The Madame Defarge of the New York Post

Andrea Peyser Photo: Michael O'Neill

You wanted this all along!

The shrieking rattled the windows at 40 Centre Street’s federal courthouse. Not five minutes earlier, a jury had found Martha Stewart and her Merrill Lynch stockbroker, Peter Bacanovic, guilty of conspiracy and assorted other charges. The New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser had jostled her way over to Bacanovic’s diminutive 72-year-old mother, Helen Bacanovic, looking to tap some rancor. Only, the bucket had tipped over. Suddenly, Bacanovic had the reporter firmly by the wrist.

“He lost his career, and his job, and he had no motive!” the retired anesthesiologist shouted at the columnist before she was ushered away. Peyser stared back, unfazed.

Three weeks later, Andrea Peyser was poking around her salad at Michael’s, the midtown media hangout, quietly complaining that for all its baby-opal-basil trimming, it still tasted like cream cheese and turkey roll. Lunch, she explained, was generally something that happened at her desk. At Michael’s, she was playing it discreetly stylish in her black suit, pearl earrings, and stay-put pink lipstick; punky DKNY sunglasses were folded away inside her handbag.

“I feel sorry for Mrs. Bacanovic,” Peyser was saying. “It’s not the first time somebody has projected onto me her anger and grief. She’s not angry at me,” she said, pausing pensively. “But she took it out on me a little.”

The spectacle of the city’s high-profile court cases provides a tabloid newspaper with much opportunity for wit, savagery, and increased sales. Andrea Peyser is the local Madame Defarge, shaking her fist as the tumbrels roll by, the Post’s class warrior, channeling populist rage and unleashing it on the likes of Donna Hanover, Hillary Clinton, and those who would countenance the idea of gay marriage. “A rabid New Yorker” is how Post editor-in-chief Col Allan describes her (though many New Yorkers might not appreciate the association). The smiling photo accompanying Peyser’s column was recently replaced with one of her wearing a scowl—“No one recognized me,” she said. Lawyers say they shudder when they see jurors marching into court with the New York Post under their arms.

At Michael’s, most of the Stewart-trial press all-stars happened to be scattered around the same room for the first time since court had adjourned. Dominick Dunne spotted Peyser from across the dining room, his eyebrows tepeeing over his tortoiseshell horn-rims.

Ahn-drea!” the Vanity Fair writer cried, embracing Peyser warmly. “Honey, I miss you!” Peyser’s next big ticket would probably be the Scott Peterson murder trial in California, but Dunne will not be commuting anywhere near Gary Condit country. The ex-congressman is still suing him for slander. “I wish I was there with you. We’d have some laughs,” he said, bouncing off to the next table.

“Dominick’s connections are certainly superior, but he doesn’t lord it over anybody,” said Peyser, 44, whose big brown eyes—their lashes wand-curled into a state of shock and dismay—had surely glimpsed the swaying palm-tree buttons sewn into Dunne’s commodore-of-the-yacht-club blazer. “He was pro-Martha, and very unabashedly so,” she said. “He had his reasons, and I respected that. But she was a nasty shrew. She was a nasty shrew! It was just a whole way of life for her.”

In Peyser’s columns, Martha Stewart was unfailingly served up in a stir-fry of words like “diva,” “dominatrix,” “queen,” and “broad.” Bacanovic was “her bitch.” Peyser’s daily morality playlets stunned her fellow courthouse reporters and quite a few readers, who wondered if being a nasty shrew had become a whole way of life for her, too, or just a way for a working girl to make a living.

“I call things as I see them. It’s a nice little thing to be able to do with your day,” Peyser said evenly. “I believe equal rights breeds equal responsibility. If you break the law, whether it be to murder your children or lie about a stock trade, you can’t just say, ‘Stop picking on me because I’m a woman.’ I find that very offensive.” Particularly if you’re the kind of woman whose name stands alone on the mortgage, who spent a career breaking rocks in a newsroom that has known its share of belching sexism, where, not incidentally, liberal politics are scoffed at. Peyser’s clear-polished fingertips, “well-tended” like hapless Peter Bacanovic’s, wandered up to her chin, dimpled like Frances McDormand’s, as her husband quickly checked in to let her know he was going to move the car.

On the sparsely decorated wall over his shoulder was a Broadway poster for August Strindberg’s Dance of Death. “Two people stuck on an island in a bad marriage,” said Peyser, who does note that her own parents and her husband’s never divorced, whereas friends whose parents did get divorced were screwed up. “What my parents taught me and Mark’s parents are demonstrating today is that people go into marriage with all these expectations that it’s going to be hearts and flowers until death, and it’s not like that. It’s given me and my husband a more realistic view.”

