Only Gossip

journalism

THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE – March 3, 2002, Sunday  

Only Gossip

I REMEMBER the first time I saw Burt Lancaster, as the gossip columnist
J.J. Hunsecker, watch a drunk get tossed out of a strip club and say, with
satanic gusto, ”I love this dirty town.” It was funny and horrible, riveting.
For certain people, the 1957 movie ”Sweet Smell of Success” has an almost
”Rocky Horror Picture Show” cult appeal: we could, if called upon, recite
whole chunks of its dialogue. As when Hunsecker puts a cigarette to his lips
and casually orders the press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), ”Match me,
Sidney.” Or chuckles about the plausible deniability his web of favors and
threats provides him: ”My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand for 30 years.”
Or complains about his toadies: ”I often wish . . . I could shut out the
greedy murmur of little men.” The prospect of hearing John Lithgow, as Hunsecker,
deliver those lines live on stage is enough by itself to get me to the Martin
Beck Theater, where a new Broadway musical — book by John Guare and music
by Marvin Hamlisch — is scheduled to open on March 14.

At first glance, ”Sweet Smell,” the movie and now the musical, is a period
piece. But despite all the black-and-white Weegee-esque imagery — Midtown
in the mid-1950′s, hideous and glamorous, skanky and cool, cigarettes ubiquitous,
Checker cabs rumbling toward El Morocco — Sweet Smell” isn’t just a time
capsule, a chronicle of a bygone era’s gothic final days. Because in fact,
the era isn’t bygone at all.

In the intervening 45 years the wardrobe and lingo have changed some, and
the relative power of various players has shifted. But as a benchmark of
modern cultural history, ”Sweet Smell” is more like the end of a beginning
than the beginning of any end. Since the film’s release, the infotainment-industrial
complex grew exponentially from post-vaudeville germination to the all-subsuming
500-channel efflorescence of global media-movie-music conglomerates; gossip
columns and crypto-gossip columns began appearing in more and more magazines
and newspapers, including this one; celebrity became both indiscriminately
fungible and a genuine national obsession; murky symbioses between journalists
and publicists grew more widespread and entrenched; and a sneering, clued-in,
”Sweet Smell” cynicism about the quid pro quo bargains for fame and success
became the standard American take. Hunsecker and Falco are monsters, but
they’re also pioneers, founding fathers of the world we inhabit now.

A big reason I moved to New York, without a job, the day after I graduated
from college in 1976, was because the city looked and (I imagined) smelled
and sounded so intensely old-fashioned in a peculiar, day-before-yesterday
way. New York was still dominated by the antiquated remnants of the 1920′s,
30′s, 40′s and 50′s — the iconic skyscrapers and elevated trains, the Democratic
clubhouse system, the Broadway theater, co-op apartments, candy stores selling
Yoo-Hoo, theaters showing old black-and-white movies, tabloid daily newspapers
— two tabloids with a half-dozen gossip columns between them, including
one by Earl Wilson, an ancient little man-about-town who had been writing
the same chirpy column pretty much every day since well before the war. I
had never seen a gossip column, never read a tabloid.

I took a job as a writer for Gene Shalit, the NBC television and radio personality,
who told me on my first day that he had started out as a ”press agent.”
I’d never heard anyone use that term in conversation. He also said he had
brushed up against Walter Winchell in those old days. ”You know who Winchell
is, right?” he asked. ”Yeah,” I said, ”the narrator on ‘The Untouchables.”’
He filled me in on Winchell’s career and enormous power, and as soon as I
could, I saw ”Sweet Smell of Success” — in those pre-VCR days, the next
time it played at Theater 80 St. Marks.

In 1976 Winchell had been dead only four years. But to me the 50′s felt
every bit as antique then as they do today. That may be because the subjective
distance from the era of one’s birth remains constant — until the day I
die, the present moment will be exactly one lifetime away from the mid-50′s.
But firsthand real-time mass-culture glimpses of the players of the ”Sweet
Smell” era were still possible in my boyhood. In addition to Winchell’s
tough-guy TV-show voice-overs, in the 60′s we saw his comparatively anodyne
West Coast counterpart, Hedda Hopper, play herself on episodes of ”I Love
Lucy” and ”The Beverly Hillbillies,” and the New York Journal-American
gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen appear as a panelist on ”What’s My Line.”
Before Ed Sullivan became nationally famous as the stiff who introduced America
to Elvis and the Beatles, he had been locally famous as The Daily News’s
gossipy Broadway columnist, and as Winchell’s nemesis.

