Frank Rich’s 30-year career at the New York Times had many highlights, but during his first few months as a critic there, he was convinced that accepting the job had been a mistake.
“I was third-string everything, covering radio, TV, theater—you name it,” he says. “I was asked by my editor to review a radio show that aired at 2:30 am on a Sunday.” Rich figured out that the show starred the newspaper editor’s mistress.
A few months later, in 1980, longtime theater critic Walter Kerr decided to retire and recommended Rich as his successor. Rich’s tenure in that job lasted 13 years and earned him the nickname the Butcher of Broadway.
Rich, 63, has lived in New York for four decades but grew up in Washington in the 1950s and ’60s. He wrote about his childhood, much of it in DC’s Cleveland Park, in the memoir Ghost Light, published in 2000. His father, Frank Rich Sr., owned the local Rich’s shoe stores, and his often abusive stepfather was a lawyer on K Street.
Unhappy at home, young Frank Rich found solace in the theater, saving money from his paper route to buy tickets to Broadway-bound shows at the National Theatre. Even when he got a job as ticket taker, allowing him to see shows for free, he paid for admission so he could see the opening scenes he missed while counting stubs at the start of each play.
Rich attended Woodrow Wilson High School, where he edited the school paper, and then Harvard, where he wrote for the Crimson. After a fellowship in London, he moved to Richmond, where he started an alternative weekly, the Richmond Mercury. In 1972, he wrote a cover story for The Washingtonian about Washington’s singles scene. Rich then moved to New York to be an assistant editor and film critic at New Times magazine and worked at the New York Post and Time before joining the New York Times in 1980.
He left the theater desk to write a weekly column for the opinion section in 1994, remaining at the Times until last year, when he became a writer-at-large at New York magazine. He’s also an executive producer of Veep, HBO’s satire about an inept female US Vice President, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Rich appears at the Music Center at Strathmore on October 19 for a conversation with satirist Fran Lebowitz about the national political landscape.
He has two sons from his first marriage: Simon, a writer for Saturday Night Live and a contributor to the New Yorker, and Nathaniel, a novelist. Rich’s wife is New York Times Magazine writer Alex Witchel. Over iced tea in the bar at Georgetown’s Four Seasons Hotel, he talked about what he’s learned.
Do you remember the first show you ever saw?
It was Damn Yankees at the National Theatre. I was about five or six, and I think my parents took me to see it because I was a huge Washington Senators fan. It was the ultimate wet dream—although I didn’t know what wet dreams were back then—that the Senators could beat the Yankees of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris and Whitey Ford.
What impression did the musical make on you?
I didn’t understand the story, but I couldn’t get over how the scenery changed and how Lola could go from this attractive young woman to this old crone, which happens in the second act. I was hooked. It was a life-changing experience.
What was the National like then?
In those days, before the Kennedy Center or any of the arts centers in Boston and Tampa and Cleveland had been built, the National was it. The National was very popular with producers because you could play to what was, by the standard of the times, a large house with a sympathetic audience. David Merrick, the biggest Broadway producer of that era, would book the National from Labor Day to Christmas, not even knowing whether he was going to do Hello, Dolly! or Pickwick or Oliver! or whatever else he had up his sleeve. It was glamorous, although it’s hard to imagine now.
You grew up all over Washington.
When I was born in 1949, we lived in Somerset, which is part of Chevy Chase. My parents split up when I was around seven. My mother had to support herself, so we moved to Rosemary Hills in Silver Spring for a couple of years.
Then she married, and at the height of white flight we moved to Cleveland Park. My mother and stepfather bought a house in 1959 for $29,000 on Cleveland Avenue, between 34th Street and the cathedral. Half the houses on the block were empty because middle-class white families were moving to Montgomery County and Arlington and Alexandria. My stepfather, always glad to have a bargain, moved us in, and I started fifth and sixth grade at John Eaton. The schools technically weren’t segregated, but there was de facto segregation and there were so few kids that the fifth and sixth grades were in one classroom.
How did you feel about moving to DC?
I liked being closer to the movie theaters and the National. By then, I probably would have already preferred to be in New York. There was a stigma about being a child of divorce—I didn’t know any other kids whose parents were divorced.
Was theater an escape?
It was a fantasy, a place where I was happy. In some way—and I don’t mean this in a melodramatic sense—it saved my life. Psychologically, I think my life would have been very different if I hadn’t found the theater and if I hadn’t had a mother who, when she saw I was passionate about it, indulged it as much as she could.
One of the interesting things in your book Ghost Light is how difficult a character your stepfather, Joel, was but also how supportive he was of your love for the theater, and how in many ways he enabled it.
That’s exactly right. The big discovery in writing the book was Joel. In essence, it was my view and the view of many people in my family that he killed my mother. My mother died in a car accident on July 4, 21 years ago, when she was a year younger than I am now. He survived the accident but gradually went mad. I’d been angry at him for most of my childhood, and I didn’t understand why my mother stayed with him. But in writing the book, I found myself having a strange kind of gratitude for him. I learned a lot, really, and I think in the end he upstaged my mother and everyone else in the book.
Were you interested in politics at that age?
Yes, in an amateur way. Once the Senators moved to Minneapolis, it became like a sport to follow. I went to the Martin Luther King march with my mother in 1963 when I was 14, then got involved in politics at Wilson because I got caught up in home rule and the fight for civil rights. I always had these two interests—politics and theater. Even at the Harvard Crimson, I reviewed Sondheim musicals trying out in Boston while writing editorials about the Vietnam War.