The Public Life of Joyce Wadler

On the afternoon of May 26, The New York Times’ Boldface Names columnist, Joyce Wadler, arrived at Cipriani 42nd Street to cover furrier Dennis Basso’s fall fashion show, toting a leopard-printed umbrella and pen-marked leather bag. In a crowd that included Ivanka Trump, Chloë Sevigny and P. Diddy’s mother, Janice Combs, Ms. Wadler, 56, had an incongruously auntie vibe with her carrot-colored shag hairdo, shoulder-padded black pantsuit and men’s Cole Haan loafers, which she bought after too many years of jamming C-width feet into narrow shoes. Crystal Waters’ 1991 dance hit “Gypsy Woman” was blaring in the background.

Later, Ms. Wadler got confused, pointing to a dark-skinned Indian woman and thinking she was Salman Rushdie’s wife, Padma Lakshmi. Told that it wasn’t, the Times woman was unperturbed. She has mulled wearing a button to such events that reads “Who the fuck are you and why should I care?” “This is my life at these things. I stumble through,” she said. “Who? What?” Disgraced-publicist-turned-occasional-entertainment-reporter Lizzie Grubman was one of several guests to greet Ms. Wadler by name. “She’s a wond-dah-ful lady,” she told The Transom. Reedy socialite Olivia Chantecaille also came over to say howdy. Ms. Wadler steered clear of Star Jones, however. “Oh, she hates us,” she said of The View star, whom she once called “zaftig” in print. Ms. Jones (who refused to comment) is far from Boldface Names’ only enemy. Officially instituted in February 2001, The Times ‘ putative gossip column has always been more sober and removed-more Times ian-than the rest. It was never the place to go for scoops or dish. But since Ms. Wadler took the helm in January 2003, some readers have been finding the column downright loopy, with its forays into humor (that recurring reference to “Columbia Journalism Student Young ‘Uns”); its literary pretensions (a recent entry was co-bylined F. Scott Fitzgerald); and its emphasis on “process” (Ms. Wadler likes to spell out the difficulty of obtaining interviews in somewhat excruciating detail).

Often, there is a glaring absence of names that any average citizen would consider worthy of boldface. Recently, Manhattan bloggers had a field day when Ms. Wadler asked Troy star Brad Pitt a question and then didn’t print the answer because, as she put it to The Transom, “it wasn’t interesting.” “This is The Times ‘ excuse for a gossip column. They don’t want to do gossip-they’re afraid of it,” said the New York Post’s gossip eminence, Liz Smith, over Memorial Day weekend, speaking by phone from ABC reporter Cynthia McFadden’s house in Connecticut. “They don’t let what’s happening be the story,” she continued. “They thrust themselves into the story. And then they complain in the column that nobody will talk to them and treat them right, and then if anybody does talk to them, they make them sound like idiots. They don’t really cover an event; they make themselves the stars of the event. They turn it into a little circus in which they are the major performers.”

Ms. Smith has her own personal beef with Boldface; after she performed at the 2003 “Nothing Like a Dame” benefit, Ms. Wadler wrote that she could “neither sing nor dance.” “Mean-spirited!” biddy-slapped Ms. Smith in her own column a few days later. Post colleague Richard Johnson, the editor of Page Six, was more magnanimous. “I love the way [Ms. Wadler] chronicles her battles with self-important publicists and uncooperative celebrities,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “She shows how difficult and unglamorous it can be covering promotional events disguised as ‘parties.’” Mr. Johnson refused to elaborate, but he had a point. The fact is, the Boldface Names column says as much about the changing nature of social life in this city as it does about its author.

If Ms. Wadler has any predecessor at The Times , it was the society reporter Charlotte Curtis, who spent the 1960′s and 1970′s successfully penetrating private parties and skewering their attendees. The well-groomed, Vassar-educated Ms. Curtis’ famous account of Leonard Bernstein’s Black Panther fund-raiser prompted author Tom Wolfe to coin the phrase “radical chic,” which described the cachet for upper-class whites in championing black and minority causes. “Charlotte Curtis bought into the old Mark Twain theory that the absolute truth is the funniest joke in the world,” said C.J. Satterwhite, 57, Ms. Curtis’ former assistant, who is still at The Times and helps Ms. Wadler with her rare forays into high society. “From what I’ve heard about Charlotte Curtis, we’re nothing alike,” Ms. Wadler said. But it’s not just a personality difference. The fact is, in the current scene, there are precious few “radical chic” moments for journalists to capture (no, Dennis Basso calling Janice Combs “my good buddy” doesn’t count). “Joyce has adapted well to the custom of the day, and the custom of the day is that the parties are not small dances with 40 of your nearest and dearest, which 30 years ago happened a lot,” Ms. Satterwhite said. “The last big private party was Ms. Astor’s 100th at the Rockefeller place in Pocantico.” (And that was covered by Styles reporter and general gadabout Alex Kuczynski.) Today, what passes for a “party” in New York City is often just a publicist-controlled event, orchestrated entirely for the purpose of getting meek, affirmative coverage from places like In Style and E! Entertainment Television. It’s not fun. It’s work.

