The untold truth of Kathie Lee Gifford's marriage with Frank Gifford

Frank Gifford's passing in 2015, just a few weeks before his 85th birthday, left Kathie Lee Gifford a widow after 29 years of marriage. The couple's love story was a long and winding one, spanning decades and playing out in public, under the sometimes harsh glare of the spotlight.

When they met in the mid-1980s, Frank was best known for his NFL career with the New York Giants, playing for the team from 1952 until retiring in 1964, and his subsequent TV career as a sports announcer for ABC's Monday Night Football. Kathie Lee Johnson, as she was then known, was an up-and-coming singer and television host who was coming off a failed marriage. Speaking with Entertainment Tonight prior to their 1986 wedding, she explained how their love blossomed after "Frank kind of took me under his wing. He's got a great wing." 

Viewers who watched her on television as co-host of Live with Regis and Kathie Lee and, later, on NBC's Today, followed the couple's ups and downs over the years as she shared details of their family life. Read on to learn more about the untold truth of Kathie Lee Gifford's marriage with Frank Gifford. 

Kathie Lee fell in love at first sight — with Frank's 'buns'

According to a 1992 People profile, following her divorce from first husband Paul Johnson, Kathie Lee Johnson was a correspondent on Good Morning America when former New York Giants halfback Frank Gifford, then working as a sports broadcaster for ABC, filled in on the network's morning show. 

She recalled the first time she met her future husband as she and co-host Hoda Kotb discussed the topic of love at first sight during an episode of Today. Asked if she fell in love at first sight, Kathie Lee admitted that she "sort of did." She remembered preparing "to do an Alpo commercial with a Basset Hound" when she walked down a hallway and caught a view of her future husband's derriere. She was smitten, she said, after encountering "the greatest pair of buns I have ever seen in my life."

Frank reminisced about that first meeting in an interview with the Television Academy Foundation. "Right away she was so much fun. She was so alive and adorable," he said, revealing he decided to "set her up with one of [his] best friends" by inviting them both to lunch. "That didn't work out," he said of his ill-fated matchmaking attempt, wryly adding, "But we did."

Frank warned Kathie Lee about an embarrassing incident from his NFL past

When Frank Gifford and his future wife Kathie Lee were dating, he cautioned her about a story she'd be hearing repeatedly, about an incident from his tenure with the New York Giants. According to The New York Times, the storied moment happened during a 1960 game against the Philadelphia Eagles, when fearsome Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik (whose brutal takedowns earned him the nickname "Concrete Charlie") tackled Frank so hard he was left flat on his back, out cold with a "deep brain concussion" that was rumored to have sidelined him for the rest of the season and beyond. (Frank claims he used the opportunity to take a year off to ease his then-packed schedule of both playing pro football and broadcasting.)

In the book Tales From the New York Giants Sideline, Frank recalled warning his future bride about how the incident would inevitably come up with football fans, given that Concrete Charlie's sacking had become legendary as one of the most notorious tackles in NFL lore. 

"I remember telling her, 'One thing you're going to hear almost every day of your life, especially when we get around football people, is Bednarik,'" said [Frank], who apparently wasn't much of a football fan. "She said, 'What's that, a pasta?' She had no clue who he was."

Kathie Lee did not see Frank's marriage proposal coming

In a 2017 edition of Today, Kathie Lee Gifford and co-host Hoda Kotb were discussing "dream proposals," which led Kathie Lee to tell the sweet story of how her late husband popped the question. The proposal took place in Atlantic City, N.J., where she was scheduled to perform. "And Frank had not realized, when we first started dating, how much performing I did," she explained, admitting she was a bit concerned that her busy schedule might prove to be a dealbreaker in their budding relationship. "Very seriously he goes, 'Can I talk to you?' I thought, 'Oh my gosh, he's going to break up with me," she told Kotb.

Her fears were immediately set to rest when he pulled out an engagement ring. "He takes out this magnificent ring," she revealed. "I'm not going to say what he said, but it was just beautiful." After getting a glimpse of the emerald-cut five-carat diamond, she had one question for her new fiancé. "Can I show my parents?!'" she asked him.

A big age gap was NBD for Kathie Lee and Frank Gifford

In her book Just When I Thought I'd Dropped My Last Egg: Life and Other Calamities, Kathie Lee Gifford reflected on her 1986 wedding, which took place on "a glorious Indian summer day in Bridgehampton, New York." At the time, The Orlando Sun-Sentinel reported that Kathie Lee Johnson, as was then known, and Frank Gifford were wed "in a small private ceremony," with the bride declaring her intention to use her married name on the morning show she was then co-hosting with Regis Philbin

Two months before her wedding to Frank, Kathie Lee spoke to Entertainment Tonight about their romance and upcoming nuptials. Their relationship, she explained, had grown and deepened over time. "We didn't fall in love," she said. "We really grew in love." 

