SLIDESHOW: Politicos and Gagas Gather for Scarlett Johansson’s Fab Fundraiser (for Scott Stringer)

Heads Up: Fine Sculptor

Reconfigures the Noggin The organizing principle behind Alfred H. Maurer and Jonathan Silver: An Installation , on display at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, is obvious: Although Maurer (1868-1932) and Silver (1937-1992) belonged to different historical epochs, they share a fascination with the human head, both as an iconographic mainstay and as a way to explore matters of form. The correspondences between their work go deep, but I don't want to waste space writing about Maurer. Don't get me wrong-as the superb retrospective at Hollis Taggart Galleries a year or so back confirmed, Maurer is an artist of the first rank and in need of historical reappraisal (though it must be admitted that his head pictures are the weakest part of the oeuvre ). I'd rather write about Silver, who is, I think, one of the finest American sculptors of the late 20th century. A rash conclusion to jump to given that I've only come across a dozen of his pieces, and three of those were duds. But once you've seen Silver's heads, you can't shake them-or, for that matter, account for them. Sure, you can trace the impetus to Alberto Giacometti: The earliest head at Bookstein, done in bronze and dated 1967, plainly announces its debt to the great Swiss artist. But it's only when Silver's reverence for precedent turned into skepticism, and then into a kind of violence, that his sculpture came in to its own. Working in plaster, Silver brought an unremitting tenacity to reconfiguring the head-concentrating it, denying it and, ultimately, breaking it to pieces, only to confirm its archetypal power. The less Silver's pieces kowtow to representation, the truer they are to themselves. Agamemnon (1977)-with its harsh accumulation of rubble, steel fragments, a $12 price tag and, unless I'm imagining things, bubble gum-feels like the culmination of a tradition that dates back to ancient Egypt. It's an amazing sculpture in that its contentiousness is so utterly rational. There's no way Donald Judd, Frank Stella or (I insist) Richard Serra can match Silver's ferocious probity. He's a classic waiting to happen. Alfred H. Maurer and Jonathan Silver: An Installation is at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, 50 East 78th Street, Suite 2A, until Jan. 25. Microcellular Big Bang RabbiSaulJ. Berman, writing in the catalog that accompanies Tobi Kahn: Microcosmos , a beautifully appointed exhibition at Yeshiva University Museum, claims that Mr. Kahn's paintings are "a visual-spiritual midrash [interpretive commentary] on the biblical narrative of creation." That's quite a load to saddle on pictures as condensed-notto say as simple-as these, but I'm not so sure Mr. Kahn can't handle the weight. A proponent of biomorphic abstraction, Mr.Kahn tethers one or two amoeba-like forms to the perimeters of the canvas, establishes an intimate and sometimes furtive ambiance, and then slathers the lot with attention-or, rather, acrylic paint. Mr. Kahn, it seems, wants to endow his floating and elusive blips with a physicality that will render them monumental and immovable. One wishes, however, that he weren't so insistent on covering his tracks during the painterly evolution of the imagery; the brushy uniformity of his surfaces tends to homogenize the work. Still, the seriousness of Mr. Kahn's pursuit is plain, and his gift for endowing shape with symbolic heft undeniable. The microcellular big bang that is Ahlom (2001) would be hard to live with, for the right reason: It's a reminder of just how assertive the intangible can be. Tobi Kahn: Microcosmos is at the Yeshiva University Museum, 15 West 16th Street, until Jan. 26. Undiminished Vitality Looking at Fountain of the Moor (circa 1653), a recently discovered terra-cotta study by the great Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), currently on display at Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, I couldn't help but think of Jeff Koons. You remember Mr. Koons, of course-he of the oleaginous smile and oversized tchotchkes . Well, he recently received a mixed but basically commendatory write-up in The New York Times . That his art was praised didn't faze me; plaudits are a dime a dozen these days. That he was pegged as a sculptor did. Sculpture has, of course, undergone substantial transmutations in the past 400 years, and I'm wise to the Dadaist aesthetic. But pondering Mr. Koons while gazing at the roiling majesty of Bernini's modello leads me to suggest that we ought to invent a new word for what Mr. Koons does-or despair at how loose the defination of sculpture has become. Having said that, Bernini: The Modello for the Fountain of the Moor and its pendant exhibition at Salander-O'Reilly, Italian Sculpture: From the Gothic to the Baroque , should not prompt nostalgic ruminations on the days when men were men, sculptors were sculptors, and Duchamp and his progeny were unimaginable. Rather, it should be cause for celebrating the here and now, when we can saunter into a New York gallery and marvel at art whose vitality is undiminished by time. Bernini's piece-with its sinuous musculature and delicately brushed cross-contours-is the show-stopper. Also recommended are the languid sensuality of Agostino di Duccio's Female Saint (circa 1463-1471), the coursing vulgarity of Baccio Bandinelli's Venus and Mars Caught by Vulcan (circa 1530-1540), and Saint Paul (circa 1530-1539), a quietly dramatic terra cotta by Giovanni Andrea Galletti. Curiosity-seekers should look for the herm, a column-like monument carved from walnut, that is the collaboration between Dionigi di Matteo Nigetti and Giorgio Vasari, author of the seminal art-historical text Lives of the Artists . Credit goes to art historian Andrew Butterfield, who, having organized two shows of Italian sculpture at this venue last season, has established a salutary continuity. Let's hope finds like the modello keep coming his way-exhibitions as superlative as these, New Yorkers could get used to. Bernini: The Modello for the Fountain of the Moor and Italian Sculpture: From the Gothic to the Baroque are at Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, 20 East 79th Street, until Feb. 1.

Eric Heuvel and Kimberly Pagan

Met: May 19, 2000 Engaged: June 8, 2002 Projected Wedding Date: Oct. 4, 2003 Kim Pagan, a sultry Internet mogulette with green eyes and olive skin, was at the Union Bar near Gramercy Park with a group of "new media" friends. These were the still-heady days of 2000, and it seemed only natural that she lift her shirt to show off her opal navel ring to the assembled. A few rounds later, one in their company-a sandy-haired, athletic fellow named Eric Heuvel-was eagerly using his tongue to dislodge a piece of popcorn from her belly button. "Plain, not buttered," said Ms. Pagan, 31. "He gave my stomach a raspberry!" Excuse us, we're feeling a bit queasy …. Let's settle our stomachs with the dry details of how the couple met: at a trade show in Chicago. She had approached his booth, peddling "data." He thought she was a knockout but, he said, "she was more interested in trying to make a business connection." That's Manhattan women for you. "He was cute," Ms. Pagan said, "but he didn't want to buy ." They hooked up that summer at Union Bar. "Her frame of mind changed, I guess," said Mr. Heuvel, 30. "She warmed up to me." The New Economy soured, but their love stayed strong. He got a job in corporate advertising. She became sales director at a company that sells newspaper ad space. They moved into an East Village three-bedroom with his brother and a friend. "I can be really wild and goofy," Ms. Pagan said, "but he's a little more calm." "We complete each other's thoughts," Mr. Heuvel said. "We even order the same food." One evening, they were enjoying lobster and wine together on a Montauk beach. "My hands are cold," she told him, pouting. "Maybe this will warm them up," he said, offering her a 1.5-carat princess-cut diamond set in platinum. You got that right, mister! After she tearily accepted, he confessed that he was feeling a bit chilly as well, so they drove into town and he bought what he still refers to as his "engagement sweatshirt." They'll marry in Garrison, N.Y., overlooking the Hudson Valley, and are considering providing guests with popcorn to throw in lieu of rice. There will also be an Elvis impersonator; Ms. Pagan is a big fan. Sometimes her fiancé indulges her with his special private impersonation of the King "He can't sing," she said. "But he can do the hips." Kevin Romero and Vivian Roston Met: March 24, 2001 Engaged: Dec. 9, 2002 Projected Wedding Date: March 15, 2003 This couple also met at a trade show. (Who knew these dreary seas of booths and swag were such hotbeds of desire, such burrows of lust?) It was a Scuba expo at the Meadowlands in New Jersey called "Beneath the Sea." Vivian Roston, an OB-GYN at St. Luke's–Roosevelt Hospital, was there with a group called the Sea Gypsies. The 5-foot-1, shapely doc was perusing the pamphlets of a rival organization, the Aquatic Voyages Scuba Club, and one of its members, Kevin Romero, sauntered over to see if she needed assistance. "I saw her and thought, 'Mmmmm-hmmmm! Wow!'" said Mr. Romero, 40, who has wavy black hair and one of those pencil-thin mustaches that are so bad, they're good. He's an assistant diving instructor-they call him the "Dive Master"-and part-time reservationist for Royal Olympic Cruises. "I thought he was sort of cute," said Dr. Roston, also 40, "but I was trying to read the information." "She looked very professional and serious," Mr. Romero said. "I wanted to make her smile." That evening found them sharing the "Love Boat" special at Sushi Damo in midtown, followed by drinks at Saloon, on that Upper West Side block that has mysteriously gone the way of Atlantis. They found out they were both originally from Queens. "We were both looking for exactly the same things," she said. "We were both at the same point in our lives at the same time." This relationship seems to have been blessed by Neptune himself. She likes taking photos of tropical specimens. He prefers spear fishing, sometimes cooking his prey for her in a nice butter sauce in her midtown one-bedroom. After a while, she began referring to him as "Kermit" because of his dead-on frog imitation. "I love the way he smiles at me," she said. "It's this little smirky kind of smile." For his part, Mr. Romero likes being hooked up with an obstetrician. "My friends call her 'Johnny Bench,' like the catcher!" he said. Together, they picked out a platinum ring with a round brilliant-cut diamond and princess-cut side stones-a total of about three carats-at Pico Jewelry on 47th Street. He then presented it to her formally, along with a new Palm Pilot, at Sakagura, another sushi place. Fete Events is planning their wedding at St. Bartholomew's Church on Park Avenue, with a reception to follow at the St. Regis and a honeymoon in Tahiti-a divers' paradise. Their cake topper will be a blown-glass figure of a groom and bride in full scuba gear, but Dr. Roston promised that the madness will end there. "We're not going with any sort of Little Mermaid theme here," she said. Roger Delaney and Sandra Frey Met: November 1999 Engaged: Oct. 3, 2002 Projected Wedding Date: Oct. 18, 2003 Irish guy, Southern girl-where else would they meet but deep in their cups in a tavern on the Upper East Side? Sandra Frey's coat had fallen off her stool, and Roger Delaney gallantly picked it up. "Instantly, I had the most interesting of all feelings," said Ms. Frey, 32, an ad saleswoman for Microsoft from Spartanburg, N.C., "where you look at someone and you think to yourself, 'I've never seen you before, and I want to talk to you and get to know you.'" This though he was drinking Amstel, and she proclaims herself "the Antichrist of beer." Mr. Delaney, 31, a fair-skinned construction-firm senior estimator from the Bronx, took her to a Rangers game the next week. "I'd never been on a first date to a sporting event before!" she said. Wow! After the game, they beelined for a nearby pub, where he told her that his parents had been born in Ireland and described some of the history behind the Celtic imagery decorating the bar. Ms. Frey, who has bouncy blond curls and a figure honed by marathons, appreciated that he didn't immediately try to maul her. "I was raised in a family where it goes a long way when you have manners and you're polite and you treat people with respect," she said. "He's an exceptionally kind person. He has a very soothing effect on me." Mr. Delaney is that rare entity: an Irishman who doesn't talk very much. "She's a little old-fashioned" is all he'll say of his sweetheart. "She's always very polite and ladylike." Also: "She has a positive personality." And: "She's always trying to look on the bright side and not moan about things." For example, she thinks it's "cute" that he talks to the TV when he's watching hockey games. He proposed with a cushion-cut diamond set in platinum near a 600-foot precipice by the Cliffs of Moher on Ireland's west coast-thank God she didn't have the dropsies this time around-and will move on up from Teaneck, N.J., into her Upper East Side studio after the wedding. The reception at the Down Town Association near Wall Street will feature moony ballads (Irish) and a groom's cake (Southern) and, of course, plenty of boozin'.

Gold, the ultimate pre-postmodern investment, had a big 2002, with its best annual percentage gain since 1979; the dollar, conversely,suffered its steepest plunge since 1987. Is this noise-or a trend?