‘I Wanted to Be Brenda Starr’

To hear Ms. Wadler tell it, her way of writing is a subversive act: a sort of meta-whack at this dismal state of affairs. She likes to refer to herself as a comedy writer trapped in a reporter’s body. “I don’t think of this as a gossip column, I think of it as an entertainment column,” she said two nights after the Basso event, sitting at her regular dinner joint, the Knickerbocker, wearing a yellow button-down shirt, black pants and suede Arche sandals. “We’re more of a send-up of a gossip column. It’s about spoofing the whole business.” She went on: “Why are people upset that we’re nothing like the other gossip columns? Does the world really need another traditional gossip column? And even more important: I’m not interested in serving it up to you! We’re talking about personal handlers that are outrageous creatures. It’s insane. We’re supposed to take it seriously?” Ms. Wadler was sipping a diet cola. Later, the chef sent out a frozen sangria he was trying out, and she had a taste. “I like the tang,” she said, but left most of it behind.

Ms. Wadler grew up in the Catskills town of Fleischmans, N.Y., where her parents ran a boardinghouse. After graduating with a B.A. in journalism from N.Y.U., she spent a year writing features for Nation’s Restaurant News , a trade journal, and then quit and decided to drive cross-country. When she came back, she got a job as associate editor at Nomad , a hippie travel magazine that Screw publisher Al Goldstein was trying to start up. The financial backing fell through, and Mr. Goldstein offered Ms. Wadler a job at his signature title. She lasted two weeks. “I was never clear on why he fired me,” she said. Next came a two-year stint writing fashion copy at Seventeen . “I didn’t really feel I fit in,” Ms. Wadler said. “I was feeling I wanted to be Brenda Starr.”

She sent a letter to the New York Post asking for a tryout, which included the line “I’m better than anyone you’ve got.” It was intercepted by the Post ‘s then city editor, Warren Hoge, who arranged a meeting with her and was impressed enough to confide that the paper suffered from a surfeit of female Jewish writers and that he need to hire some blacks and Latinos. Soon after, Mr. Hoge received another typed letter. “Dear Warren and Bob [Spitzler, the paper's managing editor],” it read. “The most amazing thing happened to me when I got home. My phone was ringing off the hook, and it was my grandmother …. ‘Joycela, what you should know is years ago in despair at not being able to have a child your parents took this Caribbean cruise. They’re on the deck off the coast of Puerto Rico, and what should come by but a bassinet with a newborn babe in it. Joycela, you are a full-blooded Hispanic …. ” “At this point, she started calling me Anglo,” remembered Mr. Hoge, now The Times ‘ United Nations bureau chief and foreign-affairs correspondent. “I remember the brilliancy of that mid-course correction. ‘So, Anglo, now you see …. ‘ How could you not hire someone like that?”

Ms. Wadler stayed at the Post for nearly five years, conducting celebrity interviews and writing “quirky” features, like one about men raising pigeons on city rooftops. She left shortly after Rupert Murdoch took over in 1976. “I hated what he was doing with the paper,” she said. In 1980, she landed a job as a staff writer at the Daily News ‘ Sunday magazine. Later, she freelanced for The Washington Post ‘s Style section and was hired to be its New York correspondent, covering things like Jean Harris’ trial. She encountered The Times ‘ Ms. Curtis one cold and rainy night, standing in a group of reporters trying to catch glimpses of guests arriving at Henry Kissinger’s 60th-birthday party. “I was just feeling humiliated, as you do,” Ms. Wadler said, “and there she was, acting as if she was not deeply humiliated. And I thought if it was good enough for Charlotte Curtis, it was good enough for me.”

The up-and-comer was becoming known for her breezily sarcastic style. When Abbie Hoffman called to cancel their date at the Russian Tea Room on the day he was giving himself in to the feds, she wrote: “That’s Hoffman, ever courteous to the press and conscious of deadlines.” When The Post ‘s management started to demand more straight news, Ms. Wadler thought: Sweetheart, you’re talking to the wrong guy. ” Arrivederci ,” she said. “We were once again packing our bags.” She landed contracts at Rolling Stone and New York , then accepted a staff job at People , prompted by her desire to keep up with the mortgage payments on a one-bedroom co-op on 15th Street (which she still owns). What happened next was straight out of that magazine’s pages: Ms. Wadler discovered a lump in her breast, which proved cancerous. Fortunately, she discovered it early enough to avert a mastectomy. Her essay on the ordeal (“My Breast”) was published in New York magazine, then turned into a successful book and a screenplay for a made-for-TV movie starring Family Ties ‘ Meredith Baxter. “I made a lot of money on that breast book,” Ms. Wadler said pluckily. “I bought a mink with the Japanese rights.”

