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By James Gleick

Times are hard, but every year a few people walk straight out of Tercentenary Theatre and into the bosom of Fortune.

Frank Rich, for example, graduated from Harvard four years ago, and his friends say he is a success. They know, because when they call his New York townhouse a tape recorder tells them, "No one is home right now." Frank Rich's friends envy him that--even his Harvard Law School, Rhodes scholar friend--and they envy everything else about him, too.

The way his friends tell it, Frank is making $25,000 a year as the New York Post's first-string film critic. Each morning he eats a light breakfast of warmed-over quiche and Nova Scotia salmon on his wrought-iron balcony overlooking Central Park, and then takes a cab six blocks to a screening session, where he rubs elbows with New York's brightest and best. He hurries home late in the afternoon and makes love to his beautiful, glamorous girlfriend. She asks him to marry her, and he refuses. Eventually he gets down to work--he climbs out of bed, showers, puts on a terrycloth robe, sits down at the typewriter and hammers out a few hundred words. Just as he finishes, a messenger arrives from the Post to pick up his copy.

But wait a minute now, says Frank Rich. That's just not the way it is. "First of all, I'm engaged to be married in April," he says. The townhouse is almost a mile away from Central Park, way over on the East Side, and Rich has only a small, fourth-floor apartment, so he is always walking up and down stairs. He does work at home, but he does not own a bathrobe and he always types fully dressed.

And a film critic works very hard, says Rich, who often stays up all night writing a second or third draft of his column. "And going to screenings is not like going to the movies. First of all, you see a lot of bad movies--the great movies are fun, a lot of it is a lark, but a lot of it's shit. Sometimes it's like combat duty." Rich feels most successful, most satisfied with the way his life is going, when he is writing well. When he is writing badly, all the townhouses, finances, telephone-answering machines and New York Post messengers in the world can't keep him from feeling like a failure.

Frank Rich's material success may be no substitute for the intangibles, like pride in his work, but, the way his friends see it, Rich has come a long way since the days when he was trudging around with them in the Cambridge slush, agonizing over term papers and eating Barbecue Beef in the Lowell House dining room. What really gets them, though--what really sets their teeth gnashing--is that those days were so recent. That's just the way it happens, for some people. Before he could hang up his mortarboard, Rich was writing an article about Daniel Ellsberg for Esquire magazine and getting ready to leave for Europe on a traveling fellowship. His classmate Michael Sacks, a Loebie whose performance in The Promise Rich remembers "liking," quickly starred in George Roy Hill's film of Slaughterhouse Five. Another classmate, Bonnie Raitt, didn't even wait to graduate--she kissed Harvard goodbye in 1970, her junior year.

Success conferred itself upon these people without any of the usual confusion or red tape. Some unexplained combination of luck and talent, ambition and self-promotion and hard work, opened doors for them that their classmates will be throwing themselves against until well-nigh on middle age.

You can look around now and see the same thing already happening in the Class of '76. Two weeks from next Wednesday, Yo Yo Ma will be sitting in Memorial Hall, writing an exam for Social Sciences 4, "Film and Anthropology," in the company of a few dozen of his classmates. On the other hand, last Sunday he was in Carnegie Hall, playing in a Brahms sextet before an audience of two thousand. Because Yo Yo already plays the cello better than almost anyone in the world, success is not going to bother him with struggling up through the ranks, trying out for free-lance jobs, or any of that. Martha Babcock '72 and Ronan Lefkowitz '75 are successes in their own right, having leapt from Harvard into the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but Yo Yo is beyond that--for next fall, he is contemplating a European tour.

In some ways, Yo Yo's success is tangential to the real core of things here--it's hard to imagine, for example, that anything he writes in his Film and Anthropology blue book will much matter to him. That seems to be true of many people who find instant success outside Harvard's portals. Shep Messing may be an extreme example. By senior year, Shep says, he was arriving at Harvard every Monday and taking off again Thursday for a soccer game in Paris or Mexico. The summer after he graduated, he played in the Olympics, and, not long after that, he posed nude for a Viva magazine magazine centerfold. He is tending goal for the New England Minutemen these days, and he still feels successful, although he says he is not as wild as he used to be.

Andrew Tobias, too, sees his present success in just being able to relax a bit. Not long ago he was "a very ambitious, aggressive, high-strung Harvard graduate," a former president of Harvard Student Agencies and a co-founder of a company that was expanding like a supernova. Before Tobias could blink, he had $400,000 worth of stock options. And when the bubble inevitably burst, reducing his paper holdings to nothing, he was standing back, watching the whole thing from a healthy distance, slightly cynical and slightly wise. Naturally, he wrote a book about it.

Last Friday, Tobias was out in California working on an article about two film companies for New York magazine, where he is a contributing editor. Now that he is more relaxed, he has found the success that eluded him during the student marketing days. "I don't have any money, although I have anything I want: I have my nice little Toyota, take vacations, I could take anybody to dinner, I could fly to Europe tomorrow if I wanted...."

"I guess I shouldn't crow about it, but I have no complaints."

Other stories could be told here. There is Pat Caddell, now an independent pollster, who senior year was whispering strategy in George McGovern's ear. Jim Halperin, who dropped out sophomore year to devote more time to his stamp-dealing business--three years later, Halperin owns the most valuable coin in the world and employs his father as a vice-president. The three Lampoon editors who turned their Harvard activity into a national magazine and made their first millions at age 23. These people may have found a private harmony to match their public success, and they may not have--but there it is.

Eat your heart out.


"I always sort of wait for things to happen to me, and I've lucked out."

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