The mainstream financial media is suggesting that the rising price of gold is nothing more than passing jitters. "Bets on Gold-Related Issues Reflect Events," The Wall Street Journal announced last month. "Gold Highest for Nearly Six Years on War Fears," splashed across the CNBC screen just last Monday. The New York Times blamed gold's rise on inflation fears, "a weakening dollar" and the looming war. Prominent newsletters, meanwhile, say: Forget Iraq and North Korea-think bigger, and think historically. Richard Russell of the Dow Theory Letters kicked off the new year by announcing that "my choice for the sector to be in during 2003 is gold …. I believe that gold is in the early stages of a major or primary bull market." The refreshingly pessimistic Greed and Fear "remains firmly of the view that gold is at the very beginning of a multi-year bull market that will take the yellow metal many times higher than its present level. This is because gold is the only real hedge against the massive financial excesses that still prevail in the Western world." Should phrasing so portentous make one quiver, or chuckle? The cranks, after all, are notorious "gold bugs"; they look on "fiat currency"-paper money made legal by law or fiat, but not backed by gold or silver-as a kind of fraud. During flush times, belief in gold seems hopelessly superstitious: Gold is beloved only by those who distrust the blizzard of financial activity that surrounds them in a boom, built as it is on easy credit. To them, gold remains the one "true" money. During the 20-year run-up in paper assets, the price of gold has plunged-from $850 a troy ounce in the early 80's to well below $300 in the late 90's-and the investing public has forgotten that faith in gold has a sound pedigree. John Adams declared, "Every dollar of a bank bill that is issued beyond the quantity of gold and silver in the vaults represents nothing and is therefore a cheat upon somebody." Morerecently,JamesGrant summed up the respectable, if quasi-apocalyptic, case for gold. In a November issue of Grant's Interest Rate Observer , he wrote: "We on the fringe emphasize the impermanence of monetary systems …. The instability and contradictions of this system are what lead us to favor gold, paper money's antithesis." A gold standard enforces monetary discipline: It dampens inflation by imposing a brake on the minting powers of government, as every dollar printed represents a claim on a finite reserve of gold. If the dollars we spend on Hondas and brie can eventually be redeemed by the Japanese and the French for bullion, we must curb our national habit of consuming more than we produce. Since Nixon abandoned gold convertibility in 1971, the pessimists argue, easy money has financed a dizzy run-up in stock prices, an unsustainable housing boom and, perhaps most ominously, a yawning trade account deficit-the now-alarming discrepancy between what we import and export. Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan years ago pronounced the dollar sound, and as long as "there is confidence in the integrity of government, monetary authorities-the central bank and the finance ministry-can issue unlimited claims denominated in their own currencies." But the true poet of paper money, and the confidence it's built upon, is Jason Goodwin, author of the best-seller Greenback , whose panegyric to scrip appeared in The Journal on Dec. 27. "Cold, old and remote, [and] it doesn't even pay interest," began Mr. Goodwin, looking down his nose at gold. Paper money does what gold never could: It establishes "a nation's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the right to determine its own future. Currency is about self-control-the social contract in motion, the point where trust and promises elide, testament to our ability to live among ourselves and to frame our goals." Gold, meanwhile, "is a magnet for our wartime fears, it is only a brief outburst of irrationality in an irrational world, an atavistic sentiment, fleetingly indulged." Who's Next? What's the opposite of gold, if not the Internet analyst? Gold represents, to its fans, the fixity of value in an uncertain world. Henry Blodget's name has become synonymous, at best, with hope in a chimerical future; at worst, with institutionalized double-dealing. Saturday's Times brought with it news that the Wunderkind turned scapegrace-whose telegenic bullishness on Internet stocks made him one of the most highly compensated Wall Street analysts of the 1990's-will most likely be sued for fraud in the coming weeks. Regulators are apparently looking into the discrepancy between Mr. Blodget's public support of start-ups underwritten by Merrill Lynch, and his private disparagement of them over firm e-mail. They're also preparing to argue, according to The Times , that "Mr. Blodget's research reports were inappropriately influenced by Merrill Lynch's investment bankers." The piece, co-written by the redoubtable Gretchen Morgenson, is notable for the language used to describe Mr. Blodget's claim to fame-his $400 price target for the then money-hemorrhaging online retailer, Amazon.com. "Mr. Blodget was perhaps best known for his December 1998 prediction that shares of Amazon.com … would reach $400 a share." The piece gently buzzes with classic Times deadpan, hinting at the ungoldlike, postmodern nature of the $400 call: Mr. Blodget's report was important for its prediction of a stock price, not an analysis of the actual worth of a company. By promptly rising to $400, Amazon in turn measured the power of Mr. Blodget's voice, the depth of investor credulity and the velocity of naïve money-not the intrinsic value of its business. "The stock surpassed [$400] less than three weeks later, largely because of Mr. Blodget's prediction." The item contained one small fudge, though: The Times pegged the current trading price at $20.52, but neglected to adjust for splits. This gives the false impression that Mr. Blodget was wrong by a factor of 20; he was merely off by a factor of 3.3.

It's hard to find the exact word to describe the scam which the new board overseeing the U.S. accounting industry is in the midst of trying to pull. "Chutzpah"? "Greed"? "Hypocrisy?" Take all of those, add in "overreaching" and "arrogance," and you'd be close. In fact, the recent behavior of the four members of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board resembles nothing so much as the shady goings-on in the big accounting firms that were so amply reported last year-shady goings-on which the board was specifically formed to address. If these are the upstanding citizens who are supposed to clean up the accounting industry, it seems likely that the accounting industry will stay in the gutter.

The board showed its hand last week, when its members voted themselves annual salaries of $452,000-$52,000 more than the President earns and more than twice the salary of the Secretary of State. Apparently, the board members have never heard that public service isn't about getting rich-it's about doing good. Who are the members of the PCAOB who have no common sense or shame? They are Kayla Gillan, a former general counsel of a California pension program; Daniel Goelzer, former general counsel of the Securities and Exchange Commission; Willis Gradison, a former nine-term Congressman from Ohio; and Charles Niemeier, former chief accountant of the S.E.C.'s enforcement division. Where'd they come up with these schlock artists? The board is looking for a chairman, whom they plan to pay $560,000, or three times what U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist makes. They almost had a chairman in former C.I.A. and F.B.I. director William Webster, until it was reported that Harvey Pitt, the unscrupulous chairman of the S.E.C., had covered up blemishes in Mr. Webster's record. It's unbelievable that the board would further impute its credibility by grabbing at wildly inappropriate salaries. The four board members are not only enriching themselves; they want to create the highest-paid bureaucracy in Washington. According to The Washington Post , they're planning to assemble a staff of 270 by 2003, with an average salary of $166,300. How can a government agency get away with paying such astronomic salaries? Well, it probably couldn't-which is why the PCAOB has set itself up as a nonprofit, to be financed by assessments on accounting firms. In the meantime, the board has asked Congress for a $1.9 million loan to meet expenses for January. Restoring investor confidence and re-affirming Americans' faith in the accounting profession was the purpose of the oversight board. It's clear that the greedy foursome of Gillan, Goelzer, Gradison and Niemeier do not have the integrity for the job. Congress, which created the board, should disband it immediately and find public-spirited men and women who will see their work as a mission rather than a chance to make big bucks. Indian Point: A Disaster Waiting to Happen Since Sept. 11, 2001, New Yorkers have been forced to imagine the previously unimaginable. So imagine this: Terrorists attack the Indian Point nuclear-power plant, 35 miles north of Manhattan. The attack could be a bomb in a boat on the Hudson, or a hijacked plane (nuclear plants are not built to withstand the impact of a commercial jetliner). As radiation leaks, there is panic among the 20 million people who live within 50 miles of the plant, including all of New York City. Streets are jammed as parents rush to pick kids up from school; firefighters and emergency personnel, not trained for such a disaster, find themselves at a loss; and because of outdated computer equipment, predictions of where the radiation is headed are wildly inaccurate. Thousands of people die, and in the following years cancer rates in New York skyrocket. Unfortunately, the above doesn't take much imagination. Indian Point has the worst safety record of any nuclear plant in the country. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has estimated that a meltdown would kill 46,000 people immediately, injure 141,000 and spread radiation sickness over an area that includes New York City. Now there's a study, conducted by James Lee Witt, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which further indicates that Indian Point is a disaster waiting to happen. As The New York Times reported, Mr. Witt found that "emergency plans are inadequate to protect the public from a disastrous leak of radiation at the Indian Point nuclear plant in Westchester County and do not fully take into account the possibility of a terrorist attack." Indeed, the current evacuation plans assume that only those living within 10 miles of the plant would need to be evacuated-that eight million New York City residents would sit tight as CNN showed plumes of radiation spewing into the air in Westchester. New York's elected officials, including Governor George Pataki, who commissioned the study, as well as Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, have been derelict in not using their high public profile to apply pressure to the N.R.C. to shut down Indian Point. Surely their unwillingness to take on this issue fully has nothing to do with the fact that Indian Point is owned by a $10 billion company, the New Orleans–based Entergy Corporation. What will it take for federal and local officials to shut down Indian Point? Apparently they're waiting for another shocking terrorist attack before they take action. New York voters should ask themselves if this is the kind of leadership they want in a world where another Sept. 11 is not so hard to imagine. New York: It's Worth It It's no secret that New York is an expensive city. Labor costs here are high. Taxes are high. Rents are high. For years, this undeniable fact has been held up as a negative, as a reason for businesses to set up shop in some low-tax haven, like Alabama or South Dakota. Mayor Bloomberg has a refreshing answer to this argument: nonsense. In a speech to business leaders at Rockefeller University, the Mayor candidly took on the "too expensive" argument. Yes, he said, costs are high. But guess what: It's worth it. New York is not Wal-Mart, he said. The city "isn't trying to be the lowest-priced product on the market." New York is a luxury product-and besides, isn't it a truism in business that you get what you pay for? Mr. Bloomberg stated bluntly what other city officials have been afraid to say: This city is never going to be the cheapest place to do business. How could it be? New York is home to some of the planet's most talented, ambitious people, and they don't work cheap. No other city in America offers the intellectual capacity, creativity and personality that New York does. And that's what business pays for, and that's why smart people flock here, despite the high rents and taxes. The Mayor is going to refocus the city's economic-development strategy to reach out to companies that have the vision to look beyond the bottom line and see what New York offers. That's a smart strategy. And who better to implement it than a businessman turned politician who understands value.
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Tamara had things to do-a list of phone calls to return, an overdue project from work, an incomplete application to Columbia Business School-but all of that was pushed aside when Jennifer Lopez appeared on ABC's Primetime Live with Diane Sawyer.

