Former 'Page Six' Gossip Admits to Making Stuff Up! (For His Novel)
One of the nice things about the recent Jared Paul Stern controversy -- in which the former New York Post "Page Six" gossip columnist was accused of attempting to extort protection money (protection against nasty items) from billionaire Ron Burkle -- is that it opened up a sort of Pandora's box. Competitive news organizations (The New York Times and the Daily News chief among them) spent weeks and thousands of words gleefully dissecting the big business of "Page Six" gossip, and suddenly everyone was in on all the dirty secrets behind the dirty-secrets racket.
They needn't have bothered. Turns out there's a much more entertaining and explicit way to peek inside the gossip sausage factory: Read the just-published "Welcome to Yesterday," a darkly funny, caustic roman a clef by former "Page Six" staffer Ian Spiegelman. The book centers around Leon Koch, a gossip writer very much like Spiegelman (except he's tall) who works at a paper very much like the New York Post and gets caught up in dark adventures when a death (a suicide? a murder?) is linked to its "Page Six"-like gossip column.
I've known Spiegelman for years; he worked on the "Intelligencer" gossip column for awhile when I was an editor at New York Magazine (but we never actually worked together). He's more than a bit nuts -- which is what I like about him, and also why I've always tended to keep my distance. Because he's refreshingly reckless and pathologically blunt, I've decided to turn over this week's column to a Q&A with him upon the publication of his new media-obsessed novel.
Media Guy: The book is funny -- really funny -- which suggests that you somehow survived "Page Six" with your sense of humor intact. How much of the job was fun, and how much of the time were you filled with hatred and/or self-loathing?
Spiegelman: Most of it was a great time. I actually wrote the first half of the book while I was still at the page, so there are a lot of one-liners that came directly from someone's mouth. The dynamic of our little group was usually about trying to crack each other up, whether it meant clowning some idiot pol over the phone or coming up with new and better excuses to get out of working with one of the grizzled old boys at the Cop Shack [the police-beat reporters].
Early on, when I still cared about getting "access," I would hate myself a little every time I covered a party. It's hard not to feel sick to your stomach when you're kissing some publicist's rear for the privilege of having Sarah Jessica Parker tell you what [designer] Betsy Johnson's "really like." But most of the self-loathing was brought on when some top-level editor would meddle with the page. On several occasions I had to quote some homophobic press release from the Catholic League because someone who hadn't reported a story in a decade thought they made a good point.
Media Guy: I wish the Catholic League could tell me what Betsy Johnson is really like. Anyway, moving on, I loved that funny bit on the copyright page about any resemblance to real people or events or locales being coincidental, blah blah. Yeah, right. How are you bracing yourself for the reactions of people who see themselves -- rightly or wrongly -- in your book, and not so flatteringly? Do you just plan on denying everything?
Spiegelman: The only people whose opinions I worried about were my friends. All of them have read it and have told me they really liked it, which was a relief. As for anyone else, if someone feels slammed, they probably just have a guilty conscience. Sure, some of the filthier characters in the story may appear to have parallels to real people. But if you write a story about corruption and set it in New York City, you'd have to be a pretty poor storyteller if no one thought they saw themselves in it.
Media Guy: Do you remember what you had to do the first day on the job at "Page Six" -- and what your first published item was?
Spiegelman: Boy, do I! The day before I started I was at this little bar in the Dominican Republic, waiting for a scuba boat, when it comes on CNN that JFK Jr.'s plane had gone missing. I remember thinking, "Well, this is going to suck." So for weeks it was all John-John all the time. I believe my first item was about the media horde descending on Martha's Vineyard like that biker gang in "Mad Max."
Media Guy: Did the power ever go to your head? I mean, in your novel, people get destroyed -- or think they're getting destroyed -- by gossip. When was the first time you thought, when you were working at "Page Six," "I can destroy. I have the power."
Spiegelman: Not that the job never went to my head, but it's a misconception that "Page Six" destroys people. I mean, only Tom Cruise can ruin Tom Cruise. Barbra Streisand isn't a hypocritical basketcase because "Page Six" says she is, but because of her own words and deeds. That said, a doorman at this trendoid Manhattan nightclub lost his job a few years ago after he treated my brother like a jerk. I never called for him to be fired, I just told his manager how he treated his guests and let him decide what to do about it.
