I seem to remember being introduced to her at parties, and we've exchanged e-mails once or twice, but I probably wouldn't recognize Joyce Wadler if she mugged me in the street and I had to spot her in a police lineup an hour later. It's strange that I don't remember much about her personally because her New York Times gossip column, Boldface Names, is one of my favorites, and if I had pursued her the way I've pursued other writers I've liked, we'd have at least had an awkward, stilted conversation by now. In the past two years, I've edited and contributed to New York's Intelligencer column, freelanced for the New York Post's Page Six and been the founding editor of Gawker, but in all my gossip column-hopping I never found anything quite like Boldface Names under Wadler's tenure, which began in January 2003 and ended on Friday (she will now write for the paper's Home section).
Loyal readers of the column may argue that it was never a gossip report as much as a party report, but let's get one thing out of the way: The classic gossip column -- a column that actually, as the phrase implies, reports gossip -- is as dead as Walter Winchell and Hedda Hopper. It was tortured to death by lawyers, publicists and J-school moralists who painfully litigated, negotiated and preached it out of existence. Even Star magazine has fact-checkers nowadays. Things have changed.
And the parties, inasmuch as they're worth covering and are likely to generate gossip, have changed, too. No longer are the respectable A-list celebrities free to roam unescorted around impromptu New York soirees, expressing their unvarnished and possibly offensive opinions, touching each other inappropriately but enjoyably, and occasionally retiring to the men's room for a discreet line of cocaine. Now, the parties are choreographed, spontaneity-free events. Little bits of the Studio 54 era certainly remain (just this week, the questionable art of Damien Hirst merited front-page coverage in the Times Arts & Leisure section, and Henry Kravis engineered a record-setting leveraged buyout -- also questionable), but don't expect to read about truly decadent parties among the rich and famous anymore.
When the celebrities Wadler did encounter were obnoxious or stupid or just plain boring, she dispensed with any social niceties and let the reader know it -- interrupting, for instance, a tedious Christian Slater interview with a Tom Wolfe-ish interjection, replete with capital letters and exclamation marks ("SPLAT!!!!!! SCHPLOTTT!!!!!! KERPLUNK!!!!!!!") and the following regret: "Our deepest apologies. We have permitted an actor to go on for too long about his Craft, and a reader in Denver has just slumped forward into her latte grande."
Wadler also skewered the ridiculous stylistic conventions that are particularly indigenous to gossip columns -- notable among them the non sequitur that invariably results when short, unrelated items are crammed together. A fictional character of Wadler's own creation, Mr. Segue Man, would conveniently appear to provide the column with an absurd transition sentence that technically melded two utterly unrelated items together. And there was the Columbia J-School Young'un, Wadler's hypothetical protégé to whom she routinely dispensed advice and (somewhat ingeniously) used to make light of the fact that standard operating procedure in entertainment coverage would be roundly condemned (or, at the very least, frowned upon) in other arenas of journalism. One such warning to the J-School Young 'un concerned a common, devious tactic among certain publicity-hungry celebrities: "A gorgeous movie star attempts to charm reporters by claiming to remember them. It is particularly disarming when the meeting between star and reporter was brief, which, believe us, the meeting between our correspondent and Ms. [Penelope] Cruz had been. It took place almost two years ago and lasted five minutes, tops." (Fittingly, Mr. Segue Man ran off with Columbia J-School Young 'un in Wadler's last column.)
But the key feature of the Boldface Names column was Wadler's attention to the intermediaries who turn the celebrities into the slickly packaged blockbuster-budget products -- particularly the celebrity publicist who, by virtue of having to protect his or her client, is forced to orchestrate public deceptions by quashing any real questions. The journalist is asked to not do what journalists do in return for access. And many comply. Wadler did not. Even when it looked as if she did, she didn't: "Ms. Cruz had been flogging a perfume," she continued in the above missive to Columbia J-School Young'un, "and her publicist had warned us that if we asked about TOM CRUISE, whom she was then dating, he would stop the interview. To our shame (yes, even Boldface has off days) we shirked our obligations, depriving readers of such critical information as the seriousness of the affair and whose last name the couple used when making restaurant reservations."
"This is The Times' excuse for a gossip column" the New York Post's Liz Smith complained recently to the New York Observer. "They don't let what's happening be the story." What she meant is that they don't let what's supposed to be happening be the story. If they did, Tom Cruise would charmingly glide in and out of a Joyce Wadler column unscathed by double-entendres and notes about his publicist. He doesn't, because that isn't what happens, and Wadler wasn't for a moment going to pretend that it was.
To be fair, it would be more difficult to do what Wadler was doing in a normal publication that prints entertainment journalism, given that other publications face far heavier damage should they insinuate that the whole thing is a ruse. Unlike, say, Us Weekly or Vanity Fair, the New York Times doesn't need celebrities as much as celebrities need the New York Times.
The Times is, after all, the last place you'd expect to find a gossip column (which will now be authored by Campbell Robertson, a witty 28-year-old from Alabama who will continue, one hopes, in the Wadlerian vein), much less a slightly facetious one laced with postmodern devices. This is the same newspaper that has an ombudsman column devoted almost mostly, if not entirely, to public self-flagellation; "tongue-in-cheek" isn't an institutional forte. But perhaps the Times has done its readership a service by providing real transparency in journalism -- in the unlikeliest of places.