Written by Michael M. Grynbaum
Molly Jong-Fast had just finished interviewing Vice President Kamala Harris for her podcast when she hopped in an Uber SUV headed to the Century, the Manhattan literary club where she was throwing a book party for 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!” Jong-Fast gushed.
“The vice president?” McCormack replied, brow furrowing. “Of the United States?”
For much of her life, Jong-Fast, 44, was known for being the daughter of her mother, Erica Jong, whose novel “Fear of Flying” is a feminist classic. 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, produced by the mega network iHeartMedia, was President Joe Biden’s chief of staff. Ahead of Tuesday’s midterm elections, she has interviewed Sens. Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, John Fetterman and Harris — a lineup rivaling MSNBC.
From her Manhattan living room, 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. 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.
Her rise is also about the flight to ideological comfort among news consumers in a partisan era, and about 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, artist Diana Weymar, stitched enough needlepoints of Jong-Fast’s aphoristic tweets (“What if killing your constituents is bad for your reelection?”) to fill an exhibit at a Chelsea gallery.
‘I’m so grateful I got sober before social media.’ — @mollyjongfast
Last month, 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, Jong-Fast had just wrapped a Zoom interview with Gisele Barreto Fetterman, wife of the Pennsylvania Senate candidate.
“I was a drug addict, I nearly died, I got sober; I’ve had this incredible run,” 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 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, 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 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.”)
Jong-Fast is dyslexic and did poorly in school; her ejection from Dalton, she said, was a “seismic” shock for her intellectual family. She got into alcohol and drugs. After spending time at Hazelden, the A-list rehab center, 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 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 5, 10, 15 times a day. (Sometimes she would merely reply to Trump’s tweets, scoring likes and retweets for her punchy responses.) She replied to journalists and posted links to their stories. 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 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?’” 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.”
‘Democrats continue to bring a stuffed animal to a knife fight.’ — @mollyjongfast
One evening in 2019, I arrived at Jong-Fast’s building for a party she was throwing in honor of actress Kathy Griffin. Inside the door was Resistance Twitter come to life.
Writer E. Jean Carroll, who had recently accused Trump of sexual assault, was engrossed in conversation with George Conway, husband of Kellyanne Conway, when 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 Mueller, would withhold physical relations from her husband until he divulged damning details about Trump.
Washington has its famed political hostesses — Sally Quinn, Pamela Harriman — but latter-day New York has lacked for gatherers. 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 Sullivan, a former Times public editor. “I felt like I was in literary heaven.”
These gatherings — which extend to a semiregular Washington party at the home of NBC reporter Jonathan Allen — have doubled as another prong of Jong-Fast’s path to media success. Many attendees are people Jong-Fast has met online. (“It’s just one of those friendships that develops through direct messages,” Conway recalled.) In 2020, when she started a podcast at The Daily Beast called The New Abnormal, Jong-Fast leaned on those connections to secure guests like Ben Stiller, Sharon Stone and Mary Trump.
The podcast, which she hosted with 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 Shachtman, who ran The Daily Beast at the time. “And it became hugely important to us — hugely.”
Jong-Fast left for The Atlantic in 2021, and remained there 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 Jong-Fast and a producer who recorded songs for the Misfits — is hovering in the Top 50 of Apple’s news category.
‘My life may not turn out how I want it but at least I won’t be buried on my second husband’s golf course.’ — @mollyjongfast
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. (Shapiro is not exactly a fan, once tweeting that the fact 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.”) She acknowledges a debt to Pod Save America, the lefty podcast started by Obama administration alumni, and expressed some jealousy that they booked Rep. 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 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. Jong-Fast is a friendly conduit.
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 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 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,’” Jong-Fast said as a dog hopped off her lap. “And I’m like, ‘I’m just going to write another piece.’”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.