Media Guy: If I ever met your brother, I think I'd treat him very nicely -- because you're his brother. He deserves every courtesy and consideration and endless sympathy. Just kidding. Sort of.
Spiegelman: Look, that doorman lost his job because he looked at a group of people and decided they were "bridge and tunnel" and could therefore be treated like shit. Well, I'm bridge and tunnel too. And yet I worked at "Page Six." Uber-cool faux-hawk boy made a stupid, prejudicial generalization, and it paid off the way such things often do. And that's one to grow on.
Media Guy: You know, I'd be doing my readers -- and your own legend -- a disservice if I didn't rehash the fact that you famously self-destructed at "Page Six." First, back in 2004, you yammered on at some Learning Annex thing, saying -- I'm quoting you here -- stuff about "Page Six" being "the main kind of attack arm of the New York Post" and working there as being "a lot like being [a member of] a Mafia family." Then, not long after that you attacked some aging publicist via e-mail -- which got forwarded around town and quoted in the Daily News -- threatening to push his "face inside out" or some such. If I'm not mistaken, you helped make your operatic feud with the guy public, but your bosses weren't as entertained as you thought they'd be. Obviously, you sometimes amuse yourself by being a drunken pugilist with a keyboard, but that time it got you fired.
Spiegelman: First, I still stand behind my Mafia quote. Think about it. In gossip, if you're doing it right, you have enemies by the dozen. And, just like in the Mafia, most of those enemies are your friends. Case in point, the manimal who I threatened was an old "friend" of ["Page Six" editor] Richard Johnson's, and I'd been begging Richard for years not to work with him. The guy tried to plant a fake story in the page, I busted him for it, so he planted a fake story about me in the Daily News -- namely, that I was trying to "date" this teenage girl he'd victimized, despite the fact that I had never met her in my life. The fun part came when both me and the girl told Howard Rubenstein -- the Post's PR gargoyle -- that we had never met. His quote to the News? "I spoke to Ian and he said that he has never asked her out on a date." Thanks.
Media Guy: How long'd you work at "Page Six"? And at what point did you think to yourself, "There's a novel in this for me to write"?
Spiegelman: I worked there from 1999 to 2000 and from 2001 to 2004. In the summer of '99, I started writing a satirical novel based on the ridiculous hype surrounding the Talk magazine launch party and all of [Talk editor] Tina Brown's absurdly British speeches about "The American Conversation." The backstory was that the hard-boiled narrator/gossip columnist was terrified of and in love with a 90-pound woman at the party who was using a secret against him. That November, the agent Jay Maloney killed himself after "Page Six" ran an item about him falling off the wagon, which his friends had asked us not to run, so I began incorporating this very dark event and inventing an aftermath. I started exploring this question about what effect the media does or doesn't have on people's lives when they choose to become a part of it. I dropped it for a year or so to write "Everyone's Burning" [Spiegelman's first novel] and by the time I went back to it in 2003, I realized that the dark stuff and the love story were far more compelling than anything about Talk. Though just about anything is more compelling than Talk was.
Media Guy: Your novel's protagonist is literally on the take -- taking cash for positive coverage -- which you came up with well ahead of the Jared Paul Stern controversy. Was working at "Page Six" a sufficiently slippery slope ethically that you figured it was just a matter of time?
Spiegelman: First, I don't believe the charges against Jared, so I'm not conceding that what I depict in the book has actually happened in real life just yet. It was just, the way I saw the business, it was the natural progression of things. The "Sightings" file was always so overflowing with favors owed that I was often tempted to just put a price on it. Some items the flacks expected me to run in exchange for good information were so silly, so mind-numbing, that I thought I should get extra pay for it. It was more a naughty fantasy than anything. I mean, it's a business composed of dirt, upon a foundation of dirt. How is it people are shocked to discover it's dirty?
Media Guy: You've also got a youthful journalist character in your novel who blithely plagiarizes passages from books and from other journalists. I guess somehow you saw that coming too?
