By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
This is a story about a 43-year friendship surviving amid turbulent times.
After a dozen years at the helm, Rick Hirsch retired as Miami Herald managing editor in December 2021, but he did not relinquish his concern for a talented former colleague: Edna Buchanan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and multi-book author.
Decades ago, when Hirsch was a reporter, his newsroom desk was behind that of the woman he today calls “a legend.”
Buchanan’s deteriorating health has gone unreported until now. The 85-year-old writer is in a nursing home in Homestead with ”suspected dementia” and cognitive, mood and psychotic disorders.
Hirsch said the crime reporter, who injured herself in a fall at her longtime Miami Beach home, is “comfortable and well-cared for” at The Palace Gardens alongside her dog, Hairy P. Whodini. Hirsch, a journalist in residence at Florida International University, has known Buchanan since 1980. He filed a petition in Miami-Dade Family Court last year that led to a court-appointed guardian taking charge of her care and settling her finances.
“There is a reason she is where she is and that is in relation to her physical and mental health,” Hirsch said in a phone interview. “It has certainly gotten much worse since this whole saga started.”
He has not seen Buchanan in the past year, but he has been in contact with her guardian, Anthony Romano Jr., who provides periodic updates, according to Hirsch. Romano’s attorney Joshua Rosenberg told Florida Bulldog that Buchanan’s loved ones are “well informed about her well-being.”
“No one has raised any concerns or objections,” Rosenberg said. “This is a case in which the guardianship program worked to protect a very vulnerable person from exploitation.”
THERE’S FIDEL, AND EDNA
Edna Buchanan moved from her native Paterson, NJ, to Miami in the early 1970s. Her first gig was with the now-defunct Miami Beach Sun. But she became a household name in the Magic City soon after landing a job as a police beat reporter for the Miami Herald.
For more than a decade, Buchanan wrote daily dispatches about the bodies piling up from drug cartel wars that turned Miami into the nation’s homicide capital, earning the city the title of “Paradise Lost” on a Time magazine cover. In 1979, she broke the story about Arthur McDuffie, a black insurance salesman who was beaten up by Miami cops and died shortly after from his injuries. The subsequent acquittal of the police officers involved sparked the 1980 Miami riots.
In 1986, the year Buchanan won a Pulitzer Prize for general news reporting, journalist Calvin Trilin summed up her legacy in one sentence for his profile of her in The New Yorker: “In Miami, a few figures are regularly discussed by first name among people they have never actually met. One of them is Fidel. Another is Edna.”
Then-reporter Hirsch was a colleague in the newsroom of One Herald Plaza, the former headquarters of the Miami Herald that was demolished in 2014, three years after Malaysian casino giant Genting Group purchased the Biscayne Bay property for $236 million.
“As someone who worked with her, she was kind of terrifying,” Hirsch said. “I saw how she dealt with people who were getting in the way of her stories.”
In 1988, she retired from the Miami Herald to focus on her book career. She’s written four nonfiction books and 16 novels. You can watch Edna Buchanan talk about her life in a 2016 Miami Beach Visual Memoir maintained at the FIU library.
After Buchanan left the Miami Herald, Hirsch rose up the ranks to managing editor, a 12-year post until his retirement from the newspaper in December 2021. In addition to his teaching duties, Hirsch is also a recruiter for Miami Herald parent company McClatchy.
“When I was editor, I would hear from her when she didn’t like a story or when the paper wasn’t delivered,” Hirsch said. “Occasionally, she would call with story tips. She is certainly one of the greatest reporters to ever work in South Florida, if not the greatest.”
PETITION FOR BUCHANAN’S GUARDIAN
In 2013, in the midst of her third divorce, Buchanan set out to get her affairs in order in the event of her death. In a financial affidavit filed in her divorce case, a then-75-year-old Buchanan wrote that she suffered from heart and lung medical issues. She also had a lawyer draft up a last will and testament, as well as a power of attorney designating three individuals close to her as possible decision-makers for her if she became incapacitated.
