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This article originally appeared in the July 1977 issue of Esquire. It contains outdated and potentially offensive descriptions of sexuality, gender, and class. To read every Esquire story ever published, upgrade to All Access.

For several months, beginning last fall and ending just after the inauguration, I lived a dazzling life. I had just turned twenty-four and my evenings were spent mingling with Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli and Faye Dunaway; Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut and Gay Talese; Linda Ronstadt, John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen; Chevy Chase, Kris Kristofferson and Peter Falk; Barbara Walters, Bella Abzug and Lee Radziwill; and finally even Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale.

For fourteen weeks I was invited to New York’s most glamorous parties and accorded special attention at the ones I chose to attend. I was on the opening-night list for the theater, the advance-screening list for films and had my choice of tickets to concerts. Merely by mentioning my name, and generally without advance notice, I was assured a choice table at the most elegant restaurants. Often enough to make me uneasy, a check would not be presented unless I specifically requested one. Although Elaine (of Elaine’s) never went that far, she did as much in her own way: a table up front, a kiss-on-the-cheek hello and an occasional round of Courvoisiers, on her, late at night.

And what did I do to deserve all of this extraordinary treatment? Just one simple and unlikely thing. For a brief spell, I wrote a featured gossip column for the New York Post. Three days a week, the column appeared in the slot once occupied by Leonard Lyons. It bore my name as its title and was accompanied by my postage-stamp-size photograph. The result was a certain personal celebrity and a measure of power I had never before known. The power derived from the fact that exposure is a precious commodity, and my column could provide it in spades. The celebrity meant that I was recognized and sought out in public places, flattered by waitresses at the Stage Delicatessen and questioned with endless curiosity about my job. It also made me an open target for criticism, personal and professional, sometimes inaccurate, occasionally vicious and always disheartening. I lived a fast life and one result may have been inevitable: for a time, I became almost totally self-absorbed. Admonished to distrust the flattery and to keep my distance from the glamour, I grew infatuated with both. And like any infatuation, mine was blind.

Sadly, however, it was also short-lived. I learned before too long that readers looked elsewhere for good writing and real insight. From me they wanted items and preferably salacious ones. The reward was recognition rather than respect, a life richer in style than in substance. And out of this unusual payoff emerged both my initial excitement and my ultimate disillusionment.

The original Esquire magazine spread of this story.

I did not become a gossip columnist by design. In college, at the University of Michigan, my heroes were serious journalists such as David Halberstam and Garry Wills. My first job, following graduation in 1974, was with New Times, where I wrote a column called The Insider. It was comprised of short but generally serious items about politics and life-styles, leavened with sporadic show-biz shorts. Most of my information came from outside contributors and it was through one such person that I penetrated the tight-knit little world of gossip. I met Liz Smith shortly before she began writing her syndicated gossip column for the New York Daily News. She fed me occasional items, at twenty-five dollars a shot, and we became friends. When her column began, our professional relationship ended, but we stayed in touch. The opportunity to do Liz a good turn came unexpectedly one evening in March, 1976. I had just gotten access to a prepublication copy of The Final Days by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Four days later, Newsweek planned to print exclusive excerpts from the explosive book, rights for which it had paid handsomely. Because my deadlines precluded printing excerpts immediately in New Times, I called Liz Smith and offered them to her. She was ecstatic. The following morning, the News bannered her exclusive on page one.

Following this experience, two facts about Liz Smith became particularly significant. The first is that she has been in her business for a long time and knows Everyone. The second is that she never forgets a favor. Nearly all the events that eventually led to my job at the Post can be traced to Liz. She led a one-woman campaign on my behalf.

When Esquire did its cover story on gossip last August, Liz convinced her friend Nora Ephron to include me on the gossip-establishment chart in the category Class Act. No matter that Nora probably knew very little about me, nor that I was not writing gossip. About the same time, Liz took me to a party for Raquel Welch. It was put together by superflack Bobby Zarem. Liz must have pitched me to Bobby, because the next thing I knew Bobby was pitching me to other people. Like Liz, Bobby knew Everyone. People who knew Everyone were learning my name. And that, I was beginning to understand, mattered. When people know who you are, small accomplishments go a long way. Familiarity may breed contempt, but anonymity breeds nothing.

