“I don’t know what writer’s block is,” said James Brady. That is fairly obvious.
From Thursday to Sunday, he sits in possibly the smallest house, and certainly the most borderline seedy one, on Further Lane in East Hampton and drops names, plugs people he likes, moralizes and inserts power anecdotes into his four weekly columns: a short celebrity profile for Parade magazine, one Op-Ed for Crain’s New York Business , and two columns for Advertising Age . He wrote his recently released roman à clef , Gin Lane , in 77 days last summer. “It just flowed,” he said. After resting briefly, he tossed off its sequel in six months, which just landed in his publisher’s lap. He also hosts a show, Power Lunch , every Wednesday on CNBC. He’s going to be 70 in November, and he likes to say, “I’ve achieved the American dream: the four-day weekend.”
Mr. Brady has made a long career of ingratiation. He’s worked, both as an editor and an advertising-side guy, for John Fairchild, Hearst Magazines, Clay Felker and Rupert Murdoch. After running Women’s Wear Daily and helping Mr. Murdoch relaunch his Fleet Street-style New York Post -he founded Page Six, came up with the name, in fact-he shed his corporate ambitions to become a stay-at-home writer about 15 years ago. Now he can do what he does best: lunch for a living, sit and observe. “Gathering material for the next novel,” he said.
The three days a week that he’s not on Further Lane, Mr. Brady is anchored at his table in the Grill Room of the Four Seasons restaurant, where everybody knows his name. Everybody here means people like S.I. Newhouse Jr., Steve Florio, Martha Stewart and Henry Kissinger. “I don’t know that many people who know him well, but I know a lot of people who like him,” said ad man Jerry Della Femina, calling after a long lunch at the Four Seasons on June 8. “It’s a very interesting position to be in because it’s … physical . I watched people jumping up to press his hands today, and I bet they don’t really know him.”
Gin Lane is the follow-up to 1997′s Further Lane , which detailed the search for the killer of one “Hannah Cutting,” a high-strung life-style guru modeled after Martha Stewart. The new book centers around Cowboy Dils, a grouchy, truth-telling drive-time radio personality inspired by Don Imus. In the book, he pays $12 million for a house on socially rigorous Gin Lane in Southampton.
“I thought the idea of Don Imus moving to Gin Lane and the entire establishment rising up in horror was a very funny idea,” explained Mr. Brady, reclining in a rough wooden patio chair in his backyard in East Hampton. (Mr. Imus let Mr. Brady plug the book on his show, but has said he hasn’t bothered to read it.)
Even his publisher at St. Martin’s Press is surprised that the Hamptons books are working out so well. “We were like, ‘The Hamptons, outside of the region, who cares?’” said his publicist. But Further Lane has 25,000 copies in print in hardcover, and Gin Lane , 30,000.
Mr. Brady is a vigorous and focused man, with thick white hair and Andy Rooney-esque eyebrows that imply irascibility. He was wearing deck shoes, shorts, a sweater and what looked like military-issue sunglasses. He can hear the ocean from his house, but because a truculent neighbor refuses to trim his hedgerows, he can’t see it.
In the book, the Imus character gets run down by a Rolls Royce, setting off the whodunit sequence on which Mr. Brady hangs his cameo appearances of famous folk. Meanwhile, the President is coming to the East End (as Bill Clinton is set to do, in real life, for a party at Alec Baldwin’s in East Hampton) for a wedding between an effete titled English twit nicknamed Fruity and one of the daughters of a Friends of Bill couple called Tom and Daisy Buchanan. The hero is Beecher Stowe, a Harvard grad and Presbyterian-with-lineage who is 30 years younger than Mr. Brady but nevertheless has his job as a roving celebrity profiler for Parade .
In addition, there’s a property development subplot that includes designer “Karl Lager” (based on his friend, designer John Weitz, who asked to be excised after he saw the galleys; all he got was a name change) battling the one person in the whole world of publishing who doesn’t seem to like Mr. Brady: John Fairchild. “It’s what the English call a comedy of manners,” said the novelist.
Studying His ‘Betters’
Mr. Brady, a Catholic from Sheepshead Bay who attended Manhattan College, first rubbed up against people who “came from very monied backgrounds” while he was a Marine officer during the Korean War. His commander was John Chafee, who later became the Senator from Rhode Island. “I sort of took cues from what I thought of, when I was very young, as my betters,” said Mr. Brady.
He never really stopped doing that. He was a copy boy at the Daily News when he was in college, but couldn’t get a job at a newspaper so he went to work for Macy’s. He was writing the store’s in-house newsletter when John Fairchild helped get him hired as a retail reporter for Fairchild Publications. Later he worked for Women’s Wear Daily as the London and then Paris bureau chief, where he became infatuated with the cranky old Coco Chanel.
