My first inkling that not everyone appreciates being turned into characters in my chronicles of life in Hollywood came a few years ago when a colleague did not seem pleased at all about being seated next to me at a dinner party. In fact, when he repeatedly tried to get me to smoke an after-dinner cigar (as if!) -- opining that "you should, because you have the biggest balls at this whole table" -- I began to detect a definite whiff of hostility above the general stink of cigars.
How could this be? I'd always been perfectly friendly and charming to him!
OK, well, there was that time I'd been inspired to write an entire magazine article about masculine obliviousness, called "What Girls Don't Tell Men," after hearing this man rudely complain in front of his wife that the delights of young female flesh were forever lost to him because he was no longer single.
"The hard thing about being married," he'd said in his signature whine, "is that when I walk down the Venice boardwalk these days the 18-year-old Twinkies look right through me."
To which I'd blurted out, "actually, those 18-year-old Twinkies don't look through you because you're married; they look through you because you're 42 years old."
And then of course I used this exchange, including the bit about the "signature whine," in the piece. But I left his actual name out!
He couldn't have recognized himself in it, could he? People don't recall every asinine remark they make, do they?
As it turns out, sometimes they do. I found out later that my article was exactly the reason he was angry. Not that it's slowed me down any.
I do, however, regularly find myself doing penance in the Valley of Hurt Feelings. I wish people would enter into the jolly spirit of a Friars Club roast when they read my stuff, but for some reason, they usually don't.
Last week it was feel-bad time again, because Robin Abcarian, a former friend who used to write a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times, got angry at my comments about how her soggy-minded pensies were emblematic of Times culture.
Here's the back story: Readers may recall that I have long kept a close eye on Hollywood's hometown paper of record, which is also the biggest little hicksville paper in the world. I wrote about the departure of the Times editor-in-chief, Shelby Coffey III, in my Oct. 17 column here (and of the preliminary shake-up in my Sept. 19 column).
My access to the inside story on Spring Street comes from the five years I spent writing a column of Spring Streetology for the old Buzz magazine (which lost me a couple of friends besides Robin). Coffey's departure was (and is) such big news in the media world that I also did a 5,000-word cover story about the Shelby years for the Oct. 17-23 issue of the L.A. Weekly.
Robin wrote to the Weekly's letters page complaining that I betrayed our friendship by criticizing her in print -- which is, of course, true. But also true is that that I had held off lobbing anything offensive her way for two years -- until I could no longer justify this hands-off attitude toward such a prominent denizen of Spring Street (when everyone else was fair game) simply because I liked her personally.
"We got together for lunch now and then, and Cathy always insisted on eating in the Times cafeteria," Robin's letter said. "After (her) second column, I realized that ... under the guise of friendship, she was collecting tidbits for print."
Actually, under the guise of friendship, I was looking for a free place to park. In early 1992 I'd filed a lawsuit against an airline magazine company that didn't want to pay me for an article. Parking for the downtown Los Angeles courts is horribly expensive. But I quickly discovered it was pleasant and convenient to sail into the Times visitor parking lot on Spring Street ("I'm visiting Robin Abcarian!") and then, if she was available, have a nice lunch together at the always delicious (and cheap!) Times cafeteria after a nasty morning in court.
"The whole thing's ridiculous," a friend observed sympathetically last weekend, after I'd invited myself over to use her pool. "Obviously you're a user. You're just not that kind of user."
Uh ... yeah! Anyway, I wish American media types would follow the example of British media types and not take being trashed in print so personally. I was touched and extremely satisfied a few years ago when Tina Brown, who was then departing Vanity Fair for the New Yorker, graciously introduced her replacement, Graydon Carter, to the Vanity Fair staff -- in spite of the fact that Carter had regularly insulted Brown in the pages of the old Spy.
Perhaps I inherited a Commonwealth version of this attitude from my deeply sarcastic Canadian family. At least, that's what occurred to me recently when a woman at a party approached to say, "You wouldn't write the way you do if you weren't Canadian." Since she was Canadian, I'll assume she meant this as a compliment. But it did bring back a rather vivid childhood memory.
There I was, age 6, with my entire expatriate Canadian clan (aunts, uncles, parents, sister, cousins, grandparents -- all of whom were now living in the same Southern California subdivision). We were cozily sitting in Grandma's TV room watching a documentary about brain damage. Suddenly, my aunt, age 11, shifted on the sofa. "Oh, look, Cathy," she announced coolly. "That boy can tie his shoes with only half a brain. Interesting, because you still can't tie your shoes with a whole brain."
Even as I heard my mouth shriek the outraged, tearful, "MUMMY! Did you hear what she SAID??? Make her say SORRY!!!" I also felt another thought silently filling my mind: "Wow, that was a good one." My aunt and I have a siblinglike closeness built on years of insults, and we wouldn't have it any other way.
So if I insult you in print, please remember, it's only because I care.
In the past couple of weeks, though, the number of people angry about something I'd written began to approach mob proportions. I recently sent one of these friends, whom I'd inadvertently offended with one of these very columns, a limp and groveling two-page letter of apology. When he didn't respond, I sent him the following note:
"Here's my problem: the mad-at-me section of the Cathy Seipp 747 is getting rather crowded. In fact, this week it's actually overbooked. Would you consider being bumped up to the far more spacious not-mad-at-me section? I realize there is a certain psychic toll associated with this upgrade, but the leg room is better and remember, lunch is included."
He wrote back that "all is forgiven ... frankly, I was getting pretty tired of listening to the kvetching in the mad section."
So that's one down, thank God. The way things are going, maybe I should print up that note as a form letter.