In May of 1976, I heard through the grapevine (which is to say from a friend of Bobby Zarem’s) that the New York Post was on the lookout for a gossip columnist and that I was under consideration. Zarem had suggested my name to Post managing editor Bob Spitzler.

Familiarity may breed contempt, but anonymity breeds nothing.

I’d met Spitzler before, so I called him and made small talk, hoping that he might say, “Funny, I was just thinking about you.” He did. We arranged to meet and talk about the job. Instead, we met and got quite drunk. At the end of the evening we agreed that gossip was not my style. We left the possibility of another kind of offer up in the air.

The following morning, Spitzler called me at New Times. “Why don’t you try three sample columns?” he asked. I laughed and said I thought we’d agreed gossip was out. He noted that we’d been drunk at the time, and I promised to think about it. After we hung up, I called my closest friend and asked for his advice.

“What, are you an idiot?” he asked.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“I’ll tell you why you want to write gossip,” he said. “Because right now you’re nobody and a column would make you famous overnight. Because right now you stay home nights picking your nose and with a column you could go anywhere. Because right now you have no job offers and a column would be your ticket to a million.”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” I replied. I called Spitzler and said I’d try the three sample columns.

Writing the columns proved to be much easier than I’d anticipated. The key was my realization that none of them would ever be published. Who was to say they had to be accurate, or even original, so long as such transgressions were not apparent to Spitzler or publisher Dolly Schiff.

Rumors became hard facts in my samples. I recast items from any sources I suspected my superiors were not likely to have seen: The Ear in The Washington Star, New West’s Intelligencer, Rona Barrett’s gossip monthly, even the National Enquirer. I knew that Dolly adored Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, so I scoured the lowlife literature for dirt on Louise Lasser. Hard work could come later. For now it was just survival.

One person proved particularly helpful in putting together my samples. When I began writing the column, David Obst would become indispensable. Then a literary agent, now a publisher, but forever a gossip, Obst had one quality in common with Liz Smith and Bobby Zarem. He knew Everyone. At this point, I’d made friends with three such people. I was on the heels of another crucial insight: once you’ve made friends with a few people who know Everyone, there is no need to know anyone yourself. One statistic should suffice to demonstrate my point. Of the two hundred fifty or so items that appeared in the forty columns I wrote, fully twenty-five percent came from just three people. Though the disclosure of that statistic permanently undermines any image I may have built as an extraordinarily well-connected guy, it just goes to show how workaday a gossip columnist’s method can be.*

*My own loose statistical analysis of who provided what for my column looks something like this: five more sources contributed just under ten percent of the column, meaning that thirty-five percent of it came from eight people in all. (Bobby Zarem was not among the eight, nor, obviously, was the otherwise occupied Liz Smith, in case you're guessing who’s who.) Another twenty-five percent of the items were developed out of things I read and then reported further or observed while I was out in the evenings. About twenty percent of the material came from various flacks, either in the form of client plugs or outside items they’d picked up and were trading, informally, against future plugs. The final twenty percent of the column came from perhaps two dozen people who contributed one or two items each. Somewhat less than fifty people contributed in all.

On June 25, I handed in my sample columns. Spitzler read and liked them. So did Paul Sann, then the Post’s executive editor, Dolly Schiff, the publisher, and Adele Hall Sweet, the assistant publisher and Dolly’s daughter. Only Dolly’s opinion counted in the end. Spitzler announced that she wanted to see me.

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Liz Smith at her desk in 1990.
New York Daily News ArchiveGetty Images

That was the last I heard from her for three full months. On September 20, long after I’d given up hope about the job, Dolly finally decided to see me. Two days later I was escorted into her office for the strangest interview of my life. She asked about my parents and their background, whether I was married, where I went to high school and what I did for entertainment. She also asked whether I was interested in science (she’d just seen astrophysicist Carl Sagan on Johnny Carson and was clearly smitten with him). The proper response was obviously yes, but the honest one was no, so I noted brightly that my father was a scientist and tried to change the subject. When Dolly finally got around to asking me what kind of column I had in mind, I’d passed into a virtual stupor. The question completely stumped me. By the time I left her office, I was convinced our talk had gone terribly, and I headed downstairs to give Spitzler a full report. Three minutes later his phone rang. It was Dolly. “He seems cold,” she said, “but smart. Offer him the job.”

