When pictures of Britney Spears wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words PAGE SIX SIX SIX were published all over the world last year, they confirmed that a transformation had taken place in the gossip business. “Page Six,” the column that oxygenates the wise-guy blood and Republican guts of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post with its amusing and occasionally incendiary coverage of the famous, the powerful, and the nakedly ambitious, has, over the course of its 28-year history, evolved into something more than just the heart-and spleen-of the paper. “The Page,” as it is often called by those who work for it, has become the premier brand name for postmodern gossip, worthy of parody and, as Post management decided back in the mid-90s, enough of a destination to appear on any page. And so “Page Six” is now rarely found before page 10. It’s no longer even a single page: seven days a week, the column comprises a two-page spread-the second page noteworthy because it includes space for a full-color ad. That’s right: gossip is now used to sell advertising, and to the likes of Coach and Bloomingdale’s, no less-a far cry from the days when the Post was considered so downmarket that, according to a spurious but widely circulated story, Bloomingdale’s chief Marvin Traub once told Murdoch, “Your readers are our shoplifters.”
But that is the past, and there is little room for the past in “Page Six“‘s present-tense worldview, even though, to use a Winchell-era phrase, “Page Six” has quite a past itself. Certainly the great bulk of items reported by the Page have the shelf life of lunchmeat, but some stories have withstood the test of time. It was “Page Six” that broke the news in 1983 that the city’s cultural-affairs commissioner, Bess Myerson, had hired Sukhreet Gabel, daughter of the judge who happened to be presiding over the divorce trial of Myerson’s boyfriend, Andy Capasso-an incident that would eventually make its way into the national press. And people are still talking about the column’s coverage of the public sexual favor that former New Line production chief Mike De Luca received at the 1998 William Morris pre-Oscar party. More recent “Page Six” scoops have included Donatella Versace’s rehab stint and Spears’s engagement to Kevin Federline.
Mostly, though, “Page Six” serves to provide a daily, pointillist portrait of an increasingly ephemeral culture. The Page’s hallmarks are alliteration (“portly pepperpot”), memorable word choice (“canoodling,” “bloviator”), an unswerving adherence to the creed that conflict is good for business, and the regular reward and punishment of the latest bad boys and “It girls” seeking the limelight. The exploits of 80s “Deb of the Decade” Cornelia Guest and actor Mickey Rourke have receded, only to be replaced in good time by the adventures of socialite-actress Paris Hilton, actress-dipsomaniac Tara Reid, and current “self-described It boy” Fabian Basabe, whose manhood was recently mocked on the Page after he was pantsed at a party.
Those who have felt the sting of the Page-or complained that they’ve been steamrolled by an editor or reporter who carried a grudge-don’t always see what’s so entertaining about the column. (Spears wasn’t wearing that shirt by accident.) And there are those who contend that “Page Six” has become as fervently right-wing as the rest of the paper. But when it’s doing what it does best-lampooning pomposity and ostentation and sticking it to lying publicists-“Page Six” provides a caffeinated kick the city has come to depend on. It’s difficult to imagine how the New York Post would survive without it.
In January 2007 the column will be 30 years old, and, though Rupert Murdoch has handed the reins of the Post to his son Lachlan, “Page Six“‘s DNA can be traced directly back to the man who introduced Australian Rules tabloid journalism to America’s genteel Fourth Estate in the mid-70s. The story begins in the days of hot-metal type and IBM Selectrics, when Murdoch, the driven Melbourne-born media baron, met James Brady, the Irish-American veteran of the Korean War and Fairchild Publications’ Women’s Wear Daily. Murdoch, whose assets then included The Australian and the London Sun as well as “the Murdoch mafia”-a band of hard-drinking, fiercely loyal newspapermen who would follow their stern-faced leader anywhere-hired Brady in 1974 to serve as the editor of the National Star (known today as the Star), the supermarket tabloid Murdoch started as part of his initial foray into American media. Brady worked for Murdoch for the next nine years, becoming vice-chairman of the American arm of News Corp. and one of the few Yanks in the Aussie’s inner circle. And when Murdoch bought an ailing liberal tabloid, the New York Post, from its owner, Dorothy “Dolly” Schiff, in 1976, he put Brady in charge of developing a feature that would herald the paper’s new ownership and direction: a gossip column.
Murdoch, according to Brady, wanted the Post’s new gossip page fashioned after “William Hickey,” a gossip column that ran from 1933 to 1987 in London’s Daily Express newspaper. Named after an 18th-century Irish rake, who, as penance, chronicled his drunken, scandalous life in a memoir, the column was written and edited by a changing cast of characters that once included the well-known British gossip Nigel Dempster. The Post’s new column would work on a similar premise: a group of reporters would gather and write up brief, pithy stories about the powerful and famous and file them to the column’s editor, who would imbue them with a unifying voice and plug them into a modular format. Murdoch wanted the column ready to roll when he took official control of the Post, so Brady set about hiring a group of reporters and stringers to work out the kinks via a series of dummy columns.
Whether Brady was involved in the production of the first Pages produced for public consumption is a matter of some confusion. By the time Murdoch actually began publishing the paper, Brady says, he himself had already been tapped by his boss to head his newest acquisition: New York magazine. Editorship of “Page Six” then fell to the natty, elfin Neal Travis, a New Zealand-born product of the Australian tabloid scene. His recruits included a young Post reporter named Anna Quindlen, who already had one foot in the door of The New York Times.
Remarkably, since Travis himself departed “Page Six” in 1978, only a handful of editors have presided over the column for any length of time. Claudia Cohen succeeded Travis, and when she left, in 1980, Brady returned for a two-and-a-half-year stint. Up next was Susan Mulcahy, who wrote a book about her experience, My Lips Are Sealed. She was followed, in late 1985, by Richard Johnson, who is the current editor of “Page Six” and the column’s iron man, having held the top byline for more than half of its 28-year existence. There have been a few notable cameos too, including longtime Post columnist and former A Current Affair personality Steve “Street Dog” Dunleavy. And, surprisingly, given the disdain that was once heaped upon the profession, a number of people who worked for the Page have been Ivy League graduates.
Moment of disclosure: In 1989, Johnson took me on as one of his reporters, and when he left the Post in 1990 for a brief sojourn in television and at the Daily News, I shared the “Page Six” editor’s byline with a revolving cast that included Timothy McDarrah, currently a senior reporter for the “Hot Stuff” column at Us Weekly, and Joanna Molloy, who now shares a gossip column in the Daily News with her husband, George Rush, another “Page Six” veteran (they fell for each other while at the Page).
During the four years that I was there, I had the distinct pleasure of being called a “fucking prick” in person by Robert De Niro and a “son of a- … !” in USA Today by the late Jack Lemmon. Like many of the early “Page Six” editors, I went to the Post knowing nothing about the column or the tabloid way of doing things. I left a better reporter, with a thicker skin, a weaker liver, and an appreciation for the paper’s rogue spirit. I also came away with an intensive education about power, privilege, and that thing that goes hand in hand with them-corruption. One more thing: I’m not saying Jack Lemmon was right about my being a son of a bitch, but I wrote a retraction to the item he was grousing about.
