NEW YORK — Five weeks ago, Frank Rich sent an e-mail to New York magazine editor in chief Adam Moss asking if his friend of 24 years could give him a call.
“Frank said he was feeling that he had done what he could do on the column and that he wanted to do something different,” Moss said Tuesday, recounting the conversation. “And he asked me for advice. And I said, ‘Well, how about New York?’ And he said, ‘Huh? Huh! That’s an interesting idea. What would you want me to do?’ ”
This story first appeared in the March 2, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Moss spent the next few days thinking about the answer. He recalled the negotiations he had with Rich in 2004 — when Moss came fairly close to poaching the New York Times all-star — and remembered he was eager to write, but also keen to provide big picture wisdom for a reinvented New York magazine. So Moss proposed that Rich write a monthly column that would serve as the anchor of a section — “almost a mini-magazine,” said the editor in chief — that he could then help put together. In addition, he’d write around once a week for New York’s Web site.
The idea excited them both, and by Tuesday the Moss-Rich marriage was complete and Rich’s 31 influential years with the Times were over. Rich’s last column for the paper will be in two weeks. The move marks a major shift in Manhattan’s print media landscape — and a tit-for-tat in what has become an ongoing raiding of talent between the Times and New York magazine.
“I’ve always been someone who has shaken up my career,” said Rich, speaking from his cell phone in Baltimore, where he was overseeing the production of “Veep,” an HBO pilot that stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus, on which he serves as executive producer.
“As much as I love the Times, there was no way for me to reinvent myself at the Times,” said Rich. “I’ve been a critic, I’ve been a columnist at the magazine, a senior writer writing pieces for the well of the magazine, and then did both kinds of op-ed columns, including one they very nicely created for me.”
When asked if there was anything the Times leadership could have done to keep him, he was definitive.
“There’s nothing I wanted,” he said. “There’s nothing I wanted from them. They’ve been nothing but great. They let me do this HBO stuff, too, on the side, which has been a big boon to me. But I don’t want to be an editor. I don’t want to be a manager at the Times.”
Beyond his peripatetic writing career, Rich has been an adviser and consigliere to Times editors and a mother hen of sorts to a legion of Times writers. His loss was felt on Tuesday.
“His contribution to the institution is much greater than his impressive sum of clips,” said Jodi Kantor, a correspondent with the Times and the former Arts & Leisure editor. “There is a whole unseen contribution to the paper.”
Kantor said that it “feels like the end of an era,” and that “a lot of people at the Times, at one point or another, have had this feeling of, Oh my God, Frank Rich believes in my work and wants to help me do it!”
Rich came to the Times in 1980, after serving as film critic for Time magazine, and became the newspaper’s chief drama critic. He achieved infamy as “the Butcher of Broadway” — named for the power his criticisms wielded — and then switched gears again, in 1994, and became an op-ed columnist. Along the way, he became the first to write a double-length column for the paper’s op-ed page (a 1,400-word piece instead of the standard 700 words) and also became a senior writer for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. In the pages of the Times, he managed to reinvent himself from a film expert to a theater expert to a culture guy to a politics guy.
And then, in 2008, he picked up a consulting gig with HBO. (Rich demurred at suggestions that HBO and his budding career as a TV producer played a role in his sudden job change. He said he has been “restless” in recent months and has been thinking about leaving the paper for a year.)
It’s no surprise that, in looking for his next act, he would turn to Moss.
They first met in 1987, when Rich was writing theater reviews and Moss, in his late 20s, was an editor at Esquire and a religious Rich reader — a “Frank addict,” he said. Moss wanted to assign a big piece on the intersection of gay and straight life in America, and wanted a straight man to write it. He asked Rich, but he was reluctant to do it since he hadn’t written magazine-length stories in some time and found the topic to be a bit broad.
“It sounded like a book,” said Rich.
But Moss provided research help and gave him several suggestions on how to pull it off. Rich would ultimately write it, and it was a hit. He even wrote Moss into the piece — without attribution and describing him only as “a man” he had a business meeting with — and explained how Moss had come out to him (awkwardly, in midsentence, just as they were about to go through a revolving door).
That was the last piece Moss edited at Esquire before he started 7 Days. Moss said that while he was running 7 Days, Rich was “really, really helpful” and served as sort of a “backdoor counselor” for the magazine. Rich also recommended that Moss bring on Alex Witchel as his theater columnist, which would become one of the signature columns for the magazine. (Rich and Witchel would later marry.) After 7 Days folded, in 1990, Moss was on the hunt for a job and Rich lobbied for Times editors to hire him, which they did, first as a consultant.
Moss rose rapidly through the paper’s ranks and eventually took over the Sunday Magazine — and helped shore up Rich’s gig as a writer for it. They worked together on revamping the daily culture section a few years later. When Moss left, he nearly convinced Rich to come join him at New York magazine, but the time wasn’t right, Rich said.
The timing of Rich’s decision this year is particularly poignant for Moss. The last few months have been rough. He lost editors Lauren Kern, Adam Sternbergh and book critic Sam Anderson to the New York Times Magazine (which is now edited by his former protégé Hugo Lindgren, who left Moss a year ago after their relationship soured). Late last week, New York’s Web digital design director, Ian Adelman, said he was leaving for the Times. It’s been a drip, drip, drip of defections.
And just as the shift represents Rich’s latest reinvention, so too does it mark the beginning of reinventing Moss’ New York Magazine — and prove that its owner, the Wasserstein Trust, is willing to open its checkbooks to pay for talent when it has to. (The compilation of Rich’s reviews, “Hot Seat,” is dedicated to the late Wendy Wasserstein.)
“It’ll be huge for New York,” said Moss. “Publishing Frank will be a great joy. Ha! I know what that’s like.”