It was mid October. All I needed now were enough sources to help me fill three seven-hundred-fifty-word columns a week. The first column was scheduled to appear on Monday, October 25. During the week that preceded it, I went to a book-publishing party and a theater opening, visited Elaine’s and called everyone I knew to find out what they knew. They didn’t know anything, though all of them made certain to assure me that any day now my phone would begin ringing off the hook. It didn’t. Instead, a gnawing anxiety took hold in my stomach and stayed there for weeks.

On the Wednesday before my first column was due, I had lunch with an old friend. “Why don’t you write about what it’s like not to be able to find gossip? It’ll take care of your first column and give you an immediate persona.” I was elated. I’d write about how an average Joe suddenly found himself smack in the middle of celebrity and glitter, unprepared. On Monday, the debut column appeared. It began, “Until last week, I was in the habit of going to sleep between eleven and eleven-thirty P.M. Then I was offered the chance to write this column and given the rather loose mandate that it be about people. That sounded swell, but implicit was the expectation that I would write about celebrities.” I went on to describe my bewilderment and my misgivings. Dolly giggled when it was read to her the night before it appeared. Rupert Murdoch, soon to purchase the Post, hated it. Eventually he would say so in print. I was off and running.

On Monday morning, I made an entry in the journal I’d decided to keep: “Don’t get too caught up in the frills and the celebrity.” That evening, I dove in headlong, beginning appropriately enough at a party at Tavern on the Green. It was the first of a dozen I would attend there over the next four months, and my initial encounter was everything I’d been warned about. One of the party’s hosts introduced me to Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown. Understandably, she nodded politely but indifferently. Then the host explained that I was the Post’s new gossip columnist. Helen lit up and monopolized me for fifteen minutes. I did not hold the change of heart against her. I’d been told to expect such turnabouts.

“I’ll tell you why you want to write gossip,” he said. “Because right now you’re nobody and a column would make you famous overnight.

From the Tavern, I headed down to Central Park South, where Simon & Schuster president Dick Snyder was hosting a party for author Francine du Plessix Gray in his lavish penthouse duplex overlooking the park. Her new novel, Lovers and Tyrants, had just been published. Publishing parties are generally rewards to authors, the expense for which is a direct function of how well the book is likely to do or what it has just been sold for to a paperback publisher. Gray’s book was an exception. Though it was not a best-seller prospect, it had received enough advance praise to merit a classy celebration. The guest list included a revered playwright (Arthur Miller), a best-selling novelist (Judith Rossner), a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (Frances Fitzgerald) and a good sprinkling of assorted powers from the literary and media worlds. Still, it was just an uneventful gathering of people until Norman Mailer’s arrival at about ten-thirty. Mailer walked in accompanied by his girlfriend, a slim redhead named Norris Church. I decided to check them out, blithely unaware that I was walking into what would shortly become my first controversy.

Mailer was engaged in a lively conversation with Elizabeth Hardwick, the New York Review of Books writer. I simply stood by and listened. Two days later, I recounted the spiciest portion of their conversation in my column. It began with a Hardwick accusation and went on from there: “‘You’re just a progenitor, Norman, you’re not a father. You produce children and your wives bring them up.’ Mailer laughed. ‘I hope that’s all over now,’ [Elizabeth] continued, laughing herself. Suddenly Mailer’s slim lady friend chirped up. ‘It’s too late for that,’ she said, patting her stomach suggestively.”

It never occurred to me that Norris Church might be kidding. I was new at this game, hungry for items, and besides, I’d witnessed the whole thing myself. But the fact was Norris had been kidding. When Mailer heard about what I’d written, he was livid. His secretary called from Cape Cod several days later to make clear that my story was inaccurate. I printed a lighthearted retraction. Three days later, she called to complain again, this time in stronger terms. I said I’d done all I could.

