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Payback

A gossip revenge saga, starring Richard Johnson, Lloyd Grove, a pretty girl, her spurned lover, and the ink-stained wretch who took the fall.

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With Reporting by Jacob Bernstein.


Former "Page Six" reporter Ian Spiegelman, at home.  

The story goes something like this: 46-year-old sometime PR flack picks up 18-year-old dyslexic belly dancer at a Central Park Boathouse benefit. She yearns to write—rather, dictate—a novel about her fifteenth year, which she spent as a juvenile delinquent in a Tennessee lockdown. Ever vigilant for value stocks, he becomes her lover, agent, and consigliere on her memoir—titled Bad Girl—until the romance’s denouement. At that point he may or may not have thrown her belongings out of his fifth-floor window on East 75th Street. She says it looked like he did, and that her things were subsequently taken apart by homeless people. He is adamant: “There was no defenestration.”

Things would have ended there, if the aforementioned paramour, W. Douglas Dechert, had not learned something about the black art of press-baiting over the decades before he met his nubile protégée, Abigail Vona. A kind of bottom-feeding Boswell, Dechert has a mossy foothold in the economy of gossip columns: He is flack (underwhelming nightclubs have paid him fees, like $1,000, to place an item), he is a boldface name (gossips will throw him a mention here or there, something about a birthday party and models and champagne), and he is source. When former Gruner + Jahr CEO Dan Brewster made headlines during the Rosie O’Donnell trial, Dechert was glad to share unflattering anecdotes about Brewster from their days at St. George’s. Then, when Dechert learned that the mesmeric Ms. Vona had attended underage keg parties hosted by the older stepson of then–Connecticut governor John Rowland, he whisked her up to Rowland’s Hartford estate to land the scoop. Vona taped evidence of the miscreants from a mini video camera concealed in her purse.

So it wasn’t entirely unrealistic for Dechert to assume he could settle the score with an old girlfriend in the pages that had sustained him over the years. Commandeering Vona’s e-mail account, he fired off a disparaging broadside to her publishers, Rugged Land Books, accusing them of mishandling the marketing of her soon-to-be-published tome (Dechert claims that Vona told him to send the e-mail). He signed it in her name. Then, in hopes of embarrassing everyone involved, he forwarded the faux memo to the city’s premier gossip column—the New York Post’s “Page Six.”

"When you have to fill pages day after day, you can’t afford to be too choosy about whom you deal with. And that provides an opening for bit players and conniving self-promoters."

One way of thinking about gossip is as the most primitive form of journalism—nasty and brutish and short. The rules of sourcing, and even of truthfulness, are not fully developed. Vengeance and anger and ulterior motives all have a place in the process. The denizens of the gossip world, while sometimes not suited for the refinements of the rest of the journalism world, are superbly adapted to their environment. There’s a dark glamour and camaraderie to the business, a certain piratical, swashbuckling aura, amplified by plenty of cocktails.

The New York ’s “Page Six” is, of course, the center of this world. Elegant, perpetually deadpan Richard Johnson leads a small team of big personalities: currently on staff, there’s tough-talking, gun-mollish Paula Froelich and hard-carousing Chris Wilson, a former supermarket-tabloid reporter. Part-time contributors are similarly colorful, like Tom Sykes, brother of the British fashion plates Plum and Lucy; Lisa Marsh, a big blonde who is a former girlfriend of the Who’s Pete Townshend’s; and Jared Paul Stern, a foppish, spats-wearing 33-year-old with a wife named “Snoodles.”

Even among this cast, Ian Spiegelman, the reporter assigned to write up the item Dechert planted, was most emblematic of the “Page Six” style. Spiegelman grew up in Bayside, Queens, and wrote a first novel about the hardscrabble lifestyle he led there and how he was terrorized in high school by competing white-boy gangs. His background suited him to knowing what evil lurked in the hearts of men, and as a gossip columnist he was in a position to expose it (in fact, he worked for this magazine for two years).

Spiegelman is a self-described revenge fetishist. He saw his job at the Post in a very specific way, made clear at a lecture on the meaning of gossip at the Learning Annex, later broadcast on NPR: “We have this kind of attitude—and also, more importantly, reputation—where if you screw with us, we can make things bad for you. We’re going to make things bad for you. ‘Page Six’ is the main kind of attack arm of the New York Post . . . The different people who write the page have different people they deal with and have to, like, protect, and also their different wars that they have to prosecute. It’s a lot like being a Mafia family.”

To Spiegelman, there was a lot of romance to this vision of the world—the journalist who doesn’t play by everyone’s rules, who will do whatever he can to avenge wrongs. Spiegelman changes from sweet-natured to hard-bitten according to the time of day, and has a tattoo of a praying mantis on his forearm. It’s a symbol of, among other things, patience, a virtue he could use more of. “I used to want to be J. D. Salinger, to live in a house in the woods where no one could find me,” he says. “After that, I wanted to be Charles Bukowski, drunk all the time, having sad affairs with miserable people. And I have accomplished that.”

Spiegelman has anger issues. He tended to produce the nastier items on the page, like, “Fading pop footnote Justin Timberlake should consider hiring professional bodyguards for a change. One of the gargantuan goons he can’t live without threatened to kill a photographer the other day. The girlish Timberlake was all scowls as he ignored fans while strolling through the city with alleged girlfriend Cameron Diaz, flanked by their two blubbery bodyguards.” (The Post later reported Timberlake’s spokesman’s vehement challenge to these claims under the headline made-up tale.)

But Spiegelman also saw himself as one of the good guys, arrayed against the abusers and predators and vampires in the world. So when he realized that Dechert had written the e-mail that could have gotten Vona into trouble, he took it upon himself to right the wrong, give Dechert his comeuppance. He wrote an item sympathetic to Vona: BAD TIMES FOR A "BAD GIRL" writer, it was titled. “ ‘He [Dechert] said he was going to sabotage everything,’ Vona tells ‘Page Six’ ’s Ian Spiegelman.”

Soon thereafter, Spiegelman and Dechert spied each other at a party for P. J. O’Rourke’s latest book, Peace Kills, at the Hudson Library Bar, but no words were exchanged. Peace seemed at hand. But Dechert had come up with an ingenious plan: He would write a story about his own relationship with Vona, possibly to run in the pages of the New York Press. He wanted attention for it. Somehow—who knows how—this news ended up with the competitor of “Page Six,” Lloyd Grove of the Daily News’ “Lowdown” column. “[Abigail] has the heart of a mercenary and the soul of a hustler,” Grove reported Dechert as saying. “Yesterday, Vona told Lowdown: ‘I’m excited about the book, but I’m worried about Doug. He just won’t go away . . . I got into a bad relationship with Doug.’ ” Grove also wrote that Dechert had described Spiegelman as an “amorously intentioned midget” who was after a date with Vona.

The night the item was published, Spiegelman was four Scotches into the evening at his apartment in Forest Hills. There would be at least two more to come. Now, though, he was still able to peck out a letter on his computer, the one in his bedroom surrounded by notes for his next novel and under a copy of the Bukowski poem “So You Want to Be a Writer?” (“If it doesn’t come bursting out of you / in spite of everything / don’t do it”). He e-mailed Dechert: “I break aging trust fund pussies like you as a matter of course . . . If I wanted to take your girl out, I would . . . Doug, you tiny little fairy, you arrested boy, I will break your back over my knee in the press and I will push your face inside out in private or public . . . Mention my name anywhere ever again, and we’re going to find out two things: First, whose word means anything anymore in this town. Second, how many times I can slam my fist into your face before someone pulls me off you.” He signed off: “Now you wait for it.”


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