King Conked by Yunqué

The 92nd Street Y’s “Writing New York” reading on Jan. 5 should have been a placid affair. Three authors, all of whom live in and write about the city, were to read from their current work: Jonathan Lethem, Colson Whitehead and the mustachioed Edgardo Vega Yunqué. Mr. Lethem, who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Motherless Brooklyn, and Mr. Whitehead, the recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, are 800-pound literary gorillas. Mr. Yunqué, in spite of writing what The Times called a “powerhouse of a novel” and being a celebrity stepfather-to singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega, of “Luca” fame-is a dark horse. But it was he, in the end, who let loose a salvo that would have made Nathaniel Hawthorne proud.

Mr. Yunqué prefaced the reading from his novel No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook Or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain’t Never Coming Home Again by thanking the Y and the Poetry Center for “letting an old tomcat take the stage and read with two young literary lions like Jonathan Lethem and Colson Whitehead …. “

From there, however, the acknowledgment turned into a bitch-slap as Mr. Yunqué said that his co-readers, “by dint of their enormous literary talent and quiet dignity, answer the suggestion made recently by Stephen King that there be no distinction between the literary novel and the formula novel, which he calls ‘popular’-as if people of the talent of Jonathan Lethem and Colson Whitehead were not popular.

“His speech was disingenuous, self-serving and cloying,” Mr. Yunqué added of Mr. King. “He ought to examine his conscience.”

An uncomfortable silence fell over the audience. Last November, after receiving the National Book Award Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Mr. King had said in his acceptance speech: “For far too long the so-called popular writers of this country and the so-called literary writers have stared at each other with animosity and a willful lack of understanding …. You can’t sit back, give a self-satisfied sigh and say, ‘Ah, that takes care of the troublesome pop-lit question. In another 20 years or perhaps 30, we’ll give this award to another writer who sells enough books to make the best-seller lists.’ It’s not good enough. Nor do I have any patience with or use for those who make a point of pride in saying they’ve never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark or any other popular writer.”

Mr. Yunqué wasn’t the only writer angered by Mr. King’s comments. Shirley Hazzard, who won the National Book Award for Fiction for her novel The Great Fire, responded to Mr. King in her acceptance speech: “I do not regard literature as a competition,” she said “[And] I don’t think giving us a reading list of those who are most read at this moment is much of a satisfaction.”

But this sort of squabble has a gilded pedigree. “So-called literary writers” like Nathaniel Hawthorne have been drawing thick lines between their work and that of more popular writers for centuries. (“America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash,” Hawthorne famously complained in 1855 concerning best-selling novelists like Elizabeth Wetherell and Maria Susanna Cummins.) On a slightly more elevated plane, Mark Twain administered a gleeful beating to the popular James Fenimore Cooper in his essay, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”

Would Messrs. Lethem and Whitehead join their contemporary, Mr. Yunqué, in a gang sniping? “It’s not a matter of a sound bite,” said Mr. Lethem. “Every book exists as sort of a charged answer to popular culture these days, and that, for me, is a good thing. [But] I wasn’t at the [National Book Awards], so I’m sort of hopeless for the context.”

The dreadlocked Whitehead was even briefer: “I stay out of stuff like that,” he said.

Mr. King declined to comment.

-Elon R. Green

Eyeful of Cyndi

There weren’t a whole lot of people singing along to Cyndi Lauper’s performance at the Panasonic New Year’s Eve Performance and Sing-Along in Times Square, in large part because of a technical glitch-the song lyrics never appeared on the screen behind the “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” singer. But that’s not the only reason some in the audience were speechless. According to one concertgoer, Ms. Lauper’s true colors were on display for the audience standing nearest to the raised stage because she hadn’t worn any underwear beneath the black miniskirt and black jacket studded with white rhinestones that she donned for the spirited performance. “Everyone was talking about it,” said the concertgoer. Asked for a response to the story, a representative for Ms. Lauper’s label, Sony, said only: “That’s not true.”

-Alexandra Wolfe

50-Year-Old Johnson!

On Jan. 16, the New York Post’s longtime Page Six editor Richard Johnson is doing the unthinkable: He’s turning 50. But first he’ll spend the evening of Jan. 15 bidding his youth adieu at Marquee, at a party hosted by Men’s Health and Mr. Johnson’s girlfriend, Sessa von Richthofen. The year might only be a few days old, but the invitation calls the event “the most highly anticipated birthday bash of 2004.”

Originally the invitation was going to be a timeline of Mr. Johnson’s life, and Men’s Health asked him to submit half a dozen or so photos from his past. He obliged, even slipping in one of him riding an elephant through midtown with the Ringling Bros. Circus. “It was all going to be pretty elaborate,” Mr. Johnson told The Transom a few days after returning from a trip to Grenada with his sons Jack, 12, and Damon, 25. “But then they decided there weren’t enough dates in my life worth highlighting.”

