The Literary Agent Who Shook a President

“I’ve always operated on the principle that I have nothing to lose,” said Lucianne Goldberg, by phone, on Jan. 27, the day after The Transom followed her around a Manhattan book party. She said that she was using that attitude to “help Linda”-meaning of course Linda Tripp, the lady who taped blabbing ex-White House intern Monica Lewinsky. But Ms. Goldberg also claimed she was “running like a scalded dog.… The trash machine is after me,” she added. “It’s hard to outrun the trash machine.”

On Jan. 26, Ms. Goldberg’s telephone answering machine message had urged CNN to “lose my number.” That evening, at the publication party at the Monkey Bar for Love Me to Death , the new book by Ms. Goldberg’s friend Linda Wolfe, the literary agent-cum-political provocateur said that she was punishing the Cable News Network for “retailing” information of a legal battle that Kitty Kelley, a former client, had waged against her (more on that later). And Reuters was on Ms. Goldberg’s shit list for picking up “smear” information that, she said, the Democratic National Committee had been spreading. “The only way I can get even is to not give people who smear me information.”

Ms. Goldberg, whose appearance falls somewhere between Gena Rowlands and Rosemarie, smiled at The Transom and said, “So far, you haven’t smeared me. You do and you’re dead meat.”

At the party, The Transom asked if there had been a defining moment that had moved her to work for the right wing. “I don’t work on the side of the right. I work on the side of right ,” Ms. Goldberg answered without hesitation. Through her rimless spectacles, her eyes were as dark as the smart black turtleneck and double-breasted suit that she wore. “I work on the side of what Lucy Goldberg chooses to take outrage at, and I’m sorry, forget that he’s the President of the United States. That makes it totally intolerable. But a 51-year-old man putting the serious moves on a 21-year-old kid, who has come to the White House for the dream job …” Ms. Goldberg turned to another reporter who had joined the crowd. “At any rate, I don’t want to give you the whole rap. I shouldn’t be doing it. It should be Linda Tripp who’s doing it. But what can I do?”

Obviously, she can do a lot. Ms. Goldberg lives for moments such as these. Ms. Goldberg, who was accompanied by her good friend Dominick Dunne, was ostensibly one of hundreds of guests who had come to fete Ms. Wolfe. But the press, having been tipped off about her attendance, had come solely for Ms. Goldberg. As she had acknowledged during her mini-press conference at the party, “I am in the middle of a media storm.”

Make no mistake, Ms. Goldberg is one of the people working the thunder machine, and she’s doing it here in New York, world headquarters of the media, where she is better wired in than Con Edison.

As she recently told one friend, “I feel as if I shot an arrow into the sky and brought down a 747.” And though this drama has yet to play itself out, it already feels like the American equivalent of the crash that took the life of the Princess of Wales. The President’s alleged sex jones has resulted in a head-on collision between the nation’s highest office and the media’s scandalmongers that not even those in the highest echelons of journalism can ignore.

Those who know Ms. Goldberg are not surprised that she’s in the middle of this latest scandal to hit the Clinton Administration. Trying to assign a motive to her actions is another story. Some see Ms. Goldberg as part of a concerted right-wing effort to topple the Democrats’ current reign. Others see her as an opportunist who knows there’s gold in Ms. Tripp’s tapes. Ms. Goldberg, who is 62, insisted that she is motivated by “pure, middle-aged outrage. It’s not political outrage,” she said.

She represents a formidable force in the current Clinton scandal for numerous reasons, but one of them is her fearlessness. Said one friend, “I respect her tremendously, but I also would be terrified of her.”

And in addition to her for-publication chutzpah, she wields another weapon: information. In a media environment where the number of reporters chasing scoops seems to be increasing at a geometric rate, Ms. Goldberg enjoys a reputation not only as someone who can be counted on for great dish, but as someone who has forged strong ties with the tent poles of the media circus. So, despite her claims that the trash machine is on her heels, Ms. Goldberg’s value as a behind-the-scenes information trader means she has protected status with a number of media outfits.