The first designated person, Miami attorney Arthur Tifford, died in 2015. The other two people were Buchanan’s neighbors Estelle Farnsworth and Leon Wolfson. In her will, Buchanan disinherited three surviving relatives: her sister, her uncle and her cousin. Whatever was left of her estate when she died would go to Miami Beach Community Church, where she and Farnsworth regularly attended Sunday service.
In February of last year, Buchanan was transported to Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach after injuring herself at home, according to court filings. She was briefly transferred to a rehabilitation center in the city before being sent to The Palace Gardens in Homestead.
According to Hirsch’s guardianship petition from last April, Buchanan was “Baker Acted after being found in her home in a distressful situation,” the petition states. Since her fall, she’s been confined to a wheelchair because she is unable to stand on her own.
He interceded after learning about her condition from then-Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, who was contacted by one of Buchanan’s neighbors “concerned that there were people who were trying to take advantage of Edna,” Hirsch told Florida Bulldog.
But Buchanan’s neighbor Farnsworth challenged Hirsch’s request for a court-appointed guardian and attempted to assert authority under the 2013 power of attorney. In a typed letter submitted to the court, Farnsworth noted that she and Buchanan had been friends for close to 40 years. She also claimed that when she visited Buchanan at the Miami Beach rehab facility, her neighbor insisted on being taken to her house on Miami Beach’s San Marino Island.
Farnsworth claimed that she and her family had arranged for a live-in aide who could provide 24-hour care for Buchanan. The letter also stated that Buchanan had extensive assets and could afford modifications to her home and 24-hour care so she “could safely return.”
FARNSWORTH BACKS OFF
During a deposition in June of last year, Farnsworth, at the time 82 years old, did an about-face. She testified that she really didn’t want to be in charge of Buchanan’s affairs, and that she never read the document giving her power of attorney and authorization to manage her friend’s health care and well-being.
“Well this sounds like a huge job,” Farnsworth said under oath. “That you are going to be in charge of a lot of people. And I certainly didn’t want that.”
Farnsworth also said that she didn’t know how to use a computer or other electronic devices, didn’t write the letter and didn’t recall authorizing anyone to type her name on the letter. Instead, Farnsworth supported making Andrew Ogden, another churchgoer who would give Buchanan rides to Sunday service, to become the guardian.
By July of last year, Farnsworth and Hirsch settled the court dispute by agreeing to have Wolfson, the other neighbor Buchanan designated as having power of attorney, select a guardian. He picked Romano, a professional guardian based in Plantation, to watch over Buchanan and her assets.
According to a court affidavit submitted by Wolfson, he attempted to have a phone conversation with Buchanan that “did not go well.”
“She was not coherent at all and had no idea who I was,” Wolfson wrote. “The person with whom I briefly spoke in no way seemed like the person that I once knew. It was heartbreaking.”
At the time, Buchanan’s monthly income consisted of $2,491 from Social Security and $878 from her Miami Herald pension, according to an Aug. 5, 2022 court filing. It wasn’t enough to cover roughly $28,000 in monthly expenses that included her accommodations in Homestead, food, pet care and a $14 subscription to the Miami Herald.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Spencer Eig, who presided over Buchanan’s case, granted Romano’s request to sell Buchanan’s Miami Beach waterfront home that she bought for $495,000 in 1996. Attorneys representing Buchanan, Hirsch, Farnsworth and Romano agreed to wait to have their legal fees paid until the property was sold.
In November of last year, the house sold for $12 million in an off-market deal to a private trust, according to Miami-Dade property records. Buchanan’s personal belongings were inventoried and moved into storage. In the past year, Eig has approved roughly $250,520 in payments arising from the administration and legal bills in Buchanan’s case, including about $100,000 for Romano’s services, court records show. And about $2.7 million in taxes were paid to the Internal Revenue Service.
“[Edna] was somebody who lived a really hard life,” Hirsch said. “Like so many people, she ended up here because it was warm and because she wanted to get the hell out of Paterson. She became a legend.”