UNTIL RECENTLY, GOSSIP COLUMNISTS WERE dismissed as all hat and no tattle—journalistic washerwomen who picked through the nation’s dirty laundry with little concern for the consequences, let alone the truth. They trafficked in fluff, not substance; certainly not news. Matt Drudge changed all that. Say what you will about the Walter Winchell of cyberspace, there is no disputing that he broke the Monica Lewinsky story and revealed key details before anyone else did, including the existence of a now-famous stained dress. Make way for the New New Journalism.
As the author of Texas Monthly’s Low Talk column, I got a renewed sense of purpose from watching Drudge trump his critics—and it made me think about life in the gossip trenches. What’s it like today, and how has it changed? Do the war stories still resonate? To find out, I convened an on-the-record gathering of the state’s preeminent practitioners: the doyenne of dirt, Maxine Mesinger of the Houston Chronicle, who has been writing her column for some forty years; Alan Peppard of the Dallas Morning News and Susan Yerkes of the San Antonio Express-News, each with more than ten years in the biz; and the amicably belligerent Michael Corcoran of the Austin American-Statesman, with barely a year on the job the relative newcomer of the group. We met for lunch on a Friday afternoon in November at Anthony’s restaurant in Houston. The main dish was, of course, dish.
WHAT THEY CALL THEMSELVES
Peppard: Everybody asks, “What column do you write?” When I started, it was the social column, but that just doesn’t apply anymore, because now we live in the age of celebrity, and there are very few people who care about what the debutantes are doing. So I call it celebrity, society, famous people, rich people, boldfaced names. But it doesn’t always work. Prince Edward was at a party in Dallas, and he asked me what I did. I told him that I write a society column. And he looked me right in the eye and said, “You mean gossip column.” He was very stern about it.
Mesinger: I call myself a gossip columnist.
Corcoran: I do a lot of cold calling, so I’ll say I’m a personality columnist or gossip columnist or celebrity columnist—whatever would stroke who I’m talking to. Like, I won’t call up Matthew McConaughey and say I’m a gossip columnist. I’ll say I’m a personality columnist or that I write an Austin column. You have to present yourself as somebody they want to talk to, because “gossip” is kind of a dirty word.
Yerkes: “Gossip” may be a bad word, but the word “buzz” is extremely popular these days. The idea is that this is something that people are talking about, and it may not be a person—it may be a phenomenon. I sometimes say I am a sociopolitical gossip columnist, because it’s what comes up in conversations. And a lot of times the things that come up in conversations are not really mentioned in the paper because they’re too small for a story, but they’re what everybody’s talking about.
IN PRAISE OF BOLDFACE
Peppard: People tell me regularly, “You know, I just scan your column and look for names of people. If there are people I know, I read it, and if there aren’t, I don’t.” It’s rather simple: Give them lots of that boldfaced type, because that keeps their eyes on the page. I find when I’m going on for four or five paragraphs and I haven’t mentioned anybody’s name, the story is too involved.
Corcoran: I like to throw in names that will stop a person. Like, you know, Madonna. People are scanning the column and they see Madonna’s name, and they go, “Wait.” Sometimes my editors will even run a mug shot of a person I’ve just thrown in there.
Yerkes: I kind of try sometimes to bring them in with what’s topical, like the fact that Ken Starr was sitting on a briefcase during his entire testimony to make himself look taller. Who knew that? [Editor’s Note: Apparently, not the Express-News, which later ran a correction; it was Clinton lawyer David Kendall on the briefcase.]
Mesinger: I kept looking at Starr and thinking there was something terrible that he did. I think he sucks.
WHERE THEY GET THEIR ITEMS
Mesinger: You know, I don’t have to make calls much anymore. I’m just flooded with calls. I’ve done this for forty years. They know the writer, and they know the work. So when entertainment people come to town, 99 percent of the time I’m the one who gets the call.
Peppard: It can be easy to get lazy because, like Maxine says, after you amass a certain number of columns, people know who you are. I write four columns a week, so the items do come to me. But I think it’s the beginning of the end of writing anything interesting when you just let them come to you.
Yerkes: And you know, going outside your city, sometimes you end up with great items. I was in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago at a conference, and after the gala, I started talking to this big cancer guy. He ended up going out with a couple of us on Bourbon Street. At about 2 a.m., as we’re walking along, I said, “You know, we’ve got a big breast cancer institute in San Antonio.” He said, “Well, you did.” And I said, “What do you mean?” “Baylor just hired that whole crew away from you. I heard they signed the deal last week.” So I called Baylor when I got back home, and apparently the medical community were the only ones who knew.
