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Why People Are Talking About Gossip

The most optimistic assessment of this new situation comes from a man who is in fact one of the true pioneers of a whole style of gossip—even though he resents the term. Lloyd Shearer started "Walter Scott's Personality Parade" in Parade magazine in 1958. About 20 million copies of Parade are presently inserted into 111 newspapers across the country, giving "Walter Scott" a readership of around 50 million people. And each week, addressed to "Walter Scott," come about 6,000 letters, mostly to get the facts straight about whatever piece of gossip happens to be on the writers' minds: "Is it true that Henry Kissinger is a secret massage-parlor freak?" "Who is the French blonde whose name has been linked with Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands?" Each week "Walter Scott" gives them the facts.

The pleasure of his column, so far as I'm concerned, is that you can eat your cake (the gossipy question) and have it too (the factual answer). I asked Shearer if he detected a new trend.

"I don't think gossip is on the increase at all," he retorted. "We don't traffic in gossip. Rumors and gossip originate somewhere else, and people write to us and ask if in fact something is true, and we spend a large amount of money and time checking it out among various sources. I think what has happened is that there has been a great growth of skepticism about people, which is understandable after the Kennedy; Johnson, and Nixon administrations. So there's mounting interest in politicians."

". . . Gossip kept Watergate going and gossip seems to be seeing it into the grave: pain for Pat Nixon, pleasure for the people . . ."

Over the years, Shearer says, Parade has received fewer and fewer letters about film stars, once the staple of the column. "What has happened is that motion pictures are no longer the mass medium in America. Motion-picture stars were once the most colorful people in the world'. Now that television has surpassed and supplanted motion pictures as the prime medium throughout the world, the stars of television are very circumspect, because the people who sponsor them won't put up with any nonsense. So you have in the mass-entertainment medium people who are not particularly colorful, not particularly maverick. I mean, what do you particularly want to know about Paul Newman? People know all about Barbra Streisand already, or they don't care anymore. As a matter of fact there's been a tremendous decline in the Walter Winchell type of gossip column. One of the reasons why the Los Angeles Times dropped Joyce Haber was there just wasn't enough material. She had to use names that were fairly esoteric in Peoria, Illinois. So, as you get a more educated electorate and because of circumstances, the readers are more interested in politicians and publishers. People are not so much interested in gossip as they are in truth."

This, you might say, is the up-side view of the whole gossip phenomenon. And, as if in testimony to such uplifting sentiments, the Sunday before last the cover of Parade presented Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to its 50 million readers. Now Woodward and Bernstein—particularly in their recent investigative activities as displayed in The Final Days—have cast the whole matter of gossip in a particularly interesting light. Stimulated by Watergate, young people have been filling the nation's journalism schools, eager to learn the tricks of investigation and then hurry on out to expose evil men and possibly also to save the Constitution. Ecstatic with high purpose, they doubtless avoid undue consideration of the thought that Watergate, if it started with the Dahlberg check, seems to be ending with the news that Richard and Pat Nixon did not sleep together for twelve years.

Woodward and Bernstein have naturally defended all the allegations in their recent book on the grounds (a) that they are true and (b) that disclosure of these truthful allegations is essential to the understanding of the political personality of Richard Nixon. Maybe so, but the fallout is pure gossip—as is plainly revealed by the cover on the Star last week, which bears the headline PAT NIXON DRINK AND SEX CHARGES: FRIENDS TELL INSIDE STORY. The Star, at least, knows where the game is at. So indeed, in a more tasteful way, did Newsweek when it first presented excerpts from The Final Days. Gossip kept Watergate going and gossip seems to be seeing it into the grave: pain for Pat Nixon, pleasure for the people.

Some of the more seasoned practitioners, well aware that gossip can cause pain, emphasize that they try to keep clear of inflicting such damage. Suzy (Aileen Mehle), for example, now appears in 89 newspapers going out to between 15 million and 20 million readers. Right at the start of her career she decided that the one thing she did not wish to confront for the rest of her working life was a roomful of people recoiling from her as at the sight of a viper. She also wished to keep her sources. "I knew about Princess Margaret and Roddy Llewellyn right from the start. Was I going to print it? No way!" So the nearest she'll get to conceding any aggressive edge to her project—which she defines as "sending it all up"—is to say that "I give them the needle, but in a way that they don't feel till three days later." Nor does she particularly feel that anything much new in the way of gossip is happening. "Gossip is the juice of life, but we've always had it." And, in a spirit of peace, off she plunges to her parties and her people.


Related:

  • Archive: “Features
  • From the May 3, 1976 issue of New York
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