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Magazine: American Scholar, Winter, 1990
Life and LettersENTRE NOUS
Have you a moment to hear the most aesthetically pleasing piece of gossip I have heard over the past decade? It was told to me by an English friend, who is something of an insider in the rather enclosed affair that is English intellectual society and whose word I have good reason to trust. It was this same friend who told me that the novelist Salman Rushdie and his American wife were about to break up their marriage just before the publication of Rushdie's The Satanic Verses forced him to run to ground. To have to hide from your potential assassins in the company of a wife you no longer care for, or who no longer cares for you, this, I recall thinking at the time, was a torture worthy of one of Dante's lower circles in hell--like having your lower lip sanded off while a Gila monster lunches on your ankle bone. But was the story true? Several months after I first heard it, Reuters, the European news agency, reported from London: "Salman Rushdie, the British author who has been living under an Iranian death threat since February, and his American wife, the novelist Marianne Wiggins, have separated." So there you have it: a pretty peachy piece of gossip from a practically unimpeachable source.
Well, anyhow, and other pregnant pauses, this same friend told me that the very left-wing wife of a then dying English writer was having a love affair with--gossip, don't you agree, ought to be bestowed like a small but charming gift, hidden for a moment or so behind one's back--with, yes, Fidel Castro. Forgive me for not supplying more names, but I feel I cannot mention the name of the now dead writer, lest I dishonor him, or of his widow, lest she sue the spats off me. As for Fidel, diplomatic non-recognition being what it is, I gather that he can't lay a legal glove on me. But even without all the names, what I find aesthetically pleasing about this story is that it has all the ingredients of gossip at its most delectable: it has sex, celebrity, decadence, a touch of international politics, lots of steamy matter for the imagination to work upon, and, finally, it cannot be checked.
Not, you understand, that learning of Mr. Rushdie's domestic troubles or of Dr. Castro's amorous amusements came anywhere near making my day on the particular days I was told about them. But I must confess to having been a mite pleased to come into possession of both these stories. Chalk it up to my morbid curiosity, if you like, or to my low and prurient taste. I myself think, though, that the true source of my pleasure in such stories is that they put me, in however peripheral a way, in the position of being an insider, a man in the know. I was permitted a glimpse behind the scene that was not available to everyone. I was being offered the news before it was news, which is the only time that the news is generally worth having. Evelyn Waugh has a journalist in Scoop put the same point rather more bluntly: "News is what a chap who doesn't care much about anything wants to read. And it's only news until he's read it. After that it's dead." Gossip, then, is the news while it's still alive.
Most definitions of gossip do not talk about news at all, but instead feature slander, betrayal of secrets, invasion of privacy, and backbiting. Detraction, libel, and malice get a good workout, too. Gossip has not had a very good press in dictionaries, going from "idle talk, groundless rumors, little-tattle" (The Concise Oxford Dictionary) to--considered as a verb--"run about and tattle; to tell idle, esp. personal, tales" (Webster's, Second Edition). For a long while gossip was described as an activity chiefly of interest to women. Trivial stuff, gossip, for the vast most part, except where it is held to be plain vicious, which in many quarters it of course is. Stendhal once famously remarked that the only thing wrong with ice cream is that it isn't a sin (which, given contemporary concerns with calories and cholesterol, it has since become). But I sometimes wonder if the only thing wrong with most gossip is that it is considered a sin. Or is it the sense of its (usually) modest sinfulness that lends gossip a pleasing touch of tarragon? I think of gossip whose intention is not obviously mean-spirited as sinful at the level of, say, overeating or some other mildly forbidden activity in which one hesitates briefly before muttering "What the hell!" and pitching in.
Very little of the gossip I am privy to is at the Fidel Castro level of celebrity. None of it has to do with show business. Big business and high finance, too, are excluded. I have friends who are themselves friendly with men and women in important political places, though this has never been a rich or amusing source of gossip, with the exception of the story I heard not long ago about a U.S. Senator whose serious drinking has caused his staff frequently to put off callers by saying that the senator cannot come to the phone just now because he is on the floor. I don't ever hear Jackie Onassis stories. No, most of the gossip I hear is about writers and editors, publishers and academics, folks in my own line of work. Much of it has to do with foibles--pathetic thrusts of ambition, sensuality out of control, acts of intellectual cowardice, examples of fetching hypocrisy--almost none of it calculated to remind one of the deeply ingrained dignity of the species. The gossip that comes my way falls under the category of what the writer Isaac Rosenfeld, who himself had a strong appetite for gossip, used to call "social history," a term that lends gossip a bit more standing.
