Lunch with the FT: Definite articles
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Having lunch with Maureen Dowd makes you feel as if you’re in a Woody Allen movie. The New York Times’ columnist has a dramatic aura about her and it is rather contagious.
Perched on a corner seat at the uptown bar of Cafe des Artistes on a gloomy Saturday afternoon, Dowd pushes her reading glasses down her nose and looks up from the gossip pages of The New York Post to appraise me. “Lindsay Lohan. I see it. Lindsay Lohan,” she says, repeating the name of the dizzy 19-year-old actress, who is - in her opinion - my doppelganger. “You look exactly like her…You just need a few red streaks.”
Really? I say, not knowing quite how to respond, but feeling better about the fact that I’m late to our 1:30 pm rendezvous because I found a mouse in the kitchen of my fourth-floor walk-up in Spanish Harlem. It’s all part of the performance, I think to myself.
While I’ve been cast in the role of the flighty young thing, Dowd comes across as a saucier dame. A subdued Rosalind Russell, or maybe Gene Tierney.
I last saw Dowd five years ago when I was obediently stacking crates of her mail as a clerk at The New York Times. As I awkwardly wheeled my red cart piled with bulky UPS packages and newspaper bundles around the office to make deliveries, we would sometimes cross paths. “What’s up?” I said once. “Not much,” she snapped back cheekily, pushing the designer sunglasses she liked to wear around the office down her nose to study me, making me feel as if I was a piece of rare art.
She hasn’t changed a bit. Looking glamorous in a black suit fringed with leopard print, she tosses aside the Post and takes her Bloody Mary with her - disappointingly, it’s virgin - as we’re ushered to our seats by the pleasant maitre d’. “Let’s go to the booth. Better than a table. Don’t you think?” she says.
Sequestered in a corner below one of Howard Chandler Christy’s murals, we are in a good spot. Not far from the table where Woody Allen plays cards with Anjelica Huston - Dowd’s a big fan of Anjelica - in Manhattan Murder Mystery. Outside, rain is pattering as taxis whiz by on 67th Street in yellow streaks.
For Dowd, it has been a tough morning and she picks at her salmon listlessly for the next two hours (I order the broccoli and cheddar omelette). Last night, she wrote a scathing column attacking her colleague Judith Miller’s reporting on the Iraq war. The piece began: “I’ve always liked Judy Miller. I have often wondered what Waugh or Thackeray would have made of the Fourth Estate’s Becky Sharp.” It ended by claiming the credibility of the Times would be at risk if Miller were to stay on. Dowd does not have the nerve to read it again.
“I can’t even open the newspaper,” she says. “I’ve turned off my cell phone. I don’t want to read the e-mails.” But cavalierly, she has shown up to discuss her new book, Are Men Necessary? She describes it as “a romp” about feminism through the ages and the battle between the sexes.
“I just wanted this book to be fun. I wrote about Iraq and the war for four years straight and before that impeachment,” she says. “For me, writing about men and women has always been a second beat. The part that drew me into turning it into a book was that women were always talking about men.”
So, you don’t hate men, then?
“Oh, nooo,” she giggles, more like a giddy 28-year-old in a bar than a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist in her 50s. “I love men. Maybe, a bit too much.”
Dowd has a history of flings with fashionable types. In the Times mailroom, the clerks used to pass the time by reading People Magazine to get the latest details on her relationship with Michael Douglas. (Lore has it that after Douglas left Dowd for Catherine Zeta-Jones, she went into the office of her assistant, threw the copy of People promoting the news on his desk and said drolly: “Really Marc, is she prettier than I am?”)
She has a weakness for comical curmudgeons such as Larry David and David Letterman. “Surly can be sexy,” she says. And she is rather depressed that according to People and US Weekly, the relationship between Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn appears to be a real one.
But her love-life aside, what fascinates Dowd is the “really weird trajectory” feminism has taken over the past half-century. Her thesis is that American women have gone from the “big bang of the feminist revolution” to the “big bust of the Botox revolution”.
