BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Frank Rich, author of "Ghost Light." Who was Joel A. Fisher?
Mr. FRANK RICH, AUTHOR, "GHOST LIGHT: A MEMOIR": Joel H. Fisher.
LAMB: Excuse me.
Mr. RICH: Joel Hilton Fisher. Joel H. Fisher was a Washington
lawyer--I guess what we would now call a K Street lawyer--who was my
stepfather. Died a few years ago and married my mother in 1959--late
1958 when I was nine years old.
LAMB: He's all through your book.
Mr. RICH: He is, indeed. In writing this book about my childhood,
he's sort of the character to a certain extent who--who took it over,
much to my amazement. He's this very powerful figure. He was a--a--a
powerful guy in real life. He was a angry guy, a somewhat violent guy
and yet someone who had a profound effect on me, not all it negative,
as a child. He was--he was someone who loved the theater, which I
loved as a child, and helped fuel my passion even as his was, in his
parental role, somewhat of an abusive character.
LAMB: How did he abuse you?
Mr. RICH: He thrashed me. He had a volatile temper. He was what we
would now call a control freak. That language didn't exist back then.
But he was an interesting man at the same time. He had worked with
Lyndon Johnson. He was very good friends with William O. Douglas and
Wayne Morris and Mike Mansfield, people of that day in Washington. He
was a fixer largely for the aviation business. He represented, in the
pre-deregulation days, airlines that tried to get roots, and there was
a lot of, I think, behind-the-scenes lobbying that went on that I only
understood a little bit as a child. But I--as an adult, I sort of had
a sense of what he did. And he was a witty guy, an interesting guy,
but had real demons that affected our household, all the children in
it as well as my mother, his second wife.
LAMB: How long did you live with him?
Mr. RICH: I lived with him from when they got married--so when I was
10--when I was 9 until I graduated high school till--so until I was
about 18 or 19.
LAMB: What'd he look like?
Mr. RICH: Big guy. I always think of him being LBJ-esque. He was
big in that sense, not that I knew Johnson, but he was six feet tall,
unlike most of my blood relatives who tend to be short. He ha--built
like a football player. I think he played football at Syracuse where
he went to college and to law school, big voice, smoked a pipe, a r--a
commanding figure in--in any room.
LAMB: On page 116, you say, `What I do remember is this: The sun
streamed down on the road in front of the Capon Springs' main house
and Joel shouted inches from my face, "I will not take any more crap
from you, young man!" His plaid shirt a blur blocking my vision, Joel
slapped me to the ground with his huge hand. My brain felt as if it
was knocking against my head. Then he grabbed me by the ankles and
started dragging me up the road by my back, the dirt and gravel
scraping against my skin.' How do you remember that vividly?
Mr. RICH: Something like that happens to you, you remember it. And
I also went over it, actually, with a--an eyewitness, with my
stepsister who was there, Joel's daughter by a previous marriage. So
you remember something like that. It comes back to you. And when you
write about it, as in any other kind of writing, it forces you to
recall and to articulate things.
And yet the interesting thing to me about writing this book was
that--while that was a--a nightmarish moment obviously in my childhood
as it would be in any childhood, it's not entirely representative of
him because he was also this magical guy who introduced me to the
world--a lot of things in the word--the e theater, which I loved, New
York City, which I wanted to know more about, to Europe, because he
could get f--endless free airline passes--airline passes from the
airlines he worked for, so we could just, you know, go to London or
Paris and not have to pay for it. And he was an articulate guy. He
loved politics. A lot of my early interest in politics an--and in the
news media came from him.
LAMB: When was the first time he got you a Variety?
Mr. RICH: Right after he married my mother. I had never heard of
Variety. And one day he came home from his office and sort of tossed
me this rolled up newspaper in brown wrapping paper. And I ripped it
open and it was this newspaper all about the thing that interested me
most at that time, show business, including the theater. And I didn't
even know there was a business part of show business involving money
and receipts and box offices and producers. And it--and I started
devouring it. And he then brought it home for me every week from the
LAMB: Did you keep all those Varieties?
Mr. RICH: I'm afraid to say I did, at least for a long time. In
fact, a college friend of mine, Debbie Falla, Jim Falla's wife, was
telling me as this book was published that she remembered visiting my
house in Washington when we were all in college together and seeing
all the Varieties still stacked up in my bedroom in Cleveland Park.
Mr. RICH: When did you start collecting playbills and how many do
you think you have or if you still have them?
Mr. RICH: I--I--these I still have, unlike the Varieties or a lot of
them, because it turns out my family never threw them out, so I
reclaimed them a few years ago. I started collecting them the moment
I started going to theater, which began when I was five or six and saw
"Damn Yankees" in a road company in Washington at the National
Theatre. But my collection grew somewhat illicitly or illegally
because a lot of the playbills I have are of shows I never saw because
I was so obsessed with it, you know, the way a kid might be, say,
obsessed with stamp collecting or something, that when I would come to
New York when I got a little older with my parents, I would use my
free time to dig into trash cans and find playbills of the shows I
hadn't seen, ideally, those not with mustard on them or chewing gum
and--and keep them.
LAMB: Do you still have them?
Mr. RICH: I do.
LAMB: What do you do with them?
Mr. RICH: They're in binders that I assiduously sent away for as a
12-year-old for, like, $3 that Playbill then sold. And I--and I have
them on a shelf in my home in New York.
LAMB: Any idea how many you have?
Mr. RICH: You know, I don't. But it's--I--I wouldn't make it--it's
not a ridiculous number, but it's probably a couple of hundred, 200 or
LAMB: Who introduced you to reading The New York Times?
Mr. RICH: My stepfather. Joel Fisher again. I had always loved
newspapers and I had a grandfather, my mother's father, who got them
all when there was--you know, there was The Times Herald in Washington
as well as The Post, the Star and the News.
And when Joel entered my life, after he married my mother, he got the
New York papers. Well, he got the Times and then ultimately--at least
part of the week, maybe just on the weekends--the Herald Tribune. And
he was obsessed with reading newspapers. And that was another passion
of his that ultimately I shared.
