Battle of the Boldface
For two months last summer, the on-location filming of JERSEY GIRL gave Philadelphia what may have been its all-time high-water mark for gossip potential. The courtship of the movie's stars, Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck-much of which apparently took place in this town-was the most-documented celebrity relationship of the year. Both of the city's gossip columnists covered the couple intensely, running a combined 30 items involving the film. Stu Bykofsky, of the Daily News, reported that “the Jersey Girl cast member with the lowest profile is George Carlin, who usually dines alone,” while Michael Klein, of the Inquirer, wrote that Carlin “is a major-league don't-spare-the-nutmeg pumpkin pie connoisseur.” But the big question-where were Ben and J.Lo staying?-went unanswered.
In Philadelphia, such competition for gossip is, like fascination with Lopez's accommodations, relatively new. Bykofsky began writing his column, now called “Byko!,” in 1987. “I was told to write about celebrities in a town that didn't have any,” Bykofsky says. “So I invented them! I decreed that if you had a name that was known by 25, 40, 50 percent of my readers, you're a celebrity. This isn't New York, where you have one on every other bar stool in midtown.” (To wit: “If you think you're seeing comic star Dan Aykroyd around the airport, more likely it's his brother Doug, who's a Philly-based steward for USAir.”)
Four years ago, Klein started a column, “inqlings,” with similar, though less grandiose, interests. “I guess it's news for the attention-deficit crowd,” Klein says of his mandate. “I want people to pick up the paper and say, 'Wow, I didn't know that!'” (“Let's hear it for Beth Trapani, the kyw-am Newsradio anchor reporter … whose workday starts when most of us are going to bed [and who] might have the most hectic schedule in local broadcasting.”)
Bykofsky and Klein have been told to have a gossip war in a town that has never really had one, which means that they have had to invent more than celebrities. They have created personas and methods that closely match their newspapers' imagined identities: The Daily News's Bykofsky is feisty, hyperbolic, reckless, and self-congratulatorily working-class; the Inquirer's Klein is measured, aloof, bourgeois, and self-congratulatorily mature. A local gossip column is, then, what either Bykofsky or Klein decides it should be on any given day.
Klein claims he knew where Lopez and Affleck were staying all along-the Phoenix, facing Love Park, which is in clear view of the Inquirer's newsroom windows-and chose not to report it. “I thought it was creepy,” he says. “I didn't think anybody would be served to know where they were, even though I could see the TV on in Ben's apartment. But the day they left-bam!-I had something in the paper. That was a pretty clear-cut thing. I wouldn't be able to sleep at night.”
Bykofsky, on the other hand, would have been happy to publish the information, preferably including the room number. In fact, he led his column with the news that the couple was staying in two suites at the Four Seasons. Then, after Us Weekly, an out-of-town publication, broke the story on the Phoenix, “Byko!” claimed an exclusive that “J.Lo arranged to have the petals of 50 dozen roses scattered around the lavish love nest.” Bykofsky squeezed this news from the guilty source who was supposed to be watching his back on the couple and screwed up by not getting him the Phoenix scoop in the first place. The rose-petals item became a Daily News cover.
Stu bykofsky, 61, grew up in
Brooklyn and the Bronx, reading the New York Post and admiring Earl Wilson, the paper's “saloon writer”-Bykofsky read him “mostly because he had pictures of show girls”-and Leonard Lyons, a “Broadway columnist” known for his friendly anecdotes about celebrities. “You can do vignettes,” Bykofsky says, “but that wouldn't work for me, because with vignettes, you sort of have to write them. I knew instantly that literature was not going to be my forte here. This is gimmick reporting, with puns and … when was the last time I used a metaphor? And clichés, of course! I used to teach at Temple, and I would tell the kids, 'Don't use clichés!' No, there's a reason to use clichés. Everybody understands them!”
There are not many saloons left, so most days, Bykofsky can be found in his office. On a fall afternoon, the phone rings with calls from the general manager of a television station, a local cable-news personality, a Republican councilman, and a few tipsters he will not identify. His lead item for the next day is nearly set, based on a tidbit he published a few months earlier about how Allen Iverson, who used to hang out at tgi Friday's, has moved down the street to a Houlihan's instead. Bykofsky has now heard from an employee at Friday's that the chain wants A.I. back, and all he needs is a return call from corporate headquarters to confirm it. Bykofsky keeps two phone numbers: one that rings on his desk (which he always answers), and the one printed in the paper at the end of his column (which goes straight to voicemail). He calls the latter “the idiot line,” and when he checks his messages, he says, “Let's see what the great unwashed have to say!”
