Gentle reader, I will start with a sweaty summer morning in 1985.
Fear spasmed my abdomen as I woke up with the realization that I had six months left before I was totally out of book advance money. And I needed three years to finish my current manuscript.
I listened to the crashing ocean of motors rounding Columbus Circle. I'd lived in Manhattan for a decade by dint of luck and hard work in my rent-stabilized apartment overlooking trees and more trees of Central Park.
I had no job prospects.
I'd been pouring my brains into a manuscript about the mother of two guys I knew; it was universally believed she'd murdered their father on the Long Island gold coast in the 1950s.
I love to write.
I pore over facts, theories and nuances until I make words on the page much smarter than my thoughts have any right to be.
It's a kind of meditation.
I'd observed of course that nearly all my writer friends had fled dignity intact for less expensive cities, but the idea of making my home anywhere else was not plausible.
Suddenly my telephone rang.
It was my friend Claudia Cohen checking in. A rich woman, her grandfather had founded the Hudson News now run by her father and her brothers. She once told me proudly, "Jewish families with money never forget the work ethic."
Her family distributed newspapers and magazines throughout the eastern half of the United States. It is I gather a tough business.
Claudia listened that morning as I blurted chapter and verse of my financial crisis.
Her empathy demonstrates an important aspect of the New York game. Men exude power; but it's pretty much women who actually like to help others. I'm convinced it's all about the nurturing genes.
A mere half century earlier, women controlled mostly who was invited to parties (where many career-making meetings do occur) but by the 1980's women controlled a lot in the workplace.
Claudia, for one, always enjoyed helping colleagues and protégés. (The golden rule or some corollary thereof.) Whereas most careerist men need to compete over and over and over.
So while proximity to a successful man still feels fabulously sexy at first, this access is useful career wise only if you imitate him or crouch at his feet and snatch crumbs off his marble floors.( Exceptions to the rule in my case include Woody Allen and author Thomas Powers.)
Here's some background on me and Claudia Cohen:
She'd been a great friend for five years. We'd bonded when she wrote a spicy and generous New York Post headline article about me on Page Six.
A week before Claudia entered my life, I was crying over reports that two unpleasant women in Woody Allen's new film Manhattan were based on me.
After I saw the movie, I was interviewed about it by Claudia. She thought the whole thing was a hoot and convinced me that while aspects of the women resembled me, their inner lives were pure Woody.
Claudia amazingly ended her article with the self-fulfilling prophecy that my new novel was to be auctioned for "megabucks".
My friend Michael Wolff advised, "Cultivate that woman."
But I didn't fake anything to become friends with Claudia; we had spontaneous combustion.
Claudia and I were both were in love with the city: although she had a lot more get up and go and more understanding of how things go down.
I was totally invigorated by her curiosity about Manhattan and its brightly-lit people. She saw every day as an opportunity to learn, work, and have fun. Although a daredevil in pursuit of a news story, Claudia was a good girl. She did have a few notches on her belt: a romance with the actor Ben Gazzara and she'd named the thick white shutters ("the Gazzzara's) he insisted she get for her bedroom.
Claudia's closest pals were her parents. She saw one or both of them nearly every day.
Her father Bob Cohen told me that besides graduating in the top three of her class at University of Pennsylvania, Claudia was awarded a prize (and I paraphrase) for being the most true blue and popular. Her mother Harriet Cohen said meaningfully to me, "Claudia has the gift of friendship."
Claudia had recently become a huge success in Manhattan. Her career in journalism had been launched at More, a short-lived, high-minded magazine of journalistic ethics. Now she was scoring scoop after scoop for Page Six of the New York Post -- scoops which nearly everybody I knew devoured and discussed.
We had each other's backs.
After we became friends, I jump-started her tv career by recommending Claudia to a local news producer ("have him call me, I'm not calling him", she said). She was soon an on-screen reporter scooping colleagues and editing her own feeds.
Claudia jumped at the chance to be the entertainment reporter on the new Regis Philbin morning show. ("I love Regis and he will be huge," Claudia said.)
