Rona Barrett gave good Hedda. All through the 60’s, 70’s and into the early 80’s, Rona Barrett bestrode the world of celeb tittle-tattle like an elegantly coiffed Colossus. Then she disappeared in a puff of hair spray … but now she’s back! Yes, the celebrity pooper-scooper with the frosted and feathered Mount Etna coiffure est retournée ! And she’s entered the cutthroat world of celebrity foods: Paul Newman, watch your back!
Rona what? Rona who?
For those of you who are too young or pop-culturally illiterate, Rona was, in the last century, a huge deal in the world of entertainment gossip. She took over where Louella Parsons, Walter Winchell and Hedda Hopper left off. Johnny Carson once said of the probing, scoop-crazed Ms. Barrett, “She doesn’t need a steak knife. Rona cuts her food with her tongue.” Rona’s the broad to whom Ryan O’Neal once mailed a live tarantula, and Mae West once sent an enema bag with a note attached reading, “Stay pretty. Love, Mae.” Rona was tough, with a drive and a creative output that makes Madge Ciccone look like Fran Lebowitz.
At the age of 13, Queens-born Rona walked (with difficulty, due to arrested muscular dystrophy) into the Milton Blackstone Agency in New York and told them she would need a space to work, since she would be starting the Eddie Fisher fan club. According to her gripping 1974 autobiography, Miss Rona ($20 on alibris.com), she switched from Eddie to Steve Lawrence when, at 15, she found out that “Eddie Fisher was as much into apple-cheeked, fat-bodied chicks as Hitler was into B’nai B’rith.” The whip-smart, adenoidal dynamo quickly morphed from drooling fan into self-appointed champion of young postwar Hollywood, pumping out syndicated columns and eventually editing her own tattle mags. By the 1970’s, she was defining and monopolizing TV celeb reportage, paving the way for the careers–and hairdos–of people like E!’s Steve Kmetko. No offense, Steve, but I often think of Rona’s fluffy blond tornado when I’m watching your show.
I called La Barrett at her Santa Barbara, Calif., ranch and asked her if she was still sporting that signature coiffure. “Yes–but it’s a variation,” replied Rona, with that unmistakable Jewish nasal monotone that had nightly filled the living rooms of America for so many years. “It’s not as wiggy as before. In those days, I used to be five inches taller with hair spray. It was originally created by a young man named Ron Haase. He fell ill one day. Another hairdresser called Chester Wartell took over and perfected it.” Rona’s current personal style? “Right now, I’m wearing chinos from Target, shoes by Ecco from Nordstrom, socks from Costco and a shirt from Ralph Lauren via Nordstrom.” Rona’s wardrobe is a bit of a comedown for the gal who once splurged on high-fashion drag from Giorgio of Beverly Hills, but perfectly assonant with her new Barbara Stanwyck-ian role as ranch boss.
Rona’s latest venture, entitled “Lavender by Rona Barrett” and cunningly subtitled “aRONAtherapy,” is headquartered amid 10 acres of pesticide-free lavender in Santa Ynez, near Santa Barbara. Impelled by her belief in the “magical healing qualities” of lavender, Rona has begun producing skin creams and mood-enhancing sachets. But wacky, creative Rona is also chucking fistfuls of lavender into food! Yes, despite the fact that she was “born without the K-gene”–as in she doesn’t know her way around the kitchen–and the fact that most people are mildly appalled by the idea of ingesting lavender, Rona has given birth to the first-ever line of lavender-based food products. Log onto www.lavenderbyrona.com and see for yourself.