Over the years, I’ve wondered what the other “Page Six” reporters made of their time on the Page, how the column evolved, how the columnists dealt with the lures and traps of their jobs, and how those experiences compared with those of the current team of hard-nosed gossips on the Page. Here’s what they told me, going back to the beginning:
JAMES BRADY, “Page Six” creator, editor (1980-83): Here’s where “Page Six” comes in. About a month or six weeks went by between the announcement [that Murdoch was buying the Post], the due diligence that had to be done, and the day that it actually closed. So during that time, Rupert said, “Look, we got to be ready to hit the ground running. The day we take it over, we’ve got to make it our paper.” And he said at one point, “We ought to have a ‘William Hickey’ column.” No one else knew what “Hickey” was, but I knew. So he said, “All right, you take charge of that. Every day, for five days a week, for the next four to six weeks, until we take the Post over, do a dummy page. We’ll do everything but roll the presses on it.”
SUSAN MULCAHY, “Page Six” reporter (1978-83), editor (1983-85): The idea behind it was not only that it wouldn’t be associated with one person but that, let’s say you’re the City Hall-bureau chief and you’ve got some really juicy story about some councilman, the mayor, whatever-somebody that you don’t want to offend that much. So you slip it to “Page Six” and let them confirm it without your name associated with it.
RANDY SMITH, “Page Six” staffer (1977): I only remember Murdoch saying two things [about the column]. I remember him using the phrase “substantial stories.” He didn’t want it to be piffle or silly stuff. It was meant to be inside stuff, true-truly good gossip. And I remember Murdoch banning the use of the word “reportedly.” You couldn’t say “reportedly.” It was either true or it wasn’t true. Make up your mind.
JAMES BRADY: From the beginning there was an argument: What should we call it? It had been decided that the column would be anchored on page 6, that after the first five pages-the front page and then four pages of hard news-we’d have this real change of pace. We’d come to page 6 and it would be a knockout gossip column with a cartoon. And I was the one who said, “Well, we continually talk about page 6. Let’s just call it ‘Page Six.’”
“Page Six” made its debut on Monday, January 3, 1977. Its lead story-that CBS chairman William Paley had been talking to former secretary of state Henry Kissinger about becoming the head of the Tiffany network-was teased at the top of page one, which was dominated by a picture of a tense Andy Williams accompanying actress Claudine Longet to her manslaughter trial for the death of skier Spider Sabich. But there was no indication that a new gossip column was starting in the Post. Five pages later, the “Page Six” logo appeared in the upper-right-hand corner of the page. At the top of the page, a photo of the smiling Paley separated the lead story from a small item about Hollywood Squares star Paul Lynde’s getting into an argument at an “all-male” bar called Cowboy, where, according to the column, he “defended his honor” by hurling a plate of French fries at a young ankle-biter. That item featured the inaugural use of a phrase that continues to be used on the Page to this day: “Paul’s companions wanted to take the heckler outside but cooler heads prevailed.” Mentions of Jacqueline Onassis and John F. Kennedy Jr. on that initial Page would prove the first of hundreds, if not thousands, of subsequent citations.
MELANIE SHORIN, “Page Six” staffer (1977): I remember following Jackie O around and hailing a cab and saying, “I only have $3.50, so follow that car as far as you can go.”
SUSAN MULCAHY: “Page Six” was really the first postmodern gossip column. Traditionally, gossip columns are written by individuals: Walter Winchell, Hedda Hopper, Liz Smith. And even if there isn’t a single author-like the old “Cholly Knickerbocker” column, which was written by different people, including, early in her career, Liz Smith-those columns are still associated with a single, first-person voice. I’m also pretty certain “Page Six” was the first gossip column to be written almost entirely by baby-boomers, starting with Claudia [Cohen]. From that point on, the column had the same ironic, sometimes smart-ass viewpoint that came to characterize a lot of the media that would be created by boomers-Letterman, Spy, and all of that. We saw retro, even kitschy qualities in material that might be taken at face value by more seasoned columnists.
STEVE CUOZZO, a long-term editor at the New York Post who oversees the Page: At the time “Page Six” was introduced, in the winter of ‘77, gossip columns were a lost art. Not only was Winchell-the infamous demagogue with his power-long gone, but so were the Hollywood columnists like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. And the only thing that was left were things running on their last legs, like Earl Wilson in the Post. That was it. I mean, Liz Smith was writing in the Daily News, but that was primarily a Hollywood-and-celebrity column. It didn’t pretend to be a gossip column.
“Page Six” reanimated the genre by introducing the public to the idea that gossip columns would not only be about show business and celebrities but about the corridors of power. “Page Six” might write about Broadway, sports, museums, American Ballet Theatre, or financial types-moguls and their travails, whether they were of a financial or a sexual nature. And that was all new. And it’s partly for that reason-that “Page Six” tapped so many different realms-that it had the effect of making the Page sort of a benign nuisance to every editor of the paper ever since.
Another thing that made “Page Six” electric had to do with the circumstances of New York City at the time. This was 1977. The city was still recovering from the near bankruptcy of 1975. “Page Six” came along and reminded people just how dynamic the city was. There was a lot of European money coming into New York for the first time. There were the real rich Europeans and the ones with phony titles. And their arrival on the scene coincided with the disco era-Studio 54, Xenon-and those places to some extent became their playpens. And “Page Six” brought that scene to life: this off-center, often druggy, but glamorous scene that saw so many wealthy Europeans coming to the city and mingling with New York society, athletes, and club owners. Nobody had seen this kind of coverage, and although it was often snarky and had a definite edge and sometimes drove people crazy because it was so unsparing, it was a great tonic for the city. It was almost as if we had forgotten that New York was this much fun and this important, and that so many people wanted to be here at a time when so much of the country had given up on the city.
Brady’s successor, Neal Travis, was a bon vivant in the making and a favored member of the Murdoch mafia despite his openly liberal tendencies. If the flamboyant Dunleavy was the Keith Richards of tabloid journalism, then his mate Travis (who died of cancer two years ago) was its Charlie Watts: quieter and more thoughtful by comparison, but, nonetheless, a man who lived for the beat-whether it was Elaine’s, Regine’s, or Studio 54-and the opportunity to cut down some tall poppies.
CLAUDIA COHEN, “Page Six” reporter (1977-78), editor (1978-80): Neal used to say that it hadn’t been a good day if he hadn’t pissed off at least one person he was writing about.
STEVE DUNLEAVY, longtime Post fixture: Rupert Murdoch had a great affection for, I won’t say Neal’s arrogance, but the very fact that Neal would always say, “Ah, mate, that’s the headline.” And walk away. Not arrogant but assertive.
ANNA QUINDLEN, “Page Six” reporter (1977): I remember being reprimanded by Neal once when he’d given me a tip-I think it was about Liza Minnelli. I told him I hadn’t been able to confirm it, and he said, “You don’t have to confirm it, you just have to write it.”
CLAUDIA COHEN: One of the first stories that I did, Neal sent me over to do a short paragraph on a new nightclub that was opening. I think we were doing it as a favor to some press agent who was a good source and a friend of the Page, Harvey Mann. So he sent me over to this place, I got a tour, I met the owners, and I came back to the paper and I wrote a paragraph saying that it was about to open. And I said to Neal, “This is the dumbest idea I have ever seen. This place will never work.” It was Studio 54.
In April 1978, Travis left “Page Six” to publish a novel, among other things. Claudia Cohen took over and, as Cuozzo recalls, “put the Page on the map.” Though “Page Six” is written largely by its reporters, the column’s editor tends to set its tone and the agenda. Where Travis’s targets got a “sharp poke in the extremities” that could be painful but not genuinely damaging, Cohen, in Cuozzo’s words, went “for the jugular.” She could be especially pointed on matters of weight gain.
