Actually, she wanted to be a serious actress, and that was a problem. For while her husband could be a game show host or a football announcer or a pitchman for the Wiz, her own role—played in a quiet town 90 miles from Miami—remained the same. She would always be cast as Mrs. Joe Namath. Or, as some people still insisted on calling her, "Debbie."
How she hated that name. On April 1, 1992, she changed it, legally, dropping "Deborah" in favor of "May." Still, "May" did not achieve the desired effect, as a name or an identity. So on July 8, 1993, she again petitioned the court, and became "May Tatiana Namath," or, as she preferred to be known, Tatiana.
Whatever her reasons, says Shirley Mays, "it's her God-given right." Tatiana's husband agreed, informing friends of her preference matter-of-factly, offering no explanation. Her name was her business; her happiness was his.
In January 1995, the Namaths bought a two-bedroom apartment in the Dakota, at 72nd Street and Central Park West, one of Manhattan's most exclusive addresses. Florida remained the family's primary residence, where Joe did his fishing and golfing and where the kids went to school. But Tatiana's acting lessons were in New York City, and she commuted there regularly.
In a city fueled by ambition, however, her own aspirations remained unfulfilled. Among her teachers was E. Katherine Kerr, who found her to be a trying student. Tatiana—who asked that Kerr call her "Anna" for a while—did not lack talent. Rather, the problem was "this enormous tension she walked around with." "When it comes to acting you have to be open and vulnerable," says Kerr. "She was shut down."
The notable exception came in an autobiographical monologue she prepared, "a beautifully written piece," as Kerr recalls. It was all there, a series of emotional dislocations: her brother's disappearance, her mother's denial and her parents' eventual divorce. It was clear that Tatiana had issues with her mother. Just as clear was her profound sense of loss, undiminished by the passage of time. She idolized her brother. And as Kerr got to know her better, she couldn't help but think that Joe had become something of a brother figure to Tatiana.
At 152 west 71st street, the Church of the Blessed Sacrament houses two tenants in its basement. One is a transitional residence for men who have tested HIV-positive and proven themselves clean and sober. The other, with a seating capacity of 100, is the ArcLight Theater, managed by Michael Griffiths, an actor who played safety for the University of Tulsa. In the spring of 1997, Tatiana paid him a visit and told him, at some length, of her plans to produce and star in a production of Chekhov's The Seagull.
The family came to New York City in preparation for the show, a run of four performances in late June. In addition to her duties as producer, Tatiana would play Nina, a young actress victimized by her own illusory ideals of romance and art. The role of Arkadina, also an actress, went to Kerr, who doubled as the director. Joe, at the request of both Tatiana and Katherine, played Dr. Dorn. Chekhov's character was 55, a year older than Namath. He was, like Joe, a handsome, worldly ladies' man now leading a contented, reflective life. For the role, Namath grew a beard, which came in white. Other than that, recalls Griffiths, "he looked like any other Upper West Side dad." He always seemed to be taking his daughters somewhere. "He was Mr. Mom. And he liked it. You could sec he definitely liked it."
One day Joe poked his head into the men's shelter, asked if anybody needed anything.
"Yeah. A TV," came the response.