Seek Out the Competition
With her new job as the "legs" for a gossip column, Kate Simon often feels as if she's crawling on all fours. There's too much to see and do. Stories to devour and spit back up in bite-sized items for the New York Examiner every week. Things to catch up on, things she wishes she already knew as soon as she learns them. It's hard to sleep when you feel as though the whole city is wide awake and feasting.
"I've already been to every party too many times," said Paul Peterson, the column's head, arms, and torso, during her interview two weeks ago. He's forty-two but looks fifty, and his eyes always seem strained, as if pulled open by tiny translucent threads that are slowly losing their elasticity. "Only the themes change. And only slightly."
"The parties must be pretty fun," Kate said, imagining walking down a red carpet with cameras flashing like lightning. Champagne perched on silver trays. Oysters heaped on the buffet.
He laughed. "You can have it."
She hoped he wasn't laughing at her.
Paul asked if she'd always wanted to be a journalist, and she decided to be honest and say she's always wanted to be an investigative reporter. Find the guilty, free the innocent. Comb through files, ring bells and blow whistles. Hold something in her hands that she could show people when they asked her what she did for a living, something her parents would frame. She has always been inquisitive--okay, even nosy. She just never knew before that it could become a career.
"Well, celebrities can be criminals," said Paul.
The cab pulls up to a town house that looks a little like the Examiner's office nearby but much more expensive. It's got a wrought-iron gate and ivy crawling up the walls to prevent people like Kate from peering in and trying to piece together the story inside, maybe find something to make her feel less envious.
Kate keeps the receipt for her expense report and checks her reflection one last time in her compact. If she were blond, she could be straight out of the opening scene of a chick-lit novel. The sticky August rain has her light brown curls frizzed out electric and unyielding. She tries twisting the mass up in a barrette and leaves just a few strands framing her face. That's better. But even another dab of concealer isn't going to hide the pimple budding on her chin. Why does she always break out at the worst possible times? Kate tries to remove a small stain on her white collared shirt with a tissue and some bottled water while mentally rehearsing her interview questions for the New Literary Wunderkind about his book. She stayed up late finishing it last night. At least it gave her something to do besides toss and turn, wondering how she's going to pull this job off.
While Kate waits to check her umbrella in the foyer, she sees a tall guy pushing a mop of sandy-blond hair out of his face as he emerges from the bathroom and stuffs a tape recorder in his blue blazer pocket. He looks as if he could have been thrown out of prep school for smoking pot on the golf course. He makes a beeline for a white-haired man making a small group laugh across the room. Kate quickly intervenes, stepping in his path.
"Excuse me," he says, looking over her shoulder.
He's got a faint white ring of powder lining his left nostril and he smells like cigarettes. Kate would have missed it if it weren't for her extensive experience helping her college roommate, Zoe Miller of Fifth Avenue, groom during parties.
"Hi, I'm Kate Simon, from the Examiner?" she says, making a big show of wiping her nose with the back of her palm.
"Oh, you must be Paul Peterson's new pair of legs," he says, introducing himself as Blake Bradley from Manhattan magazine's gossip column. He says it all in one breath, as if his affiliation were his last name. No one ever asks about Kate's predecessor, who left to go to grad school. "Purgatory," is how Paul described the career shift.
"You're friends with Zoe Miller, right?" Blake asks her. "Her mother keeps asking me to look out for you. She's a friend of my mother's."
He's still looking over her shoulder at the white-haired man, whom Kate has figured out is Bill Clinton, though she's not sure why the former president would be at a book party. She wishes she had one of those camera cell phones so she could snap a shot for her dad, but that would probably make her look too starstruck. To do this job well, she should pretend she doesn't want to ask every famous person she sees for an autograph. She starts frantically wiping her nose again. She'd rather stay here and help a potential ally than go in that room right now.
"Do you need a tissue?" Blake asks.
"No," she whispers, "but you do."
His eyes widen and he pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and quickly wipes his nose.