And he was friends with a few odd journalists. He was friends with
Drew Pearson, whom I remember vaguely meeting as a child and--Was
it?--Jack Anderson, who was Drew Pearson's partner. And I wonder if
Joel might have fed them items, I don't know, you know, gossip about
political figures. He was also friends with a rather benign tabloid
New York Post gossip columnist named Leonard Lyons in New York. And I
remember all of Lyons' columns would be sent to us as tear sheets from
The New York Post and he'd hand them over to me.
LAMB: A memoir. How old are you?
Mr. RICH: How old am I now? Fifty-one.
LAMB: Why a memoir at your age? And how many years does this cover?
Mr. RICH: It covers about 12 years. And I suspect it will be the
only memoir I'll ever write. I'm not going to ever write a--I was a
journalist and this is--I interviewed this person and this is why I
wrote this kind of book. I wanted to tell this story about being a
child, about--about my childhood and about leaving home.
LAMB: You call it "Ghost Light" and we'll get a close-up here
of--first of all, what theater is this and what is the ghost light?
Mr. RICH: The theater is the Walter Kerr Theater in New York. This
picture was taken only a few months ago when it wa--the theater was
briefly between shows. But it's an appropriate choice because
it's--the theater happens to be named after Walter Kerr, who was a
drama critic of the Herald Tribune and then the Times, whom I
succeeded as drama critic at the Times in 1980.
Ghost light is an obscure term for something a lot of people have
seen. It's that light, as--as you can see on the screen, that is put
in--on an--on an empty stage at night when the theater is cleared of
its set, the audience has gone home, and it's a night light. And the
theory of it is that if--if a house--if a theatrical house is ever
allowed to go completely dark, ghosts will inhabit the stage. So you
keep that night light on.
And I chose the title--it appears a little bit in the action of the
book, but also that's what the theater was to me as a child, sort of a
night light, a beacon that was drawing me to another life.
LAMB: What was Helene like?
Mr. RICH: She was my mother, Helene Aaronson Fisher. She was a--a
wonderful person, I feel, shy woman who got married for the first time
very young, right after the war, to my father, was not happily
married, then was for a while a single mom at a time in the late '50s
when it was somewhat scandalous to be a single mom. When she got
divorced, I did not know a single other child who had divorced
parents. She worked as a schoolteacher in public schools in
Montgomery County and ultimately in the District, and she loved
culture. She loved the arts. She instilled that in me and my--my
sister Polly. And she was a gentle person. And then she got married
a second time to someone much different from my father and--and had
what I guess I'd have to say was a fairly problematic second marriage
but one that--that survived.
LAMB: When did she die?
Mr. RICH: She died in 1991.
LAMB: Now at one point she brought home to you from Brentano's a copy
of "Profiles in Courage."
Mr. RICH: She did. She was a--she was a real Democrat of--of
the--you know, her--she grew up in Brooklyn until the Depression when
her family moved to Washington after the crash. She was a--your
classic sort of middle-class Jewish immigrant family Democrat.
I remember in 1956 going with her in Somerset, where we lived and
Chevy Chase, passing out all the way with Adlai buttons. In fact, I
still have one. I found it in her things after she died, that flashed
back and forth with the phrase and then Adlai Stevenson's photograph.
And she--so she had--she had this interest in politics and she loved
Kennedy, when--when he came on the scene.
She was suspicious--as a Stevenson Democrat, she was
suspicion--suspicious of him at first, but then she warmed to him.
And it was a very exciting time in Washington because if you were a
child in Washington and grown up during the Eisenhower years, it was a
pretty sleepy Southern place. And when Kennedy came in, you could
feel the city changing.
And I lived--we had moved into Cleveland Park in 9--just a year before
Kennedy was elected. And Cleveland Park was--it's hard to believe
it's the same place it is now. Many of the houses were empty. People
were fleeing the city. It was the--you know, the height of white
flight. We moved in. There were so few students at John Eaton
Elementary School they had to combine fifth and sixth grades into one
And then suddenly Kennedy happened and all the Kennedy people started
moving in around us, and they were younger. And it was, you know, a
very exciting time, even though it was a time when, of course, you
couldn't vote for president in Washington, which was a strange thing
to learn as a child.
LAMB: Did you read "Profiles in Courage"?
Mr. RICH: No. I looked at it admiringly. I ultimately read it,
like, in high school. But I--it's interesting. I was a--I guess I
was sort of a--more of a political junkie than--than--than someone who
wanted to read what we now know to be this ghostwritten book by an
incoming president, because what I found when I was doing this book
and looking through old things was the book that I had really pored
over that year was a thick sort of magazine-like book called
"Convention," published by NBC News with Chet Huntley and David
Brinkley's pictures on the front of it in the color.
And it was really--it'd be like The Hotline is today. It was a
page-by-page, blow-by-blow through the primaries, through the
conventions with scorecards like you'd use for baseball to record all
the votes in the days when conventions really were about, you know,
who was going to win. And I saw that I had kept--you know, ev--every
delegate committed to George Smathers I had marked in this--in this
book, which I still have.
LAMB: Who was Willie May?
Mr. RICH: Willie May was our maid. And one thing I talk about in
the book is that almost every white, middle-class family--and, I mean,
middle class because my family wasn't wealthy--had a black maid. And
it was just something that was completely accepted. No one really
talked about some of the social inequities in--involved, needless to
say. It was also at a time when Washington purportedly was no longer
segregated and it officially had been desegregated and the school
system had been desegregated but, in fact, was quite segregated. And
I went to a high school that--while desegregated was was the last high
school which had m--really a maj--almost a completely white
population, Woodrow Wilson, and everybody had servants. And it was
just like the old South in a way.
LAMB: Why did you choose to refer to black people throughout your
entire book as Negroes?
Mr. RICH: Almost throughout the entire book. I wanted to use the
language of the time. I felt it would be jarring to use black--I use
it--when it gets a little more contemporary at the end, I use
contemporary usage. But in those days, we called black people,
African-Americans, Negroes. And I thought that was in keeping of the
lingo of the time. It's one of a number of choices I made like that
in this book to sort of keep it in period.
