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Richard Johnson, editor of "Page Six."  

When hotelier Andre Balazs got divorced, here’s how “Page Six” handled it: “WE HEAR . . . THAT after 17 years of marriage, hotelier Andre Balazs and Ford Models chairman Katie Ford have mutually agreed to separate. The power couple, in Europe with their two daughters, are totally supportive and remain friends.” Nadine Johnson, Richard’s own “totally supportive” soon-to-be ex-wife, is the publicist for Balazs, as well as many others you’ve been reading about on “Page Six.” An innocuous line like “slimmer, trimmer Harvey Weinstein lunching with his Miramax minions at Club 55 in St. Tropez” might point to the manifold connections of “Page Six” to Miramax. Froelich is writing a book for Miramax’s publishing arm. Johnson is friendly with Weinstein, and took a meeting with him once about helping out on a screenplay, though nothing came of it. Spiegelman says that Weinstein encouraged him to submit his novel to Miramax’s book division.

To be an enemy of the page is almost a badge of honor—a club that includes Alec “Bloviator” Baldwin and “porcine provocateur” Michael Moore. Last summer, publicist Peggy Siegal wound up in a war with the column when she attempted to have an item spiked naming Bruce Colley as the paramour of then-married Kerry Kennedy Cuomo. Colley was Siegal’s ex-boyfriend and remained a personal friend. The items on Siegal continued through the fall. Her parties were “horrific.” A blind item: “Which past-her-prime publicist brags to anyone who will listen about an aging movie star she used to pleasure?”

“In a moment of stupidity I tried to help a friend,” says Siegal. “They decided to milk it. I was an easy target. It was very hurtful.”

Such is the power of “Page Six” that Johnson’s split from Nadine was handled with kid gloves in the papers: No reporter in the city wrote about it. There was a mention about a year after word of the split got around, when Michael Gross, then writing a gossip column for the Daily News, took a swipe at Nadine—not Richard—in a blind item. “You’re no poulet de printemps,” he wrote. “Sure you could console yourself with Belgian chocolates, but why don’t you wash your hair, give up smoking, try being nice for a change. Look at it this way: Who cares if it’s good for your career—it might help you land a new man.”

“This is the first time I ever heard you’re supposed to be a gentleman in gossip. I thought the whole point was you’re not . . .”

A gossip columnist’s life is not composed solely of nightclubs. Most of what people do at “Page Six” is sit at their desks at the far end of the Post’s newsroom, fielding e-mails and calls while opening packages of freebies sent from publicists. A laissez-faire attitude predominates. “The other day, someone told me a party was a Morgan’s Rum party. Turns out it’s a Mount Gay Rum party,” says Johnson. “I said I don’t really want to run a correction, I’ll make it up to you when you throw another party. She said, ‘Fine.’ And then she sent me two bottles of rum.” (Even the Post, however, had to correct its spectacular Gephardt-for-V.P. gaffe.)

“Does anyone know anything about Muffie Potter Aston?” asks Chris Wilson, one of the assistants, from the next desk over. “I know her husband is having problems because patients at his hospital keep ending up dead,” says Johnson. He opens a box of promotions messengered from the New York Times—a cooler, towel, and a fishing hat. “Makes you look like you have Down syndrome,” says Wilson, who proudly displays a bottle of Cristal he’s just received in the mail.

One never knows when a juicy tip is about to come in. An e-mail pops up on Johnson’s screen: “A good story about Ed Limato,” he says. This is the ICM co-president who threw a double vodka on the rocks, with two olives, in Johnson’s face after Johnson wrote that Limato was “shaping up to be the second most unpopular man in Hollywood, next to his client Mel Gibson,” noting that he “shouldn’t expect a stellar turnout at his annual pre-Oscar party.” Limato says that the item was retribution for declining to invite Johnson to that party. “He doesn’t know anything about Hollywood,” says Limato. “He’s an interloper. He is garbage, scum, a scurrilous piece of shit. I spit on him.”

“I was tempted to check him, but I didn’t want to see the headline HOMOPHOBIC POST EDITOR ATTACKS ELDERLY AGENT,” says Johnson, scrolling through his e-mail. This is part of the job that Johnson likes. Johnson is fierce in his own way. He laughs a lot but shows little expression on his face, and rarely speaks unless addressed directly. Movie-star handsome, he has the character of a prep-school sportsman with a taste for the darker things in life. He is also one of the better-paid journalists in New York—sources at the Post put his salary at $300,000.

Johnson grew up in Greenwich Village; his dad was editor of a trade magazine called Chemical Week, and his mom was in corporate public relations. He went to St. Luke’s and Trinity, playing games in Washington Square Park and having firecracker fights on the docks of the West Side Highway; also, he “did a lot of drugs and listened to Jimi Hendrix.” After dropping out of the University of Colorado at Boulder, he hung out upstate, making a living as a carpenter; when he came back to the city, he lived on the Bowery and fixed up lofts in Soho. Eventually, he went back to school, at Empire State College, graduating with a communications degree. “The school was on East 49th Street, near Jack’s Three Ring Circus, a topless place where you could get a free lunch,” says Johnson.

Afterward, he landed a job as suburban editor at the New York Post, then went on general assignment; gossip looked more fun, and was “perhaps even more prestigious,” says Johnson. “Potentially more lucrative, too.” While he was on general assignment, he wrote a story about Ed Koch that garnered him a mention in Joe Conason’s “Media Watch” column at the Village Voice. Conason called him the “undependable Richard Johnson.” “I called him up, and he said I could write a letter to the editor or sue him for libel,” says Johnson. “I found him in his office. We were walking down the hallway. I threw a punch at him. It was only a glancing blow.”

Johnson was snapped up by the Daily News in 1991, but publisher Mort Zuckerman let his contract expire, and he returned to the Post. “I like to think of it as the Curse of the Bambino,” Johnson says. These days, he dates a woman nearly twenty years his junior, Sessa von Richthofen, and lives in a one-bedroom apartment in the East Village. Von Richthofen often accompanies Johnson on his nightly rounds—the night before, they started at a party on Sutton Place for Yue-Sai Kan, then headed to PM for co-owner Unik’s birthday party. “We were urging Denise Rich to write a book, and she was claiming she was never alone with Clinton,” says Johnson. “Never slept in the Lincoln bedroom.” He doesn’t exactly smile, but the ends of his mouth move slightly upward. “Denise should write a memoir; it’d be better than Clinton’s.”

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