Claudia didn't chase personal publicity, but she made the Post front-page when Zsa Zsa Gabor groggily attempted to elbow Claudia out of her tv dressing room early one morning at the ABC building. "No," said Claudia, "I'm not leaving."
Soon afterward Claudia told me it was time for her to marry -- her choice "an entrepreneur" like her father and her grandfather.
"You're way too independent," I said.
"You were married," she said. "Everybody should be married once."
Claudia was right as usual. She lost weight, purchased couture suits and an evening dress and slicked up a terraced Central Park South apartment with a giant tv and marble bathrooms. She lunched with her mom at mogul hangouts like le Cirque. My quibble: she was using
makeup base, camouflaging the pale freckles that made her look like a teenager in a Danish art movie.
"Ugh," she said when I said I loved freckles.
It took Claudia less than a year to become engaged to the man who would be crowned (a few months after their wedding) by New York magazine as the richest man in Manhattan.
Ronald Perelman rendered Claudia's other suitors invisible. She'd was undaunted when after their second date, he insisted she go to his tailor to get five bespoke suits on his tab.
I advised Claudia not to accompany Ronald to a bungalow at the Beverly Hills hotel for their fourth date. "Play hard to get." I was wrong. Her sister-in-law told her to go and "seal the deal". Since she was falling in love, Claudia went but insisted on separate quarters. Ronald finessed the situation by booking adjoining bungalows.
Shaking his hand for the first time on Madison Avenue, I said eagerly, "I hear you're from Philadelphia like me--"
--""I hear you write books," Ronald interrupted. "I don't read books."
My stomach spasmed. (I later realized he was angry because I'd advised Claudia not to accompany him to LA.)
--"Susan writes journalism too and--", said Claudia.
--"journalists love freebies. I bet you love free food," he said quickly.
My stomach churned like a cuisinart.
Claudia was looking at flatware in the George Jensen window. She said neutrally, "Ronald, doesn't everybody like free food?"
"He's not very Philadelphia," I said to Claudia when we were alone. I was thinking of my genteel Quaker schoolteachers who preached frugality.
"Ronald doesn't live in Philadelphia anymore and neither do you," Claudia said.
I had a conflict here, and Claudia knew it. Of course Manhattan hummed and even sang because of strong-willed people like Ronald.
On another walk up Madison Avenue, we passed Barry Diller. Claudia casually said "Hey, hi Barry." Quick pleasantries followed during which Ronald couldn't take his eyes off Claudia. He was entranced by her poise and her good will toward people including those with boldface names.
Ronald soon proposed to my friend. They were so spirited and equally matched that it took divorce to render them soul mates.
(When the marriage ended Claudia received 80 million dollars---about what Ronald would pay out to his other three wives combined.)
I am proud to say that I interrupted Claudia's honeymoon in Venice with a wake-up call. A reporter had called me to ask unfriendly questions about Claudia for a New York magazine cover story.
From Venice, Ronald alerted his pr man Howard Rubinstein who alerted his client Rupert Murdoch who owned New York magazine and the story tentatively called "What Does Claudia Cohen Want?" was killed.
I didn't envy Claudia her material abundance. I envied Claudia her parents. Claudia's father Bob Cohen was a mensch. He was there for his children in every way.
When Claudia needed a quote from the elusive Steve Ross, the founder of the Time-Warner empire and a high-profile media client of Hudson News, Claudia dashed to her father's office, whereupon Bob telephoned Steve, said hello and promised Steve a happy surprise as he handed the phone to Claudia.
"Don't worry, just keep writing," Claudia said to me on the terrible morning that I confided I was going broke. "I'll think of something."
I pictured Claudia putting down the phone, jumping into a lifeboat, and rowing toward me one of her Judith Lieber jeweled minaudieres in her lap.
And sure enough, within two days Claudia had lent me a little black dress and ordered me on blind dates with three eligible presidents of companies owned by her new husband.
And despite our rocky beginning, Ronald was Claudia's co-conspirator on this matter -- as well as on far more important ones.