Spiegelman: What I was aiming at in the book was this wave of young, rich, entitled kids who the J-schools and Ivy League English/communications programs have been spewing forth these last few years. They work the weeklies and monthlies because something as pedestrian as a daily newspaper would be too base and, frankly, too difficult for them to handle. They are moneyed brats who come out of school expecting cover stories because everything in their lives has taught them that they deserve attention now, not in a few years. And what they're taught in their incredibly expensive programs never prepares them for anything as run-of-the-mill as dealing with cops, getting files released under FOIA [Freedom of Information Act], or just plain knowing how to question a source. So, because they think they deserve big stories -- since it's been drilled into their heads -- they lie. They invent stories, and they plagiarize other writers. Some 28-year-old shit who thinks she or he has paid her dues when they're still fresh to the business thinks nothing of making up stories.
And you can't even blame the kids. The story no one has reported is that this plague of fake writers and reporters was totally encouraged by their editors and engineered by them. These assholes fall in love with some pretty young thing -- male or female -- and end up writing most of their first stories for them. Once the editor sets them loose, then the stealing starts. There is no way around it. The New York media is so impaled upon the youthful beauty of its youngest, most avaricious writers that nothing else matters.
Media Guy: I'm going to leave your answer at that -- because we should wrap this up, and because I want to ask you what the worst thing was about working not for "Page Six" but for Post parent company News Corp itself -- and Rupert Murdoch? I mean, your protagonist doesn't exactly speak fondly of "Corporate" in the book.
Spiegelman: The narrator, Koch, refers to all the operatives and lawyers from Corporate as "droids" because there's nothing human going on there. The great fallacy about News Corp is that it's "right wing" or "conservative." Al Franken covered this a couple years back, and he was correct. News Corp has no allegiance to any party, any country or even any ideal. It will be Republican when there is money in it, and it will go all out to flatter every thug Communist in China when it thinks it can score a satellite TV deal there. The Murdochs remind me of the Tessier-Ashpool clan in "Neuromancer" -- this family so rich and so disconnected that they literally spend their lives floating in orbit in suspended animation until it's time to wake up and do some banking. And yet Fox runs "The Simpsons," "Family Guy" and distributes "Star Wars" -- so News Corp isn't all bad.
Media Guy: You know, if I were running my own gossip column, I'd do an item about how you're an uber-dork with a sexual fetish for "Star Wars" toys. I wouldn't even have my intern call you to check it. But since I've got you now, do you? Like, do you sleep with a Chewbacca doll?
Spiegelman: I have a classic Hand-Blaster from '77 or '78 that still works, a Jabba cookie jar, an R2-D2 piggy bank, an "Empire Strikes Back" pop-up book, a couple of figures on their original cards, and every movie except "Episode One" on DVD. But I've grown up a bunch. Now I'm more into "Buffy" than "Star Wars." But, you know, in a really macho kind of way.
Media Guy: I'm telling Howard Rubenstein. But back to "Page Six." What Murdoch-mandated friends were you expected to dance around or flatter?
Spiegelman: The People's Republic of China. One time I was looking into an item about a Chinese diplomat and a strip club when word came from somewhere up above that China had carte blanche. The message I got was more or less, "If you mention Chinese, you'd better be ordering lunch." Also, Nicole Kidman. Someone in the hive-mind thinks she's a personal friend, so you couldn't write a word against her. At least that was true for a good part of my duration. Could be that her defender has finally realized that she's not going to let him pet her and has therefore lifted the ban. News Corp's enemies were the usual bunch: Anyone who thought the war in Iraq might not be the best of all possible adventures to pursue, especially if they lived in Hollywood.
Media Guy: Nicole Kidman's Chinese, you know. Few people know that. I read it in Star.
Spiegelman: Yeah, someone whispered that in [Star editor] Joe Dolce's ear, but it's all wrong. She was grown in a vat for Tom Cruise but her programming got all fried the first time she gazed into his horrible, horrible eyes.
Media Guy: Who plays your protagonist, Leon Koch -- in other words, you -- in the movie version of "Welcome to Yesterday"?
Spiegelman: Well, Leon Koch isn't physically intimidating, so that would tend to narrow the field among actors in their late '20s and early '30s. I'm a huge Spider-Man fan, so I'd want Tobey Maguire.
Media Guy: Tobey Maguire? I'm not going to even touch that one.
Spiegelman: Oh, please. You've touched worse.
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