In the end, Mr. Johnson said, the magazine decided instead to select four special black-and-white photos and print them on a long folded card. A friend of Men’s Health editor in chief David Zinczenko, Mr. Johnson was picked to be fêted by the magazine sometime after he filed a story on his sailing the Rolex Fastnet Race in England last summer.

But before Men’s Health introduces us to Richard Johnson, Master and Commander (the sailing article will run in March), they’d like to show prospective party guests some other sides of the gossip columnist.

Photo 1: Richard Johnson, child chef: In this photo, Mr. Johnson appears to be about 1 year old and is proudly displaying a hand-held eggbeater of the variety that was popular in late 1919. Flaxen-haired and light-eyed, he wears a scalloped Peter Pan collar and overalls which show off his legs. “This photo belongs to my mother,” Mr. Johnson said. “It’s from when we lived on West Ninth Street.” Was he generally thought to be a comely child? “Yeah,” he said. “At least my relatives thought so.”

Photo 2: Richard Johnson, newspaperman: Here Mr. Johnson is about 23. He is dressed in a plaid shirt and preppy V-neck sweater, and his hair looks pleasantly tousled. His eyelids are heavy, his chin cleft, his lips very slightly pouted. “This was taken right before my son Damon was born. I’m sitting at my Underwood typewriter at the Chelsea Clinton News, where I was editor in chief,” he explained. “I wrote a lot about Westway.”

Photo 3: Richard Johnson, rogue: In this shot, Mr. Johnson is being handcuffed by a policeman with long sideburns. He wears a short rain jacket and a fedora-like hat. His full lips are slightly parted and he is staring left of center, as if plotting. “This was shot by Post photographer Mary McLaughlin. I was about 26,” said Mr. Johnson. “I was a general-assignment reporter at the Post and was covering a demonstration at the Shoreham nuclear plant. [The cops] thought I was a fence-jumper. But they let me go a minute after this picture was taken.”

Photo 4: Richard Johnson, bon vivant: Mr. Johnson, now slightly gray, stands with arms crossed in a pinstriped suit in Times Square. He looks pleased with himself and the world. This portrait initially appeared in New York Characters, a 2001 book that also featured George Plimpton and the guy who incessantly runs around the Central Park reservoir, among others.

“I was happy to be in the book,” Mr. Johnson said. “It was an O.K. book.”

Unfortunately, there are no photos in the typical Men’s Health black-and-white cover-photo style-they usually feature a hunky, shirtless man with great pecs. If ever asked, Mr. Johnson would be a willing subject. “I’m a total specimen,” he said.

-Anna Jane Grossman

Springtime for Sirio

For two years now, Le Cirque owner Sirio Maccioni has been promising friends that his memoir is coming out “next year,” but it appears the book may finally be ready for consumption. The restaurateur’s co-writer, Bloomberg Radio food critic Peter Elliot, told The Transom that John Wylie and Sons plan to publish Mr. Maccioni’s book, entitled Circus Master, in late April-just in time for Le Cirque’s 30th anniversary.

“These things take a long time,” said Mr. Elliot. He explained that after contracting to co-write the book in May 2001, he sat down with Mr. Maccioni every Tuesday to tape his recollections, then “interviewed 90 percent of the universe.”

Mr. Elliot admitted that he had trouble getting past Mr. Maccioni’s exterior of being the “magnanimous, imperial Tuscan social arbiter who can spin a President around and have him seated in two and a half minutes flat” and who is very close with the king of Spain. “Everybody in this town thinks he appeared one day in Brioni suits and looks fabulous and knows the President and movie stars, but he’s been here a long time, and it’s difficult to be Italian in America,” Mr. Elliot said of the restaurateur whose career in the States began at the social hot spot the Colony in 1956 and grew into a business that includes Osteria del Circo in midtown and Le Cirque offshoots in Las Vegas and Mexico City. “This isn’t going to be about Paris Hilton so much as it is about a man who came from nowhere and made it big in America.”

Adding to the difficulty of writing the book was capturing Mr. Maccioni’s unusual voice. A native of Montecatini, Mr. Maccioni speaks in an Italian-inflected, free-associative manner that might lead the uninitiated to guess that truffles aren’t the only mushrooms found in the kitchen at Le Cirque. Mr. Elliot didn’t say that-we did-but he did tell The Transom that he was determined not to spackle over his subject’s vocal idiosyncrasies for the sake of convenience. “I’ve been absolutely adamant that he not appear as an Englishman,” Mr. Elliot said. “Everybody writes about Sirio speaking like an American, and he really speaks in a stream of consciousness. And what I’ve done is to take the best bits of Sirio and call them ‘Sirio moments,’ where he goes from rent control to the Renaissance in three minutes.” Mr. Maccioni’s co-author added, “You have to kind of follow where he’s going, and it’s a wonderful tactic, but it’s not English.”

Mr. Elliot said that another reason the book took so long to finish was that Mr. Maccioni “had to go over every word” of the manuscript, which his co-author delivered to him this past summer. Ultimately, he said, the restaurateur made few changes.

