesda home. In 1964, she took Valium and Librium to numb the pain. “I don’t have any memory to this day of my father’s dying, his funeral, anything. And my mother? I don’t remember her funeral, either.”

Abe Pollin, a Washington real estate titan, coped by buying the Baltimore Bullets, a basketball team that he brought to Washington, launching a new life spent in loud arenas with exceedingly tall men.

“The team was a distraction,” says Irene. “It was a great distraction.”

The couple — and Irene insists that they always worked as a team — would go on to build Capital Centre in Landover (bringing not only basketball to Washington, but also Muhammad Ali, presidential galas, Frank Sinatra, the Allman Brothers, the Stones and other rock bands that had historically bypassed the area), buy a hockey team and develop a second entertainment complex, now Verizon Center, with their own funds ($220 million, there were no government handouts to give), in a squalid, forlorn section of Washington that would ignite the rebirth of downtown.

Irene herself got through Linda’s death — there are photos everywhere of the sunny blond teenager — by going to graduate school and becoming a clinical social worker, opening a clinic to treat chronically ill patients, co-authoring two books on long-term illness and founding Sister to Sister: The Women’s Heart Health Foundation. She did it through philanthropy: In 2013 alone, she donated $10 million for a heart program at Los Angeles’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center named in Linda’s honor, $10 million to Johns Hopkins for heart research and a professorship in honor of Kenneth Jay, and a third $10 million for a heart wellness center to Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, again named for Linda.

Pollin shares all this and 64 years of marriage in an exceptionally candid memoir, "Irene & Abe: An Unexpected Life," a birthday gift underwritten by their son Robert after Abe's 2009 death from a rare and pernicious neurological disease.

Wizards owner helped transform D.C.

The self-published book, with Irene’s image front and center, took two writers and six years to produce. It was a form of therapy.

“She has to get it all out. That’s the way she works,” says her son Jim.

There appears to be little that Pollin held back, including two episodes when Abe walked out on her, the first time informing his staff of 200 before he told her.

Pollin is frank, formidable, at times imperious, a woman used to getting what she wants, and little concerned with what people think.

“She’s a pretty intense person,” says Robert, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “She does like to talk a lot about feelings and her personal history and how those two things come together.”

Psychologist Sheila Rogovin says of her friend’s ability to handle incalculable loss: “Irene feels and felt all of those things on a very deep level. She didn’t live in that. She lives in a big world. Her thinking is broad. Her energy is put toward living, and not living in the disappointments and the sadness.”

Irene Pollin is 92. It is common to remark that a woman of a certain age doesn’t look it, but Pollin doesn’t look it. Nor does she act it.

She recently took up the dulcimer. She goes out constantly. Music is a passion, and she's a longtime board member of and substantial donor to the National Symphony. The Pollins were co-founders and major donors to Sixth & I, the historic Washington synagogue and cultural center. On her coffee table is a Torah study book and a fat volume by Thomas Wolfe.

During the course of a lengthy interview, a publicist and a personal assistant in attendance, she will swear (once), gossip (occasionally) and correct a visitor (repeatedly). “I’m not that good at dates,” she says, which is ridiculous. She remembers everything.

"Our team" she insists of the Pollins' business dealings. "Our real estate business. It was always a partnership, nothing less. Abe always said I was the only partner he ever had." She adds, with the confidence of a woman who long worked in an apartment complex named after her, the Irene in Chevy Chase, "Every building that we built, I was designing," including both arenas.

Former Washington Post sports editor George Solomon, director of the University of Maryland’s Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism, says of Pollin: “She’s very independent, extremely smart and very opinionated. She was very involved in the teams and very sensitive to her own role as a part owner of the team.”

Abe Pollin was famously prickly about criticism of the Bullets (later Wizards) and the Caps, often purchasing full-page ads to criticize news coverage such as when, in 2003, he fired Michael Jordan as the Wizards’ president. “I’ve never seen Abe that upset. I thought he was going to have a heart attack,” Irene says of the firing and the subsequent hailstorm of criticism.

Irene grew up a baseball fan but came to love basketball, going to games at least once a week, often more. “We would go into the suite and 20,000 people [are] standing up to sing the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ and it was a thrill, a real thrill,” she says. “But the stresses of being an owner, it’s not all glamour. And yet there was obviously glamour.” When the team is rotten, and both teams were dismal for many years, “the fans suffer, but we suffer more than they do. Naturally, the owner is the target.”

After Abe died, Irene sold her stake in the Wizards and Verizon Center to Ted Leonsis, who more than a decade earlier had purchased a majority interest in the Capitals.

Abe and Irene shared an aunt and an uncle by marriage — her mother’s sister was married to his father’s brother — and met as teenagers. Abe took one look at Irene Kerchek from St. Louis and made up his mind that she was the one for him. It took her a little while longer to arrive at the same conclusion, although not much.

The Pollins were already established real-estate developers. Irene didn’t have to work. They shared a life of immense comfort, a staff, a tennis court and a covered pool in the back yard of the brick home they designed and built in 1960, constant travel. Many men in Abe Pollin’s position expect their wives to be there for them, “but that man wouldn’t be my husband. I did need to work. That was our relationship from day one,” says Pollin, sporting two watches on her slender wrist. “I really respected Abe always, because he was very smart and very thoughtful and very conservative. I would ask his advice, and then do whatever I wanted.”

The couple made decisions quickly. How long did they discuss buying the Bullets? "About five minutes." In 1995, Abe changed the team name to the Wizards, not because of Washington's high murder rate (nor public demand, unlike the relentless calls to rename another sports team), but because his dear friend and occasional tennis partner Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

Then there was his decision to leave Irene twice, in 1986 and then in 1993, each time for a matter of months, the first time with no conversation, note or phone call. The first time “was shocking. It was beyond painful. Because I knew him so well. There wasn’t any indication of anything,” she says.

“I was the confronter and he was the avoider,” she says. Was possibly a third party involved? “He didn’t have time. We were together all the time,” she says. “The way I finally came to terms with it was his leaving wasn’t about the marriage. It was about the financial stress he was undergoing. He just ran.”

The second time, “we were losing money right and left with the teams. I mean, it was terrible, and he didn’t want to sell off any stuff. Frankly, he was behaving unpleasantly,” she says. “I just took all his clothes and put them in the garage. I didn’t carry them myself. I asked Francisco to do it,” she says, referring to the husband of the Portuguese couple she has employed for three decades. Still, she didn’t expect that he would actually leave — and again without warning. A few months later, Abe returned again. “It was always good. It was about his business world. It was never he and me fighting.”

At her age, did she need to share all this? Pollin gives a look, immediate and clear. As with so much else in her full and extraordinary life, she had no choice.