To anyone strolling beneath the Triboro Bridge on the night of February 9, the event going on in Guastavino's, Terence Conran's newly-opened Manhattan gastrodome, must have looked like a celebrity hoe-down. The guest list read like a who's who of A-list New York: Donald Trump, Howard Stern, Puff Daddy, Graydon Carter, Tina Brown...it was more star-studded than the Miramax Oscar party.
So who's event was this? Rudolph Giuliani's? Mick Jagger's? Madonna's? In fact, it was a party for Page Six, the legendary gossip column that appears every day in The New York Post. In contemporary Manhattan, unlike London, gossip is part of the air you breath. It percolates up through the grates in the pavement, snakes around the tall buildings, and curls up into your nostrils. In this city of illusions, where appearance matters more than reality, gossip columnists are the ultimate magicians. Liz Smith, Cindy Adams, Neil Travis, Michael Musto, George Rush and Joanna Molloy--these are the ultimate power brokers. Towering above them all is Richard Johnson, the 46-year-old editor of Page Six.
"It was amazing to see who showed up to kiss Richard's ring," says best-selling author Michael Gross, a veteran observer of the media-industrial complex, who was at the party. "It wouldn't be accurate to say he's the Pope of New York, but he is the Cardinal Richelou."
Even by the standards of The Howard Stern Show, home of America's most outrageous shock jock, the exchange between Richard Johnson and Alec Baldwin on March 13 was a memorable one. As the editor of Page Six, the notorious gossip column that appears every day in The New York Post, Johnson had been invited on to Stern's radio show to defend himself against the pugnacious movie star. Three days earlier, Page Six had run a negative item about Baldwin's mother's charity, the Carol Baldwin Breast Cancer Fund, and the famously hot-headed actor was, in the American sense of the word, pissed.
"I know you think every actor and every famous person is just a shameless self promoter and a whore," screamed Baldwin.
"Now wait a minute," said Johnson. "Don't put words in my mouth."
"No, I mean, Richard, everybody knows that about you and everybody knows that about Page Six. Your job is to bring people down. Your job is to destroy. You're a destroyer and the article is a destroyer."
Baldwin continued in this vein for the next fifteen minutes, describing Johnson as a "vitriol dripping vampire" who was "reprehensible", "indefensible" and--most damning of all--"a very bad writer". "As a Christian," Baldwin concluded, "I pray for you every night."
In the face of such an onslaught most journalists would probably slink away in shame. In present-day America, where the cult of celebrity is at an all-time peak, movie stars wield enormous power and even gossip-columnists are anxious to stay on their good side. Not Richard Johnson. The following day he posted a transcript of the entire exchange on the Page Six web site (PageSix.com) where it was given pride of place for the next fortnight alongside various choice tidbits about other celebrities. For the 46-year-old "gossip hunk", so-named because he once worked as a male model, Baldwin was just another head to hang on his trophy wall.
"If celebrities weren't greedy, lazy and lustful, I wouldn't have so much to write about," he says. "The essence of gossip is human frailty. People like knowing that their idols have feet of clay."
It is Johnson's fearless reporting of the frailties of the rich and famous which has made Page Six a must-read in New York, Washington and Los Angeles. Brill's Content, a glossy monthly for America's media-industrial complex, recently named Johnson one of the 25 most influential journalists in the country-not bad for a purveyor of celebrity tittle-tattle. Liz Smith, the septuagenarian doyen of the gossip trade, didn't get a look in.
"In a field dominated by old women, he's Clark Cable," says Jared Paul Stern, his 29-year-old lieutenant who edits the column when he's not around. "He's not like some doughy old sycophant slobbering all over Madonna. He's a real reporter and he's got a team of other real reporters behind him. A lot of these people, they're used to getting their asses kissed but in Page Six they get their asses kicked. They expect everybody to roll over and do what they want and Richard just won't do that."
When Rupert Murdoch bought The Post in 1977 he conceived of Page Six, which was his own creation, as an old-fashioned, muck-raking column, dishing the dirt on the celebrities de jour. However, it didn't come into it's own as America's pre-eminent rumor mill until Johnson was appointed it's editor in 1985. For the past fifteen years-with a brief sabbatical on The New York Daily News-Johnson has been policing the nocturnal habits of the rich and famous with a diligence that would put J. Edgar Hoover to shame. He's the Elliot Ness of the journalistic vice squad.