Peppard: The things you learn on Bourbon Street.
Yerkes: That ended up being a front-page story the day after I wrote it, and it’s because I went out on Bourbon Street with some guy. Part of it is just being able to be in those places with people, and they relax and start telling you stuff.
Corcoran: Austin is also so anti-celebrity in a way. Nobody wants to call you up and tell you what they’re doing; they’ll tell other people to call you. So I do have to call. Like with the item about Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt seeing each other. I called up someone who hangs out at the Four Seasons and said, “What’s new?” “Oh, nothing much. Oh, yeah, Brad Pitt’s been around.” I go, “What?”
PEOPLE THEY LIKE
Mesinger: I met Frank Sinatra years ago, when he was working at the Sands Hotel, back when Nat “King” Cole was still working in the lounge. It was during the five minutes I was divorced in my 55-year marriage, and I went to Vegas at Joe E. Lewis’ invitation. Joe was kind of down at the moment, and Frank was wonderful—he picked him up and used him as his opening act for a long time and got him back in the business. I was at the Houston Press then, and they were so excited that I was hanging around Frank that they sent a photographer to shoot him. I was there for three days, and every time I’d say, “I’m going to get the photographer,” Joe would say, “No, don’t do that. This isn’t a good time.” Well, my last night came, and I still hadn’t gotten a picture. So I just took a chance and went to the house phone and asked for Frank Sinatra. And they rang me right through—I didn’t even say who I was. So I said, “Listen, I can either get fired or I can kill myself. Will you let me take my photographer to your show? There are no flashbulbs or anything. I’ve gotta get a picture.” He said, “Well, what’s the problem?” “They all said that you wouldn’t let me have him there.” And he said, “Oh, baby, be my guest.” I fell so in love with him that night. He was wonderful.
PEOPLE THEY DON’T Peppard: Every few years they run Elizabeth Taylor through town to launch a new perfume. The security on her is so tight—it’s much worse than when the president’s around. I had to have my ID checked three times while I sat in the same chair waiting for her to arrive to be sure that I hadn’t switched my pass with someone else’s. I mean, they absolutely treated me despicably, like dirt. For whatever it was worth, I was sort of the dean of the press corps, so when everybody was asking questions, the flack who had treated me so horribly said, “Alan, do you have a question for Miss Taylor?” And I looked right at her and said, “I do not.”
Mesinger: Lauren Bacall was the bitch of all time. I met her some years ago. She was on Broadway—I think it was Woman of the Year. I was with Tommy Thompson, who had been at the Press when I was there. They were really close friends. At the time, he was an editor at Life magazine, and she was kowtowing to him. We went backstage and started talking. Then she came to Houston. No trust; she wouldn’t say anything. I tried to get through to her to say that I had met her with Tommy Thompson: “No, she doesn’t give a damn who you are. She’s not seeing anyone.” Then, when she came back to Houston to promote her book, they were calling everybody. I said, “Tell Miss Bacall that I don’t see anybody.” “What do you mean you don’t see anybody?” “Well, she ought to understand that.”
MAKING SOMEONE MAD
Yerkes: One time I described Henry B. Gonzalez’s nose as large. He has this big, huge nose. It turns out he has a condition, and his wife, Bertha—she’s this wonderful woman, she loves him—she called me up and cursed me out. I had no idea it was medical.
Peppard: A restaurant manager I know well told me that B. B. King and Don Henley were having dinner together at his restaurant. Because I knew this guy, I went with it. The next morning, I got to the office and there was a fax from Henley’s manager, Irving Azoff—a rather steamy one. Not only was Don not having dinner with B. B. King, he had never met B. B. King. It was totally erroneous, and it had to be dealt with on the spot.
Corcoran: Don Henley is extremely sensitive.
Peppard: Carefully chosen word.
Corcoran: He used to call me all the time: “My mother’s reading this stuff.”
Peppard: Actually, I did Don wrong twice. He was in a steakhouse that some friends of mine owned, and the waiter told me, “He said that was the best ribeye.” So I wrote that—and, oh, man. I got a personal letter from him that said, “I didn’t work hard all my life to be shilling for steakhouses.”
Yerkes: I have a good friend in public relations, and she worked for the Fairmount Hotel in San Antonio. So when their chef left, he called me and told me that he was leaving, and I confirmed that with the hotel he was going to. It was sort of a big deal. He went to a hotel right down the street. So, having confirmed it with both the new hotel and the guy who was leaving, I felt I had no reason to call the manager of the Fairmount. At a certain point in time, you know somebody’s going to lie to you. You know they’re going to say it’s not true, and if you can confirm it, you just don’t bother calling them, because it’s kind of a hassle. So I ran the item. About a week later, my friend said, “Come down to the hotel and have lunch. I want to talk to you about some stuff.” When I got there, she kind of attacked me. “How could you run that? It hurt our business. People canceled their parties.”