Much of what finds its way into “Byko!” and “inqlings” comes from publicists, or from de facto publicists, such as restaurant managers. Often, items end up in the columns not because the columnist ferreted out a secret and set it loose in the world, but because somebody on retainer placed it there, perfectly timed for maximum commercial effect. Celebrity sightings-the harmless, nonjudgmental reports that someone of interest ate, drank or sat down somewhere-often come from management. If it's in a private room, Bykofsky avers, then it almost certainly comes from the restaurant.
Yet on occasion, Bykofsky and Klein come up with news on their own. On his voicemail one fall afternoon, Klein finds a message from restaurateur Stephen Starr, who was returning a call. It's two o'clock, and Klein has a 4:30 deadline for his Sunday column. He has rough drafts of items on renovations at Pat's King of Steaks, a format change at wsni-fm (104.5), and Ed Rendell's post-election vacation to the Virgin Islands. “I have 42 lines of type,” Klein realizes, “and I need 150. Now I am going to call Stephen Starr back.”
Like Bykofsky, Klein, 43, does most of his reporting from his desk, and communicates with many of his sources via e-mail. He rarely goes to the parties he mentions, and he doesn't drink. Klein grew up reading the Daily News (his grandfather drove a delivery truck for the paper) and worked briefly at the New York Post, where he wrote punny headlines like piss of death, but there's not much tabloid zest left in him. He says he models his column after the Washington Post's “The Reliable Source,” which handles gossip with wit and sophistication but carries little of the typical hyperbole-and bears no mark of its author.
Earlier this day, Klein heard that Starr had signed a lease for a space on Washington Square. The tip, like many Klein receives, came from a source who works in the real estate business. “Real estate people-I've befriended a number of them-know that I would cut my arm off before I will reveal my source,” Klein says. “I called this real estate person, and he said, 'I hear Stephen Starr … ' I called the owner of the building, and he said, 'I can't talk about it.' Sometimes, when they say 'I can't talk about it,' it's like Watergate.”
Klein calls Starr's cell phone and says, without introduction, “All right, so what can you tell me about this restaurant on Washington Square?” He takes down the address and Starr's description of the concept: “Something either med't provencal casual or something all fresh, organic veg, free range.”
“What is in that space right now?” Klein asks.
“A psychiatrist's office,” Starr replies, “which is someone I should see for opening all these restaurants. I should have my head examined.” Klein laughs.
Then he asks a few more questions before signing off with, “Cool, okay, God bless, see ya.” Klein now has an exclusive on a local celebrity's high-profile business venture, plus-in Starr's psychiatrist line-a little humor. It is, in short, a perfect “inqlings” item, strong enough to lead Klein's Sunday column. (Starr would have preferred, he admits, to announce the new venture two or three months later.)
It may not merit an allusion to Woodward and Bernstein, but this kind of by-the-book reporting-the anonymous tip, the industry source, the pledge of confidentiality-would seem to be an essential part of the gossip columnist's job. In reality, it's surprisingly rare. This is particularly true for those who relish their estrangement from would-be sources.
“Stephen Starr is an arrogant prick,” Bykofsky says. “Stephen Starr has no loyalty and no memory. He doesn't remember when he was running this little shithole called Starr's at 2nd and Bainbridge and he needed help with publicity. I was features editor, and I was happy to do it. Now he's too successful. I have trouble getting him on the phone.”
Bykofsky says the only time he has heard recently from Starr was last fall, when the Rolling Stones were in town and dining at one of Starr's restaurants. “It was him, himself,” Bykofsky recalls. “I said, 'Stephen, I thought you had died! Or I had died!'”
Starr calls Bykofsky's criticism “bizarre.” “I barely know him,” he says. “I have never not returned his phone calls, ever. He never calls me. Every one of my restaurants that has opened, he has written something negative about. I think he is probably a great PR guy, a marketer of himself, and he wants to stir it up.”
Indeed, the Bykofsky PR strategy seems to be informed largely by the belief that there are few minor squabbles worth avoiding. Bykofsky's column revels in his dislike for “the Howards” (Stern and Eskin), and he maintains a crusade to prove that “weathermeister” John Bolaris has lied about his age. (Bolaris, like many of the publicists who work with Bykofsky and Klein, would not comment on the columnists or their methods.) “Stu is a bully,” says one local publicist. “There is a fear factor with Stu: If I don't dole out enough, he will attack me or my clients.”
