Richard Johnson is proud of Paris Hilton. If that sentiment sounds curiously parental, the story behind it has a slightly different twist. No one has chronicled and broken more stories about the past decade’s It-Girl than Johnson’s Page Six, and in no small measure, she owes some of her fame to its coverage. Johnson, who has colorfully labeled Hilton everything from a “celebutante” to far less flattering things, admits he has taken some heat for giving her so much ink over the years. “When we first started writing about her, people would question why we were covering a girl who does little else than go to parties and get her picture taken,” he says over a recent lunch near his office in midtown. “Now that she’s become this international celebrity who is making millions of dollars, I fee l that our judgment has been vindicated in the court of public opinion.”
You won’t catch Johnson taking credit for creating anyone’s career—he’s far too modest for that. But the power of Page Six, the chatty, irreverent, immensely entertaining domain over which Johnson has presided for most of the last two decades, is beyond question. It launches books and movies, sells magazines, and makes and breaks restaurants, reputations and sometimes marriages. It has followed the exploits of Hilton and Pamela Anderson and broken news of scandals that became Page One stories. It got the first scoop on Marla and Donald, and more recently on Ellen Barkin throwing water at Ron Perelman at the Waverly Inn. In the world of politics, Page Six has uncovered former Secretary of State George Schulz’s posterior tattoo and the rift between Presidents Carter and Clinton, and it had a field day with the “portly pepperpot” that Clinton “canoodled” with, aka Monica Lewinsky. And unless it’s your ox that is being gored on any particular day, it is more fun to read than just about anything going, a daily reality TV show of the rich, famous and powerful that is perfect reading for the A.D.D. age.
“I know it’s a first-read for me,” says novelist Jay McInerney, who is also a close friend of Johnson’s. “It’s very addictive.” What he and many others especially love about Page Six is that it covers not just Hollywood celebrities, but the movers and shakers of New York’s publishing, media, real estate and art worlds. “The world of Page Six is more inclusive than other gossip columns, and more highbrow,” McInerney continues. “It’s a world where Damien Hirst and Gay Talese get equal time with Nicole Kidman. Along with Andy Warhol’s diaries, if you collected Page Six columns, you’d have an amazing social history of New York.”
In the increasingly crowded world of gossip, Johnson, a modern-day, debonair yet testosterone-fueled Walter Winchell type, stands alone and at the top of the food chain. And the gossip items he selects each day for his loyal readers in the axis of power from New York to Hollywood to South Florida—and worldwide, thanks to the Internet—have an audience that is unparalleled in today’s media world. “Richard is the whole package: the smarts, the insights, the looks,” says Donald Trump, who credits Johnson with recognizing the hit potential of The Apprentice first. “He’s got the most powerful page in gossip, and it’s because he has an amazing ability to spot winners and losers and to write about people who other people are interested in. When you get written about on Page Six, everyone reads it.”
So secure is Page Six in its status as a must-read that it has long since moved off of page six in the Post. Its page-bound state fell by the wayside in the early ’90s, and it has seldom been seen before page 10 since. No matter. Its readers always find it. Its telltale logo and edgy signature cartoon are unmistakable. And “The Page,” as its writers sometimes call it, has no doubt played a large role in helping the Post reach another long-coveted milestone, recently surpassing its long time news paper nemesis, the New York Daily News, in weekday circulation (704,011 to 693,382). Overtaking the News is one subject on which Johnson is more than willing to gloat. “It’s been like trench warfare for 30 years,” he says. “The Post has been relentlessly pushing forward one yard at a time. Now, finally, they’ve been routed.”
The brainchild of Rupert Murdoch in 1977, Page Six has an illustrious alumni list: Claudia Cohen, James Brady, Frank DiGiacomo, Maura Moynihan, Anna Quindlen, Neal Travis, George Rush and Joanna Molloy, and Susan Mulcahy. But today, it is pretty much synonymous with Johnson. It’s hard to pinpoint the ex act moment when Johnson and Page Six floated into the stratosphere, but it has been comfortably occupying the post of the world’s premier gossip column — fending off challenges from every medium, new and old—for as long as most people can remember. Johnson says his realization that Page Six had taken on a life of its own came via the columns of another newspaper, a broad sheet to boot. “Several years ago the Wall Street Journal had a mention of Page Six on its front page and referred to it as the preeminent gossip column,” he remembers. “I knew then that we’d arrived. Since then, Page Six has been mentioned in several movies, and even more books, and has really become part of pop culture.” On the eve of its 30th birthday, the Page Six brand has spawned a magazine, which is slated to become a regular supplement to the Post.