Claudia's parting advice, "Don't try to pay for your dinner. Men hate that on a first date."
One man fell asleep at Le Cirque while I was in the ladies room -- and he was the most promising president. "He's domestic enough for both of you," pleaded Claudia. I heard her struggling to forgive me for being as strong-willed as she is.
Drastically changing direction, Claudia mapped a campaign to get me a job working for Michael Douglas, then 41 and flushed with success after winning the Oscar for producing the movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", a highbrow movie based on a Ken Kesey novel about the wisdom of insane people. (It had been initially optioned by his father Kirk Douglas.) Most recently Michael'd starred in and produced "China Syndrome" with Jane Fonda a thriller sagely predicting the dangers of nuclear plants.
Gutsy, serious projects; do-gooder projects.
Claudia had heard that Michael was moving back east from Los Angeles and was looking for someone to run his movie company in New York.
For me, such work possessed the allure of paychecks with extra Hollywood zeroes.
"Michael's hot. He'll be a huge star any minute," said Claudia. I didn't get it, but Claudia had similarly annotated Michael Jackson when he was a boy. (And don't forget her prediction about Regis Philbin.)
To me, Michael Douglas seemed like a too fancy solution to my problems.
But Claudia was as practical as she was bright.
She knew I could handle the job. Due to the nano-second of limelight provided by Claudia, I'd previously inflated my bank account on two movie jobs -- saving 2/3 of the salary (my conservative Philadelphia ways) to support my book jones.
Movie development was a way for me to get deeply involved in analyzing words, in this case screenplays.
And I wrote my books instead of sucking osso buco from bones at Elaines.
Like most humans I am mesmerized by celebrity. Fame bewitched my ex-husband and I was determined to trump him by landing a job with Michael Douglas.
To me, the chemical nature of air feels like it is infused with a lot more oxygen when I breathe it in and out with celebrities whose work I admire.
Woody Allen says that people like to see celebrities because it makes them feel immortal. All I know is that whenever I spot Woody shuffling along the sidewalks of Madison Avenue, my stomach tenses and then I nod and smile a lot and keep walking.
Afterward I write him a letter. Over the years we've maintained a serious epistolary relationship.
Claudia's rescue plans for me began with figuring out how I could "bump into" Michael Douglas. Her marching orders: I was to shell out $450 (a lot!) to buy a ticket to a charity benefit at the United Nations in October for Mother Theresa. The gala included a documentary about the famous nun and was sponsored by Diandra Douglas, Michael's young wife who looked a clever pouting Victorian girl.
"Hang around Jann Wenner at the party after the movie. Wherever Jann is, Michael won't be far behind," said Claudia wisely.
I prepared for the hunt by researching Mother Theresa. There'd been a lot to read. She was the most famous woman in the world -- as famous as an American president, but she was celebrated for self-giving.
I almost didn't get to the screening. An irate call from the event's planner had made me reach for a Librax. "I know you want to come tonight," she said, "but I don't have space.
"I purchased a ticket," I said as hurt feelings overwhelmed me.
"Yeah, well, we're overbooked."
I called Claudia in a panic. Somehow she set things right.
I arrived early and took my $450 seat on the center aisle of the too-bright United Nations auditorium. I remember reds and blues of flags and pale blonde wood.
I was jittery.
I looked for Claudia as our fellow New Yorkers filed into the United Nations auditorium. Rustling new fabrics. Smells of bodies recently soaped and perfumed. Rising expectant voices. I was wearing washable black crepe pants (to which I'd had a tailor add tuxedo ribbon) It was my below-the-radar party uniform.
Lights dimmed for the documentary just as Michael Douglas swooped down a far aisle. He was a vision, a white throated, shining young black bird, alighting amidst our flock.
It was on.
The documentary on Mother Theresa hit me viscerally. I watched her bathing and consoling poor and sick people afflicted by diseases from rickets to AIDS in Calcutta and San Francisco.
"I hear she's pissed at the Pope," said a woman a few seats away. "because he won't ordain women priests."
