Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Redhead and the Gray Lady

Profile
The Redhead and the Gray Lady
How Maureen Dowd became the most dangerous columnist in America—on her own, very female terms.

By Ariel Levy

(Photo credit: Albert Watson)

Possibly, there are even more naked women at Maureen Dowd’s house today than there were when this place was JFK’s Georgetown bachelor pad in the fifties. They are lounging in the vintage posters, carved into her Deco furniture, painted in huge trompe l’oeil pastorals on the living-room wall. “My girlfriend Michi said, ‘You’ve got to paint clothes on them,’ like you know how they did at the Sistine Chapel?” says Dowd, who is drinking white wine from a goblet with a naked woman carved into its stem. “But I like them. I think they’re kind of campy.”

Michi is Michiko Kakutani, one of Dowd’s circle of extremely close female friends at the New York Times, where Dowd is, of course, the only female op-ed columnist. It’s a post she says she is “not temperamentally suited to,” despite the fact she’s been doing it for ten years and has won a Pulitzer and a passionate army of fans in the process, because Dowd doesn’t like “a lot of angst in my life,” and it is specifically her job to provoke. Her natural inclination—her fundamental drive—is, rather, to seduce. But then those two things are not entirely unrelated.

It isn’t easy being the lone female on “murderers’ row,” as the columnists’ offices in the Washington bureau are called. (And Dowd’s office just happens to be next door to her ex-boyfriend John Tierney’s. “It’s like, ‘Out of all the gin joints in all the world . . . ’ It is weird,” she says. “We share a bathroom, which I guess could have ended up happening if we’d gotten married.”) Dowd says she doesn’t mind that W. has nicknamed her “The Cobra,” and she probably kind of likes being called “the flame-haired flamethrower,” but she hates all monikers that involve knives or other sharp objects. “I have a fear of castration,” she explains, perching herself with catlike precision on the striped settee in her lacquer-red sitting room. “Not fear of being castrated but fear of castrating.” This from a woman who once referred to Al Gore as “practically lactating.”


Dowd is wearing a low-backed black sweater, black pants, and green cowboy boots. “I’m into clothes, but in a way that’s related to wanting to walk into a film noir movie,” she says. “You know, I love to go to vintage stores, but mostly it’s stuff that I don’t have anywhere to wear . . . I don’t have the life that goes with the clothes. Alessandra”—Stanley, the Times’ television critic and another of Dowd’s best friends—“says my wardrobe is very Siegfried and Roy.”

It’s good that Dowd is dressed in a neutral color today, because otherwise she would clash with the room around her. Her red hair is backlit by her collection of motion lamps—glowing squares and spheres that bubble with swimming fish and parrots and floating music notes. The red walls are lined with shelves exploding with books, old record jackets (Nancy Sinatra, Peggy Lee), family photos, various feathered ornaments and fans, a collection of tigers, another of mermaids, and a dozen or so antique martini shakers. A poster that the Times’ managing editor Jill Abramson gave her pictures a glamorous woman surrounded by a rapt circle of men above the words KEEP MUM. SHE’S NOT SO DUMB! CARELESS TALK COSTS LIVES. “I have terrible taste,” says Dowd. “Ask any of my friends.” Aaron Sorkin—whom Dowd will describe to me variously as a “genius,” a “really close friend,” and a “guy I used to date”—calls her house a cross between the New York Public Library and the House of the Rising Sun.

Brains versus sex. The serious and the superficial. The battle of the sexes. This has long been the terrain of Dowd’s journalism, and it’s the explicit focus of her new book, Are Men Necessary?, 338 pages of ruminations and witticisms on matters ranging from the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas hearings to the vestigiality of male nipples.

