The core of Huffington’s storytelling, and the ancient wellspring of her New Agey religiosity, is her Greek identity. To many, Huffington may seem impossibly exotic—the accent, the Cambridge pedigree, the compulsive socializing leavened by political pursuits—but she is a common character in the Greek-American community, easily spotted at Manhattan’s Upper East Side Cathedral: a wealthy, brassy, middle-aged Greek woman with lightened hair styled into a helmet and wrists heavy with diamond jewelry, perhaps overeducated at a good university but then expected by her family to lead a traditional Greek lifestyle, left to pour energy and considerable intellect into church-based philanthropy and the fierce, almost tribal protection of her brood. That Huffington was able to escape this trap and become a professional sensation is to her credit, but she is still a proud Greek, one who would never express misgivings about the country to outsiders. “In Greece, if you go to Syntagma Square [the center of the protests], it’s just amazing—people coming together, discussing even mundane things like what the system will be for clearing trash,” she says. “When I’m in Athens, I stop by the square during the day and after dinner. It feels very much like what Athenian democracy must have been in the fifth century.”
For Huffington, like many Greeks, any wealth that she generates is shared with her family across generations, and she lived with her mother, who taught her yoga, meditation, and social grace as a teenager and whom she calls her “hero,” until her death a decade ago. Today, she lives in a modern floor-through in Chelsea with her sister Agapi, an author (with whom, she has said, “secrets are shared with absolute trust and tears shed in total vulnerability”), and intermittent visits from her two redheaded daughters, both of whom are undergraduates at Yale: Isabella, a painter studying modern Greek—“the language is her s’agapo [passionate love],” says Huffington—and Christina, an aspiring journalist. Huffington is known for hosting events constantly at her home in Brentwood (people like Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban show up early, with expectant, eager faces, as if this were the passport to intellectual seriousness), but she hasn’t done much hosting at home in New York except for a happy hour for her AOL employees at the beginning of her tenure, where employees pinned on name tags. She’s looking to buy a place, but this apartment, a rental designed by Charles Gwathmey, has been fine for her. The public rooms, with their stainless-steel countertops and taupe couches in front of glass coffee tables, are neat, but a series of bedrooms are lived-in, and in one of her daughters’ rooms, orchids wilt on a dresser and delicate pieces of clothing are strewn on the bed like silly string.
Huffington puts on a kettle for tea (her cooking skills do not extend much further), as Christina bounces into the kitchen with a handbag slung over a shoulder. “She has most of my bags in New Haven now,” says Huffington, laughing. “And I think that’s my sweater.” Christina is off to work on a paper for an English class—“a literary analysis of a cookbook”—and Huffington gives her a kind of awed smile, as if everything she does tickles her. “I lost my first baby at 6 months, a stillbirth. Who knows why I lost it, but I was working so much,” she says, a pained look crossing her face. “Christina is my eldest. Jeane Kirkpatrick, who is not exactly your average woman having kids, told me that the next time I became pregnant, I should become like a cow. So at the end, I waited day after day for Christina to come at the Bel Air hotel. When I got into contractions, I was walking around in my muumuu trying to have gravity do its work, and Nancy Reagan was having lunch there.” She pours the tea. “I’m the opposite of a Tiger Mom,” she says. “My younger daughter always says she has to call Dad to tell him she got A’s, because I say, ‘Great, but if you get C’s too, fantastic.’ To me, a mother’s unconditional love is the most important thing you can give to a child.”
It’s a feat—Huffington’s characteristic gift—to aggregate childbirth, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Tiger Moms, a cow, Nancy Reagan, and unconditional love into one surprisingly intimate, seamless skein, and it makes spending time with Huffington a pleasure, even if interviews with her can be stultifying. There are no mistakes with Huffington when she knows she’s speaking on the record. She sticks to talking points in every conversation, and in a backstage greenroom at an event, I watched her solemnly concentrate on a series of blue notecards as a group of media folks gossiped about the events of the day, never raising her eyes.
Huffington’s brought the same rigor to the story of her life—it’s one of the world’s great yarns, probably the best ever spun by a woman in the media business (Barbara Walters and even Oprah have nothing on Huffington). She grew up middle class in Athens, the daughter of an unfaithful journalist, who was once incarcerated in a Nazi camp and divorced her mother by the time Huffington was a teenager. Her mother focused on making a better life, even moving to London so that Huffington could take entrance exams to Cambridge. There, Huffington was determined to excel, particularly in the debate society, eventually managing the extraordinary feat of becoming the president despite her accent and an evolving command of English. A publisher plucked her out of school to produce a set of counterintuitive essays on the women’s-rights movement (she came out against feminism, which must have been hard to pull off in 1973). The Female Woman, an example of a lifelong tin ear for titles, became a sensation, and she set off on a round-the-world book tour, followed by a large contract for a biography of Maria Callas (later, she was accused of plagiarism, settling a suit for “low five figures”) and another of Picasso (another author made a similar accusation, calling Huffington an “intellectual kleptomaniac”). Both books sold well.