How Molly Jong-Fast Tweeted Her Way to Media Stardom

From a New York Times story by Michael M. Grynbaum headlined “How Molly Jong-Fast Tweeted Her Way to Liberal Media Stardom”:

Molly Jong-Fast had just finished interviewing Vice President Kamala Harris for her podcast when she hopped in an Uber S.U.V. headed to the Century, the Manhattan literary club where she was throwing a book party for the media critic Margaret Sullivan, a friend. The editors of Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair greeted her with hugs. The owner of The New Republic, Win McCormack, stopped to say hello.

“I just interviewed the vice president!” Ms. Jong-Fast gushed.

“The vice president?” Mr. McCormack replied, brow furrowing. “ … Of the United States?”

For much of her life, Ms. Jong-Fast, 44, was known for being the daughter of her mother, Erica Jong, whose novel “Fear of Flying” is a feminist classic. Ms. Jong-Fast went to rehab at 19, married at 23, and wrote a couple of novels and a book of essays about her bohemia-by-way-of-Park-Avenue upbringing.

Now, within a certain rarefied slice of American political life, she is a star. On Wednesday, she joined Vanity Fair as a special correspondent. One million people follow her on Twitter. The first guest on her new podcast, distributed by the mega network iHeartMedia, was President Biden’s chief of staff. In the run-up to Tuesday’s midterm elections, she has interviewed Senators Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, John Fetterman and Ms. Harris — a lineup rivaling MSNBC.

In Woody Allen’s “Purple Rose of Cairo,” a moviegoer steps into the screen and enters the world of her favorite film. From her Upper East Side living room, Ms. Jong-Fast marshaled a weapons-grade Twitter habit and a penchant for sliding into journalists’ DMs to catapult herself into the beating heart of left-wing media: the MSNBC Mom who starts actually appearing on MSNBC.

Her rise is a testament to the power of social media, the increasingly blurred lines between armchair pundits and professional commentators, and the opportunism of writers, on the right and the left, who used Donald Trump’s presidency to reinvent themselves. It’s about the flight to ideological comfort among news consumers in a partisan era. But it’s also about Ms. Jong-Fast and her ability to win friends, wear her privilege lightly and help anxious liberals cope with a chaotic moment.

“She speaks and writes in a way that is incredibly relatable to a group of people that don’t ordinarily have a columnist that speaks to them,” said Noah Shachtman, the editor of Rolling Stone, who praised her “lack of harrumph.” One superfan, the artist Diana Weymar, stitched enough needlepoints of Ms. Jong-Fast’s aphoristic tweets (“What if killing your constituents is bad for your re-election?”) to fill an exhibit at a Chelsea gallery.

Ms. Jong-Fast is not an adversarial interviewer — “Do you think, personally, that democracy can survive a second Trump term?” she asked Ms. Harris — but her progressive fans don’t seem to mind. “I think she’s found her sense of purpose,” Ms. Sullivan said at the book party, as Ms. Jong-Fast, in periwinkle glasses and a Thom Browne cardigan, darted among guests. “There are very few people that meet Molly that don’t wind up rooting for Molly.”

Last month, Ms. Jong-Fast sat barefoot in her spacious but homey Upper East Side co-op, surrounded by the bric-a-brac of uptown literary life: Fornasetti candles, her grandfather’s Emmy, a pillow needlepointed with the cover of The New York Post. As one dog was groomed in the dining room, another nestled in her lap. In her makeshift home podcast studio, Ms. Jong-Fast had just wrapped a Zoom interview with Gisele Barreto Fetterman, wife of the Pennsylvania Senate candidate. (“You look a-mazing,” Ms. Jong-Fast cooed, as Ms. Fetterman asked after her pets.)

“I was a drug addict, I nearly died, I got sober; I’ve had this incredible run,” Ms. Jong-Fast said. “A lot of kids who grew up like I grew up are not high functioning. I feel very grateful.”

Her parents split up when she was 3. Her mother, busy being a cultural icon, often left Ms. Jong-Fast with her grandparents, including Howard Fast, the “Spartacus” novelist and Communist activist who served prison time in the McCarthy era and introduced Molly to left-wing politics.

