What do gossip columnists talk about when they're all alone? New York's Maer Roshan assembled four of the city's boldface veterans, plied them with wine and inedible food, and discreetly turned on a tape recorder. In addition to Liz Smith, guests included Jeannette Walls, an online columnist and onscreen gossip for MSNBC, whose book Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip was published to respectful reviews this year. Joanna Molloy writes a column, "Rush & Molloy," for the Daily News with her husband, George Rush, and hosts a show on eYada.com. Rounding out the posse was Michael Musto, whose weekly column has run in The Village Voice for the past thirteen years. Be afraid, be very afraid!
Liz Smith: What a fancy spread! You should have made us all wear silk underwear.
Michael Musto: You're not?
Jeannette Walls: I am. You start shimmying a little more when you feel that silk on you.
Smith: You haven't worn cotton underwear since '74, I'm sure.
Walls: I haven't worn underwear since 1974! Laughter.
Maer Roshan: Geez. The bons mots are flying already. I was going to get us in the mood with some Bill Moyers-type questions. But with this crowd, I don't stand a chance.
Joanna Molloy: All right. Simmer down, everybody.
M.R.: To start off with, I'm curious whether you see yourselves more as entertainers or as journalists.
Walls: We're all hard-ass reporters!
"Kevin Spacey is entitled to make any statement he wants about his sex life, and then he has to live with the fallout from people like Nathan Lane who are irritated by that. People have a right to spin their own myth." -- Liz Smith
Molloy: That's what bugs me about many other reporters; they say, "Sorry, I won't collaborate with you; I don't do gossip." The fact is, we actually go out and dig for things. Plenty of reporters just sit in press conferences and take notes. And we have to deal with hostile forces -- publicists who do all they can to prevent things from getting out.
Walls: There are armies of people arrayed to keep us from getting the truth.
M.R.: Do you see yourself as a reporter or an entertainer, Liz?
Smith: I see myself as a star and a sex symbol. Laughs. No, seriously, I think of myself as a reporter. And sometimes as a performer. I don't take it too seriously.
Musto: Most of the stuff we write about isn't that important in the larger picture. But we have to approach it as if it is, because our readers care about it more than they do about headline news.
Smith: I think we do as well as reporters do. Better. When you read the New York Times, they always leave out the main thing you want to know. They never ask, "What happened to the children? What happened to the dog?" In many "real" news stories, they don't get to the crux of anything.
Walls: Gossip columnists are the media's foot soldiers. We're out actually breaking news. So if we get stuff wrong, it's because we're the ones who are breaking things. The New York Times has the luxury of following you, so they pretend they have this highbrow approach.They love to repeat the stuff the gossip columns have broken, but they always frame it as "Oh, isn't this disgusting," and then repeat it all in salacious detail. Next thing you know, Ted Koppel's doing a special.
Smith: When other papers report it, it's gossip; when the Times reports it, it's sociology.
M.R.: How has the business of gossip changed over the years?
Musto: There's three times as many reporters now, and the same number of celebrities, so we're all fighting over any crumbs of gossip that we can dig up. As a result, publicists have become immensely powerful. Most people don't realize that reporters can't even get an assignment to interview a big star without that celebrity's publicist approving the writer and even the questions they ask.
M.R.: How do you get around that?
Musto: I just try and avoid publicists. They won't deal with me anyway, except to invite me to premieres. I don't know how you daily guys do it, because publicists are so vicious and controlling.
Molloy: They're also violent. I was standing at a party perhaps too close to Skeet Ulrich not long ago, and his publicist came out like a bat out of hell and screamed, "Stay away from Skeet!"
Walls: Your brush with immortality! Sure, honey!
Molloy: I said, "No, I want to stand here and read Skeet's lips." So this publicist bodily shoved me away. It was horrible!
Musto: Usually, they surround me with an armed convoy. Laughs. What do they think I'm going to do?
Smith: I don't think we can do anything to any of them. People aren't really hurt by what we do.
M.R.: You don't think you have the power to hurt careers and reputations?
Smith: I don't think anybody can hurt a career.
Molloy: That's not true. Some gossips are irresponsible. Recently one of the columns reported, "Brad Pitt is now living in a yellow townhouse" and gave his address. The item went out over all the radio stations, and suddenly everybody was ringing his doorbell, saying, "Hey, Brad, let's party!" Sometimes we reveal things about people that are hurtful. I wouldn't write that somebody is in rehab. . . .
Smith: Yeah, I agree. I think that you have to be careful writing about people who are sick and need help. I remember I got a story on John Belushi when they were making 1941, which was that they were rumored to have had a million dollars written into the movie budget just for cocaine. Now, that's a story worth telling: I saw it as a cautionary tale. But to just write that somebody is on drugs, they'd have to be doing something really bad in public where they just were out of control.
Musto: I think it's much more newsworthy if they're not on drugs! Laughter. The thing I draw the line on is illness. The only time I'd write about illness is if, for example, Rock Hudson comes out and says, "Oh, I don't have AIDS." If it's some kind of hypocrisy, where they're trying to act as if their illness is unspeakable.
Smith: You've got to remember that Rock Hudson got AIDS so early on, and nobody sort of knew how to act about AIDS. Nobody knew what AIDS was.
Musto: Well, by that point I had lost about 200 friends, so I knew what AIDS was, Liz.
M.R.: Do you think it was worth infringing on Rock Hudson's privacy to tell that story?
Smith: I think he was so sick by the time I found it out that I couldn't have concealed it if I'd wanted to. Yeah, that story was too big to sweep under the rug.
M.R.: One of the other taboos that's breaking down is sexuality. It's apparent in the coverage of Kevin Spacey, who responded by constantly mentioning a girlfriend of nine years whom no one had ever heard of until six months ago. . . .
Walls: Is she a drag queen?
Musto: I went out with her. Laughter.