"I turned my ringer off, set aside my paperwork and sat glued to my TV," said the 25-year-old project manager, gesturing with her hands to indicate a distance of eight inches from the screen, "while J. Lo spilled the dirt about her engagement to Ben. It was better than The Bachelor finale." To be sure, women all over the city turned off their ringers that same night in November, or the evening Making the Video: Jenny from the Block premiered on MTV, or slunk to their desks well after 10 o'clock one morning in December, unable as they were to extricate themselves from that morning's J. Lo concert on NBC's Today Show , live from said block. These women, it bears mentioning, know their Tariq Aziz, their Hans Blix, their Kim Jong Il, their Allison Pearson. These are otherwise smart women who simply cannot get enough news, gossip, shopping-spree summaries and office-pantry deconstructing of the incessantly publicized relationship between Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck. Of course, ironic analysis (as well as maintaining self-aware humor about one's own pathetic-ness) mitigates the shame of being caught in the vortex of Lopez-Affleck overexposure. Or does it? Few of the women interviewed for this story would allow their last names to be used. Certainly, the country has seen its share of celebrity couples before, but the magnitude of this particular pairing can best be formulated by multiplying Ms. Lopez's $10-million-a-picture salary by Mr. Affleck's $10 million–plus salary, all to the 6.1-carat pink-diamond power. Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt's courtship seems narcotized in comparison. Why do otherwise sober New York women care so much about this couple? One reason is that it's local news: Ms. Lopez and Mr. Affleck are just downtown in Tribeca; they occupy the center table at Nobu; they swing by the Castle Hill section of the Bronx. Women have observed the progress of their relationship the way they would a midtown-skyscraper construction project, with a "Jesus, that thing went up fast!" reaction-and also a "How safe can something be that went up that fast?" reaction. The extent of New York women's obsessions may vary, but they seem to be uniformly informed (and enabled) by Us Weekly , first and foremost, as well as People , the Post 's Page Six, E! and the 7 o'clock news: Entertainment Tonight , Extra and Access Hollywood . "I buy Us every Tuesday, and if Ben and J. Lo are mentioned, cover story or not, I have to read it where I am, even before I leave the store," Tamara said. Women have set to memory all manner of mind-numbing, picayune facts and gossipy half-truths about Ms. Lopez and Mr. Affleck's romance, day-to-day activities and preferences. "I can rattle off all the presents they've bought for each other, and when. I know where they like to eat, and what they ate for dinner the night he proposed," said a 29-year-old Upper East Sider who works in the entertainment industry. One 32-year-old copyeditor said, "I was stopped short when I read about how it was someone's job on the set of the Jenny from the Block video to tweak J. Lo's nipples so they looked properly erect." Elizabeth, 29, who works in the cosmetics industry, recalled that "on-set, she needs those damn $65 grapefruit candles everywhere. Tell me if it's a lie, but I've heard it's in her contract." Sarah, 27, a magazine editor, has heard that Ben straightens his hair. "He hates it curly," she shrugged. She said she also knows that director Kevin Smith had a video game custom-made for them. One 31-year-old Gramercy Park resident reported that she and her boyfriend no longer say "Hello" to each other on the phone: "We say 'J. Lo' instead." And a 31-year-old woman who did not want even her first name used said she and her husband bought In Touch magazine to read on the plane whwen they flew to L.A. for Christmas at her parents'. "We saw a picture of J. Lo and Ben getting takeout pizza from a Beverly Hills pizzeria, and on our first day there, I drove us to the place where I thought the picture was taken," she said. "Do you see why you can't use my name?" "I went on a blind date last week, and the guy said he couldn't understand why women care about J. Lo and Ben," said the entertainment-industry worker. "I tried to explain it to him. And the great thing was, he got it. He said he felt the same way about an N.F.L. quarterback." "Jen and Ben feed us lots of dirt, and we crave and crave more-and it's O.K. to crave it, because they've given us full permission and encouragement to do so," Sarah said. Still, no one is naïve enough to think that mere coincidence had them getting engaged within weeks of when Ms. Lopez's album This Is Me … Then debuted and her film Maid in Manhattan opened. A fair number of these women also found themselves captivated by and kaffeeklatsching over The Bachelor, and they simply refocused their critical views from one stagy, forced romance to another. Moreover, this one is not limited to seven measly episodes-it's the all-you-can-drink water-cooler conversation. It's as though the air people breathe has been infused with Ms. Lopez. (Fitting, since $40 million worth of her new scent, Glow by J. Lo, has sold in the four months since its launch.) If in the past such a media blitz has been the effort of a studio-as it was in 1950, when MGM outfitted Elizabeth Taylor in her Father of the Bride gown when she wed Nicky Hilton a week before the actual movie opened-now it's Ms. Lopez herself who's working the media miracles. And even in the relentless strafe of publicity and soft news, women respect her for that. She and Mr. Affleck "position themselves as reluctant media targets, and that makes the media and the public cheer in victory when yet another of their C.I.A.-grade speculations-are they dating? are they engaged?-is confirmed," said Sarah. "It's pretty brilliant." Ms. Lopez, who is 32, has something else that's just as potent as that brilliance: unstinting ambition. "I noticed how different J. Lo looks from her fly-girl days," said Sara, a 27-year-old researcher, referring to when Ms. Lopez was a dancer from 1990 to 1992 on the Fox television show In Living Color. "Her skin used to look a lot lighter, her hair looked a lot darker, even her features looked thicker. She was not the über -hot chick we know and love-slash-hate now." Fran, a 33-year-old graphic designer who lives in Nolita, said, "Has anyone actually compared these two women in before-and-after shots? Are they the same woman? Can face-waxing and highlighting really work so well?" Somewhere between the Clairol aisle and the Jolen cream-bleach aisle, Ms. Lopez picked up an agenda. Sara said she imagined Ms. Lopez sitting down and "scientifically plotting" her career points: "Straighten hair. Go lighter. Don't fight the ass. Don't fight the Latina. Wear a sheer dress to the Grammys. Date Puffy." Then, to distance herself from the image of being Puffy's mamacita -and put some daylight between herself and his trial for the December 1999 nightclub shooting-she quickly married the apparently mute choreographer Cris Judd in September 2001. "Everyone used to say Puffy was ruining her career, especially during the trial," Elizabeth said. "She had to get rid of him." "J. Lo is a hot property primarily because she's a 'Woman in Control,' an icon of post-feminist autonomy and old-fashioned rags-to-riches elevation," said Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media studies at New York University. "It is her aura of cool mastery, as much as her great beauty and fantastic body, that makes her popular. It's the entrepreneurial fantasy she lives that makes her such a star." "I think, particularly in New York, she is so captivating because she's the ultimate alpha female," said Janice Min, executive editor of Us Weekly . "Like a lot of women in their 30's in New York, she's found herself at the peak of her career after toiling all these years." What's more, the career high point for her doesn't mean advancement to management level or a window office. It means market dominance in the motion picture, music, fragrance and hootchie-mama velour-tracksuit sectors. Ms. Min continued: "Women love J. Lo- and her critics may say this is a fault-because she has nothing but confidence. She is so not neurotic. She doesn't worry about whether an outfit makes her butt look big, or if she should have said that, or if she should have ordered that dessert …. She seizes the world by its balls and treats her personal life like she does her business, with ruthless efficiency. She does what all women would like to do if they didn't worry about what other people thought." There's also been some speculation that Ms. Lopez and Mr. Affleck have strategically coupled up to broaden their individual appeal and to cross class barriers: She makes him street; he makes her white. One writer in her 30's said, "What many Park Avenue women politely whisper about J. Lo and Ben is 'chambermaid syndrome,' which is ironic given her new movie. They can't abide that he would choose J. Lo over Gwyneth, the jewel-in-the-crown of the sophisticated, chic, pretty young things." It should be noted that Mr. Affleck and Ms. Paltrow broke up four years ago-or, in Lopez time, two husbands ago (she split from Ojani Noa, waiter-turned-restaurant-manager, in 1998). The writer continued, "The way women whisper about J. Lo, you would think she was Sally Hemings." Which would liken Mr. Affleck to Thomas Jefferson-a bit of a reach, even before taking into account how many women think that he's the one who's dating up. "I feel like he's really the lucky one in this arrangement, obviously," said Stephanie, a 28-year-old landscape architect from Park Slope. The entertainment-industry worker stressed, "There's no way he would have been People 's sexiest man alive this year if he wasn't dating her." "Ben Affleck is not an A-list glamour-puss like she is," said N.Y.U.'s Mr. Miller. "He's more of an actor than a star. Handsome, certainly, but not unearthly in his looks. She, on the other hand, is silver-screen material." When the couple appear together in Gigli , which will open in the spring, Mr. Miller predicted that "she'll wipe him off the screen, much as Greta Garbo wiped out Melvyn Douglas in Ninotchka ." Ms. Lopez the screen siren, it turns out, is as much a contradiction as the Manolo Blahnik Timberland-style boots she wears in the Jenny from the Block video. Despite all the mad bling, she's real, she's real and, oh yeah, one other thing: She's real. "Everything you hear about her is like, 'You can't look her in the eye, she's so demanding, she needs white roses and white scented candles in her dressing room, she bathes in Evian,'- she's everywhere, every guy you know wants to have sex with her, and you get the feeling that she's a grade-A bitch," Sara said. "But then you find yourself watching Revealed with Jules Asner, or sitting through Maid in Manhattan , and smiling and nodding along and thinking, 'Gosh, I like J. Lo.' Call it charisma or old-school movie moxie or Madonna-like ambition, but she does it. You can't take your eyes off her." "Even though I know I shouldn't give a shit, I can't help but watch, rapt, anytime there's an interview with her," said Stephanie. "I'm helpless against her charms. And that adorable giggle." A 34-year old magazine editor said, "Everything about her is extreme-the clothes, the furs, the pink ring. And her enormous ass, which I can't stop looking at, especially in the Jenny from the Block video, when he sort of slaps it." "He's Hooked On Her" Mr. Affleck, in stark contrast, inspires more derision than admiration. Fran, the graphic designer, could muster only one word about the 30-year-old actor: "Snore." "He dips dangerously into Derek Zoolander territory, with that no-smile, squinty-eyed, serious face that he affects whenever he's being photographed," said Sarah. "He did it for the 'Sexiest Man Alive' cover. He must practice it in the mirror-maybe while he's straightening his hair." Amy, 31, who works in subsidiary rights, readily admitted her ideal outcome for the Lopez and Affleck relationship. "I want her to destroy that milquetoast frat daddy, vagina dentata style," she said. "If Ben Affleck can be left a brittle shell of a man, then J. Lo will not have shaken that ass in vain." For single women, Mr. Affleck offers a too-much-of-a-good-thing cautionary tale about relationships, with all his ass-kissing Tobor the Boyfriend Robot behavior. His excessive and oftentimes hackneyed expressions of adoration can make him pretty unattractive. For instance, on a November-weekend spending binge in Las Vegas, he reportedly bought Ms. Lopez's mother an E-class Mercedes Benz. And, of course, in the Jenny from the Block video, he actually plants a big old kiss on her big old ass (after giving it a quick little polish, as though he were shining the teacher's apple). Yes, many a single woman can tuck in all alone each night thankful that she's not mixed up with that brand of poontang-whipped, pretty-boy shopoholic. On the topic of -oholism, Mr. Affleck has arguably replaced his addiction to alcohol with an addiction to affection and attention. Thus his and J. Lo's seventh-grade-dance-style public make-out sessions. Thus their cruising through the Los Angeles canyons in the convertible Bentley. "I think he's hooked on her and everything that comes along with her-the paparazzi, the fancy cars, jetting off to her house in Miami," said the entertainment-industry worker. Kitty, a 31-year-old Upper West Sider who also works in the entertainment industry, went so far as to suggest that "Ben has become a Stepford boyfriend due to his rehab back in the summer of 2001. I recently read some old interviews with him, and was struck by how candid and funny and crass he used to be. Now he's so sappy and earnest, totally without edge." Indeed, old interviews with Mr. Affleck suggest that he recently took a meeting with body snatchers: In the fall of 2000, he was quoted talking about a three-month period when he burned through $40,000 (compared to the $400,000 he reportedly spent that weekend in Vegas). "That taught me to be a little more careful and ever since I've tried not to emulate the typical celebrity lifestyle," he said. "I mean, I don't need a couple of Ferraris and a marble palazzo to feel good about myself." So said the man who now buys his girlfriend a luxury car in the "you get me next time" way that other boyfriends buy their girlfriends cups of coffee. For all the chatter about the indicia of their courtship-the jewelry, the gifts, the designer clothes, the Lucite-heeled stripper shoes, the candles and strewn rose pedals-very little is said or ventured about their courtship's emotional underpinnings. Maybe admitting that they truly do desperately love each other would mean forfeiting the requisite New York City, media-savvy cynicism. "Whenever I see them together, I just think they're putting on a show. How can someone go from P. Diddy to a cheese-dick like Ben?" said the entertainment-industry worker. "And how can a guy go from Gwyneth to J. Lo? I think I'd believe their love more if they didn't go around flaunting it. You'd think someone who's had two brief, failed marriages would have a little more shame." Sara pointed out, "There is no reason on earth to think he's anything but another Cris Judd." Elizabeth, on the other hand, conceded that "they fit a purpose in each other's life. Do I see them growing old together? That's a stretch." "Every woman wants to end up in a relationship when you paw at each other all the time because you're so in love," said Us Weekly 's Ms. Min. "Does that intensity ever last? It might evolve to a whole different level that works for them. "They got really hot really fast," she added, "and they're going to have an enormous, lavish wedding, I imagine. And the only thing I can say is, I never saw her acting this way with her other two husbands." (Ms. Lopez did, however, act that way with P. Diddy, who was, of course, considerably higher-profile than Ojani Noa and Cris Judd.) The true test of J. Lo and Ben's commitment to each other, and their commitment to exposing that commitment-and women's capacity to care endlessly about it-may come with their rumored Caribbean wedding next month. Other hyped celebrity engagements and weddings serve as measuring sticks: Even Madonna wanted to cop some privacy both times she got married. Anne, a 32-year-old who works in book publishing, said, "J. Lo's whole shtick with Ben is the worst since Catherine Zeta-Jones sold her wedding photos." But Catherine Zeta-Jones' sale of photos from her November 2000 wedding to Michael Douglas (to OK! magazine for $1.5 million) seems downright plucky-quaint, almost-compared to what Ms. Lopez and Mr. Affleck have exhibited so far. One can only assume they'll keep it up. Until they don't. "They will be so embarrassed when this doesn't work out," the entertainment-industry worker said. "I can't wait."

The Speaker of the State Assembly, a man named Sheldon Silver, said the other day that some kind of tax increase-perhaps a surcharge-may be necessary to cover the state's frightening deficits. This is a bit of a hoot, because the last time Mr. Silver weighed in on the subject of taxation, he did so as a tax-cutter or, more precisely, a tax-eliminator.

Mr. Silver is the man responsible for the elimination of the city's commuter tax, which has cost New York $1 billion or so over the last few years. Now, you may think that this Sheldon Silver fellow is a Bush Republican, but in fact he's a mainstream Democrat from the Lower East Side. He is mainstream in the sense that he makes deals based on politics and not policy or public welfare. He approved an end to the commuter tax not because he thought great benefits would accrue now that commuters would keep an extra 0.45 percent of their earnings. No, he approved an end to the tax because some Republican State Senate candidate upstate was yammering on and on about the demon tax, and Mr. Silver, being a Democrat, didn't want the Republican to win. So he told his fellow Assembly Democrats that they would call the Republican's bluff-oh, they must have had a good laugh planning that one! "Get a load of this," these Democrats charged with protecting the city's interests said to themselves. "This yahoo up in Rockland County thinks he can win by screaming about the commuter tax? Well, we'll launch a surprise counterstrike. We'll support a bill to eliminate the tax, even though it will cost the city about half a billion dollars a year! Who cares? We can't let nasty Republicans win that Senate seat because ... well, because they're evil. They're the other team!" Mr. Silver has the power to tell his fellow Assembly Democrats what to do because, as the Assembly Speaker, he hands out millions of dollars to his members so they can fund local projects and thus be proclaimed heroes. This is why they are re-elected with only token opposition. Voters remember that their local Assembly member stops by the community center with a check every two years. In Albany, it is assumed that if you do not show up with checks at community centers, you are destined for defeat and unemployment. So you do whatever it takes to keep getting those checks that Speaker Silver hands out. And if that means voting in favor of a bill that will cost the city half a billion dollars a year because that's what the Speaker wants-well, you have to do what you have to do. So the Assembly approved the tax elimination, and the Senate Republicans did likewise because, well, their bluff had been so cleverly called. George Pataki, who loves doing things that make people happy, signed the bill, and it became law-and, by the way, the Republican upstate won the election, and you probably couldn't find seven non-politicians in New York who know his name. Rightfully so, since it doesn't matter. As of this writing, we don't know whether Mr. Pataki will include any kind of tax increases, including temporary surcharges, in his bad-news-budget message. It would be stunning if he did, because it appears that governors in both parties read from the same political handbook, the one that defines "tax increases" as "a drastic measure certain to end the career of all who utter the phrase." A picture of Jim Florio, the very former Governor of New Jersey, adorns this entry. If Mr. Pataki wishes to be bold, he will have to do more than utter threadbare words adapted to his cadence from the original Sorensen. At his third swearing-in on Jan. 1, the Governor reminded us that his inaugural ceremonies represented not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom, or liberty, or whatever else his speechwriters borrowed from John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech. He chose discretion over valor and only hinted that maybe things might not be so pleasant in the near future. Mr. Pataki's colleagues around the country face similarly unpleasant circumstances. State governments have huge deficits (with California's $35 billion leading the way) and few resources, because no one wants to become the next Jim Florio. Mr. Silver seems to think that New York's case is special because of Sept. 11 and that the city therefore has a legitimate claim on more federal aid. Lots of luck selling that one. Imagine, though, that under Mr. Pataki's vigorous leadership, the nation's governors demand of Congress and the President the right to collect a sales tax on goods purchased online. I haven't the foggiest idea how that would work, but it seems clear that the current system is grossly unfair and downright dumb. Amazingly enough, it was not created in the New York State Legislature.