CLAUDIA COHEN: I think my tone differed significantly from Neal. I took the position that a gossip column had to have a real point of view. I wanted to make an impact and I wanted it to be different. And therefore the tone of my column was provocative-some thought highly provocative-and as irreverent as I could possibly make it.
STEVE CUOZZO: Fred Silverman was the NBC programmer who became, in a lot of ways, the first media superstar. One of Claudia’s most famous stories was about how fat he was, standing around the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. And that was important, because the New York media, and thus the public, was once again conscious of the possibility of its executive corps as celebrities.
CLAUDIA COHEN: One of my main interests when I took over “Page Six” was business. I was fascinated by all the excesses of the 80s, and I used to say that when you were reading “Page Six” you should feel as if you were tiptoeing down the corridors of power and listening in the doors. So we used to write about corporate leaders almost as if they were movie stars.
One source tiptoeing down the corridors of power and phoning in what he saw to “Page Six” was Roy Cohn, the prominent lawyer who had been Joe McCarthy’s primary henchman. Once scorned in the pages of Schiff’s Post, he had become a regular presence in the tabloid’s pages and hallways.
CLAUDIA COHEN: One of my best sources was Roy Cohn. I had started writing about the parties that Roy Cohn gave, and I would list the names of all the judges who were there. Many lawyers might have been embarrassed by such a thing, but not Roy. He loved it and started inviting me to cover every single party he had. He loved seeing his name on the Page so much that he would also become a source for great stories. And nobody knew where more bodies were buried in New York City than Roy Cohn. I would go so far as to say that he was my number-one source while I was writing the column. He knew everything.
As the column’s power grew, and Cohen’s power grew with it, she was not afraid to flex some muscle.
BOBBY ZAREM, publicist: Claudia Cohen barred me from the Page because I wouldn’t pass a note to Kirk Douglas, with whom I was having lunch at the Russian Tea Room. I didn’t know that they’d had a prior relationship. I was having lunch with him and a few other people. And Claudia sent me a note to give to Kirk. And I put it under the plate. And then she sent me another one saying that unless I gave it to him immediately I was going to be barred from “Page Six.” And I ripped them both up for her to see. And I was barred from “Page Six.” So her column went to shit because she barred the single most resourceful person with information that there was.
CLAUDIA COHEN: Bobby refused to give him the note. He not only ripped it up but, to my recollection, he even put the pieces in his mouth and pretended to swallow them. But I don’t remember banning Bobby as a result. I don’t remember ever banning Bobby. At that time, it would have been impossible to ban Bobby from “Page Six.” I saw Bobby almost every night of my life at Elaine’s.
SUSAN MULCAHY: The first time I realized the power of the Page, I was rejected getting into Studio 54. I was supposed to go to a party there and it was my first time. Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager were still running it. So Claudia calls and gets my name on the list. And I got there, and of course I stand there like a pathetic little dweeb, and guess what: I didn’t get in! So I come in the next morning and Claudia’s like, “So, how was your first visit to Studio 54?” And I said, “Well, actually, I didn’t get in.” She said, “What!?” She called up Rubell, she called [the club’s chief doorman] Marc Benecke. I got so many flowers that day that I looked like a funeral parlor. After that, I never had a problem.
CLAUDIA COHEN: “Page Six” was exciting, it was chaotic. The adrenaline would flow all day. The phones never stopped ringing. Press agents are calling and begging you to run items about their clients. Your tipsters are calling you with great scoops that really need to be reported, and a lot of work has to go into that. Then there are the slow days, where nothing is happening, and you haven’t got an idea for a story, and you’ve got to start working the phones.
PETER HONERKAMP, “Page Six” reporter (1978-80): There was a movie out at the time called Cruising. And there was a lot of debate about it and controversy. [The movie featured Al Pacino as a cop who goes undercover to solve a series of murders in New York’s gay S and M world.] And Claudia had written the lead story about that movie. I don’t remember what it was about, but [an editor on the desk that night] came in at like 10 o’clock at night and told me, “I’m sick of reading about this movie. I’m killing this.” He said, “You’re a reporter. I’m your fucking boss. Write something.”
This was before cell phones. I didn’t know how to get ahold of Claudia. So I knew a couple of cop flacks, and I called up one P.R. guy, got him in bed with his wife. And I said, “Just give me anything.” I’m petrified, and I get this guy and he goes, “I don’t know, Peter. I don’t have anything.” Then he said, “I was on a bumpy flight today with Muhammad Ali.” I said, “Well, what is that?” He goes, “I don’t know. Call Muhammad Ali up and ask him if he was scared.” I said, “How the fuck do I get Muhammad Ali?” He said, “He stays at the Waldorf.”
So I hung up the phone. I called the Waldorf and said, “Could I have Muhammad Ali?” Who picks up the fucking phone at the Waldorf? Muhammad Ali. I go, “Look, I’m 25 years old, I’m in a lot of trouble. I know you’re the most famous man in the world. I beg you to talk to me about anything for five minutes.” He was eating chicken. He goes, “O.K., you got me for as much time as you want.” And I remember him telling me he would only give me an interview if I promised to send him a picture of myself, which I did. And he gave me this great thing about how he was going to come back [out of retirement] and fight [Larry] Holmes, which he hadn’t announced at the time. He told me, what was he going to do-go fishing with Howard Cosell? He told me he was going to save the world. And the heading of the story went, “Ali has a plan to save the world.”
Many are the sins that tipsters and publicists commit. One of the most serious is “double-planting,” whereby an item is planted in more than one column after a promise of exclusivity.
SUSAN MULCAHY: If somebody told you they were giving you an item exclusively and it looked like a good item, you’d say, O.K., we will run the item if we have it exclusively. Then you’d pick up the papers the next day and you would have it and so would Liz [Smith], and then you’d ban that press agent for a while.
BOB MERRILL, “Page Six” reporter (1981-82): You’d say, “He’s off the Page!”
CLAUDIA COHEN: There’s only one thing worse than someone who double-plants, and that is someone who gives you a bad story. And that happened to me in a very significant way. I had such success with Roy [Cohn] that it got to the point where he would say, “Listen, you can just go with this. This is solid.” And I trusted him enough to do that. And these stories always were totally solid until the dreaded day. There had just been a very rough piece written about the Studio 54 case by someone at New York magazine. [The owners, Rubell and Schrager, were being prosecuted for tax evasion.] This piece created a lot of waves. Roy [who represented the owners] called me, or maybe I called him and said, “What’s the reaction to this piece?” And he said, “Listen, tomorrow morning I am filing a libel suit. By the time the paper comes out tomorrow, this suit will have been filed.” I said, “This is absolutely solid?” He said, “You can go to the bank on this one.” I ran the item. As it turns out, not only did Roy never file the suit, Roy never intended to file the suit. For me, it was one of the darkest days I ever had in journalism. I was mortified. I banned Roy Cohn from “Page Six.” And after a couple of weeks, he started calling and calling and calling.
SUSAN MULCAHY: Roy suddenly started calling me with stories-I had been too lowly to deal with until then. I would make this face-an “eeeewww-ick” face-and signal to Claudia when it was Roy on the phone. She thought this was very funny. Claudia wanted to teach Roy a lesson by refusing to take his calls, but she didn’t want to lose a good story, so I had to talk to him. When I hung up, I wanted to take a bath. Roy represented pure evil to me, but as time went on I came to appreciate his value as a source. I won’t go so far as to say I grew to like him, but I did come to appreciate him.
