“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.”
Allan first met Travis back in the seventies, when he was editing “Intelligencer” for this magazine, which at the time was owned by Murdoch. “I can remember going to Studio 54 with Neal,” he says. “There was a queue of people blocks long, and you’d just walk in. I tried it one night without Neal, and they threw me out of the place. But I remember playing pinball machines with Elton John and Rod Stewart when Neal was standing around.”
Travis started in the newspaper business in New Zealand when he was 16 years old. He moved to Australia at 18 and came to New York as a foreign correspondent in his early twenties. His influence blossomed when Murdoch bought the New York Post. Quickly, he knew everyone in the city.
In 1979, he wrote a novel called Manhattan. “I had the best book launch,” he says. “The publisher threw me a party at ‘21’. Then there was a party at Elaine’s at 10 p.m. Then to Studio 54 at midnight. Then we flew to L.A. to go to the Polo Lounge. It was the best launch – far more than that piece of garbage deserved.”
He reveled in his swaggering power. In the late seventies, when he had gone to New York, Claudia Cohen took over “Page Six.” “People would say I was nice, which annoyed me, but then Claudia came along, and she was so wonderfully bitchy,” he says. “Al Goldstein got a real hard-on against her for something she’d written in the column, and he published her private number in Screw and said, ‘Call her up for a good time.’ I was so pissed off that I actually got on to one of our teamsters and said, ‘I want him whacked.’ So the next day, I tell her, and she says, ‘I can handle it.’ So now I’m trying to remember which union guy it was I’d got to put the hit on, and I had to call Dunleavy and say, ‘How do I call the dogs off?’ We sweated through it for the whole day until we got the message over: ‘Please don’t do what we ordered last night.’ “
In 1980, Travis met Tolly Furlong, a widowed Australian woman with three kids, at the America’s Cup in Newport, Rhode Island. “It was love at first sight,” she says. Travis eventually followed her to Australia, and the two lived together on the Pacific island of Vanuatu (“It wasn’t fun,” she says. “It rained the whole time.”) and on the China–Hong Kong border as Travis finished two of his novels. “I try to keep him in line,” she says. “We’re enormously close. We do everything together.”
Langan’s, on 47th street, is the bar where Post reporters continue the time-honored tabloid tradition of having a drink (or three) after work (or, in some cases, like Travis’s, during work). It’s also the set of the city’s longest-running buddy movie – the friendship between Travis and Steve Dunleavy, one staunch Democrat, one staunch Republican, both staunch Murdoch allies – and both playing the Dean Martin role with a Down Under accent.
“Travis and Dunleavy come in tailored up in Savile Row finery, but they’re like an old married couple,” offers bartender Ciaran Hegarty. “Neal is always a perfect gentleman. I’ll let someone else tell you about their whores and drinking binges,” he chuckles.
The drinking culture is a valued one in the Murdoch world. “The relationship between Travis and Dunleavy is really about having very mature, vigorous, and surprisingly intellectual arguments at a bar,” says Allan. “They sit with a pack of cigarettes each, and in Neal’s case generally white wine, and in Steve’s case a vodka. And what surprised me was, on the one hand, there’s this sort of raffish culture, but the quality of the argument, the quality of the debate, was always very impressive.
“I hope it’s not a dying thing, because I worry that journalists spend too much time in the gymnasium, if you know what I mean,” says Allan. “I think it’s important that they interact. It can’t be just an office life. People enjoy each other’s company. That’s what I like about the business, frankly. I went to a trainer for a while, and Neal disapproved of that. Oh, boy! He accused me of betrayal and treachery and all this sort of stuff.”
Actually, Travis is usually the one worrying about his friends’ health and sanity. “He’d say, ‘We have to check on Dunleavy,’ ” says Elaine Kaufman, the doyenne of Elaine’s, the celebrity watering hole, and a longtime friend. “Steve doesn’t eat much – he was almost anorexic – and we were trying to find out if there was something wrong with him. And it’s insane – now it turns out there’s something wrong with Neal.”
Travis hasn’t entirely discarded his solicitous attitude. “My friends keep offering to donate their livers,” he says. “How do I tell Dunleavy his liver’s probably in worse shape than mine?”
Travis still finds plenty to amuse him in the circus that is his chosen city. “Fortunately,” he says, “because it’s New York, characters like Harvey Weinstein do keep coming along who you can laugh at and jeer at but who are doing serious shit as well, getting Oscars and making good movies. Bloomy’s a bit harder to get colorful copy out of than Rudy was. Hillary has been a disappointment to me, because she’s turned into quite a good senator, but she ain’t funny and she ain’t provocative. And Chuck’s … Oh, I miss Alfonse so much.
