As she steps out of a cab at The ‘Quin House, Doris Kearns Goodwin is already smiling, anticipating the doorman’s usual greeting.
“First Lady!” he hollers, right on cue. “How are you, First Lady?”
It’s a fitting sobriquet for a famed historian familiar enough with five US presidents — Abraham Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and John F. Kennedy — that she commonly refers to them as “my guys.”
“How are you?” Kearns Goodwin replies, taking the doorman’s arm.
The Pulitzer Prize winner with the Peppermint Patty hairdo is a known quantity at the private social club on Commonwealth Avenue, and not only because she’s been a talking head on TV for decades. She’s a regular here, part of a once-a-week “girls group” that eats and drinks exuberantly while discussing the important issues of the day, such as President Biden’s reelection prospects and what in the world happened to Madonna’s face to make her look so puffy at a recent awards show.
“Oh, wow!” Kearns Goodwin says when former New York Times editor Jill Abramson, a friend and fellow member of the group, Googles “Madonna Grammys” and shows her the photos.
These boisterous bull sessions have been a salvation for Kearns Goodwin, who turned 80 in January. She’s a social creature, a natural storyteller, and after the death of her husband, the writer and presidential adviser Richard Goodwin, in 2018, she was adrift. For years, she and Goodwin dined out nearly every night with neighbors in Concord, and she relished the ritual.
“There was a gang of us. It was so fun,” she says. “We knew where we’d be going every night. It was like an extended family.”
A year after her husband died, Kearns Goodwin elected to leave Concord, where the couple were married in 1975 and had lived since. (Guests at the wedding included novelist Norman Mailer, boxing promoter Bob Arum, and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who gave Kearns Goodwin lingerie as a wedding present and left town without paying a substantial bar tab at the Colonial Inn.)
She sold the couple’s 1850 farmhouse, donated much of their vast accumulation of books to the Concord Library, and decamped to Boston, buying a 2,200-square-foot condo in the same high-rise where one of her three sons, Joe, lives with his family. Her perch on the 25th floor has floor-to-ceiling windows with stunning views of Beacon Hill and beyond, and walls crowded with framed photos of her many adventures. (Zelig-like, there’s Kearns Goodwin, at 24, talking to LBJ; there she is with Fidel Castro; that’s her being carried by sexy, shirtless Lincoln impersonators on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”; there she is at a party with actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who won the Oscar for “Lincoln,” the movie inspired by Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book, “Team of Rivals.”)
Kearns Goodwin credits her pal Heather Campion, whose husband, Democratic campaign adviser Chuck Campion, also died in 2018, for persuading her to move into the city and initiating the get-togethers at The ‘Quin, a swanky update of the original members-only Algonquin Club, which opened in 1886 as a sanctuary for stuffy old white men. (The new club aims for a younger, more diverse crowd.)
In addition to Campion, the former head of the JFK Library Foundation, and Abramson, who teaches journalism at Northeastern, Kearns Goodwin’s squad includes Micho Spring, mayor Kevin White’s onetime deputy who became a big shot at the global PR firm Weber Shandwick; Kate Walsh, the longtime Boston Medical Center CEO just tapped by Governor Maura Healey to be secretary of health and human services; and Mitt Romney’s former chief of staff, Beth Myers, the lone Republican at the group’s customary corner table cluttered with wine glasses. (On this night, Myers wasn’t present.)
“We have disagreements with Beth, like about the January 6th committee and the consequences,” says Campion. “But we argue it out. She also has great sources. Beth knew before anyone — anyone — that Charlie Baker wasn’t running again.”
Walsh isn’t as politically inclined, or connected, as the others. The mention of Madonna sparks a memory: In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when Walsh was working at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan, Madonna, then one of the world’s biggest pop stars, showed up unannounced one night and paid the hospital bills of several men dying of the disease.
“Very quietly, she just walked in and paid these very big bills,” Walsh says. “I was starstruck.”
The only actual item on the agenda at these weekly dinners is an update on Kearns Goodwin’s new book, which she describes as a memoir of the 1960s and her life with Goodwin. She’s written seven bestsellers, but most are works of historical nonfiction. This book will be personal, culled from her own papers and the contents of more than 350 boxes of her husband’s letters, speeches, and diaries.
“Are we on chapter eight?” asks Campion.
“Yes!” Kearns Goodwin exclaims. “LBJ gets elected at the end of seven, and eight begins with the State of the Union, where he starts off: ‘On this hill that was my home, I am stirred by old friendships.’ It’s so lovely.”
“Who wrote that?” asks Spring.
“Dick did,” Kearns Goodwin says.
“Of course,” deadpans Spring, eliciting laughter.
Kearns Goodwin said she’s up most mornings by 5:30 and, after a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios, is at her laptop. Because this is a different kind of book — in the first person, alternating between past and present tense — she’s stopped watching “Billions” and “Succession” and instead stays up late reading novels with a similar narrative structure.
“I just just finished ‘Prince of Tides,’ ” she says. “I think Pat Conroy is fantastic. He toggles time, which is what I need to do in this book.”
The white wine is flowing now, but Kearns Goodwin doesn’t fade: She raves about Walsh’s new job, impressed that the Department of Health and Human Services accounts for nearly 40 percent of the state budget; casually quotes Teddy Roosevelt a few times; mentions an 80-year-old married man who recently e-mailed to say he has a crush on her; and recalls an encounter she had with Ted Williams while visiting Red Sox spring training many years ago.
“He called me ‘pinko’ the whole time,” Kearns Goodwin says, laughing. “He’d say, ‘Hey, pinko, how you doin’?’ He knew I was a liberal, I guess.”
Abramson and Spring have been watching Kearns Goodwin hold forth for decades. In the ’70s, both took a class she taught at Harvard. The course on the American presidency was a phenomenon.
“Doris is the best raconteur on the face of the planet,” says Abramson. “In 1976, when I was a senior, I audited Doris’s class. There were kids hanging from the rafters.”
“It was an experience,” Spring agrees. “There was a standing ovation at the end of every class.”
As the bill arrives, the women are all looking at their calendars. Spring is headed to a wedding in Cuba, where she was born and still has family, and Campion is off to California. Next week’s confab is canceled. Kearns Goodwin is disappointed, but, it turns out, she has options. She’s become friends with a couple of people in her building, including Alyce Lee, who was mayor Tom Menino’s chief of staff, ActiVote cofounder Sara Gifford, and former “World News Tonight” anchor Carole Simpson.
“They’re great. Carole’s sassy and tells the best stories,” says Kearns Goodwin. “We have sundowners. As early as we can have a drink somewhere, we do — sometimes at 4:30. We’re having one Wednesday night.”
Abramson leans forward.
“Wait,” she says. “Is Doris cheating on us?”
Kearns Goodwin throws her hands in the air.
“No,” she says. “It’s not every week!”