Wednesday 8th

If you're like us, your idea of exercising in 2002 was to order the supersized Coke because it's harder to lift-and thus we are all rather supersized ourselves. So we called the Reebok Sports Club to find out the workout du jour post–spinning craze. (Sitting on a bike while someone growls at us over a microphone?) Plucky trainer Heather Eary said yoga remains the sticky star of the exercise world. "There's still a huge emphasis on the mind-body connection," she said. "It's gotten even more popular in the last year. It think it has to do with our crazy lifestyles, and with what's going on in the world right now." Gym memberships tend to soar after New Year's, but within a month, people start bailing out like United shareholders. So beat the crowd by waiting a few weeks until memberships drop off and you can get a treadmill without making a reservation. Oh, and leave your newlywed spouse at home: The Reebok is where fresh-off-her-honeymoon Jessica Sklar was un-wedded by Jerry Seinfeld . Speaking of comedians: People are funny! (Or they are hell, depending on what time of the day it is and whether we've had our coffee yet and whether we've had any run-ins with French tourists .) Today, a 12-film retrospective, People Are Funny: The Films of Leo McCarey , continues with Duck Soup and Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys! [Reebok Sports Club, 160 Columbus Avenue at 67th Street, 362-6800; People Are Funny: The Films of Leo McCarey , Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, 165 West 65th Street, plaza level, 875-5600.] Thursday 9th Stuyvesant seniors finally take off the Harvard and Yale sweatshirts they've been wearing every day since their early acceptance letters arrived last month. Why ? Because they're in a fashion show tonight, of course! ELLEgirl magazine hosts a "Fashion for a Cause" catwalk at the Tribeca school to raise money for students in Kosovo, and the Stuy guys and gals will model spring 2003 fashions. Meanwhile , uptown at Sotheby's, the Aperture Foundation celebrates its 50th Anniversary Golden Gala with a silent auction and photography retrospective. Socialite Muffie Potter Aston and Bubba-pardon playmate Denise Rich will serve on the benefit committee. Honorary chairman Sir Elton John , meanwhile, will blend in like Yao Ming in Munchkinland. [Fashion for a Cause, Stuyvesant High School, 345 Chambers Street, 5 p.m., $10, 767-5924; Aperture's 50th Anniversary Golden Gala, Sotheby's, 1334 York Avenue, 6:30 p.m., 505-5555, ext. 341.] Friday 10th If diamonds are really a girl's best friend , then our only friends come over on Thursday nights and get $1 million an episode. Tonight at the Inaugural Gem Awards Gala, the man behind the coveted blue box- Tiffany poobah Michael J. Kowalski -sucks in his cummerbund and receives the 2003 Corporate Communications Award for an outstanding marketing campaign. We'll say! If you don't have $500, sail over to City Center, where Gilbert and Sullivan's light opera The Pirates of Penzance is playing-and it's still as fresh as when it premiered in New York on New Year's Eve 123 years ago! [The Jewelry Information Center's Inaugural Gem Awards Gala, Cipriani, 110 East 42nd Street, black tie, 7 p.m., 843-1724; The Pirates of Penzance , City Center, 145 West 55th Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, 8 p.m., 581-1212.] Saturday 11th Show me the monkey! Has the art world gone bananas? Today at the Julie Saul Gallery, photographer Arne Svenson exhibits his snaps of Boone Gallery director Ron Warren's collection of sock monkeys. Mr. Svenson hopes to ultimately photograph Mr. Warren's entire collection, which includes over 1,800 monkeys and makes us feel much better about our affinity for commemorative plates. "I love anything obsessive-anything that has a lot of something . And if it has a face, I'm there !" said the giddy photographer. As for the afore mentioned monkeys, some are currently touring the country, many are in storage, and the rest reside in their own wing of Mr. Warren's apartment. "I decided to do it in classical-portrait style against black velvet," said Mr. Svenson. "We originally shot them in color, but none of the personality of each individual monkey was coming out. All you saw was just a red mouth and eyes. In the black-and-white photographs, though, the character inherent within the creature comes out." And in a blinding moment of inspiration, it seems that Penn and Teller, Isaac Mizrahi, our own Simon Doonan and others have contributed original short stories about their favorite sock-monkey photograph . According to Mr. Svenson, the stories "range from the sweet to the frightening, the sublime to the bizarre." [Sock Monkeys, Julie Saul Gallery, 535 West 22nd Street, 11 a.m., 627-2410.] Sunday 12th Note to New York men: For some reason, you seem not to have noticed that women cannot walk on subway grates because our heels fall through. So please move over and pony up some sidewalk, sirs! In the meantime, ladies, shoes are now up to 50 percent off at Stuart Weitzman, so you can at least fall through the grates in style … and while we're on the subject of the men folk, today is your very last day to see Chris Paseka's Nice Guys Don't Piss on Tulips , a comedy about a man who "rediscovers his true self and the meaning of life, love and one night of freaky-nasty sex." Mr. Paseka wrote his play while working a day job as a "manny" to three children. "There's this one character who we call the 'baseball sex freak' because she uses baseball analogies in bed and gets a little nasty with it," he said. "When my mother read the play, I tried to apologize for that part, and she said, 'Actually, this is kind of realistic.' I kind of went blind when she said that." You go, Mommy girlfriend! [Stuart Weitzman, 625 Madison Avenue, near 58th Street, noon, 750-2555; Nice Guys Don't Piss on Tulips , the Grand Theater, Producers' Club, 358 West 44th, 613-0057.] Monday 13th You know those Hollywood actors you're never sure are still alive and kicking? We hereby extend that guessing game to New York venues like Planet Hollywood. Just when you think they've made like a carnival goldfish , they're throwing a big sloppy party! Tonight, Planet Hollywood launches NYC Pet Project, a book of photos featuring celebs and their furry friends (although, thankfully, not that photo of a nude David Hasselhoff wearing only Shar-Pei puppies -we still cry at night). Guests include the most handsome George Hamilton , the very talented Mary Tyler Moore and Alicia Silverstone , who was one step away from showing up on NBC's Celebrity Fear Factor before The Graduate came to the rescue. Other celebs in the book include our favorite Golden Girl , Rue McClanahan, who called us from the Murray Hill duplex she shares with her husband, Mauro, and part-Siamese cat, Bianca . "The three of us live together as a family. Bianca's very important," she told us before confiding that she grows her own catnip. "I had one cat named Celestine, and whenever she encounteredcatnip, she'd lie down and pull herself around in pinwheels all over the floor." We knew a guy like that once …. When she's not sending kitties on a bender, Ms. McClanahan is gearing up for her new Broadway musical, 6 Dance Lessons in 6 Weeks , as well as an exercise video for the over-55 crowd. "Who knows what we're going to call that one!" she said. " Workout with Rue ?" [ NYC Pet Project , Planet Hollywood, 45th Street and Broadway, 917-521-0820.] Tuesday 14th Woody or wouldn't he? Woody Allen whips out his clarinet and fronts his New Orleans Jazz Band at a benefit honoring former N.Y.C. Planning Commission chair Joseph B. Rose. The Eldridge Street Project hosts the event, which includes a silent auction of works donated by Maya Lin, Cindy Sherman and the newly resurgent David Salle. If Ms. Lin shows up, beg her to design a W.T.C. memorial before it's too late. This summer, Mr. Allen will star with Sean Penn in Why Men Shouldn't Marry , directed by Steven Bing, who shunned Liz Hurley last year when she was pregnant with his child (we don't even have a joke here) …. And if it's more jazz you want, more jazz we got! Later on tonight, the Algonquin Hotel (the "Gonk" to us regulars) presents jazz vocalist Curtis Stigers. Mr. Stigers, who told us that he grew up "in Boise, Idaho, of all places," once rebelled against his Midwest roots with a two-year stint with long hair. "I didn't have a mullet-I swear to God, I didn't have a mullet! One time, during a television interview in Ireland, the host asked me about my mullet, and I jumped down his throat and said, 'Look, buddy , it wasn't a mullet! ' He responded, 'Of course it was!' -and we nearly came to blows." Mr. Stigers said jazz singers are actually discriminated against in the city's clubs. "Most of the jazz clubs in the city are instrumental-syncratic -it's a tough road for singers. There are a lot of places where a trumpeter can go to a jam session, work on his chops and break into the scene, but there aren't too many opportunities for a person to sing jazz. It's a double-edged something … a double-edged thingie." [The Eldridge Street Project, the Regent Wall Street, 55 Wall Street between William and Hanover streets, 6:30 p.m., 245-6570, ext. 18; The Oak Room, Algonquin Hotel, 59 West 44th Street, 9 p.m., 310-957-5757, ext. 405.] Wednesday 15th Smallpox vaccines are the new Botox …. But spend tonight at the other kind of clinic, at the Off Broadway production of Almost Live from the Betty Ford Clinic . According to director Michael West , the play is a "satire on our culture's addiction to celebrities and celebrities' addictions to … other things." Characters include Jerry Lewis, Liberace and Liza Minnelli. Mr. West perked up at the mention of Ms. Minnelli's name. "Oh, have you heard anything in the last day or two?" he asked. "I've been in Florida and can't get my hands on the Post !" Also on the roster is someone who calls him/herself Pee-wee Merman -a hybrid who looks like Pee-wee Herman from the neck down, Ethel Merman from the neck up. He says Pee-weeish things, but in Ethel's voice. Still with us? Somehow, the existence of Pee-wee Merman makes us optimistic for 2003. Don't know why, but it does. [Douglas Fairbanks Theatre, 432 West 42nd Street, 8 p.m., $20, 239-4321.]
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Recently, staffers on The New York Times culture desk received an e-mail from their new editor, Steve Erlanger. As a "kind of a New Year's Gift," Mr. Erlanger sent along a piece by Jane Kramer from the Aug. 19, 2002, New Yorker entitled: "The Reporter's Kitchen: A Recipe for Writing."

