Interiors: The Story of Frank Rich
By Eve Berliner
Photograph by Ted Thai
Frank Rich, powerful Sunday Op-Ed Columnist of the New York Times, formerly chief theatre critic,
a/k/a ‘The Butcher of Broadway.’
By Eve Berliner
Like the single ghost light left burning in the darkened theatre to ward off the ghosts, a ghost light hovered over the childhood of Frank Rich, amid the dark days of fear and night terrors.
He resided in the theatre of dreams.
He survived on his imagination.
The players: mother, father, sister and stepfather, a complex villain, vicious.
His mother was his first inspiration, loved the arts, a passion for film and theatre and politics and life. She would take Frank on what she would call their “Adventures,” his favorite, the dusty old brick mansion/museum, miniature castle, known as The Phillips, with paintings on the walls of circus jugglers and ballerinas and baseball players in fields of dreams, collages of newspapers and old bluejeans and tickets with exotic foreign writing on them, a mixture of the avant-garde and history and art and theatre.
His parents were avid theatregoers, a living room filled with the music of Broadway, and for Frank, long hours lost in the magic of his father’s sublime record collection: South Pacific, Damn Yankees, The Pajama Game, and his mother’s treasured Playbill collection.
“I still have whatever she left behind.” he notes quietly. “I always think of my mother listening to her beloved South Pacific when she went to the hospital to have me.”
Thus his love affair with the theatre began in the womb.
His father faded away with the “separation” when he was seven years of age, a phantom presence in his life, leaving behind his Broadway record collection.
The divorce had torn his world asunder but it was the advent of his stepfather that wielded the second devastating blow. A raging, unstable tyrant who assaulted the vulnerable, including his mother, loved Broadway and was generous with theatre tickets.
“Fear became my constant companion,” Frank Rich would write in the moving and incredible memoir of his childhood, “Ghost Light,” published in 2000, in which he bares his soul.
On one occasion, shouting inches from his face, I will not take any more crap from you, young man,“Joel [his stepfather] slapped me to the ground with his huge hands. 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 on my back, the dirt and ground scraping against my skin. We were at the next building – some 50 yards away – before he dropped me in a heap in the center of the road.”
On another occasion, he threw Frank down a flight of stairs.
A dark aching subsumed the young boy, worry about being shut up in complete darkness when he went to bed, a chronic and severe problem of inability to sleep, anxiety, loneliness, nervous sensations, panic, fear of the dark, frightened of not being able to sleep, and a fierce, uncontrollable rage that he sometimes unleashed with startling power.
He would lose himself in fantasy, daydreams about Broadway, read book after book about the theatre, and the playwrights, and the actors, and the directors, read play after play. He especially loved the autobiography of Moss Hart.
He always had a book with him.
He was “discovered” as a writer by his 4th grade teacher, Mrs.Young, who recognized his talent and nourished it, and it was under her inspiration that he wrote his first book, “A World All My Own.”
His mother was to die in a car accident years later, her husband, with a history of manic driving and serial car crashes, at the wheel.
* * *
Frank Rich, fearless, brilliant, New York Times Op-Ed columnist, former chief theatre critic, [otherwise known as “The Butcher of Broadway”] is a force to be reckoned with. Unyielding in his willingness to go deep, unearth the lies and hypocrisies of power, his daggers penetrating the White House walls, the clandestine interiors of the Mad Tea Party, the halls of Congress, his Sunday morning blast awakening the complacent from the torpors of sleep; no escape from Frank Rich’s clutches.
He is a journalist who stands up, speaks his mind, clears away the fog of prejudice, stupidity, blindness and deception.
He is apparently, the essence of the despised “liberal.”
As such, he is an object of hatred by the radical right wing, and indeed, it must be said, that a good number of conservative Republican moderates are inflamed by him as well, if 1,200,000 Google listings are any indication.
The worst of it occurred in a vitriolic 2004 confrontation with the actor/director, Mel Gibson over his intensely controversial film, “The Passion of the Christ,” which brought forth an explosion of “nasty anti-Semitic stuff, phone messages, e-mails and letters,” notes Rich.
“Thus, we see the gospel according to Mel,” writes Frank Rich in his New York Times piece of March 7, 2004, entitled, ‘Mel Gibson Forgives Us For His Sins.’ “If you criticize his film and the Jew-baiting by which he promoted it, you are persecuting him – all the way to the bank. If he says that he wants you killed, he wants your intestines “on a stick” and he wants to kill your dog – such was his fatwa against me in September – not only is there nothing personal about it but it’s an act of love. And that is indeed the message of his film. “The Passion” is far more in love with putting Jesus’ intestines on a stick than with dramatizing his godly teachings, which are relegated to a few brief, cryptic flashbacks.”
“I stick to my convictions. Write them the way I feel them,” comments Rich.