The truth was that I felt like an idiot and just wanted the incident to quietly fade away. (It refused to do so until Mailer had sent the Post a full gynecological report affirming that Church was not pregnant and that she had not been at any time during the previous year.) Not the least of my problems was the fact that I was getting a certain perverse enjoyment from the attention Mailer was lavishing on me. Here was a person I wanted to have know me, and the very fact that he did, and cared enough to respond to something I’d written, made me feel that much more important. My friends couldn’t help but be impressed.

norman mailer and norris church attending funeral services
Norman Mailer and Norris Church, 1980.
BettmannGetty Images

Several nights later, I attended a dinner party at Polly Bergen’s apartment. Polly is another person who knows Everyone. I had been invited to the party by Warren Hoge, the young man she was then seeing. Warren is a New York Times editor with an extraordinary facility for getting around and hooking up with notable women (among them Sally Quinn, Jennifer O’Neill, Candice Bergen and Sally Kellerman). I’d met him several evenings before at Elaine’s. He’d invited me to Polly’s in lieu of a dinner together at which he had promised to give me the scoop on Dolly Schiff, for whom he’d worked previously. We never got a chance to talk, not then or in our fifteen or so subsequent encounters. But his face became so familiar I came to consider him a friend anyway.

I’d met Polly Bergen only briefly once before. Nonetheless, when I arrived she treated me as if I were an old friend. I liked her instantly. She seemed to like me. A lot of people, I was realizing, seemed to like me. I figured it must be because I was such an extraordinarily likable guy. That notion was underscored by another encounter at the same party. I spent most of the evening talking with Gay Talese. He’d long been one of my heroes, and I was thrilled to meet him, especially when he said he liked my column. The next day I called my mother. She’d been worrying about my respectability, so I told her what Talese had said about the column. It did not move her. “I’m telling you, Ma,” I said, “he really seemed to like me.”

At the end of my first two weeks, I’d concluded that I was doing a pretty terrific job. Not many people seemed to agree. The rumor mill at the Post had it that my column was not very popular there. Spitzler told me that Dolly had called it “not inspiring.” The criticisms stumped me: I’d done the first interview with Bruce Springsteen in more than a year, produced an exclusive report on Chevy Chase’s upcoming marriage, interspersed items about politicians and writers with the more predictable showbiz fare—and I even thought I’d done it with a bit of style. There was just one problem. I was acting as a reporter, attempting to gather factual information. I was not writing gossip, much less mere rumor or salacious commentary. Partly it was that I could not face the music—I was still queasy about reporting personal details, trivial peccadilloes. But mostly it was the fact that I simply didn’t have much gossip to offer. My sources still numbered only a handful. Press-agent material was largely self-serving, and all those anonymous tipsters I’d been promised were not ringing me up in the middle of the night with hot stories.

Actually, during the four months I wrote the column, I did get one anonymous tip. It came the second week. I shall call my source Mr. Clean. He telephoned in the middle of an otherwise quiet day to say that he had a scoop about orgies and politicians, but that it was too hot to discuss over the phone. Could I meet him later that day for a drink at the New York Athletic Club? I figured him for a quack, but how wrong could I go at the N.Y.A.C.? I was also dying to see an orgy.

I met Mr. Clean at the appointed time. He was a nervous, slight young man who looked much older than he turned out to be. His story was simple: a friend had invited him to attend a party at a fancy apartment in an exclusive neighborhood. Guests were required to pay an admission fee at the door and from there anything went. “You wouldn’t believe what I saw,” Mr. Clean told me. “Everyone was naked, rolling on the floor. Congressmen, judges, recognizable faces.”

There was just one problem. I was acting as a reporter, attempting to gather factual information. I was not writing gossip, much less mere rumor or salacious commentary.

Mr. Clean seemed ready to burst. I acted blasé. Actually I was thrilled. “I’d like to see it for myself,” I said soberly. “Name your night,” he replied.

It took me two weeks to summon up the required moxie. As it happened I had just hired an assistant. “How’d you like to go to an orgy as your first assignment?” I asked. She acted blasé. “Sure,” she said. “Why not?”

We arranged to meet Mr. Clean and his date at midnight. I had prepared myself for the occasion in uncharacteristic fashion: I got thoroughly soused. When we arrived at the apartment, the doorman informed us that the party had been moved. He graciously offered up the new address, on East Fifty-seventh Street. Sure enough, there was a friendly-looking man standing at the door when we arrived. His name was Leo and he took our fifteen-dollar admission fees. The apartment was furnished sparsely: in wall-to-wall mattresses. Two dozen wary looking men and women, attractive though not especially so, huddled against the living-room walls. The atmosphere was heavy with silence and anticipation.