"It may strike some of you as a strange thing for a new culture editor to do," Mr. Erlanger wrote. "But I want to encourage all of us to think more broadly, engage more deeply and, simply, to write and edit better. I've been impressed and gratified by some of what we've published in the last weeks of the year. But I've also been dismayed by some of the flat, careless and inelegant writing I've seen, some of which has gotten into the paper. "There really are no excuses (or, very few, I suppose, including high fever in flu season) for dull and pedestrian leads, especially on stories about creativity, about art, literature and culture," Mr. Erlanger continued. "I know we can do better; I want to encourage you to try." Mr. Erlanger, previously based in Berlin, went on to speak of the importance of culture writing in The Times , particularly given its role as a paper of national and international importance. While well-meaning, to sources within The Times said that Mr. Erlanger's words caused hurt feelings among members of the culture desk, where the new boss is still a relative stranger. For his part, Mr. Erlanger declined to comment on the memo, saying it "speaks for itself." Regarding his plans for the paper's cultural coverage, he declined to go into details, but said: "What we do in the section matters. I'm concentrating now on understanding how it works before deciding how to make it better. "I'm trying to approach things with a degree of humility," Mr. Erlanger continued. "But I'm finding the experience quite exciting." It was a late afternoon in Chinatown, and Shawn Coyne-a New York book publisher and the latest quixotic entrepreneur to try to salvage the fabled but wheezing National Lampoon magazine-reached onto a glass coffee table and lifted up a well-worn copy of his personal Bible: the 1964 National Lampoon High School Yearbook Parody , with its infamously bare-assed cheerleader on the cover. "It all started because of this bare butt," the 38-year-old Mr. Coyne said, pointing to the tush in question. "This thing has haunted me for 15 years." Lampoon- ites know that the Parody issue introduced the seminal character of Larry Kroger, the hapless nerd at C. Estes Kefauver High School in Dacron, Ohio, who later became a pop-culture legend as Pinto, the virgin fraternity pledge in National Lampoon's Animal House . In fall 2003, Mr. Coyne, the co-founder of Rugged Land Books, and his partner, movie producer Webster Stone, will reissue High School Parody , with updates of all the characters and a new introduction by one of the book's now-grizzled original editors, P.J. O'Rourke. And if all goes according to plan, Mr. Coyne and Mr. Stone will relaunch National Lampoon magazine, which since 1998 has been as dead as Doug Neidermeyer's white horse, Trooper. The reanimation of the magazine Lampoon -where writers like Mr. O'Rourke and John Hughes were published and first exposed to a mass-market audience-has been in the works for some time. Mr. Coyne and Mr. Stone are currently in negotiations with the Los Angeles–based National Lampoon L.L.C., which owns the franchise and the name, to allow them to publish a print product. They have also brought in Deanna Brown-who co-founded the now-defunct Inside.com with Michael Hirschorn and Kurt Andersen-to help search for editors. "Our times are such that we really need a national humor magazine," Mr. Coyne said. "I can't think of anything funnier than National Lampoon from 1971 to 1979, and all the wonderful writers they had on it. I think there's so much comedic talent, writing talent, people that work for the major television shows that don't get to do more edgy material. Wouldn't it be cool to see if we wouldn't be able to work with National Lampoon ? To see if we can't put together something that's fun?" Said Mr. Stone, 41: "What we had envisioned was not something along the lines of what the National Lampoon was on the way down. It was more along the lines of what the National Lampoon was when it started, with some elements of Spy ." Mr. Coyne and Mr. Stone wouldn't discuss their plans in great detail, because they said their negotiations with National Lampoon haven't been completed. They wouldn't discuss if they had additional partners, the magazine's potential frequency or other staffing moves. But they did indicate that the Lampoon relaunch would be gradual, and that they'd try to minimize their spending. "This will not be a two-million [circulation] launch," Mr. Coyne said. He said he wanted the magazine to build its buzz in a more "organic" fashion: "We want it to be funny and edgy and cool, so that people will want to buy it and talk about it." A new Lampoon magazine will have to do a great deal to match its influential predecessor. Founded in April 1970 by alumni of the Harvard Lampoon , the original National Lampoon was the anti-Nixonian, sexually charged joker of its age. In the years before Saturday Night Live , the Lampoon was the outlet for a young, edgy, humor-deprived populace as G. Gordon Liddy and the boys were fumbling around the Watergate Hotel. "I think it was the first appearance in print of a kind of satire that had appeared for several-if not many-years in other venues," said Tony Hendra, a former editor with the original magazine who wrote about his Lampoon experience in the June 2002 issue of Harper's . "Certainly in nightclubs. And even in movies. To me, Dr. Strangelove is one of the greatest satires ever written. There was bound to come a time where that would find its way into print." But as the 70's and 80's progressed, and the Lampoon successfully ventured into film with Animal House and the Vacation series, the magazine struggled to regain its Nixon-era vitality. Several people unsuccessfully tried to revive the magazine, including actor Tim Matheson (who played Otter in Animal Hous e) and Daniel Grodnick, who co-owned the magazine from 1989 to 1990, and J2 Communications, which first reduced the magazine's frequency, then finally killed it off in 1998. In 2002, the Lampoon made the first steps towards a comeback. Promising a return to glory, financier Daniel Laikin and a group of investors acquired 70 percent of the company, which had been wanting for original ideas (last year, for instance National Lampoon lent its name to the college comedy Van Wilder , but had little involvement beyond that). Former BMG chief executive Stuart Zelnick bought a minority stake, and the Lampoon 's Web site sent out a Hollywood Reporter spoof (called The Hollywood Retorter ) to 4,000 people. Mr. Laikin, now company C.E.O., declined to comment. Mr. Coyne said: "They're really very much interested in revitalizing the brand. They're very dedicated and hard-working, and want to do everything in their power to bring National Lampoon back to its glory." Still, the recent Lampoon overhaul didn't necessarily include plans for a magazine until Rugged Land entered the picture last year. Jointly founded by Mr. Coyne, a former editor at Doubleday, and Mr. Stone, the executive producer of the films Gone in 60 Seconds and The Negotiator , the Canal Street–headquartered publishing company was founded on the idea of being a small, independent imprint that could turn its properties into films. In 2002, Rugged Land produced two national best-selling books and came to an agreement with National Lampoon L.L.C. to produce a line of National Lampoon books, beginning in the fall of 2003. After toying with the idea of doing a "one-off" version of the magazine in conjunction with both the re-release of Animal House and the High School Parody , Mr. Stone's college friend and Inside.com co-founder, Michael Hirschorn, suggested they contact Ms. Brown. From there, Mr. Stone said, things "kind of took on a life of their own." Though its would-be re-creators are eager to get the publication going again, not all of the Lampoon 's alumni are as enthusiastic. Asked if there was room for a new Lampoon in 2003, former Lampoon contributor Bruce McCall told Off the Record: "No. Emphatically no. You can't get good people to bother with the laborious process of reading humor. It's a really doomed cause. I can't imagine anybody who would think this culture would want that. It's doomed. It's stupid. Nobody remembers it. The cachet isn't there. Nothing's there. In the late 60's, with the Harvard Lampoon , there wasn't any competition. There wasn't any reasonably hip stuff on television, so the Lampoon took off. The first rule of wisdom is to learn from the past-and there just isn't anything there." Michael Gross, the magazine's original art director, agreed the Lampoon was better left dead and buried. "I think its over. There are 15 television shows that do the exact same thing. It's been replaced. You have The Onion . It's over. It's in the past. We should leave it there." Likewise, Mr. Hendra-who said he toyed with running the magazine under Mr. Matheson-said: "I also have a feeling that this is a beast that's well and truly dead. In fact, when writing my article for Harper's , I found people were only really interested in thinking of the Lampoon as a nostalgia item-something that represented their youth or the 70's, or both. The idea of it once again prowling the land doesn't excite anyone." But Mr. Coyne and Mr. Stone firmly disagree. "It's not like we're launching a rehash of the old National Lampoon ," Mr. Coyne said. "It's a whole new sensibility …. The Onion is basically National Lampoon . It's a take on what National Lampoon started, which is the fake news story. So you have this wonderfully funny franchise based on only one thing the National Lampoon did. I know there's a whole generation out there that can't get their stuff published. And wouldn't it be fun to give people the ability to do original material?" Maer's Content! Newsweek columnist, media entrepreneur and ex– Brill's Content publisher Steve Brill told Off the Record this week that he has spoken to Maer Roshan, the former editorial director of Talk , about helping to fund Mr. Roshan's new magazine idea, Radar . "I've been looking at it as a potential investor," Mr. Brill said. "We're still talking. I'm really impressed by the prototype issues he's produced. I didn't expect I'd have any interest at all, but I think he has an idea that might work. "I'm a bit of a contrarian," Mr. Brill continued. "I think it's a good time to start a magazine. You can get people less expensively. It takes you six months to a year [or] 12 to 18 months-to get the thing going. And by then, the advertising's back. If I were starting a magazine, this would be a good time to start one." Mr. Roshan, who reportedly has lost National Enquirer publisher American Media as an investor, declined to comment.

George Clooney's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind , from a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, based on the book by Chuck Barris, plays out as an amusing parody of A Beautiful Mind (2001). But whereas the delusional creatures of Russell Crowe's schizophrenic John Nash are little short of terrifying in the vivid, lifelike performances of Ed Harris as an imaginary C.I.A. superior and Paul Bettany as an imaginary college roommate, the possibly equally imaginary C.I.A. spies dreamed up by Sam Rockwell's Baron Munchausen-like Chuck Barris perform with an exaggerated theatricality that satirically undercuts their presumed reality. Indeed, George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Rutger Hauer chew up so much dark, snowy scenery here and abroad that the Cold Warriors they play seem to have been parachuted down from another, more noirish movie. So many things could have gone wrong with a conceit of this magnitude and audacity. But since they didn't, Mr. Clooney, Mr. Kaufman and all their collaborators are entitled to take a deep bow for fashioning an engrossing entertainment out of an almost sure-fire prescription for a critical and commercial disaster.

At a time when television "reality shows" have plunged to new depths of bad taste and pathological sadism-at this point, only outright snuff spectacles still lurk farther down the anything-for-a-rating depravity scale-one feels almost nostalgic in revisiting such 60's network-programming idiocies as Mr. Barris' The Dating Game , The Newlywed Game and, for a percussive climax, the infamous Gong Show . The point is, how many times can America "lose its innocence"-with or without the assistance of schlock television? The X-factor that renders Confessions of a Dangerous Mind more compelling than it would be if it took a more naïve view of America in the 60's is Mr. Kaufman's flair for developing in his screenplays the serio-comic potential of protagonists with damaged, though not clinically deranged, psyches. His alter ego(s) in Adaptation , played by Nicolas Cage, and even the absurdist John Cusack nonhero in Being John Malkovich (1999) are the predecessors for Mr. Rockwell's Barris in Mr. Kaufman's creative pressure cooker. In interviews with Mr. Barris, it's been reported that the movie has gone beyond even the tall tales in the original "unauthorized autobiography," but that the seemingly cynical "author" isn't complaining, inasmuch as he himself has been shamelessly peddling the project for years. For his part, Mr. Clooney has managed in his directorial debut to find a style that is light and lucid but never facetious, and intermittently emotional but never turgid. With the help of the resourceful Mr. Rockwell, he also has a central performance that never becomes boringly egocentric. Mr. Clooney even manages to avoid overmilking the deliciously funny cameo appearances by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon as rejected "dates" on Mr. Barris' The Dating Game . Mr. Barris himself makes a chilling appearance in the new millennium as the would-be "producer" of a quasi-suicidal game show with a couple of old geezers like himself, each with a fully loaded gun, to see which of the three pathetic panelists would be the first to blow his brains out. And sprinkled along the way are cinéma vérité -like interviews with real-life witnesses to this one-time celebrity's strange life, such as Jim Lange, Gene (Gene, Gene the Dancing Machine) Patton, Jaye P. Morgan, Dick Clark and Murray Langston. Drew Barrymore as Penny, the fruitlessly loyal wife and main squeeze, provides what little "heart and soul" there is in Mr. Barris' lifelong loser's zeal to "make out." Her joyous ripostes with Mr. Rockwell lift the film's spirits with more buoyancy than would normally be expected from the ever-downward trajectory of a life never fully realized or satisfied. The nowadays-omnipresent Maggie Gyllenhaal, along with Kristen Wilson and Jennifer Hall, provide Mr. Rockwell's befuddled Barris with a series of casual entanglements that leave no permanent scars of degradation and exploitation. These sardonic encounters mark the brief, painlessly hedonistic, pill-assisted period in American sexual history between the decline of syphilis and the onset of AIDS. Even here, Mr. Clooney's deft direction achieves a hilariously cartoonish irony by contrasting Mr. Barris' thwarted high-school passes in fleapits-of-passion movie houses full of furiously necking couples, and his frantic catching-up period in adulthood, when he and his girlfriend are the only neckers in a theater full of people concentrating on the movie on the screen. The producing credits for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind confirm an interesting trend in contemporary filmmaking-one that's at variance with the hallowed Hollywood studio insistence on the craft specializations still celebrated by the annual Oscar ceremonies. An extreme example occurred in 1936, when producer Samuel Goldwyn fired director Howard Hawks for writing some dialogue into the script for Come and Get It , whereupon Goldwyn replaced Hawks with the presumably purer and more exclusively directorial William Wyler. These days, an arty director like Steven Soderbergh shares a producer credit with more habitual pure-producer types like Jonathan Gordon, Stephen Evans, and Bob and Harvey Weinstein of Miramax. Indeed, this movie probably only came about because Mr. Clooney lent his considerable clout as a bankable star to the project, along with his ability to lure industry friends and "name" actresses like Julia Roberts and Drew Barrymore to the film. This welcome feeling of industry-wide craft-crossing appreciation and cooperation has historically been more prevalent in France and Italy than in America, but it's becoming more common over here, particularly in the more interesting projects. Hence, though no one ever accused Mr. Barris of having a beautiful mind, whatever mind that has emerged from his undeniably messy existence is the subject of a film with many beauties of its own. Dysfunction Junction After a brief sojourn with Gilbert and Sullivan in the unexpectedly joyous Topsy-Turvy (1999), realist-to-a-fault Mike Leigh returns to his familiar haunts close to the bottom of the heap in All or Nothing, from his own screenplay. I am willing to concede, unregenerate Aristotelian that I am, that Mr. Leigh is an extraordinary director of actors-perhaps too extraordinary. In All or Nothing , as a case in point, for close to two hours the audience is forced to endure three terminally depressed, mostly inarticulate, hyper dysfunctional families for the price of one. Phil (Timothy Spall) drives a cab with a generally wide-eyed catatonic expression. His comparatively diminutive wife, Penny (Lesley Manville), works at a grocery checkout counter to help support the family, which, besides Phil, consists of a foul-mouthed, grotesquely obese adolescent named Rory (James Corden) and his equally obese but better-tempered sister Rachel (Alison Garland), who mops the floors in an old-age home. Rory doesn't work at all-and, in fact, can barely move from the couch. Their friendliest neighbors include a single mother, Maureen (Ruth Sheen), and her daughter, Donna (Helen Coker), who has just been made pregnant by a noisy, good-for-nothing boyfriend named Sid (Sam Kelly). Two hopeless drunks complete Penny and Phil's circle: Carol (Marion Bailey) and Ron (Paul Jesson), whose weakness for alcohol disgusts their rude and sluttish daughter, Samantha (Sally Hawkins), whose only pleasure arises from her successful seduction of Sid. Halfway through the film, there's a moment of hope that something positive might happen. While the three wives are out boozing in a kind of karaoke bar, Maureen gets up and starts belting a song with a remarkably assured professionalism. As we wait eagerly for the thunderous applause that is sure to follow, Carol collapses noisily in a drunken heap on the floor, and Maureen has to stop her song to lend assistance. For me, that seemed like the last straw: set us up for a little lift, and then dash our hopes with a drunken pratfall. Except that suddenly the mood brightens and lightens after Rory collapses from a heart attack, and the family members gather around his hospital bed and start babbling as they have never babbled before. In their euphoric state, Mr. Spall and Ms. Manville stage one of the most electrifying scenes of midlife marital reconciliation I have ever seen. Is it enough to make up for all the mannered misery that preceded it? I'm not sure, but Mr. Spall and Ms. Manville are terrific just the same. Inspired French Noir Jean-Pierre Melville was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach in Paris in 1917, the son of a wholesale merchant. He later celebrated his long love affair with America, its movies and even its outsized (at the time) Cadillacs by adopting the last name of the author of Moby-Dick . Melville died in 1973, while working on the script for his 14th feature film. Le Cercle Rouge (1970), Melville's next-to-last film, starring Alain Delon, Yves Montand, André Bourvil, Gian Maria Volonté and Francois Périer, was his biggest hit in France. For some reason best known to the gurus of international distribution, the film wasn't released theatrically in the U.S. until the 1990's, and then only in a dubbed, mutilated version 40 minutes shorter than the 140 minutes of the original. Now, at last, Rialto Pictures and the Film Forum (209 West Houston Street, 727-8110) are unveiling the complete, uncut version of Le Cercle Rouge for the first time in the U.S. from Jan. 10 through Jan. 23. Henri Decae's(1915-1987)marvelously precise cinematography, inspiringly attuned to Melville's tragic vision of the lives and deaths of the most stoical criminals in the noir genre, is alone worth the price of admission. The big heist sequence in the middle of the film will evoke memories of John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Jules Dassin's Du Rififi Chez les Hommes (1955), which was originally promised as a directorial assignment to Melville. His own film, however, is less sentimental than either of its predecessors, and is content to keep the action at a disengaged distance so as to emphasize the existence of a world that will pay little note, nor long remember, the crimes and punishments of interlocked predators on both sides of the law. Two Immortals I am grateful to my colleague Rex Reed for reminding us all two weeks ago, in his masterly annual obituary column, of all the gifted people in and out of our chosen field that breathe, create and perform no more. By a strange coincidence, I was idly channel-surfing after reading Mr. Reed's column when I came upon Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dynamite (1972), which I had previously seen in a shortened version in the U.S. under the colloquially clumsy title Duck, You Sucker! Leone's protagonists are played by the late James Coburn (1928-2002) and the late Rod Steiger (1925-2002). Coburn plays an I.R.A. fugitive who joins the Mexican Revolution and brings along Steiger's cynically reluctant bandit for a final spiritual epiphany. The combination of Leone's obsessive close-ups, Ennio Morricone's melodious music, and the comradely chemistry of Coburn and Steiger ignite an emotional explosion comparable to that of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Leone's supreme masterpiece. Though my vicariously saddened feeling was intensified by gazing at two of the all-too-mortal marchers in Mr. Reed's passing parade, I was consoled somewhat by my being reminded of the cinema's ghostly immortality in granting eternal life to its departed through their specters on the screen.

