Loose Lips

Photographic studies for Norman Rockwell's The Gossips, a painting originally published on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in 1948.Photo: Gene Pelham/Photo-Montage by Ron Schick/© SEPS/Licensed by Curtis Licensing

‘The standard view of gossip is it’s a bad thing,” says Joseph Epstein, the reedy, bow-tied neocon intellectual, on the phone from Evanston, Illinois. “My problem is that I enjoy it so much.”

It shows: In Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit, Epstein denounces America’s dirty mind but also dishes about Aristotle Onassis’s love of anal sex. The latest of several books on social themes by the conservative essayist and longtime editor of the Phi Beta Kappa society’s American Scholar—he was ousted in 1997 for “being insufficiently correct politically,” he’s suggested somewhat proudly—Gossip is the work of an admittedly imperfect moralist, one who indulges as much in the sin Elizabeth Hardwick euphemistically called “character analysis” as he does in certain forms of snobbery (the subject of his 2002 best seller) or envy (2003).

Gossip is, like those books, a desultory journey through a semantically slippery condition. Equally adept at silly puns and stinging put-downs, Epstein is a lovably cranky guide to the history of gossip, which he presents as the dark heart of our status-seeking culture. Epstein came late to books, and he has an autodidact’s enthusiasm and self-deprecation—qualities that have always set his cheerily declinist writing above the George Wills of the world. The critic Richard Eder nailed it 26 years ago, on the publication of Epstein’s fifth book: “He manages to button up with the best of that buttoned-up crowd, but there is considerable laughter at work and the buttons keep popping off.” He began our interview by passing along, from an anonymous source, “the most astonishing news”: Tim Geithner used to be a woman.

In Gossip, Epstein anatomizes the pleasures and moral hazards of telling tales out of school but soon settles in to tell its history. We get quick sideways glances at the subjects of those whispers, and their excesses: the slutty Greek Alcibiades; those infamous Roman orgies; randy and rancorous Lord Byron; and Fatty Arbuckle, the Rabelais of Old Hollywood. But Epstein’s focus is largely on the craftsmen and connoisseurs of that scuttlebutt—he calls them the “Great Gossips of the Western World.” He celebrates the Duc de Saint-Simon, the best of the scandalmongers of the court of Louis XIV and the first truly modern gossip. There are amusing excursions into the gossip of literary circles (from Proust to the New Journalists) and gay subcultures (Oscar Wilde, of course, but also Leo Lerman, Truman Capote, and the most charming of them all, Noël Coward).

But the more recent Epstein’s history, the less kindly it’s remembered, and so the power broker columnist and red-baiter Walter Winchell comes in for harsh treatment. And when he gets to the late twentieth century, Epstein finally alights on his real subject, our fallen modern world—in which everything, even the supposedly anodyne court stenography of Bob Woodward, is corrupted by “the gossip motive.” In the old days of kings and courtiers, Epstein argues, gossip was a nasty but rare treat—a rich dessert that’s devolved, in the age of the Internet, into an all-junk-food diet.

“I was thinking the other day,” he tells me, “that the main stories in the country are all gossip-laden stories. Cain, the Penn State scandal, Justin Bieber—they’re all sort of about sex at bottom. Gossip can be this delightful pleasure, but if it starts to dominate the country, it’s not such a good thing.” Even investigative journalism qualifies, he says, per Wilde’s description of the profession as “organized gossip.” (Epstein is a gifted collater of semi-familiar quotations, as when he quotes Molly Haskell on the snark-filled Internet: “Democracy’s revenge on democracy.”) “It’s that whole spirit of exposé,” Epstein says. “I think it brings down the tone of the country.”

Of course, it takes a real gossip to know one—and then to gossip viciously about her. That “spirit of exposé” haunts Epstein’s damning portraits of gossipmongers like that “yenta” Barbara Walters; Gore Vidal, “much of whose writing is stoked by hatred”; and Tina Brown, who got her start, Epstein offers, by “bonking her way up the food chain of Oxford celebrity.” Epstein borrows an old New York Post columnist’s definition of gossip as “hearing something you like about someone you don’t,” and performs it again and again, deposing liberal deities from Arthur Miller to Seymour Hersh while leaving personal favorites like Coward and Tom Wolfe unscathed.

He’s also uninterested in America’s most popular targets of gossip, the celebrities who feed the tabloid-industrial complex. “You could tell me that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have open-heart sex and I wouldn’t care,” Epstein says. “I care a lot less for gossip about Conan O’Brien than I do for gossip about Conor Cruise O’Brien.” (Lady Gaga, he allows, “sounds to me like she may be an interesting young woman.”)

There’s surely some snobbery in Epstein’s vehement dismissal of pop culture—and probably some status envy, too. But his real lament is for the loss of that sense of secrecy that makes gossip such a great guilty pleasure. “The less widespread, the less well known, the news,” he writes in Gossip, “the more potent, by virtue of its exclusivity, and the more interesting it is. Serious gossip ought to be an intimate affair.”

Blind items are one way to retain that exclusive aura—are you enough in the loop to get it?—and Gossip has quite a few. I took the liberty of guessing about one of them—a woman who had left her husband of decades and come out as a lesbian. Was it the novelist Cathleen Schine? “No, no,” Epstein says. “But I didn’t know about Cathleen Schine, so you see what you’ve done? You’ve made my morning!” Gossip, among other things, is contagious.

But is it journalism? And is journalism gossip? It takes a strange myopia to cite a 60 Minutes exposé on insider trading in Congress as the airing of dirty laundry rather than a story advancing the public interest—but that’s how Epstein sees it. “I wouldn’t want to go back to hypocrisy of any kind,” Epstein says, but in his lament over the spread of gossip it’s hard to miss the regret that every public fact deprives the chattering class of another secret. Or maybe gossip itself is the dirty laundry, the last guilty pleasure of the privileged class, now spread out for all to see. “It’s like if you have a taste for chocolate croissants,” Epstein says, “and now McDonald’s has it.”

Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit
By Joseph Epstein.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25.

Loose Lips