"He plays fair in the way that the best journalists do: it doesn't matter who you are, watch out!" says his friend Michael Gross, a senior editor at George. "We all read it and we all love it--except when it's about us. It's become the most important barometer of fame there is. Page Six is the back fence of the global village and Richard's the gatekeeper."
Richard Johnson didn't start out wanting to be a gossip columnist. Born and brought up in Manhattan, the son of a trade magazine editor and a writer, Johnson attended the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Empire State College in New York and did a stint as the editor of a neighborhood weekly before landing at The Post in 1978. He honed his reportorial skills on the city desk, earning his spurs by chasing ambulances around the outer boroughs, and in 1984 he was made a reporter on Page Six. At the tender age of 30, at least two decades younger than most gossip writers, and with testosterone to burn, Johnson was hardly cut out for the bitchy, back-biting world of celebrity dish. He was less like J.J. Hunsecker, the duplicitous gossip columnist played by Burt Lancaster in The Sweet Smell of Success, than "Swede", the charismatic psychopath also played by Lancaster in The Killers. Nevertheless, within a year he was promoted to the top spot.
It wasn't long before Johnson found a way to put his own stamp on the column.
"Shortly after I became editor, I got into a pissing contest with Paul Newman," he recalls. "It was after a New York Times story which said Newman was a lean 5'11. I knew he was only 5'8 so I wrote that the only time he'd reached 5'11 was in his heels. He got mad and accused me of not checking my facts so I ran a follow-up offering to pay him a thousand dollars for every inch he was over 5'8. He said, 'Make it a hundred thousand'. I was raring to go, but the editor of the paper at the time chickened out."
This confrontational style soon became a hallmark of Page Six. During Johnson's tenure, he's been threatened with everything from grievous bodily harm to a $70 million law suit. However, the only time he's literally had to duck was when Lindell Hobbs, an ex-girlfriend of Al Pacino's, took exception to a string of negative stories he ran about her. "I was introduced to her at a party," he says. "The hostess goes, 'This is Richard Johnson. He's the one that writes all those nasty things about you on Page Six'. I said, 'I haven't written anything nasty lately' and she threw a drink in my face."
However, it was during Johnson's brief stint at The New York Daily News that his most famous show down occurred. Robert Maxwell, then the owner of The Daily News, succeeded in luring him away from The Post in 1991 to replace Liz Smith as the paper's chief gossip columnist. Soon after Johnson arrived, Mickey Rourke, one of his favorite targets, gave an interview to The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in which he accused Johnson of hiding behind his column.
"He wouldn't have the balls to come up and say, 'Mickey, I think you're a douchebag' or 'Mickey, I think your acting sucks,'" fumed the star of Nine-and-a-half Weeks. "I would say, 'Oh, yeah? Well, why don't we talk over here?' Because some things you got to get physical with."
In his reply, Johnson didn't mince words. "Memo to Mickey Rourke: Any time, any place," wrote the 6'3 columnist. He's still waiting to hear back from him.
After Maxwell sold The Daily News to Mort Zuckerman in 1993, Johnson went to see Ken Chandler, then the editor of The Post, about returning to the Murdoch-owned paper. Chandler immediately offered him his old job back but Johnson was reluctant to accept it. "I thought it might be time to move on," he confesses, "but Ken Chandler told me Page Six was the life blood of the paper and after about two minutes I said, 'Okay'."
Not everyone objects to appearing in Page Six. One of the reasons so many New Yorkers flip straight to it when they sit down for their first bagel of the day is because it lets them know who's in and who's out; it's a way of keeping score. The movers and shakers who fill the column may not like what's being written about them, but the fact that they're being written about at all means that at least they're on the radar screen. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that, of all the people who get a mention in Page Six, more than half are delighted to see their names in boldface. Of course, they'd never admit to this publicly. It's their guilty little secret.
"If you're written about on Page Six, it means you matter," says Katherine Rosman, a senior writer at Brill's Content. "In the New York media, fashion, publishing and financial worlds, people want to know who matters and they read Page Six to find out."