Self-consciousness ebbed from my body.
Even if I never got to work for Michael Douglas, I told myself, my $450 ticket was well spent.
During the ten-minute stroll with the rest of Mother Theresa's audience to the after-party, my spirits soared even though my toes were smashing into the fronts of my shoes.
At the restaurant, I searched for my place card. I lost all interest in the apple salads on the tables when I saw I was seated next to Liz Smith.
I sat down fast.
Liz is a tinsel-town powerhouse of a lady, her mention of my books in her column had sent sales soaring. She was also an elder, a person to be respected.
Minutes ticked as I tried to come up with a lighthearted phrase to open a conversation.
I curbed my impulse to slink away to an unoccupied seat.
Suddenly Claudia whizzed by, bent over to introduce me to Liz and then silently pointed to Jann Wenner standing about ten feet away. "You need help?" she asked me over the happy crowd sounds. I declined bravely. But I was losing heart. I couldn't think of one peppy thing to say to the Rolling Stone publisher.
Suddenly a guy taps me on the head. He is thin and grayish and he announces he's selling millions of trees in Canada to Rupert Murdoch. He's the party planner's date. He leans in close the way some men do when they're attracted.
He grabs my hand and pinches the skin below one knuckle. "The hands don't lie," he says,
"You're older than you look. Your skin is loose."
I stand up too fast. "That, sir, is my exit line."
I realized then that New York charity parties can be dangerous. Con artists are among those who pony up hundreds of dollars for a ticket. Martha Stewart hit the circuit just as I was retiring from it, and I wasn't surprised that after going to one of these parties, she went to jail.
"Why'd you come here anyway?" the million tree man is asking me.
I blurt I'd hoped to meet Michael Douglas because I wanted to work for him.
The man jumps to his feet and begins to propel me from behind by my elbows.
He pushes me smack into Michael Douglas's left shoulder.
"She wants to meet you," the man says. "She wants a job." Up close Michael looked like a gorgeous wild bird more than ever with his slightly hooked nose and his sandy hair brushed into a low pompadour.
Michael juts his cleft chin and I'm suddenly sorry that strangers like me are scaring him. Fame has its downsides. Something pops into my mind that I'd read somewhere about the stoning of Aristedemes a famous man of ancient Greece. When someone asked the assassin why he'd
he'd killed the well-known citizen, the assassin exclaimed, "I kept hearing his name everywhere and it really got on my nerves."
Michael, I noted admiringly, had shed the pin-up smoothness that had gotten him through years playing the second lead on the tv series Streets of San Francisco. Claudia was absolutely right -- he looked as cool as any man in the world.
The Canadian guy is bragging to Michael about his trees.
I literally back away and Michael looks at me with a quick twitch as though I'd stepped toward him. "Please thank your wife for Mother Theresa," I said impulsively over the loud crowd. "I won't forget her."
"Yeah well Mother Theresa makes me feel inadequate -- and fuck me, I gotta' make time for the golden rule," Michael answers in a tumble of words.
I am no longer backing away.
Claudia quickly passes by and says to Michael, "Connecting to the best movie people in New York so soon?"
It took me a few seconds to realize she meant me.
Michael and Jann slap hands, hug, and one-up each other with outrageous flattery.
"Mikey, you look too gorgeous for us east coast putzes." "Janny my main man, you stoned?" Jann whispers his answer in Michael's ear. "Sorry not for the ladies," Jann smiles at me in his ebullient way.
Then Jann whispers to me, "Give me a call. I may have something for you."
A minute later I am out in the street. The whiff of an A-list paying job and Claudia's buoyant help have put wings to my blistered heels.
I am in play.
An editing job with Jann Wenner will float my writing life.
Mission accomplished -- more or less. As Winston Churchill said, "Success is going from one failure to another without any loss of enthusiasm."
On the cab ride home to Columbus Circle. I kick off my shoes and pat the shredded skin on my toes.
Truly I don't have a strong enough stomach to hunt jobs among celebrities with entourages of billionaires and criminals.
But here I was.