Last summer, “inqlings” was filled with celebrity reports from the new, high-end club 32º, while “Byko!” seemed largely shut out. (“inqlings” sightings: M. Night Shyamalan, Scott Speedman, Pat Burrell, Leslie Gudel, 15 others. “Byko!”: Billy King and James Marsden.) In early September, Bykofsky mentioned the club for the first time in months when he heralded the arrival of an even newer Old City club by saying it would be “a relief from the cramped and dingy 32º, which is so last century.” Now, says 32º co-owner Barry Gutin, “We give information exclusively, and alternate between them.”
Bykofsky recently added Klein to his bold-faced enemies list. In his column last fall, Klein accused Bykofsky of writing about a zoning flap without mentioning that the author was himself one of the aggrieved parties. Klein called his competitor for comment on the story: “Hi, Stu, it's Mike Klein from upstairs.” “Hello?” Bykofsky said. “Hello? My phone must be broken.” Then he hung up. “I thought, that's really unfortunate,” Klein says. “A gossip columnist without a working phone!”
Klein called again, and Bykofsky claimed, again, that his phone was broken. “You can't hear someone who's not there, that doesn't exist,” Bykofsky says. “How can I hear them? How can I respond to an e-mail from somebody who doesn't exist?” He refers to Klein only as “the doppelgänger at the Inquirer,” or, for short, “the Doppelgänger.”
Bykofsky is, however, a moral animal. One of the items he recently handled concerned Tiffany McElroy, an nbc-10 news staffer who was removed as anchor of a low-profile morning show and assigned to be a reporter for the evening news. “Do I want to be Nice Stu or Evil Stu?” he asked. “Nice Stu tells it their way: She's been given an opportunity to report. Evil Stu is: She's been demoted. I've also heard one of the reasons they moved her is because she was having trouble pronouncing some of the local neighborhoods and streets. You know, Wingohocking, Schuylkill, Shackamaxon. The quandary I am in now is something I go through daily. If I am brutally honest, it becomes painful for her to read, so that's a consideration. If I had some experience with her and I knew her to be a nasty person, somebody who is evil, somebody who is a chronic liar, somebody who has an oversized ego and needs to be smacked around, I'd relish it! I'd love it!”
He paused, briefly. “Another thing: I have heard Tiffany doesn't get there early enough to be coached on the pronunciations. This is weighing against her,” he said. But Bykofsky goes soft, writing a harmless two-sentence item on her that could have come from a press release.
Klein finds ways to be Solomonic, too. One Friday afternoon in November, he was returning to work after lunch in the Inquirer cafeteria. As he walked along the balcony overlooking the newsroom, surveying the open floor, he pointed to a lone plastic box that had united states postal service written on its side. “You know those white mail bins?” he said. “I'm doing an item on the post office. Because it's a peak time of year for mail, they've issued a recall [of the bins]. I've just cleaned out my desk, and I've got 10 of them with stuff! I thought, I can't write an item about the post office calling for these containers if I've got 10. So I might drop a line in like, 'After cleaning out 10 of my own'-but the column's not about me. I'm a fairly private, ordinary, average person. I consider myself a reporter. I don't consider myself a celebrity or a quasi-celebrity. My picture is not on the side of a delivery truck.”
The side-of-a-delivery-truck guy opens a bag of lollipops and begins sucking on a red one as he waits to hear from Friday's, on that fall afternoon when he's trying to nail down the Allen Iverson Friday's-to-Houlihan's-back-to-Friday's item. Bykofsky has given up smoking for the third time in recent years, exchanging one pack per day for eight lollipops, which replace cigarette breaks.
The phone rings. It's Michelle, from Friday's corporate headquarters in Dallas. He explains the Iverson defection to Houlihan's, and that he has heard that the new manager at Friday's wants him back. “I wonder if you could let me know how much of it is true,” he says. She tells him that none of it is true. “None of it! Not any part of it?”
“We are not encouraging Allen Iverson at all,” Michelle tells him. “Nothing has changed.”
“Michelle, it was good of you to call me,” Bykofsky says. “You've got a lovely accent. Thank you.” He hangs up. “Well, ain't that a surprise! They're disputing everything. They don't want him! They don't want him!”
Bykofsky turns to his computer, considers the item he wrote and headlined friday's forgiving: would like iverson to return. He quickly tweaks it to reflect his latest reporting: freezing at friday's: chain doesn't want iverson, it suddenly reads. “How simple it is, folks!” Bykofsky says.
“This is not actually written yet,” he adds. “I'll need to go back and work on it a little more.” It is, however, pretty close to the way it will appear the next morning; all he has to do now is decide whether Cru-Thik, the name of Iverson's posse, is a proper noun deserving boldface. “I would have been happy with it the other way, but there's no interest in having him back.” The columnist takes a moment to reflect. “But I feel very comfortable with this now,” he says. b