Certainly, if the secret to Page Six’s success could be bottled and sold, there’d be plenty of takers. Perhaps it is because Johnson somehow manages to strike the perfect balance between taking his job seriously and not taking it, or himself, too seriously. It doesn’t hurt that he has movie-star looks, a wardrobe that has landed him on Vanity Fair’s best-dressed list, and the heart of a journalist in love with a good story. He is, as McInerney says, “an anomaly in the world of gossip. You can almost call him a throwback. But I doubt that Damon Runyon and Walter Winchell were as courtly as Richard.”
“Courtly” has not necessarily always been the adjective associated with Johnson, who has had his share of notorious dustups. Mickey Rourke once threatened him with bodily harm, and Alec Baldwin waged a long-running feud with him when Johnson covered a messy lawsuit embroiling the Baldwin family. “Baldwin went on a television show and dramatically held up the Post and said there was more news in a bubble gum wrapper and that he wouldn’t use the Post to pick up after his dog,” Johnson recounts, evidently enjoying the memory. “We tagged him the ‘bloviator.’ And if we used ‘bloviator’ once, we used it a thousand times.”
Johnson also had an infamous run-in with then–Village Voice columnist Joe Conason, with whom no love was lost either journalistically or personally. Another Page Six alum, Chris Wilson, now an editor at Maxim, tells that story: “Conason had been baiting Richard in print, and when Richard called to complain, I think Conason blew him off or hung up on him. The story goes that Richard went over to the Voice, called Conason from the phone in the lobby, and when Conason came downstairs, Richard decked him. Then he walked outside and drove back to the Post. I always thought that was a pretty badass thing for a columnist to do. I mean, you don’t hear about Internet gossip columnist Perez Hilton handing out beat-downs, do you?”
Johnson’s version is a tad tamer. “I didn’t really deck him,” he says. “It was more of a glancing blow.” The two scribes have since mended fences.
Over the years, there have also been a few drinks thrown in Johnson’s Nordic face. First there was the former girlfriend of Al Pacino, who took offense at Page Six reports of her desperate attempts to get Pacino to marry her. (He didn’t.) More recently, there was Mel Gibson’s agent, Ed Limato, who took exception to an item that suggested Limato’s Oscar party might want for attendees after talk of Gibson, and his movie, The Passion of the Christ, being anti-Semitic.
“But I’ve also had lovely encounters with celebrities,” Johnson hastens to add. A few months ago, Renée Zellweger dropped by the Post to deny an item that linked her with singer Damien Rice, whom she said was just a friend. Johnson was skeptical at first, but he always likes a good prank, so he went downstairs and met the petite blonde with the “breathy Texas twang” and “great legs.” “She was very persuasive,” he says. “She basically said she had just broken up with her husband and the item made her seem promiscuous. It was hurtful, and it wasn’t true. She convinced me she was just friends with this guy, and I was happy to set the record straight.”
Times have definitely changed. These days, with some exceptions, Johnson is feud-free and almost universally liked and respected — even by those on the wrong end of embarrassing items. That may be because as tough-minded and determined as he is to get the scoop, find great stories, and get the story right, Johnson has a reputation for fair play. Although he and his small staff (Paula Froelich, Corynne Steindler and Bill Hoffman) won’t run an item without verifying it, it’s a high-volume business—Page Six receives about 200 e-mails and many other tips a day, most of which are quickly discarded—and sometimes mistakes are made . He always verifies items and attempts to phone subjects of items for comment. He’s no pushover, but he listens to reason. “I’ve tried to talk him out of many items, and I’ve been successful a few times,” Trump says. “I’m not going to tell you which ones, though. But if you have a point, he’ll listen, and he’ll correct his item before going to press with it.”
Johnson has this to say about his long-running relationship with Trump: “I’ve been accused of being too friendly with Donald Trump, but I can tell you that he continues to astound me. And this whole story about Miss USA was brilliant.”
When mistakes are made, Johnson corrects them—or at least gives a second hearing to a subject who feels wronged—and often runs a second item clarifying or correcting the first, if it is warranted. “The beauty of the daily page,” says Steve Cuozzo, an editor at the Post, “is that you can make a mistake, or unfairly present one side of the story, but have the ability to revisit it another day to set things right. However, unless they make mistakes that subject them to legal liability, other columns rarely do that. Richard is an exception.”
Not too long ago, Page Six ran an unflattering item about Larry King being a deadbeat, which came from a book about the talk show host. “His wife called up, and she was in a fury,” Johnson says. “I pointed out it was all in the book, but the next day I quoted her as having defended Larry and she was happy.”
Certain subjects are off-limits. Johnson, along with the rest of the Post, avoids outing people, and stays away from revealing when someone has cancer in most cases. He’s even careful about extramarital affairs, short of DNA evidence, mostly because of legal liability, and theoretically less hurtful subjects, such as when then-Governor Mario Cuomo inadvertently revealed that his wife was on a diet. “He begged us not to run it, and he promised us three great items in return,” Johnson says. “And I know he did his best to make good on his promise.”