Anyone who watched her hobnob with a notebookless Neal Travis at Ms. Wolfe’s party might have guessed that the New York Post is one of those organizations. Ms. Goldberg works for the paper as a book scout who searches for timely excerpts for Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid, which, by the way, took an early lead on the Lewinsky story. The word in such news circles is that Ms. Goldberg’s introduction to the Post came via the paper’s doyenne of gossip, Cindy Adams. Ms. Adams said that she introduced Ms. Goldberg, whom she’s known for a long time, to the Post ‘s managing editor, Marc Kalech, “and they became the best of friends.”

As a result, Ms. Adams said, “I lost one of the best sources I ever had. If it weren’t for this introduction, I would have had this scoop, not the Post .”

Ms. Adams-who, ironically, seemed to be going to bat for her pal Hillary Clinton in her Jan. 26 column-said that Ms. Goldberg is “one of the smartest people that ever lived. She knows Washington. She knows the media. She knows publishing. She knows how to spin.”

Ms. Goldberg certainly knows what it’s like to be at the center of controversy. Even before she posed as a reporter to spy on George McGovern’s campaign for Richard Nixon’s camp, she was making raids into liberal circles.

Back in 1965, Ms. Goldberg, then Lucianne Steinberger Cummings, had to write apology letters to both Jacqueline Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson when it was discovered that she had put up for auction a 1960 letter that the First Lady had written inviting Mrs. Johnson to join her in watching the televised debate between her husband and Nixon. Ms. Goldberg, who had been working for the Democratic National Committee at the time, reportedly passed on the invitation verbally to Lady Bird but kept the letter. She eventually withdrew it from auction and returned it to Mrs. Johnson.

Not long after Ms. Goldberg confessed to her work for the Nixon re-election effort, feminist Betty Friedan (who was actually a co-host of Ms. Wolfe’s party at the Monkey Bar) accused Ms. Goldberg and the feminism-mocking organization that she co-founded, the Pussycat League, of sabotaging the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. According to one newspaper account, Ms. Friedman said that she was talking about Ms. Goldberg when she charged, in a speech, that one of the organizers of the Pussycat League “who has gone around the country telling women they will lose their husbands and family support if the E.R.A. is passed, was on the same payroll that finances Watergate.”

Between the lines of these stories, those who know Ms. Goldberg look for clues to her political leanings. President Clinton’s appreciation for women, after all, is most often compared to President Kennedy’s lusty White House ways. But in the Kennedy era, a Monica Lewinsky story would not have surfaced. A complicit press looked the other way. It is interesting, then, that a former client of Ms. Goldberg suggests that in her D.N.C. days, Ms. Goldberg probably fell into “the Monica Lewinsky mold. An attractive young thing attracted to power.”

Diane Reverand, who heads the Harper Collins imprint Cliff Street Books and has worked with Ms. Goldberg off and on over the last 20 years, speculated that in working for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Ms. Goldberg must have “found the whole thing, the conduct of men in power so corrupt.… This stuff makes her irate and disgusts her. She was a Southern girl raised to be a Southern lady.”

Bill Grose, the former publisher of Pocket Books, said this relationship with Ms. Goldberg spans over 20 years and included a number of books both agented and written. Mr. Grose said that the projects that Ms. Goldberg sold to Pocket “always had a certain sleazy political cast to them.” (The first, Defector’s Mistress , was written by the former call-girl mistress of a Soviet defector that, he said, “did not work particularly, but made for great press conferences.” Ms. Goldberg also tried to package a book by Leo Damore (who wrote a best-selling exposé on Chappaquiddick) about Mary Pinchot Meyer, a mistress of John Kennedy, but that it had fallen apart.

“Her political conversion happened in a very short time,” he said, adding: “Obviously, she’s grown increasingly to the right over the years.”

Ms. Goldberg described herself as “a registered independent with some libertarian” views, which may explain why she drives a beige van around the city.

A decade after Watergate, Ms. Goldberg would take heat again, this time from biographer Kitty Kelley. Ms. Goldberg served as Ms. Kelley’s agent on her book about Elizabeth Taylor, but the relationship led to Ms. Kelley suing Ms. Goldberg in Federal District Court in Washington over royalties that the author claimed her agent had not paid her. A jury initially awarded Ms. Kelley $60,000 plus punitive damages for fraud, according to one source close to the situation, of approximately $250. However, on a post-trial motion, the judge set aside the jury’s finding of fraud, and reduced the award to $30,240.19, plus $11,167.28 in interest charges.

