Little, Brown Gets Littler

George Editor Caught in Traffic

The new year saw the end of George, the late John Kennedy Jr.’s political glossy, but it may herald a new–albeit eyebrow-raising–beginning for the magazine’s former arts and entertainment editor, Jeffrey Podolsky.

After getting pink-slipped in September, Mr. Podolsky recently resurfaced with a small speaking part in Traffic, the Steven Soderbergh drug-war flick predicted to be a Best Picture contender come Oscar time.

Mr. Podolsky’s big moment comes during a cocktail-party scene in Washington, D.C., in which Michael Douglas, playing the nation’s newly appointed drug czar, gets introduced around the Hill. The scene is teeming with real-life political pooh-bahs, including Senator Orrin Hatch, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld and California Senator Barbara Boxer. Mr. Podolsky is the only journalist in evidence in the film. He represents in a distinctive burgundy shirt and Coke-bottle glasses, delivering the line: “You show me a judge or a politician willing to put a reefer in his mouth and I’ll write a story about it!”

Mr. Podolsky, a self-described “doppelgänger for Jeff Goldblum” who had appeared in “three productions at Brown [University]: as a door, a vegetable and a corpse,” was pretty surprised last spring when he received a letter asking him to be in Mr. Soderbergh’s film. “I thought, this is a prank, a joke, a Spy magazine thing where I call a number and they record the whole dialogue about how hungry someone who covers celebrities is to be one,” he told The Transom by phone. But after repeated calls from the film’s producer, Mr. Podolsky began to take the offer seriously.

He skipped out of George on a June afternoon, jumped a shuttle and found himself at the C. Boyden Gray home in D.C., surrounded by a host of politicos. “It was a total mix of Hollywood and Capitol Hill–which was exactly what George was supposed to be,” said Mr. Podolsky, who had been the last holdover from the original Kennedy-helmed staff. Still confused about how he’d come to be there, Mr. Podolsky said he downright freaked when a production assistant introduced him around the set as “a friend of Michael’s.” Mr. Podolsky, who had met Mr. Douglas only once before–at a book party where the Oscar winner and admitted sex addict had “seemed more interested in chatting with my girlfriend”–assumed that there had been some mistake and was afraid of bumping into the actor, who would surely clarify the error.

But before he could say, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. Soderbergh,” someone told Mr. Podolsky that it was time for his scene with Mr. Douglas. “I said, ‘What scene?’ And they said, ‘Don’t worry. Mr. Soderbergh believes in improvisation.’ I thought, I haven’t had time to prepare my improvisation! I thought I’d be standing around holding a fake glass of Scotch!”

Soon, Mr. Podolsky found himself next to Mr. Douglas and Senator Harry Reid of Nevada. The elder statesman, whom Mr. Podolsky described as “very Republican, very octogenarian,” was holding Mr. Douglas’ attention with loopy questions like, “Your father: In Spartacus, how’d he get to be so fit?” At this point, Mr. Podolsky thought he was home free.

Suddenly, Mr. Douglas swung around and said, “Jeffrey! I just wanted to thank you. I really appreciate you putting me on the cover of George . I know you’re the guy behind it.” Mr. Podolsky, who had indeed put the actor on George ‘s March cover because of his role in Wonder Boys and, of course, Mr. Douglas’ “rabid anti-nuclear activism” (“It’s very real,” Mr. Podolsky solemnly confirmed; “He does a lot of work”), was verklempt. “I booked 15 stars for covers. In some cases I pleaded, in some cases they pleaded; you’re haggling every day …. And once it’s done, I never heard a word from them. This, my God, this was a mitzvah! What a mensch!”

Mr. Podolsky, thoroughly charmed, later nailed his scene and was congratulated on his great line by Mr. Douglas. Mr. Podolsky remembered that Mr. Soderbergh’s compliment was, “Nice shirt!”

It wasn’t until the Democratic convention in Los Angeles that Mr. Podolsky realized the extent of his triumph. Throwing a party on behalf of George, he had put in a personal call to Mr. Douglas, who had just become a new dad. “I never thought he’d be able to make it. But he walked in and said, ‘You made the cut!’ and handed me a cigar.”