“He’s a great reporter because he got around and met everyone,” said Mr. Fairchild, who has since retired. “He was always determined to get there first. He was a Marine at heart.”
“We were very great pals,” said Mr. Brady of his old boss and mentor. Unfortunately, they haven’t really spoken since 1971, when Mr. Brady got passed over for a promotion and let himself be hired away to be editor and publisher of Harper’s Bazaar . “And he became a competitor,” said Mr. Fairchild simply.
The Bazaar gig didn’t work out very well. “He thought he could free the old courtesan by making her honest,” said Mr. Weitz. “He thought he could separate church and state and not knuckle under to the cosmetics advertisers.” But after a year and a half, he was canned. Clay Felker hired him to start what became the Intelligencer column at New York magazine.
In 1974, he published a memoir called Superchic , “about getting to know Coco Chanel and hanging out with the Kennedys and stuff like that,” said Mr. Brady. It flopped. At that point, “I was really looking for a grown-up job,” he said.
Then, that same year, News Corporation landed in America, and Mr. Brady was hired by an old lunch buddy from his WWD days, Rupert Murdoch, to edit the supermarket tabloid National Star . When News Corporation bought the Post , Mr. Brady was brought over to brainstorm. That was when he devised Page Six. But before it launched, News Corporation bought out New York magazine from under Mr. Felker, and so Mr. Brady was thrown into being the magazine’s editor for a few months.
When then-Page Six editor Claudia Cohen quit to go work for Mr. Felker at the up-market afternoon edition of the Daily News in 1980, Mr. Brady volunteered to edit the page temporarily. He ended up staying two and a half years.
Mr. Brady had published several books and was the celebrity interviewer for WCBS and writing columns for Advertising Age when he quit the Murdoch empire to reinvent himself as a full-time writer. He’d been renting out in East Hampton when he ran into his old nemesis, Mr. Fairchild, at the gas station one day. “I said, ‘John!’” said Mr. Brady, continuing a strategy he had of warmly confronting the man who never forgave him for leaving. “And he said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘Well, actually, I thought I might buy a house.’” At this point in the interview on his patio, Mr. Brady got up off his splintery chair and started jumping around and talking in a voice that sounded a bit like Yoda.
“And he says, ‘Oh, oh, you poor boy. You could never afford to live out here.’ And he got in his car and drove away without getting any gas. And by God, later that summer, he sold his house on Georgica [Pond].”
Mr. Brady ran the anecdote in his Advertising Age column-”You can’t be a writer and have that kind of material and not use it,” he explained. And the gist of it comes up again, 20 years later, on page 107 of Gin Lane .
“My attitude with John is that we inhabit the same village. We run into each other in restaurants and say hello-he always says hello,” says Mr. Brady. “We don’t stop and exchange notes and invite each other to lunch because I stopped doing that years ago when he stopped returning my calls.”
“I try to make sure they’re seated as far apart as possible,” said Julian Niccolini, the managing partner of Four Seasons who orchestrates the lunchtime theater. “There must have been something terrifically bad that happened between them. The way they look at each other!”
‘A Shameless Name-Dropper’
Back in February, Advertising Women of New York held a roast of Mr. Brady. Mr. Della Femina opened up, describing him as a “shameless name-dropper” who “sits at the Four Seasons with a smug little smile on his lips” amongst “real greats of publishing.”
“He just remembers everything that you tell him,” said David Carey, the new publisher of The New Yorker . “I had lunch with him and [ House & Garden editor in chief] Dominique Browning and … he knew all her career steps. And he did it with such style.”
Mr. Brady was a bit embarrassed by this. “That’s the power of Ad Age ,” he said. “Anyone can be doing my column and get pretty much the same reaction.” Then he went on to justify himself. “I drop a lot of names, but I also put in things that I’m thinking about.”
“I’ve had my stumbles,” he admitted. He’s had books rejected and books that didn’t sell well. He’s shown his editorial prowess at least once, in a memoir of Korea he published in 1990 called The Coldest War , which reviewers liked, but they made snide references to the gossip columnist turning war correspondent.
“He’s an elusive target,” said Mr. Della Femina, who still claims not to know him well, even though he was the first person Mr. Brady recommended be interviewed for this story. Mr. Della Femina came up with this analogy: “Milton Berle is alleged to have the largest organ in Hollywood. The story goes that once he was in a steam room with a bunch of other comedians, wearing a towel, and a guy comes up and challenges him. He just goes on and on, being really annoying, and finally Henny Youngman says, ‘Milton, just show him enough to win.’ And that’s James Brady.”