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The urgent-sounding voicemail was from Gretchen Craft Rubin. She sounded so agitated that I played it over again just to make sure I was getting a mental picture of the problem. One thing was for sure: The voice on the tape didn’t sound much like the cool customer I’d lunched with a couple of weeks earlier. I’d first met Rubin just before Labor Day at Cello, an elegant French restaurant on New York’s Upper East Side. We’d gotten together to talk about her new book, “Power Money Fame Sex: A User’s Guide” (Pocket Books, $25.95). Earlier, her publicist had sent me a copy. It was handsome and glossy. There were admiring blurbs on the cover by media types like Kurt Andersen (“a book as smart and stylish and terrifyingly unsentimental as its title”) and Harold Evans (“It’s erudite but witty, indispensable for … strivers.”). That struck me as high praise indeed coming from two such successful publishing-world strivers. Then I began reading Rubin’s book. It seemed to have been designed for readers whose attention spans had been programmed for eight-minute TV segments. The meat of the matter, I supposed, was a semiserious attempt to anatomize power, money, fame, and sex. For example, among “the eight pillars of power,” heir-apparency, proximity, and sycophancy are defined anew. On the other hand, the book’s a self-help guide: “If you’ve got a lot to hide, remember that your press agent also can act as your suppress agent.” Breaking up the pages are tips (“Think of yourself as a brand.”), quizzes (“Do you want direct or indirect power?”), and quotations from the high, the mighty, and the merely famous (try juxtaposing William Shakespeare and “Sex and the City’s” Candace Bushnell). To some readers, I feared, the book might seem like, well, piffle. To others, manna. In any case, it seemed like a strange thing for a former Supreme Court law clerk — a famously buttoned-down and proper lot, those clerks — to have written; and I wanted to know why she’d done it. The cheerful but refined space of the restaurant seemed to reflect Rubin’s mood that day. A bit chirpy perhaps and given to exclamatory prose, she had about her the easy, sunny air of the favorite student in a class of highly privileged students. While pecking delicately at a perfectly manicured plate of peekytoe crab, Rubin had been poised and articulate, utterly unruffled despite the usual troublesome reporter’s questions. (“You don’t seem like the sort of person who’d write a book like that. Are you?” Rubin just laughed.) She was as poised and articulate as you’d expect for someone with a resum� like the one described on the jacket of her book: undergraduate and law degrees from Yale, editor in chief of the Yale Law Journal, clerk to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, counsel to Federal Communications Commission chairman Reed Hundt. She also happens to be married to fellow Yale Law graduate cum Allen & Company investment banker Jamie Rubin, the son of former Goldman Sachs cochairman and Treasury secretary Robert Rubin. Talk about connections. Now, though, there was this distinctly importunate note in her voicemail message: “Hi, John, I think I may have made a jerk of myself. Your photographer asked me to pose in a bubble bath — and I did. It sounded cute at the time. But afterwards, I got to thinking: ‘Hey, that was really dumb of me. Why did I do that?’ “ Why indeed? Try this for an answer (from Rubin’s own book): “Fame. Don’t you feel that hunger for recognition? — to know that strangers recognize your name, to watch them startle and stare when you walk into the room. That’s what fame is: the recognition of strangers. Have they noticed me yet?” Well, pose for a magazine in a slinky black slip while splashing about in a bubble bath, and the odds are that someone will. As Rubin knows so well, fame is hard to come by: “Just look at the lengths to which people will go to get it.” All of which suggests that Gretchen Rubin has come a long way from Kansas City, Missouri, where she was born 34 years ago. Her parents still live there. Rubin’s father, Jack Craft, practices law at his own small firm, Craft Fridkin & Rhyne. The elder Craft, his daughter had told me at lunch, “is a guy who just really loves being a lawyer.” And it was in no small measure because of him that Rubin elected to go to law school, she adds. An English major at Yale, Rubin excelled in law school (class of 1994). Having been taught to write clear, lucid prose, she was appalled by many a law review submission: “It was like, ‘No way! How can we run this article?’ ” She found herself, Rubin recalls, being frustrated by the inaccessibility and obtuseness of legal scholarship. It was, she says, “ Obscure! Pedantic!” She realized “then and there,” she says, “that I did not want to spend a lifetime writing academic legal prose.” Nor was Rubin much interested in practicing big-firm law, although she did work as a summer associate twice, at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and at Davis Polk & Wardwell. “That was enough for me,” she says. Clerking for Justice O’Connor during the 1995-96 term, Rubin says, “was one of the greatest experiences of my life.” She quickly adds that her book “didn’t have its origins in the time I spent at the Court. Chambers there is a universe to itself. Personally, I didn’t see that much politicking going on.” The Supreme Court, apolitical? No wonder Rubin gets riled when I mention the name of another ex-Yalie, ex-clerk, Edward