Some of the youngsters of that era are still around today, doing more or
less what they did then. Seventy-nine-year-old Liz Smith, the most famous
gossip alive, started in the business as an assistant to Winchell’s contemporary
Igor Cassini, who wrote a column as Cholly Knickerbocker. Some of the survivors
are kitsch artifacts whose power radii can now be measured in city blocks.
There’s an old-school publicist named Sy Preston, for instance, whose clients
include the restaurant Nirvana, a place on Central Park South habituated
by a middling stratum of celebrities largely because Preston has for decades
doled out Nirvana anecdotes involving a middling stratum of celebrities.
”He showers you with paper,” the Daily News gossip columnist Joanna Molloy
says fondly. ”I mean showers. Like 10 pages of items and gags at a time.”
(Gags: the very word Hunsecker uses, contemptuously, for items Falco begs
him to run.) Cindy Adams, in her youth a serial beauty queen (Miss Coaxial
Cable, Miss Bazooka Bubble Gum) and cafe society lollapalooza, reinvented
herself late in life as a smart-alecky ”Sweet Smell”-style gossip columnist
in The New York Post. In Hollywood there’s the 83-year-old Army Archerd,
Daily Variety’s relentlessly upbeat gossip columnist, and George Christy,
his counterpart at The Hollywood Reporter until last year, when the old rules
changed on him and he resigned after allegedly accepting favors from film
producers.

It is hard to overstate Walter Winchell’s power in the 40′s and 50′s. Aside
from owners like Greeley, Hearst, Pulitzer and Luce, no press figure before
or since has been so celebrated. Thousands of daily newspapers carried his
New York Mirror column. Every week he was on the radio and then, after the
war, on the new ABC-TV network. At his zenith, according to his biographer
Neal Gabler, Winchell was read or heard by 50 million of America’s 75 million
adults. He earned the equivalent of $4 million a year, as much as the biggest
movie stars of the time. And unlike the other influential Walter of his time,
the mandarin Washington columnist Walter Lippman, Winchell was all about
the grotty exercise of power, relentlessly and specifically, day after day
doling out bits of patronage or punishment in response to the greedy murmur
of little men. Studios would pay a press agent as much as $5,000, the equivalent
of $25,000 or more today, for getting a movie an ”orchid,” Winchell’s maximum
praise.

”There was no voice on Broadway,” says David Brown, who is a producer
of the ”Sweet Smell” musical, ”who could keep a show running like Walter
Winchell.” Today Brown is best known as a movie producer (”Jaws,” ”The
Player,” ”Chocolat”) and spouse (Helen Gurley Brown), but during Winchell’s
heyday, he was a young show-business journalist in New York. ”Walter Winchell
would tear out items from my column and send them to me with comments,”
he recalls. ”One day he called and said, ‘How’d you like to do an article
about ”Walter Winchell, humanitarian?”’ And I did.”

One of Brown’s best friends in those days was Ernest Lehman, a Broadway
press agent whose job significantly revolved around servicing Walter Winchell,
wheedling him to run planted items about clients, even writing the items
for him. Lehman also wrote fiction, and he introduced Hunsecker and Falco
in a novella, published in 1949 as ”Tell Me About It Tomorrow.” Burt Lancaster
and his producing partners bought the film rights, Lehman wrote the screenplay
— with Clifford Odets, who, like the others, knew Winchell personally. Everybody
did.

Has there ever been a more transparently actual person in fiction? Both
Winchell and Hunsecker were friendless, angry, cynical, essentially Nixonian
gossip columnists and broadcasters with audiences in the tens of millions.
Hunsecker’s headquarters is the ”21” Club on West 52nd; Winchell was ensconced
at the Stork Club on West 58th, which he plugged on the radio as ”The New
Yorkiest spot in New York . . . which entices the well-knowns from all divisions
nightly.” Winchell kept a Drop Dead List, a tally of enemies on which publicists’
names could go for years at a time; when Hunsecker gets bad news from Falco,
he tells him, ”You’re dead, son — get yourself buried!” Hunsecker used
Falco to attack his sister’s boyfriend; Winchell used his column to attack
his daughter’s boyfriend — and is said to have persuaded his friend J. Edgar
Hoover to indict the boyfriend for income-tax evasion. And when ”Sweet Smell
of Success” came out, Winchell ran an item suggesting that Lehman’s marriage
was unraveling.