The only famous figure in artistic or intellectual life who apparently eschewed gossip, at least to my knowledge, was John Dewey, although my guess is that Wittgenstein, too, was able to live without it. According to Sidney Hook, Dewey "never gossiped, and although with the exuberance of youth I used to press him hard on men and events he had known intimately, except once or twice he never gave way." Bertrand Russell, Hook reports, gossiped with great enthusiasm. Justice Holmes used to say that to find the general in the particular is the chief difference between philosophy and gossip, which is very smart, yet his own letters--to Harold Laski, to Sir Frederick Pollock, to Lewis Einstein--are from time to time nicely laced with gossip. The duc de Saint-Simon, in his Memoires, created a classic work of literature out of chronicling gossip at the court of Louis XIV. Henry James and Marcel Proust were great connoisseurs of gossip and both made fine artistic use of gossip in their novels. (Recall Proust's narrator's aunt, in Combray, who, through the good offices of her maid Francoise's regular rounds in the village, is able to acquire an encyclopedic knowledge of everyone else's business without ever leaving her own invalid's bed.) E. M. Cioran has somewhere remarked that two of the most interesting things in the world are metaphysics and gossip; that they are the most interesting, I do not know, but the two do at least share the qualities of being often fascinating, sometimes believable, and usually unascertainable.
The affable Reverend Sydney Smith, founding editor of the Edinburgh Review, was always eager for gossip, never more so than when living in the country, far from London or any other large city. He was never above requesting of his correspondents--among whom were several of the most clever Englishwomen of the first half of the nineteenth century--that they "refresh my Solitude with Rumor's agitations." To one correspondent he writes, "I am panting to know a little of what passes in the world"; to another, "I long to know the scandal"; and to Lady Mary Bennet, "Pray send me some treasonable news about the Queen ... and don't leave me in this odious state of innocence, when you can give me so much guilty information, and make me as wickedly instructed as yourself." In the realm of gossip, it is understood, only those who give can hope to receive. "I will send Lady Grey the news from London when I get there," he writes to Lord Grey. "I am sure she is too wise a woman not to be fond of gossiping; I am fond of it and have some talent for it." And, decidedly, he did, as when he provided J. A. Murray, who worked on the Edinburgh Review, with this small nugget:
As I know you love a bit of London scandal learn that Lady Caroline Lamb stabbed herself at Lady Ilchester's Ball for the love of Lord Byron, as it is supposed. What a charming thing to be a Poet. I preached for many years in London and was rather popular, but never heard of a Lady doing herself the smallest mischief on my account.
Gossip tends to be most plentiful in capital cities. In the United States one of our problems--it is not a very pressing one--is that we have more than one capital: Washington for politics, New York for art, no one special place for learning and intellectual life. I am insufficiently interested in politics to find the gossip of Washington--the "guilty information," in Sydney Smith's fine phrase--of much interest. Stories about Ted Kennedy, no matter how rococo the details, bore me. Which journalist is napping with which ambassador's former wife doesn't do it for me either. I consider every sentence that has the initials CIA in it at the level below that of gossip. At a large dinner party in Washington I once sat next to an Englishwoman who seemed a bit bored and who I later learned wrote a gossip column called "Ear on Washington." Had I known her occupation I would have regaled her with stories about congressmen cavorting with llamas in condominiums overlooking Rock Creek Park owned by Saudi furriers.
