A well-traveled Manhattanite in Dawn Powell's The Happy Island astounds and amuses his dinner guests by explaining that Middle Americans actually start with the front page of their newspaper; New Yorkers, of course, turn immediately to the market quotes or the gossip columns. During the nineties, it became increasingly difficult to distinguish between these different sections -- the gossip columns seemed to invade and colonize the front page. And then, after 9/11, the invasion was, for a time, reversed. The New York Post’s “Page Six” ran items such as vonnegut praises our heroes. (If gossip is the news with its pants down, this was like watching the Red Hot Chili Peppers trying to wear Huntsman suits.)
But it’s safe to say that the reading habits of Dawn Powell’s café society are pretty much intact. New York is divided between those who turn to “Page Six” to read about their neighbors and those who do so to read about themselves. It’s a game that everyone’s in on. One morning, I woke up and found I was a character in the gossip columns. I’d made a few appearances before, but I really landed right in the middle of things when I started dating the most tabloid-gossip-column-worthy personage in Manhattan at the time. Let’s just say that gossip columns are a bad venue in which to conduct a relationship.
As a boldfaced name, I would sometimes read that I’d been “sighted” at a nightspot I’d never been to, celebrating the birthday/book/movie of someone I’d never heard of, “canoodling” with a woman I’d never met. These gossip items were neither more nor less accurate than the stuff that was written about me, as a novelist, in the culture pages of glossy magazines and newspapers.
It doesn’t take long to figure out that “Page Six” leans right and Liz Smith leans left. Real connoisseurs know the client lists of the various publicists -- they know that the late Neal Travis used to spend a lot of time on the phone with Bobby Zarem, and that Richard Johnson of “Page Six” is married to publicist Nadine Johnson, who was once employed by . . . well, you get the idea. Publicists have a complicated co-dependent relationship with the columnists, trying to build heat without getting burned. (See Sweet Smell of Success for details.) Then there are the gossip groupies -- people who collect items in order to see their names in print, linked to the stars. But the real gritty stuff comes from civilians, New Yorkers who are out to settle scores with their bosses or their ex-lovers or business partners.
I was once sitting at a table at ‘21’ with the Post’s Richard Johnson when a striking blonde came up and slipped a scrap of paper into his hands. Richard is better-looking than a lot of the actors who appear in his column, and I naturally assumed he’d just gotten a proposition and a phone number. But in fact, the scribbled note was a scurrilous item about boardroom shenanigans at a media conglomerate -- written in “Page Six” style, ready to go. “Sometimes it’s almost too easy,” Johnson said, folding the paper and slipping it into the pocket of his blue blazer.
“Page Six” has evolved into a kind of postmodern gossip column that’s helped create new New York–centric subcategories of celebrity. The column gives equal time and ink to the star-makers and handmaidens of celebrity -- the journalists, agents, publicists, party promoters, and party animals. “Page Six” recognized long ago our snobbish need for an exclusive class of notables unknown to citizens of Peoria. And its tone reflects the fierce Darwinian spirit of a city in which Schadenfreude is the concomitant of the worship of worldly success.
Dawn Powell would have loved it.