photos: Carter Fish
Martha Hunt Handler’s recently released,18-years-in-the-making, first novel, Winter Of The Wolf, reveals much about Martha. NBC News anchor Stephanie Ruhle called the story ‘captivating’…and that’s a fair description of Martha as well.
In the novel, a teenage Bean gives a firsthand account of her brother Sam’s death, her personal struggle with it, and the family’s evolving revelations and relationships. It’s an adventure/mystery like Nancy Drew (who Bean mentions is a favorite), but suffice it to say that Martha wrote the book to honor the death of her best friend’s 12-year-old son, to talk about spirituality and the importance of moving from grief to gratitude, and to remind us of our connection to the natural world. And while the story is a fictionalized version of an actual event, the novel seems in many ways rather auto-biographical. Bean’s words and thoughts sound – philosophically, anthropomorphically, socially, and to-the-ear – a lot like Martha’s.
Martha grew up in the once small town of Crystal Lake, in northern Illinois, near the border of Wisconsin. Winter of the Wolf takes place in a similar lake country area of northern Minnesota (where wolves are present). Bean and Martha share many other similarities; like Martha, Bean, after the loss of Sam, has two older brothers. They also share a special sense of, and oneness with, the natural world. Martha describes a childhood shaped by these deep feelings: “From a very young age I was able to hear the voices of plants and animals in the woodlands surrounding our home. When it hit me that others didn’t share this gift, I felt clear that my role in this lifetime was to be a voice for nature. The voices I heard were extremely agitated. I didn’t understand why initially, but it quickly became all too clear when bulldozers showed up and began leveling nearly every wooded area surrounding our home to make room for other houses. It was horrifying to witness such devastation and have no real voice given my age.” Bean describes her childhood similarly, explaining, “Mom and I – and Sam when he was alive – believe that the world is governed by myriad magical and mystical energies and forces, and that obstacles are presented to us in order for our souls to grow. We could see and feel that a higher power was at work around us at all times.” (p79)
Martha’s spirituality defines her. She’s open about it, but doesn’t push it on others. She’s confident and comfortable with herself, but humble and down-to-earth. She’s very private and maybe somewhat shy, but her yen to do good led her to write and publish Winter Of The Wolf – and to donate all the proceeds to the Wolf Conservation Center (WCC), and to allow B&NC MAG this interview and into her home, again, to benefit WCC with the coverage. She exudes peaceful energy and seems content with life itself. As Bean expresses: “Souls are pure vibrational energy so they can’t die; they can
only transform. It’s obviously way more complicated than that, but that’s the basic gist. This is something I’ve always believed from the deepest part of my soul.” (p149) “It is understood…everything in existence has a spirit and is alive, and that the spiritual aspects of life are interconnected through what is often called the web of life. Since we are a part of Nature, Nature itself becomes a helping spirit that has much to share with us about how to bring our lives back into harmony and balance.” (p178) “…Sam was here for the time he was supposed to be here and not a moment shorter or longer. We know it will probably never make sense to us on this earthly plane, but we accept it in a more universal way. And though he’s no longer with us in the same physical form that he was, I do believe he’s never far from me in whatever spiritual form he chooses to take. This is what I believe about the life of all souls.” (p217)
Martha graduated from high school and left home at the age of 16, “…with five hundred dollars and a really bad car. My dad was thinking I was just off on a short adventure and that I’d be back soon. But I was focused on emancipating myself, because I wanted to go far away to college and my father refused to pay for out-of-state tuition, even though he did so for my brothers. My car broke down in Steamboat, Colorado, and to pay for the
repairs I pumped gas and held numerous other odd jobs. By the time it was fixed, I’d fallen in love with the mountains and the community and decided to stay and declare Colorado residency. I enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder the following year and studied engineering for one semester, before designing a major called environmental conservation. After graduation, I wanted to experience city living, so I moved to San Francisco and worked as a paralegal, thinking I’d eventually become an environmental lawyer. But it quickly became evident that practicing law didn’t suit me and after a few years I moved to D.C. to work as an environmental consultant.” Five years later, Martha met Rich Handler on vacation at a bar in Cozumel. She thought he was cute, smart and very witty, but she had other entanglements and didn’t think it was serious, so she didn’t give him her phone number. A few months after that, she moved back to S.F. and, while unpacking boxes, her phone rang. “He tracked me down. It was totally out of the blue. This was long before the internet, so he had to painstakingly work his way through the phone book using directory assistance, which wasn’t very easy given that my maiden name was “Hunt,” and my old roommate had told him I ’d moved to either Chicago or San Francisco.” So, after many calls to directory assistance, they finally connected, and it was “game over”. After marrying in 1988 at a haunted mansion in San Francisco, the couple settled in L.A., where Rich was working for Michael Milken at Drexel Burnham Lambert. Agreeing that they’d move when their first child was school age, they began looking around the West as Martha missed the mountains. “We were seriously considering Sun Valley, Idaho, but then we visited friends in Bedford and we both immediately fell in love with the area. I was blown away by the natural beauty, the dirt roads, the hiking trails, the horse farms, and the whole environment, and the icing on the cake was that it had highly rated public schools and was within commuting distance of New York.”