Laura Bickford, Traffic ‘s producer, confirmed that Mr. Podolsky’s quality line was what kept him in. She and Mr. Soderbergh had also invited White House correspondent Helen Thomas and MTV’s Chris Connelly to appear in the scene. These three were, she said, “mine and Steven’s idea of a cross-section of people who would be at this party.” All three journalists showed, but Ms. Thomas and Mr. Connelly wound up on the cutting-room floor.

But Mr. Podolsky’s glory was short-lived. He went on vacation after the convention, returning to New York, he said, to “close the West Wing cover. The day it closed, [Frank Lalli] axed me.”

Some George staffers speculated that Mr. Podolsky’s potentially conflicting star turn may have sent no-frills journalist Mr. Lalli over the edge. Others questioned the appearance of both a glowing review of Traffic and an interview with Mr. Soderbergh in the January-February issue.

But it turns out that Mr. Podolsky had left the magazine by the time the Traffic pieces were assigned. “There was definitely no connection between Jeffrey’s appearance in the film and my writing about it,” confirmed Debra Birnbaum, senior editor and writer at George , who interviewed Mr. Soderbergh.

Though Mr. Podolsky noticed the Soderbergh adulation in the magazine’s penultimate issue, he didn’t think that it had any connection to his role in the film. Indeed, Mr. Podolsky–who told The Transom, “Any editor is maybe an aspiring actor inside”–doesn’t remember telling anyone at George about his cameo. He also acknowledged that “there would have been a problem if I had been at George when this movie was released. I would have had to recuse myself from a story on Traffic . I wouldn’t have been able to edit a film review of it.”

Through a spokesperson, Mr. Lalli said that he had indeed been aware of Mr. Podolsky’s participation in the film, and hadn’t had a problem with it. “I don’t think he’s the only journalist to play a journalist in a film,” Mr. Lalli said, but reminded The Transom that “he was not representing George .”

Mr. Podolsky, who said that he’s been “enjoying life” since his firing, had only one complaint: His Hollywood access hasn’t been what it was before he started “enjoying life.” “Suddenly I’m not going to screenings. When Traffic opened a block away, I couldn’t get in! The queues were too long.”

–Rebecca Traister

It’s Jay-Z, Not Jay-W

On the evening of January 17, the W New York-Union Square hotel, as promised, opened to much fanfare. “Indulgence, Star Power and Style,” the press release tooted. Indeed, the drink and Olives’ restaurant fare was free-flowing–even the skinny girls in knee-high boots and A-line skirts were munching duck confit sandwiches, pounding champagne and slurping oysters with abandon. On the 18th floor, half-clad hunks hawked the hard stuff: “Ladies! Shots of vodka–right here! Start it off the right way!” And bathrobe-clad babes served Moët & Chandon splits with Krazy Straws. In one of the suites, blond girl and boy models lounged in a bed sipping cocktails. Perhaps overcome with the moment, a dark-suited guest eased himself into the sea of rose petals floating in one of the half-full bathtubs.

As for star power, five Temptation Island contestants made an appearance, as did fashion designer Cynthia Rowley, actor Alan Cumming and talk-show host Montel Williams. Dapper rapper Jay-Z was there with a small entourage, a large bodyguard and an open mind. “I don’t know,” he said earnestly when we asked him what he thought of the hotel, “all I can see is people!” He laughed, then disappeared into the crowd that was entranced by go-go dancers in teeny-tiny gold costumes who were gyrating inside chilly clouds of machine-generated fog.

Within view of the dancers, an interior designer who had traveled from Los Angeles for the fête stood at a back table, dining on green beans and beets and washing them down with a glass of red wine. “You don’t get this at Starbucks!” he noted, not taking his eyes off the free show. Later in the evening, this same fellow could be observed wearing his glass of wine on his shirt and rather abruptly inviting The Transom up to his hotel room to help him change–an offer we politely but firmly declined.