Though Dowd’s importance as an antagonist of the White House has never been greater, the book throws open the door to her critics’ favorite complaint: frivolousness. “When I started as a White House correspondent,” the second female in the position in the Times’ history, “there was a lot of criticism from guys saying, ‘She focuses too much on the person but not enough on policy.’ I never understood that argument at all. I just didn’t agree with the premise,” says Dowd. “Even Scotty Reston,” the storied Washington correspondent who joined the Times the day World War II began and decidedly did not groove on women in the workplace, “said that after the president got the bomb, you had to sort of focus on his judgment and who he was as a person, because that’s all you had. All the great traumatizing events of American history—Watergate, Vietnam, the Iran/contra stuff—have always been about the president’s personal demons and gremlins. So I always thought that criticism was just silly . . . as if it was a girlish thing to be focused on the person.”


Dowd interviewing First Lady Nancy Reagan.(Photo credit: Courtesy of Maureen Dowd)

Dowd’s femininity is dramatized by the relentless maleness of the worlds she inhabits. She appears that much more redheaded surrounded by the blue-suited stoniness of Washington, the arid fustiness of the New York Times. When Dowd started out as a political correspondent, she had a term for women in her position: color girls. “I always liked the sort of funnier, weirder thing to write about as opposed to the official thing that would be officially more prestigious but, to me, not as interesting,” Dowd says. “So I liked being a color girl. You can deliver something unique.” The light in which she’s bathed herself is low and gray but flattering.

In Are Men Necessary?, we are taken along on a chummy sororal romp with the women who just happen to make up the female voice of what is arguably the most influential newspaper in the country—to the Crème de la Mer counter at Saks, for example, with Dowd and “my girlfriend Alessandra.” Another friend “called nearly in tears the day she won a Pulitzer: ‘Now,’ she moaned, ‘I’ll never get a date!’ ” (Kakutani won a Pulitzer in 1998.)

“We’re just ordinary friends,” Dowd says, “like you’re friends with your girlfriends, except now it’s kind of weird because we’re a lot of critics.” And in her book, Dowd asserts, “If there’s one thing men fear, it’s a woman who uses her critical faculties.”


But Dowd is more than the sum of her critical faculties; she’s an utter and unreconstructed fox. Something that nearly every person I spoke to about her mentioned, unprompted, is that men can’t resist her. I tell her this, and she pauses long enough to give her rejoinder a forties-movie-star snap: “Where are they?”

If Judith Miller represents the bad witch of the New York Times in the public imagination—self-important, suffering, wrong—then Maureen Dowd is Glenda: Technicolor, spreading mirth among the munchkins, floating around in a protective pink bubble. Obviously, Miller— “Miss Run Amok,” as she’s called herself, according to the Times—was allowed to run rampant over the rules. But the Dowd crowd enjoys its own particular brand of latitude at the paper. When Geraldo Rivera demanded a correction after Stanley asserted that he had “nudged” a rescue worker aside to make room for his camera crew after Hurricane Katrina, for instance, the Times ran an “Editors’ Note” defending her “figurative reference” only after public editor Byron Calame wrote a whole column in Rivera’s defense.

Dowd, Kakutani, and Stanley are the cool girls of the New York Times—think Heathers, but nice. Whereas Miller famously elbows away the competition, Dowd employs a different tactic. “She’s the opposite of the woman who pulls the ladder up behind her,” says Dowd’s good friend Leon Wieseltier, in an observation that was echoed by colleague after colleague. “She keeps pushing it lower.”

Still, a common newsroom perception is that Dowd’s clique gets special treatment because its members use their charm instrumentally—an occupational hazard for successful women that runs roughly proportional to their level of physical attractiveness. And then there is their extremely close proximity to Jill Abramson. “When I became managing editor, I gave a short speech: My mother told me when I was going off to summer camp, ‘You just need one friend and you’ll be okay,” says Abramson. “At work, Maureen is that one friend.”

Abramson, responsible for managing the paper’s Judith Miller coverage, is also, of course, at the center of it. “I’m so sorry it’s taken me so long,” she said when she returned my call. “I’ve just been buried under all this Judy Miller crap.”