Yes, Martha is married to that Rich Handler, the CEO of Jefferies – the largest independent investment bank. He is also the Chair of the Board of Trustees of his alma mater, University of Rochester, where the couple also provides full-ride scholarships to a group of highly qualified but financially disadvantaged candidates who have overcome incredible obstacles on their way to success. And, in what appears to be a very tight-knit and happy family, Martha and Richard have four children: Max 29, Shane 28, Hunter 26 and Skylar 24.
…And their home in South Salem is spectacular! Located on an unassuming country road, the 68-acre property is a hidden oasis. Starting down the long drive there is an immediate sense of grand privacy, like a version of how it might feel stepping out onto the Royal grounds at Balmoral in Scotland, as all neighbors disappear from view and the landscape is shaped with hill and dale and private ponds and lakes, all outlined by pine forest. Martha designed the house in the Adirondack lodge style, hiring architects and builders who could fulfill her vision, and assembling beams and lumber from a number of old barns located all over the United States for use in the main residence. She claims not to have studied the work of Gilbert Stanley Underwood and his design of the Ahwahnee Lodge at Yosemite and the Old Faithful Lodge at Yellowstone, or Charles Whittlesey’s design of El Tovar at the Grand Canyon, or William L Coulter, who designed several of the great camps in and around Saranac Lake; but her house echoes – and in some ways even improves upon – the design concepts and execution of these masters. The scale is remarkable – to the point of reminding oneself this is a private residence and not the nicest five-star hotel. Every aspect of the architecture, furnishings and decorating is of the utmost quality, and still true to the gone-to-summer-camp it’s-gotta-be-comfortable mode. It’s a showcase, but completely livable and lived-in. The house features a great room built from an antique barn that includes a rustic player piano, a collection of one-of-a-kind handcrafted Adirondack objects and furniture, a pool table, a bar with a secret passageway to a wine cellar, several comfortable seating areas, a walk-in stone fireplace, floor to ceiling picture windows overlooking Lake Paul (named after Rich’s grandfather who took him fishing as a boy in northern Westchester reservoirs), and a tongue-in-cheek portrait of the Handler family in a birch bark canoe that’s like one of those murals you might see on the wall of the Town Hall in Lake Placid. The kitchen is a comfortable spot for the family to hang out and, at the same time, sufficient to service the 100-person Thanksgiving dinners and 200-person BBQs to benefit the Wolf Conservation Center and other of the Handler’s charities that are the regular non-covid faire. The den is a cozy lair, complete with a large polaroid photograph taken by William Wegman of their beloved, though now deceased Weimaraner, Bo. The mudroom is complete with wooden lockers for each family member and a powder room with a special dog bath. The indoor pool room, like something out of Grossingers and the Catskill 1950s and 60s, has floor to ceiling windows on all sides to bring the outdoors in when desired. Outside, the garage area includes a courtyard with a basketball court. In addition, the property has a private guest cabin, tennis, a baseball field where Rich coached all his kid’s Little League and softball games, a chicken coop, a garden, a large teepee, an Adirondack gazebo, and numerous hiking trails. In the summer, the family enjoys boating, swimming and fishing in 40 foot deep Lake Paul, which they have stocked with numerous varieties of trout and Lake Peggy (named for Martha’s Mother) which has a lot of largemouth bass.