Peyser’s Austrian mother and German math-professor father were refugees from Hitler; they met while both were serving in the Israeli army during the 1948 war. After marrying, the Peysers moved to Bay Terrace, Queens, a predominantly Jewish middle-income development where her mother, who had a Jackie Kennedy pageboy hairdo and did not drive, could walk to the local shopping center.

Peyser was acutely aware that she had foreign-born parents. To this day, she wishes her mother would lose the accent. “I always respected and admired them, but their value system was a little different. They weren’t very materialistic. My father was very educated, whereas a lot of my friends’ fathers were in business. We had an old car, not a new car.” Peyser’s kibbutz-raised mother, who liked to talk politics and philosophy, always thought the neighbors a bit vulgar. “It was ladies wearing mink coats in the summer and stuff like that,” Peyser said.

In high school in the seventies, Peyser and her friends had to take the bus to Flushing and then the 7 train to Manhattan to catch Led Zeppelin and the Kinks at the Garden. “My mother was about opera and Mozart, and I was all about rock and roll, much to her chagrin,” said Peyser.

Peyser nicknamed Christiane Amanpour the “CNN war slut,” prompting a complaint from Amanpour and a rare apology from Rupert Murdoch himself. Peyser was hardly cowed. Less than a year later, she was calling Amanpour a “Palestinian propagandist.”

Her parents’ politics were liberal, a little socialist even. “I was a lefty back then,” said Peyser, who enrolled at SUNY–New Paltz. “I remember sitting in women’s-studies classes and being handed a load of shit. It was always somebody else’s fault. Treating people like children who aren’t responsible for their actions—and I would say that about ethnic minorities, too.” Peyser kept getting fired from her waitressing gigs, like at that seafood restaurant where “some wealthy guy complained because he thought I was neglecting his table.”

She had better luck stringing at a local paper for 50 cents an inch, and after graduation she won a temporary assignment at the AP’s Albany bureau. Not asked to stay on, she snared a job in the West Virginia bureau. “Mines were closing in Appalachia, and there was like a 90 percent unemployment rate in certain towns, and the governor was named Jay Rockefeller.”

“There were sophisticated people there and actual universities,” she said, laughing, “but in Appalachia, people lived in hollows, so they never saw more than 40 degrees of sunlight. They had satellite television, but they had no movie theaters, no malls.”

After a brief and miserable detour into television news at CNN in Atlanta, she arrived at the Tampa Tribune, the arch-nemesis of the Pulitzer Prize–winning progressive-liberal St. Petersburg Times. “The Times thinks it’s hot stuff, but the Tribune breaks more hot stories,” said Peyser, adding that “the Times is backed by the Poynter Institute, a lot of people with big degrees sitting around and pontificating.”

Peyser wound up on courthouse detail in Polk County, the kind of place where somebody in Trailer One is always getting in a fight with Trailer Two. “Everybody was armed,” she said. A barfly’s body was found in a Dumpster, and that troubled her. “So many crimes of passion, so many people shooting girls, and why? There was this whole macho thing going on that I didn’t really relate to but which fascinated me.”

On vacation in 1989, Peyser finagled a job interview for the New York Post’s new Sunday edition even though all the positions had been filled. She charmed her jaded audience of Post editors with a play-by-play of an electric-chair execution. Peyser won a two-day trial: “I was like, okay, make the sentences a little shorter and write cops instead of police.” Dick Belsky, now at the Daily News, remembers they decided to hire her within hours.

Somehow, through all the troubles besetting the Post in the years it was owned by, in turn, Peter Kalikow, Steven Hoffenberg, and Abe Hirschfeld, Peyser managed to hang on, even when Hirschfeld shambled in one day with his new copublisher, William Tatum, of the black weekly Amsterdam News, and a hit list of 300 people to be fired, including Peyser. But everyone continued to report to work anyway. Peyser’s career was made in 1992, when a woman accused three Mets of rape, and she was dispatched to Port St. Lucie, Florida, for spring training.

“I did what any good reporter would do,” she said. “I went to the bars.” According to her story, Mets were picking up local cupcakes who were swapping fake I.D.’s in the parking lot. SWING TRAINING was the front-page headline. Angry players ambushed Peyser in the locker room—though not among the accused, “Dave Cone was in my face yelling, ‘You fucking liar,’” says Peyser—and subsequently all reporters were banned from the premises. Peyser says she remembers the Post’s news and sports desks weren’t talking to each other. “And of course there was the usual she-must-be-a-lesbian-who-can’t-get-a-man stuff,’” said Peyser, who husband was then photographing sports fulltime. Spring training is where she discovered she could take the heat; a few months later, she was named a columnist.

