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Yellow Rose of Manhattan


Media circus: With Harvey Weinstein, Joe Armstrong, and Liz Smith at Le Cirque  

"Ann has a really great sense of the outrageous," says Molly Ivins, the syndicated columnist and all-around Texan ethnographer. "But in public office, she really had to keep it under control."

Before she was elected county commissioner in 1976, Richards had achieved a kind of cult celebrity in Austin. She threw wild, margarita-soaked parties with her husband, David, and her well-placed zingers could bring cocktail chatter to a stupefied halt. Once, in the early seventies, Ivins attended a dinner party during which a male friend of theirs started to describe, in pointillist detail, the breasts of a young lady he'd just seen. The women at the table stared carefully into space, feigning deafness. A brief silence followed. Then Richards spoke. "Well, girls," she boomed. "Have you seen any good dicks lately?"

"Ann may be a good politician," says Mark McKinnon, the communications director for her first gubernatorial campaign, "but above all, she's a performer. And I think that's why she likes New York so much -- she's with all the good performers. You know the old saying: Politics is show business for ugly people. Now she's with the good-looking people."

When Robin Williams came here to do stand-up at Carnegie Hall, she had lunch with him and a few friends (including Billy Crystal) at Michael's. Recently, at a charity auction, someone paid $35,000 to have lunch with Richards, Joy Behar, Sarah Jessica Parker, Liz Smith, and Bette Midler. At Oscar time, the governor went to the Four Seasons for a Harvey Weinstein bash honoring Judi Dench.

"I congratulated her on her nomination for Iris," says Richards. "And then I talked to her about The Shipping News, because I loved that book, but I thought that the early part of the film didn't work."

You actually told her this?

"Yeah! But once her character came in, the film took on dimension."

"I think she likes creative people, and creative people really love her," says Jane Wagner, the writer, director, and partner of Lily Tomlin -- and the author of the line about George Bush's silver foot. "I'm convinced that if she hadn't gone into politics, she'd have been a Broadway star."

Of course, Richards always knew she wanted to move to New York. It's the Austin of the East: vibrant, liberal, an endless cocktail surf. The year the Republicans reoccupied Washington -- was George W. Bush stalking her? -- seemed as good a time as any for Richards to abandon her lobbying gig at the D.C. firm of Verner Liipfert and head north. ("If you don't take risks," she likes to say, "you spend the rest of your life sittin' on the porch, waitin' for your children to come see ya.")

"Ann's a philosophy, really," says Joe Armstrong, adviser to ABC News, fellow ex-Texan, and one of Richards's closest confidants. "She's come up with these secrets to living a good life." Three years ago, he remembers, Richards lured him to a Bruce Springsteen concert. He wanted to know what possessed her, a grandmother of 65, to buy tickets. "It's on my big list of things to do before I die," she chirped.

Texans often have complex relationships with this city. Some of them -- like Armstrong, like Dan Rather, like Tommy Tune, like Liz Smith -- make the finest New Yorkers, dazzling people with their king-size personalities and twang-a-lang patois of missing g's. In fact, two of these people -- Armstrong and Smith -- are Richards's closest friends in Manhattan. ("Going to the theater with Ann is a real chore," says Smith. "Everyone wants to talk to her and jump in her lap.") But there's another breed of Texan that seems wary of this city, if not outright contemptuous of it. Like our current president.

"Well," says Richards, "years ago, people said that Lyndon Johnson was unhappy in the Kennedy White House because he was terrified he was gonna pick up the wrong fork. I don't think it was true. But it was a way to describe the difference between the high-society Kennedys and the hardscrabble kind of guy that Lyndon Johnson was. So maybe it's not that some Texans don't like New York. It's just that they're afraid they might pick up the wrong fork."

"Of course," she adds, "I have not found that to be the case. This city has been absolutely fabulous to me."

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