You could call it a match made in heaven, if either of them believed in such a place. At her editor’s wedding reception, self-described “Olympian smoker” Frances A. Lebowitz saw a man from across the room.
“He doesn’t remember this,” Lebowitz says. “I looked, and I see this man smoking a pipe and I said, ‘Who’s this man smoking a pipe?’ And it was Frank. It was you.”
Frank Rich ’71, a former Crimson editorial board chair, describes his pipe smoking as a “pretentious habit” he picked up as a Harvard undergraduate. At the time, Rich was a New York Times theater critic who struck fear in hearts throughout midtown Manhattan as the “Butcher of Broadway.”
Frequenting Studio 54 and punching the card at Andy Warhol’s The Factory, Lebowitz was the toast of New York following the 1978 publication of her sardonic essay collection “Metropolitan Life.” The two rising stars clicked immediately over politics and culture, and a friendship was born.
“We have a lot of friends in common and a lot of enemies in common,” Rich said.
Thirty years later, they find themselves back at Rich’s alma mater, preparing to begin their two-week swing across the country presenting their diagnosis of modern America. Right now, they are sitting in a room at The Charles Hotel. After our interview, they’ll go to Sanders Theater to exchange insight and punchlines before hundreds of energized liberals.
In their conversations, Rich serves as the sympathetic straight man to Lebowitz, who is a semi-automatic rifle of scathing quips. A chain-smoking lesbian who possesses neither computer nor cell phone nor college degree, Lebowitz’s discourses are so spellbinding that Martin Scorsese recently directed a full-length HBO documentary of her rants.
“Smoking has changed places with homosexuality,” Lebowitz opines. “When I was young, if you had told me the behavior in which I engaged that would be prohibited would be cigarette smoking, I would have had a completely different adolescence. And all the things they say about cigarettes now, they used to say about homosexuality. You shouldn’t do it around children—” Rich jumps in: “You shouldn’t do it on the street—” Lebowitz: “It was the second-hand nature of homosexuality that concerned people.” Rich nods in agreement: “That it would spread.”
Such is the two’s chemistry that they build on each other’s sentences in a high-octane tête-à-tête.
“When people say they hate the elite, I wish they meant rich people,” Lebowitz told us. “But they don’t. They hate smart people. The country adores rich people. I would like to see class warfare, the only kind of warfare the Republicans hate.”
Of the two, the more mainstream Rich describes himself as “slightly more idealistic.” Lebowitz scoffs with some mixture of passion and sarcasm: “I think of myself as burning for idealism and fervor.” She imagines, for example, a country in which no money could be spent on politics until six weeks before the election.“
I would like to be the president, as you may have noticed,” Lebowitz said. “Or the mayor.
”Exactly where her politics lie, though, is harder to pin down.
She’s a libertarian who doesn’t believe in seatbelt or motorcycle helmet laws. “If I want to hurtle through a windshield I’ll hurtle through a windshield,” Lebowitz said.
She’s a leftist who believes that “all the Left has done, in the past 25 years, has made it impossible to smoke a cigarette.”
To this point, Rich starts naming liberal accomplishments in the recent past: women’s rights, fair pay laws, “gay rights, which I know you don’t give a shit about, but still.”
“I’m not against gay rights, obviously—I just don’t think they’re the central issue,” Lebowitz says. “I mean, look at the amount of energy we put into gay marriage. If there were as many gay people in life as there are in television, the debate would be straight marriage.”
One can tell that the two have a banter honed over decades of dinner tables. “Our relationship is—” Rich begins. “Eating,” Lebowitz concludes. “I eat in the same restaurant every single night. [Rich and his family] like to try new restaurants, which I don’t mind, I just don’t want to know what they are.” Rich laughs, “I drink; Fran does not drink. Fran smokes; I don’t smoke.” It’s a perfect fit.
The two intellectuals forged distinctly different paths to the Manhattan corridors of ink in which they reside. Rich graduated magna cum laude from the College, while Lebowitz got her GED after being expelled from high school.
“I spent most of my life reading. If you spend most of your life reading, you don’t have to go to school. School interfered with my reading. I used to get thrown out of class for reading.”
Her parents, however, were never on board with this path of self-education. She recalls talking on the phone with her mother after rising to authorial fame. When she mentioned she was about to go to the airport, her mother asked her where she was going. She replied, “Harvard.” Her mother was incredibly proud—until Lebowitz told her she was going to give a talk there, not to matriculate. “Oh,” her mother replied. “You know, Francie, maybe you could get in now.”
And Rich’s college experience was atypical: “When I went to Harvard, it was shut down half the time because it was the late ’60s. And I went to a public school system that, when I was in it, was declared the worst in the country. There was so much racial tension in American history that we skipped the Civil War; we went from the Louisiana Purchase to the Spanish-American War.”
Cambridge seems like a good starting point for their liberal barnstorming. Their tour will take them to cities such as Las Vegas, Austin, Los Angeles, and—of course—New York. Surely after two weeks crisscrossing the country, the two consummate Manhattanites will be relieved to relax in their natural habitat, though Lebowitz will still have to go outside to have a smoke.