The job of a columnist is a prize: It means a guaranteed space in the paper, a bigger desk or office, and more money than the other reporters get. Peyser makes a low six-figure salary, which means she’s not quite one of the little people on whose behalf she often writes: A recent column found her apologizing for installing little Eliza in private school.

But she’s a tabloid lifer, and that’s fine by her. It’s how she views the world. The empty-looking aquarium next to Peyser’s TV set at home was the site, she said, of a “murder-suicide”; apparently, one of her brutish African cichlids tipped a rock into the heater and they all boiled to death. She admits to a weakness for The Simple Life and “really tacky reality shows like Elimidate, just to see how people are humiliating themselves.”

In her column, Peyser is usually going for the jugular. Her list of enemies includes not only the “spoiled jerk” athletes with whom she made her reputation but the cancerous U.N., those Frenchy antiwar weasels, gay people who adopt children and/or feel legally entitled to be married, and feminist follies. Men who disappoint are feminized; after he lost to Bush, Al Gore was “the man who raids Katherine Harris’s pancake makeup supply.” The Reverend Al Sharpton and Johnnie Cochran have both sued her for millions of dollars—and lost. Sharpton used to habitually call her up and yell at her. “He’s a force for ill in this city, and I’ll always write that,” she said, noting that Sharpton has been civil to her in recent years.

Peyser takes on a lot of women’s issues—does anyone really want to hear her 66-year-old Post colleague Steve Dunleavy opine about Britney Spears?—and female subjects tend to bring out the orc in her. Donna Hanover, Rudy Giuliani’s then-wife, consumed her for three consecutive springs. “I didn’t buy her aggrieved-spouse thing,” said Peyser. “She was in that marriage for her own purposes. There was a lot of acting and performing—she held a press conference in front of St. Patrick’s to announce how hurt she was!”

Christiane Amanpour also got body-slammed—Peyser nicknamed her the “CNN war slut,” prompting a complaint from Amanpour and a rare apology from Murdoch himself. Peyser was hardly cowed. Less than a year later, she was calling Amanpour a “Palestinian propagandist.”

“Somebody has an issue with successful women, said Howard Wolfson, Hillary Clinton’s press handler during her Senate run when Peyser was pounding Clinton as “ditzy,” “stupid,” and a texbook case of “narcissistic personality disorder.” Madonna, Kathie Lee Gifford, and Courtney Love—bad mothers all—are, incidentally, not aging well. High heels are a better-than-thou vanity, even though Peyser was wearing stiletto boots when we met (“Knockoffs, she said in her defense) and made sure to mention that she wears flats when she covers trials.

A former editor of the Post, Xana Antunes, praises Peyser for not feeling obligated to be positive about every woman she covers just because she’s a woman. “Maybe it’s counter-stereotype, and that’s what upsets people,” says Antunes. “It’s not what people expect from a female columnist.”

Victoria Gotti, who used the desk next to Peyser’s for a spell, says Peyser watched her go through a terrible divorce and struggle financially. “Andrea actually celebrates strong women,” explains Gotti, who had dinner with her recently. “She does not have time for the damsel-in-distress syndrome. She saw Martha’s crime as a blemish on the movement. Her columns on Martha, as harsh as they might have seemed, were tough love.”

Access unlocks Peyser’s affections, as Jean Doumanian (“prettier, thinner and shorter in person”), June Gumbel, Leona Helmsley, and Rosie O’Donnell all discovered. But when Peyser is finished with them, Helmsley turns back into a “tax cheat” and Rosie O’Donnell a “clown.” “I do believe Peyser is an honest person stating her honest beliefs,” says attorney Ben Brafman, who has complained to her about what she’s written on many occasions. But he sometimes thinks he sees Murdoch’s conservative agenda: “You can taste it.”

Though registered as a Democrat, Peyser calls herself a Libertarian. “I would join the Republican Party except I’m pro-choice,” she says. She’s also pro-Israel, pro–death penalty, pro–welfare reform, pro–gun control, and pro–Pledge of Allegiance. She wrote about pulling the lever for George Pataki and Michael Bloomberg, though she now objects to the way Bloomberg raised taxes. She will probably vote for George Bush. “I’m not ready for a change,” Peyser says. “I like tax cuts. I like the fact we haven’t had another 9/11.”

On top of Andrea Peyser’s computer is the Fire Department hard hat she wore down at ground zero. She can take the hits. She can adapt. Hate mail means people are reading you. Col Allan says the only request he’s ever had from Rupert Murdoch is to “sell more papers.” And Peyser is holding up her end.

The Madame Defarge of the New York Post