Arena - May 2001
The Man in the Know
By: Russ Baker
Daylight is fading, and Richard Johnson is putting the finishing touches to what is probably the most prescient, most accurate, most widely read and certainly the most gleefully nasty gossip column in America. Johnson — tall, blond, 47 years old, preppily clad in a white oxford shirt, multicoloured paisley tie, black pleated slacks, and slightly worn brown wingtips — types quickly...
‘Revenge, a dish best served cold, is sweet for Julie Harvey. The attractive painter, who had a bad experience with art dealer Tony Shafrazi many years ago, has done a full-length nude portrait of him with a less-than-flattering take on his masculine attributes. The image printed with the question, “Thought we wouldn’t remember?” arrived all over the city with yesterday’s mail. “I don’t hate him. I don’t think I hate anybody,” Harvey told Page Six. But she said this was only the first in a series of vengeful portraits she plans: “There will be another in a few months — of another controversial figure in the art world.”
Just before finishing the piece, Johnson calls the gallery of the notorious Shafrazi, who in 1974 defaced Picasso’s Guernica at the Museum of Modern Art. In an intonation that only lightly marks him as a native New Yorker, he asks: ‘Can I get an official response to the Julie Harvey distortions?’ inflecting the last word to anticipate the likely response, then bangs out the words: ‘Shafrazi’s gallery reported he was unreachable in Paris.’
The item is a sure thing, making the final cut from a mountain of leads, tips, press releases and free-floating ideas that come Johnson’s way every day in his job as editor and co-author of The New York Post’s flagship gossip column, Page Six. His large, shared, open corner cubicle on the tenth floor of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation building on Avenue of the Americas, Manhattan, is graced by a six-pack of Smirnoff Ice and decorated by a clipping stuck to his computer terminal stating that someone or other ‘kicks some commie butt’. A double-barreled Rolodex is chock full of contacts — the self promoters and informants, the high and mighty and brought-so-low who can be counted on to aid Johnson in unmasking the foibles, frailties, obsessions and excesses of the spectacular human comedy.
In New York’s surprisingly small and close-knit world of media, fashion, art and music Richard Johnson gets more scuttlebutt on powerful people and pumps it out faster and tougher than anyone else, so it’s hardly surprising that folks crave a minute of his time or pray that they’ve escaped his attention. As these people well know, Page Six can launch a bestseller, break a contract, fill a restaurant — even end a marriage.
‘Page Six is the premiere gossip column, not only in New York City but in the country and possibly in the world,’ says internet news service MSNBC’s gossip columnist Jeannette Walls and that’s no faint praise coming from a competitor. 'It's the first gossip column everybody reads every day,’ agrees Beth Kseniak, Vanity Fair’s well-connected publicist.
Although The New York Post is only the third-largest circulation paper in New York, in the circles I move in kings and paupers alike consume it hungrily. And it now has a worldwide audience of the power-obsessed and those who dream about them, who access it via the internet, along with the paper’s other gossip columns, at www.pagesix.com.
A small item can quickly explode, as happened with the following report, which ended up as a Vanity Fair feature. A Page Six reporter spent New Year’s Eve at Hugh Hefner’s house, and reported that he was living with seven girlfriends: '...That’s one woman for every decade of his life. Hefner, 75, introduced the look-alike buxom blondes at his New Year’s Eve bash, where the dress code was black tie or lingerie and the Playmates wore only painted-on swimsuits.’
Johnson sets trends and bestows nicknames —such as ‘Portly Pepperpot’ for Monica Lewinsky that travel far and wide. He helps anoint new faces, such as transplanted British sisters Plum and Lucy Sykes, magazine staffers who hit the party circuit and became famous simply for becoming famous. More than the other three Post gossip columnists, or the couple of dozen in other city media, Johnson writes often about the never-ending transactions between men of means and women of beauty.. Want to know which fat, bald millionaire gets which exquisite model? Johnson will tell. Although the eight to ten daily items leave little room to wax elegant, the page consistently shows a certain flair, offering us haikus on self-absorption such as: ‘Since no one seems to want to hire her as an actress, Kate Moss has decided to make her own movie.’
A bad mention on Page Six can be so radioactive that some folks release embarrassing titbits to more tepid rival columns in the hope of blunting the impact. But Johnson’s relationship with celebrities is less that of archer to target than partners at a dance. Regulars including mammarily-distinguished B-list models and fading bad-boy rockers know that in this crazy ol’ world many people would rather dine with a famous fool than with a kindly genius of little renown. Without characters, Johnson would be nothing, and without him, they might not get the invites, the contracts, the beach house, the golden spouse. And so they fawn and brag and strut and wheedle.
