Flacks and Hacks

Gatecrasher: How I Helped the Rich Become Famous and Ruin the World BY Ben Widdicombe. New York: Simon & Schuster. 304 pages. $27.

The cover of Gatecrasher: How I Helped the Rich Become Famous and Ruin the World

IF CRAFTING THE PERFECT seating arrangements is a delicate art for blue bloods—and vandalism is the opposite of art, as well as a pastime for talented poor people—then it follows that party reporting, at its most refined, is a form of controlled demolition on private property. In their heyday, party reporters were a bit like graffiti artists on the Upper East Side, tagging the marble walls (“Slut!” “Bankrupt!”) as fast as they can be cleaned up. What is a personal publicist but an overpaid janitor with a pressurized hose?

The allure of party reporting is risk. The entitled class (the rich, the powerful, the rich and powerful, and to a lesser degree Hollywood celebrities) welcomes a disgruntled class (writers, reporters, bloggers wearing cheap shoes) into their inner sanctum. Or at least patches them through to their private line. Worst-case scenario, the reporter is seated in Siberia, far from the heat. Proximity depends on what publication the writer works for (reach), and whether the interloper has properly genuflected and demonstrated worth.

There is a tacit understanding that party reporters are there to do a dirty job. “We slightly outrank the waitstaff,” quips Ben Widdicombe, one of the OG party reporters, in Gatecrasher, his delicious memoir of his exploits on the party circuit. “For the elites to be admired, however, there has to be somebody to admire them, so journalists are tolerated as a necessary evil. We are invited but not wanted.”

Everybody is trying to finesse an advantage. The party reporter wants to tell the truth (expose the dirt); the subject wants to be flattered (elevated to myth). Both want to make a name for themselves. And while lives aren’t on the line, livelihoods certainly are. But so too is an opportunity—shepherded by the right spin doctor—for celebrity. It’s less a question of wolves in sheepskin than wolves in wolves’ clothing all around. Reporters try to throw a stone, chip an implacable facade, establish their bylines. Rich men lie and become Donald Trump.

Gatecrasher is not quite the barn-burning expose of Truman Capote’s “La Côte Basque, 1965,” but you can forgive Widdicombe for not electing death by social suicide. And anyway, he doesn’t noticeably hold back. Every so often a book is described as a romp, and I always think, What a perfect thing for a book to be. Every definition applies here: “Play roughly and energetically . . . Proceed without effort to achieve something.” And there’s something fittingly illicit about the word too.

Widdicombe does not start in the trenches (waiting to get into a party), but amid the hubbub from the penthouse, much like a doyenne surveying the entire skyline from her palatial lair on Fifth Avenue. What follows is a treatise on the changing media landscape (now known as quicksand), with delightful interludes on the idiosyncrasies of flacks and hacks; a history of modern celebrity, chronicling both its machinery and innovations (paying particular attention to the moment in the aughts “when being wealthy was becoming embraced as a subculture,” a trend exemplified by Paris Hilton); and a healthy amount of name-dropping, just enough to require an index. The book is rife with rich and colorful character sketches (“Elaine Kaufman . . . was a squat, formidable woman who had smoked so many cigarettes that her voice could be read in braille”; “When Jude Law decides to be ‘on,’ it’s like interviewing a tanning bed”). Throughout, Widdicombe cherry-picks the best forgotten tidbits from his columns over the years. Did you know Anna Wintour had an affair? I didn’t.

It is also a love letter to New York (“There are whole countries less interesting than Canal Street”) and life as a New Yorker. Like all great New York stories—underpinned by nostalgia and girded by flashy names, sprinkled with wild opportunity and the hand of fate—Widdicombe’s has the advantage of being as charming as the yarns he’s paid to report. His is the kind of New York story that has led him to conclude of his life, in the introduction: “New York is a great elbow sharpener, and it rewards those willing to go through doors that are not yet open. What you find on the other side can change your life.” It’s sappy as hell, but I’ll allow it because he did alight on the city, from Australia, in his mid-twenties with a boyfriend and started out by selling hot dogs, from a street cart. But that was 1998 . . .