The couple also shared the same birthday, August 16, born 23 years apart. "Somebody asked me if the age difference between us bothered me and I said, 'Absolutely! I just hope I can keep up with him,'" she told Entertainment Tonight.

Frank Gifford was reluctant to start a new family

The road to the altar for Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford was not necessarily a smooth one. One complication was the fact that he was over two decades older than her, and had been married twice before — and, in fact, was still married to his second wife, Astrid Lindley, when they first met. 

When Kathie Lee told her husband she wanted to start a family, she was met with some resistance, according to a 1992 People cover story. Why? Frank was already the father of three, from his first marriage to Maxine Ewart. In addition, he also had five grandchildren. 

However, he eventually relented and the couple welcomed son Cody Newton Gifford in March 1990. As People noted in its profile, Frank had "happily thrown himself into late-life fatherhood" when he welcomed his fourth child at age 59. In fact, the magazine pointed out, it was his decision to try for a second child with his third wife, feeling that his young son should have a sibling. "It's the same way his heart softened the first time because he loved me," gushed Kathie Lee. Their daughter Cassidy came along in 1993. 

Their first attempt at having a second child ended in a miscarriage

When Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford decided to have a second child, the couple was overjoyed when Kathie Lee eventually became pregnant. However, heartbreak was laying in wait. While vacationing in Colorado, Kathie Lee was seven weeks pregnant when she suddenly felt sick and "began cramping." It happened quickly, and she lost the baby. Afterward, she told People, her husband "held me tighter than he's ever held me before."

But by December 1992, she had some exciting news to share with viewers of Live with Regis and Kathie Lee. Accompanied by Frank, who was serving as co-host while subbing for regular TV partner Regis Philbin, she revealed the couple was expecting a second baby. Then 39, Kathie Lee said she'd continue to work on Live, but was planning on taking it easy on other fronts, such as her promise to stop lifting up their son Cody. She also revealed she'd be abstaining from sex. "It's going to be a long winter," she jokingly told her husband (via the Orlando Sentinel).

Kathie Lee's sweatshop scandal sent Frank to the rescue

In 1996, Kathie Lee Gifford's lucrative business venture to sell her own line of branded clothing at Wal-Mart stores blew up in her face. When labor activist Charles Kernaghan visited a Honduran factory, he was shocked to discover the work was being done by children, where "young girls repeatedly were groped by the bosses," reported The Los Angeles Times. At a clandestine meeting with some of the young female workers, they provided evidence of how little they were paid, along with labels from the clothing they produced. These labels featured the logo of Kathie Lee's clothing line.

Suddenly, Kathie Lee's name was synonymous with sweatshops in developing nations. She went on the air to tearfully claim no knowledge of what was going on in those factories. Then further news emerged: workers who produced items for Kathie Lee's line in a factory in New York's Garment District were owed back wages that the factory's owner refused to pay. As The New York Times reported, she reacted by telling her TV viewers she "was physically sick to [her] stomach" about the whole situation. 

Frank Gifford came to the rescue. To help out with damage control, he visited the factory, carrying $7,500 in cash so he could hand out hundred-dollar bills to the workers who'd been stiffed.

Frank Gifford was caught cheating

For viewers of Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, Kathie Lee Gifford's marriage to Frank Gifford appeared to be storybook perfection. Yet 1997 proved to be a dark time for the couple when a report in a supermarket tabloid stirred up the kind of scandal nobody had seen coming.

As People reported, the Globe published a story alleging that Frank had an affair with flight attendant Suzen Johnson. The Giffords' first response was to denounce the claim as a "total fabrication" — a defense that crumbled when The Globe subsequently published photos taken from a video of one of Frank's hotel-room encounters with Suzen. The Giffords' PR strategy immediately shifted. "This experience has been as painful for us as it would be for any other couple," they said in a statement, adding, "However, we will get through this together."

Reports at the time indicated Frank may have been set up, with Suzen allegedly paid $75,000 by the tabloid to lure Frank to her hotel room. Globe editor Tony Frost dismissed the criticism, pointing out to People that the former NFL great "was not dragged kicking and screaming to that room." Meanwhile, the couple's attorney told People they were "exploring [their] legal options."  

