My Love Affair With The New York Observer

TWolfePKaplan_041807

1996

Outside 350 Madison, the former Condé Nast building, a flier distributor got in my personal space and waved his flier in my face. I cursed at him and he laughed. I had an idea: why not interview this guy and make a case that he was the best flier distributor in the city? The guy agreed, we chatted for 10 minutes, then I wrote the item, faxed it—FAXED IT—over to Mr. Windolf. It was published a few days later, and was so good that I was invited to an Observer drinks party at the bar Chelsea Commons. Peter Kaplan, feeding bills into the jukebox, confirmed that it was a very good item. I would learn over the next dozen years working for the great man that he does not dole out praise promiscuously.

For my first long Observer piece, I interviewed a hundred New Yorkers during working hours and asked them, “Why Aren’t You at Work?” At one point, making the rounds at Barnes & Noble, I became so bored with a young man’s feeble excuses that I asked him to keep talking into my tape recorder while I went to get a bagel. This interviewing technique I invented would soon be ripped off by other journalists—as would the story idea itself (see The San Francisco Chronicle). In fairness, I did a “Why Aren’t You at Work?” sequel for NPR’s This American Life.

Another highlight: sitting down with Eve Ensler to discuss her new one-woman show, The Vagina Monologues. “I don’t know if ‘vagina’ is ever going to be a great word,” she told me. “The word cunt I’m really interested in.” I was told that Arthur Carter enjoyed this interview with Ms. Ensler, which led me to think I might be hired someday.

At a private fund-raiser (hosted by my mom and stepfather), I was introduced to Vice President Al Gore. With a tape recorder rolling in my jacket pocket, I listened to him hold forth on Nathaniel Hawthorne and his prophetic worldview. “He talked about the emergence of the global electronic brain,” Mr. Gore told me. “The telegraph existed, but he quickly extrapolated it to a poetic image of a fully elaborated Internet worldwide—150 years ago!”

Someone nearby mentioned The Scarlet Letter. “Yes, a powerful book,” Mr. Gore said. “The movie? Wasn’t as profitable.” He laughed. His two-hour appearance at the fund-raiser raised $600,000.

Later, he gave a speech and said my full name in front of several hundred Democrats. The next two times I saw him, he blew me off. The first time I met President Bill Clinton, he praised the work of The Observer’s Joe Conason for two minutes straight. It was scary. He looked seven feet tall. The last time I saw him, he was shorter and sweeter

When I sat down with David Mamet to discuss his children’s book The Duck and the Goat, he became so irritated that he walked out of the interview. (A decade later, while covering a party for his excellent mixed martial arts movie Redbelt, I apologized for asking those rude questions; he didn’t remember it.)

Another night, my favorite bartender at The Village Idiot, Natasha Gulbenkian, agreed to answer 12 questions if we both took a shot of whiskey after each answer. Twelve questions later, Natasha, who was half my weight (I was pushing 220 then), put me in a cab.

“Hey, take this man home safely!” she told the driver. “I’m gonna get your medallion number. Be good to him, please.”

“All right baby thanks sweetheart!” I babbled.

“Tell him he is lucky to have a woman like me.”

BLITT-GURLEY-George

Gurley by Barry Blitt.

At a Bridgehampton Polo match, actor Ben Gazzara told Bobby Zarem I was cute and stroked my forearm while reminiscing about the filming of John Cassavetes’s movie Husbands. “Well, you’ve put my finger on my favorite experience as an actor and as an artist,” Mr. Gazzara told me. “John was never impressed with success. These guys today directing these fuckin’ unwatchable pictures making millions—John loved Frank Capra! John’s films make you cry because they are about love. Husbands is about love.” Mr. Gazzarra’s wife was there, as well, a former German model named Elke who, he said, “saved my life. I’d be dead now if I hadn’t met her.”

Russell Simmons told me his favorite Cassavetes film was The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. I met Elaine Kaufman for the first time. She predicted that I would be successful and told me about the time she gave Hunter Thompson a great Watergate lead about John Dean, and the time Thompson showed up at her restaurant holding a guitar case with a rifle inside.

Dennis Hopper was there, wearing a checkered cap, matching shirt, blue blazer and khakis. A waitress brought him some warm goat cheese and spinach sandwiches. I offered him a mushroom cap instead.

“Oh really? You’re on them right now?” he said. “Yeah, how you doing? Yeah? Terrific, what, psilocybin? I’ve always thought people don’t get high because they want to die. They get high because they want to feel good.” I asked which of his fast-living friends he missed the most. He said James Dean.

Mr. Hopper didn’t want to sample my ’shrooms. “Yeah, mushrooms were always a cool experience,” he said. “No, I wouldn’t know how to handle it here. Those days are over for me. My interests and priorities have changed. You must go on, you have a wonderful day.”