Shortly thereafter, Dowd herself floated down and took center stage, with a remarkable Saturday column titled “Woman of Mass Destruction.” The piece began with the words “I’ve always liked Judy Miller”— a statement that seemed laughably implausible when, a few paragraphs later, Dowd described being bumped from her seat at a White House briefing by the shamelessly aggressive Miller. Dowd came off smelling suspiciously roselike: “I could only laugh.” The column ended by, for all intents and purposes, calling for Miller’s dismissal. It was a classic Heathers move, a savage put-down delivered with comic panache.

Dowd voiced what many at the Times felt—the piece cut surgically through the murky facts and mea culpas and got to the core issue. Still, some thought she’d crossed a line by going after a colleague, no matter how reviled that colleague had become, and saw the column as grandstanding.

Dowd thought hard before writing the column, delaying it from Wednesday to Saturday. “As a woman, I know that if I write about another woman, it will be perceived as a catfight,” she says. She also worried that she would seem to be carrying others’ water. Dowd says she never talked to editorial-page editor Gail Collins or publisher Arthur Sulzberger. Jill Abramson, Dowd says, advised her not to write it, fearing that it would be seen as piling on.


Dowd with Barabara Bush (1991).(Photo credit: Courtesy of the Geroge Bush Presedential Library)

But after Miller wrote her own account of the Plame situation, Dowd went ahead. “I realized I had to, because for the last five years, I’ve written a lot about WMD and the scamming and hype by the administration, and in a way, Judy was a phantom player in this.”

In response to the column, Miller e-mailed a seven-point rebuttal, beginning with the words, “I like you, too.”

Both on the page and in person, Dowd doesn’t let anyone forget she’s a woman. When she appeared on Letterman to promote her first book, Bushworld, in 2004, she wore a little black dress with spaghetti straps, and with her red hair fluffed in an Old Hollywood wave, Dowd had a certain Jessica Rabbit ambience. “You look tremendous, and I guess you must be going somewhere after this because nobody gets this nicely dressed for me,” Letterman told her. “I did,” she breathed. “I’ve been in love with you forever.”

“It’s almost impossible not to be a little bit in love with Maureen,” says Washington reporter Todd Purdum. “She’s bewitching. Maureen is . . . a sorceress.”

Purdum thinks there’s “a practical part of Maureen that knows that. She’s a very different personality than Mary McGrory,” the Washington Star columnist at whose parties Dowd and George Stephanopoulos used to serve drinks when they were in their twenties. “But she’s not dissimilar in this way: She bends a lot of people to her will with this amazing combo of smarts and charm. I’ve done things for Maureen like carried bags and fixing her computer in the middle of the night that I wouldn’t have done for anyone else.”


Dowd acknowledges her debt to McGrory in Are Men Necessary?: “I tried to learn from her,” she writes. “The way she acted helpless like a barracuda.”

It is a testament to Dowd’s seductiveness that even after the blistering Bushworld, the first President Bush still e-mails her to this day. “I went with Maureen to a party at this fancy townhouse for Bush Senior after he had published a book of his letters,” remembers Abramson. “We got there, and his eyes lit up when he saw her come in. He shooed the two of us into a little room; he said, ‘Bar will kill me if she sees you here!’ It’s like an illicit friendship he has with her.”

As eviscerating as Dowd can be on the page, in person she seldom fails to charm. She bristles, though, at the suggestion that she’s used her feminine wiles to get information. “I used to get furious about that,” she says. “I thought that was such an insult, because I never thought I did. Sally Quinn had that famous quote that if a senator was telling her something and he had his hand on her ass, she’d just let it stay there until he told her. That was not my school. My school was I wanted to be charming but I didn’t want to flirt with a source. Like I had a really good relationship with Marlin Fitzwater, Bush One’s press secretary, and I think I would tease him sometimes . . . There was a roast I had to do about him once, and I said he was catnip for women or something. But I just felt that it would be unprofessional to flirt with him.”

“Well, yes, she was very flirtatious,” says Fitzwater. “She was just an interesting person to be around on a personal basis.”

