Mister D: There’s a small Bette mention in this article, but I just found this all very interesting. Thought maybe some of you would too!
If youâ€™ve ever found yourself intrigued by the meltdowns of Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen, puzzled by Jennifer Anistonâ€™s seemingly endless difficulty in finding romantic bliss, fascinated by the endless woes of the even more endless â€œReal Housewives,â€ or hungry for any scrap of news about Brangelina, Kimye or TomKat, chances are you are deeply familiar with the work of Liz Smith and Jess Cagle, who have 90 years of gossip columns and entertainment news between them.
Ms. Smith, the oft-dubbed â€œDoyenne of Dish,â€ began ghostwriting the Cholly Knickerbocker gossip column for Hearst newspapers in the 1950s, and in 1976 began writing a string of self-titled gossip columns for The New York Daily News, Newsday and The New York Post, many of which were syndicated. Mr. Cagle is the editorial director of People magazine and Entertainment Weekly, and has worked in entertainment news for Time Inc. magazines for 27 years. He also is a host of ABCâ€™s Academy Awards red-carpet show.
The two met recently for lunch at a coveted corner banquette in the Grill Room of the Four Seasons restaurant. Ms. Smith arrived first, heads turning at her signature blonde bob. (â€œI donâ€™t get older, I just get blonder.â€) Mr. Cagle walked in moments later, natty in a trim gray suit. Over lamb chops and French fries (for Ms. Smith) and filet mignon (for Mr. Cagle), they spoke about the enduring appeal of stars, the evolution of entertainment news and some of their best (and worst) dish.
â€˜Mia is so manipulative. My God! She called me months ago and said: â€œLiz, will you print that Ronan Farrow is actually Frank Sinatraâ€™s son?â€ I said: â€œNo, what proof do you have?â€
Philip Galanes: So, what pushes two Southern Baptists from Texas straight to the top of the gossip game?
Liz Smith: Dying to get out of Texas mostly. When I was 6 or 7, my babysitter started taking me to the movies â€” only ones that were beyond my years, mind you. Garbo and John Gielgud. I never wanted to do anything else.
Jess Cagle: Same here. I was this kid in Texas, kind of a sissy, without many friends. Iâ€™m making it sound sadder than it was. But movies and TV were such an escape. And once I started writing about entertainment, I became fascinated by the business, and what stars represent to us.
PG: Why do we care so much about them? Who cares if Jennifer Aniston ever marries Justin Theroux? Iâ€™m embarrassed to admit that I sort of do, even though I have no idea why.
LS: Remember â€œCamelotâ€? The song: â€œI Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight?â€ We make stars into something exquisite, and we want to know what theyâ€™re doing and thinking because our lives are desperately boring.
JC: Particularly mine. I live vicariously through Jennifer Aniston every day. Itâ€™s just human nature. It goes back to the Greeks who gossiped about the gods on Mount Olympus.
PG: And it carries down to items like: â€œBette Midler spotted at â€˜Kinky Bootsâ€™ last nightâ€?
JC: Sure. We may not know her, but these people entertain us. We have a soft spot for them. Hearing about them is like catching up with a friend.
LS: Betteâ€™s a good example. I had lunch with her a few years ago, and she was very depressed that people didnâ€™t know who she was anymore. She said: â€œI was discovered when people were just trying to get me to take my clothes off.â€ And now look at her. Sheâ€™s bigger than ever.
PG: See what I mean? Stories with celebrities in them are simply more fun. I hear you have a great one about Jackie O. and Philip Roth.
LS: Oh, I love this one. Jackie is having a walkabout with Philip Roth, and he is notoriously not nice to women. So everybody is whispering that sheâ€™s seeing him, and one day, she was looking out her window onto Central Park, and he came up to her and put his arm around her and kissed gently on the cheek. And she says: â€œNow what did you have to go and do that for?â€ And she never saw him again. Bill Styron told me that story, or I wouldnâ€™t believe it. He said Philip didnâ€™t know what happened to him.
PG: Itâ€™s like a cautionary tale: Donâ€™t kiss Jackie O.
JC: We identify with stars. We project our own lives and feelings onto them, and what makes a great star is having this tremendous ability to be projected onto.
PG: Itâ€™s a tightrope, no? You have to be nice enough for stars to talk with you, but not so nice that Gawker crucifies you as a bootlicker. Not to mention the explosion of celebrity websites and blogs and TMZ.
