The 500 Big Shots Who Made New York Gossip in ’99!

Zagat 2000!

Tim and Nina Zagat have big plans for the 21st century.

Sources familiar with the situation told The Transom that the Zagats, who publish those maroon, pocket-size restaurant guides in more than 40 U.S. and foreign cities, have been exploring ways to expand their business.

Among the possibilities, said sources, is an initial public offering of their Web site, Zagat.com. The Zagats are also said to be considering new investment in their company. (Venture capital firm Flatiron Partners has surfaced as a potential investor.) Although some who know the Zagats doubt they would do anything that would give them less control, they note that the couple have talked about increasing their business. They are also said to be interested in the new on-line restaurant reservation services. And they’ve talked about expanding their populist reviewing methods-actual customers sending in their comments-to other areas, such as theater.

Mr. Zagat, however, was not talking. He explained that he might have something to announce in the new year, but until then, he declined to comment.

Biff Grimes: Snowman From Hell

While New York Times restaurant critic William (Biff) Grimes is causing sleepless nights for many restaurateurs (see Warner LeRoy), he has moved the folks at the Four Seasons restaurant to song.

The holiday greeting sent out by the restaurant’s co-general managers, Alex von Bidder and Julian Niccolini, features a ditty written to the tune of “Winter Wonderland.” Mr. Grimes takes the place of Parson Brown: “In the Pool Room we can build a snowman/ And pretend that he is William Grimes/ He’ll say: ‘Do you love me?’/ We’ll say: ‘Yes, man’/ For your great reviews/ In The New York Times .”

Mr. Niccolini said he and his daughter would be “singing the song around the Christmas tree.”

Ever the critic, Mr. Grimes said that he had seen the poem and that “it didn’t exactly track” with the original tune. As for the verse about him? “I would call that proactive ass kissing,” said Mr. Grimes. “Happy holidays to them, too. It won’t help them any.”

Bye, Bernie

For a long time, this column has carried a tagline that reads, “Public relations pitches are not welcome.” That line did not apply to Bernie Bennett.

Bernie, who died on Dec. 12 at the age of 69, was one of the last of the great public relations men who worked the city when, as Walter Winchell’s ghostwriter Herman Klurfeld put it, “New York was a jubilee.” Unlike those of us who don’t appreciate the pageant until it’s passed us by, Bernie reveled in it. He loved being a public relations man. Whether he was plugging the Beau Brummel clothing stores or Morton’s of Chicago or Restaurant 222, Bernie was always courteous and nattily dressed, and no acid-tempered, deadline-crazed columnist could faze him. “I lived with him for 37 years, and every day he was happy,” his wife, Lois Bennett, told The Transom.

The facts were straight in Bernie’s items, probably because his media career had started in his teens, when he covered high school sports for The Newark Star-Ledger in the 1940′s. During a stint in the Army, he worked for the military paper Stars and Stripes . When he returned to civilian life, Bernie got into the P.R. business, working for the television networks and the Zeckendorf real estate company. He brought the Zeckendorf account with him when he and his brother George Bennett opened their own company, Bennett Public Relations in 1961. Comedian Jackie Mason, who called Bernie “Mr. Publicity,” was another client.

In 1962, Bernie married the beautiful Lois Willens, whom he met when she was a 17-year-old counselor at Tamarack Lodge in the Catskills. (The hotel, naturally, was a client.) They settled in Great Neck, L.I., where they raised two children, Michael and Lisa. After work, Bernie would take the train to Great Neck, to spend time with his children, before driving back to the city to check on Petula Clark, Florence Henderson or the Fifth Dimension, or to check out the scene at his disco client, Xenon.

Like most of the old pros, Bernie answered his own phone. Not to be able to dial his number and hear his confident voice or to see him beaming across the table at one of his restaurant clients will take some getting used to. It’s hard to imagine a New York where Bernie Bennett is not pitching items.

