Meet the Columnists Who Dish It Out

That’s Funny, Kids. That’s Funny

A typical Cindy Adams item: Photographer Peter Beard goes into the bush, gets stomped by an elephant and his pelvis shatters in 22 places. Six months after he heals, he goes back, and another elephant charges him. Director Renny Harlin is making a documentary about Mr. Beard. What’s Cindy’s last line? “This guy doesn’t need a director, he needs a new travel agent.” That’s funny, kids. That’s funny.

She’d just returned from a week in Los Angeles to promote her new perfume, Gossip, and to guest-star in an episode of The Nanny . She wearily agreed to discuss her top 10. “All the losers are out in front. O.J. is out in front. A perpetual loser. We just hate him so much, we’re fascinated by him. The foreman of his jury should have stood up and said, ‘We the jury find the murderer not guilty,’ so why we’re still talking about him, I don’t know. It’s the dead ones. O.J., Diana-she was under James Hewitt in a hayloft, she was having affairs with married men, and suddenly we are lighting candles to her. Diana was a very nice-looking lady, she had her hair done twice a day, she had 8 million gowns-so many that she had to auction them off. She had a gym, massages. How could she not look nifty in a family where every other person looks like dried oatmeal?”

Riiiing! She took a call. Some guy named Anthony Quinn calling her about his wedding.

She called back and summed up her No. 2, Bill Clinton. “Who has ever heard of a sitting President who’s always laying down?” Madonna? “You can absolutely urinate on her because she doesn’t comment back.” Michael Jackson? “He’s had his face done more times than Jocelyne Wildenstein has.” Woody Allen? “A pain in the ass. I saw him with [Soon-Yi Previn] and she was eating with her fingers at Le Cirque, and I thought, Oh, you deserve each other . And her hair was in braids. I am a Woody Allen devotee when it comes to his talent, but as a human being, I think he is a pig.”

Does she still want to urinate on O.J. (No. 1) before making Simpson burgers out of him? “Yes, of course I want to chop him up.” Anything else she fantasizes about? “I would like to hang him up by his toes, set fire to his hair, pull out his fingernails, cut off whatever parts of him he’s used the most … he is the absolute dregs, the scum, the disgusting pig of all time. I think he knows I feel that way.”

There was another Cindy Adams obsession this year. “I have done 8,286 million columns on JonBenet [Ramsey]. We are coming now to the year-end anniversary of JonBenet, and in Boulder, which is a toy town , and where the population is such that I have more people in my bed at home-they cannot make this come to a conclusion. In New York, we’d have solved that, for Christ’s sake, before there was a commercial break on NYPD Blue !”

Ba-da-boom. Speaking of which, husband Joey Adams didn’t make her top 10, but she alone put him on the 500. “Joey says sex with him is now a memory course. That’s his joke.” She gave another for fans of Mr. Adams’ Strictly for Laughs column: “Poor Marv Albert, he’s inventing a new computer. It has 30 bytes and no memory.”

Michael Musto Likes Redemption Stories

Could Michael Musto guess who his No. 1 mentioned celebrity was?

“It must be Marv or Eddie, one of the transvestite lovers.”

Nope. Madonna.

“Madonna? I’ll hold my head in shame. The significance of her being No. 1 is she didn’t do anything, and she still came out No. 1. I was a little miffed on the MTV awards when she told us we shouldn’t pursue gossip. I thought it was a bit hypocritical coming from a woman who’s made the world her gynecologist.”

At No. 2 is club kid turned murder suspect Michael Alig. Which Mr. Musto said suggests his fascination with “the fabulous and the hideous, the normal and the satanic.… I’ve been following him for like 10 years, his every move. Since I interviewed him in prison, he’s been writing me letters-why jail is no party, obviously. People on the road to redemption are sometimes interesting, but not as interesting as [they were] before.”

“Oh, yeah!” he said, learning that Ellen DeGeneres was No. 3. What’s the big deal? Mr. Musto broke the news that she and Anne Heche weren’t just holding hands as friends at premieres. “I had sources that told me what they were up to, and it made me very angry the way the media was dancing around it. I also find myself going to bat for her when people say she’s boring. She’s a lot of things, but she’s not boring.”

Sharing No. 4 with Peter Gatien, the eerie, indicted nightclub owner, is “another road-to-redemption story,” Kathie Lee Gifford, a perennial target.

