Meet the Mezrichs
With the movie version of his book The Accidental Billionaires opening this month, Ben Mezrich — along with his wife, Tonya — is taking time to do what anyone with a newborn would: Hole up at home.
Like almost all of Ben Mezrich’s nonfiction (Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, and his latest, The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding Of Facebook — A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal), the story you’re about to read is a tad, well, embellished. It’s not that we weren’t able to tell it like it is; it’s just that we thought you’d prefer a few bells and whistles. What follows is 99 percent true.
It’s 9:35 a.m. on a Friday morning, and Ben’s wife, Tonya, is ready for her close-up. She’s wearing voluminous false lashes and perfectly applied makeup. Once she changes out of her bathrobe, she’ll look like a movie star.
But first, there’s the problem of the living room: No one’s bothered to clean it up for the photographer, and this is supposed to be a home design shoot. Bugsy, the couple’s six-year-old pug, has doggie accoutrements scattered around the peach-hued sectional; there’s a mound of bedding stuffed between the sofa and window; and the huge TV altar overflows with video games. When asked if a few things can be removed for the shoot, Tonya asks, “Like what?”
Ben strolls in 20 minutes later, picks up his acoustic guitar, and gets comfy in a big easy chair; with his feet on the ottoman, he strokes the strings. “My mom’s all into nothing,” he says, surveying his just-emptied living room. “Her apartment looks like P. Diddy’s — all white and chrome, you know, the whole modern thing. But Tonya’s from Louisiana. So she has a southern pack-rat mentality.”
“What?” Tonya shrieks from somewhere down the hall. The footsteps are getting louder. “I’m the problem? When I first met Ben, I thought it sounded pretty cool to hang with an author. Then I saw his man cave, and I was like, uh uh. Forget about it. He had a lava lamp, a black leather couch, and his magic radio.”
Ah, yes: the radio. “I bought that 1936 console at a garage sale. It has magical powers,” says Ben. “When you wish for something in front of that radio, it comes true within three days. You have to play the Doors’ ‘Crystal Ship’ and it has to be dark, but it works.” The radio gave him Tonya, he explains. “I was single and I told it what I was looking for, and I met her the next night. My friend Scott Stossel — he’s deputy editor at the Atlantic — has told me, ‘She’s not real. The radio invented her.’”
The radio remains where Ben first put it — in the one-bedroom apartment that he landed in after graduating from Harvard in 1991. “When I first started writing, I had a decision to make: New York or Boston. In New York, you struggle to live, or get caught up in the nightlife. Whereas here, every night at 2 in the morning, you can write; the city shuts down.”
Just before the birth of their son, Asher, in October, the couple moved into a larger two-bedroom, but Ben kept his original one-bedroom bachelor pad as his office. Despite the unsurpassed views of Cambridge, he works in the dark, shades down. “I’ll probably keep that apartment forever,” he says.
The Mezrichs say they rent in their Back Bay highrise because the building is connected underground to the city. “We live like moles,” says Ben. “I’m in the garages so much, people think I work here and ask me for directions.” During a fierce snowstorm, the couple used their tunnel knowledge to join friends Linda and John Henry for drinks at M Bar in the Mandarin, sans snow boots. “If my books just exploded, I’d move to a penthouse there; it’s a gorgeous building, but it’d have to be, like, Harry Potter,” Ben says.
For now, writing bestsellers will do. The movie The Social Network, based on Ben’s Facebook saga and produced by Kevin Spacey, opens this month. Aaron Sorkin, of West Wing fame, wrote the screenplay while Ben was finishing his book. They went through it chapter by chapter in a Boston hotel suite before Sorkin handed in the script.
Fortunately, Ben is a sprinter when it comes to writing. “I know from the very first time I hear the story how each step goes. My outlines are very specific, even to the page number,” he says. After six to twelve months of research, it takes him three months to write a book. He usually starts at 4 or 5 in the morning, breaks for breakfast, then works until 11 a.m., when he goes to the food court at the Prudential.
He’s not running out of material anytime soon, either. At least 10 to 15 people approach him each month with great yarns. “An e-mail came in the morning; a kid at Harvard said, ‘My roommate founded Facebook, and no one knows about him.’ That became The Accidental Billionaires.”
Still, controversy continues over Ben’s work. “I write narrative nonfiction,” he says matter-of-factly. “I take a true story, research the hell out of it, and then write it in a thrilleresque fashion, so it reads like a movie.” Mezrich’s books tend to cover people who used their wits to strike it rich, but he has yet to benefit from the schemes he writes about — at least directly. “You know, the Internet, I missed that boat. I have a lot of friends who are doing amazing things. My friend Neil just sold his company for $250 million. But me, I’m just the writer.”
False modesty? Who knows. He’s clearly got something on the ball; Tonya’s wardrobe looks like she stole a rack from Anna Wintour’s closet, with pair after pair of Christian Louboutins and an abundance of fluffy red-carpet-ready dresses. A former dentist, Tonya is now working with local gown designer Michael De Paulo to create a ready-to-wear line, Mike & Ton. It’s one of her myriad projects — like her jewelry line or her fundraising efforts for nonprofits such as the Boston Ballet, the MFA, and the Animal Rescue League.
And then there’s her work as the muse at home. Ben considers Tonya his secret weapon. “When I’m really stuck, she comes up with the solution,” he says. “I was writing crap before I met her. She was here for Bringing Down the House. Before that, no one read me.” Then he leans over and whispers conspiratorially, “Of course, she doesn’t really exist. The radio created her.”