LAMB: One of the things that I found to be new--I never heard it
before--is that Lyndon Johnson, you say, lived in a neighborhood that
did not allow Negroes?
Mr. RICH: And Jews. Didn't allow Jews.
Mr. RICH: Spring Valley.
LAMB: Spring Valley, DC?
Mr. RICH: Yeah. Th--in those days--not now, obviously--in those
days, there were lots of restricted neighborhoods and usually Jews
were--and I happen to be Jewish were also not allowed. So if you were
Jewish, you knew about these neighborhoods.
LAMB: Who said they wouldn't allow you?
Mr. RICH: That's good question. I don't even know. But it
was--there were restrictive covenants, and I think they were called
covenants in real estate transactions. And it was just--it was just
known that you were not welcomed there. And that's why when I saw--I
talk about it in the book, when I saw "Raisin in the Sun" about 1960,
which was a play by Lorraine Hansberry about a black family moving
into an all-white neighborhood in Chicago and being told they're not
welcome, it was startling to me, because this is something I had
always heard about. And there were--there were no blacks in Cleveland
Park for that matter. An--and it was just accepted, even though
officially this was when the cil--this was when the civil rights
movement was beginning an--and taking--taking flight, although that
was more toward the tail end of the story.
LAMB: Where's Hanukka Heights?
Mr. RICH: Hanukka Heights was the affectionate name that my parents
and other--other Washington Jews of their generation gave to an area
that is in northwest Washington, off of Connecticut Avenue towards
Rock Creek Park, as you get to sort of Albemarle Street, Brandywine.
In fact, one set of my grandparents lived in the Albemarle house; the
other one lived in the Brandywine House. That was sort of Ha--Hanukka
Heights Center. But behind those apartment buildings, of course, were
beautiful pal--often palatial homes, almost--in my mind, almost
Beverly Hills-like in their grandeur. I--I romanticize it a bit. It
wasn't completely Jewish, but it was heavily Jewish, and it was
heavily upper middle class and an area that fed into Woodrow Wilson
High and--and where a lot of my friends came from.
LAMB: How many years total did you spend in this town?
Mr. RICH: I--well, I left when I was 18. So in the area, that many
years, in the city itself, the last nine of them, eight of them.
LAMB: And how long have you lived in New York City?
Mr. RICH: I've lived in New York since 1973. So 27--is that--God,
LAMB: What have--what have you done in New York City for those 27
Mr. RICH: Good question. No, I've--I've--I've worked in journalism.
I've worked for a bunch of places in journalism in a--in a variety of
jobs. I fi--I first worked at a now defunct magazine called New Times
as an editor dealing with political pieces, a lowly editor, and
writing movie reviews. I worked for the old Dolly Shift New York Post
as a movie critic. Then I worked for Time magazine as a movie and TV
critic and then The New York Times as a drama critic and then a
LAMB: How long did you write criticism of Broadway musicals?
Mr. RICH: Well, Broadway shows in general...
LAMB: Shows, yeah.
Mr. RICH: ...thir--13 years.
LAMB: Why did you quit?
Mr. RICH: I felt itchy to write other things. There were other
subjects I wanted to write about that I'd been writing about on the
side at the Times, elsewhere. I felt--and I felt I'd had all the say
about--I'd had t--I'd said all I had to say about the current theater
scene. I also felt the theater was changing in a way that made it
less interesting for me. And it seems very distant now. It's been
seven years since I reviewed a play but...
LAMB: Do you still go?
Mr. RICH: Oh, yeah. I--not as--not to everything. I--sometimes I
like to wait for the reviews and be a little bit more selective about
what I choose to see.
LAMB: I didn't write them all down but I--I started writing down the
plays and the--and the musicals that you saw when you were growing up.
Some of--"Fiddler on the Roof," "Sunrise at Campobello," "Raisin in
the Sun," "Damn Yankees," "Carnival," "Gypsy," "Theorello,"
"Do-Re-Me," "Camelot," "Bells Are Ringing," "Bye Bye Birdie," "The
Music Man." These were--"Mr. President"--these were shows that had an
impact on you and others. Of all those early shows, any of them have
a political impact on you and how you started thinking politically?
Mr. RICH: Yeah. Actually, a--a--a few of them did. Certainly
"Raisin in the Sun," for the reasons we just mentioned; "Sunrise at
Campobello," which really wasn't a political play, it was just a
straight biographical play really about FDR and polio, but it sort of
opened my eyes a bit to the whole idea of a political tradition.
And there's some plays that I saw, too, that I don't mention in the
book that had a huge impact on me, like "Inherit the Wind" and--about
the Scopes trial and also a subsequent play by Lawrence and Lee who
wrote "Inherit the Wind," called "The Gang's All Here." Do you know
this play? Very few people do. It was a flop, but it was done by
Arena Stage. It's a play about the Harding administration and it's
about scandal in Washington. It's really about the Teapot Dome
scandals and it was riveting to me. It's never revived. I don't
know. It seemed it would be very timely right now. But it's--no one
has done it. So I--I saw politics in the shows in--in some of them.
Then there were some shows that were supposed to be political like
"Mr. President" that were just silly. But...
LAMB: Are people like Emily and Sarah and Clayton and Polly--well,
Polly's your sister...
Mr. RICH: Right.
LAMB: ...and a lot of those are your first loves in life--are they
still around? An--and--and are they the names that they really had
Mr. RICH: In the end of the book I say who is and--and isn't, and of
those you mentioned, only one is not with her real name. But...
LAMB: Which one?
Mr. RICH: Emily is a--is a pseudonym.
LAMB: Emily Koffman is not...
Mr. RICH: Is a--is a pseudonym and I--in the in--in the author's
note at the end, I'm--I say who is and who isn't. Not--most people
appear under their real names. Clayton Coots is no longer alive. My
sister, obviously, is alive. Sara Fishko, who is a--a great friend of
mine at camp, is actually a--a wonderful radio producer for WNYC in
New York doing pieces about the arts and--for NPR and "All Things
Considered" and what have you. But we met as--as--as early
LAMB: I assume, and maybe I assume wrong in the beginning, where
you--and I wanted to ask you about this--here's--here's your
Mr. RICH: Right.