“I’ve always had this great flirtatious relationship with her, so it’s hard to get mad at her for any length of time,” says former Clinton White House spokesman Mike McCurry. “I’d call and yell at her, and I’d always end up laughing and saying, ‘Well, this isn’t gonna go anywhere.’ ”

Dowd’s technique is described by one former colleague as “mischievous destabilization.” She once walked up to Newt Gingrich’s spokesman, Tony Blankley, while he was in the middle of a speech and flipped his tie over to see the label. “But the flirtation word I would take exception with, because it implies something inappropriate,” says Blankley.

I met Dowd for the first time when she attended a reading I was giving at a local bookstore. I was standing at a lectern answering a question about the breakdown of the women’s movement when something caught my eye—something red. I tried to say something smart. I tried to think of something funny. I knew that the flame-haired flamethrower was in my midst.

When it was over, she came up, handed me my book to sign, and said her first words to me: “Just make it out ‘to my idol.’ ”


Dowd with mother Peggy.(Photo credit: Courtesy of Maurren Dowd)

Dowd concedes that when a female reporter is playful, “that’s probably indistinguishable to a guy from flirting.” She thinks about it for a minute. “But in my head, it isn’t flirting.” She laughs. “It’s so funny because I would get so angry about a lot of this stuff over the years, like when people would—as they constantly do—put me in catfights with other women. Like when Alessandra was hired, for instance, and Howell was the Washington bureau chief.” Howell Raines went on to become the executive editor of the Times and was pushed out two years ago in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal. “He called me in and said, ‘Now, I don’t want you to be jealous that Alessandra is coming.’ I just blew up and said, ‘I happened to be the one who recommended her and she’s my best friend and I’m really offended!’ But it’s hopeless. Some guys are going to like to do that.”

But wasn’t it slightly more complicated than that? Wasn’t Howell Raines, at one point, Dowd’s boyfriend?

“He was my boss,” she says very firmly. Then she cracks up.

It is worth keeping in mind that less than 30 years ago, in April 1977, when Dowd was still a metro reporter at the now-defunct Washington Star, the female staff members of the New York Times were at a turning point in a class-action suit against their employer for systematic discrimination against women in hiring practices and compensation. According to Nan Robertson’s book The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men, and the New York Times, publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger’s baffled response was, “Why can’t a private company have men around if it wants to?” That same year, Anna Quindlen was hired and went on to become the third woman ever to have a regular Times op-ed column. In one famous column, Quindlen expressed disgust with the Times when the paper ran a story naming the woman who accused William Kennedy Smith of raping her, replete with blind quotes about the alleged victim’s bar-hopping “wild streak.” Quindlen’s urban-earth-mother feminism fit with the cultural climate of her moment and served as a vital foil for the Times’ still lagging grasp of gender equity.


It was Quindlen who hired Dowd as a Times metro reporter in 1983, and Quindlen suggested Dowd as her replacement when she retired from writing her column in 1995. “I’ve known a number of really first-rate writers who couldn’t make it as columnists, because to be a columnist you have to create a persona,” says Quindlen. “The rap on Maureen as a reporter was that there was too much persona in the prose. Columnists are probably the only people readers talk about like they’re people: Strangers say to me, ‘Did you read Maureen yesterday?’ As though Maureen’s my friend—which is true—and Maureen’s their friend—which is not true.”

If Dowd fears castrating, she also seems frequently unable to resist it.

Dowd initially conceived of her column as partly about politics, partly about men and women—in Dowd’s voice, which sounds a little like the actress Carol Kane’s, this comes out “min and womin”—and partly about Hollywood. “Anna was focused on women’s issues,” says Dowd. “When I got the column, I didn’t want to do women’s issues per se, but I did want to look at things through a woman’s eyes. When I started doing humor pieces, Michael Kinsley”—the former editorial-page editor of the L.A. Times, now a columnist for the Washington Post—“and Bill Safire separately took me aside and said don’t do that: You’re going to be perceived as a girl. And usually I’ll take any advice. But in that case, I just knew that was wrong for me.”

