By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
By Roy Edroso
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
By Zachary D. Roberts
To quantify and map the reach of New York's gossip and how it's changed, you need only look at declining print circulation, shrinking revenues, and shifting Web traffic. The trajectory seems clear. But that's only part of the story, because gossip seems to be more ubiquitous than ever. At the same time, gossipmongering has clearly been democratized and decentralized by the Internet. That's a problem for this city's once golden reputation for the great names of great dirt. "I don't think anyone in New York City has gossip cornered at the moment," Widdicombe says.
What, exactly, happened to Gotham's gossip glory? Here's what we know. Or better yet: This is what we hear.
Popular culture documented the power and allure of New York City gossip early: J.J. Hunsecker, Burt Lancaster's odious Broadway gossip from 1957's Sweet Smell of Success, was willing to smear his own family to exert power. Hunsecker wound up No. 35 on the American Film Institute's top 50 movie villains, but screenwriter Ernest Lehman didn't pluck him out of thin air. The character was based on America's popular but also widely reviled original gossip, Walter Winchell. His column, which made its debut in the New York Evening Graphic in the mid-1920s, prompted The New Yorker to note his influence on modern journalism as "a spirochete." Since then, everyone from Madonna to Margaret Thatcher, to the various Kennedys, Clintons, Yankees, and Giulianis of this city, and far beyond have appeared, names bold, in Page Six, the Daily News, Gawker, the Observer, and New York.
Mulcahy recalls a time when gossip items were hitting at the highest levels, checking the rich and powerful for their frivolity, absurdity, or hypocrisy. Upon President Reagan's inauguration in 1981, Page Six ran an item about Nancy Reagan's insistence that two female senators not wear bright colors to the ceremony. The First Lady, in her "Reagan red" coat and hat, wanted to stand out in a sea of black and navy blue. The First Lady had "a fit," though the certainty of the report prevented any serious blowback. "She didn't call us directly of course," says Mulcahy, "but I heard from others."
Similarly, Mulcahy recalls a 1985 Page Six item on Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega's penchant for spending thousands of dollars on fancy eyewear. "The Man Behind the Designer Glasses," went a Time magazine headline the following year.
Where are the screaming fits these days from celebs skewered by the city's gossipmongers?
"In the old days, they probably would have come at me with a hatchet. I kind of miss when people were more angry," says the Voice's Michael Musto, a 25-year veteran disher. "I used to walk into a room, and half the room would run away."
But Page Six wasn't just dangerous for the famous. "It isn't overstating the case to say that Page Six was sort of menacing and terrifying. Showing up in there, until fairly recently, was like a truck hitting you," said Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl and a former editor at the Observer and Gawker. In 2008, Vanessa Grigoriadis, a reporter for New York magazine, wrote a profile of Gawker, daring to question the necessity of Page Six and calling them "emasculated." The column responded all but threatening to rape her. The males on staff of Page Six would "take her somplace private and disprove her theory," but, "lucky" for Grigoriadis, they, at that time, did not "like a woman with a mustache." It might be worth noting that Grigoriadis, in a previous article on Page Six, called Johnson "movie-star handsome."
Not to tempt fate, but many gossips agree that the viciousness—or at least the impact—of such violent prose is now muted. Gawker staff writer Maureen O'Connor says, "I can write the meanest shit in the world about Lindsay Lohan, and I'll never even get an e-mail."
One consensus is that the definition of "celebrity" has shifted, and even creations of the gossip pages no longer make the grade. "I'm sorry to say that Page Six helped make Donald Trump a big celebrity," says Mulcahy. New York Daily Intel blogger Chris Rovzar, a former Daily News gossip stringer himself, adds, "Yes, [Trump] married beautiful women and had sensational divorces. But he ran a company."
George Rush, formerly of long-time husband-and-wife gossip duo Rush & Molloy at the New York Daily News and one-time Page Sixer, saw the change firsthand during his 15 years at the Daily News: "It was supposed to be about the rich, famous, and powerful," he says, leaning back over a beer one recent afternoon in Tribeca. "You weren't supposed to waste the time of your readers by writing about soap-opera stars, people who weren't worth the ink. That was one of the pleasures for the readers: people whose money couldn't protect them from disaster."
So who is it about now? Better yet: Who isn't it about? "There's just so much that gets instantly transmitted about so many 'celebrities' "—Rush pauses to make air quotes—"we've never even regarded as celebrities," he says. "You want them to go away. If Snooki passes out drunk, so what? She doesn't have far to fall."