I spent Thanksgiving Day 1996 with a teenage runaway from Greenwich, Conn., whom I met at a shelter in Hell’s Kitchen. I took her to lunch at a diner and she said she wanted to go to the Empire State Building. I bought her a stuffed animal at the gift shop, and when we got to the observation deck, it started snowing.

Another major highlight happened in December. In a window of Barneys on the Upper East Side, a man was posing as Sigmund Freud. Simon Doonan, the store’s creative director (and future Observer columnist), agreed to let me lie down on the couch and be psychoanalyzed by “Freud,” who turned out to be David Rakoff. We had a blast. He was hilarious and witty. Wildean. At the time, Mr. Rakoff was communications manager at HarperCollins, but clearly a comic genius. He would go on to publish three collections of essays, write countless magazine articles, perform regularly on This American Life, act in films and TV, and win the Thurber Prize for American Humor a year before he died at 47. I barely knew Mr. Rakoff, but out of the hundreds of tapes of thousands of interviews I’ve done since that day, his is the only one I’ve ever listened to again. He had a beautiful voice and was, by all accounts, a beautiful man.

1997

Peter Kaplan sensed that I was ready to be hired as a reporter. My starting salary was $25,000, and on my first day, I almost got fired. I was told to organize a hundred or so Observer issues and stack them up neatly in the archives room. I didn’t finish the job, and at the end of the day, I left them by a trash can. The cleaning person tossed them all out.

For my first assignment, Frank DiGiacomo sent me to the San Remo building on Central Park West to investigate charges that Bruce Willis had been a lousy holiday-season tipper. I snuck around the back and buttonholed some porters and elevator guys, one of whom had a message for the (then) cheapskate tenant: “What I say to Willis [behind his back] is ‘Fuck you!’ But on the outside I say, you know, ‘Good luck.’ Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” The item was given the headline “The San Remo Scrooge.”

For a story about the city’s top gossip columnists, Cindy Adams had this to say about O.J. Simpson: “I have urinated on O.J. as often as I can, and if my bladder will hold up, I intend to continue doing that for the next year … I would like to make Simpson-burgers out of him, okay? That’s what I’d really like to do.”

I covered the Radio City Hall premiere of 101 Dalmatians. Glenn Close (Cruella de Vil) talked to me in character! Jeff Daniels answered questions about my favorite movie, Dumb & Dumber.

I visited the Hellfire Club in the Meatpacking District. I missed the slave auction, but made it in time to cover the nude wrestling “Cat Spats” match between two hot and very young blondes. It was a split decision. I sat with Dominique and Rachelle in their car before they returned to their regular jobs as strippers at Razz’l Dazz’l in Rahway, N.J.

I spent an evening with Huntington Hartford, who inherited $100 million of the A&P fortune as a young man and squandered nearly all of it—creatively. It was his 87th birthday, and Baird Jones, the party promoter and gossip column tipster, was throwing him a soiree at the nightclub Cream. Mr. Hartford’s crazy, frisky fourth wife, Elaine, said he hadn’t left their Flatbush apartment in a year. First, we had to get Mr. Hartford out of bed and into the bathtub.

On the way to the Upper West Side, he talked about Candide and Heart of Darkness; his book about his World War II days, Pacific Revisited; and his treatise on art, Artists and Critics: Don’t Even Ignore Them. At the party, he had his picture taken with pretty girls and Salvador Dalí’s nephew. Before we dropped him off in Brooklyn, he gave me a copy of Pacific Revisited, in the hopes I could help get it published. (I still have the copy.) He told me about his grandfather, who in 1859 started A&P, which was worth $5 billion in the 1920s.

“I spent my money on the things I wanted to do,” Mr. Hartford said. “I still got $12 million. That’s not bad. I can do anything I want.”

“Death is king to me,” Spalding Gray told me backstage at Guild Hall. And about the time he masturbated into a patch of moss outside Thoreau’s cabin (“That was a great orgasm”).

Over lunch, Page Six editor Richard Johnson shared his theory that Commerce Secretary Ron Brown may have been assassinated, and some tidbits about Sarah Ferguson, the former Duchess of York: “Boy, the stuff I hear about her that I can’t print!” he said. “Unbelievable. She’s voracious. I have never talked to her, but I’ve talked to Allan Starkie, who wrote the biography of her, and he tells you the most amazing things. He told me that she’s able to …”

We weren’t able to print what she was allegedly able to do. But it had something to do with Kegel exercises and water.

One notorious cover story concerned seven “Blueblood Belles.” The morning it came out, I knew it would be a hit and that some of these junior jet-set girls I’d interviewed would be unhappy. (In her recent profile of me in The Observer, Kat Stoeffel called the story “vicious.”) I was afraid of what lay ahead that day, so I consulted my copy of The New Journalism and reread the part where Tom Wolfe says, in effect, if you worry about how your subjects are going to react, you’re in the wrong business.

As soon as I got to the office, the phone started ringing. A friend of the belles snarled, “I hope I never see you again” before hanging up. Michael Thomas called to heartily congratulate me for taking on members of my own social class. I don’t think he knew I hailed from Prairie Village, Kansas.