Mesinger: Can you believe that?
Yerkes: She kept saying, “What kind of a friend are you?” And I said, “I’m a friend who has a job to do.” Then the manager of the hotel walked in and grabbed my arm, bruised it really badly. He sort of threw me up against a wall and said, “Don’t you ever write anything about this hotel again without calling me.” The next time I wrote about the Fairmount was the day I heard he’d gotten fired. I led the column with it.
Mesinger: Good for you. It would have to have been a major news item for me if I ever ran anything on that hotel again.
Peppard: I don’t mean to be piggy, but I just remembered my favorite story. I was in the lobby of the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, and there’s Gary Busey, who’s well known for his escapades. He says, “Alan, I’m engaged. I’m getting married.” And I say, “I want to write that.” He gives me the name of the girl, who is now his wife. Now, generally, if someone tells you they’re getting married, you don’t need to check with the other party to make sure that this is indeed true. So I ran that story in the paper, and afterward I get this angry voicemail message from his alleged fiancée: “You can tell Gary Busey that I’m not going to marry him if he doesn’t straighten up and get off cocaine.”
Corcoran: I wrote about Matthew McConaughey, who has been living in Austin, and he called me up after a while. “Hey, you know, you got a problem with me? What’s the problem, what’s the deal?” He sort of wanted to schmooze me, to try to get me on his side. We had a long talk, and he’s basically going, “You know, the reason people like to come to Austin is because they’re not treated like celebrities. Everybody just leaves you alone, but you’re changing all of that. You’re making everybody notice: Oh, there’s Matthew McConaughey. We read about him and Sandra Bullock.”
Mesinger: Screw him. This is what you do.
What Are Friends For?
Mesinger: I get accused of not being objective, but the people who say that to me are out in the halls trying to get in, when I’m inside getting the job done. These are friends I’ve had all my professional life. I don’t give a damn if people don’t like it.
Corcoran: The good side about being friends with someone is that he’s going to call you or he’s going to have his people call you, and you’ll get something positive. After Don Henley got angry at me, he gave me his home number. He said, “Whenever you’re writing about me, give me a call.” And when the Eagles were touring, he called me first and said, “We’re coming to town on such and such date.” So I got a story out of it. It’s give and take.
Mesinger: If it’s something they don’t want in, they feel they can call you and say, “Max, don’t print this.” Carol Burnett’s daughter was once down here at a rehab facility, a good one, because she was on dope at age fourteen. Carol called and said, “You just can’t run it.” I wouldn’t have anyway. If it was my child, I’d have called a friend and asked them to leave it alone too. But then, when she got ready to go public, she called me and said, “I’m meeting with People magazine in two days. I’m giving it to you first. I appreciate what you did.”
Mesinger: Or the marriage of Frank Sinatra, Jr. I had talked to him about it a lot of times, and my impression was that he had no intention of marrying her. She told me a year ago that he had asked her, and that they were going to be married, and they were house hunting in L.A.—all of that. But I’ve learned in forty years that you call Frank Junior and you ask him.
Corcoran: Right. One source is not enough for something like that.
Mesinger: And he tells me, “Don’t print that. I’m just not giving it any thought right now. I have not asked her to marry me.” So I dropped it. And he came through when it was going to happen.
Corcoran: It works the other way too. McConaughey had told me he was in Austin vacationing. But you could look up the tax records for his house on the Internet and see who the owner was. Then you could call her up, and she could say he’s paying so much a month rent. If they’re not straight with you, then it’s . . .
Peppard: Pull the trigger. Lock and load.
Corcoran: Yeah. I recounted the conversation in a column, and he didn’t look too good.
Yerkes: Occasionally, people just make you furious, because they say something like, “Please don’t run that now. I’ll give it to you next week.” And then they don’t.
Peppard: And then it runs all over the world.
Corcoran: Sympathy is dead once you’re being manipulated.
Where Credit Is Due
Mesinger: I got a check for $200 from Reader’s Digest. It was for an item I wrote about Michael DeBakey. The mother of one of his patients was sitting in a room sewing a hem, and DeBakey said, “God, that’s the worst stitching I’ve ever seen. My mother would have beaten me if I had done that.” So he ripped out the thread, grabbed the needle, and did it himself. I loved the story, so I printed it; then Reader’s Digest picked it up.
