“She looks fantastic now,” says Urban, who had no trouble auctioning Orman’s second book.
“The bidding was going up and up and up,” says Orman, “I said, ‘Stop the bidding, Binky. I can’t take it anymore. Somebody’s going to pay me $800,000 to write a book. I can’t write. I’m a finance person.’” She continues: “I told Chip Gibson [then the head of Crown Publishing], ‘Sir, before I sign this contract I have two things to tell you. Number one: I don’t know how to write. So I don’t want you giving me $800,000 to write. And number two: Are you aware that I’m a lesbian?”
As it happens, neither turned out to be roadblocks. For one, Orman was a personal finance expert, not a movie star. And for another, Gibson says, “We weren’t hiring Suze to win the Nobel Prize in literature.”
Urban seconds that. “I just thought, ‘Great. Finally an author who knows she can’t write.’”
Orman’s book was called “The Nine Steps to Financial Freedom”; it drew heavily on her New Age sensibility and sold over three million copies. From there, shows like “Today” and “Oprah” came calling and money began to pour in.
Getting rich brought all sorts of perks: property in New York, California and Florida; the ability to fly private, and the opportunity to give money to causes she liked. One day, the author went to a Hearst-sponsored conference where “The Vagina Monologues” guru Eve Ensler was speaking about violence against women. “It was amazing,” says Ensler, recalling their meeting. “She came up to me and said, ‘I see my money the way you see your vagina. I need to know it, I need to touch it, I need to not be afraid of it. And I’m going to give [your foundation] $100,000.’” Which Orman did, along with investing over $200,000 in Ensler’s next play.
These days, Orman gives money to everything from breast cancer research to Democratic political candidates to gay rights. She also has a habit of getting attached to people who write her letters asking for help. For the last two years, Orman has sent gifts and provided free financial advice to an 81-year-old woman in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., named Miriam Finkelstein, who found her address in the Boca Raton, Fla., telephone book and sent a letter asking for assistance.
“You are the only person I can think of who understands people and money,” Finkelstein wrote, explaining she’d just lost her life partner and was confused about what to do with her inheritance.
A week later, Orman called Finkelstein and, among other things, put her in touch with a man who got her on a fixed annuity better than anything she’d been offered by five previous financial experts. “It was beyond the call of duty,” Finkelstein says to me. “I think Suze saved my life.”
Nine months ago, Orman was contacted by Natalie Davis, a 47-year-old freelance journalist in Baltimore who was struggling to make ends meet. Davis found her by e-mailing Orman at every possible address at Suzeorman.com until she got through.
In her email, Davis wrote about the lack of jobs in her field and said "What happens when friends and family can’t help? Do poor moms and kids land on the streets and die?" Soon after, Orman began sending her food, and did so every month for six months. "It literally kept me and my family going," Davis says.
Orman also provides free financial advice to other celebrities. One of them is Kathy Griffin, who says of her friend: “While I’m optimistic about President Obama, I think we missed the mark. We need a good sturdy lesbian in the White House, and Suze could move in, renovate it, flip it and sell it to China for a profit. She would turn around the fiscal crisis in about eight days.”
Until Orman lands in the Oval Office, she will have to make do with the five homes she shares with her partner, Kathy “K.T.” Travis, 56. The two met eight years ago when Travis, a former advertising executive at Ogilvy & Mather, moved back to the Bay Area from Hong Kong. “We had mutual friends,” Travis says. “They said, ‘She writes about money.’ I said, ‘That sounds boring.’ I’d been in China. We didn’t have CNBC. I didn’t watch Oprah. But Suze is electric. Within a week, she made me throw out all my credit cards and things I didn’t need.”
Travis now runs Orman’s company, a burgeoning media empire that includes books, tapes, the Saturday night CNBC show, a column for O, the Oprah Magazine, and a partnership with credit reporting agency Fair Isaacs Corp.