We waited. And waited. I kept drinking. Nothing happened. There wasn’t a recognizable face in the place. It all began to seem quite hilarious: the New York Post gossip columnist, here with his assistant, reporting from the trenches. Mr. Clean’s girlfriend didn’t think so, and after an hour the two of them left. Soon thereafter I announced to my assistant that she too was free to leave, and she did so reluctantly. After she’d gone, I seriously considered taking my clothes off to get things started—I’d paid my fifteen dollars and I wanted to see an orgy. Finally, about three-thirty A.M., I slumped down in a couch next to the host.

“What happened?” I asked him. He shrugged. “Maybe it’s the new place. People get uptight easily.” We sat in silence for a long time. Finally Leo chirped up: “I knew it,” he muttered. “I should have had everyone check their clothes at the door.”

In mid November, Rupert Murdoch bought the Post. Before I’d had a chance to decide whether that was good or bad, Rupert singled me out in his first interview (with The Village Voice) as an example of one of the things he didn’t like about the paper. He complained that I had apologized for being a gossip in my first column and said he never would have run it.

Until Rupert’s unexpected dig, I’d been vacillating about my job. The pressure of getting the column out and incidents like the Mailer one made it hard to enjoy its more glamorous aspects. But once the column’s future seemed to be in jeopardy, I had a change of heart. It was like discovering that a lover I’d been taking for granted was having an affair with my best friend. The job suddenly seemed wonderful.

I began to go out regularly in the evenings for the first time and to enjoy the life I was leading. No more apologies. I grew quickly accustomed to and oddly at home seeing the same people wherever I went—an actress (Sylvia Miles), a beautiful couple (Margaux Hemingway and Errol Wetson), a socialite (D.D. Ryan), a working socialite (Delfina Rattazzi), even a princess and her “constant companion” (Lee Radziwill and Peter Tufo). Polly Bergen would be there and so would Zarem and Liz Smith and Warren Hodge. It was like a club.

Mostly I handled my social outings gracefully enough, but in my resurgent eagerness, there were occasional pitfalls.

"kennedy's children" opening
Lee Radziwill and Peter Tufo, 1975.
Ron GalellaGetty Images

The most memorable one occurred at the party following the Broadway opening of Comedians. I’d been to a half dozen such affairs but had always made it a habit to avoid strangers—even celebrities—unless a mutual friend introduced us. Candice Bergen, however, was one person I wanted to meet. When I spotted her at a distant table, I couldn’t resist. She was in the midst of her dinner when I arrived and was not terribly pleased to be interrupted. I made my introduction leaning awkwardly over her table. Candice answered my questions in clipped phrases. After a bit, she noticed something in the area underneath my chin. “I think,” she said with exaggerated deliberateness, “that your tie is in the soup.” I looked down in horror. Sure enough. “Always the graceful one,” I muttered and hurried away.

But mostly my confidence in such social situations was on the rise. When it came to romance, I parlayed the inevitable curiosity about my job into dates with those of the curious who were young, female and attractive. Having my name and picture above a column seemed to give me a certain automatic respectability. More than once I called up a woman I’d met for two or three minutes and suggested that we get together. Usually the answer was yes. Inevitably the result was disaster. Which made sense, since I was engineering virtually blind dates.

My favorite such experience was actually a variation on the theme. For several weeks a pleasant P.R. woman I knew had been pressuring me to interview her most recent client: Sue Richards, the twenty-six-year-old publisher of the new skin magazine High Society. Sue’s gimmick was that she had just posed in an explicit sixteen-page spread and as her own centerfold. At first, I demurred. I hadn’t the faintest idea what one might ask such a person. Then I took a close look at the pictures and reconsidered. So what if I couldn’t think of anything to ask.

The lunch was delightful. Sue was reasonably articulate and incredibly sexy. It’s hard to remember what I asked her, but I do remember that she seemed genuinely to like me. At the end of lunch I suggested we get together again. I was convinced we’d be in bed together in a week. The following Monday, I devoted a third of my column to my lunch with Sue, rationalizing that it embodied a fantasy of considerable general interest.