“Whenever you need a name to get an instant laugh, it’s so easy to just plug hers in. Maybe I should stop.” But he couldn’t help himself. “This year was huge! With Frank being caught with that woman? I couldn’t help having that really terrible reaction of ‘You had it coming.’ Somehow, my name came up on the show, and she said ‘Oh, he’s that weirdo, isn’t he?’ So that sort of prompted me into a whole other tirade. She should be grateful that the adultery took the focus off her sweatshop scandal for a while.”

‘I Don’t Think Cindy Crawford Realizes the Debt She Owes Page Six’

This year, Page Six broke the Sultan of Brunei love-slave scandal, the Gwyneth Paltrow-Brad Pitt split, the Donald Trump-Marla Maples split and the story about Demi Moore bending over a second-floor railing to reveal her “unbridled nether regions.” It’s been a good year for Richard Johnson and his stable of four writers.

Topping the list for the second year in a row was Bill Clinton. “Last time I saw, he was the leader of the free world,” said Mr. Johnson, looking dandified in a blue shirt, red Chanel tie and cashmere jacket. (Joanna Molloy, over at the competition, called him “a stud muffin.” Mr. Johnson said he thought that was “nice.”)

He was snapping apart his chopsticks in a Japanese fast food joint near the News Corporation building in midtown. “I think he’s been very lucky, he’s a smart politician, and from what I understand, he’s got a bent penis.” Mr. Johnson seems to have it in for all politicians. “And [President Clinton] being a very good one, I have even less respect for him. He exhibits all the bad qualities, the double talking, the deceitfulness.” While he suspects that Vince Foster took some secrets to the grave and Ron Brown may have been assassinated-”You don’t need to be rocket scientist to make a plane crash into a mountain”-he says his column is apolitical and conspiracy theory-free: “Page Six tries to maintain some semblance of objectivity.”

Madonna, at 67 mentions, came as a surprise to Mr. Johnson, who found her “pretty uninteresting” this year. There was the baby, and that’s about it. Then there’s Donald Trump (66 mentions). “He’s got a lot of flaws, which the rest of the press can dwell on, but I find him great for Page Six. He’s always ready with a quote, ready to attack an enemy, promote his products.”

Howard Stern, whom Mr. Johnson listens to every morning, is another favorite; Page Six was responsible for 40 percent of his Observer 500 mentions. “Today, he had four women on, one was real and three had implants, and Howard was supposed to be able to tell from squeezing which were which.” The thought clearly delighted Mr. Johnson.

As for the supermodels (a word Mr. Johnson says he invented), Naomi Campbell beat Cindy Crawford by five and Claudia Schiffer by six mentions. Naomi: “I know her pretty well.” Claudia: “Talked to her on the phone a few times.” Cindy: “I don’t think she realizes the debt she owes Page Six.”

He was on a roll. “I think what the editors at Esquire have got to realize is it’s pictures of supermodels we’re interested in, not the channeling of supermodels.” He was referring to Tom Junod’s November story, “What Christy Will Write,” which attempted to get inside her mind. “That piece by the $300,000 man [Mr. Junod's salary] was the most ridiculous piece of writing. Self-indulgent. Precocious. Masturbatory. Laughable. Absurd …”

Mr. Johnson’s favorite magazine is not the new Esquire (28 mentions), which he says is “not working.” Vanity Fair (63) seems to be more like it (although he complains that its publicist, Beth Kseniak, spreads the wealth too much). “I’m surprised that other magazines don’t copy the format-general interest, good reporting-instead of thumb-sucking, sensitive men like Esquire “

Rush & Molloy: Gossip Philosophers

The Daily News ‘ George Rush and Joanna Molloy stick up for their President. “We’re not trying to tear him down at all,” Ms. Molloy said. “I can’t believe what the New York Post does to that guy. I think he’s a fantastic President. I think that when we write about him, we mostly write about his personal life and that’s unavoidable.” She admits it pains her to embarrass him. Why did they do so 53 times this year? “It’s like all of gossip: What a man does in his personal life tells the man. And that tells what the person is really like. And if someone high up is doing something silly, that’s my favorite recipe for a gossip item.” But there’s still some inner conflict there? “Yeah, I feel bad, but you know, somebody’s gotta do it.”