Her mother, Ms. Jong-Fast notes, was an early adopter of oversharing. In 1985, Erica moved 6-year-old Molly from New York to the Beverly Hilton for a month because she was developing a sitcom based on her daughter’s experience with divorce. A pilot aired, but not before Ms. Jong-Fast’s father, Jonathan Fast, sued and demanded that his ex-wife change the character’s name from Molly to Megan. (A review in The New York Times praised the show’s “appealing breeziness.”)

Ms. Jong-Fast is dyslexic and did poorly in school; her ejection from Dalton, she said, was a “seismic” shock for her ur-intellectual family. She got into alcohol and drugs. After spending time at Hazelden, the A-list rehab center, Ms. Jong-Fast, at 21, published a roman à clef about her struggles. “That was what my mother did,” she said, referring to the act of novelizing one’s life. “So I just thought that was what you’re supposed to do.” The reviews were vicious.

She married her husband, an English professor turned venture capitalist, had three children, and wrote another book. But she felt at a loss. “I was like, ‘My life has no meaning,’” she recalled. “I was not put on this earth to write chick-lit novels.” Her writing on politics, at The Forward, drew little notice.

Then Mr. Trump came down the escalator. “At some point I realized this guy was gonna win and I was like, ‘Why isn’t everyone hysterical?’” she recalled. “That’s when I really started tweeting.”

She tweeted her angst five, 10, 15 times a day. (Sometimes she would merely reply to Mr. Trump’s tweets, scoring likes and retweets for her punchy responses.) She replied to journalists and posted links to their stories. The conservative commentator Bill Kristol hired her to write for his site The Bulwark. She traveled, on her own dime, to cover Trump rallies and conservative conferences, mingling with the network of reporters she was cultivating online.

She turned her lack of reportorial expertise into an asset, forsaking complex political analysis for a “can you believe this?” astonishment. (When she started a newsletter at The Atlantic, she called it “Wait, What?”) For anguished liberals in the Trump era seeking a voice in the media, simply underlining the preposterousness of events was enough. “Sometimes everyone will say something and I’ll be like, ‘How’?” Ms. Jong-Fast said. “I just feel like a lot of times I’m like, this doesn’t smell right, and I think that has been really helpful in my life.”

One evening in 2019, I arrived at Ms. Jong-Fast’s building for a party she was throwing in honor of the actress Kathy Griffin. Inside the door was Resistance Twitter come to life.

The writer E. Jean Carroll, who had recently accused Mr. Trump of sexual assault, was engrossed in conversation with George T. Conway III, husband of Kellyanne Conway, when Ms. Griffin, in an ecru Valentino dress, approached. “Who has Mrs. Mueller’s number?” she asked mischievously, laying out a “Lysistrata”-style scheme in which the wife of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, would withhold physical relations from her husband until he divulged damning details about Mr. Trump.

Her planning was interrupted by the arrival of the Momofuku catering. “This is the best party I’ve been to all year,” Ms. Carroll said as she glided toward the slow-roasted pork. (Later, when she sued Mr. Trump for defamation, she hired a lawyer that Mr. Conway recommended to her that evening.)

Philippe Reines, a former senior aide to Hillary Clinton, surveyed the room of liberal writers, comedians and cable news green room habitués, and compared the gathering to the TV show “Lost”: shellshocked survivors wandering a beach. “If we all went down on the plane, who would get the obit?” he asked. The consensus: Ms. Griffin.

Washington has its famed political hostesses — Sally Quinn, Pamela Harriman — but latter-day New York has lacked for gatherers. Ms. Jong-Fast, with her ample personality (and ample apartment), filled the void. “I walked in and the first sight I see is Erica Jong talking with Joyce Carol Oates,” said Ms. Sullivan, a former public editor of The Times. “I felt like I was in literary heaven.”

These gatherings — which extend to a semiregular Washington party at the home of the NBC reporter Jonathan Allen — have doubled as another prong of Ms. Jong-Fast’s path to media success. Many attendees are people Ms. Jong-Fast has met online. (“It’s just one of those friendships that develops through direct messages,” Mr. Conway recalled.) When she started a podcast in 2020 at The Daily Beast, “The New Abnormal,” Ms. Jong-Fast leaned on those connections to secure guests like Ben Stiller, Sharon Stone, and Mary Trump. The podcast, co-hosted with the former Republican consultant Rick Wilson, sailed toward the top of the charts.