LAMB: ...in the beginning. And you start off with--at the top, `The
book was written with deep love and gratitude for the family I found:
Alex, Nathaniel and Simon.' And who are they?
Mr. RICH: Alex is my wife--Alex Mitchell--who's a reporter at The
New York Times, and Nathaniel and Simon are my sons.
LAMB: How old are they?
Mr. RICH: Nathaniel is 20 and a junior in college and Simon is 16
and a junior in high school.
LAMB: And then you say, `And in loving memory of the ones I lost,
Mr. RICH: Helene Aaronson Fisher, my mother.
Mr. RICH: Joel Hilton Fisher, my stepfather.
LAMB: ...and `CC.'
Mr. RICH: Clayton Coots, who is this character in the final third of
the book who is no longer alive.
LAMB: Why just the initials on those three?
Mr. RICH: Partially because I didn't want to sort of give a--give
away the ending, as we just--it's not the ending--it's not like it's
the plot. But I didn't want it to be a distraction. I figured people
could figure it out by the end of the book. And also I didn't want it
necessarily known that these characters don't live.
LAMB: Page 133, `Did this mean it was worth being hit by Joel?'
Joel's in here all through the book and I want to ask you why--it--you
get a sense that you--Joel was pretty mean and--and why would you then
end up dedicating the book to him? And do you have deep wounds from
Mr. RICH: You know, it's--it's a very good question. I ended up
dedicating the book to him because in the end I decided at some level
I loved him. And I think one of the big things I discovered in
writing this book that--was that while he was, in many ways, very
destructive, he also was a powerful figure for good at times.
And if--and I think the thing I most learned by writing "Ghost
Light"--I didn't know all this going in until I forced myself to think
of it--and he actually died during the writing of the book as
well--all this--all this--I realized that you can't oversimplify
people. And this man occupies my imagination in such a forceful way,
not just for the times that he was brutal, but also for the times
where he really gave me something.
And one of the things I discovered about him after he died was that he
had had a stepfather that he had hated. He was always very
closed-mouthed about his childhood with us. I found this out from
relatives afterwards. And I wonder if--in some way, I began to wonder
if he sort of set up a relationship like that with me and yet at the
same time was trying to give me the means to overcome it, which was to
give me access to the theater and to the things that would--that would
help me in life. An--and so I--I--I came away from writing this book
feeling mixed feelings about him but feeling that at some level I did
love him and was thankful to him.
LAMB: What was his death like?
Mr. RICH: His death was--there was nothing exceptional about it. It
was proceeded by the death of my mother by several years, who died in
a car crash when he was driving. He lived to be, you know, a--a--a
fairly old age. He died when he was around 80. He had dementia, and
his system just started to shut down. I don't think he was ever the
same after my mother died. And he was also very isolated from people.
A lot of people, friends, family, sort of turned on him after the
accident and were not even in touch with him. And his eccentricities,
always enormous, became more pronounced as they would anyway when
someone's sick and getting old.
LAMB: What were the circumstances around the accident?
Mr. RICH: He should not have been driving. He had a history of--of
car accidents that, frankly, we didn't really know about, although I
believe my mother did. He was taking medication that often caused him
to fall asleep and he'd--and he'd--and apparently totaled at least one
other car. And in this case, on July 4th, he fell asleep while
driving at a very high speed as he always wanted to do on 95 between
Baltimore and Washington after a Fourth of July lunch.
LAMB: What year was that?
Mr. RICH: '91.
LAMB: How old was your mother then?
Mr. RICH: My mother was 63.
LAMB: What was that impact on you, given all the history you had with
Mr. RICH: It was--it was a huge impact. It was--not only because I
loved my mother but because it was in some ways this diorama of the
whole drama of my childhood, only now happening much, much later when
I was in my 40s. And it was traumatic. In fact, it was one of the
things that--that led me to decide--to decide to give up drama
criticism an--and ultimately one of the things that led me to decide
to want to write this book. I--it changed my--it changed my world
view about a lot of things and it's sort of partially to figure out
why and what the story was and how that was the ending of the story
that I some years later would start writing "Ghost Light."
LAMB: What did you figure out in--through all that?
Mr. RICH: From the writing?
LAMB: No, but from the--from the--your mom's death--I mean, what
started to happen to you?
Mr. RICH: What started to happen was--first of all, after--her death
wasn't instantaneous. Without being too graphic about it, she lived,
at least in a technical sense, for a month after the accident. I
could never talk to her again. And somehow after spending a month in
a shock trauma center in Baltimore, the theater somehow seemed a
little trivial to me for the first time ever in my life. It--it
diminished. Also I realized that there was a part of my love of the
theater that was tied up with my relationship, tortured as it was at
times, with my mother and my stepfather. And I had--what was that
I had to go figure--it took me--I didn't figure it out overnight. It
took me a long time to figure it out and I just sort of--I had also
just been remarried myself a month--the last time I saw my mother
really alive was at my wedding. I was starting a new--a new--a new
married life and I just started taking stock of everything. I also
happened to have not been much past turning 40 at that point.
So the normal middle-age questions came and it--and it led to me
actually telling Joel Ellivel, the editor of the Times, that I thought
I wanted to leave the job but I didn't know what I wanted to do. And
he said, you know, `This is not the time to make any decisions. Take
some time off,' which I did. I came back as drama critic but
ultimately he and Hal Raines found something that was--that was new
for me and very exciting that--that I continue to do.
LAMB: Go back to that whole experience with Broadway and the theater.
How long did you work at the National Theatre here in Washington? And
when did you start under--and under what circumstances?
Mr. RICH: I worked there, I guess, about three years, basically, for
high school. What happened was once I became mobile and could take DC
transit buses downtown from--from Cleveland Park, I started going to
shows any chance I could, seeing the same things over and over again,
when Washington was a very active tryout town for Broadway shows,
The manager of the theater kept seeing this kid, I think, come back
and back again and stay in line--stand in line and buy standing-room
for $2 and took pity on me and called me over one day and gave me a
pass and said, you know, `Why are you paying this money from your
savings to see the same show over and over again?' He then gave me a
job, $4 a week, as a s--ticket taker on the second door of the
National, which meant I could see the shows for free as often as I
wanted, and to me it was the greatest job. It was like being the star
in a play, as far as I was concerned, just to go into those matinees
and take tickets. And--and so that's how it began, and then I did it
right through high school graduation.