Yes, he's a lifesaving heart surgeon and media star, Bill Frist, the Republicans' new Senate Majority Leader. And he's on the fast track to move up to Vice President in 2004 (depending on the health of the current heart-patient incumbent) and maybe President thereafter. All the more reason to spend a little time looking at a lesser-known, less heroic episode in his life, one Mr. Frist has apologized for as "heinous and dishonest," but which nonetheless shouldn't necessarily escape examination. Especially for what it can tell us about someone who is going places fast, someone who seems just too perfect to be true. I'm talking about the cat-killing. What perspective should we put this in?

Think of it this way: You have a sister, and she comes to you for advice. This guy named Bill has asked her to marry him. Great guy, this Bill, practically Mr. Perfect: a heart surgeon, ambitious, dedicated, everyone speaks well of him. There's just this one thing, something he felt the need to confess to her, something he did as a youth in medical school, something he now regrets, something he says he's ashamed of. It's long ago in the past, but it troubles your sister, and she's asking your advice about it because Bill-well, he lied and cheated essentially to kidnap and then dissect and kill cats. Oh, he did it for a good cause: He had some advanced ideas about a medical breakthrough, and they'd run out of cats to dissect at the medical school, so he'd go to animal shelters, make goo-goo eyes at a cat at each shelter to get them to let him adopt the shivering strays, take them home, and then perform experimental surgery on them. For a good purpose, a higher humanitarian purpose, he says-but obviously he isn't trying to excuse the lying and cheating, or the implicit betrayal of the poor trusting animals, who thought they were going to be given a home off the mean streets at last. So there it is, the question you can sense your sister is asking you: Should she put her life, her trust, in this fellow? Was it just a youthful indiscretion, or was it a signal of something deeply twisted? You know about this, don't you, Bill Frist and the cat-killing business-or the cat "research" business, if you prefer. You know how the new Republican majority leader admitted it in his now-hard-to-find 1989 autobiography-the one he wrote before he entered politics, when his claim to fame was as a heart-transplant pioneer and head of a big hospital and health-care corporation. It came up in his first Senate campaign in 1994, when the opposing camp in the Republican primary called Frist a cat-killer. It came up again two months before the Trent Lott fiasco made him Senate Majority Leader, when a Boston Globe profile (by Michael Kranish) on Oct. 27, 2002, quoted from a couple of paragraphs in Mr. Frist's autobiography. Mr. Frist is talking about his "experiments" at Harvard Medical School, and how he'd run out of available lab animals at the Harvard lab and, racing to complete his thesis, he went around to animal shelters, adopted cats, took them home and then cut them up in a lab-all for the sake of medical science: "It was, of course, a heinous and dishonest thing to do," he wrote. "And I was totally schizoid about the entire matter. By day, I was little Billy Frist, the boy who lived on Bowling Avenue in Nashville and had decided to become a doctor because of his gentle father and a dog named Scratchy. By night, I was Dr. William Harrison Frist, future cardiothoracic surgeon, who was not going to let a few sentiments about cute, furry little creatures stand in the way of his career. "In short, I was going a little crazy." I don't know if that implicit invocation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is just a "little crazy" or more deeply disturbing. I searched the Internet hoping to find more details about these cat kidnapping incidents, but most sources had picked up on the quote in the Globe because the Frist book was strangely not just out of print, but virtually nonexistent on major online Web sites like Amazon. (Mr. Frist has a new book out on bioterrorism, but there's no customary referral to this previous book). The Globe reporter told me that he consulted a used-book specialist who found him a copy, but now they're not available, even from those specialists. I put out calls to several sources to see if I could find the book, which is called Transplant: A Heart Surgeon's Account of the Life-and-Death Dramas of the New Medicine . I wanted at least to find the relevant pages on the cat-stealing and see if there were more telling details about this disturbing episode. Meanwhile, I found myself fascinated by several items that turned up on a Google search of "Bill Frist" and "cats." One of them was the strange encounter between former cat-killer Frist and the cat-killing Capitol gunman. It happened on July 24, 1998, and was to become the signature moment in the creation of the Frist media legend as heroic surgeon-Senator. Do you remember that story? Some nut job named "Rusty" Weston-who at one point claimed to be an illegitimate son of J.F.K. and the subject of death threats from Bill Clinton-tried to shoot his way into the Capitol building, fatally injuring two Capitol police officers while being shot badly himself. At the time of the shooting, Bill Frist was presiding over the Senate. He rushed to the scene, worked with the emergency ambulance crews to stabilize the shooting victims, and actually rode in the ambulance with the badly injured shooter. Although Mr. Frist didn't know at the time who was the shooter and who the victim, he did his best to stabilize Mr. Weston and keep him alive till he got to the hospital. It would later turn out that before he made his fatal journey to the Capitol, Mr. Weston had methodically shot dead some 14 of his family's cats. One account of the shooting had the line: "We know a lot more now than we used to about angry boys who kill cats for sport." It was a reference to studies that seemed to show that many serial killers and other psychopaths showed their first signs of derangement by killing pets and small animals. The irony was that scene in the ambulance: Although they'd taken different paths in life, one cat-killer was tended to by a person who had cat-killing in his past. Which suggests the possibility that the cat-killing was a kind of transformative moment in Mr. Frist's life, a moment in which, Lord Jim -like, he saw something in himself that he wished to turn against, to transcend, and so began devoting his life to reparative deeds. Or is something like that ineradicable? Even if the repentance were sincere, would you feel safe about your sister marrying a former illicit cat killer? Clearly, he felt guilt and shame about what he'd done-guilt and shame that may still show up in unexpected, perhaps not completely recognized ways. Consider the controversy over a Frist remark which briefly consumed the "blogosphere" (as the network of interacting politically minded Web logs has come to be called). As soon as Mr. Frist was made majority leader, a remark he made in his 1994 Senate campaign provoked debate over whether it was racial or racially coded. It seems that he was about to make a campaign stop in some high-crime inner-city area. One of his campaign aides brought a bunch of campaign pencils to hand out and asked Frist if he wanted them sharpened. Frist was reported to have said "I want the unsharpened ones. I don't want to get stuck." When the remark surfaced again this year, a debate broke out between two of the premier political bloggers, Joshua Micah Marshall (of talkingpointsmemo.com) and Mickey Kaus (of kausfiles.com, now incorporated into Slate ). The former suggested at least the strong possibility of a racial element in the comment; the latter argued that Mr. Frist could reasonably (and non-racially) be concerned about being stabbed by sharp-pointed pencils in the hurly-burly of a campaign appearance. I would suggest a third possibility: Could it not be repressed guilt over the illicit cat dissections surfacing? Why else the curious concern about strangers stabbing him with sharp-pointed objects-as he once did to those poor cats? More pertinently, though, how does one fit such an episode into the context of a life otherwise full of so many good deeds? I felt that more details were still needed-and finally, through the kind efforts of the Boston Globe 's Michael Kranish and Bruce Dobie, the editor of the well-regarded Nashville Scene magazine, I was able to get hold of the pages of Mr. Frist's autobiography that gave more of the context of the cat-killing confession-as much, anyway, as Mr. Frist was willing to give. He places his illicit activities in the context of his noble aspirations. He talks about the "hardening" that was "necessary" for someone who "had always loved animals. My childhood was filled with dogs, hamsters, fish, ducks, cats, horses, even turkeys and alligators. But you could not practice modern medicine without participating in laboratory animal research. Without the sacrifice of rats and cats and dogs and sheep, most of the miraculous things we can do with the human brain and the heart would not be possible." Then he adds this somewhat contradictory sentence: "Humane societies might object, and I would agree if the issue was the humane treatment of animals. But the issue was human lives." (Why isn't it both?) He tells us of the rewards: "It can even be beautiful and thrilling work, as I discovered that day in the lab when I first saw the wonderful workings of a dog's heart .... I spent days and nights on end in the lab, taking the hearts out of cats, dissecting each heart, suspending a strip of tiny muscle that attaches the mitral valve to the inner wall of the cat heart and recording the effects of various medicines I added to the bath surrounding the muscle." At times, he gives evidence of borderline grandiosity: "I was, for the first time in my life, making original discoveries. No one else in the history of man had ever done exactly what I was doing"-although he concedes in the same paragraph (again, it's somewhat contradictory) that his project was "really very basic," not "some grand breakthrough." Nonetheless, "[a]s I watched the little strip of muscle beat hour after hour through the night in the basement of the hospital, I felt quite pure, as if I were reaching out and touching some eternal truth of nature." But the contemplation of eternal truth was threatened, alas, by something mundane: "I lost my supply of cats. I only had six weeks to complete my project before I resumed my clinical rotations. Desperate, obsessed with my work, I visited the various animal shelters in the Boston suburbs, collecting cats .... " "Collecting cats"? What this euphemism elides over is that Mr. Frist apparently posed as someone who wanted to adopt kittens and strays. He asked the shelter people to trust him, he asked the poor shivering creatures in their cages to trust him, and then he "cart[ed] them off to the lab to die." (Sounds like the way the new majority leader is likely to treat the hapless Democratic minority in the Senate. Indeed, one of the most frequent quotes in my Google search compared the job of Senate Majority Leader to that of "herding cats.") And here's the telling detail I hadn't seen quoted in any of the stories on the episode: He took them home, "treating them as pets for a few days," before taking them to the lab to cut them open. Treated "them as pets for a few days" before "carting them off to the lab to die." Well, he does say it was "totally schizoid," but it's hard to imagine those few days: the way he briefly builds a relationship of trust with the trusting little creatures, gets to know them as pets . Lets them, at last, begin to feel safe and loved after a hard life on the mean streets. (Does he give them names before he kills them?) One tries to conjure up the scenes of domestic closeness between the young Dr. Jekyll and his little charges. And then the day arrives when the cat carrier comes out again, and the furry little creature begins to suspect what's in store. To those poor felines Frist was a lying "Joe Millionaire." (I'm told that, for good reason, most medical researchers who work with animals try to maintain a strict separation in their mind between pets they cuddle and lab animals they cut up.) So what would you advise your sister about being engaged to this guy? And speaking of the engagement question-it's hard to resist the connection-there is this other odd little matter that's brought up in most Frist profiles. After all the heroic-heart-surgeon accolades, usually about two thirds of the way down the Frist profile, the writer will mention that, "on the other hand," there's the cat-killing-and also the fact that Mr. Frist called off his planned wedding two days before the ceremony. This would be, you can imagine, a fairly devastating thing to have happen to you if you were Mr. Frist's unsuspecting, trusting fiancée. But again, there was a higher justification, sort of: Mr. Frist had met another woman whom he eventually married, so, in effect, for the sake of true true love it was into the cat carrier with the first fiancée, for the higher cause of the new Frist couple. Who knows, maybe he did the right thing for all concerned in the long run. As I said, in Mr. Frist's defense, these episodes of building and breaking trust may well have been the Lord Jim moments when he turned his life around and devoted himself to good deeds and atonement. But it raises interesting questions about how we put this into perspective in evaluating a man who may well be one strip of heart muscle away from the Vice Presidency, and someday seek to be President himself. We all want to extend forgiveness to those who have confessed their sins, as Mr. Frist has-so far as we know-forthrightly done. "We hope the drive behind that pattern of behavior has been purged," a spokesperson for the Humane Society said. I was impressed by the reaction of PETA, which didn't denounce Mr. Frist outright but rather asked him to demonstrate the sincerity of his repentance by sponsoring animal-friendly legislation. (The PETA statement, I must admit, sounded like the State Department's delicate rhetoric when dealing with North Korean nuclear madman Kim Jong Il.) But if PETA is, at least theoretically, willing to forgive .... Still, I don't know-there are a lot of heroic heart surgeons in America, and I can't imagine they all found it necessary to lie and cheat animal shelters, to build up and break a relationship of trust with a helpless animal before cutting it up to advance their careers. Even those who don't oppose the use of animals for medical experimentation might have trouble with this kind of behavior-trouble that a confession would not completely obviate. I myself have difficulty drawing the line with any consistency on these issues. I was only sensitized to the question when I came to know Liz Hecht, the animal-rights activist and former director of Citizens for Alternatives to Animal Labs Inc., which has had some success in getting local New York hospitals to adopt more humane procedures. Ms. Hecht was always justly outraged by reports of the widespread practice of lab-animal "suppliers" who used Frist-like methods to essentially kidnap animals from shelters and private yards and sell them to medical-research facilities. She referred me to the outreach director for the American Anti-Vivisection Society (www.aavs.org), Crystal Spiegel, who said that three states still have "pound seizure laws," which actually allow anyone with some sort of research-supply license to show up at a shelter and demand any number of rescued creatures to take to labs for dissection and experiment. A reading of the current Massachusetts animal-welfare law (which passed apparently after Mr. Frist's own "catnappings"), suggests that what the Senate Majority Leader did back then would be illegal now. And it's not just an isolated practice even now, alas. Ms. Hecht recommended a sobering book by Judith Reitman called Stolen for Profit: The True Story Behind the Disappearance of Millions of America's Beloved Pets , which documents the way unscrupulous suppliers of lab animals steal pets from yards and sell them for dissection. Liz also sent me a thoughtful treatise on the whole lab controversy: In the Name of Science: Issues in Responsible Animal Experimentation by F. Barbara Orlans, a professor at Georgetown's Kennedy Institute of Ethics. It was Ms. Hecht, of course, who did more than sensitize me to animal rights; she also found me the cat who changed my life-the late, lamented Stumpy, an orange stray found bleeding on the Brooklyn waterfront, one who could easily have been Fristed by animal-lab suppliers if it hadn't been for cat rescuers like Liz. Indeed, although Stumpy never confided the story of how he lost his tail (which, because it had been half-bitten or cut off, had to be amputated-hence the name) and although he liked to imply that it was "mob-related," I now suspect it was a heroic escape from a local Bill Frist about to cart him off to a lab. So, even though I have political differences with Mr. Frist (see my columns on the Patients' Bill of Rights debate, July 16 and 25, 2001; he tried to gut it on behalf of the insurance industry), I will concede that at least part of my reaction to the Frist cat-killing episode is personal. It grows as well out of my personal contact with cat-rescue organizations like City Critters Inc. After Stumpy's death last year, I asked faithful readers who had been moved by my accounts of Stumpy's life and death to contribute to a special Stumpy Fund that City Critters set up to care for badly injured, rescued strays. If you go to the City Critters Web site (www.citycritters.org), you can see pictures of Stumpy and some of the cats who have been cared for by Observer -reader donations made in his name (donations in Stumpy's name can still be sent to City Critters Inc., P.O. Box 1345, Canal Street Station, New York, N.Y. 10013). So maybe some good will come out of this meditation on Bill Frist's cat-killing past. Maybe some people will feel motivated to donate to help the selfless people in such groups who devote themselves to the plight of the strays who would otherwise be prey to the Frists of today. I was immensely gratified by the response of readers to my plea to make a donation in Stumpy's name in that column about his death (July 30, 2001). I was even more gratified at the cards and letters I received when The Observer reprinted a brief excerpt from that column along with a picture of Stumpy in its recent anniversary issue. People respond to that picture: That little guy still has got it goin' on , even posthumously. All of which prompts me to conclude with a disclosure that faithful readers and Stumpy's fans deserve to know. After long hesitation, I've finally adopted a successor to Stumpy. Not merely a successor: a spooky virtual look-alike orange stray also found in Brooklyn-who, I'm convinced, may be a descendant of the Stumpman himself. I call him Bruno, and I'll have more to say about him in a subsequent column. But for now, for Bruno, for Stumpy and for all the other desperate stray animals out there, I would appeal to Bill Frist by saying: You were honest, yes, in confessing the "heinous and dishonest" thing you did-and it's in the past, and you've helped a lot of people. But you've still got a long way to go; there are still a lot of things you're now in a position to do-not just to protect animals in peril from the ambitious young Bill Frists of today, but for people in trouble (what about getting unemployment benefits extended, pronto, and passing a legitimate Patients' Bill of Rights?) before you can wipe the slate clean. Before you can wash the bloody memory of those strays off your surgical gloves.
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On an early December morning, several weeks before Republican Party officials announced that they would hold their 2004 national convention in New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg paced back and forth in a conference room in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in lower Manhattan.

