Rudy's "very good friend"

Cancer or not, the mayor gets grilled about a frequent dining partner.

Published May 4, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Any truce the New York press might have had with Mayor Rudy Giuliani since he announced last week that he has prostate cancer has quickly collapsed, with the local press corps putting the state of the mayor's marriage under scrutiny yet again.

The latest round began Tuesday, when New York Daily News gossip columnist Mitchell Fink ran an item titled "Rudy & Friend Dine & Dine." Giuliani, Fink wrote, "hasn't let the diagnosis of prostate cancer slow him down." The mayor was spotted twice over the weekend dining out with an unnamed "friend," wrote Fink, who did not explicitly reveal the gender of Giuliani's dining companion until the end of the item: "One restaurant staffer opined that the mayor was with his wife," Fink wrote, "but shown a picture of Donna Hanover, he said it wasn't her."

Playing a frantic game of catch-up, the next day's New York Post published a pair of undated surveillance-style photographs of Giuliani's female dining companion coming out of yet another restaurant. One of the photographs -- which were accompanied by the headline "Rudy's mystery brunch pal is Upper East Side divorcie" -- featured Giuliani a few feet away from the woman, whom the Post identified as Judith Nathan.

Gossip that the mayor has a new companion has been circulating among journalists for weeks. Indeed, the Post's photographs were actually snapped at least 11 days before they were published. A source at the Post said that the newspaper heard Giuliani had been spotted on Saturdays eating brunch at a particular restaurant near Gracie Mansion, the mayor's residence, and dispatched a photographer to capture the duo.

The Post was unable to get them on the first try, but returned a week later and succeeded. The source believes the photos were taken on April 22, but might have been shot April 15.

The photos weren't published immediately. "Basically, we didn't know how to phrase it," said the source, who requested anonymity. "We can't say 'It's his girlfriend.' So we were just kind of sitting on it. Then we just about decided to go with it and do it as 'Spotted around town -- who is this?' and then he got prostate cancer."

"Then it was 'Shit, what do we do now?'" he said.

Then the Daily News published its item Tuesday, and it was open season on the mayor.

Speculation about the state of Giuliani's marriage -- and possible extramarital affairs -- has run rampant for years in New York. It reached a crescendo in mid-1997 when a Vanity Fair article implied he had an affair with his then-communications director, Cristyne Lategano. That article also took the city's press corps to task for its alleged inadequate coverage of the mayor's marriage, a criticism that the tabloids are eager to avoid this time.

The subject resurfaced recently when Hanover, the mayor's apparently estranged wife, announced that she would appear in the play "The Vagina Monologues," whose playwright has been sharply critical of Giuliani. Hanover announced Monday that she would withdraw from the performance because of "personal family circumstances."

Asked Wednesday at his press briefing about the woman in the Post's photographs, Giuliani responded: "She's a good friend. A very good friend. And beyond that, you can ask me questions and that's exactly what I'm going to say."

The Associated Press, which also identified the woman as Nathan, reported that she lives near Gracie Mansion. Asked if he was angry about the coverage, Giuliani said he was a public figure, so he expects extra media scrutiny. However, he added: "I'm annoyed because I think private people should be left alone ... She and her family are entitled to privacy."

This latest spate of stories once again raises questions about the legitimacy of such reporting. Tom Goldstein, the dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, said he had not read the News' or the Post's articles. "But," he said, "my general view is: Leave the guy alone. And let the pendulum swing away from overly intrusive coverage of the private lives of public officials."

Neither Daily News editor in chief Edward Kosner nor Post editor Xana Antunes immediately returned messages left yesterday evening.

"This is the kind of thing that nobody wants to be the first in the pool on," said the Post source, "but once someone gets their toe wet, then everyone else dives in."

By Jesse Drucker

Jesse Drucker covers politics for Salon from New York.

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Cancer Rudy Giuliani