Actor Paul Newman, meanwhile, was unofficially banned not just from “Page Six” but from the entire Post after he went on the warpath against the tabloid. At the center of the controversy were a caption and photo published on “Page Six” in 1980. Beneath a candid shot of a miffed-looking Newman on the set of Fort Apache, the Bronx, standing next to a woman with her hand raised to the camera’s lens, the caption read: “Paul Newman stares in astonishment as a ‘Fort Apache’ crew member wards off a group of Hispanic youths protesting the film.” Newman said that, in reality, it was photographers who were being warded off, and in 1983 he told Rolling Stone magazine that his 1981 movie Absence of Malice, a drama about an irresponsible journalist, was a “direct attack on the New York Post.” He went on to say, “I could sue the Post, but it’s awfully hard to sue a garbage can.” Instead of retaliating, the paper did its best to ignore Newman’s existence.
SUSAN MULCAHY: There was definitely a shitlist at the Post. And I’m sure it was broader than even I knew. There were certain people, like Paul Newman, who were not allowed to be mentioned in the paper at all. They were not even allowed to mention him in the television listings. If Hud was playing, they would write, “Hud, starring Patricia Neal.” And then the Buckleys, Pat and Bill, were banned for a while when he defected and went to the Daily News. I don’t think it was that long. And no one ever told me there was a Jimmy Breslin ban, but I assure you that, had I come up with tons of positive Jimmy Breslin items, they would not have made it into the paper. [Breslin, a Daily News columnist, and the Post’s Steve Dunleavy were once fierce competitors, especially while covering the Son of Sam murders in 1977.]
Remember the scene in A Clockwork Orange where Malcolm McDowell’s character is drugged and forced to watch countless depictions of sex and violence until he loses his taste for them? Reporters found that working for “Page Six” could be like that-a prolonged exposure to a black rain of political agendas, deadline pressures, raging lawyers, and weird sex stories.
PETER HONERKAMP: Claudia knew I’d gotten disillusioned with the Page. I didn’t like writing about people’s personal lives. I felt it was grimy, and I made no secret of that. And one day I was asked to write a story about Bess Myerson, who was running for the Democratic nomination for senator at the time. It was early in the campaign, and the story was supposed to be about how she was carrying on her Senate campaign even though her parents were very ill in a nursing home. It was going to be a fluff piece that complimented her, actually. But I called her up, and she said, “My father is still mentally together, but if he reads this story that his illness and my mother’s are in any way impeding my campaign, it will break his heart. Please don’t write it.” And I just said, “I’m not writing this story.” And Claudia was pissed off at me. And I remember she came in in front of the features room and she yelled at me. I’ll never forget the line. She said, “Woodward and Bernstein would have written this story.” And I said, “No they wouldn’t have.” I said, “If it’s so important, you write it.” And that was it. I was out of there. And she never wrote the story.
SUSAN MULCAHY: “Page Six” gave me an ulcer. Literally. It happened while I was Claudia’s assistant. The fact that she was such a difficult boss was part of the problem, but “Page Six” itself contributed, too. I was only 21 when I started working there. When you see-and it happens quickly-how much influence “Page Six” has, it is truly daunting. I was in terror of making mistakes. I used to have nightmares about items gone wrong.
In 1980, Cohen departed “Page Six” to start her own gossip column, “I, Claudia,” at the short-lived Daily News Tonight edition that New York magazine founder Clay Felker was launching. Cyndi Stivers, currently the president/editorial director of Time Out New York, succeeded her as editor for less than a month before heading to the News as well. Stepping into the void was James Brady. The day before he started, a box at the bottom of the column read: “WATCH for that man in the trenchcoat, JAMES BRADY, the man who started it all.”
With his tailored pin-striped suits, all-weather work ethic, and deep media-industry roots, Brady proved an ideal foil for Murdoch’s band of cutups and cutthroats. Whether appearing on New York’s Channel 7 or Channel 2, or in the Four Seasons’ Grill Room, Brady was the ruddy, civilized, and deeply sourced face of “Page Six,” which was expanded to Saturday’s Post as well. His editorship of the column marked the only time “Page Six” regularly broke from its detached point of view. Brady often wrote in the first person, and virtually every column carried an item at the bottom of the page called “Brady’s Bunch,” his take on the news or on some boldfaced name. And as with everything that he wrote, it was composed with a two-fingered peck on a typewriter.
BOB MERRILL: Brady would look at all his notes. Then he would put his head back and close his eyes for a minute. He had this old typewriter. He probably had it in the Korean War. And then, bang, he would type it out, and he would hand me the page, which I had to then put into the computer. He’d maybe make one little typo, but his copy was clean and concise and it was an item. It was a perfect item, a one-take-Charlie kind of thing, you know?
SUSAN MULCAHY (then Brady’s deputy): On Fridays, Jim would wait until I was going to the ladies’ room or something, and then he’d say, “Oh well, we’re in reasonably good shape-I think I’ll head out to East Hampton.” Then I’d come back and someone on the column would say, “Susan, we told him not to leave, and he left!” And I quickly called the people at the newsstand [in the Post’s lobby] and told them they had to cut him off at the pass while I ran down and made him come back upstairs.
BOB MERRILL: Brady would say, “Bobster, I’ll be in chapel from five to six.” Or at lunchtime he’d say, “I’m going up to the chapel. I’ll be back at two.” And I remember saying, “Man, this guy, he really must be a really devout Catholic.” Then, of course, you know, I met him at “the chapel” one time. It was a bar called St. John’s, on 49th Street and First Avenue, near his house, where he used to hang out with his cronies.
The 80s saw the face-off between the entrenched Old Guard of society, culture, and business and insurgent up-and-comers such as Donald Trump, whose gold-hued Fifth Avenue monument to himself, Trump Tower, would be completed in 1983. “Page Six” covered both camps and the clashes between them.
SUSAN MULCAHY: I think “Page Six” definitely played a role in helping push Donald Trump to the first round of his never-ending whatever. It definitely helped create his first level of celebrity hell. I wrote about him a certain amount, but I actually would sit back and be amazed at how often people would write about him in a completely gullible way. He was a great character, but he was full of crap 90 percent of the time.
Donald Trump, real-estate developer, star of The Apprentice: I agree with her 100 percent.
JAMES BRADY; Donald and Ivana Trump had rented [in East Hampton] one summer, and they had wangled a temporary membership at the Maidstone Club, which I don’t think was too difficult to do. And one of my friends who is a trustee said, “The Trumps really liked the club. They liked it so much that they’re going to put in for a permanent membership, but the word has been discreetly passed: ‘Don’t embarrass yourselves or us by doing that, because you’ll be blackballed.’” And, of course, I put that right into “Page Six” the next day. And the phone rang and it was Donald Trump. He was cursing me with every four-letter word. “You S.O.B. You bleeping this. You bleeping that. I’m going to sue you. I’m going to sue the Post. I’m going to sue Murdoch. I’m going to sue everyone.” I’m holding the phone out here, and I said, “Oh yes, Donald, oh yes.”
I had no sooner hung up on this one-way conversation when the phone rang again and it was Roy Cohn. And Roy said, “Now, Jim, I’m Donald’s lawyer.” I said, “Wait a minute, I don’t mind fighting with Donald Trump. He’s a civilian, I’m a civilian. You’re a lawyer. I’m not going to get into a discussion with a lawyer. You better call Howard Squadron,” who was Murdoch’s lawyer. I always remember what Cohn said: “Jim, Jim, Jim. There’s going to be no lawsuit. It’s very good for Donald to let off steam. That’s just Donald. And we encourage that kind of thing, but no one’s going to sue anybody. I’m just telling you that there will be no lawsuit.” And there was no lawsuit.