In the ensuing decades Widdicombe ended up with a rather unheard-of triple crown, with gossip columns in the New York Times and the Daily News and, for a stint, a job as managing editor at TMZ. Still, he scoffs at any notion of superiority, preferring instead his deadpan style. “What nobody tells you about being a gossip columnist is how easy it is. When people know you’re in the business of being indiscreet, they seek you out to tell secrets.” They’re as excited to see their handiwork in action as the writer is to receive it. (“Nobody wants to stab Caesar with a banana—the satisfaction for the conspirator is in the spectacle of the outcome.”)

The real allure in this book, for me, was less the celebrity gossip than the inside baseball about newspaper writers and the publicity firms they are so often at odds with. In particular, the kind of high-powered reputation-laundering outfits who claim on their websites to aid those who need to “overcome a reputational challenge.” (Not a word.)

Widdicombe dismisses the “sloppy taxonomy” that might lead lesser gatecrashers to moan about the “door bitch” guarding the velvet rope. She is, in fact, a “clipboard.” “After many years of diligent work” a clipboard can aspire “to the pinnacle of the profession. This is being a ‘headset.’” The terminology thrills: “There is a proud tradition in tabloid media of the ‘beat-up,’ meaning to blow a minor incident out of proportion in order to create the impression of a major scandal.” He clocks, as a young reporter, how much of fitting in is adopting a new vocabulary. (“Fashion people don’t wear pants. They wear ‘a pant.’”)

He brings to life the newsroom, sketching out the shoe-leather reporters, the pit bulls, the stringers. The beat reporters who made the New York Post tick (known as “Posties”) wore a “loose tie over an untucked shirt, worn under a jacket with a sweat-stained collar, sometimes with a trench coat that could be balled up and used as a subway pillow after a late night drinking.”

Of course, the rich are interesting too (more so than Hollywood’s new money). “To be constantly popping in and out of the homes of the superrich felt like a clairvoyant power, as if I were able to glimpse some fabulous spirit realm that lay just behind the veneer of earthly reality.” He goes to a party where the pool has been “dyed pink to match the wine.” And visits a friend at a tony co-op where dogs weren’t allowed to walk in common areas. (“The doormen, in order to keep their jobs, had to transport the dogs themselves. . . . The lobby looked like an animal shelter being evacuated in a flood.”)

He peruses menus. “When pigs in blankets are served, it is the sign of a confident host. Everybody loves them. But they also suffer from a stigma of being down-market.” I can personally attest that the writer and heiress Jean Stein once served chimichangas at a party in her drawing room. I’ll never forget, because Robert Caro asked me what they were.

The anecdotes are enough to buoy the book, but it’s admirable all the same that Widdicombe attaches them to a thesis. In a nutshell, party reporting was invented because the rich got greedy. They wanted to be famous, too. That had a price. Things changed, of course, because everybody with a cell phone became a reporter, and every outing a story. Which is partly how Widdicombe ended up, however briefly, at TMZ—the first real celebrity-stalking aggregation site. A job that he took for the money and, seemingly, never sat well with him.

He recounts a lunch with “the widow of billionaire Rocky Mountains oilman turned 20th Century Fox studio owner Marvin Davis.” He is hesitant to admit he works for TMZ. To his surprise, she starts gushing. “Oh, I love TMZ. . . . I look at it to see where my grandchildren are.” (She may be of interest to the reader as the grandmother of the Hilton pal who called Lindsay Lohan a “fire crotch.”)

It’s a telling interaction, and a reminder that the publicity-starved rich person and the striving writer are not necessarily at odds. What the struggle between the two elucidates is subtle enough to live mostly in the world of language, to be bickered about by the coastal elites. It’s the difference between fame and notoriety; socialites and philanthropists; rich people and “ultra-high-net-worth individuals.” It’s the context in which “cottage” and “modest” are completely at odds with what they describe. Widdicombe stays out of the mud, avoiding the naked salaciousness of Roger Vadim’s Bardot, Deneuve, Fonda or David Plante’s Difficult Women: Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell, Germaine Greer. He’s more interested in how the sausage gets made. After all, he did get his start selling hot dogs.

Kaitlin Phillips is a writer and arts publicist living in the West Village.