Yerkes: One of my great moments was when Liz Smith reprinted my entire column and gave me credit.
Peppard: Whenever she picks up something of mine, it’s that old line: “Boy, you never know how many people read your column.” You write about something and they call and tell you, “Oh, everybody saw that.” If you’re in Liz Smith’s column, your phone just rings off the wall.
Yerkes: I was picked up by the Chronicle of the Horse a week or so ago—it was about horses drowning during the big flood in San Antonio—and a bunch of people in Houston called me up and said, “Gosh, Bill Hobby showed us your column from the Chronicle of the Horse.” You just don’t know where stuff is going to come from.
Peppard: When Michael broke the Jennifer Aniston—Brad Pitt story, I ran it four days later, and the wires picked it up as a Dallas Morning News story.
Corcoran: I sold that story to Hard Copy, so Hard Copy came and interviewed me on camera. After Alan got credit for it, I thought, “Well, I’ve gotta get credit back.” You know, you stole my item, but at least I got to be on Hard Copy.
Peppard: And you got actual cash money, which I couldn’t have gotten, since I can’t go on Hard Copy. All I can get is the dignity and pride of working for the Dallas Morning News. Hard Copy has wanted to have me on a couple of times, but the people in the carpeted offices of the Morning News don’t believe that these tabloid TV shows are in the same business that we’re in.
Mesinger: Remember Anna Nicole Smith and her 98-year-old husband? I did every show I could. I had never met her, but I knew her lawyer well, so I could check things out. So I did them all: Hard Copy, all of those afternoon talk shows. I did Entertainment Tonight for five days straight.
How Their Papers Treat Them
Mesinger: They think that I have one happy life—you know, that I don’t do anything. I’d like for any one of them to have my job for a week. And on top of it, I work at home, so that means you never really get to go home.
Corcoran: Everybody I work with thinks these parties are a lot of fun to go to, but sometimes they’re rough. Everybody thinks it’s this glamorous life, that you talk to all of these famous people, maybe spend an hour or two writing the column, and the rest of the time you’re hanging out by the pool.
Yerkes: I like it when they ask, “Well, what do you do? I mean, all you do is four columns a week? What do you do the rest of the time?”
Corcoran: Susan, did you have that Matt Damon item that they put on page one?
Yerkes: No, I think it was a celebrity column.
Peppard: What was the item?
Corcoran: Well, it wasn’t much, just that All the Pretty Horses is scouting locations in San Antonio. On page one they had a big picture of Matt Damon, and I looked inside and saw that there was, like, a little item in the middle of the column, and I thought that it would be great if my editors ever acknowledged my presence on page one. They don’t want to come off looking trashy, so I’ll never get page one. We could have a blockbuster—I mean, just like the Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt thing, which wasn’t mentioned at all. I mean, not even as a teaser or anything. And that’s really the only national-type scoop I’ve had.
Yerkes: We would have mentioned it on page one.
Peppard: In the past the unstated policy at the Morning News was that they did not want a newsman to be bigger than the news. They did not encourage columnists to be personalities. I think that’s changing.
Mesinger: The Chronicle doesn’t promote me at all, but they are very supportive.
Yerkes: Well, the Express-News is real good to me. It kind of depends on the story, like when Sandra Cisneros got into the big deal with the purple house. Or when Peter Holt, the owner of the Spurs, wanted to reveal that he’s recovering from alcoholism and called me to do it. When I broke those two stories, I wanted them to run in my section, because we need to bring the readers there. But they were touted on the front page. I know the readership of my column will be higher the days when my picture is out front with a tout for the column. People see it and then they’ll turn to it.
Corcoran: Newspapers are always looking for other people to tell them how important your column is because the inner circle doesn’t really think it is. When I proposed it, I was the music critic, and they were going, “You want to do dots and dashes?” Like I was crazy, like I was nuts. But now, after all of these people say, “Oh, we love Michael’s column; we read it,” they’re into it.
Getting Sued (Almost)
Yerkes: When I was at the Light, I was threatened by this famous architect. His local contact said he was hard to work with, and I reported it. His lawyers wrote us a letter saying they were going to sue, so I went to my source and said, “Can I have permission to use your name? Otherwise I have to retract it.” And my source said, “Retract it. He’ll kill me.” So I did.
Mesinger: I haven’t been threatened lately. I must be getting boring.
Corcoran: Alan, have you been sued?
Peppard: No, but I’ve gotten those letters that are foreplay to suing.
Mesinger: And they think we have it easy.