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The Redhead and the Gray Lady

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“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?’ ”


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