LAMB: Scott Kirkpatrick.
Mr. RICH: Was the name of the s--manager. And he was this
wonderfully eccentric Dickensian figure who had managed the National
since, I think, the mid-1950s and--and did until he died in the early
1980s. He was huge. He was almost like a Mr. Macobber or one of
those Dickensian figures. He had an office on the second floor of the
National that was so cluttered--forget about my piles of Variety at
home--piles of, you know, Evening Stars going back to World War II, it
seemed in--so high that they threatened to topple at any moment. And
when you walked into the door of his office, you couldn't see him
because there were so many piles of newspapers and boxes of old ticket
He loved the theater. He lived for the theater. He had no life
beyond the theater. He--part of the deal of being a manager of a
theater in Washington was that he knew Pearl Meston, he knew all the
politicians, and they all came to opening nights. I think that's the
only time they ever did come. But he cer--he loved supervising all
that. He was a Southern gentleman. And he--he was great to me.
LAMB: What about the time he invited you over to his place?
Mr. RICH: Well, this was just amazing to me. When--when I was
finally leaving Washington and I had gotten into college and I was
about to go and enroll--and I was leaving town--I quit my job
obviously. And he--it was something he had never done the entire time
I worked for him, which was--said, `Well, let's have a drink,'
basically. I'd never even had a sandwich with him or had a--he always
called me `Mr. Rich,' you know? It was very--he was a very formal
He invited me, like, at 5:00 to go to his home--it was an apartment
building in Thomas Circle--to have a drink, Coke, whatever. And
it--and his apartment was not at all what I expected. It was a very
modern apartment with no sense of personality whatever. It could have
been a room in a Holiday Inn. And I noticed that on some of the
furnishings, not only were they still wrapped in plastic but there
were price tags on them. And it really struck me because it--it--it
told me something about him but also something about the theater and
about growing up. Here was a guy whose whole life was the theater.
And his office was full of history and color and personality. And
that was his home. And his real home was just a place where he slept.
It was devoid of personality. His whole life was at the National
LAMB: Now there are a lot of little tiny sub-themes in this book.
One of them is homosexual experiences that you didn't have but that...
Mr. RICH: Right.
LAMB: ...Joel Fisher kept worrying about.
Mr. RICH: Sort of a comedy of--of--sort of a farce really.
LAMB: I don't know. This--the Kirk--in the Kirkpatrick visit, that
was a concern, I guess, that he might be...
Mr. RICH: Well--well--well, h--h--hilariously, in retrospect, 'cause
it's such a different time now, but Joel, who--who regarded himself as
a man of the world and was always traveling to Europe and knew
politicians, when men in the theater, older men in the theater, would
take me under their wing, as--as at least two did, he would always
say, you know, `That--that person might be homosexual.' Now I didn't
even really know what that meant.
The only homosexual I'd ever heard of was one that I also heard about
from Joel was--was an aide of Lyndon Johnson's, Walter Jenkins, who,
in a famous scandal in the '60s, had been caught in an--an
embarrassing situation and arrested. And that was, like, the only
thing I knew about it. And so then Joel would say, `Well, before you
see these people or spend any time with them, I'm going to check it
out because, you know, my friends in the theater in New York'--and
he'd always come back and say, `Oh, it's fine.' You know, `There's no
But, of course, now I realize that these men were--were homosexual.
They were gay. It was not a word we used then. But, of course, they
were closeted, and they lived a life where they pretended not to have
the sexual orientation they had. And one of the things I wanted to do
in writing this book was to--to bring--bring these people who played
such a big role, almost a parental role, in my life back to life and
bring them back from obscurity--of obscurity.
These were people who--who had no families of their own, except the
family of the theater, who had to hide who they were, at least they
hid it f--from me, except for occasionally letting down, what I now
r--their guard, in a way that I now realize was--was more meaningful
than I really knew at the time. And yet they were, to me, heroic
people. They--they really helped parent me when I needed that. And
they did it in a very altruistic way. And the case of this other
character we mentioned before, Clayton Coots, who was a road manager
who traveled with Broadway shows, who took me under his wing, he
really, through correspondence on the road, wrote me letters, some of
which are in the book, that--that helped, you know, steer me at a time
when I was having, you know, a lot of teen-age problems and wasn't so
serious about school and--and was depressed. And these--here
are--here are people I look at now and I think how selfless they were.
LAMB: And never approached you?
Mr. RICH: No. In retrospect, as I talk about in the book, Clayton
did a little bit, but--but even then it was so encoded, and I was so
naive, really, I wasn't sure what was going on. Looking it--back at
it now, I have a clearer idea.
LAMB: Tell that story, that visit to his apartment in...
Mr. RICH: Well, yes, he--when--w--at the...
LAMB: Where did he live, by the way?
Mr. RICH: Well, he lived full-time in New York but he was, of
course, off and on the road. And during much of this book he's in
Chicago where he's managing a company of "The Odd Couple," when I had
a girlfriend in Chicago and he sort of served as our chaperon, if you
will. Near the very end of the book, I describe a scene w--right when
I've gotten into college when he's now back in New York and I go up to
see him and sort of say goodbye to him, as I'm getting ready to go to
college. He's about to go to Europe. And--and I was going to spend
the night in his apartment. And, in essence, he invited me to share
his bed with him. And in--as I describe in the book, by now I'm a
little bit--knowing a little bit more than I knew, and I think `Um,
LAMB: Was Joel helping out along the way in this?
Mr. RICH: Beg your pardon?
LAMB: Joel helping out along the way in this?
Mr. RICH: Joel--Joel--Joel's great intelligence at work. No, he had
given him, you know, `All fine and dandy.' And, by the way, Clayton
maintained to me the entire time I knew him that he had various
girlfriends. And I had no reason to doubt it, didn't have the
sophistication to doubt it, and--and, indeed, I later heard almost got
married. So who knows? But--but the thing is that I did, largely
because of what Joel had told me that he had this fear, think for a
second, `Is something going on here?' And I said, `No, I'm fine on the
couch,' and that was the end of it. He never mentioned it again.
