BROOKE GLADSTONE: No, it's not the city of big shoulders nor brotherly love, and it sure ain't the City of Angels. It's where politics and media, real estate and Wall Street, Broadway and Soho, J-Lo and DeNiro, Rudy, Rosy, Bubba, and a galaxy of distant worlds all collide into one dazzling, 24-hour explosion of gossip. New York City, gossip capital, the gossip columnist's dream. You'd think.
LLOYD GROVE: I'm having trouble sleeping, there's tightness in my chest. I, from time to time, I'm saying geez, I hope I'm not having a heart attack.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Lloyd Grove is the brand new gossip columnist for the New York Daily News, recently transplanted from the Washington Post. We first spoke to him just before he launched his column.
LLOYD GROVE: I feel like I'm actually scaling a vertical sheet of ice and hoping that I don't go falling off into the abyss.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: No one at the bottom holding a trampoline?
LLOYD GROVE: Not in New York.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The thing is, New York has the most gossip, but it also has the most gossip columnists. The competition is fierce.
JEANETTE WALLS: The premier gossip column is Page Six. It's in the New York Post, and it's headed by Richard Johnson, but it's written by a team of writers, and it is really the first place that people go.
LLOYD GROVE:In addition to that, we also have, in the New York Post, Cindy Adams who's sort of a dragon lady of gossip, and then we have Liz Smith who's sort of the doyenne, the good ol' gal of gossip. Then at the Daily News we have Rush and Malloy, a husband and wife team. They tend to specialize in celebrity stuff, but they often get mover and shaker type items as well. And now we have Lloyd's column as well. And then, in the New York Times, they've also added a gossip column. It's called Boldface Names, which they don't like to call gossip, because the New York Times pretends it doesn't do gossip. But that's how competitive the scene is right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Most New York gossip scribes work their way up, but Grove arrived full grown from Washington where he had gossip dominance. His move spurred a page one feature in the New York Times, the AP, and even a little mention in the International Herald Tribune. When the city's dominant column, the Post's Page Six, ran an item on him, Grove called one of the writers seeking a correction, and...
LLOYD GROVE: ...then he said we will send you back to Washington on a stretcher. Now I'm told that the New York Times reporter called him to verify the quote, and he did verify that he'd said it. But he said, you know, if I'd been thinking more clearly, I would have said send him back to Washington in a body bag.
GEORGE RUSH: Yeah, I was a little surprised by the reaction that Lloyd got.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: George Rush is one half of the husband and wife gossip-writing team Rush and Malloy.
GEORGE RUSH: It just seemed like Gangs of New York where there were so many back alley boys who suddenly blew snuff into his face and, [LAUGHS] and started to pick his pocket. I think it bespeaks a nervousness on the part of his assassins that they do recognize that he's probably a better stylist as a writer than they are, and he may not go down as easily as some of the others have in the past.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Yes, others have failed, even at the Daily News, but Grove's column called Lowdown is up and running with items about a very short actor cruising a very tall model, a quote from Boy George that he's brighter than he looks, and a pungent airing of some famous dirty laundry.
LLOYD GROVE: There's little question that the best item that we had so far was Kerry Kennedy Cuomo going off on uber publicist Dan Klores, who's a close friend and advisor of her estranged husband, Andrew at Michael's, which is the media watering hole in New York, and it was just sort of what could be more human than an estranged wife going up to the friend of her husband, who she thinks has wronged her, in a public place and reading him the riot act? I mean that's something that everybody can relate to...that's the sweet spot of a gossip column.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Ah, the sweet spot...enduring as a snowflake. As the founding father of newspaper gossip, Walter Winchell, once put it, "nothing recedes like success." In fact, that's the seductive power of gossip...
NEAL GABLER: ...it levels the playing field.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Neal Gabler is the author of "Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity."