Mr. Maccioni was vacationing in Mexico and couldn’t be reached for comment, but his assistant Michelle said that Wylie and Sons was “forecasting” an April publication date.


Seldes’ Shoes

In Beckett/Albee, the Off Broadway play performed by Marian Seldes (“It’s SEL-duhs, not sel-DEES”) and Brian Murray at Union Square’s Century Center for the Performing Arts from October until Jan. 4, Ms. Seldes, a theat-UH (not theat-ER) veteran, was walking in the shoes of fellow living stage legend Cherry Jones. Literally. When Ms. Jones was starring in Flesh and Blood at the New York Theatre Workshop last summer, her friend Ms. Seldes went backstage and raved about how much she loved her character’s bland beige pumps (she liked her performance, too).

“Marian said, ‘Oh, I adore those shoes. They’re the most beautiful shoes I’ve ever seen!’ And Cherry said, ‘Oh, they’re so uncomfortable. Take them,'” said Sam Rudy, the publicist for Beckett/Albee. Thrilled, Ms. Seldes included a special credit to Ms. Jones in the Playbill, even though after several performances she also found them too high and too uncomfortable to wear and had them replaced with similar-looking but lower heels.

Beckett/Albee consists of a collection of several inscrutable short plays by Samuel Beckett and an Edward Albee one-act about an old married couple. The Albee play has several unscripted minutes where the two actors are supposed to “introduce” themselves to the audience. While each actor’s roughly three-minute-long improvised monologue changed from night to night, certain lines were repeated often. Ms. Seldes liked to ask the audience not to leave their Playbills on the sidewalk outside the theater (“It’s so sad for us to see them lying there,” she’d say), and then she’d then go over the correct pronunciation of her name. Mr. Murray liked saying a word about mad-cow disease and how thrilling it is that President Bush is still eating beef.


Monster Maker

“I have become the person to go to to look bad,” said makeup artist Toni G.

A native of Stockton, Calif., Ms. G started doing makeup professionally on the set of Beverly Hills, 90210, where everyone seemed dewy and doe-eyed, but in the last few weeks she has been noticed for doing what she was trained not to do: making a memorably beautiful woman unforgettably ugly.

Ms. G is the makeup artist who transformed Charlize Theron into serial killer Aileen Wuornos for Patty Jenkins’ Monster, a movie that may just get both Ms. Theron and the architect of her onscreen ugliness nominated for Oscars.

And it almost didn’t happen. When the opportunity to work on Monster arose, Ms. G was slated to be the makeup supervisor on Haunted Mansion, a far more lucrative venture.

“Haunted Mansion was one of my favorite rides as a child, so it was a makeup geek’s dream to do something like that,” said Ms. G, who honed her craft working under such industry stalwarts as Rick Baker on How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Nutty Professor and Ve Neill on Pirates of the Caribbean. “I just felt like [Monster] was going to be a special project, as long as I was allowed to really do my job and make her unattractive and she wasn’t going to become this glamorized version of Aileen.”

Unattractive is an understatement. In the full-page ads for the film, Ms. Theron’s skin appears sun-scarred and blotchy. To achieve this effect, Ms. G had to use six different layers of translucent paint and foam-latex eyelids to simulate aging; she also tweezed off 50 percent of Ms. Theron’s eyebrows. The makeup took an hour to apply on each day of shooting.

“We needed those years of abuse to read on her face,” Ms. G told The Transom by phone. “If she had too much alcohol, too many cigarettes, emotional scars from terrible things that happened to her in her life, all those things read in your face. That’s really what we tried to capture.”

On top of all that, Ms. G brought in Art Sakamoto, a dental-appliance specialist who worked on Men in Black II, to create a set of crooked-teeth dentures. In the movie, the effect is startling, and it moved a number of film reviewers-including The Times’ Stephen Holden, Slate’s David Edelstein and the New York Post’s Megan Lehmann-to mention Ms. G by name.

“It’s easier to make somebody look like a [real] monster,” said Ms. Jenkins. “This was beyond that. She made a person look like another person who has lived a different life. That kind of eye for detail and character is not something I would trade for the world.”

“I am just surprised how many people have even seen the film,” said Ms. G, who recently finished a remake of George Romero’s zombie film Dawn of the Dead. “But I knew that [Ms. Theron’s] performance was amazing-it made my work look even better.”

Ms. Theron, who appeared in Playboy in 1999 and has since been named one of People’s “50 Most Beautiful People,” has already won this year’s National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actress and has also been nominated for a Golden Globe. Ms. G noted that her work gives beautiful women who are often overlooked as serious actresses the chance to be seen in a different way.

“Beautiful people have their obstacles as well-and she did not want to be beautiful,” Ms. G said.

In the end, it may not be only Ms. Theron who is recognized come Oscar time.

“Everybody keeps saying in fact, ‘Oh, [Toni G] could never get nominated, because it’s not that kind of movie,'” said Ms. Jenkins. “And I keep saying, ‘I’m not so sure.’ It’s so stunning. I hope she gets noticed for it.”

-Jake Brooks

King Conked by Yunqué