Like most of the midcentury’s other noirish tales of this hard-bitten milieu
— The Day of the Locust,” ”The Deer Park,” ”His Girl Friday,” ”Mr.
Deeds Goes to Town” ”What Makes Sammy Run?”- ”Sweet Smell” depicted
the occupations of people like Winchell in moralistic terms. ”You see yourself
as a national glory,” says Steve Dallas, the drippy-but-decent boyfriend
of Hunsecker’s sister, ”but to me, and thousands of others like me, you
and your slimy scandal, your phony patriotics — to me, Mr. Hunsecker, you
are a national disgrace!” In fact, part of what made the movie thrilling
was the fact that it was mongering fresh scandal itself, the scandal of Winchell’s
corrosive power and vindictiveness, as revealed by a cabal of his former
associates. Thus did ”Sweet Smell” first epitomize what we know today as
”edge”: the knowingness, combined with the fact that Falco and Hunsecker
are conniving, sociopathic creeps who get hardly any comeuppance and achieve
no third-act redemption.

In real life, however, comeuppance was nigh. By the time the movie came
out in 1957, Winchell’s power was in decline. His radio show was canceled
in 1959, and The Mirror went out of business in 1963. One night in Manhattan,
David Brown remembers: ”I saw Winchell for the last time, at Danny’s Hideaway.
He waved Helen and me over. He was sitting alone at a booth with his press
clippings.”

Even as winchell disappeared, the world was being
Winchellized. Two years after he died, Time Inc. started People, a weekly
magazine devoted to the well-knowns from all divisions. It was the first
major American magazine predicated on the basic Winchellian (and later
Warholian) idea that fame — 15-minute Baby Jessica fame, Ken Lay fame,
Jay-Z fame, John Ashcroft fame, Julia Roberts fame, whatever — differs
only in magnitude, and that fame is inherently interesting and desirable.
People is no Confidential, the mid-50′s scandal magazine that had an informal
alliance with Winchell, but nor is it a pushover like Photoplay and the
other old fan magazines. It’s variously tough, puffy, sentimental and jocular
— it’s a corporatized Winchell with fact-checkers, the borg Winchell.
And it’s the most successful American periodical to have been started in
70 years. The only other mass national weekly to launch even half as successfully,
in that period, is Entertainment Weekly, a magazine consisting of nothing
but clued-in and obsessive-but-irreverent coverage of stars and the star-making
machinery — Winchell with a B.A. in cultural studies. People’s 1994 spinoff,
InStyle, is all traditional women’s how-to articles — hair, makeup, clothes,
recipes — but entirely refracted through the prism of celebrity (”Get
the look of ‘Amélie”s Parisian
pixie”). It is among the most successful new magazines of the last two decades,
along with Vanity Fair and two magazines extruded directly from the personas
of multimedia celebrities — Oprah Winfrey’s O and Martha Stewart Living.

Winchell, who started his column in New York in 1924, not only invented
(along with Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper) the modern conception of sassy,
insidery journalism about celebrities and entertainment, he also became a
celebrity in his own right. Until then, interviewers and journalistic presenters
of the famous were not famous themselves. In this sense the descendants of
Winchell include not just celebrity editors like Tina Brown and Graydon Carter
but also TV interviewers like Larry King and Carson Daly. Winchell and his
most famous gossip-columnist rivals all played themselves in movies and then
on TV sitcoms — but during the last two decades, so have half the famous-but-serious
journalists, from Morton Kondracke to Michael Kinsley. And as for tabloid
gossip-and-entertainment presenters who — like Winchell and J.J. Hunsecker
— reinvent themselves as pull-no-punches ultrapatriotic pundits, we have
Bill O’Reilly, a former anchor of the infotainment TV show ”Inside Edition.”