“That’s 15 years old,” Ms. Goldberg said, when The Transom mentioned the Kelley suit at Ms. Wolfe’s party. She also said, “I’ll tell you what Kitty got mad at me about was that I told her editor she was stealing Elizabeth Taylor’s garbage. And I thought that was damn clever.” (Then she added that actually it was Ms. Kelley’s husband who was making the garbage runs.)

Those who see Ms. Goldberg as more of an amoral opportunist than a political or ideological assassin could very well point to her involvement in the legal spectacle that resulted when Claus von Bülow’s wealthy wife, Martha, slipped into an irreversible diabetic coma. In 1985, Ms. Goldberg surfaced as the agent of one David Marriott. Mr. Marriott had initially been a witness for Mr. von Bülow, but then he suddenly announced that he had been secretly tape-recording many of the players in the von Bülow case and that his tapes showed that Mr. von Bülow “was and is up to no good.” Laboratory analysis later showed that at least one of Mr. Marriott’s tapes had been altered.

Asked about Mr. Marriott at Ms. Wolfe’s party, Ms. Goldberg said that the book had never come to fruition and that her client, who showed a preference for fur coats and traveling in limos, had “vanished into that great lounge lizard bar in the sky.” Ms. Goldberg also denied that she had ever heard “any tapes” that Mr. Marriott had produced. (Rather, she said, she saw his manuscript) But back in 1985, the Associated Press reported that Ms. Goldberg said “she has heard two of the tapes and has seen 500 pages of transcripts of the rest.” Ms. Goldberg reportedly said at the time: “It’s fascinating stuff; it’s wonderful material.”

Yet, even in the weirdness of the von Bülow case, Ms. Goldberg managed to forge one strong bond, with Dominick Dunne, who was covering the trial for Vanity Fair at the time. At Ms. Wolfe’s party, Mr. Dunne declined to comment about the Lewinsky situation, and noted that he was a Clinton supporter. But Ms. Goldberg noted that one of the reasons she had decided to grant a lengthy interview to The New Yorker was because the magazine’s editor, Tina Brown, “saved my friend Dominick Dunne’s life and this is payback time.” Ms. Goldberg said that Ms. Brown also sent her “a big bowl of flowers.”

She both worked for investigative journalist Jack Anderson and represented him. Ms. Goldberg was Christopher Buckley’s first book agent, and it was her connections with the Merchant Marine that got Christopher Buckley a berth on a ship. That experience led to Mr. Buckley’s book, Steaming to Bamboola . Ms. Goldberg’s and Mr. Buckley’s relationship is also rumored to have gone beyond the professional at one point, but Ms. Goldberg denied this. “I’m 17 or 18 years older than Chrissy-poo,” said Ms. Goldberg. “He’s cute but not that cute. Besides, I was married and had two children,” she said; she still is married to Sid Goldberg, “and I don’t fool around, unlike some other people I know.” Mr. Buckley was traveling in Florida and could not be reached for comment.

Since the Lewinsky story broke, Ms. Goldberg’s numerous contacts in publishing have been calling and or sniffing around to see if there’s a book in the works. One publishing-world source said he ran into Ms. Reverand at the gym and that she said Ms. Goldberg had been shopping a book around several weeks ago but that independent prosecutor “Kenneth Starr had told her she couldn’t do that.” Ms. Reverand denied this, but told The Transom that since they began working on Mark Fuhrman’s book about the Skakel family and a controversial murder (Ethel Kennedy was born a Skakel; Ms. Goldberg is Mr. Fuhrman’s agent), she and Ms. Goldberg speak almost every day. “She’s a reasonable person, and I don’t think she would sell a book she didn’t have to sell.”

In recent days, Ms. Goldberg has suggested to members of the press that she might be inclined to write the book about the Lewinsky mess herself. At press time, rumors had cropped up that Ms. Tripp might not be so happy with Ms. Goldberg. Indeed, during her press conference at the Monkey Bar, Ms. Goldberg noted that Ms. Tripp had changed her phone number and that she couldn’t reach the Pentagon employee. But Ms. Goldberg made sure to send a message via the media that she so dearly loves to work and spin. “So wherever you are out there, Linda,” said Ms. Goldberg, “I love you.”

The Literary Agent Who Shook a President