Another part of the Johnson code is respecting the privacy of both the attendees and hosts of dinner parties he occasionally attends in people’s homes. “I think when you sit down at a dinner party, it’s an unspoken rule that everything is off the record,” he says, “unless everyone agrees that it’s on the record.”
If Johnson has mellowed in recent years, it might be in part due to the newfound calm in his personal life. Since his divorce from publicist Nadine Johnson a number of years ago, he had been a dapper and sought-after bachelor-about-town, but he recently entered a new chapter in his personal life with his marriage to Sessa von Richthofen, a rare beauty who worked in banking when they met. The newlyweds are now expecting their first child together, a girl, due in March. Johnson has made other dramatic changes in his lifestyle, as well. After years of living the downtown single life, he has moved to the Upper East Side with Sessa. With two sons from previous marriages—Damon, 28, a Brooklyn artist whose work Johnson described as “graffiti, comic-book inspired and urban,” and Jack, 15, a ninth-grader—Johnson is excited about being a father again. “I’m looking forward to spending some quality time in Carl Schurz Park,” he quips.
Johnson describes how he and his wife met at an Alzheimer’s benefit at the Waldorf with characteristic wit. “She introduced herself and asked for a cigarette,” he says. “I found out later she doesn’t smoke.” Sessa’s friend Gigi Stone, a correspondent for ABC News’ World News Now, attended the same benefit.
“Sessa came up to me and said, ‘I’ve just met the most divine man, and we’ve been dancing,’” Stone recounts. “She brought him over and introduced me, and I was sort of laughing to myself, because, of course, I recognized him immediately. We walked away and the first thing she said to me was, ‘What’s Page Six?’ And I thought, ‘Oh, he’s going to love her.’ And he did.”
There’s that modesty thing again. Johnson is just not that taken with his own celebrity and power. Although he does get a kick out of the fact that a security guard at the Post always says his name with the kind of awe one might associate with a movie star like Tom Cruise. “He thinks I’m a celebrity,” Johnson demurs.
And although Johnson says that New Yorkers are blasé when he enters a party, McInerney says otherwise: “People are always suddenly on their best behavior around Richard. It’s a little like the principal entering the room.”
Johnson has come a long way since the time he spent as a carpenter in upstate New York, followed by a stint as a cab driver in the city. He started his journalism career at a community newspaper, the Chelsea Clinton News, where he had one of those meteoric rises that are only possible at community news papers. “I was a college intern, but then the editor left for another job, and his deputy left three weeks later,” Johnson says. “I was the last man standing. They made me editor, even though I was only 22.” In 1978, he was hired at the Post as a general-assignment reporter, and after a few years he became a reporter at Page Six, where he was recognized both for his sharp writing and reportorial skills and his unusual stamina for nightlife. When his editor, Susan Mulcahy, left to edit AVENUE magazine, Johnson took the reins of Page Six.
Johnson brought his own personality and style to the page. “We were the first to be irreverent and not take gossip seriously and not take the people we write about too seriously, either,” he says. “We were snarky before snarky was cool.”
Among Johnson’s innovations on the page are the revival of blind items, and the invention of “Sightings,” which enable the paper to fit more items on the page. “I also appropriated ‘We Hear’ from the Washington Post’s ‘Reliable Source ’ column,” he says. “I came up with ‘Endquote,’ again to condense.” He has, he says, nothing to do with the Page Six cartoon, originally drawn by Paul Rigby, followed by his son Bay Rigby, and in more recent years, Sean Delonas. “The cartoon,” Johnson laments, “generates more reader response than anything I’ve ever written.”
Observers also credit Page Six under Johnson as having evolved in recent years to attract a younger audience while still remaining a must-read in the corporate boardrooms and salons of Manhattan society. “Richard Johnson and Page Six have a wider re ach and wider audience than almost all other gossip columns,” says veteran publicist Bobby Zarem. “Page Six’s power existed before Paris Hilton and Britney Spears—it always had the best scoops and most contemporary audience. They were smart to realize they had to appeal to a younger audience, and they’ve done that successfully.”
Having mastered the form, Johnson does envision someday leaving Page Six, though not in the foreseeable future. “I haven’t really figured out an exit strategy,” he says. “I wouldn’t mind having a Neal Travis–like column, where you can be a little more opinionated, chattier and a little reflective.” He has also expressed a desire to write mystery novels and hang out at film festivals. Certainly, a memoir of his days at Page Six would have an instant audience.
But Johnson isn’t done yet. He’s still got some more canoodling with Page Six to do.
* Carla Zanoni contributed to this story.
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