“One of the saddest things,” says Travis, “is to hear young journalists after work talking about putting extensions on their garages, or whether or not they can get into a club downtown. We used to go to a pub after work and enthusiastically debate about whether a story should have been put on page three or page five. Instead of journalists being a particular breed of people who live for it, they’ve become much more normal.”
Actually, Travis’s current plight has helped foster the insidious creep of normalcy. “The smoking room at the paper is virtually empty now,” says Megan Turner, who covers the movie beat. “I quit because of Neal,” agrees “Page Six” ‘s Paula Froelich. “I’ve smoked since I was 11, and I have masturbatory fantasies about having a cigarette, but I love Neal. When I look at his empty office, I just can’t do it.”
At the end of July, Travis has been moved by ambulance from Bridgehampton to Manhattan’s NYU Medical Center for an operation to remove new tumors. He has lost a bit of his color, his weight is down to 115 pounds, and the short sleeves of his blue-and-white cotton hospital gown reveal arms heavily scarred from needles. He is no longer in obvious pain – in fact, he’s particularly upbeat, thanks to a steady drip of morphine along with the usual vitamins and antibiotics.
“There’s a just-opened bottle of wine in the fridge,” he says to a visitor. “Can you pour me one, please?
“When I asked the nurse to pour me a drink last night, she looked at me askance,” he reports. “I said, ‘I’m not in here for alcoholism. Now I’m going down to the garden to smoke a pipe, because I’m not in here for lung cancer.’ “
He has also persuaded the hospital’s P.R. director to hand over her personal fax machine so that he can continue his column until the day of his operation, when he plans to take a two-week leave.
Travis is boycotting the hospital’s food, but he’s not exactly on a hunger strike. Instead, Le Cirque has been sending over care packages, and Langan’s, which had been delivering its famous dim sum out to the Hamptons regularly by Jitney, is now forwarding it to the hospital.
That reminds Travis of the preposterous report that he was once tossed off the Jitney halfway out on the L.I.E. for misbehaving. “I wasn’t tossed off, but they did threaten to ban me permanently,” he corrects. “I normally don’t smoke on the Jitney; I’m very good about it, but I was coming from a party in the city and I had a cigarette in the lavatory. Some woman started screeching at me, ‘Don’t you know I’ve had emphysema,’ and I said, ‘I’ve got it, too, lovey, and I’m not banning anything, but your cell phone is driving me nuts.’ Then the Jitney Nazi took her side and told me I’d get banned, which is some kind of badge from the Jitney. In all the kerfuffle, I got off at Bridgehampton with all these people glowering at me, and I forgot my own cell phone.”
The idea of being an inspiration for Post employees to give up tobacco leaves him horrified. “I’m not the health police,” he says. “Please close the door.”
He fumbles through some drawers at the side of his bed, finds a pack of Marlboros, and lights up like a naughty schoolboy. “Four years ago, I was told I had emphysema, and I quit smoking for the most part and regained 98 percent of my lung capacity,” he says, as the small room fills with thick smoke. “That seemed a bit of a bugger at the time. Then I get the blindness last August, and I thought, Fuck, that’s about it, but we started getting on top of that. I had taken Viagra, and I thought maybe that had caused the blindness. I wanted to sue them – I could have owned that company, but apparently, blurred vision is one of the possible side effects they list.
“Anyway, in March I found a little lump on my neck. Everyone was sure it was a nice cancer, the best one you can get, but in April, on my 62nd birthday, I was told it had spread, and I thought, Jesus, what did I do to deserve all this?
“But you have no time to be afraid. I’ve watched my wife just breaking up with each new crisis. But as a journalist, you just get a bit fascinated, as if it was happening to somebody else. I love sort of watching and reporting to myself about what’s happening to me. If you weren’t writing about yourself in your mind, you’d get pretty frustrated. But it’s fairly simple. You either live six months or three years, or perhaps you recover permanently. So, I’ll either be dead or I’ll be doing the column.”
There’s a knock at the door as an orchid is delivered. It’s from publicist Paul Wilmot.
“It makes you feel great, all the attention. Even Rudy, of all people, has called me to give me pep talks about cancer. It’s a tough town, but the longer you stay around it, the less tough it gets. I have no illusion – I know that if I actually had to stop writing, with the exception of, say, Elaine Kaufman or Mario Cuomo or about twenty people I know, it would stop. But then again, they’d still have to worry that I might recover and screw them.”
Travis is prepared for all possible outcomes. “I always wanted to do what they say Earl Wilson did – die at your typewriter at 79. If I recover, that’s what I intend to do.
“I love my life,” Travis continues, after a deep drag on his Marlboro. “I’ve loved it since I was a kid. It always seemed like journalism was the light at the end of the tunnel.”