LS: I donâ€™t pay attention to any of them. I never know whether the stories are true.
JC: Theyâ€™re not all the same. TMZ actually tries to get it right. But a whole lot of others donâ€™t. And thereâ€™s very little fact-checking.
PG: But isnâ€™t that the $64,000 question? Would people rather read a lurid story about Kim Kardashian that may not be true or a tame one thatâ€™s 100 percent accurate?
LS: I wouldnâ€™t pay any attention to anything with the Kardashians. I mean, theyâ€™re pretty, but theyâ€™re idiots.
JC: Some people would rather read the lurid story, and there are publications that exist for them. But thereâ€™s also an audience for celebrity journalism thatâ€™s careful to give you the truth, and isnâ€™t just going to feed you gossip.
PG: Did you ever pay for stories?
LS: I could have. But that would have been against my principles. The only thing I ever negotiated for money was covering Elizabeth Taylorâ€™s wedding to Larry Fortensky at Neverland Ranch. They said: No press. And I said: Iâ€™ll give all the money to AIDS charities. So they let me come, and boy, that was an experience.
PG: How about all those baby pictures? Donâ€™t you pay for those?
JC: Like everyone, we pay for photos. And if theyâ€™re exclusive, weâ€™ll buy them. But we never pay for interviews. I remember one point when People bought some exclusive baby pictures from Angelina, and all the money went to charity. Sheâ€™s smart about raising money for causes that way.
LS: Did you know that when Brad and Angelina went to Davos, the big financial summit, the Davos people asked them not to come back? They said: â€œYour presence is too distracting.â€
PG: The growth of reality TV has created another weird phenomenon. When I look at celebrity magazines these days, even People, I donâ€™t recognize half the people in them.
â€˜There have been a couple of stories over the years that I disagreed with, but your bosses want to do them. So, you work to make them as fair as possible.â€™ JESS CAGLE Credit Robert Caplin for The New York Times
LS: Thatâ€™s probably true for all of us.
JC: There are too many celebrities now.
PG: Do you think your audience really wants to know about all those Biggest Losers and Bachelors, even after their season in the sun is over?
JC: I do. Reality stars do very well on People.com. And our audience has grown because we have the magazine and a website thatâ€™s getting millions of page views a month. Magazines arenâ€™t going away. But digital is now a huge, huge part of our business.
LS: And your cover with the â€œBiggest Loserâ€ scandal got a great headline.
JC: Yeah: â€œToo Thin Too Fast.â€ What woman is not going to read that?
PG: Speaking of losers, I read an article by an evolutionary biologist that said gossip is great for preventing bad behavior. By watching Justin Bieberâ€™s wheels fall off, do the rest of us really learn to stay in line?
LS: I think thatâ€™s right.
JC: But is that gossip? I donâ€™t know how youâ€™re defining gossip.
PG: Letâ€™s use Lizâ€™s definition. â€œGossip
LS: Gossip is news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress.
JC: I have no interest in repeating gossip. I want to know whatâ€™s really happening.
LS: Yeah, but gossip captures peopleâ€™s attention. It gives them detail and color.
PG: The red satin dress.
LS: Maybe the red satin dress means something, and maybe it doesnâ€™t.
JC: Thatâ€™s the thrill of it. We get to talk to people and get the truth from them.
LS: Or their truth.
JC: I always want to hear what someone has to say for themselves. But Iâ€™m more excited by: Hereâ€™s the rumor. What did he say, and what did she say? Thatâ€™s why Iâ€™ve been so fascinated by the Woody and Mia story. By hearing the two sides and trying to figure out where the truth is.
LS: Well, Mia is so manipulative. My God! She called me months ago and said: â€œLiz, will you print that Ronan Farrow is actually Frank Sinatraâ€™s son?â€ I said: â€œNo, what proof do you have?â€ Woody could sue me, and I wouldnâ€™t have a leg to stand on. And she said: â€œWell, I think he is. He looks like him.â€ If I were Woody, I would have had a DNA test right then to prove yes or no.
PG: So, when does gossip become news?
JC: Once you go to the source and ask: Whatâ€™s the truth here? Then itâ€™s news. A monkey can repeat gossip.
PG: But thatâ€™s what I love about the Woody/Mia story. No matter whose side of the story Iâ€™m reading, in that moment, I believe them …
JC: The truth is there was a lot of dysfunction in that household. Woodyâ€™s disadvantage is that he married Miaâ€™s [adopted] daughter, so people are reluctant to defend him. And itâ€™s easier to believe anything you hear about him.