More freelancing. Some television writing. In 1995, cancer struck again-this time in her ovaries. “That was a little intense,” she said. “The first one was chemo lite. This one was for real.” The experience was chronicled in two New York magazine installments, entitled “Cancer Redux.” They attracted the attention of Joyce Purnick, an old friend from the New York Post who had risen to metropolitan editor at The Times.

She said the Old Gray Lady was interested in adding small profiles of behind-the-scenes figures to the B section, under the header Public Lives. Would Ms. Wadler be interested in writing them? She would. She wanted to get out of her own head. Then–executive editor Joe Lelyveld encouraged her to write in her own voice. “He didn’t want it to be Timesian,” Ms. Wadler said. After Jonathan Landman became Metro editor and approached her about taking over Boldface from James Barron, he promised even freer rein. “He said the words that no reporter can resist,” Ms. Wadler said: “‘You know, you can have some fun with this.’”

In a phone interview, Mr. Landman had nothing but praise for the results, though he stipulated that “it has nothing to do with what the Times view of gossip is. If you want to call it a gossip column, be my guest; if you want to give it another name, be my guest. I just don’t understand the importance of giving it a name like that.” ‘A Discreet Hound Dog’ When she started her new beat, Ms. Wadler tried to attend many events personally as well as writing about them, but it proved too taxing. So now she has an assistant, Paula Schwartz, a 23-year Times veteran, helping with the legwork. (“I still feel 29,” cracked Ms. Schwartz.) Every morning, Ms. Wadler reads “the tabs” and surfs Gossipcentral.com, where a link to her own column is conspicuously absent, and then plots a master schedule with Ms. Schwartz based on the hodgepodge of invitations they receive, along with some word-of-mouth. Rounding out the team is a half-dozen news clerks, hand-selected by Ms. Wadler and ranging in age from their mid-20′s to their 40′s. “We think of ourselves here as a teaching hospital,” Ms. Wadler said. She rarely does the in-person reporting herself, going out to an event maybe once a week. “I’m not really that interested in powerful people,” she said. “I prefer artists and theater-heads.” The clerks are paid $75 to $125 per event to report back to Ms. Wadler (“The money sucks,” she tells her legpeople, “but use the clips to get something better”), who then debriefs them, often in person. “It’s almost like dramatic psychoanalysis,” said Lily Koppel, a 23-year-old Metro section clerk who has been part of the Boldface brigade for eight months, of these conversations. This isn’t the easiest gig on West 43rd Street. Campbell Robertson, 28, another Metro section clerk, said that when he tells people he’s with The Times , they’ll be chatty until he reveals what section he’s stringing for. “Sometimes the facial expression changes into a leer of horror,” Mr. Robertson said.

Indeed, Ms. Wadler’s tone has upset enough of her subjects that some publicists have scratched Boldface Names from their guest lists. “There were too many instances where people went back and said, ‘Why did you let me speak to that person? I said something totally innocuous and they made me look foolish!’” said one Broadway publicist who didn’t want to be named, perhaps fearing reprisal from the Arts & Leisure juggernaut. “It’s like a dinner party: It doesn’t matter how important or famous the guest is. If they insult your friends more than once, you stop inviting them. Or else you’re a bad friend.” But prominent publicist Nadine Johnson called Ms. Wadler a “discreet hound dog” and said she appreciates the “wicked and sardonic sense of humor” in the column. “You’re never going to get the usual coverage when you invite Joyce,” she said. “So it’s dangerous sometimes to invite her, because you never know what’s going to happen.” It’s a losing game, anyway, to heap scorn on Boldface Names, as one major hallmark of the Wadler style is to dissect her detractors in print, as if their very existence makes her more of a bad-ass journalista. “I’m not doing this to satisfy the press agents,” she harrumphed at dinner. “I’m doing it to amuse myself.” And if that means you can forget about ever reading who J. Lo’s new boyfriend is in The New York Times , so be it. “I think it’s fun to read about who’s sleeping with who-I just don’t want to report on it,” Ms. Wadler said. “I don’t want to make five million calls about something that idiotic. If I’m going to make the five million phone calls, it’s going to be about something important. My idea of important.”