As star columnists leveraged their columns to accumulate personal celebrity
and their personal celebrity to generate more readers, the market for their
sort of journalism grew. Whereas plugs and gossipy items about celebrities
and entertainment were once ghettoized in a few newspaper columns and down-market
fan magazines, now dozens of new venues arose, all dedicated to obsessing
over fame and its inner workings. ”Entertainment Tonight” went on the air
in 1981, the first show of its kind, and now every weekday there’s ”Access
Hollywood,” ”Extra!” and E!, a whole channel of entertainment news 24/7.
Meanwhile, newspapers and general-interest magazines began to devote many
more of their pages and covers to celebrities and the nuts and bolts of pop
culture, just another category of things that culturally engaged people are
supposed to be interested in, like politics, business and sports.

But the more media venues there were for this sort of information, the less
important any individual venue became. To the successors of the press agents
who feared and fawned over Winchell and Hunsecker, newspaper gossip columnists
are now decidedly second-string. A gossip columnist is just another channel
— and a parochial, Manhattan-centric channel at that — in a global, wildly
redundant multichannel entertainment universe. Today’s mediaplex — newspapers,
magazines, TV, radio, the Internet — is more ubiquitous and powerful than
it was 45 years ago, but that aggregate power is much more widely distributed.
As the culture became ever more mediatropic, and the media ever more Winchellized,
the individual megalomaniacal Winchells and Hunseckers themselves became
marginalized. They won the war but lost the battle.

The media are more democratic now. And real democracy is never pretty. By
reporting on the personal problems and peccadillos of the famous, by dishing
out bits of real dirt, back when the rest of the American media seldom did,
Winchell-cum-Hunsecker gradually redrew the bounds of taste and privacy.
Once it became acceptable to write about someone’s marital troubles, why
not marijuana use or the suggestion of unorthodox sex? It could all be justified
in the name of the people’s right to know — as when one of Hunsecker’s victims
dared to question his morals. ”It was not me he criticized,” Hunsecker
warned, ”it was my readers!”

Today, we all indulge in that kind of disingenuousness. ”Celebrity” is
much more expansively defined than it was back then, and practically no realm
of celebrity behavior is considered beyond our legitimate interest. People
in the media disclaim responsibility, mumbling about the amorphous people’s-right-to-know.
The people, meanwhile, blame the media for turning over too many rocks –
even though it’s the people who keep buying all those magazines and watching
all those TV shows.

Perhaps our parents and grandparents should have been told that F.D.R. had
a mistress and spent most of his time in a wheelchair. Or alternatively,
perhaps we and our children didn’t need to hear every staggeringly intimate
detail of Bill Clinton’s extramarital sex life. But whichever it was, it
was the (almost) unabashed new national appetite for celebrity tittle-tattle
by these columnists in the 40′s and 50′s that took us from there to here.

Hunseckerized journalism has defined deviance down — yet that’s not an
altogether bad thing. We know more than we need to know about the lives of
the famous, and maybe more than we should, but we’ve also become inured to
unflattering facts in a way that’s actually healthy: with everyone living
in glasshouses, it’s harder for anyone to throw stones. If Hugh Grant and
Eddie Murphy had been caught with prostitutes in 1955 and 1957 instead of
1995 and 1997, respectively, Winchell and Parsons and Hopper could have incinerated
the actors’ careers. In the 50′s, people like Robert Downey Jr. and George
W. Bush would have been ruined by revelations of their substance abuse, no
matter what sort of religion or recovery they claimed to have found. But
today no crime short of pedophilia or murder is likely to derail any celebrity’s
career. Mike Tyson is still getting almost $20 million a fight, and Bill
Clinton still draws packed audiences of respectable people. Even infamy counts
as fame.

