‘My dream was to be part of the era from The Front Page, when guys wore press cards in their hats and did all sorts of crazy stuff to their competitors, when journalism was larger than life,” says Barry Levine, the executive editor of the National Enquirer. “When newspapermen were right out of Deadline-U.S.A. and His Girl Friday and all the old movies. That’s the journalism world that I wanted to be a part of. I couldn’t find it in mainstream journalism, but it existed in the tabloids.” He’s at his usual table at Elaine’s, that enduring sanctuary for the ink-stained set (okay, many now in semi-retirement), on his usual night (Thursday), wearing a navy pin-striped Hugo Boss suit, and Bruno Magli loafers—yes, the type O. J. Simpson wore.
“After O.J., I’ve never worn anything but,” he says. Levine sees himself, if not exactly larger than life, then mixing it up with those who are (Chris Noth is in the back of the restaurant, chatting up a table of grinning blondes). “I’ve broken some of the biggest stories the National Enquirer has ever published,” he says. He commanded the dirt diggers who first exposed the cheating scandals of Tiger Woods and John Edwards—not to mention spicy allegations about Al Gore. “And I spend nights thinking that if I wasn’t doing this, nobody else would. If I were in Russia, I’d be taken out by a hail of bullets, because that’s what happens to investigative journalists there.”
Levine, 51, takes his work seriously. He was on Colbert last week and appears on The View and on Huckabee, and even spoke at the Columbia Journalism School about the Edwards investigation, which he fought (successfully) to get considered for a Pulitzer. “I’m already working on the 2012 presidential candidates,” he says. “I dream of an office in Washington where aides to senators and congressmen come in on their lunch hour and tell us stories.”
Over a steady flow of dirty vodka martinis, Levine, who got his start at the AP but soon headed to the then–Rupert Murdoch–owned Star, recounts his wildest journalistic moments: when his helicopter was blasted with shotgun pellets over Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith’s wedding; when Mike Tyson dragged him into a hotel stairwell and threatened to kill him after Levine asked if he was gay; when his news team was “attacked” by a swarm of tarantulas after sneaking onto Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch; when he had two reporters cross a meadow wearing a sheep costume to get inside Michael J. Fox’s nuptials; when he sent ten operatives into a hospital dressed as doctors and nurses with clipboards rigged with tiny cameras to snap the first pictures of Lisa Marie Presley’s baby …
You want more strange but probably true stories? Pull up a chair.
“I hate where we are today. I hate the Internet. I hate the instant-news cycle,” Levine says, cutting into a juicy pink veal chop. “I yearn for the days when we could pass off a reporter as a waiter at Liz Taylor and Larry Fortensky’s wedding and get the inside scoop. They were the best days, no question about it. These days, the Lindsay Lohans and the reality stars? They’re flies on the wall, specks, not real celebrities.”
We go outside for a smoke, and he continues. “The Us Weekly’s, the In Touch’s, the OK! ’s try to sell covers off the Kardashians or Ali from The Bachelorette, but they’re never gonna eclipse the sales of true celebrities.” He takes a drag. “I’ll resist it to the day I die. The real celebrities are Oprah, Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, John Travolta, Michael Douglas. Real America views these reality-show people as pretenders. And that’s the sad thing about Princess Diana and JFK Jr. and Michael Jackson: We’ll never have more. The Bethenny Frankels, the White House party crashers, they cannot compare!”
He tells a favorite yarn about a cold winter night in 2001 when an editor at the Times called him at a midtown bar and begged for an advance copy of the Enquirer’s exclusive about Jesse Jackson’s out-of-wedlock child. But when Levine arrived with the story in hand, the editor wouldn’t let him into the newsroom, explaining that it would cause a stink if he was spotted there. “I felt like some cheap whore,” he says. “I’m not good enough to come up to the sacred New York Times newsroom?”
“The beauty of it is, this year the New York Times has featured me twice! Not once, but twice! First as the lead story in the business section on a Monday, with a giant photograph of myself at my messy desk, saying ‘National Enquirer Earns Respect.’ And on top of that, they did a second story based on my obsession with Ernest Hemingway. So, two stories on me in the New York Times! I mean, it’s just amazing, it really is.”