Over a five-course lunch last week, Nello Balan, proprietor of the celeb-infested Madison Avenue lunch spot Nello, was discussing with friends how to address the news, printed in “Page Six,” that he sent $1,000 in cash to the gossip column’s editor, Richard Johnson. Until now, Nello has been publicly silent on the matter.
“If I did, so what?” he wondered in his Romanian accent between bites. “What is wrong with a Christmas gift? What, Americans have to be such Grinches about Christmas?” Americans, not so much. Journalists, maybe. Along with other allegations, the New York Post’s admission that Johnson accepted the cash has sparked a media frenzy. But it’s been too long to remember the details, Nello said. “It was 1997. I was in Aspen.” He wondered if he hadn’t asked his assistant to send over truffles, or possibly scarves, gloves, and ties (Hermès is across the street), and just maybe the assistant got flustered and sent cash instead. “It was not my intention to send a Christmas gift of $1,000 exact cash to Mr. Richard Johnson,” Nello said. “It’s not my style.” Certainly he is prone to presents: He gave me a tie and a scarf from Hermès for Christmas last year, which I returned to him. Moreover, according to a former “Page Six”-er, Nello is known “to throw a little cash around, like a wealthy uncle around the holidays.” Nello denies giving Johnson cash on other occasions. “It’s vulgar,” he says. And he’s a bit offended by the attention. “It’s ridiculous. There are so many other allegations” about the practices of “Page Six” and Post editors: “Parties, strippers, $50,000 trips, and what everybody focuses on is that Christmas gift in 1997. It’s impossible that I was thinking if I give a Christmas gift that would influence someone’s opinion of me or do something for me. There’s nothing behind that Christmas gift. It’s not an obligation. It’s a thought.”