April 19, 1999

Any best-dressed list is sure to be quirky, but fashion grande dame Eleanor Lambert’s challenges the very fiber of existence. Listed in the “Deceased” section of Lambert’s 1998-99 Hall of Fame is Bill Blass consultant Steven Kaufmann, who, while admitting to being “old,” stubbornly maintains that he has not passed on. The ninetysomething Lambert explains Kaufmann’s premature burial as “one of those office errors that can happen and make nightmares for everyone.” Meanwhile, Lambert’s list of living permanent members includes Senator Barry Goldwater, who died last year, as well as the dapper but deceased Henry Cabot Lodge. “He’s dead?” said one Lambert employee when asked about Goldwater’s inclusion. When questioned about the two dead senators she’s resurrected, Lambert quipped, “I think I better kill myself,” adding, “You seem rather ghoulish – if so, you can be on our committee.”

Now that she’s just about mastered English, is crimson-tressed Sarah Ferguson practicing her Italian in an attempt to pull in purported paramour Count Gaddo della Gherardesca? Though the current issue of Ladies Home Journal reports definitively that she’s ended her much-publicized affair with the Milanese blueblood, our spies report that she recently enrolled in an intensive four-day course in Italian at New York’s prestigious Michel Thomas Language Center. Asked if he knows why the duchess is boning up on her Italian, Thomas giggles, “Yes, I do,” but then quickly clams up. Nevertheless, a spokesperson for the royal plus-size model insists that the actual reason for the duchess’s sudden interest in Romance languages “is not her friendship with the count” but rather her charity efforts in Italy. Thomas, who recently saw Ferguson in London, reports that as far as Italian goes, “She’s doing very well.” As for Italians, now that’s another story.

Is Carroll Petrie out to simplify her life? The wealthy widow has just put her swank Fifth Avenue co-op, a twelve-room place that once upon a time took three different decorators to get together, on the market for $10.5 million, real-estate sources say. Sotheby’s Brucie Boalt is said to be the exclusive broker for the apartment in the tony building that also houses Laurence Rockefeller, Alfred Taubman, and John and Susan Gutfreund, although Boalt will neither confirm nor deny that she has the listing. Petrie inherited the co-op – along with a huge spread in Southampton, a plane, $5 million in cash, and a $150 million trust – when her late husband, the retailer Milton Petrie, died five years ago. The renowned philanthropist’s 119-page will lists 439 beneficiaries and includes $100,000 bequests for former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek and Holocaust writer Elie Wiesel and $20,000 a year for paralyzed cop Steven McDonald; his wife, Patricia; and model turned writer Marla Hanson. But while the gazillionaire’s will left his three children and two grandchildren relatively paltry sums ranging from $2 million to $15 million, Milton’s son, San Francisco attorney Bernard Petrie, insists there’s no bad blood. “I enjoy a very good relationship with my stepmother,” he says.

Death Row isn’t the only hip-hop label in legal hot water. Now clothing manufacturer Johnny Blaze, Inc., has just been hit with a $10 million discrimination suit by Video Jukebox V.J. “Crazy Sam” McCollough. In a recently filed complaint, McCollough alleges that after he was hired last summer to win street cred for Johnny Blaze by getting rap-world buddies like Method Man (left) and DJ Red Alert to endorse the sportswear line, a company vice-president began taunting him with racial epithets. Among other incidents, Crazy’s complaint alleges that the veep used the N-word when rejecting Method Man’s proposed fee. “They were too cheap and too mean,” he sighs. Harlan Lazarus, an attorney for A.S.T. Sportswear, which owns Johnny Blaze, counters that McCollough’s suit is merely a response to a $250,000 claim A.S.T. had already filed against him for fraud, breach of contract, and unjust enrichment. “It’s a case of you-sue-me, I-sue-you,” he says. As for charges of racism, the executive in question insists he’s being unfairly tarred. “We’re a hip-hop company!” he says. “What person who deals with people of color all over the world would even think those things? It’s totally illogical.”