DONALD TRUMP: I have a very photographic memory, but that’s a long time ago, let me tell you. I was a temporary member of Maidstone, and then I left Long Island and basically I never went back. So I never tried to become a member of Maidstone. And I have my own golf courses now.
If “Thou shalt always seek conflict” is the First Commandment of gossip, then No. 2 is “Thou shalt not write straight copy.” “Page Six” took Winchell-era wordplay and updated it for the age of irony, proving that gossip could be as funny as it was salacious.
SUSAN MULCAHY: Robert Mitchum was smoking on a plane and he offended Janet Sartin [the skin-care guru behind the Janet Sartin Institute in New York and Chicago]. When she pointed out that he was sitting in the no-smoking section, he basically stood up and let loose in her direction with a rather loud and odiferous fart. Of course, we made much of The Winds of War with that. Those are the things that just fell right into our lap.
JAMES BRADY; We did coin some good phrases. For example, Leonard Bernstein was forever bursting into tears at speeches and awards and dinners and so on, and we got to a point where we never referred to him except as “the weeping maestro.”
GEORGE RUSH, “Page Six” reporter (1986-93): Iman was “the hot tamale from Somalia.” Why they eat tamales in Somalia, I don’t know. Claudia Schiffer was the “Teutonic temptress.” I think Susan Mulcahy came up with “trashterpiece.” Like a book by Ivana Trump would be known as a trashterpiece.
SUSAN MULCAHY: One of my all-time favorite items was Truman Capote going door-to-door looking for a new home for his hairdresser. Here you had this revered figure, but it was a real glimpse into the lives of people like that. He was going door-to-door on I think it was East 49th Street because Mr. Jorge or Mr. Tino or whoever it was that gave Capote regular haircuts and shaved him every day was getting thrown out [of his original location]. Capote’s hands were so shaky at that point, because he drank so much, that he couldn’t shave himself.
JAMES BRADY; Rupert was a great source. And, unlike most press lords, Rupert can really write a story and scale a picture and write a headline. Rupert would delight in it-he’d say, “I have a great one. A great one!” And he’d give it to you. “Call so-and-so and just check this out.” He’d pass the stuff right on.
If there was a dearth of leads, the “flacks” were always happy to step in. Mike Hall, Eddie Jaffe, Bernie Bennett, Sam Gutwirth, Jack Tirman, Harvey Mann, and the deans of them all, Sy Presten and Bobby Zarem, who are still getting items in the columns, were and are the real Sidney Falcos of New York. This thick-skinned, Teflon-tressed lot soon divined that the irony-loving writers on the Page had a soft spot for stories about chopped-liver sculptures, joke-writing dentists, and a celebrity-studded Indian restaurant called Nirvana.
MAURA MOYNIHAN, “Page Six” reporter (1981-83): I became an invaluable member of the staff because I loved talking to flacks. I could do it all day long. I had a really deep, intimate relationship with Sy Presten the whole time I was at “Page Six.” He had three clients: Penthouse magazine, Chock Full o’Nuts, and Morgan Fairchild. He’d go: “Morgan Fairchild walked into Chock Full o’Nuts with a copy of Penthouse under her arm.”
SY PRESTEN, press agent since the Winchell years: Two of three. I didn’t have Morgan Fairchild. I would like to do that, but Chock Full o’Nuts and Penthouse, for Christ’s sake? The head of Chock Full o’Nuts was a very staid guy, William Black, who never even had a secretary. And I’m going to tie Chock Full o’Nuts up with Penthouse?
SUSAN MULCAHY: I remember once I was at a party and Christopher Reeve was there. It was a dinner and I was seated next to him. He said, “Let me ask you a question. What is this in these columns where somebody will say, ‘Christopher Reeve said to Moses over dinner at-fill in the name of the restaurant-that he’s going to be starring in-fill in the name of the movie’?” He said, “It’s always some restaurant I’ve never been in.” I said, “Well, that is the restaurant plant.” I explained to him about how the press agent had a little nugget of information that he wanted to pass on to the columnist, but he needed to get a client in there. So he slipped in the restaurant name. Those were the only stories that I would run that I knew had a large error factor in them, because you knew that no one had ever been inside that restaurant.
It was very upsetting when John Lennon was shot, but Harvey Mann called up the next day in tears going, “Did you know that the last thing John Lennon ate was the chocolate cake from Hisae’s?” Jim and I said, “You gotta love Harvey.” As soon as he reads that John Lennon is dead, he’s thinking up an angle: Hisae’s is right across the street from the Dakota, they got a good chocolate cake-who cares if John Lennon’s never been there.
SY PRESTEN: It’s a thrill, you know, placing an item. I still get a thrill. It’s not just the money. The thrill is that you’re producing something that nobody else is producing-that item.
SUSAN MULCAHY: Bobby Zarem was always calling up threatening to kill himself if we didn’t run his item. “Zarem’s on the phone-he’s suicidal again.” He always had movies that “reeked of Oscar.” He did occasionally have Oscar winners, but the ones that reeked of Oscar usually just reeked.
At the beginning of 1983, Brady left “Page Six,” and Mulcahy, whom a friend describes as a “tortured gossip columnist” with “a real conscience,” reluctantly took over. During her reign, the column was known for its good writing, political coverage, and wry humor.
SUSAN MULCAHY: I think I ran a very good “Page Six,” but I didn’t have as much salacious stuff as a lot of the columns do now. And a lot of readers would tell you, “Oh well, then it wouldn’t be as good.” And maybe they’re right, but I find it very uncomfortable to track down that kind of information. The type of people that you have to deal with to confirm that kind of information, the people who are going to feed you that information-I got to a point where I just really didn’t want to deal with them. I found it repugnant.
MAURA MOYNIHAN: Another thing I always loved about “Page Six” were the anonymous tipsters. They were wild and you never quite knew what to believe. There was this one guy who used to call up and say, “Who was the man that [storied socialite] was with on the night her husband died?” I’d say, “I don’t know.” “I am that man. I am that man.” And he’d go on and on about [the socialite], then he’d hang up.
RICHARD JOHNSON: “Page Six” reporter (1983-85), editor (1985-90 and 1993-present): We had a mole at The Wall Street Journal who sent us a list of all the salaries of the executives over there, which caused a huge uproar. There’s nothing more subversive you can do to an organization than reveal what they’re getting paid. It was funny because our source at the Journal actually would call up and introduce himself as Mr. Mole: “Hello, this is Mr. Mole.”
STEVEN GAINES, author, friend of “Page Six”: I spent years in therapy talking to my psychiatrist about my compulsion to call “Page Six.” Actually, did you read Mulcahy’s book? She mentions that one of her big sources on “Page Six” had an issue with it and was talking to a psychiatrist every day. That’s me. My psychiatrist interpreted this to mean that I felt unimportant and that by giving items to “Page Six” and seeing them appear instantly the next day I felt important. Except that nobody else knew [I was planting these items]. I couldn’t tell anybody that I was doing this. So it had to kind of be my thing. And then, of course-this was a really important part of it-I rarely asked to have my name on “Page Six.” Like now, [Gotham magazine owner] Jason Binn’s name is in “Page Six” every third day, which I think is way too obvious.