When ”Sweet Smell” came out, the average American would have been shocked
by the unrelieved deceit, duplicity and callousness of Hunsecker, Falco and
their squalid world — and even more shocked by their cynical acceptance
of the lies and deals. But watched today, the movie seems dark, perhaps,
but campy and fun. Because nowadays, everyone knows the score. Aside from
discovering, say, that Tom Hanks is mean, what story of show-business ugliness
would scandalize us? Practically every newspaper publishes weekly Nielsen
ratings and box-office grosses, as well as candid and arcane deconstructions
of show-business machinations — how movie studios successfully lobby to
win Oscars, for instance. Even the anchors on publicist-dependent happy-talk
programs like ”Entertainment Tonight” make smirky remarks about Hollywood
public-relations fakery. Just as politics and entertainment were beginning
to fuse, the very title of Joe McGinniss’s ”Selling of the President, 1968”
was a little shocking. Today, coverage of politics is mainly about politicians’
public-relations and marketing tactics.

Forty and 80 years ago, the P.R. machinery was designed to operate secretly,
invisibly, in the background. What’s happened since has been the foregrounding
of spin: today, the same media that are propagandizing us inform us exactly
how we are being propagandized. In 1998, New York magazine ran a cover article
on several hot young publicists, including Lizzie Grubman, so that she was
already a quasi celebrity when she ran down the bystanders outside a nightclub
in Southampton last summer — which event precipitated press coverage of
the fact that she hired a publicist to represent her. And here we are: a
newspaper article discussing newspaper articles about a publicist hiring
a publicist.

Yet this new transparency and the resulting pandemic of savvy doesn’t seem
to make the publicity machine any less effective. The massive coverage of
the ”Harry Potter” movie was mostly about the marketing of the brand and
its associated products, but it probably made us more eager to see it, since
the metachatter was evidence of the movie’s significance as a cultural phenomenon.

”Sweet Smell” cynicism has leeched into the worldview of every ordinary
American to such an extent that it no longer has the affect of cynicism.
We are unconscious of our hard-boiled disillusionment — a half century later,
we’ve reconciled ourselves to various seamy truths and suspicions about the
ways of the world, and simply . . . moved on. In headlines today, even the
phrase ”sweet smell of success” is always used cheerfully, without any
bitter sneer. If there were two American 1950′s — the dark and glamorous
noir 50′s and the earnest and upbeat ”Father Knows Best” 50′s — we’ve
managed today to combine them into an improbable alloy: we live in the dark
and upbeat 00′s.

George Rush and Joanna Molloy are cheerful and intelligent, a nice married
couple. They are also hard-wired cynics who have been gossip columnists for
16 and 14 years, respectively, currently with a joint byline for The Daily
News. They are a kind of living screwball comedy: sassy Irish-American working-glass
girl from the Bronx (Jean Arthur?) competes against wry Ivy Leaguer from
suburban Chicago (Jimmy Stewart?), fall in love, marry, form a tabloid gossip
tag team and disagree amusingly.

Over breakfast one morning, I asked if they ever wish they were columnists
in the Winchell-Hunsecker age.

”Well,” George said, ”if I had that much power, I’d want to do it then,
yeah. But nobody does today.”

Joanna squirmed. ”I don’t want power!” She turned to her husband, apparently
appalled. ”You want power?”

”Well, yeah, if you’re going to do it. And the hurly-burly of that time
appeals to me–.”

Now she was buying. ”The Stork Club! They had Ava Gardner, we have . .
. Claire Danes.”

Still, Molloy is willing to play rough when necessary. I asked if they kept
a Drop Dead List. Do they punish people?

”You have to,” she said.

”For double-planting,” he explained — the term of art for simultaneously
giving an item to two columns at once. ”There are also people who need to
be taken down a few pegs.”

I didn’t have to ask for an example.

”The hubris of people like Jennifer Lopez!” Joanna announced. And that
got her thinking about other punishments. ”We recently punished a flack
because she lied. Julia Roberts’s flack planted a false item with us.” The
publicist had given them an item about Roberts and Lopez discussing a movie
project over dinner. Rush and Molloy ran it — and then followed it up with
an item calling the publicist a liar when it turned out the actresses weren’t
even in the same city. An account of the conflict appeared in their main
competitor, the Post’s ”Page Six.”

”Page Six,” run since 1985 by Richard Johnson, is by far the most old-school
of any column in America, certainly the most feared and closely read in the
New York entertainment, media and fashion worlds. True to the spirit of Winchell
and of tabloidism generally, Johnson is both ferocious and merry. He loves
this dirty town. His power, he agrees, has enjoyed ”continual growth, as
I’ve become more and more like J.J. Hunsecker, as I’ve become a monster.”
But seriously: does he relish the power? ”There is an element to that. I
feel I’m at the top of the food chain. Publicists depend on me to get stuff
in.”