They order these things better in Manhattan, where the gossip tends to be less exclusively political and generally livelier. Perhaps this is owing to artists and intellectuals being intrinsically more amusing in their foibles than politicians. (My own favorite short definition of gossip, self-devised, is two people happily agreeing on the foibles of a third.) It may have something to do with New York itself, where the crowdedness and costliness of life would on first sight almost seem to preclude the fertile conditions of clandestinity necessary to carry on gossip--worthy activities. Manhattan today is not Versailles under the Sun King, which provided the perfect soil for gossip--namely, many brilliant and ambitious people living together at close quarters-but Manhattan is an island, where nothing is easily hidden and news travels fast, and, somehow, everyone seems to know everyone else's business. All this may not be one's idea of a sensible way to live, but it does make for a vast quantity of spirited talk.
Nowhere else am I treated to so rich a feast of gossip as in New York. "Heaven for climate," as Mark Twain used to say, "hell for conversation." Before the day is done all the great gossipy subjects usually get covered: money, sex, dereliction and bad character, the conjugal jungle. I learn that a not very good writer has been given a publisher's advance of $200,000 on a book that he is ill suited to write and will probably never finish; that a painter, a married woman of fifty or so, mother of four, has declared herself a lesbian and moved in with another woman; that the son of a powerful publishing executive has been found guilty of selling drugs; that a famous feminist is the "great good friend" (as Time magazine slyly used to put it) of a big-time real estate operator. But the spirit of gossip in New York has always been best summed up for me by an anecdote about a poet who, during a reading at the 92nd Street YMHA, read a poem in which he allowed that he was both homosexual and Jewish, to which, after the reading, W. H. Auden is supposed to have remarked to him, "Why, Jeffrey, I had no idea that you were Jewish."
Gossip is impressive in its variety. It can run from entertaining chitchat to genuine viciousness. It can claim to be factual or sheerly speculative. It can be trivializing, reprehensible, and absolutely vital to know. (Gossip differs from rumor in being exclusively about people, while rumor is frequently about such events as wars, economic trends, forthcoming business decisions.) Aquinas, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger all attacked gossip, though the latter had good reason to fear it, in both his public and private life. One recent writer on the subject, Patricia Meyer Spacks, speaks of "serious" gossip, whose "participants use talk about others to reflect upon themselves, to express wonder and uncertainty and locate certainties, to enlarge their knowledge of one another." Sissela Bok, the ethicist, who devotes a chapter of her book Secrets to gossip, after contemning it for the standard reasons, goes on to say that "the desire for such knowledge [as gossip brings] leads people to go beneath the surface of what is said and shown, and to try to unravel conflicting clues and seemingly false leads." I myself tend to think of gossip as an entertainment of a literary kind, in which life is understood to be a vast novel, with hundreds, even thousands of characters passing through, none of whom can be altogether measured by what he or she wishes to reveal about him or herself, so that gossip, when it is available, supplies additional evidence that must itself be carefully measured. At the outset it has to be understood that this novel may never yield a definitive meaning, but merely provide endless small surprises and the suggestion of revelation that never quite arrives, which, as Jorge Luis Borges once said, is perhaps the essence of the aesthetic phenomenon.
Revelation suggests secrets, yet not all gossip is about secret information. Some has to do with information not yet confirmed--has the poet really left his fourth wife? has the university president really agreed to take a job with the foundation?--but that, sooner or later, one way or another, will be known. Much gossip does have to do with secrets, or rather and more precisely with secrets broken. Someone swears you to secrecy about an item he ought not to be telling you but nonetheless feels you should know, thus paying you the high compliment of assuming you can keep a secret when he has just demonstrated that he himself cannot. Often gossip of this kind will come with specific instructions: it is strictly entre nous; or it's between you, me, and the lamppost; or this is to go no further lest my cassoulet be truly cooked.
I do believe that I am among that portion of humanity-how small a minority are we?--that can keep a secret. Self-deceived in all the standard ways, I do feel on this count I know my man. I am one of those people La Rochefoucauld must have had in mind when he indited his Maxim 120: "We betray more often through weakness than through the deliberate intention to betray." As a man with a taste for gossip, I have felt most stirringly the urge to pass along an interesting bit of "guilty information," to earn myself easy intimacy at the bargain price of putting the next fellow in possession of some inside knowledge that will delight him and cost me nothing, except a reinforced knowledge of my own weakness. Not wishing to be reminded of this weakness, I stifle the impulse, choke the urge, and stow the information in a small Ziploc bag in my mental freezer. Those who are able not to give a secret away, live to gossip another day.