And, you know, this has happened in 1966, although the world--and what
he meant--he's not here for me to--to ask him now in--in our current
environment, sociological environment, in America what was going on.
I'd love to know, you know? But--but it's beyond--it's--you know,
LAMB: Your father, Frank Rich.
Mr. RICH: Right.
LAMB: Frank Rich Sr.?
Mr. RICH: Well, I'm Frank Rich Jr. I guess he's Frank Rich
original. And--but, yes, he's--he's senior.
LAMB: Is he alive?
Mr. RICH: he is alive.
LAMB: Where does he live?
Mr. RICH: He lives in northwest Washington.
LAMB: And what was your life with him like?
Mr. RICH: My life with him was somewhat more distant. It was--it
was generally good, but it was--it was very, very spaced out because
under the rules that he and my mother worked out I saw him in--very
brief times, usually twice a week, but not for a long period of time.
I--and so he--he was part of my life and yet not part of my life. I
never lived with him after my parents got divorced.
LAMB: At what age you were?
Mr. RICH: About seven when they separated. So he was a relative
whom I felt warmly toward and who felt warmly toward me but who I
visited as if he were a more distant relative than he actually was.
And that was--again, every arrangement about divorce, for better and
worse, whatever, has changed so enormously that it was just a
different time. And--and, in some ways, my parents were pioneers of a
generation when people got divorced--that were pioneers in trying to
figure--figure out how to work it. And--and so it was not always a
smooth transition between two households.
LAMB: For--for how many years did he own a shoe store here in town?
Mr. RICH: Well, the family shoe store began with great-great
ancestors in 1869. And my father went to work for it after the
war--not immediately after the war. He worked for Hecht's for a
while. He also was in the Reserves and went back to the Pentagon
during the Korean War, but more or less, from after the war until he
closed it in the late 1980s. S--when it--when it ended, it was
the--the shoe store in the United States--the oldest shoe store in the
United States still owned by the founding family, and for years
competed, as you know, with another similar family shoe store in
Washington called Hahn's. It was sort of a friendly rivalry, which
also is no more, as indeed almost all the retailers in this book.
Garfinckels, Woody's--they're all gone--Lansburgh's, Hahn's and...
LAMB: Any politicians buy their shoes from your father?
Mr. RICH: Yes. And when I was writing the book I went through it
with my father to make sure I had it straight. And now, of course,
without the words in front of me, I'm going to forget them all. But,
yes, there were presidents and first ladies and Bess Truman. And, of
course, there was a time in Washington with--with no security. These
people would just literally walk in and buy shoes, but also my father
still has bills and letters of, like, I think, Teddy Roosevelt placing
an order for boots. And I think Eisenhower did. And, you know, it
was a--it--it was a--a--strange. But the--the--it's strange to grow
up in a Washington family where you're not a part of politics but it's
all around you. It would be like growing up in Beverly Hills but not
being a part of the movie business. And so these stars
would--political stars would come into my father's store.
LAMB: You went to camp.
Mr. RICH: I did.
LAMB: Where was it?
Mr. RICH: Stockbridge, Massachusetts. And it was a camp my mother
sort of found by chance in an ad in the--the back section of The New
York Times Sunday Magazine. She wanted to find some outlet for me to
pursue my theater interests, so she found this camp, which turned out
to be great, full of kids largely from New York, who were extremely
pretentious, but fun; all wore black. Some of them were from show
business families. And it introduced me to a whole sort of new group
of contemporaries of mine who--who shared some of my interests.
LAMB: What is--by the way, before I ask you that, what--what was
Joel's reaction when you got into Harvard?
Mr. RICH: He was thrilled, which interested me. As I talk about in
the book, Joel hated the establishment. And some of my political
views may well come from this. Even though he was a K Street lawyer,
he always--he always thought of himself as representing little
companies, maybe not the little guy, but he would represent, like, Air
India and Air France and British Airways going up against the big Pan
Am or TWA or the CAB or the FAA. And--and he was always contemptuous
of Ivy League-educated people and lawyers and--and those who drifted
through his office.
But this was another strange paradox about him. He was very happy for
me, and he was very happy for me about my career, even up until he--he
went--until he was completely--really ill. Until the final days, he
would send me faxes about my columns. And it was always very
encouraging and supportive. No one has ever given out more mixed
si--signals than this man did during my lifetime. And that's why, I
think, he's so interesting to me. And--and I hope to others.
But he was--he was thrilled. In fact, he insisted--when we hear--knew
that college admissions were coming, he insisted that we go down to
the Cleveland Park Post Office on Connecticut Avenue, and he basically
forced the poor postal attendants to give us our mail early and--so I
could get my college acceptances early. And then when I got it, he
commandeered the phone from the post office and just started calling
everyone and telling them and just took--this was his way in any
situation, and just took over the post office and turned it into his
office for 15 minutes.
LAMB: You write about a tie line that he had at your home.
Mr. RICH: Yes.
LAMB: And what was a tie line?
Mr. RICH: A tie line was a--a--it's rather amazing. It seems
incredibly exotic and luxurious to me which--you picked it up and you
could make a call that was local in New York. And it was installed
by, I think, one of his big clients, no longer exists. Many of his
clients don't exist anymore. It was something called Seaboard World
Airlines. It was an old freight airline. And he did a lot of
business for them. And God knows what that business was. But it--a
lot of calls to New York. So he had this tie line put in. It seems
kind of advanced for when it was, the 1960s. Now we wouldn't think
anything of it, something like this. And what it meant for me was on
non-business days, or particularly when Joel and my mother were out, I
could then use it either to call Broadway theaters and try to find out
about what was going on at the box offices or to call the friends that
I had made at camp who lived in New York and not have to pay long
distance rates for them.
LAMB: One of the people you say in the book who was your best friend
who liked the theater like you was Harry Stein.