Like Winchell, Johnson makes no bones in the column about who his friends
and enemies are, and he shares his newspaper’s right-wing reflexes. ”Richard
is mean,” says Molloy, who once worked for ”Page Six” as an editor. ”People
fear ‘Page Six.’ I remember when I called from ‘Page Six,’ people were like,
‘Oh, my God.”’

”You have to be mean,” Johnson says. ”It’s a level of bitchiness that’s
required. Otherwise it’s bland — Wonder Bread.” During the last decade,
Johnson revived the old ”Sweet Smell” gossip-column tradition of the ”blind
item,” accounts of alleged misdeeds in which the subject is described but
not actually named. ”The first one was sort of an accident,” he says, ”because
I couldn’t nail it down to get it past the lawyers. It was like: ‘Eureka!
I rediscovered the wheel!’ I think most of them,” he adds earnestly, ”are
true.”

While ”Page Six” is as rough and powerful as gossip columns get today,
the difference between Richard Johnson’s power and Winchell’s power is an
order of magnitude or two. But as the second law of thermodynamics requires,
that power vacuum was filled. When the old Hollywood studio system was replaced
by movie-star free agency in the 60′s and 70′s, the power of stars increased.
Then in the 80′s and 90′s, with numberless new pages and broadcast hours
devoted to chronicling famous people, particularly famous entertainers, the
power of the stars’ publicists boomed. If there are no longer any columnists
who rule the entertainment industry, there are now a few key P.R. people
— like Leslee Dart, president of PMK/HBH, the most important celebrity P.R.
agency, and her partner Pat Kingsley, who runs the firm’s Los Angeles offices.

They are masters of their craft, controlling every aspect of their client’s
public profiles. (I should add that Dart promoted a novel I wrote and an
online publication I co-founded.) They decide when it serves the clients’
interests to talk to the press, which reporters get an interview, how long
the interviews run, which topics will and will not be covered, even what
photographs will be used and how the resulting story will be played — as
a lead item on an entertainment program, in first position on a talk show
or on the cover of a glossy magazine. Kingsley in particular has a reputation
for highhanded ferocity in dealing with writers and editors, and since the
agency’s clients include Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Tom Hanks, Russell Crowe
and Gwyneth Paltrow, among many other stars (as well as directors, producers,
executives and several major magazines), journalists routinely capitulate.

To Dart and Kingsley, newspaper gossip columnists are practically quaint
figures, almost vestigial. In Manhattan and Hollywood, Dart says, ”they
are widely read, but they are also widely considered to be . . . gossip.
We use the gossip columns to speak to other media, to get buzz going.” It
is the final revenge of Sidney Falco. Mostly, the Hunseckers no longer matter.
The Falcos rule.

As they’ve become more powerful, publicists have also become more respectable.
With Falco at ”21,” Hunsecker explains to a United States senator and the
senator’s mistress, ”The boy sitting next to us is a hungry press agent
and fully up on the tricks of his very slimy trade.” Today, those ”press
agents” are more likely to call themselves ”strategic communications counselors.”
The game is no longer just about getting press; it’s about getting the right
press, shaping images, building brands. And it’s the rare media-and-entertainment
company that does not have a P.R. person among its top management.

Falco lies to everyone, automatically and flagrantly. As he spins an alibi
to a client who runs a nightclub, the man cuts him off: ”You’re a liar –
that’s a publicity man’s nature. I wouldn’t hire you if you wasn’t a liar.
I pay you a C-and-a-half a week wherein you plant big lies about me and the
club all over the map.” Back then the Public Relations Society of America
(P.R.S.A.) — whose members are drawn from the more corporate end of the
P.R. spectrum — had a new ”Code of Professional Standards.” Between 1950
and 2000, however, only 10 members were formally reprimanded. And two years
ago, that old ethical code was replaced by a new one. ”This approach is
dramatically different from that which we have relied upon in the past,”
according to the P.R.S.A. Web site. ”Emphasis on enforcement of the Code
has been eliminated.” A kind of metacynical chutzpah has become part of
the culture’s default mode in these, the dark and upbeat 00′s.

