"Is it here yet?" calls out New York Post gossip legend Neal Travis to his wife, Tolly. Travis is stretched out on a chaise on the front lawn of his bucolic Bridgehampton home, waiting for his column to come in over the fax. "Still not here? Darling, could you pour me another splash?"
Word had gotten out that Travis, battling cancer, was holed up in his house, churning out the column on a steady diet of wine and tobacco with the help of only a twentysomething assistant back in town. Actually, in his faded jeans, loafers, and crisp, striped shirt, he looks surprisingly well -- except for a few stray intravenous tubes poking out from beneath a shirt sleeve, and a certain thinning of his white hair from the chemotherapy he's been undergoing since April. "Jesus, I hate the planes on a Sunday!" he says, glaring up at a private craft on its path from nearby East Hampton airport.
Just then, Tolly rushes out of the house with a sheaf of papers.
"Ah, here's the column!" he says.
Travis puts on a pair of black rimmed glasses. He can no longer sit at a computer, because the cancer, which has now spread to his liver, has produced tumors on his neck and spine. Last August, he mysteriously lost 85 percent of his vision. Now he dictates the column and corrects it with the aid of enlarged print and magnifying lenses.
Travis -- who was the original editor of "Page Six" back in 1977 when Rupert Murdoch first bought the New York Post, did a stint at this magazine, wrote seven novels, and lived in Hong Kong and on an island in the Pacific -- is not altogether happy with his current state of affairs. "I hate dictating," he says. "The real fun is sitting at a machine and playing with words."
Then he returns to the column and quickly spots a typo.
"Oh, that's 'whopping,' not 'whooping,' darling -- bloody young Americans."
Some people have marveled at the sheer drive of someone continuing to work under such conditions. "Most people would understandably have been despairing, or angry, or both," says Mario Cuomo, who's one of Travis's closest friends. "But he's on the phone asking for stories. 'And would you call Tolly? I think she's a little down' -- this is the guy in the bed."
Travis sees it more simply. "The pain just cripples you," he says. "It's like broken ribs and a slipped disk at the same time, but if I stopped writing this column, I'd probably die tomorrow."
At the Post, the powers that be are a bit overwhelmed. "He's turning in so much copy every day, there's barely room for it," says a bemused Steve Cuozzo, who oversees all the Post's daily columns.
"Rupert says all columnists should get cancer and write this well," jokes Travis.
Just then, he spots a man running past on the road. "Go on, boy," he says to his collie, Sam. "Get him. Get the jogger."
Travis refers to himself as one of "Rupert's Raiders," a band, including columnist Steve Dunleavy, that has moved with the media baron from publication to publication. While Travis has certain peccadilloes from a Murdochian standpoint -- "I'm the last liberal left at the Post," he says -- he's fiercely loyal to his paper and co-workers. The Daily News, he says, is "somewhere out in Queens, duking it out with Newsday, the world's most boring paper," while the Times' attempt at a gossip column "sounds like people sitting around sipping tea and eating cucumber sandwiches."
Travis's column -- which runs opposite "Page Six" and tilts more toward uptown society and covers more politicians than do Richard Johnson and his crew -- has lately harbored such scoops as socialite Nina Griscom's romance with sugar baron Pepe Fanjul, and has regularly skewered Lizzie Grubman, among many others. One word for Travis's reporting methods is unorthodox -- as he is the first to admit. "I do things that the Columbia School of Journalism might not approve of," he says with a sly grin. "There was a very fast-rising politician, for example. I knew that he'd been out to Aspen with his current girlfriend, and that he had a penchant for not paying his bills. So I called him. I said, 'I've got a good story here; they just faxed me your bill.' He said, 'That's going to ruin me, Neal. That's going to ruin me.' I said, 'Well, I've got a four-inch column. You've got till two o'clock.' So he came up with a scurrilous story about one of his friends.
"Or, if I want to run an item about a breakup, I'll say, for example, 'You should let me do it, because I hear those bitches over at Women's Wear are onto it.' I know there's a lot of new journalists who don't approve of that sort of thing. But we're gossip columnists. We're not shooting for a Pulitzer Prize."
Travis has always refused to call official sources, a protocol practiced by "Page Six" and almost all of the city's other gossip pages. "Why should I call them?" he asks. "So they can put a nice gloss on a story and send it out that day, or so that I can write what I know, followed by someone saying it isn't so? This is a city where rabbis have P.R.'s. It knocks me out. It's a good reason not to go to official sources.
"A gossip column isn't clean, hard, factual reporting. You can correct within 24 hours if you've made a boo-boo. If I'm wrong, I get another item the next day saying, 'Hey, here's the truth.' "
But what about giving someone a fair shot to explain his side of the story? "There's a bit more cooperation than might appear," he explains. "For instance, I might write, 'He could not be reached for comment,' when, of course, we talked for half an hour."
Post editor-in-chief Col Allan has no quarrel with Travis's methods. "He'll write a piece," says Allan, "and he'll say, 'They'll deny this until midnight, but I'm telling you it's true.' I mean, he heads them off at the pass. He doesn't get much wrong, but whenever he does, he's quick to set the record straight, and he does it in a way that's just as amusing as the original piece."