The “Hillbilly Elegy” author, venture capitalist and frequent pundit says he wanted to live closer to his family.
J.D. Vance, who was in the news last weekend after he made a deal with Netflix for the film adaptation of his best-selling memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” is now living in the East Walnut Hills neighborhood of Cincinnati. When we published a profile of the author, lawyer and venture capitalist in October 2017, Vance was living part-time in Columbus, where he’d started a nonprofit aimed at combating the opioid epidemic. He was also commuting weekly to Washington, D.C., where his wife, Usha, was clerking for John Roberts, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The couple’s baby, Ewan, was born in June 2017.
But Usha Vance’s Supreme Court clerkship ended last summer, and they bought a home in Cincinnati in June. Usha took six months off to stay home with Ewan and get settled in Cincinnati, Vance said in a telephone interview, then began work this month as an associate at the San Francisco-based law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson. J.D. is managing partner at the Rise of the Rest Seed Fund, a venture capital initiative that is part of Steve Case’s Washington, D.C.-based Revolution, LLC. Rise of the Rest aims to identify investment opportunities in startup companies located outside Silicon Valley, New York City and Boston. Both of the Vances are working remotely from home, Vance said.
Given their work situations, why live in Cincinnati? Vance, who confirmed that he has given up his German Village rental apartment, said he wanted to be close to Middletown, where he grew up and where his mother, sister and aunt still live. “We saw Mom—the baby and me, Usha was skiing—last week. It's pretty nice just to be able to drive up and have dinner and then come back home.”
Vance said that his mother, whose addiction to painkillers and, later, heroin, is well documented in his memoir, recently celebrated four years drug-free. “We’re all pretty excited for her,” he said. “Mom’s doing great.”
Vance’s book detailed his Kentucky “hillbilly” roots as well as his difficult childhood in Middletown, and he pointed out that it’s easier to get to Jackson, Kentucky, from Cincinnati than from Columbus. He drives down every few months to visit a plot of land he owns there that includes a family cemetery. “There’s a little bit of an obligation to keep it up and to make sure that the grass gets mowed,” he said.
What about the organization Vance founded to help fight the opioid epidemic? Our Ohio Renewal’s website is currently offline (“It’s just not my instinct to care about the website,” he explained), but Vance said the group is still focused on its mission of conducting and promoting research into innovative ways of combating the epidemic and its fallout. The group is sponsoring a yearlong residency in southern Ohio for Sally Satel, a psychiatrist and research fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, with the Ironton-Lawrence Community Action Agency, which has service locations along the Ohio River near Portsmouth. Satel is working with the agency’s behavioral health team, providing counseling and conducting research.
Vance is interested in learning more about efforts that combine psychiatric treatment and drugs such as suboxone or buprenorphine. “I'm consistently amazed at how unable we are to say, ‘this works,’ or ‘this doesn't work,’ ” Vance said, noting that he hopes Satel’s residency will lead to a paper or a book-length publication, which he suggested he might help write. “There's a lot of on-the-ground innovation, but there isn't a whole lot of good data on whether it’s working, whether it’s actually helping people avoid relapse.”
Vance is hoping that the film about his life will be shot in Middletown. He gave director Ron Howard a tour of the city last fall. “You might think you're a celebrity from writing a successful book, but you spend two hours with Ron Howard in Middletown, and you realize you're not,” he said. When they went out for lunch, “every person in the restaurant was buzzing about the fact that he was sitting in the corner booth eating a vegetarian wrap.” The two also scouted locations in Kentucky.
As for Vance’s new house, it’s a beauty. With a sale price of $1.4 million for the house and five additional small lots surrounding it totaling 2.29 acres, the 4,738-square-foot residence was built in 1867 and was described on Realtor.com as “a rustic example of midcentury Gothic Revival transitioning to High Victorian Gothic.”
Interestingly, the house is located on William Howard Taft Drive, named for an Ohioan from Cincinnati who also went to Yale (Vance graduated from Yale’s law school) before serving as the 27th president of the United States from 1909 to 1913. Vance also has been talked about as a possible candidate for public office ever since his memoir’s stratospheric success. The book was viewed by many as explaining the motivations of the kind of Rust-Belt voters who played a key role in Trump’s 2016 victory; Vance himself is a prominent Republican who has often been critical of Trump.
He dabbled with the idea of a Senate run against Sherrod Brown in 2017—and again when Republican Josh Mandel dropped out of the race in 2018—but decided the timing was not right for his family. Later, The Columbus Dispatch reported that despite the German Village apartment, Vance might have been ineligible to run because of a tax filing that established his residency in Washington, D.C.
Vance, an Iraq War veteran, is on the board of advisors of With Honor, a national campaign PAC that supports former members of the military who run for office. The bipartisan PAC, which requires those it supports to sign a pledge that they will work across the aisle, has received substantial support from Les Wexner, who until last year was one of the state’s biggest donors to Republican campaigns.
The full-time move to Cincinnati might be viewed as helpful for any future plans to run for office. Vance chuckled at the question, but said the idea was not off the table. “Not now, but maybe sometime in the future,” he said.
“I think it's a little bit sad,” he went on, “that we associate public service with something that you'd have to be kind of seedy or unethical to do. I actually said on national TV once that going into politics is kind of like going into selling used cars, and I had a former Congressman reach out to me and scold me for having said that.
“I thought he made a good point, which is that we should actually encourage people to do public service. So I'm certainly interested in it. But things are going pretty well here in Cincinnati. The baby's good, Usha's happy. I don't think I'm going to change too much of what I'm doing—at least, not in the near future.”
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