The bar had been open about an hour. First Choice’s “Doctor Love” throbbed over the sound system, and a lone partier in thick-framed glasses sauntered onto the parquet dance floor, where he pulled a few disco-night moves out of his hat. Then, necktie swinging furiously over his gut, he surprised the onlookers with a barrage of violent pelvic thrusts.

Jay-Z was standing on the sidelines, his brown Gucci ski cap poking out of the crowd. He was watching the go-go girls, not the Chris Farley wannabe. The Transom approached again, hoping that the hip-hop artist had reached a verdict on the hotel. But his human Humvee of a bodyguard blocked our path. “He doesn’t want to talk with you right now,” the bodyguard said ominously. “He’s relaxing.” Apparently, though, Mr. Z wasn’t enthralled with all the fancy dancing, and turned around, smiling, to give The Transom an audience. As soon as he saw who he was dealing with, however, he threw up an arm defensively. “I don’t know anything about this hotel!” he said.

–Beth Broome

The Incredible Shrinking Little, Brown

Call the World Wildlife Fund! The editorial herd over at Little, Brown and Company seems to be on the verge of extinction. On Jan. 22, Time Warner Trade Publishing chief executive Laurence Kirshbaum gave the old heave-ho to Sarah Crichton, the former Newsweek editor who had been Little, Brown’s publisher for five years. Rather than appoint a new publisher who could deal with the niggling business issues of sales and marketing that most editors like to avoid, he gave Ms. Crichton’s job to Michael Pietsch, Little, Brown’s editor in chief. Though Mr. Kirshbaum’s twofer may have earned him points with his AOL Time Warner overlords, those who remember the tweedy Little, Brown of yore–peopled by the likes of J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon–think the publishing house is rapidly becoming the neglected stepchild of Time Warner’s mass-market arm, Warner Books, best known for titles like 101 Uses for an Ex-Husband and Buns of Steel Total Body Workout .

“Little, Brown is really a rump state of what it used to be,” said one prominent former employee. “Being publisher is a nice titular promotion for Michael, but now they have one less advocate for Little, Brown and its editors. Little, Brown is basically now an imprint of Warner.”

In the last five years, Little, Brown has lost a platoon of editors, with few replacements brought in. William Phillips, who edited Nelson Mandela, Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin, left, followed by cookbook editor Jennifer Josephy and onetime Norman Mailer editor Roger Donald. Gone is Jim Silberman, the former Random House editor in chief who edited Harold Kushner. Gone also are wunderkind editors Jordan Pavlin and Geoffrey Kloske, who first published Ethan Hawke and David Sedaris, respectively. Rounding out the flock is Fredi Friedman, who edited cash-minting thriller author James Patterson as well as Alan Dershowitz. According to one insider, only two new editors have been hired since.

But why hire editors when there’s less to edit? Sources say that Mr. Kirshbaum and president and publisher Maureen Egan demanded that Little, Brown behave more like Warner Books and produce what has been referred to internally as a “leaner and meaner” list in order to start turning a profit. Subsequently, they reduced their number of hardcover and paperback titles by about 25 percent from 1998 to 2000. Last year, Little, Brown published fewer than 50 hardcovers. “It’s not really the size of a list that matters,” Ms. Crichton clarified from her Brooklyn home. “It’s the quality and how distinctive a list is. Trying to decipher all the changes can leave you with a distorted sense of reality.”

Under Ms. Crichton’s leadership, Little, Brown had its share of victories (George Stephanopoulos’ All Too Human comes to mind) and defeats (remember Paula Barbieri?). According to published reports, the leaner, meaner Little, Brown has turned a tidy profit in the last two years. Though Ms. Crichton would not address internal rumors that she never hit it off with either Ms. Egan or Mr. Kirshbaum, she did acknowledge that, since she had not been hired by Mr. Kirshbaum but rather by his predecessor, Mr. Pietch might have an easier go of it, given that he’d been hand-picked by Mr. Kirshbaum and Ms. Egan.

At press time, neither Ms. Egan nor Mr. Kirshbaum had returned The Transom’s calls.

– Andrew Goldman