Several days later, I called Sue at her office. Her secretary took my name and returned to the phone after several minutes. “Who’d you say you’re with?” she asked. I was flabbergasted. After another five minutes, Sue came on the phone, sounding detached. I felt humiliated. I reminded her who I was. “Oh, yeah,” she said, “how could I forget?” I asked what she was up to that week. She said she was busy and promised to call just as soon as she was free.

Apparently she’s been busy ever since.

On December 6, I began my most serious binge of night life. Over the three weeks that followed, I attended twenty-four separate events and countless lunches with potential sources. I bought my first tuxedo (potentially tax-deductible in my line of work) and wore it nearly as often as I’d worn jeans only two years earlier.

The flurry of activity began one evening with a rock-’n’-roll party, a Bing Crosby concert and the Jackie O-hosted debut of the Russian costume exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum. It ended on December 23, with a party for Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. In between, there were screenings, Broadway openings, Melba Moore at the Metropolitan Opera, the solo debut of Barry Manilow, parties of all kinds and choice studio seats for NBC’s Saturday Night. I went where I was invited and was not extraordinarily discriminating. I felt as if I were reliving the jazz age. Only occasionally did reality intrude.

barbara streisand, kris kristofferson
Producer Jon Peters with Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson at the A Star is Born premiere at Tavern on the Green.
Allan TannenbaumGetty Images

It did so on the night I attended the Broadway opening of Sly Fox, the play starring George C. Scott. It was customary for press agents to invite me to such affairs in the hope that I would write about them and help generate interest in the show. As it happened, contrary to my expectations, I had not been invited to this particular party. The explanation for this omission was simple. Two weeks earlier, I’d written an item suggesting that three plays due on Broadway, including Sly Fox, were in trouble and would probably bomb. Within a day, I received calls from people affiliated with all three productions. Each of them was furious. My information had come secondhand and, truth be told, I wasn’t absolutely certain of its accuracy. The prospect that two lines I’d batted out might seriously damage a play’s future surprised and frightened me. It was not a kind of power I coveted.

Surprisingly enough, two of the plays I mentioned—Hellzapoppin with Jerry Lewis and The Bed Before Yesterday with Carol Channing—never even made it to Broadway. Sly Fox, on the other hand, became an instant smash. I found it even more hilarious than most critics did. When the curtain had gone down on opening night, I stopped off to apologize to Larry Gelbart, the play’s author, and to tell him I’d liked it. “Ah, the Broadway Bomber,” he said. I cringed, but he waved off my concern. From there we headed to the party. When I noticed director Arthur Penn at a distance, I decided to reiterate my apology and to say that I intended to make a correction the following day. I wasn’t twenty words into it when I felt a tap on my shoulder. A woman beckoned me aside. “You’re not invited to this party,” she said, “so please leave.” I looked at her in bewilderment. I explained that I’d given my name at the door. She shrugged. “You’re not invited.” I was furious. “I have an elephant’s memory for humiliation,” I announced imperiously and strode out. When I got to the street, I reviewed the events in my mind. A one-line plug was a road to fast friends; an error in judgment won me instant enemies. An early warning signal, I thought.

I had one other run-in during that period. I’d written several items about the Byzantine lawsuits, intrigue and screwups that surrounded the making of Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky. On the night it was to be screened, I ran into Peter Falk, the film’s costar, in the lobby of the Gulf & Western building. He looked rumpled and sleepless, so much like his Columbo character that it made me giggle.

“Is it a good film?” I asked him, out of the blue and without introducing myself. He smiled and nodded. “Yeah,” he said. (It was actually a terrible film.) We got into the elevator.

A one-line plug was a road to fast friends; an error in judgment won me instant enemies. An early warning signal, I thought.

“I’m Tony Schwartz,” I said, extending my hand. He pulled away and eyed me without speaking. Our ascent was terminated without another word. As he strode out, Falk turned around briefly. “Everything you wrote is wrong,” he said conclusively.

It is probably fitting that my serious misgivings about life as a gossip began to coalesce at the party thrown for Barbra Streisand. By the time I met Streisand, celebrity seemed commonplace. Streisand, in fact, was the only star I could think of who still seemed magical and untouchable. When I wrote nasty things about her, which I did simply because they made such good copy, I assumed she neither read them nor would have cared if she had. It didn’t take much to shatter that myth. The party was to celebrate the opening of A Star Is Born.