Mr. RICH: Yeah, Harry Stein was this kid I met at this camp, Indian
Hill, who was the first kid I ever met who had a fa--a father who was
in show business. His father was a--was and still is a guy named
Joseph Stein who, at that point, was sort of at a low point in his
career. He had written some unsuccessful Broadway shows, a lot of
television, and then was writing a new show while we were in camp that
ended up trying out at the National Theatre in Washington. And Harry
and I were able to see all the rehearsals and watch--watch something
from the inside, something I had never done before. And the show was
"Fiddler on the Roof," which completely, obviously, changed his
father's career and was a very exciting show to watch, as Jerome
Robbins directed it and Zero Mostell acted in it in Washington.
LAMB: He was here, sat in that chair, and talked about his book "How
I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy." He talked a lot
about you--or--not a lot, but some about your relationship. I guess
you lived in Richmond together?
Mr. RICH: Yes, we were both involved right when I got out of
college--he's a year older than me; two years after he got out of
college--in starting--we were--a group of people that started a weekly
sort of muckraking newspaper called The Richmond Mercury that lasted
for a while, not--not long, but lasted for a while. It was actually a
lot of fun to work on. A lot of people who worked for it have ended
up in journalism, not just the two of us.
LAMB: And at the time it was liberal? Or not conservative.
Mr. RICH: Yeah, at the time--well, Har--Harry was--Harry was the
most left-wing person I'd ever met at that time. He's now done a
political reversal and is--obviously, the author of a book about how I
joined--how he joined the right-wing conspiracy.
LAMB: How long have you been friends?
Mr. RICH: We were friends from when we met, which was 1962, until
the mid--the mid to late 1980s. We had a...
LAMB: Let me--before you go on...
Mr. RICH: OK.
LAMB: ...let me run this clip, 'cause I want to complete the loop on
Mr. RICH: Fine, we've got to solve this mystery. Yeah, OK.
LAMB: ...because he--yeah, he talked about you in this--in the
BOOKNOTES show. Let's listen to Harry Stein for about 45 mi...
(Excerpt from previous BOOKNOTES)
LAMB: Do you ever get together with your old liberal friends and talk
over why you're the way you are and the way--they are the way they
Mr. HARRY STEIN, AUTHOR, "HOW I ACCIDENTALLY JOINED THE VAST RIGHT-WING CONSPIRACY": Yeah. I mean, as I say, most of my
friends--I think the more--the more--the more thoughtful of them have
kind of moved in the same direction. I mean, we agreed which--with
each other then and have continued to talk along the way. And there's
been great solace in that. I've broken with--with a few. Or vice
versa, they've broken with me. I don't think it--it's been
acrimonious, necessarily, but because we look at the world so
LAMB: Do you ever talk to Frank Rich about this?
Mr. STEIN: No, Frank and I had a--had a pretty unpleasant falling
LAMB: Over what? Anything you want to talk about?
Mr. STEIN: It was a combination of things. I mean, it was--it
was--it--it's complicated, but it w--it was more personal, I would--I
would say, than political.
(End of excerpt)
LAMB: Can you help us?
Mr. RICH: That's--that's totally accurate. When--when we had a
falling out, he was still a liberal. And it was--had nothing
whatsoever to do with politics. It had to do with some personal
things involving family stuff. And--but in--in this book, he is a
fairly, I think you'd agree, significant character and a very, I
think, appealing character. And I--I try to look at him objectively,
as I did at my stepfather and others. And, in fact, when an excerpt
from the book was published in The New York Times Magazine a few weeks
ago, he--he sent me an e-mail. It's the first time I've heard from
him in a long time. And we had an exchange and I told him, `You're
not going to want to believe this, but you are one of the most
charming characters in the book.' And we let it go--go at that.
LAMB: You--you--when you read the book, you--you constantly--I mean,
you--you get into a lot of personal stuff that we're not talking about
Mr. RICH: Sure.
LAMB: ...your--your physical relationships with some of the women in
your life and things like that, early romances and...
Mr. RICH: Yeah, women--I think they were girls. Well, yes, OK. Go
ahead. Yes. Go ahead.
LAMB: Girls, all right. Good. But--but I--I guess, I kept
asking--and--and all the stuff on Joel, I kept saying, as I'm reading
the book, `Why? Why do you want people to know this?' And is--is
there stuff that you didn't tell us?
Mr. RICH: Sure. There's some stuff I--I--I didn't tell you. I
mean, it's--it is--it is this story, it's not everything that happened
to me. I feel, however, it's--it's an honest book. It is--it
is--there's nothing of significance that I--that I have left out. The
reason why I wanted to tell the story was first of all for myself. I
wanted to figure it out. I wanted to figure out how I, as a kid,
negotiated this childhood and came out of it, you know, in one piece
and--and--and used it to have a fairly productive life and--and a
much, I must say, happier life than I had as a child.
And--and the second reason I wrote it was in some way very much
related to that. I feel it's a story that--that may not be that
uncommon. A lot of kids have problems, not just me, you know? In
adolescent and teen-age years, a lot of kids go through divorce,
various times in various different ways, or other traumas. And to me
this is a--a sto--a happy story of how a kid--a kid with--who finds a
passion and has some will and maybe some imagination can triumph over
these circumstances. And that passion in my case was the theater. It
might have been baseball, if the Washington Senators hadn't moved out
of town right as I was beginning adolescence. It might have been
coin-collecting or playing the trombone or chess or math or--or--or
something else. In my case it happened to be theater.
But I felt it was a story that, while it's been told before, I wanted
to tell a--a--what I think is a really honest version of it and tell
it from the version of what it felt like then, not with a lot of
hindsight. There's not a lot of psychoanalyzing of myself in this
book. I really wanted to get down that story and tell it from the
point of view as it--what it was like to live it.
LAMB: Living in New York, looking back on this town, haven't been
here since '73 or...
Mr. RICH: Not lived here anyway. Yeah.
LAMB: Yeah. What's Washington look like?
Mr. RICH: It's--it's amazing how different it is. I mean, you know,
it's not like this is the 19th century, but think about it. No
Beltway. No Kennedy Center. No subway system. No good restaurants.
