Gossip Guy: The Life and Times of the Daily News’ Dan Gross
In an age when everyone not only wants to be famous but feels he or she deserves to be, people were happy to help me dig up the dirt. They tried to get their names into the column. And you have to have go-to folks who have something going on for the days when the most interesting thing happening is Don Tollefson hosting a charity golf event.
Before I took over, Stu introduced me to Harry Jay Katz, a fixture on the nightclub, restaurant and womanizing scene since the ’70s. A former event producer, restaurant owner and newspaper publisher, Katz counts Grace Jones among his conquests. He’s almost always described as a “man about town,” but he’s really just a misunderstood mensch. He’s another one who needs to see his name in print to survive. (Molly Eichel, who took over my gossip column in February, has already run at least two Harry Jay Katz items.) You have to put Harry in the column sometimes just to shut him up. But on the flip side, he knows what makes a good story. You’ve also got to befriend the Geator. Chatty and not exactly lacking for ego, Jerry Blavat knows everybody, from Joe Ligambi to Patti LaBelle.
It takes all kinds to fill column inches.
Nothing fueled me more than trying to scoop Michael Klein, the Inquirer’s version of me. A veteran reporter about 20 years my senior, Klein wrote frequently about restaurants in his “Inqlings” column. He didn’t really do scandal or the salacious. On a good day, I did both. Didn’t really matter how small the item—knowing I got something before he did was a big deal.
The Inquirer had about three times the Daily News’s readership. If I’d been a publicist, I, too, would have wanted to place an item in the Sunday Inquirer rather than Monday’s Daily News. But emotionally, the lost scoops were hard to forgive. I punished sources for giving stories to Klein, for whom I had inherited a dislike and distrust from Stu. During the lawsuit, it came out that Klein obtained a copy of my column in advance of publication and shared it with Alycia Lane, which he later acknowledged doing. After I confronted him, demanding to know how he got my copy (he contended someone at the Daily News leaked it), we essentially stopped speaking.
Balancing relationships with sources was also tricky. As is the stock-in-trade in the world of gossip, the people who would often be the nicest to my face were the ones talking shit behind my back. Still, I always tried to be considerate. A Stu-ism comes to mind: You might have to stick a knife in someone, but you don’t have to twist it. You always hoped a person would realize you could have done worse.
The job just got stranger. In 2006, I learned about a local woman who claimed to have slept with Mel Gibson when the married actor was in town shooting Signs … in 2001. Too old—can’t use that, right? Wrong. There’s always a way to spin an item. Remember Gibson’s anti-Semitic tirade to police after his DUI arrest? I used that as context to report that Gibson once had a very “special relationship” with a local Jewish woman. I couldn’t have predicted what happened next. Another woman called to ask if I was sure about the affair. I said yes. She then launched into a rant about how that lout had told her she was the only one.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“He was sleeping with me, and he said I was the only girl he was seeing here!” she explained.
“Apparently not,” I said.
“I wonder if she took naked pictures of him, too.”
“You have nude photos of Mel Gibson?” I asked.
“Polaroids. He’s standing naked in my kitchen.”
Indeed, she did have Polaroid pics of Mel Gibson holding what I would later refer to in the column as his “not-so-lethal weapon.” Another photo showed him bare-bottomed, reaching into a kitchen cabinet.
We didn’t run them, because the woman wanted money. Then-publisher Brian Tierney later asked me to bring the photos up to his office, where I showed them to him. Tierney, to his credit, seemed upset that the Daily News didn’t buy the photos, apparently realizing, as I did, that the 10 grand the woman asked for was a small investment for the publicity the photos would have garnered. That photo of T.O.? Similar situation, years later. A woman who had been having Skype sex with him sent me a few photos of Owens smiling and holding his johnson. Via email, Owens repeatedly denied knowing what I was talking about. Then he turned silent when I forwarded him the photos. But a reputable newspaper doesn’t pay for scandal photos.
Here’s the best story I never ran, The One That Got Away. This is going to sound too crazy to be true, but over the years, I developed a pretty good instinct for being able to tell when a tipster was genuine.
One day I got an email asking if I would be interested in a video of a local television news personality using cocaine and also holding his own feces while masturbating. I tried to play it cool, as though getting such a video and writing about it wouldn’t be the Biggest Story in the History of Gossip
Reporting in Philly. I replied that I was interested and happy to meet the tipster at his/her choice of venue. It became clear through subsequent exchanges that the source was the ex-girlfriend of the local TV personality. But I never saw the video. My gut tells me she used our email exchange to extort money from the kinky TV guy. I tried contacting her a few times months later, to no avail.
With a profession centered on dick pics, parties, interviewing entertainers and occasionally judging contests at strip clubs, I sometimes found it hard to convince people that my job was actually work. But those are the fun parts. Beating yourself up because you don’t have anything worth reporting the next day is the struggle. As long as the column was good enough that readers came back, though, I was okay.