None among my friends, far from being morally opposed to gossip, is above enjoying a bit of gossipy information. Some, true enough, have a keener appetite for it than do others and do go in for it in rather a big way. A common taste for gossip is not enough to build a friendship upon, but the exchange of gossip is an intimate act, or at least can be, and the extent to which one can gossip freely with a friend is one measure of the depth of intimacy in a friendship. I refer to gossip here in the full range of its activity: passing along socially classified material, speculating on other people's base and sometimes neurotic motives, being candid and usually comic about the pretensions of one's acquaintances. Gossip, you might say, and I believe I shall, is candor at other people's expense.
Obviously, one doesn't wish to be candid in this way with just anyone about everyone. In the line of gossip, I am ready to go just so far and no further with some people only on certain subjects. Apart from my wife, to whom I do not even bother to hide my most inchoate thoughts, I have one dear friend with whom I feel I can say anything about anyone. It is a very great luxury to have such a friend. In our gossiping, this friend and I do not moralize--being perfectly attuned to each other's views on morality, to do so would be superfluous--though I assure you we can be perfectly scorching on people we agree in finding disagreeable. Our real pleasure is instead in the human circus. We delight in the spectacle that human conduct provides when gossip reveals secret ambitions, pointless perversity, and sheer jolly wackiness. The true behavioral sciences, as they are studied neither in Palo Alto nor Cambridge, Mass., are what fascinate us.
As a man with a healthy appetite for gossip, I have naturally considered the possibility of having myself been the subject of gossip--putting in a cameo appearance as a small red nosed clown with large yellow floppy shoes in the human circus just mentioned. I fear I may have led a too-quiet if far-from-blameless life. As a subject for gossip, I prove disappointing in the realm of money (I haven't enough to be interesting), sex (I am entirely monogamous, if you can believe such a striking confession as the twentieth century draws to a close), and am without secret ambition (I am, occupationally, without complaint). Only one event in my adult life might generously be construed as mildly scandalous: in my early thirties, I underwent a divorce. Since I talked about the details of this divorce with no one, did friends and acquaintances, I wonder, speculate upon the causes for the breakup of my marriage--Borgian cruelty? gruesome sexual incompatibility? petty-cash disputes?--as I would doubtless have done upon theirs?
As it happens, I went semi-public with this event in my life by writing a general book on the lugubrious subject of divorce, concentrating on its bitter ironies, unresolvable injustices, and ultimate sadness. In this book, I devoted several passages to my own emotional condition while undergoing the humiliations, little and large, that await anyone who goes through a divorce. I quite deliberately left my ex-wife out of the book, since I did not want it to turn into an act of personal grievance against someone I once loved and who was in no position, literarily, to defend herself against a professional writer. The problem arose, however, when the book's publisher informed me that there was wide interest in the book, and asked, in the gentle hammerlock way of a certain kind of publisher, if I would agree to a bit of publicity about it, which meant, in the nature of the case, a bit of publicity about me, which really meant that, if I were clever, here was a chance to gossip about myself for fame and, the hope was, immense profit.
Never a man to go after a main chance enthusiastically, I grudgingly agreed to go ahead with the publicity. In for a dime, as I frequently say, in for the dollar. So I went on the road, without Rosinante you may be sure, visiting seven cities in six days. This took place some fifteen years ago, and much of it is now rather blurred, but then it all seemed even more blurred when I was actually going through it. I appeared on several extremely dopey local talk shows, both on television and on radio, and underwent a number of newspaper interviews that struck me as distinguished by the high degree of insincerity shown on both sides. I was the Divorce guy, not as interesting as the Transsexual who had passed through town the previous week, but a little better than the woman who wrote the book on what's wrong with our public schools. I especially recall showing up at 6:30 A.M. on a rainy morning in Cleveland, where a goateed and potbellied disc jockey, wearing a red turtleneck and pants with a flowery print on them, announced, "Hey, WIXY weather in five minutes, but right now we got Nikolai Aristides down here to answer all your questions about divorce.