SUSAN MULCAHY: Someone who’d given us stuff before called and said that J.F.K. Jr. had rented Bodacious Ta-Ta’s-which is a film that I’m not familiar with-from this Upper East Side video store and hadn’t returned it. He’d apparently taken it out with Broadway Danny Rose. We ran the item, and Kennedy called us the next day. He was a nice guy. He was very young, very young when I was the editor of “Page Six,” but his mother had trained him very well how to deal with the press. He was not rude. He was cooperative to a point. He said that he had not rented Bodacious Ta-Ta’s, but that he had rented the Woody Allen movie, and he said that he had rented it with his AmEx card, so why would he be stupid enough to rent something called Bodacious Ta-Ta’s with his AmEx card? But I think that’s actually how we knew. Anyway, we ran his denial. So, we got two items out of that.
EILEEN DASPIN, “Page Six” reporter (1984-89): My first top-of-the-page story, I had a friend whose mother was a real-estate broker in Neptune, New Jersey, who called me and said, “Bruce Springsteen’s house is for sale.” So I called and I talked to my friend’s mom. I got all the details about the house, whatever, and then I talked to Springsteen’s people, and they confirmed that his house was for sale. They didn’t talk about the details, as I recall. They just said, “Yes, his house is for sale.” So we did this top-of-the-page story. It turned out his house was for sale, but it was not the one that I described. So, the poor schlub whose house I wrote about had kids out protesting on his lawn, “Don’t go, Bruce!” I was mortified.
SUSAN MULCAHY: Murdoch never called me with items himself, and, in fact, barely knew my name. His cronies-and by this I mostly mean people on staff-were always telling me he wanted certain things in the column, and though I would always listen to ideas from those guys, I never ran the items without thoroughly checking that they were actual stories, and much of the time they were not and never appeared in the column. Occasionally someone would try and foist an item on me that was all about somebody’s political agenda. Most of the time I would just ignore it, but there was this phase where there was too much of it going on. And so one night, Roger [Wood, the paper’s executive editor] killed my lead at, like, six o’clock at night. Everybody else was gone. I’m trying to come up with another lead story and Howard Squadron [Murdoch’s lawyer] calls me. There was a battle between two companies, including the phone company, to get the rights to advertise on those small phone booths. Howard represented the company that was not the phone company. But he called me up with this item that was so biased and so ridiculous, and I just thought, You know, I give up. I’ll run his item.
I called the phone company P.R. guy in the office, even though I knew he wouldn’t be there. This was the one and only time I’ve ever done anything this lazy, irresponsible, and unethical as far as I’m concerned. The item appears in the paper, totally biased in favor of the company that was not the phone company. The phone company calls the next morning and threatens to pull, like, $2 million worth of ads out of the paper. Well, I’m not there, because I’m at my grandmother’s funeral. So, I come back and Richard [Johnson, then a reporter on the Page] goes, “You’re so lucky you weren’t here yesterday. Murdoch came down with steam coming out of his ears looking for the, quote, ‘Page Six girl.’” Richard said, “If you had been here, you would have been totally fired.” It was one of my biggest errors, and for years afterward, whenever I’d see Howard Squadron lionized in the press in New York, I’d think, I don’t think he’s so fucking great.
Sometimes a political agenda would keep stories off the Page as well. When Hal Davis, one of the paper’s court reporters, got the scoop that Roy Cohn was going to be disbarred on the grounds of unethical and unprofessional conduct, Mulcahy’s bosses wouldn’t let her run the story. She eventually tired of such interference and resigned. Richard Johnson, who had been working for Mulcahy and was famous on the Page for his nightclub stamina, got the job.
RICHARD JOHNSON: Susan went, and they sort of made me the editor, but they weren’t sure that I could do it, so they brought in Dunleavy, although he never got a byline. Steve was great, but he wasn’t very good at being an editor, because you have to keep track of about 10 different stories at a time. He was very good at getting the one big story a day. I don’t think I even asked for a raise. I think they just shifted me over there.
“Page Six“‘s testosterone level spiked under its new editor, and not only due to its blanket coverage of the burgeoning model industry. In the face of detractors, Johnson brooked no guff-“I’ll be waiting in the tall grass,” he wrote to one rival columnist who crossed him-and he understood the value of a public feud, as well as the advantage he held atop the column. Among those who would joust with Johnson in the coming years: actor Alec Baldwin, ICM agent Ed Limato, and Howard Stein, the former co-owner of Xenon and current proprietor of Au Bar. Stein and Johnson both say they can’t remember the origins of their feud, but for years Johnson needled the nightlife impresario with a string of items that rarely failed to mention that the murdered corpse of Stein’s father, Ruby Stein, an organized-crime figure, was found floating headless in Jamaica Bay, in Queens.
HOWARD STEIN, owner, Au Bar: “Howard Stein, king of disco and son of slain, dismembered Jewish gangster”-whatever it was, that was my parenthetical title. That hurt me a lot more [than the items Johnson would write] because, first of all, it had nothing to do with the superficial world of scandal and gossip columnists and nightclub owners, and, you know, my mother was alive at the beginning of the feud and my kids were in school. And that was a little more painful.
It’s frustrating to get whacked by anybody who has the power of the pen, because there’s no retribution. It’s not a fair fight. You can’t get the word out. You can’t say anything back. So you learn, as artists and performers do when they get reviewed, to find some way to deal with it. Of course, nothing is tackier than dealing with it by barring somebody. He calls me Au Bore. And I say, “You’re Au Barred.” That’s such a cheap, unimportant get-back.
In 1986, Paul Newman returned from exile to give the column the kind of conflict that if it were written as fiction would be considered preposterous.
RICHARD JOHNSON: We had a sportswriter at the Post. He was about five foot six, and he had been to the theater the night before. At intermission, he said, he was going into the men’s room, Paul Newman was coming out, and they passed each other. And the sportswriter said, “We were almost eye to eye-he couldn’t be more than five foot eight. Tops.” He called because the preceding Sunday The New York Times Magazine had this glowing, gushing profile of Paul Newman, which referred to him as a “lean” five foot eleven. It was written by a woman-I can’t remember what her name was. [The writer was Maureen Dowd.] So, we wrote about how The New York Times had blown it and was perpetuating bad information, and we said that the only way he’d hit five foot eleven was in his heels. Liz Smith was at the Daily News, and he gave Liz Smith an interview-she was doing Live at Five then-and castigated us. And then the whole thing mushroomed.
GEORGE RUSH: They reprinted some sort of forensic analysis of a photo of Paul Newman standing next to a fence or something, where they then measured the fence and determined that he was not as tall as he claimed to be.
RICHARD JOHNSON: We started out by offering to give a thousand dollars for every inch he is over five foot eight to his favorite charity or political cause. And then he said, “O.K., let’s make it a hundred thousand.” We chickened out. I think we would have won anyway, but even if you have to pay a couple hundred thousand, think of the publicity. I think the perception was: he’s still a popular movie star and we don’t want to be seen as torturing him.
KATHIE BERLIN, Newman’s East Coast publicist at the time: There were only two times that Paul ever asked me to follow through on something frivolous about him that had appeared in the press. One was that every time he had an auto race he did not go out and get a facial. The other was that he was not five foot eight. That one made him furious. Funny furious-he did it all with a twinkle in his eye-but furious. He really wanted to challenge them. But I remember giggling over five-eleven. I don’t think I told him then, but he’s more like five-ten.
In October 1988, a photo depicting actor Mickey Rourke holding hands with model Terri Farrell at a London nightclub ran on “Page Six.” The caption noted that Rourke was married-to another woman, actress Debra Feuer. Though Johnson says he didn’t pick the photo (but may have had something to do with the caption), the item served as the first round of a feud between the columnist and the Desperate Hours actor that would last for years.