None of--m--much of this office building. And as I go through
Washington, which I do a lot, obviously, for--for my work, and also to
see people I know here, including members of my family, I'm still just
struck of--of how much it's changed. You know, I walk down F Street,
all the old movie palaces are gone. Neighborhoods--when I first lived
in Somerset just across the Maryland--the district line in Chevy
Chase--the store that's now Hecht's hadn't been built yet, Lord &
Taylor, Saks Fifth Av--it was all forest.
LAMB: What about politically?
Mr. RICH: Politically, there are things that are different,
obviously, that--that--that I probably don't even have to detail, but
some things are remarkably the same. For instance, it's still a city
with a very strong class system and with a certain racial divide.
It's still a company town with a strange kind of government. It--it
has home rule now; it didn't then. But it's still a city that's
sub--subservient in a way to Congress. And it's--the certain--certain
habits of Washington and the Washington establishment seem to me very
much unchanged. And if I--you know, I--I'm sorry, go ahead.
LAMB: No, I was just going to say, you know, we heard a lot about the
theater in this town because of Abraham Lincoln who was shot in the
Mr. RICH: Right.
LAMB: And you tell the story about JFK and b--they brought the
rocking chair to the National Theatre.
Mr. RICH: They did. They put it in a box so he would be
comfortable. They also brought no security. I mean, I have this
scene in the book where I remember going with my mother to the
National and first Jackie Kennedy, and then at intermission, joined by
the president sitting behind us. Certainly, no metal detectors, too.
I don't remember--I'm sure there were some Secret Service, but it
was--in that sense, it was like a small town, and you saw these major
I came--it's not in the book, but I came across a little diary I kept
when I was 9 or 10. And in it I described about--describe going to a
Washington Senators game at Griffin Stadium and I said--just--`The
Senators lost,' of course, and then I said, `And when in--in the next
row over I saw Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover and Christian Hurter.'
Now how the hell I knew who Christian Hurter was, I don't know.
Someone must have told me.
LAMB: Who he--yeah.
Mr. RICH: But I guess secretary of State--Right?--in the Eisenhower
administration. But I just wrote that like it was a normal thing that
you'd see--the same way you'd go to the, you know, National Zoo to see
the animals. So in that sense, it was--it was so much more informal.
But there was still the cave dweller, you know, this world that were
just some--whom I don't know but whose writing I like so much summons
up in his fiction about Washington. A lot of that's--even when it's
the 19th century, as opposed to the 1950s and '60s, holds up now.
There are certain things about the city that remain the same.
LAMB: For those who have never read you in The New York Times--well,
first of all, how often can they find you in The New York Times?
Mr. RICH: I write a long column every other Saturday. And then I
write on a no-fix schedule Magazine pieces.
LAMB: Give us three or four things that you feel the strongest about
in the American body political thought.
Mr. RICH: In--you mean right now?
LAMB: Your ideas. No, no, no. Your--just what matters to you. When
you sit down at the typewriter, what kind of things do you feel the
strongest about? What right--what wrongs would you like to right?
Mr. RICH: Well, the wrongs I'd like to right are those of inequity.
I'm--and I think it comes very much out of this background. Poverty
bothers me, any kind of discrimination. And in the--in the rawest
sense, I'm not talking about affirmative action or the ways we frame
it, politically. People getting the short end of the stick--it
bothers me and whether it be minorities or people for whatever
circumstance don't get treated fairly by the system. And sometimes,
by the way, it's even middle-class people who don't get treated fairly
in some way. But inequities really get my dander up.
The flip side of that for me, the positive idea that has always
animated me, is I so believe in this country as a mixture of
everything. L--and--and it sounds corny to talk about the melting
pot. And it's what my family came out of and many American families
came out of, but I feel strongly about it as a continuing idea in
American life. And I think one of the most exciting things about
living right now is that it's happening again in such a big--big way
that we have this--what happened at the turn of the century in New
York when my ancestors came over as Jewish immigrants is now happening
in the West Coast of this country as a whole new wave of immigrants
from different places are coming and creating a whole new industry in
this country, new--changing our culture in fascinating ways. And
that, to me, is so exciting. So when people are not given a fair
shake at--at being integrated into this--this culture, that bothers
me, but the results of when it does happen are so beautiful.
LAMB: Quick things. What school does your son go to, the college?
Mr. RICH: Yale.
LAMB: And where do you live in New York City?
Mr. RICH: Upper West Side.
LAMB: And what does your wife do for a living?
Mr. RICH: My wife, who's--who writes under her name Alex Witchel, is
a reporter for The New York Times and has been for a decade. Does not
write about politics. Has written about culture. Writes for the
style department. Writes about--writes profiles, many things. She's
also completing her first novel. It's going to be published next
LAMB: Were you worried about anybody that you wrote about in this
book sitting down and reading it?
Mr. RICH: Sure. But I decided--you know, writers are ruthless.
LAMB: Anybody react strongly to it, negatively?
Mr. RICH: Not yet. But, you know, as we talk, people are just
really beginning to read it. And I'm sure people will. And I'm--you
know, I'll--I'll have to live with that although I...
LAMB: Who are you worried about the most?
Mr. RICH: No--no one really. I mean, the--the people...
LAMB: Would your mother have liked this?
Mr. RICH: It's a question that I constantly ask myself and that my
wife and I constantly talk about, and maybe I'm humoring myself, but I
think she would.
LAMB: Would Joel like it?
Mr. RICH: I think he would at some level.
Mr. RICH: He could be objective about himself up to a point. And I
really saw that really in the later years and after my mother died.
And I think--I--you know, I think that he would have corrected certain
things, objected to certain things, but he would have--but then he
would have said, `You've got to tell it the way you want to tell it.'
LAMB: Has Frank Rich Sr. read it, and what's his reaction?
Mr. RICH: He has started reading it and he hasn't finished it. And
his reaction was that he is in guarded approval and feels our memory
differs on certain points but we haven't gotten into them yet.
LAMB: This is 12 years of your life. Are you going to write
something about your life after '68?
Mr. RICH: I have no plans to do it. I'd like to write another book
but not another memoir.
LAMB: Our guest has been the author of this book, "Ghost Light: A
Memoir." Thank you, Frank Rich.
Mr. RICH: Thank you.
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