“I was completely wrong,” says Kinsley. “I thought that she would get pegged as a girl and not taken seriously, but she in fact sort of reinvented the column as a form and made it . . . Well, I’m not going to continue this girl metaphor, because I’m just going to get into trouble. It’s basically the technique of a novel: She wants to be Edith Wharton, and she is.”

Dowd thinks of her columns as “political cartoons.” In her hands, W. is a spoiled brat in cowboy boots; the Democrats are the “mommy party.” If Dowd fears castrating, she also seems frequently unable to resist it. Clinton behaved “like a teenage girl trying to protect her virginity”; “he would be laughed out of any locker room in the country.” (Clinton returned fire at the 1998 White House correspondents’ dinner when he read a list of mock headlines, including “ ‘Buddy Got What He Deserved,’ by Maureen Dowd.” Buddy was his neutered chocolate Lab.)

As in all caricatures, some traits are minimized, others are amplified and possibly distorted, but the fundamental essence is usually captured so precisely that Dowd’s images often win a permanent place in the culture. She’s retold the last three presidencies as long-running sitcoms, where the joke is always on the man in charge. In a way, she’s created her own reality—Dowdworld—and we just live in it.


With Sidney Blumenthal at the Clinton White House.(Photo credit: Courtesy of Maureen Dowd)

Only slightly less remarkable than her hold over Bush the First, despite her status as perhaps the single most effective basher of Bush the Second, is the fact that Dowd managed to be the apple of two successive executive editors’ eyes: Joe Lelyveld and his replacement, Howell Raines.

Dowd once threatened to quit (“Not for the first or last time,” says Lelyveld) after an editor announced on speakerphone that a front-page story she’d written on Kitty Kelley’s biography of Nancy Reagan “wasn’t up to the Times standard.” “Some very bad judgments were made by editors, and a story that should have been played with a lot of restraint was treated seriously and put on the front page and Maureen was pressured and I didn’t think she was at fault,” says Lelyveld. Lelyveld successfully appeased her with a bouquet of red roses.

“Women know that they will, on occasion, get some extra attention because of their gender, or because they’re charming or clever or attractive,” Dowd writes in Are Men Necessary? “They are willing to accept the benefits that come when the boss is taken with them.” Her title is a play on James Thurber and E. B. White’s 1929 treatise Is Sex Necessary?, in which they assert that relations between men and women went off course when flappers started flirting with equality by smoking, drinking, working, and imagining they had “the right to be sexual.”


Dowd updates the discussion with her feelings on the contemporary “primal fear of single successful women: that the aroma of male power is an aphrodisiac for women, but the perfume of female power is a turnoff for men.” Her solution, or at least part of it, is old school: “I always subscribed to the Carole Lombard philosophy: ‘I live by a man’s code, designed to fit a man’s world, yet at the same time I never forget that a woman’s first job is to choose the right shade of lipstick.’ ” One could replace “yet at the same time” with “consequently.”

In her book, Dowd has it both ways: She objects to the way men reduce women to chickish stereotypes, but then she can’t help but engage in a little bit of it herself. It can be frustrating to hear her carve up the world along gender lines, to watch Dowd dress various human traits in pink or blue. “Maureen does believe that there are two teams: that there are the boys and there are the girls,” says Wieseltier. Dowd told me that “Condi and Hillary don’t throw like girls,” for example. “Hillary was willing to kind of debilitate the integrity of feminism to promote her own and her husband’s interests, and that’s a very manly thing to do.” Really? Men are inherently more self-interested than women? What about Martha Stewart? (What about Judith Miller?)

Dowd recently received a minor spanking at the hands of Barbara Ehrenreich after Dowd wrote in her March 13 column about the dearth of female op-ed writers and how she tried to get out of the job herself after six months: “As a woman, I told Howell, I wanted to be liked—not attacked.” In response, Ehrenreich told the New York Observer, “Some of us love fights. I think that’s complete bullshit.”