Lazarus, author of the 1998 memoir-cum-history “Closed Chambers.” Rubin was so exercised when the Lazarus story broke that she wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post denouncing Lazarus. “What he did,” Rubin says, “was shocking. Appalling.” What Lazarus, of course, did was to reveal some of the inner workings of the Court. Her first real intimation of the potent confluence of power, money, fame, and sex came at the FCC, says Rubin. She recalls being impressed by the sheer amount of time people spent politicking at the agency: “There were different power centers, lots of meetings, lots of office e-mail, stuff that makes for richer political interaction.” For the first time in her life, Rubin says, she “began to get it.” Suddenly, she realized that some of her “most fundamental assumptions were wrong. I had had this idea that all you had to do in life was work really hard, be good at what you did, and be a good person. Well, that’s often just not enough.” A “nice person,” she adds, wouldn’t think of subjecting his underlings to an intimidating rage. But in her book, Rubin advises power-seekers to indulge in just such behavior: “Show that you don’t have to exercise normal self-control,” she writes, and you’ll “drive others to yield to you to avoid your anger.” “Look at Lyndon Johnson. Look at Robert Moses [the fearsome former New York public works czar],” Rubin tells me. “They both had terrible tempers, but a lot of what they did, the rages they engaged in, was show, as a way of demonstrating their power — a means to an end.” She’s quick to add that “going into a rage like that just to show that you have power is not admirable. But it can work. You should at least understand why it works. It’s better to be disillusioned.” Innocence, Rubin says, “is a good thing for any adult to get over with in a hurry.” While at the FCC, she started work on her “anatomy of power, money, fame, and sex. These are things that we all think and talk about a lot. But nobody had really tried to deconstruct the codes surrounding them. I wanted to know: ‘What are the rules?’ “ That, in turn, led her to collect anecdotes, clip articles, underline passages in books — “and just watch how successful people operated. Especially really important successful people.” Her goal at the time, Rubin says, was to write a book that was, stylistically, the antithesis of a typical law review article: “I wanted to write something so accessible and so immediate that you couldn’t put it down. I wanted to make it fun and get my point across. Make it hip and jazzy. Have a quiz! Give tips! Make readers go, ‘Wow, that’s it! That’s right! Why didn’t I think of that?’” There was one thing, though, Rubin says, that she did take from her law school education and apply to the book: “Logical thinking. I knew that people reading this book might dismiss it so easily. I wanted to be able to refute their arguments in advance.” She waves her hand, imitating her detractors: ” ‘Oh, it’s Cosmo! Oh, it’s nothing but Entertainment Tonight!’ ” She pretends to bristle at the arguments: “ Some people think my book is light and superficial, but I don’t. I’m biased, but I think there’s a lot of really deep, good thinking there.” Such as? Well, it’s not in the book, but Rubin cites her deconstruction of the recent Richard Hatch phenomenon. The million-dollar winner of CBS’s Survivor “is the PMFS figure.” (That’s power, money, fame, and sex, to you.) “He plotted it out before he got there [to the island]. He asked himself: ‘How will I make good TV?’ Answer: ‘I’ll talk about sex.’ And he told the others, ‘I’m honest. I’ll always present myself truthfully to you.’ Kelly [his fellow finalist] said, ‘I’m such a nice person.’ Everyone else said: ‘You’re a backstabber. We’d rather have the real villain. We know where we stand with him.’ Hatch was so brilliant.” When I say something to Rubin about how far she’s come from being the girl from Kansas City, she laughs: “I’m still the same person at heart.” A rare glower suffuses her face: “But you know some people think I’m a terrible person for writing this book. I didn’t make this stuff up. It’s true.” Besides, says Rubin, “I wrote my book tongue-in-cheek. Don’t people get that?” She looks baffled. By now, we’ve spent the better part of three hours at Cello. The dining room is deserted, and Chef Laurent Tourondel comes out to say hello. “He really has an aura about him,” Rubin says to me as soon as he’s left. “He’s got real sprezzatura,” she says, invoking one of her favorite words (“Cultivate sprezzatura,” she advises — “an easy manner.”) I ask her to sum up her own life. She replies: “Hard work and good manners are important, and I hope that’s what my file says about me, but you also have to be canny. I hate it when someone’s a big self-promoter, but you know, a little self-promotion is a very useful thing.” She looks at her watch, a gift from her husband. It says Pets.com and bears the legend: “Tick Tock I’m a Sock.” She studies it. Time to go. I ask her when she’s going to give the book to her 19-month-old daughter Eliza. “I don’t know if I want her to see it. It’s not a book for an innocent babe.” We shake hands, and Gretchen Rubin heads into the bright sunshine of a late summer day. She’s got a book tour coming up, and The New Yorker is doing a “Talk of the Town” about her. As we part, I recall a line from her book: “Never act as your own huckster; other people do that for you.”

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