The first person I encountered as I snaked my way through the crowds toward Barbra was Kris Kristofferson. He seemed oddly out of place and a bit uncomfortable. During the making of A Star Is Born, the gossip columns were full of reports of their vicious off-camera fights. At the same time they were playing out a transcendent love story on camera. Kris was doing his best to leave past wars behind. He had rented a tuxedo from Western Costume in Hollywood for the occasion. Around his neck he wore a U.F.W. tag and over his feet, true to his roots, he wore black cowboy boots. Barbra was okay, he insisted to those who asked.

The next person I ran into was Sue Mengers, Barbra’s agent and a star in her own right. She seemed delighted to meet me. I’d just written an innocuous item about how she had met Washington Post reporter Sally Quinn several days earlier in a New York restaurant. As a reward for the mention, Sue whispered a piece of movie gossip in my ear. I surmised that she had not read the other mention I’d made of her recently. Although it did not refer to her by name, the item was much less flattering.

At long last, I managed to get to Barbra. Her press agent, who kept a watch on my column, was not happy to see me. “I know what you’ve written,” he snarled. “It’s helped the film,” I replied with all the charm I could muster, not wanting to miss the chance to meet Barbra. Unable to maneuver me aside, he was finally forced to make the introductions.

“You’re young, aren’t ya?” Barbra said in a friendly voice. I nodded, flattered for no discernible reason. I’d been told the surest way to Barbra’s heart was to flatter her, so I did. “I liked the film. It should be a big hit,” I said. (I had liked the film, in spite of my better instincts and Barbra’s worse ones. If I hadn’t, I would have lied. What the hell.) Streisand was delighted and we chatted for several minutes. The only disconcerting thing she did was to turn her wide green eyes elsewhere every so often. Eventually I realized that she was keeping an eye on boyfriend Jon Peters, whose name she would blurt out whenever he vanished momentarily. I was struck by her frailty. I loved and hated her for it. Later Streisand’s press agent called to tell me that he’d read her the friendly piece I’d written on her party. She’d been pleased. I loved and hated her for that too. I wanted her to be above columns like mine.

The same column that described the Streisand party contained an item about another woman superstar I felt drawn to—Barbara Walters. In it I suggested that Rosalynn Carter had been unhappy about the interview she and Jimmy had given Barbara. The item came from one of my best sources, a person who knew and liked Walters. Several days later there was a message at the Post that Walters had called me. I had no doubt why. I called back and she came on the phone immediately. She explained that she was a bit embarrassed to be calling but just wanted me to know that I’d been wrong. I’d said I’d check into it. It turned out that my story did not hold up well under scrutiny. The next week, Barbara sent me a note with a copy of a letter Jimmy Carter had sent to ABC board chairman Leonard Goldenson. It praised the interview and included the President’s handwritten P.S.: “The few criticisms of Barbara, motivated by jealousy, are a fine compliment to her.”

I ran a correction. I’d learned a lesson from the Mailer incident, and this one was straightforward. A week later, Barbara sent me a second note. “Dear Tony, How kind of you to write the correction in your column. I am really most appreciative. It meant a great deal to me. Sincerely, Barbara.” I swooned, but this time only briefly. Barbara Walters was someone whose attention delighted me, but not on this account. A stupid error had won me her interest. I was genuinely depressed by the incident.

The next week, I got mine. In its January issue, More magazine, the journalism review, printed several final remembrances of Dolly Schiff’s tenure at the Post. She was not remembered kindly. Jack Newfield, the Village Voice writer and onetime Post employee, ended his piece with this aside about me: “On Dolly’s tombstone there should be this epitaph: Here lies the woman who replaced Murray Kempton, Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill with Tony Schwartz.”

