The Casey Johnsons I Have Known

Photo: Tammie Arroyo/AF-USA/AP

I won’t sit here and tell you how amazing, sweet, and generous Casey Johnson was. Or how we were “friends.” We had a contentious, symbiotic relationship. She was the billionairess who liked to be the center of attention, and I was the gossip columnist who would chronicle her exploits—in some ways her very existence, at least how she seemed to want to live it.

I met and covered—and needed—lots of people like Casey at my job at “Page Six.” We all know or can imagine what a certain upbringing full of money, absentee parents—either working at a job or climbing the social ladder—and large, beautifully decorated, but basically empty apartments is like. I used to have to deal with the after-effects. Lonely, attention-starved adults who didn’t work—either because they didn’t know how to or didn’t have to—and were adrift. I remember once, outside Bungalow 8, a bleary-eyed Fabian Basabe asked me, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I don’t know what to do.” Frustrated, I said, “Jesus Christ, Fabian, get a job. I don’t care if it’s at Duane Reade, just go somewhere where people depend on you showing up, work hard, and understand what it’s like to earn a paycheck.” He then signed on for the E! reality show Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive, the equivalent of working at Starbucks for the narcissistic crowd. Apparently, Casey’s biggest regret was not signing on to be Paris Hilton’s sidekick on The Simple Life.

As I knew her, Casey systematically seemed to enhance her already plentiful natural assets until she became almost an anime creature with exaggerated cheeks, lips, and breasts. As if she thought she would never be pretty enough. Or good enough. So she decided to become famous, like her idol, Marilyn Monroe. Because, after all, if you’re famous, everybody loves you, right? They all respect you and want to be you …

For a middle class kid from Ohio like me, this world was both fun and fascinating to be around and made me glad I was only covering it. I don’t know if there could ever be said to be morality in gossip coverage, but there are definitely moral hazards. Toward the end of her life, Casey didn’t speak to her father, Woody, who was busy starting another family and wasn’t pleased by her often embarrassing behavior. Sale, her mother, tried, in her way. I will never forget seeing post-divorce Sale and Casey out partying at a club after 2 a.m. Fun, perhaps, but not exactly responsible, if you consider that her daughter was a juvenile diabetic. Casey moved to L.A., where her behavior got worse—she got in a feud with her aunt Libet, adopted a daughter from Kazakhstan even though she could barely take care of herself, and fell in with a wild, just-as-rich-and-depressed crowd headed by Terry Semel’s daughter, Courtenay. Meanwhile, Sale got into the music business, and would call “Page Six” and ask if we could publicize her musicians.

Six months before Casey died alone on the holidays, I quit that job. I was becoming too cynical, seeing the same train wrecks happen over and over. I did the job during a time of “celebreality”—where people could get famous for doing nothing or just trying to be “scandalous.” You would have to hang out with and report on uneducated, basically illiterate people who were glorified for showing their private parts. Sure, you could take them down a notch, show them for what they were, but you were still keeping the carnaval going.

In the end, Casey and her crowd were depressing. It was like watching people being stuck in the wrong role in an Edith Wharton novel.

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The Casey Johnsons I Have Known