April 20, 1998


Maybe George Pataki doesn’t think New York has enough good lawyers. Why else would New York State retain an Atlanta law firm to handle litigation about the state’s constitution? Last month, John Bonds, of Atlanta’s Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan, appeared in court with Martin Beinstock, of the state attorney general’s office, for a hearing in the five-year-old suit filed by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) that questions how the state allocates education funds. Among other things, the lawsuit charges that New York City educates 37 percent of the state’s pupils but gets only 34 percent of the state’s education budget. Simpson Thacher & Bartlett’s Joseph Wayland, who’s representing CFE pro bono, immediately objected to the presence of Bonds. “The state should be required to make a showing as to why they needed to spend New York taxpayers’ money on an Atlanta firm to help with a quintessentially New York case about New York City schools and the state’s constitutional standard for education,” Wayland told the court. Counters state-attorney-general spokesman Joe Mahoney: “We are lead counsel in the case, and they are assisting us. They’ve handled very similar cases in other states.”


New York City real-estate agents have been having an interesting time showing brownstones to Michael and Janet Jackson, each of whom is in the market for a new home. Sources involved with Michael’s search say the enigmatic artist recently looked at the Vanderbilt mansion at 11 East 62nd Street. The $30 million house contains fourteen maids’ rooms, seventeen fireplaces, and, conveniently enough, a floor designed specifically for children, complete with six scaled-down rooms and a little stage. Jackson seemed impressed with the house but found it lacking at least one amenity – an escape route. Since the brownstone backs on to another building, Jackson’s representative contacted the owner of a brownstone across the street, with the plan to buy that home and burrow a tunnel in between the two so that Michael could exit undetected through the decoy house. So far, the plan has not been approved by Jackson’s security team. Jackson’s sister Janet has less stringent requirements for the house but more unusual ones for the real-estate agents: Says one witness of her perusal of a $7.8 million townhouse just a few blocks north of the Vanderbilt mansion, “She wore a baseball cap and sunglasses and went by the name Diane Smith. The real-estate people were instructed not to look at her or talk to her; she would only communicate through a third party. Apparently her managers think it’s too much money, but she’s been back seven or eight times to see the same house.’’ Michael Jackson’s spokesman said he was unaware of the real-estate discussions, and Janet Jackson’s representatives didn’t return calls.


POP ART: Roy Liebenthal, who opened the legendary Cafe Tabac and now owns the Lemon, has just signed a deal on a new restaurant and is joining the ranks of hipsters looking to become hoteliers. Pop, an Asian-inspired American spot that industry sources say has attracted the attention of some big-name fashion investors as well as investment banker Paul Stern, will open on Fourth Avenue between 12th and 13th Streets this fall, while the deal on the hotel – located in Chelsea – is not yet signed.

BRILL ON THE GRILL: Apparently no publication is too small for Steve Brill to take on in his new role as media watchdog. While speaking recently at the Dalton School, which one of his daughters attends, the Content editor off-handedly critiqued the Daltonian, suggesting that the school paper doesn’t always have enough tough reporting. The Daltonian’s editors responded with a blistering editorial in a recent issue. “It’s easy to criticize a publication before a public audience without substantial facts, and without a legitimate opportunity for a response,” they wrote. “Surely the irresponsibility of this kind of critique does not escape Mr. Brill, whose magazine will target this form of laziness.” They also asked for an advance copy of the first Content so they can review his work. Brill says their analysis of his comments is on the money. “I should have spoken more precisely, and I should have done more homework,” he admits.

HE’S GOTTA SKIP IT: Director Spike Lee may be putting duty before honor, but not everyone’s impressed. Lee, slated to be the guest speaker at this year’s 650-person Advertising Research Foundation conference, informed conference organizers just hours before the event that he was too busy editing his upcoming film, He Got Game, to attend. Organizers ultimately filled the empty program with “an amusing reel of horrific commercials,” says one witness. “The crowd was amused, but not with Spike.” A representative for Lee declined to comment.