For every call Richard Johnson gets from a celebrity pleading with him to keep their name out of the column, he gets one from a publicist begging him to put their client in. If your job is to promote someone, Page Six is your first port of call. "It has a huge impact," says Lara Shriftman, a partner in the public relations firm of Harrison & Shriftman. Indeed, flaks like Shriftman are careful not to antagonize Johnson for precisely this reason. "You never lie in an item," explains another, who wishes to remain anonymous. "Never. Never. Because Richard will never talk to you again, so you never do that. And you never give an item to Richard and then give it to Rush & Molloy. [Johnson's rivals on The Daily News] Ever. It's the worst thing you could possibly do."
Woe betide those who get on Johnson's wrong side. "Nobody can berate a publicist like he can," chuckles Jared Paul Stern. "I mean, listening to him, it's just hilarious."
Rather surprisingly, given his general hostility towards the public relations industry, Johnson is married to one of the biggest publicists in Manhattan: Nadine Johnson. Born in Belgium, and carrying an air of seasoned, European sophistication, Nadine hardly seems the most suitable match for Johnson, who likes nothing more than to hunker down with his buddies in front of the TV and watch the Nicks take on the Lakers. In fact, they compliment each other rather well--too well, some would say. Nadine Johnson's competitors--and the world of New York publicists is even more factious than the world of New York gossip columnists--claim that, thanks to her husband, her clients get an easy ride on Page Six. "In a city that runs on questionable relationships, this probably is the most conspicuous," complains a rival publicist.
Christopher Mason, a New York-based British journalist who knows both the Johnsons well, dismisses this charge as nonsense. "I can't tell you the number of times I've heard Nadine complain that she's pleaded with Richard to run something and he's just ignored her," says Mason. "Richard has this macho, cannot-be-bought attitude, and this extends to his wife."
For his part, Johnson complains that the attempts to corrupt him are nearly always laughably inept. For instance, Playboy recently invited him to have dinner with a Playmate, but she arrived at the restaurant with a retinue that included her mother and two publicists. "It's tough trying to take advantage of someone if they show up with their mother," he says. In general, he resists offers of free meals because they end up costing far more than the ones he has to pay for. "It's such a pain in the arse to have the publicist call you up afterwards trying to get you to run some shitty item on the restaurant," he grumbles.
Not all of Johnson's time is spent fielding telephone calls from flaks. Of the hundred or so calls he gets a day, at least one will contain something of real value. One of the main reasons Page Six has become such an institution is because it runs stories that get picked up by the rest of the media. For instance, it broke the news that Steve Ross, the chairman of Time Warner, had cancer and it has consistently scooped its rivals with every twist in Donald Trump's love life.
"People buy The Post for Page Six," says Andrew Neil, the editor of The Scotsman, who makes a point of reading the column every day on the Web. "There is no gossip column in Britain now that has that kind of cachet. It also has the benefit that most of what's in it turns out to be accurate."
Gossip used to be looked down upon by most American journalists as a frivolous, unsavory alternative to hard news-but not any more. During the Clinton era, which has seen America rocked by a succession of scandals, gossip has come to occupy a pivotal position in the American news cycle. After all, it was the Internet gossip columnist Matt Drudge who broke the news of Monica Lewinsky's affair with the President. As Liz Smith says, "Gossip is just news wearing a red dress and running ahead of the pack". When that dress has a seamen stain on it, so much the better.
One of Johnson's most recent triumphs came during Barbara Walters' interview with Monica Lewinsky, a television event that had half the couch potatoes in America riveted to their easy chairs. At one point, Walters asked Lewinsky what it was like being referred to as "the portly pepperpot". As any fans of Page Six in the audience instantly knew, this was a phrase coined by the gossip hunk.
The day after Johnson's appearance on The Howard Stern Show, a fruit basket arrived at The New York Post stuffed with wines, cheeses and chocolates. It was accompanied by a note which read: "Thanks for being such a good sport. Alec Baldwin." With typical bravado, Johnson rejected this peace offering. He ran an item in the following day's column under the heading 'Hey, smart Alec: the fruit's a flop'. "Despite your low opinion of journalists," Johnson wrote, "we can't be bought off so easily. Vampires need blood, not chocolate."