But ‘Camp Runamuck’ was not the Handler’s first house in South Salem – and that’s where the Wolf Conservation Center comes into the story…
While construction was underway at Runamuk, they rented a house on Waccabuc River Lane. Not long after settling in, they began to hear what Martha knew were the unmistakable howls of wolves. Thinking this was strange – given that wolves had all been eradicated from New York by the late 1800s – Martha decided to walk into the woods behind their house to investigate. In what must be seen as fateful proof of Martha’s particular mysticism (she’s had a black wolf in her dreams since she was a child and has always considered wolves her totem animal), she came across an enclosure with three wolves next to a trailer. When she knocked on the door she was greeted by Helene Grimaud, a world-renowned classical pianist, writer, and human rights activist. Helene told her of her plans to open up the Wolf Conservation Center and asked if Martha would be interested in helping…and Martha jumped ‘on Board’. It started as an all-volunteer operation, with only three ‘ambassador’ wolves who were used primarily for education, and when volunteering meant taking a hand in the dirty work, like handling the road-kill deer fed to the wolves. As Maggie Howell, Executive Director of the Wolf Conservation Center, tells it, “Martha was all-in from the start. She’s worked hard to help make this place what it is and has been a driving force behind our growth and success. She’s a powerhouse on our Board and a principal supporter of all our work. She’s an amazing ambassador for the Wolf Conservation Center – and for wolves as a species and animals in general! And she’s the most fun person to work with!”
Martha is the Board President of the Wolf Conservation Center, and would much rather focus attention on the work the center is doing than on anything about herself. In the two decades since Martha stumbled upon Helene’s wolf pups in the backyard, the Wolf Conservation Center has grown into one of the foremost wolf preservation and regeneration centers in North America, with a multi-pronged focus on Education, Recovery and Advocacy. WCC has a dozen in staff and encompasses 32 acres, including 10 enclosures of one to two acres, all inside a 21 acre perimeter fence. WCC presently houses 21 Mexican Grey wolves and 16 Red wolves, in addition to three ‘ambassador’ wolves who, in non-covid times, meet with the public. Under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, all the animals, except the ambassadors, are owned by the Federal government, and WCC participates with other key facilities involved in species preservation to circulate animals for breeding and, in some cases, a life in the wild.
Not long before the WCC was founded 22 years ago, both the Mexican Gray and Red wolves were considered extinct in the wild (not one known representative of the species known to exist in the wild), and the species’ survival hinged on exactly 7 Mexican Grey and 14 Red held in captivity! Even today, there are less than 200 Mexican Gray and less than a dozen Reds known to exist in the wild. The situation is so dire that the WCC and other facilities like it have had to start a frozen zoo. They bank wolf sperm and eggs and are actively using artificial insemination to increase the numbers. The WCC has had particular success placing Grey Wolf pups in the wild; having it down to the science of, most recently, placing a Mexican Grey pup born at the WCC to an alpha male named ‘Whitehawk’, to be fostered by one of Whitehawk’s sisters in the ‘Saffel’ wolf pack on designated Federal lands in Arizona.
Wolves occupy a foreboding spot in the human psyche. From Beowulf to Beauty and the Beast, wolves have been portrayed in our culture as monstrous creatures with mythically evil and predatory practices. But Howell points out that this portrayal is purely fiction. “Wolves are among the toughest predators in North America today, but it’s their family values that set them apart. Within a family group,or pack, each wolf plays a valuable role – teacher, provider, defender, and friend – and when they all work together, they form a successful, cohesive unit. They pass down critical skills and knowledge from one generation to the next, including how to cooperate, recognize and respond to the behavior of pack mates, and manage their own impulses. Studies have shown that they make up more quickly than dogs, and don’t hold a grudge, because it’s necessary for survival. In fact, much of the work at WCC is allowing wolf family groups to grow as naturally as possible within the confines of the facility, to safeguard their natural behavior, and allow visitors to understand what wolves really are. After all, we can learn a lot from wolves. They’re just wonderful animals.” To this point, Martha drives around with a bumper sticker that reads: “Little Red Riding Hood Lied.”
At one point in Winter Of The Wolf, Bean takes it as a compliment when a boy says she’s different. And that’s Martha, too. Not different as in weird – different in the sense of being extraordinary! With her own family – and beyond being ‘wife’ and ‘mom’, and managing the menagerie and the farming, and facilitating all the fun that goes on at Camp Runamuck – Martha has travelled to all 7 continents; with adventures that have included expeditions to both Poles, backpacking around Madagascar, photographic safaris around Africa, kayaking with killer whales in British Columbia, hiking Patagonia, and spending summers with family and friends in Greece. With Rich, she socializes with Presidents and pals, world and business leaders, and young folks that may be in part inspired by the Handlers to join those ranks. Martha just had both knees replaced, but is diligently rehabbing and already starting back on her daily hikes and yoga. She’s doing whatever she can virtually, during covid, to publicize Winter Of The Wolf. And she works for the Wolf Conservation Center, well – as if one of her spirit animals depends on it. Pressed to say what four people – dead or alive – she would invite to a dinner party, she decided on: Betty White, Russell Brand, Ryan Reynolds, and Jamie Foxx. That sounds like a really fun evening. Martha would fit right in. And think of all the previously incarnated folks at that table!