“I put Barbara’s comment in my book because I know it isn’t the same for everyone,” says Dowd. “I was just saying how it felt for me.” Dowd is not a partisan. She was as merciless with Clinton as she was with Bush, and she is as skeptical of feminism as she is of communism. As Wieseltier puts it, “She insists that the human logic of events is their primary logic. She’s never distracted by the political or economic explanation.”

Dowd is assumed by most people to be a Democrat. But a certain brand of lefty will never forgive her for her coverage of the Clinton impeachment, the work that won her a Pulitzer. “A lot of people thought, Well, Maureen Dowd should be a liberal columnist and sticking up for our side,” says Mike McCurry. “They thought that she was aiding and abetting Ken Starr and the Republican hate machine, and in reality she was part of this kind of Irish-Catholic mafia that included Chris Matthews and Mike Kelly that thought Clinton’s sins were beyond the pale.”

Dowd was the youngest of five children raised by her father, Mike, who was a D.C. police inspector, and her mother, Peggy, who died this past July and was the love of Dowd’s life so far. Dowd’s mentor, former Times managing editor Arthur Gelb, calls Peggy Dowd “the source, the fountain of Maureen’s humor and her Irish sensibilities and her intellectual take.” In her last years, her mother’s eyesight began to fail. “One day my phone rang, it was 7:30 in the morning, and my mother said, ‘Hello, operator, I’ve lost my sight and I need to be connected to a hospital.’ She meant to press zero but she had pressed redial,” Dowd says. “So I ran over and we get to the doctor’s building and she says, ‘I’m never . . . gonna . . . see . . . ’ And I thought she was going to say ‘your face,’ or something, but she goes, ‘Tim Russert’s face again.’ I went, Tim Russert?! What about me? It was hilarious. But I loved that about her. I’m the one at the newspaper, but she’s the real news junkie.”

“I listened in on one of their conversations once and it was just like one of Maureen’s columns,” says McCurry. “That same kind of caustic commentary. I remember thinking, Her columns are letters to her mom.”

Her mom, like the rest of the Dowd family, was thoroughly Republican. “Oh, God,” says Dowd’s sister, also named Peggy. “Crimson.” They rarely discuss politics. “There are times when her columns get to me, but then I gotta think, you know, at the end of my life, George Bush is not going to be knocking on my door,” says Peggy Dowd. “It doesn’t matter how much money I send him or how many times I vote for him, if I’m in the hospital, he won’t come and hold my hand, and I know Maureen will.”

I ask if, given her mother’s traditionalism, Mrs. Dowd had domestic aspirations for her youngest daughter, who at 53 has never lived with a boyfriend. “I know she always worried about it because I was her baby, and also I’m a little . . . scattered,” says Dowd. “She did bring it up right before she died. I wish I could have put her mind at rest; I think she would have loved that. But everybody doesn’t get everything. I told her I would work on it.”

A few days later, I go to see Dowd at the New York Times. She has been coming to Manhattan a lot lately, sometimes just to avoid unpacking her mother’s boxes and sometimes to see her friends and sometimes for a professional function, like the one she has tonight. But the guard in the lobby tells me she is at the D.C. bureau. When I convince him that Dowd is really in the building, he sends me to the third floor. There’s no receptionist there, so I start wandering under the fluorescent lights through the weirdly hushed newsroom. “If she’s here, she’d be near that back wall,” a man who appears barely undead informs me. But all the offices in back are either dark and empty or inhabited by men. Eventually someone pops his head up from a cubicle like a prairie dog and tells me to go upstairs.


When I finally find her on the tenth floor in her beige-carpeted office, Dowd looks like a bright bird in a business suit, her red hair smooth and frizzless despite the torrential rain outside. “This was Anna’s office, and she had a quilt on the wall and they had her name on a gold plate outside, and then I started using it and I liked having her name on the gold plate because it gave me a sense of continuity,” she says. “But then one day I came in and they had switched it to a gold plate that just said columnist. I complained to Howell, and I said that’s giving me a very insecure feeling.”

