On a recent Sunday evening at Babbo restaurant, a literary agent regarded a plate of beef-cheek ravioli. Waiters crisscrossed the room with orders of pasta. The restaurant was full. The city was quiet. It was the kind of peaceful, comfortable night that has been falling over Manhattan for quite some time now.
Suddenly, the conversational hum began to sputter. Someone famous was moving through the room. The agent looked up from dinner to see writer Salman Rushdie being led to his table. Mr. Rushdie’s shy eyes sparkled through his wire-rimmed glasses and a subtle smile played on his thin lips. He was clearly enjoying the moment: the buzz of being a V.I.P. in a hot restaurant in the hottest city in the world.
For most New Yorkers, a celebrity’s presence in a restaurant is considered an enhancement of the dining experience, a perquisite of our metropolitan lives and an affirmation of our extracurricular tastes.
At the very least, it is fodder for conversation, and as Mr. Rushdie passed through the dining room, table talk, in some cases, turned to the spate of tabloid items that had been written about the author in recent weeks. Did you hear that Rushdie was in love again? With a model and cookbook writer! He’s moving to New York! He’s had some work done! What happened to the last wife? Trivial stuff, yes, but life-affirming in a distinctly New York way.
But there was a much different vibe emanating from the agent’s table. “I was so pissed to be in the restaurant with him,” the agent, who requested anonymity, told The Observer . “I’m going to be mad, and dead.” The agent added that everyone at her table agreed. “We can’t enjoy our meal. We don’t want to die because of his fatwa . It’s so passive-aggressive toward people in Manhattan,” the agent continued. “We have enough trouble here.”
If New York is a place where life and death can stand on the same street corner, then Mr. Rushdie is the quintessential New Yorker. He lives with the exponentially heightened sense we all live with in this city: That our quests to make some kind of mark on the world can be ended instantly-by crazed gunman or by taxi-and with no chance to protest.
Marking the 10th anniversary of the fatwa that put a price on his head for his authorship of The Satanic Verses , Mr. Rushdie wrote in the Feb. 15, 1999 issue of The New Yorker that the psychological damage done by the death sentence was “a spear in the stomach which somehow doesn’t kill but turns and twists.” Still, Mr. Rushdie declared in The New Yorker , “I’ll go on. A writer’s injuries are his strengths, and from his wounds will flow his sweetest, most startling dreams.”
Mr. Rushdie’s apparent decision to “go on” in New York, with a high-profile model girlfriend, has spawned a number of questions and interpretations among Manhattan’s media elite, who, given the author’s penchant for social hotspots, are feeling a tad unsettled since Mr. Rushdie came to town.
These literary and social types wonder whether Mr. Rushdie will be using security, and who will be paying for it.
And, quite frankly, they-especially the publishing types-can’t help speculating about his motives for coming to New York. (“Because New York has the best trim in the Western world,” said one editor.)
Certainly one reason for Mr. Rushdie’s increased presence here is a beautiful young woman with a Star Wars -worthy name: Padma Lakshmi. The two met last August at the Talk magazine launch party on Liberty Island. Mr. Rushdie, 53, is not the first older man in Ms. Lakshmi’s life. The 29-year-old Ford model and actress, a Tamil Hindu Brahmin from South India, also has dated Duran Duran frontman Simon Le Bon. She has hosted an Italian talk show wearing a bikini, speaks five languages and wrote a cookbook called Easy Exotic: A Model’s Low-Fat Recipes From Around the World that Miramax Books published.
Ms. Lakshmi entered Mr. Rushdie’s life barely three years after he married Elizabeth West, a former literary assistant with the British publisher Bloomsbury, at a quiet but much-covered Labor Day weekend ceremony in East Hampton. Mr. Rushdie has a son named Milan by Ms. West. He also has one by his late first wife, Clarissa Luard. In between Ms. Luard and Ms. West, Mr. Rushdie married the author Marianne Wiggins in 1987. When they divorced in 1993, she was quoted saying: “All of those who love him wish that the man had been as great as the event.” Mr. Rushdie also once dated model Marie Helvin, a close friend of Mick Jagger’s ex-wife Jerry Hall.
Of Ms. Lakshmi, one editor said: “She’s totally enamored [of Rushdie]. She’s adorable, sexy, very beautiful. She’s not dumb. She’s got a career going now. She’s got these TV programs she’s developing for the Food Channel.”
Ms. Lakshmi gave up her New York apartment in 1999 and is based in Los Angeles and Milan. When Mr. Rushdie stays in New York, she stays with him.
Homeless in New York
But the backdrop for Mr. Rushdie’s heartwarming midlife love story is menace and danger. The Iranian government in 1998 officially distanced itself from the fatwa -or bounty-that the Ayatollah Khomeini put on Mr. Rushdie’s head nine years earlier for blasphemy against Islam. But conservative fundamentalist organizations continue to offer rewards of up to $3 million for the author’s life.