On the power of the pen:
Art Review, New York Times/Downtown Pix/ January 14, 2010
“…From a review by the New York Times critic Frank Rich printed on a wall label next to a photograph documenting a 1984 performance of Franz Xaver Krevetz’s ‘Through the Leaves’ by the avant-garde company Mabou Mimes. The work “is not pleasant,” writes Rich, “but it sticks like a splinter in the mind.”
And for those who might think the critic has no heart, here’s what he had to say about the legendary stage actress, Eva Le Gallienne, on January 16, 1981:
“It’s very easy to fall in love all over again with Eva Le Gallienne, who returned to the theatre last night in ‘To Grandmother’s House We Go.’…Though it’s no secret that Miss Le Gallienne is a fine actress, it’s just as much pleasure to reencounter her beauty. When she flows about her comfy, antique-laden living room in a bathrobe, her gray hair tumbling to her shoulders, she seems as lyrical as any Juliet; she pays no mind to the staccato movements of old age. And while Miss Le Gallienne’s features are aristocratic, even regal, they can melt, without warning, into a diaphanous smile that has no equal on Broadway.”
* * *
He was a bolt of lightning on the Broadway stage in his 13 years of notoriety as chief theatre critic for the New York Times.
On “The Butcher of Broadway”:
“I am writing for the reader. The reader wants to hear you speak honestly. I am writing for the New York Times reader, not the producers, the advertisers. I have to have the reader’s trust. If you’re pulling punches, you’ll never write anything worth reading. The baseline: speak honestly for people you’re writing to and accurate.”
On the power to close a show:
“I loved flops. Shows I disliked were hits. In the end word of mouth takes over. In commercial theatre, reviews have very little effect.”
Harvard days and his friendship with Stephen Sondheim, the renowned American composer and lyricist for stage and film: [Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, West Side Story – but a few.]:
Frank Rich, now in his Harvard years at Cambridge, the editorial chairman of the Harvard Crimson, the university’s esteemed daily newspaper and in such capacity, on the date of February 26, 1971, writing a brilliant essay of probing analysis, its subject, the theatre musical Follies by Stephen Sondheim, during its pre-Broadway run in Boston. The article fascinated Harold Prince, the musical’s conductor, and “absolutely intrigued” Sondheim who called and invited Frank to lunch.
“That he said to me that I had understood his show – not that I liked it, but that I understood it – really gave me a lot of the confidence you need to be a writer. I was not in touch with him the entire time I was a critic. My reviews of his work were all over the map. Then we became friends when I stopped being a critic.”
His life as chief drama critic for the New York Times, begun in March of 1980, concluded in 1993.
“I wanted to move on. I was really getting bored with the state of the theatre. In January of 1994 I started the column.”
On the relationship of theatre and politics:
- “Show biz and theatre and politics. It started with FDR’s Fireside Chats and resident radio priest Father Coughlin in the thirties who is very much like Glenn Beck today. Kennedy perfected it. Reagan really perfected it. Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished,’ Obama with the Roman columns at the 2008 Democratic National Convention..”
On the Bush legacy:
“The legacy of torture during the Bush years is a big black mark for America and against our national interests. I believe that Obama wants to rectify this but it’s gone to the back burner and he hasn’t been the stalwart rectifier that we thought he’d be. Eight years of riding herd over the Constitution can’t be undone in 20 months.”
On his political awakening:
“The political awakening came in the summer of 1959 when we moved to Washington, DC. The 1960 Presidential campaign was very very lively. The Democratic primary, Kennedy vs. Humphrey. Watching the convention was a kind of a theatre too. But what struck me as a child was the de facto segregation of Washington D.C., African American families living in alleys blocks away from the White House. There were tremendous inequalities while the rhetoric reflected the idealistic vision.. It had a huge impact on me – Washington and the world in general.”
Do you mingle with power?
“No. I’ve always believed that. I never went to opening nights, never went to the Tony Awards. I believe in not being part of the club. Went once to the White House Correspondent’s Dinner to see what it was. Never went back. The clubiness, the proximity to power led to the run-up to the Iraq war, reporters screwed by their best sources. No dinner parties with Scooter Libby. I believe in independence.”
Does the early rage still live in you? In your work?
“I am angry at injustice. But anger is not a major thing in my work. Passion but not anger.”
* * *
It is a wonderful marriage of writers, Frank Rich and his wife, Alex Witchel, a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, two fine novels behind her, now working on her memoir, her recent portrait of Norris Church Mailer in the April 2010 Vanity Fair, masterful.
“I’m in awe of her,” says Frank.
Of course, it is mutual.
Their two sons are writers as well:
Nathaniel, age 30, first novel, “The Mayor’s Tongue,” and now completing a second novel, a former editor at Paris Review.
Simon, age 26, a comedy writer for “Saturday Night Live,” his first book, “Elliot Allagash,” published in May by Random House, a former president of the Harvard Lampoon.
Early biographical material was drawn from the Frank Rich memoir,“Ghost Light,” published by Random House in the year 2000.