I ask Dowd what the dinner she is attending tonight is for, and she looks down at her shoes. “Okay, I have something embarrassing to admit,” she says. “It turned out to be next Wednesday, but by the time I realized . . . well, I didn’t want to screw up your schedule, and I realize I’m very disorganized, and I debated whether to tell you because it makes me look so stupid, but I am stupid! I just lost my cell phone in the cab. Alessandra called me and she goes, ‘Are you missing something?’ ”

“Maureen does believe that there are two teams, that there are the boys, and there are the girls.”

If the genre Dowd fetishizes is film noir, the genre she inhabits is romantic comedy—glamorous but madcap. Dowd is the irresistible scatterbrain; the vixen rendered cozy by her own haphazardness. You can imagine the script and the props and the wardrobe for “The Redhead and the Gray Lady.” “Bush Senior, one of his assistants teases me that we have this kind of forties movie-star relationship where he’s the upper-crust guy and I’m the lower-class girl and we have this funny cultural collision,” Dowd says. “Once when I was having dinner with one of his top aides, after he’d had a couple martinis, he goes, ‘Frankly, we don’t see you at the New York Times. We see you more like the New York Post or the Chicago Tribune.’ And I said, ‘You mean because I’m ethnic or working class?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah.’ ”

Dowd says she’s not the “private-plane type. It makes me nervous. I mean, I don’t even like to fly first class.” But her taste for famous men has, from time to time, required it of her. She describes Michael Douglas, whom she dated right before he married Catherine Zeta-Jones, as “a really nice guy, a very romantic guy.” The humor of their romance is not lost on her: “Whether he can handle a woman who wields ice picks? I used to tease him about that. Sometimes actors ask me out, and then I’m worried because they can act like they’re not scared of me, or threatened? But then maybe later they are. I remember him announcing at dinner, like way after we knew each other: ‘I’m not scared of you.’ But it made me nervous that he had to tell me. I also became close with his father, Kirk,” says Dowd. “He told me this funny story once about when he was first discovering his Judaism and he was making The Bad and the Beautiful and he was fasting on certain days, and he looked at me and he goes, ‘Do you have any idea how hard it is to make love to Lana Turner on an empty stomach?’ ”

Dowd’s other well-documented romance was with The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin. In May 2001, the New York Post reported that Dowd had accidentally sent “randy” e-mails intended for Aaron Sorkin to her colleague Andrew Ross Sorkin. “That’s a real cautionary tale of e-mail,” she says. “I had only met him; I didn’t really know him and I was just trying to kind of give him tidbits of political things. So I just would e-mail him funny things, and that one was a joke that some guys at a bar said, but when it appeared in the New York Post it was as if I were saying it. Which was so embarrassing, because it was just such a dumb line, and so at least if they were going to catch you with some flirtatious e-mail—which we weren’t doing at that point—you’d like it to be, like, a cool kind of line. And it was also embarrassing because I think he was married then.”

Possibly this encounter was less humiliating for Aaron Sorkin than his arrest the previous month at the Burbank airport, where he was stopped at security for attempting to catch a plane to Vegas with a stash of magic mushrooms and a $4 crack pipe. Sorkin would later admit to writing some of his best work while freebasing cocaine in his room at the Four Seasons. On Yom Kippur, I received an e-mail from him responding to my request for an interview: “I’m atoning for my sins today and that’s gonna take a while. Is tomorrow okay?”


Sorkin describes Dowd as “a dream girl. It’s always seemed to me like she stepped out of a movie from the forties—if Rita Hayworth were just a brilliant writer, that’s what Maureen would be. We would take trips—we would meet in New York or go to Hawaii for a few days, and she would have with her five suitcases of, like, lamé. It was like she was the assistant wardrobe mistress from La Cage aux Folles. It’s like, in case she’s going to need it; it brings her some kind of comfort . . . like a blankie.”