“It used to be that women used to be politically passionate and talk about gender equality. The whole issue of looks was very much downplayed. No make-up. No bras. Enhancements were considered frivolous,” she says. “Of all the things I thought would happen starting in the late 1950s with the whole era of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, one thing I didn’t think would happen is that women would be more concerned with looks than ever. What interests me is where we started and where we ended up, because I think that’s really funny.”
As a representative of the more superficial generation of females, I offer my thoughts on why feminism is in meltdown. My sisters and I want balance, not collagen or fake boobs.
We’re not as intense as baby-boomers. We want interesting jobs that are taxing but not too taxing; sexy, funny and smart men who empty dishwashers; trips to Shanghai; apartments with doormen; and a couple of kids. (She never had any.)Dowd nods in agreement. “I think women are reshaping the world according to their desires . . . I think it’s probably healthy,” she says. “The worst part of the feminist movement was when women were aping men and trying to act like them.”
While chewing what is left of the ice on the bottom of my drained glass, I blurt out that I’ve never felt quite the same about Betty Friedan since 2000 when she kicked me out of her Sag Harbour beach house and called my boss to tell on me after I confessed while interviewing her that I had never quite gotten around to finishing The Feminine Mystique.
Dowd laughs. “You’ll have to put that in your memoir,” she says.
Dowd, who replaced Anna Quindlen 10 years ago as the lone female columnist on The New York Times’ editorial page, made her career in the 1980s and 1990s as a very clever writer who attacked almost anyone who rose to power in Washington DC, her home town. She has perfect pitch on a good day. On a bad one, her critics think she’s tone-deaf.
“Al Gore wants to be the person who says how things go. But if you wanna be boss, you gotta be willing to whack some people,” she wrote in January 2000, painting Gore as the sitcom character Tony Soprano in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Taking the mickey out of politicians comes naturally. She has three older brothers and a sister with big personalities. Her dad Mike, from Ballyvaughan in County Clare, was a cop on Capitol Hill. Her mother, Peggy, was a Washingtonian and fellow scribe who pushed her shy daughter to live with panache. She died in July at 97. “I miss her every day,” Dowd says.
Dowd thanks her mother first in the acknowledgments and offers tips from How to Catch and Keep a Man and some of the other self-help books she sent her unmarried daughter over the years. But flashy dermatologists were also cardinal sources.
Tina Alster, one leading practitioner, opened a window on the depths of American female vanity when she told Dowd she knew her clients had too much collagen in their mouths “when their lips move at a different rate than the rest of their faces”. So did all the vials of fat taken from the derrières of New York socialites that Doctor Patty Wexler (aka the Queen of Botox) stores in her refrigerator and uses to plump up faces.
“They were hilarious. I mean, everything that came out of these women’s mouths was funny,” says Dowd.
Her years covering women on campaigns and in the White House offered good case studies that illustrate the difficulties of defining the success of women’s lib.
Former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro who had a “certain kind of metallic brassiness” about her and “fought to maintain her femininity with her dress and her pearls”, was not nearly as effective a politician as a certain senator named Hillary Clinton who “doesn’t like to throw like a girl”, in her opinion.“At the time, I thought Ferraro would change everything, but I don’t think she’s had much impact in a way. As a historical figure, she looks very small,” Dowd says. “But Hillary is completely different.”
Over a cappuccino (for her) and filter coffee (for me), she dwells on the stresses of being a columnist. The night before, the restaurateur Joe Allen offered to employ Dowd as a cocktail waitress at his bar if Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher of the New York Times, ever fired her. “He told me as long as I have fish-net stockings, I could come work for him,” she says.
After two hours, we decide to face the weather and leave the set. Dowd graciously offers to pick up the tab. “Let me get this one,” she says (I decline). On the way out, we stop to take a better look at Woody and Anjelica’s table. “I love her,” Dowd says.
Outside, I run to catch the bus uptown to deal with the mouse. “The bus? The bus?” Dowd says, clearly a woman who no longer has to embrace public transport. I shrug my shoulders in a what-am-I-to-do-I-still-live-in-a-walk-up kind of way and climb aboard.
She hails a cab downtown, heading to her office to face the nasty e-mails about her column on Judith Miller.
Cafe des Artistes, New York
1 x salmon
1 x omelette
1 x virgin Bloody Mary
1 x vodka gimlet
2 x coffee
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