GEORGE RUSH: I remember picking up the phone one day and saying, “Page Six,” and it was Mickey Rourke, and he says, “Yo, is Richard Johnson there?” I said, “No, he’s on vacation right now.” And he goes, “Well, this is Mickey Rourke, and you tell him that I’m going to kick his ass when he gets back.” And in the background I hear these dudes going, “You tell him, Mickey, you tell him.” Mickey goes on, “I’m tired of those lies he’s writing about me, and we’re going to settle this man-to-man.”
In 1992, during Rourke’s phase as a professional fighter, Johnson-then writing his own column at the Daily News-challenged Rourke to a boxing match after the actor disparaged Johnson in the press. The fight never happened, but later, after Johnson returned to the Post, the paper had the last word: a story about Rourke carried the headline the only thing he can box is pizza.
CLARE MCHUGH, “Page Six” reporter (1987-89): The thing I don’t think people understand about Richard-and you can disagree-but I think he’s pretty much a softy. There would be people who would call up and appeal for personal reasons why a story we had was a damaging thing, and Richard, while he tried to be tough, would pull it when he felt that things were not appropriate or were going to cause undue injury to people. He also occasionally gave in to people who would call up and say, “Listen, if you pull this, I’m going to give you something better.” I remember Mario Cuomo called up and asked, “Can you pull this item?” It was embarrassing for somebody in his family. Cuomo said, “I’m going to give you a great item in exchange,” and so Richard said, “O.K., Governor,” and then the governor called up several other times on other occasions with really lame items! Like “I went jogging yesterday in Ticonderoga with a guy who used to be an enemy, but now we’re friends.” And no one cares! Cuomo never did deliver.
RICHARD JOHNSON:I don’t remember Ticonderoga. But I do remember that there was an item involving a family member. I think it was that his wife, Matilda, was on a diet. He begged. He said, “I’m going to get in so much trouble.”
In 1988 came the first hint of the Donald Trump-Ivana Trump-Marla Maples triangle, which would lead to an explosive public divorce and a record number of Post front pages.
CLARE MCHUGH: One day I opened the mail and there was a headshot of some girl I didn’t recognize. It said “Marla Maples” on the bottom of it, and there was an anonymous note on it. It said something like “This woman is going out with an important business person.” I wasn’t sure at the time if Richard really knew who the business person was. I think he did know that it was Trump [who was still married at the time]. So we ran it anonymously. But we did break that story, and it didn’t cause any ripples at that point, but it was really early on, at the beginning, I think. In the history of great tabloid stories, the first chapter of the Ivana Trump and Donald Trump breakup was that picture.
RICHARD JOHNSON:It was really the first blind item that I remember doing. We knew the story. We named her, we pictured her, and said she was having an affair with a business tycoon, but we didn’t name the Donald.
As the 90s began, the Post sank into a financial quagmire. After federal rules were changed regarding ownership of media outlets, Murdoch had been forced to sell the Post in 1988. The buyer, real-estate developer Peter Kalikow, couldn’t stem the tide of red ink, and the paper ended up in the erratic hands of parking-lot magnate Abe Hirschfeld. Johnson left the Post in 1990 for a short-lived syndicated television series with Robin Leach, Preview: The Best of the New, and eventually ended up at the Daily News. On one of his last days on the Page, an item fell into his lap about his old nemesis Howard Stein. “Manna from heaven,” Johnson declared.
The “Page Six” that coalesced in the wake of Johnson’s departure was more of an ensemble effort and marked the first time that the editor’s byline was shared. J.F.K. Jr., Madonna, and Michael Jackson were among the most-mentioned boldfaced names in the column, and one of the Post’s biggest stories, Woody Allen’s affair with his girlfriend Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, had its roots on “Page Six.”
JOANNA MOLLOY, “Page Six” co-editor (1990-93): When I first started, I totally viewed it as class war. I just viewed most celebrities as too rich, too powerful, too conceited, and too abusive. We knew a guy who was at a small party at Sean Penn’s house and there were only like eight people there. This source, he was really sticking his neck out. He said that he went to go to the bathroom, and he was wandering through the house looking, and opening doors, and he opened a door and Sean Penn was on top of a woman who had also been down at the party. So I called about the item and Sean Penn calls back to deny it, and all he kept saying was “I have a family. Do you realize what this is going to do? I have a family.” And I just said, “You didn’t think about that when you were on top of you-know-who. That’s not my responsibility.” And that’s what would happen a lot. They would want to kill us and insult us and threaten us as if we’re bad people, but they weren’t bad people when they were rolling around on the bear rug.
GEORGE RUSH: There was another Sean Penn item. We really had him nailed. This is a story I did where he had been on the set of At Close Range and he had gotten mad at a propman for not using real champagne in a scene, and left a little bit of himself-a little poopy-in this guy’s box of equipment. And that was another reason that we have endeared ourselves to Sean.
Timothy McDarrah, “Page Six” co-editor (1990, 1993): We did some good stuff about John Kennedy Jr., like the story about how he was taking his bar exam in Connecticut in case he failed to pass it in New York. You know, we would try not to embarrass the guy because he was everybody’s hero, but the fact is, he would do some dumb, dumb things that we had to report on. I was living on Broadway and Leonard Street back then [near Kennedy’s home], and often we would see him at night when he was walking his dog. He knew who I was, and he was never especially friendly, but he wasn’t rude. He would occasionally say things like “Why do you guys write that?” or “Leave me alone.” Things like that. Nothing disrespectful or rude.
JOANNA MOLLOY: We had it from a very good source that Kevin Costner was fooling around. And then a story broke in a British newspaper, and we decided to write about it, too. So Mike Ovitz represented Costner at the time, and he called and said, “Kevin loves his children and you know we all have these moments in our marriages. I’m sure you can understand. Yada yada yada. So I personally would be very grateful if you would just drop this whole notion of doing a sordid, prurient story.” It’s like every angle: insult you, flatter you. And I said, “You know, I’m sorry. The source is really excellent and it’s a story and, I’m sorry, we just are going to have to go ahead with it.” And he said, “No, you don’t understand. I said that I would be personally grateful-and you will see just how grateful I am if you don’t do this story.” I was like, “I’m sorry, we have to do this story.” And nothing happened. There were no repercussions. “Page Six” is a very powerful organ. It’s something that a lot of people have built over time, and I think the power of “Page Six” is equal to just about any mogul or any celebrity out there.
Woody Allen was the accidental story, really, unfortunately for him. It might never have happened. The source who first told me about it-and this was months before the story broke-told me that they saw, quote, “Woody Allen making out with one of his Vietnamese daughters at a Knicks game back behind the seats.” First of all, Soon-Yi came from Korea, and so I was like, “Oh yeah, get the hell out of here. Making out? Are you sure? Come on. He’s taking one of his daughters to a Knicks game. It’s always in full view.” After that mistake, I then had the mantra “No story too crazy to check.”
So then we got this call. Flo Anthony [a reporter at the Page] took the call. Flo answered the phones at that time. We had that luxury. The source was very, very nervous and just talking crazy, Flo thought. So she crumpled the message up and threw it in the wastebasket, and she didn’t even mention it to us. Because, of course, “Page Six” every single day got “I have J.F.K.’s brain!” and “Collect call from Sing Sing!” And part of her job was to winnow things out, and this ended up in the wastebasket, and by the end of the day she said, “Wow, what a nutty day! This crazy person called about Woody Allen making out with his Asian daughter!”
I said, “What? Do you have the message?” And she uncrumpled it, and it ended up being a wrong name, but the phone number was good. And so that’s where that came from.