But make no mistake, Johnson can inflate as well as deflate. When Page Six ran a single sentence about Avenue magazine editor Jill Brooke’s book Don’t Let Death Ruin Your Life, the thing took off. ‘All of a sudden the phone started tinging,’ she recalls. ‘People on the fence started calling. TV shows. Really, it was BOOM! Almost like what Oprah does for a book.’
Party-hopping is the gossip columnist’s traditional modus operandi but Johnson has his own style, as I learned trying to keep up with him over the course of a week. At an early-evening ‘pyjama party’ celebrating the launch of Zagat’s Guide To Top International Resorts, Hotels And Spas, most guests show up at Ian Schrager’s posh new Hudson Hotel wearing terry robes, chiffon nightgowns, and fuzzy animal slippers. Johnson, looking scrubbed and polished in double-breasted suit, pinstriped shirt and gold-rimmed spectacles, takes a quick glance at the beautiful women scattered around the pink-hued party room and comments: ‘Looks like a hired crowd.’ He sips a Jack and Coke but ignores the waiters passing by with trays of tea-smoked duck with ginger carrots, chilled Wellfleet oysters with balsamic beet relish and other upscale nibbles.
The big news of the night is the appearance of that self-styled moral crusader: New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani with his girlfriend rather than his long-estranged wife. Johnson wonders if they’ll actually don bathrobes and pose for photographers. They do. Meanwhile, he stands quietly, waiting for the rich and famous and the wannabes to beat a path to his side. They do. The ‘junketing journo Jesse Nash’ (as Johnson has dubbed him and whose titbits occasionally grace Page Six), tries to entice Johnson into a free trip to Thailand. ‘Bangkok? Chiang Mai?’ Johnson asks, his eyes shining, but he won’t commit. Two young women position themselves on a nearby couch, the better to flash their improbably squeezed décolletage in Johnson’s direction. Slowly, he counts off the proffered assets: ‘Uno, dos; tres, quatro...’
Late; we hit the opening of a new club and restaurant called Spread. ‘An unfortunate name,’ chuckles Johnson. The crowd is a New York salad of characters and roués, of flawless ingénues and their admirers, of the not-quite, used-to-be and just-now famous. A short, raspy voiced, silvery haired man with leathery skin corners Johnson, and begins a non-stop torrent of self-congratulation: he tells how his father refused to let Frank Sinatra sit at his table, whips out a condolence letter from a federal judge and drops the name of the chairman of The New York Times: ‘We’re having lunch.’ A breezy blonde joins us: ‘Hi! What are you guys doing for the summer? Going to the Hamptons?’ Johnson whispers to me that he has no idea who she is.
It’s a well-known secret among New York journalists that Page Six material is less idle gossip than news no one else has nailed down —or is willing to publish. ‘Everything in it is true,’ claims a former Post colleague. ‘Everything is checked and double checked. They’re not just rumors. It’s not like the supermarket tabloids.’ Generally, if Page Six says Robert Downey Jr. is going into rehab, Downey goes into rehab.
Back at the Page Six office, the phone rings. Johnson picks it up: ‘Hullo. That’s me.’ He scribbles furiously on a yellow legal pad. ‘What’s your real name, Sal?’ Sal is leaking something on himself — that he’s going to be subbing for raunchy talk show king Howard Stern. Sal rings off. One of Johnson’s two full-time reporters, Paula Froelich, calls out: ‘Richard, want to do “Camryn Manheim is having her baby?.” 'Is it exclusive?.’ It isn’t. ‘Give it to the city desk,’ he decides. ‘They don’t know who she is,’ Froelich replies. Johnson laughs. He does. ‘Didn’t you call her “fathead” one time?’ Froelich prods. ‘Yup.’
Chris Wilson, Page Six’s other reporter, leans over the cubicle divider to discuss an item he’s developing. Johnson has his doubts. ‘I think this Paris Hilton item is a shaggy dog story,’ Johnson says, referring to one of the two hard-partying teenaged daughters of hotel heirs Rick and Kathy Hilton. The Hilton girls are well-known to Page Six readers. After one of their liquor-fueled rampages at the Sundance Film Festival, Page Six declared: ‘Note to Kathy Hilton: your teenage daughters are out of control. Paris and Nicky Hilton have been tearing through Sundance, drinking their way across Park City, leaving a trail of trash in their wake. On Saturday night, scantily-clad Paris, 19, downed water glasses full of vodka before ransacking a room at the Hugo Boss house and stealing a guest’s make-up... Later, Paris, dressed in a leopard print tuxedo with nothing underneath, danced on a metal coffee table before losing her balance and falling to the floor. On Wednesday, at a MAC and Diesel-sponsored event at the Stein Erickson Lodge, the sisters sparked a free-for-all as, according to one witness, they “piggishly stuffed bags full of clothing, even going so far as to remove samples intended for display." The clothes were meant for cash-strapped actors.’