Around this time, People magazine sent out a woman journalist in a green Mercedes with a Hungarian photographer in tow. The Hungarian addressed me straightaway by my first name and walked off to snoop through my apartment for photo possibilities. The journalist began pumping me with a series of questions all meant to elicit the true lowdown about my private life. Two such sessions were held along with a number of telephone calls between us. A problem, clearly, had emerged. It was that, from People's standpoint, I didn't appear to have much of a life, or at least none that could be told strikingly in seven or eight hundred words and three or four photographs spread across two or three pages. I had made it a condition that my two then young sons, who lived with me, were not to be photographed. A woman I was then seeing had too much natural refinement to wish to appear in the pages of People, so there would be no shots of us holding hands, walking dreamily down the misty beach.
There was only me, who wrote and read and watched a certain amount of television and whose life had no discernible dramatic turns or twists. The journalist took me to breakfast and pleaded for my ex-wife's address, but it was no sale. The whole story, from the journalist's point of view, wasn't working out. When the piece finally ran in People there was a photograph of me sitting on a bed reading a biography of Chekhov and another, shot from behind, of me standing before a bathroom sink, the whole pictorially suggesting a campaign for getting plenty of rest and remembering to wash your hands. If I hadn't realized it before, I had to know it now: to a journalist devoted to digging up rich dirt, I was hopeless, a loser, a real dog--plain bad copy. But, then, as the disc jockey at WIXY in Cleveland might say, "Hey, I can live with that."
What I live rather less easily with is the extent to which gossip has come to take over larger and larger stretches of contemporary life. The pervasiveness of gossip today--on television, in journalism, through books--is making gossip, one of life's minor pleasures, something of a major nuisance. Much investigative journalism is based chiefly on gossip, which is to say on "leaks"--and what else is a leak but betrayal or machination by gossip--and an expose is scarcely more than a bit of gossip gone public. Gossip-ridden books by former cabinet members and the wives of presidents are the new form of contemporary national history. Gossip. remains delightful only so long as it remains private; once gossip goes public, it is inevitably degrading.
"Until quite recently," the critic John Gross has noted, "gossip was by definition what wasn't printed and what wasn't televised." Gossip columnists had long been on the scene: Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons in Hollywood, the egregious Walter Winchell in New York, with his infamous "blind" items ("Communists, your meeting, originally planned for the Roosevelt Hotel on January 9, has been cancelled"). The magazine Confidential, which specialized in go-for-the-groin scandal, made a great loathsome splash in the 1950s before being brought down by lawsuits. But all this was understood to be peripheral, strictly freak-show stuff, and never quite permitted under the big tent. Now, somehow, it has become center-ring.
People, Us, Vanity Fair, "Entertainment Tonight," and "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" are only a few of the magazines and television shows devoted nearly exclusively to purveying gossip. "She's outrageous, off the wall, and full of gossip," ran a recent promotional ad for the new television talk show of the comedian Joan Rivers. The phenomenon of people appearing on talk shows to gossip, in effect, about themselves is now a commonplace one. At first only fairly garish show business folk did this--starlets and specialists in the embarrassing such as the actress Shelley Winters--but soon politicians, businessmen, and serious writers began to do so. Truman Capote was masterful at milking a bit of gossip on a television talk show. I once saw John Cheever, over television, inform Dick Cavett (and a few million other people who happened to be watching) that he had for years been an alcoholic. Poor Cheever, his own children finished the job for him, when his daughter wrote a book that went into ample detail about his being homosexual and, later, his son edited a collection of his letters that confirmed his sister's scandalous stories. If my children were ever to do anything even remotely similar to me, I should greatly regret, from my grave, not having beaten them sufficiently when they were young.
"I'm a very private person" is nowadays something one usually says only to a journalist or a talk-show host. No one, once he or she reaches a certain level of fame, is permitted much in the way of privacy. The more famous one is, the less is privacy permitted. The three most-gossiped-about people in the United States today must be Jacqueline Onassis, Frank Sinatra, and Elizabeth Taylor, which probably means that they are also the three most famous people. Even in death, Marilyn Monroe and the brothers Kennedy continue to do a brisk business as the subjects of gossip. "Marilyn Pregnant by Kennedy at Death" runs the headline of a gutter-press tabloid I glimpsed this past week in the express line in my local supermarket. Cyril Connolly once said that his ambition was to write a book that could still be read ten years after its original publication; perhaps for a celebrity a comparable ambition might be to continue to be gossiped about twenty-five years after his death.