NEAL GABLER: It takes the wealthy, the powerful, the famous and by puncturing their veil of wealth, power and fame, it brings them down to the level of the reader. There was a line by Leonard Lyons, the old gossip columnist who said that gossip either takes them down or rises us up. Whatever the transaction is, I certainly think there's a very strong democratizing component to it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And so it has endured from Winchell's mid-century heyday, with one crucial difference. Back then, the big shots were Winchell and Dorothy Kilgallen, and Ed Sullivan, who started out as a gossip columnist. The celebrities were the supplicants, plying their wares through press agents who served as courtiers in the columnists' courts. Now the columnists are the courtiers, fed juicy tidbits by publicists at the convenience of the stars.
NEAL GABLER: When people were willing to out themselves, when people were willing to control their own narrative, and gossip columnists lost the power to control that narrative, that game was finished. It was a different game after that. [CROWD AMBIANCE UP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Recently, the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers celebrated their 75th anniversary at a Broadway restaurant festooned with pictures of artists long faded or dead. Merle Debuskey is a senior member, and he remembers the days when Winchell reigned unchallenged at the Daily Mirror, a populist figure who struck fear in the hearts of the mighty.
MERLE DEBUSKEY: When a number one most wanted criminal was turning himself in, he didn't turn him into J. Edgar Hoover. He turned himself into Walter Winchell. Well can you see Gotti or somebody turning himself in to Cindy Adams today? It was a big difference.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:When the power began to shift, the diminished Winchell was shunned for red-baiting and reduced to printing up his own columns and haunting his old watering holes. He was savaged in the 1957 movie "The Sweet Smell of Success," the saga of a power-mad gossip columnist and his sleazy press agent flunky. [TRAILER FOR SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS PLAYS]
ANNOUNCER:Burt Lancaster as J. J. Hunsecker, world-famed columnist whose gossip is gospel to 60 million readers. Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco, the kid who had ideas about taking over. [CLIP FROM FILM PLAYS]
TONY CURTIS AS SIDNEY FALCO: But we happen to know I'm your star pupil, because I reflect back to you your own talent.
BURT LANCASTER AS J. J. HUNSECKER: I'd hate to take a bite of you. You're a cookie full of arsenic. [CURTIS LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Merle Debuskey attended a special premiere for press agents in '57 and encountered the enraged model for Hunsecker outside. [CROWD AMBIANCE UP]
MERLE DEBUSKEY: And when we left, on the corner, with his foot up on the fire plug, was Walter Winchell sneering at us. [IMITATING] "You dumb guys. Don't you know when you're getting slandered? What are you, crazy guys? Don't you have any pride?" Stuff like that. He missed the point, I think. [AMBIANCE FADE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:The point is that everyone has their role to play, and no one is above nasty media portrayals, not least the practitioners themselves. The role of the gossip columnist is to tattletale on the fabulous without getting sued. To that end, they developed a particular vocabulary.
GEORGE RUSH: Canoodling is a useful word in that no one quite knows what it means except that it does suggest some sort of romantic nuzzle...
BROOKE GLADSTONE: George Rush.
GEORGE RUSH: ...it's a sort of libel-conscious world that, because it can't be precisely [LAUGHS] defined, it's not necessarily actionable. It's like a throwback to one of my favorite phrases from the Winchell era where the code word would be that two people had become fast friends and dancing partners. And it's good when you can't quite establish what went on in the bathroom after someone [LAUGHS] closed the door.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Give us enough about the squalid doings behind that bathroom door, and we're bound to feel better about ourselves. Nobody can intimidate us any more. Not celebrities. Not even fellow gossip columnists with the long knives for the new guy. Lloyd Grove.
LLOYD GROVE: It might be offensive to some in New York to hear this: [RHAPSODY IN BLUE UP AND UNDER] but I'm afraid you're not that special. You're just people. And I am not awed by you. You know, you're just fodder, grist to the mill as far as I'm concerned.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Can you imagine the new guy in Chicago saying that to Chicagoans? Nah. In the words of that durable sage, Cindy Adams "Only in New York, kids. Only in New York." [RHAPSODY IN BLUE UP FULL, THEN FADES UNDER] 58:00
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price, Katya Rogers, Megan Ryan and Tony Field; engineered by Dylan Keefe and Rob Christiansen, and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from Dave Goldberg. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.