Forty-eight mentions of John F. Kennedy Jr. meant George ‘s publisher had to read about the shirt-tearing scuffle he allegedly had with his ex-partner, Michael Berman. “It doesn’t get much better than that,” Mr. Rush said. “Sex and fisticuffs are the prized qualities of gossip columns, so if you can find them both …” While Ms. Molloy appreciates Mr. Kennedy’s efforts at parties to affirm her existence, she’s had it with Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy. “He’s got this wife who’s been handed the golden egg, and she presents nothing but a dour countenance to the press. She’s absolutely icy. She looks through you. She does this thing where she stares at a spot three inches to the left of your head. One night I warmed her up with an easy question, on her level, like ‘Who did your dress?’ And she gave me the ice cube look, and then [Mr. Kennedy] put his hand on my shoulder and leaned down and whispered ‘Prada.’ She had a phalanx of flacks around her, and they spirited her away.” A message to Ms. Bessette-Kennedy: “I think she should get a job and get over herself a little bit.”

The Princess of Wales merited 41 mentions, which was no easy feat as the columnists’ former boss, Pete Hamill, had thought people weren’t interested in British royals. Perhaps mistaking his readers for 1930′s-ish union guys with novels in their back pockets, Mr. Hamill pretty much banned Donald Trump’s name during his Maoist re-education plan-even when the columnists were ready to break the story that Mr. Trump was divorcing Marla. “That was disheartening,” Mr. Rush said. “We were on the case. You know, Trump’s a P.T. Barnum. The bluster is the story.”

“He just makes hubris look so attractive,” Ms. Molloy said.

He’s also part of the gossip nutrition, she added, “like you may not want to eat Brussels sprouts every day, but you have to.” It’s also part of her job to watch and report that Mr. Trump tongue-kissed a young model: Cara Young. Ah, items.

But tycoons who make out in public aren’t the only guys who have to watch out. The Nick and Nora of the gossip circuit told The Observer last year they’d been going too easy on the Mayor (40 mentions). “New Yorkers aren’t fooled by anything,” Ms. Molloy said. “There’s a sense that the Mayor and Donna Hanover are trying to fool us sometimes about themselves.” One day, they realized they hadn’t seen the couple in ages. They checked the library and found that they’d only been together to a public event four times. Well, he’s a busy man, right? “When the Mayor buys his communications director a dress,” she said, “when he sits up with her all night in the emergency room of Lenox Hill Hospital and then the next morning checks into the emergency room of Doctors’ Hospital with a gash on his head-and says he banged it on a shower door, I think this is all of interest to our readers.”

People bang their heads on shower doors all the time.

“I think it was a flying ashtray, man.”

So Liz Likes Her Subjects. What’s It to You?

Liz Smith is the grande dame of the bunch. Her column is syndicated and has a distinctive voice even when her two assistants, Denis Ferrara and St. Clair Pugh, are filling in for her. She never has a bad day, and she almost never inflicts bad days on the people she writes about. Ms. Smith on her subjects: “I don’t avoid getting too close to them. A lot of [people] I think I’m much too close to them. Yeah, it’s a problem. This is a problem.”

Madonna, No. 1, is a problem. The star’s publicist, Liz Rosenberg, is very good buddies with Mr. Ferrara, who wanted to first set something straight. “It’s Liz Smith,” he said. “It’s Liz Smith’s column, [and] I don’t need to be referred to as a friend of Madonna, it leads to assumptions that are not true. We’re very happy Madonna likes us, meaning the column, and if she has news to impart, we’re always happy to have it.” It was “the column,” he said, that got the story of the sperm donation and pregnancy scheme first.

Ms. Smith gave credit to her “darling associate” for the high Madonna count, and added that she was “crazy” about the star. “I don’t keep a score,” she said. “I’d write about the same 10 people every day if the same 10 people interested me. I live from day to day. I’m not projecting. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, the Bible says, so we’re lucky we get this thing out.”

What’s Marilyn Monroe doing at No. 4?

“She’s an undying person. Another great, great star. Who should I write about? Meg Ryan?”

Diana? “I’m not taking the rap for that. A lot of people wrote about her a lot more than I did.” True, but just barely. “I only write when there’s something to say. Look, we’re like batters standing at the plate and somebody’s pitching, so whatever’s coming over the plate, you try to strike at it.”

Ms. Smith did write about Michael Jackson more than any other columnist did. “Well, I had a connection to Debbie Rowe [the mother of his child].… He didn’t like what we wrote about half the time, he just carried on about how mean we were. His people call us and say ‘Michael is really unhappy.’ We say, Gee that’s just terrible, we don’t want to make Michael unhappy.… he must be the weirdest superstar that ever came down the pike. Elvis looks like just plain old normal compared to him.”

What breed of human is he, we asked.

Ms. Smith became testy. “This is designed to make the columnist look like an idiot. It’s all right, I don’t care what you all think about what I write.”

We tried another tack: What’s the best way to befriend Liz Smith?