People conspiring in gossip about themselves is another new phenomenon. I was reading along rather uninterestedly in an Esquire article about the television news anchorman Peter Jennings, when I came across the intelligence that Jennings's wife had allegedly had a love affair with a Washington columnist. The story was apparently initially revealed in the newspaper USA Today, but in the Esquire article Jennings and his wife evidently do not mind speaking further about it. ("Their marriage, Marton [his wife] will say later, was 'kind of on automatic pilot.'") Friends joined in to give the Esquire journalist further information. Jennings, we learn, "was humiliated, angry, grieving," and "nothing mattered to him more, he decided, than keeping his family together." Why are this man and his friends agreeing to talk to a journalist about such private matters? (May we leave aside the question of why I am reading about it?) Surely this doesn't come under the rubric of the public's right to know. Can it be that Jennings thinks that candor about such material will make him, a man who makes vast sums for reporting nightly disasters to the country, seem more human? With knowledge of the man's marital difficulties in mind, now, when he has finished reporting upon oil slicks, the breakup of the Communist empire, the rise in crime, the decline in the GNP, now is one supposed to wonder, "And at home, Peter, everything going all right at home?"
How famous does one have to be to be worth gossiping about? Doubtless the more famous the better. If it is to be gossip of the kind carried in the mass media, one must be easily identifiable. This in practice probably means that one ought to earn one's living in show business, politics, sports, television, or the arts. One might make it, too, if one is related to the immensely rich or the vastly famous or the socially well connected. (The quality of academic gossip, allow me to insert parenthetically, is usually lower than I care to go; in this realm I prefer only to hear malicious things about people about whom I already have bad opinions.) In England a royal-family connection will ring the gong every time. A story recently appeared in the New York Times about a relative of Queen Elizabeth, a young woman who is twenty-fourth in the line of succession to the throne, publicizing a dispute with her parents about her outof-wedlock pregnancy. The young woman--she is twenty-three--pleaded over BBC television for her mother not to pressure her to marry. Her gentleman friend, a professional photographer, told the press that he doesn't "agree that Marina should be pushed up the aisle into, as such, a shotgun wedding."
What an old-fashioned phrase "shotgun wedding" now seems! When I was young, it cropped up with a modest frequency. Now, when one hears it at all, it has a positively antique ring. So many couples living together unmarried has put a prominent dent in it, and the passage of stricter gun control laws outlawing the ownership of shotguns ought to finish it But not so long ago a bride going to the altar pregnant carried, in the realm of gossip, real punch. Let me see if I can recollect other items that did. Many among them in the middle-class neighborhoods in which I grew up had to do with failure, usually in business, sometimes with children who didn't turn out as planned or otherwise went astray to graze in those pastures set aside for black sheep. I knew about a man who went to prison for a year for draft evasion during World War II: he was supposed to be working at a job in a defense plant and sent someone else to work at it in his place; when he was caught it was considered a sad disgrace for his family, who stood by him. As an adolescent, I never heard true-life stories of philandering or cuckolding, though there were of course endless jokes about both. As for homosexuality, it, to my youthful knowledge, had not yet been invented.
Tame stuff all this might now seem, but it left plenty of room on the margins for scandal, and hence for gossip, to thrive. Contemporary standards of behavior, by contrast, have all but annihilated scandal. It isn't that the world has run out of scandalous behavior, merely of behavior it chooses to consider scandalous. As a notable example, I notice a practice allowed extremely successful male artists of fathering illegitimate children: Woody Allen and Mikhail Baryshnikov have both taken this to be among great success's generous perks. Where a single divorce used to seem mildly scandalous, now three or four marriages seem unremarkable and thus scarcely worthy of gossipy remark. The New Yorker, once a bastion of cultural prudery, whose regular contributors had to find other magazines to publish their sexier material, is now open in its support, at least in criticism, of pornography in visual art; and not long ago one of its critics calmly proclaimed her lesbianism in its pages. Eustace Tilley, not to speak of William Shawn, would have fainted dead away.