Flo Anthony claims that in fact she passed on the message to the paper’s city desk, but the story has become part of “Page Six” legend.
JOANNA MOLLOY: The conclusion of “No tip too crazy to check”? I got a call one day from somebody out in L.A. who said, “You’re never going to believe this but I was at an event where Kirstie Alley brought her pet baby possum, and she was walking around with this thing, and all of a sudden it starts to go squeak, squeak, squeak, squeak. And Kirstie Alley goes, ‘Oooh, ooh, baby, baby, Mommy’s here.’ And she turned to a publicist and said, ‘Say, aren’t you nursing a baby right now?’” And I said to the tipster, “Get outta here!” I said, “Did you see this?” “No, I didn’t see it.” They were talking about the publicist directly nursing the possum. But because it already had teeth, the publicist was a little bit too chary of doing that. However, she did express her breast milk into a bottle which Kirstie Alley then fed to this baby possum. And I called up the woman herself-I was like, O.K., they’re going to laugh me off both coasts, but no story too crazy to check-and she said, “The answer is yes. I did it and, you know what, I’m proud of it.” So I thought, This is the story I tell to Leslee Dart [Woody Allen’s publicist] when she thinks she’s got it bad. It wasn’t just that it was true, it was their willingness to talk about it.
In 1993, Richard Johnson returned to the Post, which had itself returned to the Murdoch fold. This new era was defined by change, modernization, and more and more gossip, though not the kind that was necessarily beneficial to “Page Six.” Competition became more intense: in addition to a proliferation of Web sites and Web logs-such as the Smoking Gun and Gawker-that were making hay with the kind of material “Page Six” once cherry-picked, the Post’s own stable of gossip columnists grew. Even The New York Times stuck a conflicted toe in the gossip waters with its “Boldface Names” column. “Page Six” adapted by getting tougher, harder-edged, and more outrageous, by adding regular blind items-stories that don’t identify their subjects, usually because of their racy and potentially libelous subject matter-and by plunging ever deeper into the city’s nightlife. Assisting Johnson were a fresh wave of young, hardy-livered, scoop-scoring “Page Six” reporters who, unlike many of their Ivy League predecessors, had grown up in a tabloid world and saw opportunity, not stigma, in working for a gossip column.
SUSAN MULCAHY: Actually, “Page Six” is a bigger deal now. You would think that “Page Six” would have been eclipsed by so much other media. Instead, it’s 10 times bigger than it was when it was the only game in town. It’s consistent, for one thing. And it’s not afraid to break news and it’s not afraid to take chances. Or Richard’s not afraid to take chances. It’s such an established entity at this point, which is not to say that if Richard left and they brought in the wrong editor it couldn’t be destroyed within a year.
RICHARD JOHNSON:We’re publishing seven days a week now, and I’ve run stories sometimes which I didn’t really want to run, just because I needed to run them to fill the space. And the people I work with think that the column should be really hard-hitting. I’m constantly toning down stuff where there’s an adjective in front of somebody’s name which is just sort of gratuitously nasty. And some of that, of course, gets in.
I remember once I went up to Gwyneth Paltrow. She was off and on again with Ben Affleck at that point. And so I said, “What’s the deal with you and Ben? Are you going to get married?” And she said, “According to you, he’s gay.” I went, “Hominah, hominah … ” We’d had a blind item about him just a few weeks earlier.
IAN SPIEGELMAN, “Page Six” reporter (1999-2000 and 2001-04): It was the premiere of Dogma. At the after-party, Ben Affleck comes out. I’d already written a bunch of stories for “Page Six” about him and Gwyneth after they’d broken up, and I introduce myself. And he goes, “You son- ofabitch. You have me with Gwyneth every other night, doing this, doing that.” I go, “Shit, I call your publicist every time. It’s not my fault he doesn’t tell you about it.” And so he goes, “O.K., fuck my publicist. You hear anything about me, you call this number.” He writes down a cell-phone number. He’s like, “That’s my assistant’s number, you just call her.” And then he also goes, “What the fuck does ‘canoodling’ mean?” And I’m like, “It’s kissing with tongue, just so you know.”
CHRIS WILSON, “Page Six” reporter (2000-present): I remember when I first came to “Page Six,” Paris Hilton was just starting to be written about, and I met her at a Playboy party on the roof of the Playboy headquarters on Fifth Avenue. I had just written a story about her running topless around the pool at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas. She said, “I saw that story you wrote! I’m no tramp!” At the time she was dating Eddie Furlong, and he had just broken up with Natasha Lyonne, who was also at the party. And I was talking to Natasha and said something like, “So Paris Hilton’s here. Isn’t she dating Furlong?” I tried to stir up a little gossip perhaps. Natasha was like, “She is?”
And the next thing I know, Paris says to me, “I felt like she wanted to kill me. I’m scared.” She grabbed me and held on to me like “Protect me, Chris!” And I ended up hanging out and sharing a cab home with her and Donald Trump Jr. I was between them, and Donald Trump Jr. was like leaning over and trying to paw her and she’s looking at me, holding on to me like a cat holding on to the side of a tree. You know, like, “Please help me.” We actually had this great picture that was never run. It was a picture someone took of Paris with this diamond choker with a belly shirt on at the party, and Donny junior is, like, trying to touch her bronzed, glowing stomach. We subtitled it “Art of the Feel.” But it never ran.
Since 2001, with an intensely competitive, no-nonsense editor-Aussie Col Allan-at the wheel, the Post has veered even more sharply rightward, and, though Johnson denies this, it appears “Page Six” has gone along for the ride. On the eve of the Iraq war, for example, the column printed a list of ways readers could boycott celebrities who were against the invasion-arguably the first service piece to appear on the Page.
Allan admits to editing the Post with a vindictive eye: “I happen to believe in grudges. People fuck me, I’m going to fuck them. This is not small-town Tennessee here.” But Johnson, as he approaches his 16th year editing the Page, says that he himself is mellowing in some respects.
RICHARD JOHNSON:I think I’ve actually become more immune to pettiness and vindictiveness. I think I have fewer enemies now than I ever did, just because it’s sort of an ugly side, and I don’t think that readers really appreciate it if you’re beating up on people or trying to. I think basically it’s news that people want and basically we’re there to tell them what’s going on, and it’s not to work out your petty, vindictive agenda. So I’ve made up with a lot of people I used to not get along with-Mickey Rourke, Alec Baldwin, Helen Gurley Brown, Howard Stein-and I don’t like the bad Karma of knowing that there’s lots of people out there who hate my guts and want to see me get hit by a truck.
Of course, when it comes to the Sisyphean task of filling a page and a half of gossip every day, there are certain verities.
RICHARD JOHNSON:We certainly got a lot of flak for writing about Paris Hilton. People would complain, “I don’t know why you’re writing about this girl. She’s never done anything. All she does is go to parties.” And I’d say, “Well, that’s the kind of people we like to write about on ‘Page Six.’” As long as she did outrageous things like dancing on tables and not wearing underwear.
I recently got to sit down with Bijou Phillips [another party girl and frequent “Page Six” subject]. It was the first time I’d really ever met her, and we sat down and at one point she goes, “So what’s the craziest story you’ve ever done?” And I’m thinking and thinking. I said, “Well, I can’t get my mind off the story about you. How one time you got pissed off at a guy, so you went over to his bed and squatted and peed in his bed.” And she goes, “That’s true.”
Doing “Page Six” is like sports almost, where you get to play this game every day and then you open up the paper in the morning and see that you won.
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