Mr. Bloomberg was mounting a final effort to win over members of the Republican National Committee. Although Bloomberg advisers have since said that the 9/11 attacks had nothing to do with their sales pitch, they had deliberately selected this particular conference room because it offered sweeping views of the Statue of Liberty, Governors Island and, of course, the hole in the ground where the World Trade Center once stood. Mr. Bloomberg opened his remarks by gesturing to Governors Island, recounting that President Bush had delivered on a plan to transform the island into a campus. He assured his listeners that he had won a "no-strike" promise from the city's labor unions. He talked about hotels. The one thing he didn't mention was Sept. 11. He didn't have to: The view spoke for itself. Ultimately, it was that hole in the ground-more than the details of City Hall's bid, or Mr. Bloomberg's wooing of Republicans with horse-drawn carriage rides-that led the G.O.P. to choose New York, a decision that was announced on Jan. 6. Senior national Republicans say that a convention in New York will remind voters of President Bush's leadership in the aftermath of the attacks. It also is intended, they said, to position the G.O.P. as the party best suited to lead the nation during its most dangerous moment since the Cold War, injecting a national-security theme into Mr. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign. "People at the White House and the Republican National Committee agree that the image of a city rising from adversity is a great backdrop for the convention," Ron Kaufman, a Republican National Committee member from Massachusetts, told The Observer . The G.O.P.'s decision to come to New York, rather than Tampa or New Orleans, shows how dramatically Sept. 11 has changed the relationship between the city and the national Republican Party. Only a few years ago, Republicans from the South and West routinely assailed the city as a symbol of big government and unwholesome lifestyles. Now, Republicans are embracing New York-institutionally if not individually-as an embodiment of everything the Bush Presidency stands for. National Republicans like to say that President Bush's defining moment came when he toured Ground Zero on Sept. 14, throwing his arm around exhausted firefighters and offering a rousing tribute to recovery workers. "This is a huge sea change," said Republican Congressman Peter King of Long Island. "When I came to Congress, Newt Gingrich was in the ascendancy, and he couldn't give a speech without taking a shot at New York City. Now, the comeback spirit of New York really symbolizes what President Bush wants his first administration to be about." The city's civic leaders, led by Mayor Bloomberg, will spend the next 18 months preparing New York for the arrival of tens of thousands of delegates, party officials, guests and journalists, who will pump an estimated $150 million into the city's economy. The preparations will be elaborate, requiring the collaboration of the financiers who will raise the money, the big hotel owners who will secure space, the owners of the convention site-Madison Square Garden-and the architects who will prepare the James A. Farley Post Office Building for the international media. Not to mention the union leaders who will be expected to keep labor peace, and the board members at the big cultural institutions that will host parties and other events. The heads of these institutions already are preparing for a deluge of Republicans. "We're going to show the Republicans a great time, New York–style," said Karen Brooks Hopkins, the president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, who chairs a group comprising dozens of the city's top cultural institutions. Other efforts are also underway. Mr. Bloomberg has assembled a team of fund-raisers who have pledged to raise $53 million in private money to fund the convention. Among them: Marie-Josée Kravis, senior fellow of the Hudson Institute; Jack Hennessy, senior adviser of Credit Suisse First Boston; Andi Bernstein, vice president of Oxygen Media; investment banker and former Port Authority chairman Lew Eisenberg; and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, whose fund-raising ability is perhaps second only to that of President Bush himself. The fund-raising prowess of these and other New York figures proved to be a decisive factor in the G.O.P.'s decision. According to party sources, New York had an influential ally in Jack Oliver, President Bush's former finance chairman and the deputy chairman of the R.N.C., who argued that a convention in New York would help them reel in new donors for the Presidential campaign. Nor is it lost on national Republicans that Mr. Bloomberg can be a prodigious Republican donor and fund-raiser in his own right. He gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to the state Republican Party in 2001 when he needed its apparatus for his Mayoral run, and he has since given $250,000 to the national party, whose help he'll need in closing the city's massive budget gap. Still, it was the White House's appreciation of the political implications of Sept. 11 that drove the decision. Some Republicans say that Mr. Bush and his advisers had all but officially decided to hold the convention in New York as early as mid-December-weeks before members of the Republican National Committee, which is in charge of logistics, announced that they were recommending New York. Mr. King, for instance, said that President Bush had hinted during a conversation they had at the White House Christmas party that a decision about New York had been reached. "I told him, 'Mr. President, they still love you in New York,'" Mr. King told The Observer . "As I start to walk away, he grabs me by the arm and tells me, 'You're going to be seeing quite a bit of me in New York.' Then he gives me this big nod and a wink, like, 'You dope, I'm trying to tell you something.' It wasn't until the next morning, when I saw some stuff in the papers about the convention possibly coming to New York, that I realized that's what he was trying to tell me." The G.O.P.'s decision is a huge victory for Mr. Bloomberg and his special adviser, Kevin Sheekey, who oversaw the wooing of the Republicans. Mr. Bloomberg went to enormous lengths to prove to Republicans that a Democratic city could be a gracious host. He enlisted a parade of local union leaders, who personally assured R.N.C. officials that there would be no labor trouble, and got leading figures in the hotel industry to pledge huge blocks of rooms. A key component of the package offered by the city was the decision to convert the Farley building into a huge media center. In November, City Hall enlisted the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to draw up plans to transform the building and build a pedestrian bridge across Eighth Avenue connecting it to Madison Square Garden, where the convention will take place. A Brainstorm The idea to use the Farley building came to Mr. Sheekey as he stood inside the Beaux-Arts landmark, trying to figure out how to fix a possible deal-breaking reality: the Garden, which hosted the 1976, 1980 and 1992 Democratic national conventions, is now considered too small and outdated. "I was standing there [in the Farley building], surrounded by hundreds of thousands of square feet of empty space, in a building that has 100,000 square feet of dock space right across the street from Madison Square Garden," Mr. Sheekey said. "I thought, 'It can't be this easy.'" The Farley building is being vacated by the U.S. Postal Service and eventually will be converted into a new Penn Station, a pet cause of Mr. Sheekey's former boss, ex-Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. It is unlikely, as some Republicans have suggested, that the decision on the convention will actually turn New York into a battleground state in the 2004 election. The real benefit of bringing the convention to New York will be much broader in nature: It will give the impression that the party is willing to transcend partisanship to give a huge boost to a city wounded by an attack on America. And coming to New York City-a place that was once hostile to the G.O.P., but now has elected two consecutive Republican Mayors-will also suggest that the G.O.P. is confident in the party's broadening appeal. "It puts the Republicans on the offensive, and the Democrats on the defensive," Mr. Sheekey said. Or, as Republican consultant Rick Davis put it: "It sends a message to the national audience that they want to change people's minds." New York Democrats, who will be traveling to the predictably Democratic city of Boston for their convention, seem resigned to the fact that the symbolic contrast will favor the G.O.P. "Choosing New York was very smart for Republicans-not because of how it will play in New York, but because of how it will play around the country," said Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committee member from New York. "It has tremendous symbolic value, both because of Sept. 11 and because the Republicans are coming into a diverse urban area.

Great Neck , by Jay Cantor. Alfred A. Knopf, 703 pages, $27.95.