I’d been criticized before and thought I’d learned to take it. This time, though, I was crushed. Sure it was a cheap shot. Sure Jack Newfield could be a bastard. Sure it was just a throwaway line. But the real hurt was this: I’d come into the job on a lark, figuring I’d do it for a year or so and then return to the real world. Suddenly I’d become a symbol of frivolity—worse, of crap. It made me uneasy enough to criticize blithely other people, but what Newfield reminded me was how much worse it was for my victims. I was his, and this time mere attention was not a salve.

lord renwick, rupert murdoch and phillip lynch
Lord Renwick (center) introducing ’News of the World’ boss Rupert Murdoch (left) to Phillip Lynch, the Australian Minister for Immigration, 1970.
Keystone FeaturesGetty Images

My fragile fairy tale was beginning to crumble, and Rupert Murdoch took the final step to shatter it. I’d decided to do my last column for December on how celebrities were planning to spend New Year’s Eve. Coincidentally, I wrote the column on the day Murdoch took over the Post. The column was enjoyable to write and I worked unusually hard on it, making perhaps four dozen calls. When it was done, I felt delighted about the result. It began: “Chevy Chase says he’ll spend New Year’s Eve with President and Mrs. Ford. His New Year’s resolution is to stop lying.”

The following morning—New Year’s Eve day—I was still in bed, feeling self-satisfied, when the phone rang. It was Post editor Paul Sann, playing his usual messenger role (inevitably he had bad news), but this time on Rupert Murdoch’s account. He had two scoops. The first was that my beloved column had been killed that day for lack of space. The second was that I ought to start looking for another job. Just like that. Sann said it all in a monotone. A new column would soon be appearing, he explained, and that spelled the imminent end of mine. Perhaps I could become a contributor to the new one.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Is this your decision?” I asked. “No, it’s from the publisher,” he answered. “Good,” I said, “then I’ll talk to him.” I hung up, furious. Thirty minutes later I walked into the Post and headed straight to Murdoch’s office. His secretary seemed impressed when I requested an immediate meeting. Forty-five minutes later I was still standing in the hall waiting. As it turned out I did not meet Rupert then, nor was I destined to at any point. One of his surrogates finally appeared to inform me that Sann had been mistaken, that I should just keep on writing the column and that Rupert apologized for the misunderstanding.

The apology wasn’t worth much. I had already begun reconsidering the merits of the job, and Murdoch’s unwillingness to discuss its future speeded the process along. After his first dig, I’d wanted the job more than ever. This time, when the shock wore off, I felt an odd sense of relief that I might be able to bow out gracefully. The fears I’d buried in the service of my fairy tale had begun to resurface: making enemies unnecessarily and friends for the wrong reasons. Prying into aspects of people’s lives that I’d have preferred to ignore. Being tagged as a lightweight. The need to run self-serving press-agent material when I was short of my own items, or having to scrape for material late at night by squeezing mediocre items out of reluctant sources and then feeling embarrassed to print them.

My last hurrah was a telling anticlimax. I had managed to make friends with the producer of the gala concert scheduled to precede the Inaugural in Washington, D.C. Jim Lipton had arranged for me to view the rehearsals, see the concert itself and attend the party scheduled to follow. By all appearances, it was the ultimate event, an awesome collection of talent that included such superstars as Linda Ronstadt, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Loretta Lynn, Paul Simon, Shirley MacLaine, Chevy Chase and Freddie Prinze. The audience would include the President-elect, the Vice-President-elect, congressmen and Washington dignitaries.

july 1977 cover
Esquire cover, July 1977.

I went, I mingled, I wrote. But mostly I felt numb. At the party I made it my business, out of a sense of duty, to talk with every star I could find. I tailed Carter as he circled the room, then latched on to Mondale, wishing all the while that I could talk with someone for more than a couple of minutes. The last star I encountered before leaving was Freddie Prinze. I remember thinking that he was an easy guy to understand: confident, handsome, calm, good spirited and at peace with his success. A week later he committed suicide. Never has the death of someone I barely knew so haunted me.

I returned to New York more determined than ever to quit. I had already looked around for other work, and the next week I accepted a job as a writer for Newsweek. When I went to tell the Post’s new editor, there seemed to be no hard feelings. I’d waltzed in and I was being permitted to waltz out. I resisted the temptation to detail my disillusionment. Instead we agreed on a parting message that would leave the fairy tale intact. It read:

“One final scoop: This column marks the end of my short but sweet career as a professional gossip. I’ve been wanting to move on to other kinds of reporting and writing and I now have the opportunity. The Post and I part on good terms. Hope you’ve enjoyed reading the column as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.”

That same day I received a note from Liz Smith that had been sent earlier in the week. “Dear Tony,” she wrote, “The column just gets better and better. Keep it up. Love, Liz.”