“They oughta just call me up and talk to me about it and try to straighten me out about it, not get all hot and bothered. After all, it’s all part of their legend. I mean, come on, this isn’t brain surgery here.”

Suzy’s Ladies Who Lunch

Aileen (Suzy) Mehle gets stories no one else gets and files them a month ahead of time, still fresh and unscooped. She has Mortimer’s restaurant, royal weddings (minor level: marquises, viscounts and princesses of duty-free and France), and she has the charity circuit all to herself. “These are the Olympic games of society,” she said of her beat. “I laughingly call myself the champion of the overprivileged, because somebody has to look out for them. Poor little darlings, rich though they may be, are always getting potshots taken at them.”

She was in bed, coughing, for the seventh day in a row. She admitted she’d been going out a lot but was happy to discuss her pets like Carroll Petrie, who tops her list-actually, Suzy is her champion on the 500. “She’s the one who does the most entertaining. Belongs to a lot of boards. She does a lot of good. Admirable in many respects. Great hostess, here and in Southampton. She has a lovely home.” Then there’s Nan Kempner (No. 6), who’s “out every night and in for years and years and years”); Veronica Hearst, (No. 3: “extremely in”); and at No. 10, Brooke Astor, the doyenne of great society hostesses.

“It’s simply two words,” she explained. “They’re out there.”

Doesn’t that mean kinda crazy, The Observer asked.

“No! ‘Out of it’ means crazy. ‘Out there’ means in the middle of everything. Involved. And thank God they are out there because they’re the only glamorous women in the whole city, except for”-she paused for a cough-”if one more supermodel comes into view, I’ll choke.”

So who are these rich people, we asked.

“Here’s how I see it. In this day, there are very few frivolous people. Frivolity is almost out of it. The men are all busy making money or trying to outdo each other, and the women are all trying to do their best for charity, because what else are they going to do with their money? There’s very little silly, idle frivolity. Gossip, yes.”

Just to rib Suzy, we asked, “Who is Pat Buckley?”

“You don’t know?”

Uh, she’s the wife of the great William F. Buckley, involved in a lot of charities, a lady who lunches but when she does lunch, she’s doing stuff. And she’s a lot of fun. A lot of fun! And she’s been on the scene for a long time.

“You said that perfectly.”

Neal’s Year of Living Dangerously

As much as Richard Johnson loathes politicians, his New York Post neighbor Neal Travis just can’t get enough of them. He’s responsible for 25 percent of President Clinton’s mentions (“I like the guy”); one-quarter of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s (“Doing a great job”), 34 percent of Gov. George Pataki’s mentions (“I’ve gotten to like George”) and without Mr. Travis, Senator Alfonse D’Amato (“I love Al D’Amato!”) would have been way the hell down in David Dinkins-Mario Cuomo territory on the 500.

Which is not to say Mr. Travis never writes about anything else. This year, his big coups included breaking news of the Jamie Tarses sexual harassment suit against ABC and of Felix Rohatyn being up for the ambassadorship to France (“I had that in November, and they all laughed”). Now he’s on to something even bigger. He recently reported-and said he’s certain-that Gianni Versace was the victim of a Milan mob hit. He’s quite sure, thanks to “immaculate sources,” that Andrew Cunanan was a patsy, and that someone very close to Versace is in on it. While he doesn’t want to get sued, he says he’ll stick to his theory to the end-whether or not he ever proves it.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, he’s still the flack for Elaine’s (“Good! Good! It’s still the best place in town”). He and his publicist pal Bobby Zarem got the place covered with 48 mentions.

After Elaine’s, there’s Donald Trump. “Gotta be there-such a big, not moving target. I get calls, ‘Why are you sucking up to that scum bag?’ He makes great copy.” Did he have a good year? “Oh, you’d have to say he did-well, wait. Shitting Marla, that wouldn’t be good in anyone’s book, would it? She’s a doll.” He said Mr. Trump threatened to kill him last year. “I said he’d gone down to his knees to Mike Tyson. I think we’ve been all sweetness and light this year.”

But he said he “wouldn’t like to run into Anna Wintour at the moment. Anna’s not very happy with me.” (He wrote that Ms. Wintour, fearful that Sarah Ferguson, the former Duchess of York, would hit on Richard Gere at a party the editor was throwing, uninvited her. There were all kinds of denials from Vogue , but Mr. Travis seemed to have the goods.) “That was a fucking funny one,” he recollected. What happens when he runs into the Vogue editor? “Anna never looks at anyone properly, anyway. She’s always looking over your shoulder, if you can tell where she’s looking through those fucking glasses.”