Gossip writer Paula Froelich opened the front door to her one-bedroom Soho apartment on a recent evening, wearing a flattering emerald dress with puffy sleeves and woolly, moccasin-style slippers.
She had one hour, she warned, before she had to run out and meet Daily Candy founder Dany Levy and socialite Gigi Howard for an 8 p.m. dinner at Minetta Tavern. But she wanted to make sure the Daily Transom had a chance to drop by her apartment.
“I’m obsessed with this building,” she said of the Sullivan Street walk-up, described in detail in her new novel, Mercury in Retrograde, due out in early June from Atria Books.
She bent down to feed her dachshund, Karl, who was milling about at her feet after being dropped off by a doggy daycare sitter. “It’s like a mini neighborhood. That’s the thing about New York isn’t it? There are so many people behind the walls. They’re like cockroaches!”
Ms. Froelich’s novel, crammed with designer names and winking society references, is of the Manhattan chick lit genre. It is about three women brought together at 148 Sullivan (the author’s actual address) by a series of unfortunate events. Penelope Mercury (read: Paula Froelich) is a resident in the building who quits her job as a door-stepping reporter at a tabloid called the New York Telegraph. Lena “Lipstick” Lippencrass, a socialite, moves into the building after getting cut off by her father. And Dana Gluck, a corporate lawyer, takes the penthouse after her investment banker husband leaves her for a Russian model.
“They’re all composites of me,” said Ms. Froelich, sitting back in a gray velvet armchair in her cozy living room accented by a furry white rug and Hamptons-style coffee table books. Ms. Froelich speaks loudly, confidently, with a perpetual sense of sarcasm that makes her, at times, a little intimidating and, almost always, impossible to read.
“I knew I wanted to write a women’s book, but what bothers me about women’s books is that a lot of them are like, ‘And they gave themselves one year to get married!’” she said with a mocking, fairy-tale inflection in her voice. “It’s really misogynistic in a way.” (The characters in Mercury pursue love interests, but only after their respective lives and jobs are settled.)
Ms. Froelich, 35, has spent almost a decade as a Page Six reporter. She moved to the city 11 years ago from Los Angeles where she took the bus to a clerk job at Ace Hardware—“I moved here for the public transportation,” she said—and briefly worked at the Queens Gazette, at Institutional Investor writing a newsletter called Derivatives Week, and at Dow Jones newswires covering the same beat. Then someone recommended she apply for a job at Page Six.
“I was like, Page Six? What’s that?” she recalled. Ms. Froelich applied and got the job despite lacking experience outside the finance beat. For the next two years, she went out every night. Then she suffered a crack-up, she said, and slept for approximately a month.
Given the demanding lifestyle of a gossip reporter, Ms. Froelich’s personal life—much like her characters’—hasn’t gone exactly as she planned.
“I’m from Ohio. I thought I would be married with three kids by now,” she said. “But I’m really glad I’m not. I look back at the men I’ve dated, with the exception of one guy, and I think, ‘Wow, that would have been the biggest mistake.’”
Ms. Froelich said there was that one time when she was close to getting married. So what happened? “Well, you never want to get into something where you think, ‘Well, there’s always divorce!’”
In recent years, Ms. Froelich has slowed down a bit and doesn’t go out quite as much. Still, the near decade she’s spent collecting anecdotes about the conquests, failures, and public embarrassments of New York’s powerfuls proved useful when it came time to write her novel.
“I have a sick rolodex,” she bragged, stroking mascara into her eyelashes at the bathroom mirror. “Page Six has given me a Ph.D. in human psychology. Take any person and, within five minutes, I can tell you what’s going on, what they’re thinking, where they’re from, and how they’re dressed. And I’m usually 99 percent right.”
While Ms. Froelich insisted that her book is not a roman a clef, certain characters in the novel sound eerily familiar. There are socialites named Muffy and Fabiola and Ivanka; a New York politician disgraced by his regular visits to prostitutes; a blond socialite with corkscrew curls rated No. 1 on a Web site called Socialstatus.com; and a powerful publicist who crashes her SUV into a crowd of people lined up outside a club in the Hamptons.
“She’s a com-pah-zit!” Ms. Froelich said out about the car-crashing character inspired by famous flack Lizzie Grubman. “You write about what you know, but it’s not a thinly veiled thing at all. Even the characters at the newspaper are not anyone who works at the Post.”
Socialite Lydia Hearst is one of the few society girls called out by name in the book for her relentless self-promotion. Upon seeing Ms. Hearst on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, an older socialite says, “Just look at those tacky Hearsts.”
“That, actually, someone said to me. One of the old society matrons was appalled,” explained Ms. Froelich. “I actually like Lydia. She makes me laugh. I used to save her Page Six Magazine columns and read them out loud in character.”
Ms. Froelich was applying blush now and lining her eyes with a dark pencil.
“I think society is pretty much dead,” she said. “Nan Kempner and Brooke Astor would be rolling in their graves. It’s all about girls who talk about careers, but really they just want to be aligned with a brand. Who knew you could make a career out of posing for Patrick McMullan?”
Unlike other gossip writers, Ms. Froelich said she’s always firmly understood the difference between being a reporter and becoming subject for gossip columns herself.
“This is a job and you cannot be good at your job if you want to be the person you’re covering,” she said. “There was a time a few years ago when people were passing out fame like subway passes, but I think most of them have been weeded out.”
Being “good” at her job sometimes means writing about people she is friendly with socially. But, according to Ms. Froelich, she rarely regrets the stories she reports. “I sleep just fine,” she said.
Ms. Froelich, who has survived departed Page Six colleagues like Ian Spiegelman and Chris Wilson, is one of those media people that everyone always says has been at their jobs forever. And according to Ms. Froelich, she has no plans of moving on. (She is, however, working on a sequel to Mercury and is in talks with Cynthia Eagan, head of the Poppy imprint at Little, Brown Book Group, who acquired the Gossip Girl books, to write a young adult novel about her time attending high school at a convent in Kentucky.)
“At first I thought, yes, after two years, I’ll do something else, but the Post has been really good to me. There was no reason to go,” said Ms. Froelich. “I wanted to take my time and figure out what I wanted to do. I know I’m not Liz [Smith] and I’m not Cindy [Adams]. Otherwise, I’m not real sure. So until I figure it out, it’s good.”
But has Ms. Froelich ever grown tired of covering the same beat?
Ms. Froelich looked to the side and tensed up her lips in a pucker for a moment. “Honey, people get tired of everything,” she finally said. “Ask me how I feel tomorrow.”
She slipped on a pair of Miu Miu shoes and signaled the Daily Transom to file out of her apartment. She had a dinner to get to.