‘It’s the most dangerous gossip column in town, because of its willingness to be mean, which isn’t a bad thing at all,’ says Gabriel Snyder, media columnist for the salmon-colored weekly New York Observer, another carefully scrutinised fount of gossip.
Nothing better epitomises Page Six, and better captures its controlled recklessness, than a feature titled ‘Just Asking’. In it, Johnson runs blind items that generally speculate about the sex lives of the rich, powerful or notorious. To some readers, they’re just fun items, impossible to decipher. But to those in the know, they’re usually a sure bet. Artfully done, each defines a narrow universe and each is guaranteed to cause a stir in that universe:
‘Which fashion editor who was gone for the holidays and then had ‘the flu’ actually was staying away from the office to recover from a facelift? Spies whisper the beauty has a pouffier new hairdo to hide the scars...’
‘Which billionaire tycoon who loves beautiful women is no longer allowed to see one of his equally wealthy friends? The friend’s wife blames the tycoon for introducing her husband to a sexy supermodel — an introduction which blossomed into an affair...’
Johnson says these are items he believes to be true, but either can’t be positive or just wishes to avoid the risk of a libel suit. ‘The blind items are just thinly enough veiled to avoid libel laws, but not so thinly that people don’t know who is being referred to,’ says Snyder.
Page Six was Rupert Murdoch’s creation. He launched it after buying the Post in 1976, using as a model British columns that served as repositories for items reporters couldn’t report from their beats. The page quickly took on an identity and life of its own. (Despite the name, the column has for many years floated around the paper; these days, it’s often on page ten.)
Johnson has been at the helm for 13 years, with an intervening stint at the competing Daily News. His current team includes two freelancers alongside Wilson and Froelich, who are young, hip and single — perfect for the endless treadmill of party-going the job requires. The reporters work from about 10.30am - 7pm, then hit parties, often until 3am. ‘After four days of that, you want to kill yourself,’ says Froelich. Johnson is a most unlikely figure for a New York gossip columnist, most of whom are society wannabes, eccentrics, flamboyants. One Page Six freelancer is a houndstooth-and fedora-sporting dandy perpetually surrounded by models. ‘He wants to be part of that world,’ says a former Post staffer. ‘But not Richard. He knows the difference between being aware of people’s status and being enamored.’ After 13 years as Page Six’s chief gossip-monger, he still reserves Thursday nights for a basketball game with a bunch of guys he grew up with, and with his 22-year-old son from a long-ago marriage. ‘There are different reasons people become gossip columnists,’ notes one former Postie. ‘For Richard, it’s just a job. But he’s good at it.’
Born in New York to a magazine editor-father and a mother from an old WASPy family, Johnson dropped out of the University of Colorado after two years, and, while finishing a degree at a minor New York college, signed on as an intern at a small local weekly, the aptly named Chelsea Clinton News (named after the neighborhood — not the then-unborn daughter of the president). Soon one, then another of his bosses quit, and the 23-year-old Johnson became Editor-In-Chief. It wasn’t a glamour-filled gig —he personally drove the paper out to the printer in New Jersey for a little extra pocket money. In 1978 during a months-long strike, he crossed a picket line to join the Post. In 1983, the then-editor of Page Six, Susan Mulcahy, hired him as column reporter, finding him much easier to get along with than the prickly types who dominated the newsroom. When Mulcahy left in 1985, Johnson took over.
‘Most people really like to gossip, but oddly enough, Richard doesn’t — he likes to listen,’ says ex-girlfriend Jill Brooke, who covered media as a CNN correspondent before taking over Avenue, a socialite magazine. Johnson’s fascination with information-gathering techniques and quest for adventure even led him in the Eighties to write to the CIA, seeking employment. He was turned down, but his characteristic reticence contributes directly to his success - people ache to tell him things partly because he won’t beg them to. In the circles he moves in, looks also count. Big time. ‘Richard is very good-looking,’ notes Clifford Streit, co-producer of American Psycho, ‘and when you’re good-looking, people are more willing to open up to you.’ Johnson now gets stalker email from British girls who read him on the web and keep his picture under their pillows.
Some might assume that a handsome male gossip columnist would be gay. Others who see him constantly surrounded by the world’s most beautiful women assume he must be single and unencumbered. Wrong, and wrong again, as I learn when I visit him on a Friday evening at his rented two-family brownstone in the Gramercy Park area of Manhattan. Johnson, wearing a blue denim shirt and dark slacks, makes me a screwdriver, and is sipping his and smoking Marlboros when a tall, elegant woman comes up the stairs. Johnson’s second wife, Nadine (his first marriage ended when he was in his twenties) is Belgian, a former dancer with a throaty voice from too many cigarettes. She asks if we have had dinner — we haven’t, though it is now 9pm —and she puts bowls of crunchies out before sprawling into a chair. Unlike Page Six regulars, the Johnsons seem to have done their own decorating, an easygoing mix and match of red velour, gingham, leather and wood. They have a nine-year-old son, Jack.