“I was sort of like, ‘Meh, OK, does the world really need another podcast?’” recalled Mr. Shachtman, the Rolling Stone editor who ran The Daily Beast at the time. “And it became hugely important to us — hugely.”

Ms. Jong-Fast left for The Atlantic in late 2021, where she remained until joining Vanity Fair. In September, she moved her podcast to iHeartMedia, which advertises the show across its radio stations. So far, “Fast Politics” — a two-person operation consisting of Ms. Jong-Fast and a producer who previously recorded songs for The Misfits — is hovering around the Top 50 of Apple’s news category.

The Trump era produced no shortage of wannabe pundits. Ms. Jong-Fast credits some of her success to a tenacity honed by years as a freelancer; to secure Ron Klain, Mr. Biden’s chief of staff, for her podcast, she pestered his staff for months. “I’m used to so much rejection,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Do you have five minutes for me? You could do it in your car!’”

A high-end Rolodex helps. Her first MSNBC appearance was with Lawrence O’Donnell, who, she admits, once went on a date with her mother. “There are people I am more connected to than others,” she said. When Ms. Jong-Fast, on Oct. 20, tweeted about the death of her dog, Cerberus, she received condolences from Aimee Mann, Padma Lakshmi, Daryl Hannah, and Megyn Kelly.

She is particularly close with Ms. Griffin, who said in an interview that when she met Ms. Jong-Fast, “about 75 percent of my friends had dumped me permanently.” (Ms. Griffin had been widely castigated for posting a photo of herself with a facsimile of Mr. Trump’s decapitated head.) When Ms. Griffin had surgery in 2021 to remove a tumor in her lung, Ms. Jong-Fast stayed with her in Malibu, Calif.

“We’d watch the news or she’d be online the whole time,” Ms. Griffin recalled.

Ms. Jong-Fast says she wants to fill a perceived void in the political podcast space, arguing that conservative megastars like Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino need more liberal rivals. (Mr. Shapiro is not exactly a fan, once tweeting that the fact Ms. Jong-Fast is paid “to say and write words” proves that “in a big, beautiful, capitalistic democracy like ours, literally anyone can make a living.”) Ms. Jong-Fast acknowledges a debt to “Pod Save America,” the lefty podcast started by Barack Obama alumni, and expressed some jealousy that they booked Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has repeatedly turned her down.

Her podcast is unlikely to move the needle with purple-state voters, so why do boldface politicians like Ms. Harris even bother? The audience, said one Democratic operative, is not voters so much as elite liberals with money; for Democrats, accessing the donor class is as much a part of the left-wing media game as swaying hearts and minds. Ms. Jong-Fast is a relatively friendly conduit.

Ms. Jong-Fast, after years of struggling to break into top-tier magazines, marvels at Twitter’s ability to bypass media gatekeepers. But her million-strong Twitter account is a powerful megaphone in its own right: Several journalists confided to me they often text their stories to Ms. Jong-Fast as a surefire path to clicks.

In recent days, she has been heckling Elon Musk on Twitter, although she is relatively sanguine about the medium’s future under its new owner. “We’re still gonna need a place to push content,” she said.

There are downsides. Ms. Jong-Fast has received death threats. (“I told the doormen and they were like, ‘Again?’”) She shrugged them off. “One thing that was helpful — or made me pathological, depending on your viewpoint — is that my mother wrote about me my whole life, so I never had this assumption of privacy,” she said.

Erica Jong is suffering from memory issues, but her daughter said she enjoys seeing her appearances on cable news. “It makes her feel good about her parenting choices,” Ms. Jong-Fast said, wryly.

In the age of Trump, partisan punditry is a kind of modern therapy: How many liberals attribute their sanity to nightly sessions with Rachel Maddow? Some of Ms. Jong-Fast’s fans feel the same: “I get emails that are like, ‘I live in Montana, I’m 88 years old, you make me feel like it’s going to be OK.’”

For Ms. Jong-Fast, who on Wednesday celebrated 25 years sober, the treatment might go both ways. “My husband is like, ‘Oh my god, democracy is dying in front of us,’” Ms. Jong-Fast said as a dog hopped off her lap. “And I’m like, ‘I’m just going to write another piece.’”

Michael M. Grynbaum is a media correspondent covering the intersection of business, culture and politics.

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