Then one of the belles and her mother conference-called and took turns berating me. In 2011, I ran into this same mama bear at Doubles and apologized. After another tongue-lashing, she let me know that she had told someone not to hire me.

At the Jet Lounge, I met 17-year-old Bijou Phillips, who was then making $200,000 a year as a model. She told me about the demonic thoughts she’d been having; that her father, John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, and she were getting along; and that the only good experience she ever had on drugs was five years earlier: “I stole mushrooms from my dad and me and my best friend Emily were living in Palm Springs, and I went Rollerblading with no shirt on—no shirt on—down the streets of Palm Springs, California, holding onto the backs of cars.”

On a Thursday night, I interviewed a bunch of Columbia University students at an Upper West Side bar offering “all you can drink for $10.” Apparently, the great Lillian Ross—the author of the magnificent book Picture and the classic profile of Ernest Hemingway—had enjoyed the piece, and a New Yorker editor wanted to know if I was able to do anything for “Talk of the Town.”

Very flattering! But my mission in life was to serve The New York Observer.

I saw The Band play Carnegie Hall and interviewed ABC News correspondent Forrest Sawyer about it afterward. He was with a gorgeous actress named Joan Buddenhagen. Another night, I was at an outdoor table at Nello interviewing Chuck Zito, who was guarding Mickey Rourke’s Harley. Another night, I sat at the bar at Nello and had a heart-to-heart with Mr. Rourke, who talked about boxing, praying, his old feud with Richard Johnson and how much he missed the most important person in his life, his wife, Carre Otis.

One day, the great photographer James Hamilton took a picture of me half-naked, looking up at a banana, which ran on Page 2. “The New York Observer’s George Gurley, in an homage to another sex symbol of the journalism world, John F. Kennedy Jr.,” read the caption.

I spent an afternoon in Queens with Jack Palance. We talked about his book, The Forest of Love. I hadn’t read it. He figured that out and explained the plot. We stepped outside in the driveway. He smoked a thick Hoyo de Monterrey. I smoked a Camel Light. He extinguished his cigar by rolling it between his thumb and forefinger.

’97 was a good year. I spent a couple hours in a bistro with actress Maria de Medeiros, the blueberry pancakes babe from Pulp Fiction. I had another long talk with Roger Clinton before his band performed in Brighton Beach. Right before they were due onstage, it was discovered that the nightclub’s snare drum was being used in the room downstairs by the house band.

When I asked Roger if he wanted to comment on “The Great Snare Drum Crisis,” he snapped, “George, that’s enough, buddy, okay? Every single thing you want to ask me my thoughts on!” I mumbled an apology. Secretly I was elated, because I got his whole rant on tape.

Rolling Stone had a 25th anniversary party for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas at the Lotus Club. I wasn’t invited, but determined to go. So I walked in, said hello to Johnny Depp and Kate Moss at the coat check, walked up the stairs behind Ralph Steadman, saw in the distance a handful of guests surrounding a beaming Mick Jagger, and someone with a clipboard that said “private party” or something.

I waited outside. And waited. Had a brief chat with Tom Wolfe on his way out. Then Thompson burst out, doing his crazy bowlegged walk. With him was a mean broad. They jumped into the back of a chauffeured limo and bent over to snort something. When they exited, I asked if I could come to the party. Nope. I promised not to write about what they were doing in the backseat. The woman blew up at me, screeched, “You’re gonna burn out!” Wow. It was like she put an evil spell on me. When Jann Wenner heard I was out in the cold, he sent word to let me in. That was cool. At the top of the stairs, he laughed, said he knew me. Inside, Kate Moss was also nice. Johnny Depp mentioned that he might like to play Thompson in a movie. Matt Dillon was cool, but I think he made fun of me for being from Kansas. He was in a movie called Kansas, and I’d told him I was there when they were filming it.

A security guard who’d been tailing me removed the batteries from my recorder. So I left. Ten years later, while enjoying myself on Ron Perelman’s yacht in St. Barts, around 2 a.m. on New Year’s Eve, I saw the mean broad and alluded to the incident, hoping to make a peace offering. She didn’t remember me. Like a snake, she casually wandered off to talk to Mr. Perelman, no doubt tattling that a reporter was on board. Little did she know that earlier, he had personally invited me, rubbed my belly, given me a noogie, introduced me to his father. Not bragging, just saying. Truth was, I was a little burned out by then.

Oh, this was huge. For the year-end issue, I did a 5,800-word oral history of George Plimpton, interviewed all the gossip columnists, and something else. “Gurley, you wrote the whole paper,” said Peter Stevenson.

But Mr. Stevenson kept my ego in check by playing pranks, most of which I have blocked out.

I also made the mistake of telling Mr. Stevenson about some of my nicknames in high school: The Jinx, Basketball Head, Spalding.