Every author has an obligation to the reader's right hand. The left hand already belongs to him: It's holding all the pages that have been turned so far. The right hand, though, is sending electronic pulses back to the reader's fickle brain, precise data on the weight and scale and degree of interest contained in the pages yet to go-and so this hand needs constantly to be comforted and charmed, lulled into forgetfulness about the long journey ahead. This physics works for thrillers and romances, which are built for speed. However, if you're planning on any lyricism at all-or (almost worse) if, like Jay Cantor, you're an author burdened with a point to make, or a few dozen very pointy points to make-every page has to be good, and many have to be considerably more than good. This is the 21st century, after all, an age so saturated in narcissism you might call it post-narcissistic. We don't need books anymore: We can be online-dating; we can be mashing between our happy molars slivers of tart ginger, slow-burning wasabi and raw tuna like some red cream of the sea while we catalog recent purchases with our good-looking friends; we have 231 channels on the basic plan. No aspect of our lives ever, ever requires us to think. Please us, author, or the right hand shall dispense with your work and return to its, um, usual duties. Great Neck holds the right hand firmly in place. It's Jay Cantor's third novel in 20 years. The first two were considered brilliant, perhaps even to the point of eggheady. The Death of Che Guevara , which he published in 1983, when he was in his early 30's, is a formally, politically and psychologically audacious re-imagining of the life of a political legend-a man, for most of us, more poster than flesh. Next came Krazy Kat: A Novel in Five Panels , published in 1987, similarly pomo, depicting the famous cartoon character ultimately turning human and working out the psycho-sexual problems of life in the atomic age. Each book marries a libidinal fantasy (Che, Krazy Kat) to the absurd political and social realities of the second half of the 20th century. The new novel does the same. At 700-plus pages and with a dozen or more strong characters, the story is set first in Great Neck on Long Island's expensive north shore in the late 1950's and early 1960's, when its ensemble cast is growing up together, later moving to Mississippi, Cambridge, Mass., and New York City, among other places. Jumping with astonishing deftness back and forth in time and among their many lives, it attempts-and succeeds-in presenting their full psychological, political, spiritual and erotic development as human beings in the context of the history that put them in that place at that time. It's an amazing achievement and hugely entertaining, even when it sometimes softens and sags under its very large weight. One of the leading characters is Arkey-Arthur Kaplan. About him it's important to know that, like his creator (whose full name is Alfred Jay Cantor), he's a Ph.D., a university man and an intellectual of the left, and he's writing a book, with various tentative titles, notably Jews with Money , which might well have been the title of the novel containing it. He's an ever more religious Jew baffled by his love for a shiksa. This is a theme for Mr. Cantor, and in fact Arkey's shiksa, Kate, has the same name as the woman that Krazy Kat becomes when she turns magically human. Other characters (they're all compelling, all painted with minute and careful strokes and subtle colors) include Billy Green, nebbish and comic-book genius whose multi-decade graphic chronicle of a group of leftist superheroes oppressed by the evil forces of government draws distinctly on each of the book's main characters, making them all, in certain circles, uselessly famous. There are two beautiful women, the left-wing Betty-and-Veronica of this world: Laura, whose brother is murdered by the Klan in the civil-rights struggles in Mississippi, and Beth, a member of the Weathermen who is present on the famous day when that townhouse blows up in Greenwich Village. Beth is thereafter on the run, though on the day in 1978 when the novel begins, she's having her bail hearing after finally turning herself in. She won't stay locked up for long. Jay Cantor grew up in Great Neck and, it happens, so did I. A formative fact about Great Neck, if you grow up there and are infected with the writer's virus: F. Scott Fitzgerald lived there, back when it was a movie mogul's town, and The Great Gatsby is set there. This novel, inescapably because of its name and locale, must be compared to Gatsby : It reveals the same edge of modern self-destruction that comes with a psychic break with the past and a re-creation of self in the form of new money. There was a gourmet shop in town called Kuck's when I was growing up. (It makes a brief appearance early in the novel.) "Rare and exotic foods," the awning boasted; my mother once remarked that it ought be changed to "rare and exotic treatment of customers." Herr Kuck, round, pink and vile, ran the place like a stalag, screaming anti-Semitic insults at customers who irritated him with questions, which they all nevertheless, with a certain droll self-abasement, persisted in doing at top volume. That the citizens drove Mercedes (avidly) and patronized this guy (just as avidly) demonstrated certain paradoxes that served as a solid introduction to the deeper mysteries of American Jewish life. Only time has now erased what even the Holocaust couldn't, which was the deep desire of those Jews with education and Central European heritage to become, still, upper-middle-class Germans. Mr. Cantor captures this culture and these distinct lives with astonishing affection and detail, with imaginative humor and a nuanced intellectual mastery: He's one of those rare writers who can show credible lives infused with actual ideas. Several survivors of the camps populate the story, most notably Beth's father, a famous psychiatrist named Jacobs. Just as Beth's devolution to criminality in "the struggle" holds the structure of the story together (her bail hearing, her escape, her next set of activities), so her father's experience and work stand as the book's philosophical center. His evolving but ultimately implacable residence inside that 20th-century nightmare is one of Mr. Cantor's supreme fictional achievements. Despite all the adventures of the novel's younger generation in the civil rights and antiwar protests of the 60's and later, the Holocaust is the Political Fact of this story, as it was for those generations of American Jews. It drives the parents' desperate, sad quest for security and the equally desperate attempts of their offspring, as they grow up, to make good a ruined, racist world. As the Cold War is for Don DeLillo, so the Holocaust is (that plus more, of course) for Mr. Cantor, and in Great Neck , with its historical sweep and it's deep American-ness, he's given us what you might call Underworld for the Jews. There's a meta-within-meta quality to the novel (to all Jay Cantor's novels), if such a thing is possible, most notable in the outlines of Billy Green's comic-book version of the characters' lives and Arkey's never-ending social history. Like Great Neck itself, Billy and Arkey glorify the moment of American Jewish blossoming that so suffused that town in the 50's, 60's and 70's. It's a knowing bit of self-mockery, too, that the politics of the era can be rendered as the stuff of comic books-an admission by Mr. Cantor that his characters' politics, whether in Mississippi, Washington or Israel, are symbolic as much as heartfelt. This purposeful sentimentality is tied somehow to the idea that Great Neck was a sublime and beautiful place back then, when in fact it wasn't; it was the nastiest place imaginable, a breeding ground for the angry rich, the rich-without-manners-which is to say, in every important sense, the worst of both worlds, since manners are the only worthwhile feature of the rich. But this is a quibble, and a parochial one. The town Mr. Cantor has created, home to his crew of bent and tormented heroes, though gentler and nicer than the one I remember, is nevertheless a real and unforgettable place: Mr. Cantor's language, wit, historical intelligence, technical skill and far-reaching literary philosophy have made it so. Vince Passaro is the author of Violence, Nudity, Adult Content: A Novel

The hideously ungroovy clouds of war, terrorism and potential nuclear Armageddon are casting a pall over many a glittering Manhattan milieu.

As Showdown Iraq approaches, it has unleashed the gray mists of restraint and sent them swirling through the salons of Park Avenue, thence south to clog the mournful canyons of Wall Street. Declining property values and plummeting stocks further depress the populace, and inhibit the collective penchant for chuckling self-indulgence, foofy dinner parties and gushy galas. This buzz-killing blanket of doom unfurled itself right after Christmas and smothered the sizzle at New Year's Eve bashes across the city. Many Manhattanites of my acquaintance elected to stay home and watch Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve . That's how tragic things are. And where is spring 2003 fashion in all of this? What's a girl to wear when everything's gone all Kafkaesque and depressingly awful? Funereal Yohji shrouds? Helmut Lang–ish uniform attire? Not on your nelly! Look over on Seventh Avenue! There's a gap in the clouds, and the sun is pouring in. And yes, what appears to be a rainbow is arching through the bustling G.D. (garment district) where Fashion-that great barometer of societal mood swings-has chosen this particular moment to put on a big fat smiley face. Check out the pages of the seasonally slim-but bracingly chipper-January Vogue , from which an unprecedented number of models are actually smiling at you! How transgressive and shocking! Who knew Karen Elson even had teeth? And Brazilian Carolina Ribeiro is grinning like a Cheshire cat! Where's that zombie-like heroin chic? Where are those banged-on-the-head-with-a-frying-pan blank stares? This nouveau gaieté has turned these formerly humorless fashion editorials into jolly tableaux reminiscent of the Alive with Pleasure™ Newport cigarette advertisements. Washington may have gone all Dr. Strangelove, but as far as Seventh Avenue is concerned, pink is the new black and giggly is the new dour! It was a long time a-comin'. For the past 10 years, designer fashion has been sucking in its cheeks in a desperate attempt to conceal any signs of auto-amusement. "Vacant," "cool" and "smacked-up" are the words which best describe the tone of runway shows and fashion marketing throughout the 1990's. It all started when waifs and grungers eclipsed the go-go 80's and traded in pouf-skirted exuberance for a headachey pseudo-intellectualism. A detached emotionlessness-very Godard!-dominated the decade. Ask a model to smile on a fashion shoot during this period, and she would probably call her agent and ask for more money. This arty and often Teutonic drumbeat issued from the influential designers of the period-i.e., Jil Sander, Helmut Lang, Martin Margiela and Miuccia Prada. Even the crotchy hedonism of Tom Ford's mid-90's Gucci had a bored-rich-bitch vibe. Very Antonioni! Even wacky Galliano girls and tarty Southern Italians-Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, and Roberto Cavalli-refused to crack a smile. The stony face of fashion stared haughtily, relentlessly and, ultimately, boringly down from the runway. Until last fall. The spring 2003 collections burst onto the runways with a perky Reese Witherspoon–ish cavalcade of halter tops, cartoony prints, tarty sun dresses and a borderline goofiness. (Re Ms. Witherspoon: This adorable petite blonde thespian is living proof that perky girls fare much better in life than irate, bitchy slags. She's skinny and rich. She's reproducing and lensing up a storm, and she's married to that pot-lovin' cutie, Ryan Phillippe. Reese might just well be the commanderette in chief of the new chirpy revolutionary party.) In any event, the message from Europe was clear: It's not just O.K. to be happy, it's O.K. to be happy while wearing a $3,486 Balenciaga tropical-fish print scuba-dress (F.Y.I., Ms. Prada-former supreme avatar of somber 90's intellectualism-also succumbed to a zippy surf motif for spring.) Leading the anti-grim trend in Paris were hard-core avant-guardians Viktor and Rolf, who did the unthinkable: They staged a fashion show where girls in loud floral frocks not only smiled, but broke the icy membrane between themselves and the plebes in the front row by mugging coquettishly and laughing! The cognoscenti rippled. "I felt like I was at a fabulous, fun party," said Barneys fashion director Julie Gilhart. "But I also knew it was a watershed moment." On this side of the Atlantic, Marc Jacobs-whose muses have hitherto included glum young director Sofia Coppola and the poster child for 90's dour, model Kirsten Owen-produced a collection of Sandra Dee early-60's sweetness. Donna Karan exorcised her New Age druids of yore with a collection filled with cheeky ruched satin, halter tops and polka dots recalling bawdy Bette Midler's early-70's retro camp, itself a retread of the 40's. This tsunami of feel-good fripperies begs the question: Is high fashion wildly out of sync with the impending doom of the moment? Or is she-La Mode-attempting to ameliorate our anxieties with an intuitive skippy buoyancy? Wouldn't it be lovely to think that Fashion was attempting to cheer us up and improve our lot? But does she even give a rat's ass? During her après-show musings to the press, Ms. Karan professed herself to be in search of a more polished look, inspired by Hollywood glamour. She did acknowledge that the powerful shoulder emphasis of her collection was about the need for security during a period of uncertainty. The truth is, Donna and the mass of ethnically and aesthetically diverse folk who make up the fashion-design pool created their collections way before Swedish weapons-inspections dude Hans Blix had even bought his plane ticket. In total, there is a nine-month lag between the time that designers buy their fabrics and the point at which they find their way on to the consumer's back. The fashion message is therefore doomed to a lagging inconsistency. This is part of its fascination for us breathless, self-styled fashion commentators. Even if designers were able to create their collections on the very same day as their shows, it is hard to imagine that they would ever collectively reflect political drama. Most fashion designers know even less about world affairs than Sean Penn. But unlike fact-finder Penn, they wisely stay away from international politics. (Though I can't help thinking that if the U.N. sent an axis of evil queens-e.g., moi , Andre Leon Talley and Karl Lagerfeld-to Baghdad, we could effect some fabulous Entente Cordiale .) No, the new and very welcome sunny face of fashion arrived because fashion folk simply got tired of the prevailing unsmiling, super-cool shtick and were ready for a change. Anyone who is out of sync with the new mood needs to lighten up-or face the consequences. Designer Miguel Adrover, who unsuccessfully attempted to relaunch himself this historical/hysterical season, cast nasturtiums on comedian Debra Messing (happy) in a New York Times post-show interview, saying that he would prefer his clothes to be worn by Charlotte Rampling (cool but dour) rather than "a comic." His Euro elitism failed to strike a chord with retailers. Miguel, give it another shot and please cheer up! The new smiley face of fashion may be here for a while. After all, fashion is innately exuberant, and fashion people love silly jokes, and wearing clothes should be fun. (Keep your dial tuned to this column for a look at peppy newcomer designers Proenza Schouler and Pierrot.) Let's not criticize fashion for being out of sync. Just be glad that there's some cheeky new frocks to buy. Fashion's commitment to superficiality is its strength-in peace or in war. Make it yours. "When war was declared, I went out and bought two pounds of henna," wrote Quentin Crisp, whose discarded mattress was once, hauntingly and coincidentally, fabricated into an attention-getting runway ensemble by none other than Miguel Adrover. If war breaks out, run out straightaway and buy a sassy Donna Karan polka-dot Bette Midler frock ($5,995). No retro Betty Grable hairdos, please-and whatever you do, don't carry a purse. Tuck your cash down your cleavage and strut. The only accessory you need for spring 2003 is a big, goofy grin.

Last night, Scarlett Johansson used her star power to host a packed fundraiser for Manhattan Borough President and likely mayoral contender Scott Stringer at the Maritime Hotel. In addition to the models and celebrities in attendance, there was also a small army of politicos, including former, current, and aspiring elected officials. Take a look at a tiny selection of those who couldn’t resist Ms. Johansson’s political party in the slide show on the left.

(Photos via Patrick McMullan Company, Inc.)