BALTHAZAR LE DEUXIÈME?: Keith McNally was not amused when he saw the restaurant Astor, which opened earlier this month on the Bowery, complete with red banquettes, nickel-plated railings, frosted windows, and old mirrors pieced together within large mahogany frames. “It looks so much like Balthazar,’’ exclaimed McNally. “I expected when the owner appeared that he would look just like me. I hope his food is richer than his imagination.’’ Responds Astor owner Murat Buydaycay, “I think Balthazar is a fascinating place, but our details are twenties Art Deco; his are Victorian. I’m not influenced by Balthazar – I’m influenced by the bistro culture which comes from France. Quips McNally, “I agree with what he said, but last time he was here, he left his sketch pad at the table.”


So the pen really is mightier than the sword. After brawling with the paparazzi, and being vindicated for it in court, Alec Baldwin is still indulging in a few revenge fantasies. Baldwin, an old friend of Law & Order scribe David Black, recently offered up a plot idea that struck particularly close to home. The script, which will air in May, involves a tabloid journalist who hounds a celebrity to her death (“shades of Princess Di,” says the show’s executive producer) and is then killed by the dead woman’s husband in a fit of vengeance. “Alec wanted to take more of an active part in writing the story,” explains Black, but Macbeth took up more of his time than he’d anticipated. Baldwin will still receive a writing credit for the episode. In the meantime, producers are playing up other real-life elements: Veteran flack Bobby Zarem, playing himself, will witness the murder as it occurs on the street outside Elaine’s – the site of a recent skirmish where a main witness was … Bobby Zarem.


Recognition-starved authors will be happy to hear that there’s a new award on the horizon: the Imus American Book Awards, giving $50,000 prizes to four lucky authors. It’s “a concept born from Imus’s frustration that his choice for winner of the 1997 National Book Award – Sam Tanenhaus’s Whittaker Chambers: A Biography – did not win the prestigious honor,” according to a mailing the I-Man’s radio station, WFAN, sent to prospective advertisers, offering three campaigns ranging from $50,000 to $100,000. The proposal was derided as “the Imus literary award that you’ve got to pay $50,000 to get” by one publishing executive, whose company will not be buying airtime. “I don’t need to sell ads,” insists Imus. “We’ve grossed more money at this radio station than any station in history, and I don’t get any of it anyway, so what do I care?” Imus and a panel of editors will “select a fiction and a nonfiction book that people actually read” – unlike the National Book Awards, which he claims are picked by “a bunch of elitist precious yuppie shitheads.”


Rudy Giuliani has no taste for the peace pipe. Last week’s dinner invitation from David Dinkins isn’t the only overture the mayor has nixed recently. Last month, state comptroller H. Carl McCall, at odds with Giuliani over his refusal to release information regarding city agencies, had breakfast with mayoral confidant Ray Harding to ask him to set up a powwow with Rudy, say sources close to McCall. Harding did approach the mayor, but it looks like the meeting will never happen, according to a City Hall insider. Instead, the city’s lawyers will face the state’s lawyers in a few weeks in appellate court, when the city appeals a lower-court ruling that it has to furnish McCall with the information he needs to complete his audits. “One of the excuses Giuliani used to turn down Dinkins is that he did it so publicly,” says another political insider. “McCall did this quietly.” McCall spokesman Steven Greenberg says he hopes the meeting can still be salvaged. “The comptroller would love to be able to work with the mayor,” says Greenberg. The mayor’s office didn’t return calls.


In the world according to John Irving, names mean a lot. Irving’s 1989 novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, is being made into a film from Disney, starring Ashley Judd and, in a cameo role, Jim Carrey. But the film’s title was the subject of much discussion once Irving read the screenplay, which had completely excised Vietnam War references from the story, among other changes. “John really did like the script, but it just wasn’t his book anymore,” says a spokesperson for the author. “He felt it would confuse fans of the book into thinking the movie was closely based on his tale.” Irving not only exercised his contractual right to insist on a new title but also demanded that the film’s characters be renamed. “The film will now simply have an ‘inspired by’ credit to John’s novel,” says his rep. “He wanted to be fair to the book and to the film.” The movie, scheduled for release this fall, was first cryptically renamed Angels and Armadillos, then A Small Miracle, and now, the latest title, Simon Burch.

Additional reporting by Kate Coyne.

April 20, 1998