Frank Rich
Frank Rich
Ghost Light: A Memoir
ISBN: 0679452990
Ghost Light: A Memoir
There is a superstition that if an emptied theater is ever left completely dark, a ghost will take up residence. To prevent this, a single "ghost light" is left burning at center stage after the audience and all of the actors and musicians have gone home. Frank Rich's eloquent and moving boyhood memoir reveals how theater itself became a ghost light and a beacon of security for a child finding his way in a tumultuous world.

Rich grew up in the small-townish Washington, D.C., of the 1950s and early '60s, a place where conformity seemed the key to happiness for a young boy who always felt different. When Rich was seven years old, his parents separated—at a time when divorce was still tantamount to scandal—and thereafter he and his younger sister were labeled "children from a broken home." Bouncing from school to school and increasingly lonely, Rich became terrified of the dark and the uncertainty of his future. But there was one thing in his life that made him sublimely happy: the Broadway theater.

Rich's parents were avid theatergoers, and in happier times they would listen to the brand-new recordings of South Pacific, Damn Yankees, and The Pajama Game over and over in their living room. When his mother's remarriage brought about turbulent changes, Rich took refuge in these same records, re-creating the shows in his imagination, scene by scene. He started collecting Playbills, studied fanatically the theater listings in The New York Times and Variety, and cut out ads to create his own miniature marquees. He never imagined that one day he would be the Times's chief theater critic.

Eventually Rich found a second home at Washington's National Theatre, where as a teenager he was a ticket-taker and was introduced not only to the backstage magic he had dreamed of for so long but to a real-life cast of charismatic and eccentric players who would become his mentors and friends. With humor and eloquence, Rich tells the triumphant story of how the aspirations of a stagestruck young boy became a lifeline, propelling him toward the itinerant family of theater, whose romantic denizens welcomed him into the colorful fringes of Broadway during its last glamorous era.

Every once in a while, a grand spectacle comes along that introduces its audiences to characters and scenes that will resound in their memories long after the curtain has gone down. Ghost Light, Frank Rich's beautifully crafted childhood memoir, is just such an event.
—from the publisher's website

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TRANSCRIPT
Ghost Light: A Memoir
Program Air Date: December 10, 2000

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 office.
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 300 maybe.
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 class.

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.
LAMB: Where?
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, 27 years.
LAMB: What have--what have you done in New York City for those 27 years?
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 columnist.
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 back then?
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 teen-agers.
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 dedication...
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, HAF...'
Mr. RICH: Helene Aaronson Fisher, my mother.
LAMB: ...`JAF'...
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 Joel?
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 Joel?
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 about?

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, pre-Kennedy Center.

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 stubs.

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 guy.

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 Theatre.
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 problem.'

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. And...
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, hmm.'
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, he's gone.
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 this one...
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 are?

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 differently now...
LAMB: Do you ever talk to Frank Rich about this?
Mr. STEIN: No, Frank and I had a--had a pretty unpleasant falling out.
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 here...
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 theater.
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 figures.

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 year.
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.
LAMB: Why?
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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