Peggy Dowd thinks that her baby sister “intimidates men with her writing and her smarts. I’ve had friends who’ve said, ‘I’d love to date her, but what would I talk about?’ ” Sorkin describes Dowd as “more independent than I would like.” Wieseltier thinks that “what’s kept her single is her integrity: It’s quite simply that she’s never found a man she loves enough to marry.”

But it’s also the case that being married or otherwise tied down removes a gal’s aura of sexual mystery. As Linda Fiorentino’s character remarks in one of Dowd’s favorite movies, The Last Seduction, “A woman loses 50 percent of her power when people find out who she’s sleeping with.” Wieseltier—who calls Dowd “Bridgid,” which is her middle name and the name of Fiorentino’s Last Seduction character—says that his friend “has created this character called Maureen Dowd who is dazzlingly glamorous.” This character is ageless. This character is single.

The next morning, Alessandra Stanley is making eggs on the Upper West Side. “When I got divorced, I finally got to cook!” she says. “You know how insufferable men are. When they cook, they have to be a chef. I had dinner at [Columbia J-school dean] Nick Lemann’s house once, and it was like we were all witnesses to genius.”

When Dowd walks in, she looks like she’s just come from a nightclub. She’s in a distressed denim skirt and very tight high-heeled, knee-high black boots with her suit jacket from yesterday and her hair up in a clip and her sunglasses on. “I just had to dump my whole purse out,” she says. “I was so afraid I was gonna leave my cell phone in the cab again. But it turned out to be in my pocket. Are you cooking? I should’ve ordered some croissants or something from room service and brought them over.”

“Yes, you should have.”

“Alessandra has the most beautiful manners of anyone outside of the first President Bush.”

“The Wasp,” says Stanley.

“That’s her Wasp side, not her Italian side,” Dowd finishes. “What time is it, exactly? I love this watch—Mike Luckovich, I met him at the White House correspondents’ dinner, and we somehow got in this conversation about how he collects vintage ties and I had a bunch of them from when I used to imitate the way Alessandra dressed, she used to wear ties. What year was that?”

“I don’t want to say.”

“It was a while back,” says Dowd. “I don’t wear them anymore, so I sent them to him and he sent me this watch. I think it’s engraved TO BLANCHE. So what time is it? I’m so happy that woman called you with the cell phone. Although phones are relatively easy, it’s when you leave your computer in the cab.”

Has that happened?

“Perhaps,” she purrs. “Perhaps that’s happened in the past. When I was on the campaign, that might have happened once or thrice.”

“I left my coat in Iowa,” says Stanley. “I remember the campaign had to send it to me because I went straight to New Hampshire. It must have been Dole.”

“Alessandra loved covering Dole.”

“Because he was genuinely one of the meanest, funniest people on Earth and he couldn’t stop,” says Stanley. “He could not stop himself!”

“Alessandra’s been everywhere. How many languages do you speak?”

“All right, don’t do this,” says Stanley.

“Just tell her.”

“Like Dorothy Parker. You remember that famous line of hers?”

“No,” says Dowd.

“Someone said so-and-so speaks eighteen languages. Dorothy Parker says, yeah, but she can’t say no in any of them.”

The phone rings, and Stanley checks the caller I.D. “That’s type A,” she says. “That’s Anna. I’m not answering that phone. Anna Quindlen reads everything, every paper, and you don’t want to talk to her in the morning because she’s wired. If she could write a column every single day, she would.”

“My watch says twenty of two,” says Dowd. It is 10:30 in the morning. “All right, girls, I’m going to try and catch this train,” she says and puts on her pink Burberry trench coat and slings two different duffels over her shoulders, neither of which is really closed.

She does, in fact, look like a character—gorgeous, charming, a little ridiculous—in a novel. But it’s a true story.

Some of her best work.


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