The consequence of the annihilation of former categories of scandal has been not to eliminate gossip but instead to raise its stakes. Where once upon a time there might have been gossip about whether or not an actor or writer was homosexual--and I recall vividly a time in the early 1960s in New York when such gossip was used as a strong smear tactic, the social equivalent of McCarthyism--now the gossip is more likely to turn on whether or not such men have AIDS. One saw this in the general flow of gutter-press gossip about Rock Hudson before his death; it operated even more vigorously in the case of Roy Cohn. In the less glaring intellectual world that I inhabit, it had for years been said of a young writer, a gifted man from a distinguished artistic family, that he was dying of AIDS. When he died earlier this year, at forty, no mention was made of that dread virus in connection with his death, at least in any press or personal accounts I read, and so people are left to speculate upon it. The moral here is that, though scandal would appear to be eliminated, gossip doesn't die. It only finds new subjects.
Gossip contains a built-in intensifying element. It has to provide not merely ever-fresh but ever-more-amazing information. One of the more hideous gutter sheets on display in my supermarket illustrates the way this works. Along with running rather standard stories about Elvis, John Lennon, and Hitler still being alive, about UFOs, miracle drug cures for cancer, and monstrous animals, it occasionally carries headlines about fantastic pregnancies, such as "Girl Six Pregnant" or "Great Grandmother Eighty-two Pregnant." The other day, waiting to have my groceries checked through, I noticed the headline "Two-Headed Woman Pregnant." (I assume that the paper even now has an ace reporter out searching for the extraordinary man who caused this pregnancy.) Given the new openness of behavior, and the degree to which the once-scandalous appears in many quarters to have become normalized, regular human gossip sometimes seems to be approaching the stage of "Three-Headed Woman Pregnant with Antelope."
Not that I in the least worry about them, but it occurs to me that it probably isn't easy to be a gossip columnist in this new scandal-free atmosphere. The day is long past when Hedda Hopper could hold Hollywood in thrall, or Walter Winchell could terrorize anyone in politics, sports, or show business by threatening to run a mischievous item about him. Today one must have to reach, stretch, invent to find items that truly titillate. I do not now read a regular gossip column, but if I did, so mad has the world of professional gossip become, I think I should just as soon read one that was purely imaginative. It would contain items like "Trump Buys Bessarabia," "Barbara Walters Contemplates Sex Change," "Oprah Dates Donabue Son," "Cher Undergoes Face Transplant." Let 'er, I say, rip.
Yet most people with an interest in gossip, myself among them, continue to survive on the scraps from the ancien regime of middle-class behavior. A man in his seventies marries a woman forty years younger than he, and the telephone rings, sly smiles are passed along with the bread across the lunch table, and the heads of women shake knowingly. A local basketball coach is fired without explanation after a winning season, and the telephone rings, and a friend reports that he heard from another, well-placed friend that behind the firing is what is euphemistically known as a "conflict of lifestyle," which dysphemistically means that the coach had been sleeping with the daughter of one of the team's owners. My interest--disinterest really--in such matters does not seem to slacken.
"The attitude of psychology," W. H. Auden once remarked, "should always be, 'Have you heard this one?' " That happens also to be the attitude of gossip, whose true interest, if I may put the best possible face on it, is in human psychology. A bit of gossip is a datum, a report on ostensibly hidden doings, evidence that the old Adam has been let loose or some fresh Adam has invented a new twist in what one would have thought was a game in which all the possible twists had already been wrung. A man is discovered slipping around town with his ex-wife, an enormously successful playwright demonstrates pathetic vanity about his rather wretched poetry, a woman worth millions never neglects to remove the extra soap and to steal at least one ashtray whenever she stays at a hotel. I love to hear about all such human zaniness. Not only is it rich material in and of itself, but it shows that finally the last word can never be said about our peculiar species. So splendidly peculiar are we that I have this unavoidable suspicion that, despite my carefully attending to all the observations available in books and through art, despite my full-time attempt to be a man upon whom nothing is lost, I still ain't heard nothing yet.
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Source: American Scholar, Winter90, Vol. 59 Issue 1, p7, 8p.
Item Number: 9002121712