LS: And a lot of people donâ€™t give a damn whether he did or not. They just want him to put them in a movie.
â€˜There was a story that Mrs. Nixon was drinking a lot. I asked insiders, and they confirmed it, so I printed it. But Iâ€™ve always been sorry about that.â€™ LIZ SMITH
â€˜When youâ€™re starting out, you get to hang out with famous people, and itâ€™s very seductive. But you realize, these people are not your friends.â€™ JESS CAGLE Credit Robert Caplin for The New York Times
JC: And others just want him punished.
PG: Speaking of punishment, have you ever broken a story that you wish you hadnâ€™t?
LS: When Woodward and Bernstein wrote their second book about Nixon leaving the White House, there was a story that Mrs. Nixon was drinking a lot. I asked insiders, and they confirmed it, so I printed it. But Iâ€™ve always been sorry about that.
JC: Did you ever hear from her?
LS: No, but once I got drunk with Mrs. Reagan, and I wrote her a letter and apologized.
PG: Was she drunk, too?
PG: Details, please.
LS: We were out with some people, and I said to her: â€œWhy donâ€™t you make something of your life, like Hillary Clinton?â€ And she said: â€œI thought I was. Iâ€™m taking care of the President.â€ Of course, that was rude and stupid of me. So I apologized, and she wrote back: â€œLiz, youâ€™re the only person whoâ€™s ever admitted she was drunk. I love you, even though I know you never voted for Ronald.â€
JC: There have been a couple of stories over the years that I disagreed with, but your bosses want to do them. So, you work to make them as fair as possible.
PG: Speaking of bosses, when you were at The Post, you broke the story on Rupert Murdochâ€™s divorce from Anna Murdoch. Did you get his permission for that?
LS: Iâ€™m sitting there minding my own business, and the phone rings: â€œMr. Murdoch wants to speak to you.â€ Iâ€™d always been friendly with him, and I was glad I had a job â€” even though Col Allan [the New York Post editor at the time] hated me. And Rupert said: â€œLiz, I want to give you a story. Anna and I are divorcing, and we want you to write it.â€ Well, I was his slave, but it was also a great story.
PG: And it came to you like a box of chocolates.
LS: So, I asked, â€œDo you want me to call you back after I write it?â€ And he said, â€œNo, just do it the way you normally would.â€ But The Post didnâ€™t want to print it, and 500 executives called me to say, â€œHow dare you?â€ And I said: â€œHow dare I? Mr. Murdoch called me, so why donâ€™t you ask him about it?â€
PG: Did your bosses try to talk you out of that gutsy editorâ€™s letter you wrote about Phil Robertson and that whole â€œDuck Dynastyâ€ brouhaha, Jess? They must be trying to sell magazines to â€œDuckâ€ lovers, too.
JC: No. The Entertainment Weekly audience is so in step with me on that issue. I thought Iâ€™d get a lot of hate mail because I criticized Phil Robertson for being so antigay. But I got an overwhelmingly positive response from readers and advertisers. And I never heard boo from the â€œDuck Dynastyâ€ people.
PG: How about friendships with people you cover? I remember a cover of The Daily News, where Liz was arm in arm with Ivana Trump at the height of her divorce from The Donald, storming out of La Grenouille like youâ€™re storming the Bastille. Did you take heat for that? Or just sell a lot of papers?
LS: Oh, we sold a lot of papers. But that just happened. I wasnâ€™t trying to make it happen. The Daily News photographer was there in a crowd of photographers, and he leapt out and got it. I was concerned about Ivana. Barbara Walters was on one side of her, and I was on the other.
PG: I donâ€™t remember Barbara Walters.
LS: They cropped her out of the picture.
JC: The Daily News cropped her out and just had the two of you?
LS: And there I was looking like… Oh, well, I took her side because I thought he was a jerk.
JC: But you were right.
LS: But I shouldnâ€™t have done that. It looked so self-aggrandizing â€” like I was trying to make myself better known. I still remember Trump saying he would buy The Daily News just so he could fire me.
PG: How about you, Jess? Are celebrity friendships dangerous?
JC: When youâ€™re young and starting out, all of a sudden you get to hang out with famous people, and itâ€™s very seductive. But pretty quickly you realize, these people are not your friends. Weâ€™re professional acquaintances. We can help each other, and we may be fond of each other, but itâ€™s better if you keep a distance.