Kathie Lee considered divorcing Frank Gifford

In a 2017 edition of Today, Kathie Lee Gifford opened up about the scandal that just about destroyed her marriage 20 years earlier. While she and Frank Gifford were able to move past his infidelity and the very public humiliation that had been heaped upon her, she admitted to co-host Hoda Kotb that it wasn't easy. Being cheated on by one's spouse, she admitted, is "no fun. It's horrible. It's a tremendous test of your relationship."

Asked by Kotb if she'd been tempted to end the marriage when Frank's cheating scandal made headlines, Kathie Lee admitted that she had. "Of course," she said, adding, "You're broken. You're broken by it."

As Kathie Lee pointed out, "It takes a lifetime to build that kind of friendship and history together and trust, and it takes one stupid decision to destroy it." The way she viewed it, exiting a marriage over an infidelity is an easy way out; remaining married and trying to put the relationship back together is the tough grunt work of a lasting partnership. "A lot of people get divorced for a hangnail these days," she quipped.

How Kathie Lee and Frank Gifford put their shattered marriage back together

Back in 2000, Kathie Lee Gifford got candid during a visit to CNN's Larry King LiveAs she revealed, while attending marriage counseling, the therapist told her something that showed her a path forward. "If you can't forgive your husband, forgive your children's father," the therapist told her. "And that hit me in my heart so deeply, because I don't know a better man, a better father than my husband is," she told King, adding, "I said, 'Yes, yes, and there is so much still there to love.'"

The way Kathie Lee approached her decision to stay with her unfaithful husband, she explained, was to look at the pros and cons with a sort of "justice scale," comparing "the hurt with the happiness." Until that point, she admitted, Frank had never given her a reason to mistrust him. "So this was an aberration in my husband's life," she said. 

"Do I throw away a fine, truly loving, good man who's accomplished enormous amounts of good things in his life? Should he be defined by one stupid mistake?" she asked. If someone can't forgive a person who is "truly, truly broken-hearted by the pain that they've caused," she added, "then what's that say about you, if you can't forgive?"

Frank Gifford's passing actually made Kathie Lee feel 'grateful'

In August 2015, the Today show issued a sad statement, reported The New York Post: Frank Gifford had passed away of natural causes at age 84. He and Kathie Lee had been married for 29 years.

Just over a week later, Kathie Lee Gifford returned to Today and offered a touching on-air tribute to her late husband. "We will miss him so much," Kathie Lee told viewers, adding, "We all keep expecting him to come around the corner." 

She recounted Frank's final moments, as the family was preparing to go to church on Sunday morning. "He passed away instantly that morning," she said. "Having his coffee, watching his TV and getting ready to go, ready for church." She also shared her gratitude that his death came quickly, and not from a slow, lingering illness. "I'm glad the Lord took him that way because the only thing Frank has ever been afraid of his entire life was being a burden to those he loved. He never wanted to be hooked up to machines; he never wanted to lose his dignity."

He Saw Jesus is Kathie Lee Gifford's tribute song to Frank

Kathie Lee Gifford had been a widow for more than two years when she debuted another on-air tribute to her late husband Frank Gifford: the live performance debut of a song she had co-written in his honor, titled "He Saw Jesus." Speaking with Today co-host Hoda Kotb, Kathie Lee admitted she was "a wreck" in anticipation of singing the new song on the show for the first time. 

"We knew it was a special song because it is just so gut-level honest," Kathie Lee said during the show, adding, "And we knew it was a song that would touch people, and that was the whole point of it."

Not only did the song pay tribute to Frank, it also raised money for a good cause. According to Today, all proceeds from the song would be donated to Samaritan's Purse, described as "a nondenominational evangelical Christian organization providing spiritual and physical aid to hurting people around the world."

Kathie Lee Gifford felt "crippling" loneliness after Frank's death

In December 2018, Kathie Lee Gifford told Today viewers that she would be leaving the show in April of the following year. In addition to moving out of her longtime television role, she later made a physical move to Nashville, Tenn., her new home. 

Gifford returned to Today in January 2020 to share details about her life since exiting Today, and why she decided to move out of the Connecticut home that she and Frank Gifford had shared for decades. After the couple's children, Cody and Cassidy, moved out, she admitted that a home that was once "teeming" with life "came to feel like a mortuary." The loneliness, she admitted "was crippling." 

In an interview with The Tennessean, Kathie Lee explained how moving to Nashville had opened up her life, allowing her to move on in a way she couldn't while living in her Connecticut home. "Here's the bad news — I'm a widow, an orphan, and an empty nester," she told the newspaper, adding, "The good news is, I have the freedom of a widow, an orphan, and an empty nester... I'm having the life I could've only ever dreamed of."