For all of the superficial respectability of the infotainment businesses
today, my own experience over the last 25 years as a writer and editor suggests
that the brokerage of threats, favors, bribes and dime-dropping goes on today
more or less as it did back in the ”Sweet Smell” days. Just as Falco personally
delivered his smear of Steve Dallas to a columnist on a scrap of paper, when
I was editor of New York magazine in the 90′s, for instance, a hugely respectable
P.R. strategist delivered to me a neat notebook of information that the magazine
could use to besmirch a man suing one of his clients. And deals of a kind
never taught in journalism school are cut regularly. ”I’ll know something’s
true,” says Leslee Dart. ”I can’t deny it. But I say: ‘There’s more to
the story. If you hold off, I’ll give you more, and you can run it when the
person’s life is going to be less damaged.”’

”I have done those deals,” Richard Johnson admits. ”It works out sometimes.
But the stories they give me,” he says, preparing to chortle, ”are usually
not as interesting as the sordid stories I have.”

Molloy says that in 1997, Couri Hay, a gossip columnist turned publicist,
called on a cellphone from an Aspen ski slope to let her and her husband
know that Michael Kennedy had just died, right there, in an accident. ”There
is nothing more exquisite for rubberneckers,” George Rush says, of tipsters
in general, ”than seeing a star mangled in a crash.” And there are still
newspaper gossip columns that run items written by publicists, pretty much
verbatim, just as Winchell printed items written by Ernest Lehman.

If Richard Johnson of ”Page Six” is the closest linear descendant of Hunsecker’s,
there are lots of others carrying distinct bits of his DNA. Matt Drudge is
self-consciously Winchellesque, fedora and all. Michael Wolff, New York magazine’s
contentious media columnist, and Peter Bart, the imperious editor of (and
columnist for) Variety, are high-end Hunseckers. During his heyday at Creative
Artists Agency in the 1980′s and 90′s, Mike Ovitz came closer than anyone
since the ”Sweet Smell” era to wielding true, unabashedly Hunseckerish
power. According to the screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, when he threatened to
leave the agency, Ovitz warned him, ”My foot soldiers, who go up and down
Wilshire Boulevard each day, will blow your brains out.” In his intimidation
of Falco, Hunsecker himself managed no threat more operatic than, ”Be warned
son — I’ll have to blitz you.”

The celebrity industry — the bedazzled magazines, the breathlessly inconsequential
infotainment programs, the whole fun, fluffy fraction of the culture — was
supposed to be among the collateral damage of Sept. 11. It was going to be
impossible henceforth for any thinking, feeling American to watch the Golden
Globes or even think about The National Enquirer. Our interest in Tom Cruise
and Britney Spears would evaporate. The era of amoral vacuity, during which
we were transfixed by the misbehavior of Lizzie Grubman and Gary Condit,
was at an end.

At press time, no such paradigm shift has occurred. Sure, Talk magazine
died, and for a few weeks last fall, the entertainment-gossip TV shows were
doing segments about firemen instead of Charlize Theron and Enrique Iglesias.
But just wait until the next It Girl messes up, or the next politician gets
caught in a sex scandal, or a new celebrity-mad media idea gets traction.
Rapt attention will be paid. In a couple of weeks, watch the Oscars — regardless
of the patriotic flourishes, we will ogle the stars’ dresses and haircuts
just as avidly as we did last year and the year before. Sept. 11 did not
turn us into some kind of earnest Greatest Generation redux. As far as the
media culture goes — the ”Sweet Smell” sectors of life — we were already
too far gone, disillusioned gradually but inexorably during the last half
century. If anything, Sept. 11 extended to geopolitics, with one swift horrible
post-Vietnam kick, that national loss of innocence.

I love this dirty town, Hunsecker said. The town — the industry, the culture
— is still dirty, even if we’ve stopped noticing the dirt. Do we still love
it? Evidently so. ”I’d like people to see the show as a contemporary drama,”
David Brown says of his new Broadway production of ”Sweet Smell.” ”Because
much of it exists today — the corruption of power, the tyranny of power.
I always had the dream,” he says, lovingly, ”of making a musical of it.”