Lavender ginger sauce, lavender honey mustard, lavender chocolate sauce, lavender mayo!!! Hey, Rona! What gives with these crazy condiments? Rona attempted to neutralize my incredulity by taking me on a product-by-product taste-athon … and she succeeded. She did so by utilizing the same seductive, honeyed powers of expression that caused a nation to fall in love with Natalie Wood and even Frankie Avalon. “Mustard lovers adore my lavender honey mustard–spicy, sexy, delicious. Mayo fans are crazy about my lavender mayo. Just give me your best bread and your finest hard-boiled eggs, and I’ll give the egg-salad sandwich you’ve only dreamed of.” Rona is cooing and I’m slobbering. “Lavender applesauce–oooh, spread me over anything …. ”
Having manifested rabid enthusiasm for the lavender-as-a-food concept, and having enthusiastically agreed to mention that menschy Rona, who takes care of her 93-year-old father, diverts a portion of her proceeds to her charity, Seniors in Need (a.k.a. S.I.N.), I gingerly broached the subject of celebrity. I was hoping my unbridled enthusiasm would be rewarded with some previously undisclosed dish. This is, after all, the woman who (according to her own autobio) scooped, among other things, Elvis’ wedding to Priscilla. I tossed out some names to get her going.
James Dean? “Beautiful, talented and troubled.”
Natalie Wood? “Oh, Nat! I liked her a lot. Lots of demons. She was raised and reared by the studios. She transferred parental care to them and paid the price.”
Fabian? “Like a little brother.”
Frankie Avalon? “Another brother.”
Her favorite? “Bobby Darin. Oh, Bobby! He died of a heart infection. Fun, intelligent and electrifying. I was there at his wedding to Sandra Dee.”
Sal Mineo? “One of the first people I met in New York. I did an at-home profile. One of the hottest. Yes, I knew he was gay.”
The gayest? “Paul Lynde and Lee,” she said, utilizing the nickname–Lee–used only by Liberace’s intimates.
The straightest? “Warren Beatty. I was 17 when he and I met. I was never attracted to him. He had relationships with a number of my girlfriends.”
I attempted to ratchet up the dish factor by asking Ms. Rona if she has enemies. Whose feathers were the first to be ruffled by that steak-cutting tongue of hers? Her answer was swift and precise: “Denise Minnelli. She was Vincente’s wife, post-Judy–a hostess extraordinaire for the older group. She thought I said something bad about Liza and stuck her lawyers on me. She couldn’t control me, so she wanted to shut me up.”
The most toxic celeb? “Hard to say. One-on-one, there is decency in almost all of them. It’s when they are all in a room together–comparing themselves.”
Any regrets? Was she ever too mean? “I regret my lack of understanding about Patty Duke and the stuff she was doing. I diligently reported on her strange behavior” (read: I eviscerated her), “not realizing she was manic depressive.” The theme from Valley of the Dolls started to play in my head.
But feel-good Rona claimed her goals were never malicious. “I wanted everyone to feel happy when I came on TV, particularly after watching the news during the Vietnam War. I would always try to end my broadcast with a Mae West witticism, to cheer everyone up before they went to bed. That’s how I met Mae West. She was into numerology and the occult and invited me to her psychic parties.” Pushing up the volume on the Valley of the Dolls soundtrack, I asked her about her 1970’s suicide attempt–specifically, which dolls were chosen for the occasion?
“I can’t quite remember … maybe Seconol,” answers the unruffleable and fabulous Rona. This low point was the beginning of the end of Rona’s love affair with celebs. “I did what I did for a very long time. I woke up one day and there was no challenge. When I see people like Barbara Walters–she’s a friend–still doing the same thing, I applaud them.” (Read: I think they must be out of their fucking minds.)
Kicking things into a more lighthearted mood–and loving Rona for her newfound indifference to the celeb-cult she helped create–I asked Rona for her recollections of one of my personal faves, ball-busting super agent Sue Mengers. Thoughts … feelings? “What a character! Funny, witty, crazy.”
Sue and Rona might constitute a rare and almost extinct breed: the Female Geezer ( Feminalis Geezeramus ). I asked Rona if she might qualify as a female geezer? “Probably,” she answered, with a tinge of pride.
Re Rona’s lavender groceries: They make high-camp hostess gifts for certain types of people (of which you must surely, if you’ve read this far, know a few). And if you’re feeling energetic, why not order the Lavender Gourmet Collection ($69.95 with gift box; $54.95 without) and organize a special Labor Day Aronatherapy brunch? Invite a gaggle of aging Ronaphiles and exchange Rona-niscences. For the post-lunch nap, present guests with one of Rona’s Lavender eye-masks ($24.95 each). Rona told me they are “fabulous for sinus headaches.”