Lange Lights Up

J.P. Morgan may have smoked a cigar in his house, but at the premiere party on Dec. 16 for the movie Titus at the Pierpont Morgan Library, security guards repeatedly asked Jessica Lange and Alan Cumming to douse their cigarettes. Ms. Lange, who plays Tamora, and Mr. Cumming, who plays Saturninus, were holding court in a back corner of the enclosed garden courtyard. They took breaks to traipse through the crowd to smoke, and shiver, outside the building. “They didn’t want to, but they did,” said a representative of the Peggy Siegal Group, which helped organize the event. “The security guards had to keep explaining that it’s a library. Jessica and Alan had people watching them, they had a lot attention.”

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who play Ms. Lange’s son, Chiron, in the movie, walked into the party wearing a red leather coat and jeans tucked into thigh-high black leather boots, and toking on a cigarette.

“There is absolutely no smoking permitted inside,” said a spokesman from the library. “People in a cultural institution tend to respect it.”

Perhaps she missed the revelers tromping in the soil of the courtyard’s trees. By 10:30 P.M., there was much balancing of dinner plates and rubbernecking to catch glimpses of the cast and pseudo-stars like Bebe Neuwirth, Kim Cattrall and Amy Irving. Things got a bit tight, and newcomers were instructed to wait in the lobby for as long as 45 minutes.

The 300 or so guests were permitted to eat the buffet dinner in the courtyard and in the Morgan Room; no food was permitted in the galleries or Morgan’s personal study. Twelve-year-old Osheen Jones, who plays Young Lucius in Titus, said he suffered no nightmares during the violent film’s shoot. “I didn’t really have to have any fake blood,” he said, while taking a break from capturing the party on his digital video camera.

“I’ve been in films where there was much more gore-where people’s bodies are exploding,” Mr. Cumming told The Observer . But, he said, “I fell over quite a lot. There was a lot of steps on my palace-I wasn’t very sure of my footing.”

Under a tree, the film’s director, Lion King auteur Julie Taymor, hugged Ms. Lange and told her she looked luminous. “I’m sweating,” replied Ms. Lange, who wore a black overcoat throughout the party.

Anthony Hopkins (Titus), did not appear at the party, but Harry Lennix (Aaron) said Mr. Hopkins was a riot on the set. “He’s got dead-on impersonations of everybody. He could go from Burt Lancaster to Richard Bergman to Olivier to Katharine Hepburn-he ran the whole gambit,” said Mr. Lennix, laughing. “I would do Hopkins, which would infuriate him. I did him fairly well; he would always say, ‘It’s not bad.’”

Ms. Taymor said, “It was a very difficult shoot, very difficult material that I’m very passionate about. I think it’s a great unknown Shakespeare, and I’m so delighted to bring it to a larger audience.”

-Deborah Schoeneman

The Transom Also Hears …

“Life is a contact sport,” goes the promo line from Oliver Stone’s new film, Any Given Sunday , and some who saw the director at the New York premiere of his film on Dec. 17 wondered if he had come into contact with something hard on his cross-country plane flight to the screening. Some who attended the event told The Transom that Mr. Stone seemed, to borrow an old English phrase, “tired and emotional” as he entered the Loews Astor Theater at 1515 Broadway. One person who saw Mr. Stone noted that the director seemed more disheveled and sweaty than usual: “His eyes were squinty and red, his face was flushed.” Mr. Stone entered the theater with his publicist, Cindi Berger, and two men, who at times seemed to be directing the Natural Born Killers auteur by the elbows, as the group took the escalator to the theater.

Ms. Berger denied this account of Mr. Stone’s appearance. She said that, in her opinion, Mr. Stone “looked terrific” even though he had just gotten off a plane. “He went directly from the plane to the theater,” she said. “He was very, very happy because the screening had gone beautifully in L.A., and he had gotten the tracking numbers from the studio, and they were very, very high. He was happy.”