Meanwhile, since 1989, Viking’s New York offices received four bomb threats. Barnes & Noble and Waldenbooks refused to display The Satanic Verses in their windows. In London, people burned copies of the book. At least 19 people died in protests and riots in India and Pakistan. The book’s Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, was killed. Its Norwegian publisher was shot and wounded. Its Italian publisher was knifed.
As a result, Mr. Rushdie’s New York adventure has not been all fun and games. For one, word in literary circles is that Mr. Rushdie has had to set his sights on living quarters outside the city because he had trouble finding a place in Manhattan that would take him.
“Three months ago, he was looking at a condo downtown, and they told him, ‘You are not welcome here, we’d have to change our security system,'” said one publishing source. “I mean, can you imagine hearing that Salman Rushdie is moving into your building? Give me Sante Kimes any day. At least you know what you’re in for.”
When Mr. Rushdie first went into hiding in the U.K., he was guarded by top-level security reserved for prime ministers and royalty. After several years, the security was downgraded and Mr. Rushdie began chipping in for the bodyguards, but the tab to date for British taxpayers is some $23 million.
Now that Mr. Rushdie is in town, it’s unclear what kind of protection, if any, New York City will offer. “Usually there’s an assessment done, and the wishes of the subject is taken into consideration,” said Detective Joseph Pentangelo of the New York Police Department press office. He would say no more. “The intelligence division doesn’t want to talk about any kind of strategy. They feel discussing strategies would compromise the same strategies.”
Will the police department be involved at all? “It’s not a given,” Mr. Pentangelo said. It’s unclear whether Mr. Rushdie even ranks as a liability in the eyes of New York’s Finest. “I can’t say what kind of a threat he poses, if any,” the detective said.
Another N.Y.P.D. spokesman, Detective Walter Burnes, told The Observer “there are some phases of [Mr. Rushdie's] movement that we may be called upon to handle and there are others that might be handled by the State Department. It depends on the circumstances.”
If the Federal government is involved in Mr. Rushdie’s safety, it’s not saying.
“We’ve not been asked to protect him by anybody, so we really don’t have a role in this,” said Andy Laine, spokesman for the U.S. State Department’s diplomatic security service.
A State Department official who requested anonymity said that Mr. Rushdie “hasn’t come across our radar screen. It was an issue when there was a death threat against him, but now he’s back to Joe Blow, ordinary citizen. Or as much as anyone in his position can be.” The official added that the State Department could flag New York as a “sensitive” location if it’s aware that Mr. Rushdie is visiting. The official said, however, that during the time of the fatwa , “it wasn’t a case of what we did with Salman Rushdie per se, but [a case of] making clear that threatening to assassinate a writer on the basis of his views is a violation of international norms.”
“Could some fundamental Muslim group still have a feeling that it’s a mandate from God? Yeah,” said Stephen Davis, a managing director for the international investigative security and consulting firm DSFX, and a former captain with 21 years in the N.Y.P.D. “You’re dealing with people who have some deep fundamental beliefs, and they are the worst type of terrorists one could encounter,” said Mr. Davis, although he opined: “If anyone was going to go after him, it would not be an organized effort. It would be some zealot, a less sophisticated threat-something in public rather than blowing up a building where he’s going to be.”
If Mr. Davis had to compare Mr. Rushdie’s plight to anyone, he said it would be mob turncoat Sammy (The Bull) Gravano. He also estimated that protection could cost Mr. Rushdie $1,500 a day per bodyguard.
New Yorker at Heart
But New York apparently has a special allure for Mr. Rushdie, and he does not lack for friends here-among them, Alfred A. Knopf editor in chief Sonny Mehta, author Paul Auster, expat author Patrick McGrath and New Yorker literary editor Bill Buford. Martin Amis figures in as well, according to one editor. “They like to move around together,” he said, adding: “Why do British people of any sort move to New York? They can pal around with and insulate themselves from much impact at all with the colonials.”
When they weren’t behaving like bodyguards (none of Mr. Rushdie’s friends would agree to put The Observer in contact with the author), Mr. Rushdie’s pals contended that he’s had his eyes on our island for some time. “You can tell it from his last novel,” said his British expatriate pal, Vanity Fair writer Christopher Hitchens. “It’s been a particular ambition of his to move to New York. He’s always been a potential American most of his writing life,” Mr. Hitchens told The Observer . “He yearns for the United States. In America there’s room to spread his wings a bit. He always got more sympathy here.”
“It’s the difference between being stuck in a remote foggy island off the northwest coast of Europe in A.D. 50 and being in Rome,” said author Ian McEwan, by phone from London. “New York is probably the most fascinating of all the cities in the U.S.A. Everything there is more lovable and horrifying. Everything runs in extremes.”
