The Trials of Travolta

On the night of Sunday, Dec. 5, after stuffing our post-Thanksgiving figure into a gown, The Transom wandered over to the Waldorf-Astoria for the American Museum of the Moving Image tribute to John Travolta. Upon arrival, we found that Mr. Travolta was feeling our pain. Looking robust in a black Armani tux and tie, he reminisced about the days when his lithe frame could carry off that Saturday Night Fever suit. “It wouldn’t fit now!” he lamented. “It would make me feel regretful that it doesn’t fit, because I like that white suit and I’ve always wanted to wear a white suit [again], but you have to be very skinny to wear a white suit.” Mr. Travolta winked.

He said that Cary Grant once gave him weight-loss advice. “Cary Grant told me to forget the whole thing about food, eating-just make it not important. I didn’t like that piece of advice, but often I had to use it to lose weight for film. Now cut to 20 years later: I told Marlon Brando what Cary Grant had said, and he said, ‘Don’t listen to Cary! You eat what you want, when you want it. You deserve it. You’ve earned the right!’ Of course I liked that advice, and as you can see, to this day I adhere to that advice!”

While guests perched in the gilded chairs of the Waldorf-Astoria’s grand ballroom and downed bottles of Francis Ford Coppola’s wine, cameras from the USA Network captured the evening (the tribute was to be broadcast the following Sunday). Onstage, Mr. Travolta recalled his various encounters with members of the Hollywood elite like James Cagney. “I said, ‘Jimmy, give me some advice. You’re an old pro and I need it, since I’m just starting out in movies.’ He said, ‘Stay away from Jack Warner!’ ‘But he’s dead,’ I said. ‘Just because he’s dead doesn’t mean he’s changed!’”

Then there was the time when the 21-year-old actor sat between Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor at an awards ceremony. “With all the confidence and spirit injected in me in that moment, I turned to Elizabeth Taylor and said, ‘I have a recurring dream about you. You know that dress you wear in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof? Well, in my dream, you’re not wearing it.’”

Among those present to extend encomiums to the actor were Kyra Sedgwick, Oprah Winfrey and his gorgeous wife Kelly Preston, who showed off her travoltas in a low-cut seafoam satin gown by Calvin Klein. She told the audience that Urban Cowboy is one of her favorite movies and giggled: “Sometimes I make him be Bud, and I get to be Sissy!”

New Jersey native James Gandolfini grew up 15 minutes away from Mr. Travolta, and his family bought tires from the repair shop owned by Salvatore Travolta, the guest of honor’s father. Mr. Gandolfini introduced a clip of the film Get Shorty, in which he also starred: “I probably should have read the script better, because all he does is beat the crap out of me!”

And then there was Jeff Conaway, who is Mr. Travolta’s longtime friend, the guy who played Kenickie in Grease, and the reason USA didn’t broadcast this thing live. Mr. Conaway recounted a scene from Grease in which his and Mr. Travolta’s characters bond before a drag race. “I realized it was a love scene! It’s a love scene between two guys! … And I thought what if we just open up and feel vulnerable with each other, and start laughing and hitting each other, and then all of the sudden the hit turns into a hug and we realize we’re hugging and not only are we hugging, we’re touching our private parts together, so that really freaks us out!”

They’re not the only ones.

Meanwhile, Ron Palillo, Mr. Travolta’s co-star from Welcome Back, Kotter, also seemed to be taking part in a bad Saturday Night Live skit. As the crowd visibly cringed, he shared anecdotes about how Mr. Travolta used to ease the tension on the set of the popular television series. “Well, he would stick a banana in his pants zipper and become a very peculiar 4-year-old named Jimmy. Jimmy became like another cast member for the next four years and always broke the nervous tension. That is what John does-he makes everyone feel at ease.”

Entourage’s Jeremy Piven at least acknowledged the bluntness of his own speech. “This is a little awkward,” he prefaced, “but this is the first time I’ve seen John with clothes on.” He spoke of first befriending the actor at a spa in L.A. “[One day] in walks Johnny and-it’s all men and we celebrate each other in a very, you know, straight way-and John walks in and we’re just naked and there he is! We’re always having these great conversations, and it’s wonderful to see you with clothes on. You do a nice job with clothes on as well.”

If Mr. Travolta was embarrassed by the night’s proceedings, he didn’t let on. However, having his life flash before his eyes might have left the actor feeling a bit … vintage.

When approached by a boyish New York Times reporter, the actor cried, “The New York Times? My goodness, how old are you?!”

“I’m 24, actually,” the reporter replied. “You were making commercials by this time!”

“Well, that’s true, but I’m an old guy now, so I look at you and go …. ” He made a sheepish face.

-Noelle Hancock

Framed

In the usually staid confines of the art world, the very hint of drama can be enough to ruffle feathers. So you can imagine the havoc wreaked by the case of art-dealer-turned-fugitive Michel Cohen and his wife Ulrike, a story which involves fraud, fugitives and a prison cell in Rio de Janeiro.

The latest twist in the case landed in New York State Supreme Court on Dec. 3, when Larry Gould, an Illinois-based investor and art collector, sued Christie’s auction house and Sotheby’s Financial Services to collect $220,000 for a Chagall painting, Mimosa et Anemones, recently sold by Christie’s. According to the legal papers, Sotheby’s Financial Services contacted Christie’s before the auction to claim that it, along with various insurance companies, had a “superior security interest” in the painting, and that Christie’s didn’t have the right to offer it for sale. S.F.S. stated that it retained a claim on the painting based on an alleged security agreement under which Mr. and Mrs. Cohen were listed as debtors. Mr. Gould claims that on Nov. 3, he entered an agreement with Christie’s and S.F.S. that allowed the auction of the painting, “provided that the proceeds of the sale of The Painting would be held by Christie’s pending a resolution between SFS, Zurich, Lloyds and Plaintiff regarding the determination of the superiority of interest in The Painting,” according to legal papers. But now Mr. Gould is claiming that he is the rightful owner of the painting, “free of any liens and encumbrances,” and that S.F.S. didn’t have any of the proper certificates and documents to verify its interest in the piece.

