It Starts With a Drag: The Friendship of Frances A. Lebowitz and Frank Rich '71
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.”