“There’s something about that huggy, kissy, fuzzily drunken darling, everybody-knows-everybody-else life in London that’s unending,” said the New Yorker’s Mr. Buford, a friend of Mr. Rushdie’s for more than 20 years. “It’s hard to achieve privacy there. One thing America affords its writers bountifully is privacy, some would say neglect.”
Yet those with a more jaundiced view of things would contend that Mr. Rushdie has come to New York not to disappear, but rather to extend the crescendo of his literary career.
When The Satanic Verses was published, Mr. Rushdie’s publisher forecast 30,000 copies worth of hardcover sales. The fatwa turned that figure into 700,000 copies. Mr. Rushdie’s critical successes, such as his Booker Prize-winning 1981 novel Midnight’s Children and his 1983 novel Shame , each sold approximately 8,000 copies in hardcover.
Mr. Rushdie followed up Verses in 1995 with The Moor’s Last Sigh which, cheered on by a rave review from The New York Times ‘ book critic Michiko Kakutani, sold some 60,000 copies. Mr. Rushdie’s most recent work, The Ground Beneath Her Feet , which garnered mixed reviews, sold about the same. (Mr. Rushdie’s next book is a novel called Repentance , about a man murdered in error.)
If sales of Mr. Rushdie’s more recent novels have ebbed, his advances have crested ever higher. It’s helped that one of his best friends is literary agent Andrew Wylie. For Ground and three reprinted novels, Mr. Wylie squeezed a little more than $2 million from Henry Holt. Then he shuttled the author over to Random House Trade Group for a five-book English world rights deal-four novels and an essay collection-worth more than a million dollars.
Mr. Wylie was instrumental in ratcheting up the net-worth statement of another talented British writer, Martin Amis. And Mr. Wylie’s involvement in Mr. Amis’ career came around the time that Mr. Amis left his wife Antonia, took up with a beautiful and exotic writer named Isabel Fonseca, got his teeth fixed and moved to New York.
Mr. Rushdie, however, appears to be making his move at a time when clubby London may have wearied of his presence. In a story about his newfound love for New York, London Times reporter Damian Whitworth wrote: “Rushdie, with the fatwa hanging over him, was sometimes criticized as arrogant for supposedly putting other people’s lives at risk by appearing in public. There was chuntering, too, about his regular appearance at parties where he could be seen enjoying himself and indulging in famously exuberant dancing.”
Right now, the New York press is devouring Mr. Rushdie’s socializing; his nights on the town at Pastis or Tabla or the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel, or the possibility, as Neal Travis reported in the New York Post , that the author may be considering an acting career. That’s why the reporters and the photographers at this year’s PEN Literary Gala April 10 at The New York State Theater all seemed to have one question. “Is Rushdie coming?” He never did.
Those who devour as code the gossip columns divining that Mr. Rushdie wants New York, and by extension, the U.S. market, to pay attention. When Mr. Amis did that, some here rolled their eyes. In Mr. Rushdie’s case, they are looking over their shoulders. As one literary agent put: “None of us think it’s going to be a lone gunman’s bullet. It’s going to be the World Trade Center all over again.”
Yet keeping Mr. Rushdie safe seems to be less of a high-maintenance job these days. One British publisher who came through town in March recalled a dinner party four years ago. “Two officers came a few days before it, checked over the guest list, and asked where we would be seating him,” said the publisher. “On the night of the dinner party, everyone had to arrive at a certain time. There was one policeman in a back room, and two outside in a car. Once the guests arrived, the police phoned Salman and we waited for him to arrive.”
At a dinner New Yorker editor Tina Brown threw in New York in 1996, guests were asked to give their social security numbers in advance. When David Remnick threw a dinner to celebrate the publication of The Ground Beneath Her Feet in 1999, the location of the restaurant was kept secret until the day before the party.
But at the 1999 PEN Literary Gala, Mr. Rushdie appeared to just show up at Cipriani 42nd Street, even though raucous picketing outside by a local restaurant union could have been deemed a security risk.
Listening to the trials and tribulations of Mr. Rushdie in New York, Mr. Davis-who takes his security quite seriously-remarked, “I wouldn’t be surprised if this were a clever promotional ploy…He realizes that if he’s going to write another book, he’s going to need exposure. Part of being a successful author is making appearances and pushing your book.”
Part of being a successful writer, however, is to keep on living, and not in the narrow sense of the word.
In a piece on Elián Gonzalez for The New York Times Syndicate, Mr. Rushdie noted that the 6-year-old “has become a political football and-take the word of someone who knows what that’s like-the first consequence of becoming a football is that you cease to be thought of as a living, feeling human being. A football is inanimate, and its purpose is to be kicked around.”