Gore Vidal’s latest move is setting off fireworks in New York’s clubby publishing world. The novelist has been with the same agent, William Morris’s Owen Laster, for more than twenty years, and Random House has published 31 of his books. But late last year, Vidal quietly defected to agent Lynn Nesbit, and his next book will be released by Doubleday. Publishing insiders were surprised that Vidal dumped Laster; the courtly agent had been a close friend and staunch defender of the cranky author’s for decades. Laster confirmed the switch but declined to comment further. “I’ve known Gore for years, actually,” says Nesbit, although she characterizes the writer as an “acquaintance.” It was Vidal who approached her about making the switch, she takes pains to point out. Nesbit did, however, orchestrate the move to Doubleday, enticed by Gerry Howard’s offer to reprint Vidal’s backlist in trade paperback. “It just made sense to have Howard edit Gore’s new novel too,” she explains. Even though both publishers are owned by Bertelsmann, Random House chief Ann Godoff still had to sign off on the deal – which she did only on the condition that no press release accompany the switch. Godoff “did not want to have the in-house transfer look like an acquisition by Doubleday,” explains a company insider. Vidal’s American Chronicle series will be reprinted early next year, shortly followed by his new novel about forties America, The Golden Age.

The remaining members of Blondie may not be so upbeat about their first tour in sixteen years now that a State Supreme Court judge has rejected their motion to dismiss a suit brought against them by former bandmates Nigel Harrison and Frank Infante. The miffed musicians filed suit last July after they learned they wouldn’t be joining the band on the tour supporting their new album, No Exit. In a decision handed down last week, Judge Ira Gammerman said that while Harrison and Infante cannot sue as individuals, the court will still hear their claims as shareholders of the corporations Blondie Music Inc. and Monster Island Music Publishing, which distribute Blondie-related royalties. “They’re just trying to capitalize on this,” sniffs Christine Lepera, the attorney for Debbie Harry. Robert Cinque, Harrison and Infante’s lawyer, suggests his opponents had better think twice before they ice his clients: “If they want to tour as ‘Redhead,’ they can go right ahead and do that.”

These aren’t laughing times at Marvel Comics. Still bruised over being laid off, former employees of the struggling strip joint are now being muscled to return their severance payments as well. Marvel, home of Spider-Man, X-Men, and the Fantastic Four, was forced into bankruptcy a little over two years ago, after Masters of the Universe Ron Perelman and Carl Icahn waged a bloody battle for control of the House of Superheroes. Both men wound up losing – along with many workers who were purged to keep the ailing company afloat. Now a group of creditors who lost out in bankruptcy court have formed the Marvel Avoidance Litigation Trust, which is suing hundreds of suppliers, artists, and former employees, charging that they received payouts that should have gone to a common pot. A source close to the defendants accuses the trust of targeting “small businesses” that are willing to settle for a few thousand dollars rather than hire a lawyer. “It’s called shaking the trees,” snipes the source. Current management insists Marvel “is not really involved in the litigation.” All in all, the web of lawsuits threatens to become so massively tangled that only Spidey himself could unravel it.

Does the heiress who presides over New York’s Museum of Modern Art have trouble keeping her minorities straight? Agnes Gund penned an article on collecting art for a recent issue of Civilization. “My ‘eye,’ ” she wrote, “is no different from anyone else’s.” Maybe it is: In an accompanying sidebar, Gund praised the art market’s growing interest “in the work of female artists and artists of color,” then gave a brief list of artists in those categories. One of the artists on her list is Roy Newell, known for his brightly colored geometric abstractions. “He’s not a woman, and he’s not black,” reports Newell’s dealer, Earl McGrath. But Newell is 86 years old and still working, and Gund, through an assistant, insists that her text originally included a line about “older artists.” Responds Civilization editor Nelson Aldrich: “Our fact checkers should have caught it, so I daresay we should take the heat for that. But I will not plead guilty to dropping any type.”

BALANCHINE WHINE: Don’t expect to sip Balanchine wine when the New-York Historical Society unveils its show celebrating City Ballet’s fiftieth anniversary on April 20. The wine, which recently made its stateside debut, is imported from the republic of Georgia, the late choreographer’s homeland. The vintners got the go-ahead from Balanchine’s only surviving relatives in the former Soviet state before crushing the grapes. But their contract isn’t holding water in the United States, where the Balanchine Trust controls the choreographer’s name. “We did not authorize this wine,” growls Kevin Healy, the trust’s lawyer. The wine’s U.S. importer, Richard Garfinkel, says he showed Healy a contract from Mr. B’s Georgian relatives, but, he admits, “the trustees weren’t too impressed.” Garfinkel still believes an amicable agreement will be reached. “It looks like it was done as a tribute,” says Healy. “We’re giving them the benefit of the doubt.” Balanchine comes in both red and white varieties. Both, allows Garfinkel, “need to breathe a little.”

Additional reporting by Ian Spiegelman.

April 19, 1999