Interestingly, Christie’s spokesperson Andrée Corroon claimed, “Christie’s is not a party to any dispute that may exist.”

Now for the juicy prelude to this story: In late January 2001, Sotheby’s brought suit against Mr. and Mrs. Cohen as co-conspirators, indicting them both over a reported $9.9 million loaned to Mr. Cohen. In the ensuing investigation, it was revealed that Mr. Cohen allegedly bilked the world’s foremost art dealers, galleries and auction houses out of more than $100 million in unsecured loans. His tactics included selling the same piece of art to several dealers and stopping checks worth millions of dollars from reaching galleries and auction houses.

A few days after the story broke, Mr. Cohen, his wife and two children reportedly escaped, leaving behind a $30,000-a-month apartment on Madison Avenue and 89th Street and also a house in Malibu, Calif. Four months later, Mr. Cohen was captured in Brazil and was placed in a prison in Rio de Janeiro awaiting extradition to the U.S. He was charged with wire fraud and the interstate transportation of stolen property, charges carrying a 10-year prison term if convicted. On Dec. 8, 2003, Mr. Cohen feigned illness and then fled the ambulance en route to the hospital. He is still at large.

-N.H.

Hoot Court

At least a hundred fake-news fanatics and assorted bibliophiles packed into the Small Press Center on Dec. 5 for a post-election debate waged between writers from The Daily Show and The Onion. Attendees waited for upward of an hour in a line that crawled up two flights of stairs in the historic West 44th Street building that annually houses the Independent and Small Press Book Fair, and stands across from the Algonquin Hotel and other literary landmarks.

Joe Garden and Mike Loew represented The Onion, the satirical weekly paper known for its outrageous headlines, while David Javerbaum and Tim Carvel debated for Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. During the recent campaign season, The Onion and The Daily Show provided much-needed humorous coverage, with magazine cover boy Jon Stewart appearing everywhere.

CBS 2 anchor Mario Bosquez-who provided some witty one-liners-moderated the event, beginning in seeming earnestness with a “moral-values question.” The absurd (and very loose) debate format included a mélange of pop culture and political questions, intentionally mixing up various news stories. Mr. Bosquez asked how the decision by some ABC affiliates to show Hoosiers instead of Saving Private Ryan on Veterans Day influenced the brawl between the Indiana Pacers’ Ron Artest and drunken fans.

“I’d like to begin by thanking the Small Press Fair,” said Mr. Carvel, who continued reading off a long list that included “the notion of books in particular,” “Gutenberg” and “movable type” for making the afternoon possible.

Which event most influenced the election: Jon Stewart’s appearance on Crossfire, Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” or John Kerry’s ever-so-careful pronunciation of the word “lesbian” during the third Presidential debate?

“Only one and a half of those incidents sexually aroused me,” answered Mr. Javerbaum.

“It reinvigorated my moral fiber,” said Mr. Loew.

The writers discussed the (recently dropped) sexual-harassment suit against Bill O’Reilly, whether there is a mysterious “gay gene,” future elections on Mars, the Ukrainian election and Kitty Kelley’s claim that Laura Bush once sold dime bags from her college dorm. “Kitty Kelley is known for her meticulous research,” said Mr. Garden. Mr. Javerbaum countered with his belief that “given the policies of this administration, if she did, it’s mostly seed …. “

However, there were a few minutes where the conversation took a serious turn as the debaters discussed the role of comedy in social commentary. Everyone quickly agreed that the question was “a real downer,” and the remaining queries lacked any bit of gravitas.

During the Presidential debates, nuclear proliferation was described as the greatest threat to national security, prompting Mr. Bosquez to inquire matter-of-factly, “Are we fucked?”

Mr. Javerbaum said he was confident that by living in Manhattan, he would die quickly in the event of a nuclear attack, while his counterparts who work at The Onion and live in Brooklyn would face the long-term results of radiation and diminished food supply.

“We’ll get to wear cool animal skins,” said Mr. Loew, in keeping with the dystopian fantasy.

“I’m Latino. I will loot all of you,” said Mr. Bosquez, effectively closing the afternoon’s debate.

The Transom sought post-debate analysis from both sides. “We have nothing but love and respect for each other,” said Mr. Loew, insisting on a draw. Mr. Javerbaum agreed. “When The Onion and The Daily Show debate, there are no winners or losers, only shtick.”

-Michael Calderone

LOL, ELIOT

Eliot Spitzer’s defense of free speech stops at nothing-including, apparently, the “comments” section of his own Web site.

Minutes after he posted an official announcement of his candidacy for Governor on Dec. 7, an anonymous critic had offered his own response:

“What? You supported Bush’s illegal war in Iraq and criticized those who denounced the war? I sure as hell not voting for you and telling everybody I know not to vote for such Bush-supporter [sic].”

Mr. Spitzer got his chance to respond when he called this correspondent on his post-announcement round of the city’s reporters.

“That’s what politics is all about. We love this stuff,” he told The Transom, as a message to the anonymous Spitzer2006.com scribe.

-Ben Smith