Johnson recounts a favourite item, the alleged 1993 telephone conversation in which Prince Charles reportedly told Camilla Parker Bowles how he wanted to be her tampon — a point noted in Johnson’s original draft but edited out.
With all his power, it’s not surprising to hear people complain that Johnson rewards his friends and punishes his enemies. ‘You never really want to cross him,’ says one. ‘When I see him at parties I’m just hoping he has no idea who I am... He can put out all those things you thought nobody knew, for all the city to see. That’s a pretty frightening thing.’ Several years ago, after the New York Observer ran an item about Johnson getting tagged for drunk-driving on his way home from a party, he ran a tough item about the Observer’s editor that many took to be retaliatory.
His position hasn’t hurt the career of his wife Nadine, a publicist whose clients include a modelling agency and trendy hotspots. His buddies include a number of celebrity lawyers and publicity agents who bring him steady material, and with whom he socialises. And then there is the super-self-promoting Donald Trump (‘They both have an appreciation for girls with long legs,’ says ex-girlfriend Brooke). ‘Richard wont trash Miramax Pictures’ head honcho Harvey Weinstein] because the last thing he’d want is Harvey to be mad at him,’ says Clifford Streit. ‘People respect Richard, but Richard also respects people in his orbit.’
Though all journalists cultivate and therefore favor trusted sources, and though ‘understandings’ are especially common in the world of gossip, Johnson seems to limit his quotient of nauseating puffery, most of which goes into a periodic feature titled ‘We Hear’. Some of it is quite shameless, for example, saluting a well-known restaurateur without mentioning that he is currently appearing in bankruptcy court.
‘We hear... that Post business editor Jon Elsen and his wife, Ellen Hogan Elsen, are overjoyed with the birth of Margaret Rachel Elsen...'
‘We hear... that Jennifer Lopez will be wearing a low-cut dress at tonight’s Golden Globes to show off the $10 million diamond pendant loaned to her by gem giant diamond.com...’
Johnson also has to bend to his boss’s conservative politics and stay away from Murdoch’s friends. That’s easy, because Johnson is a joyous conservative, an anomaly in generally liberal New York. He’s constantly making fun of the more lampoonable liberals and Democrats, but seldom embarrasses the Republican Mayor. And a pretty lively item I saw Johnson typing up, about a daughter of drinker-turned-teetotaler George W. Bush’s boozing it up, had by the next morning’s paper been turned into a nonsensical piece of fluff. Johnson delights in running items about the antics of Murdoch’s arch-foe, liberal CNN-founder Ted Turner, and the contretemps and snafus at the cable network, a direct competitor to Murdoch’s Fox News Channel.
Johnson enjoyed going after liberal entertainers who threatened to move to Europe if George W. Bush was elected president. And he delights in flexing his machismo. When Mickey Rourke threatened to deck him, Johnson urged him on — in print. No fists flew, but some years ago, after a Village Voice writer called Johnson ‘undependable’, he went to the Voice for a showdown and, when the man dared Johnson to hit him, he did.
That ‘don’t back down’ attitude pretty much defines Page Six. When Warren Beatty’s publicist tried to dissuade the paper from questioning the ageing charmer’s career choices, Johnson did the opposite. ‘We made him the lead item,’ he laughs. Generally, Johnson gets high marks for being more fair and even-handed than he needs to be. As in his habit of crediting the original source when he picks up material that was reported first elsewhere. For this and other reasons, he’s fairly well-liked by his competitors.
But not, one assumes, by the Clintons, whom he and the Post endlessly pummelled during Bill’s eight-year reign. Johnson admits that he’ll miss the Clinton years, but if his election night comments at an uptown watering hole are any indication, he has no plans to leave them alone. When his reporter Froelich, a self-declared liberal, razzed Johnson about Hillary winning a senate seat despite his unceasing bashes (and about the likelihood of seeing her husband prowling hot nightspots), he replied, with obvious relish: ‘That’s OK. I’ve got six years to write about her. And Bill doesn’t know we own Moomba and Scores.’
He also has every intention of keep the Monica Lewinsky flame burning on Page Six. Fortunately for him, Lewinsky - sorry, the ‘Portly Pepperpot’ - seems to know that ongoing publicity courtesy of Page Six can rescue a former casualty of fame from ignominy and confer a sort of permanent fabulousness. And that’s why, come his birthday last January, Lewinsky sent Johnson a present. It was a bouquet of narcissus.
May 2001 Arena - Pages 102-105