"I owe you big-time," he says, putting his arm around her shoulder and guiding her into the living room.
He tells Kate he needs to get a quote from Clinton for an item. "It's always easier if you just find them somewhere instead of dealing with their gatekeepers," he says, excusing himself.
Meanwhile, the New Literary Wunderkind is standing slightly apart from a small group corralled by the hostess, boldface magazine editor Terry Barlow, looking as if he wants to crawl behind the big white curtains. Every few moments he squeezes out a tense smile and says thanks as if he's being prompted by a hidden microphone.
Kate looks at her notepad again, trying to memorize a few questions to ask the author, when she feels a tap on her back. She turns around and sees the most attractive guy at the party smiling at her and her heart hopscotches. He's the only person here wearing jeans, with a white T-shirt and a black blazer that smells like a big last night. He's got spiky, short black hair and almost translucent pale green eyes that seem to be taking an X ray of everyone in his path. She swears he can see right through her clothes, hunting for folds of fat, freckles, flaws. She feels her cheeks get hot and hopes he doesn't notice she's blushing. He smiles even bigger.
"Hey, I'm Tim Mack from Column A," he says with the authority of a person who knows he's the life of the party, the neon streak in a room of primary colors. "I saw your name at the bottom of Paul's column last week. Great guy."
Kate's not sure how this guy knows who she is. The Examiner doesn't run photos of its writers--thank God. She can't decide if she should feel flattered or nervous. Paul called Tim Mack the best--she thinks Paul used the word bulldog--gossip reporter around, and Column A is by far the most-read gossip column. But he doesn't look as if he's doing anything right now but getting buzzed off white wine.
"Relax," he says. Kate tells herself she's got to stop wearing panic as an accessory. "Blake pointed you out. No one's posted your photo on a blog, and ball-busting Barlow didn't print out napkins with your face or anything. The Teutonic-tempered editrix hasn't thought of that trick yet." He pauses and looks up at the ceiling. "Though I have to say that's not a bad idea."
Does he always talk the way he writes items in his column?
"Smile, sweetheart. You've got a good few months to leverage your relative anonymity."
Kate tries to laugh but it comes out more like a cough. Relative anonymity? Relative to whom? She looks over at the New Literary Wunderkind. He's holding a toothpick from a cube of cheese, trying to find a surface to ditch it without anyone noticing. Just as Kate considers walking over to save him, Terry takes his arm to lead him around the room for a round of show-and-tell.
If Kate's going to succeed at gossip enough that she'll be able to get out of it one day, she's going to have to get to know some guides. She remembers Zoe telling her the best way to make friends in New York is to at least indirectly compliment what people do for a living. "Feed the ego," is how she put it.
Kate finally breaks her silence and asks Tim if Blake's stepmother is the glamorous decorator Lindsay Bradley, whom she keeps reading about in Column A.
"Ahem." Tim clears his throat and raises an eyebrow. "Blake's stepmonster likes to be called a designer, which is why we call her the Sugar Daddy Decorator. Apparently she grew up in an actual trailer park in Arizona but managed to meet a series of increasingly rich boyfriends by decorating their apartments and finding out their secrets, like what they kept in their bedside tables and which meds they were on."
Kate wonders how long it'll be before Lindsay gets pregnant. Zoe says that's the only way the second wives get any money out of the prenup.
"Before she convinced Blake's dad to trade in his wife for a newer model, we used to call her the Home-Wrecking Hooker."
Just then Blake comes back grinning. "Bill's the best." He grabs two glasses of white wine from a passing silver tray. "He totally gives it up." Kate notices that Blake doesn't reveal exactly what the former president is giving up.
"Are we done working now?" asks Tim, grabbing a glass of wine in each hand. Kate notices that neither one of the men seems remotely concerned with interviewing the Wunderkind. The object of this parlor game seems to be getting an unrelated item and mentioning that you got it at the party for the book. Maybe the author is smart enough to know that if he's seen but not heard, he can't come off badly in the columns.
Blake tries rearranging the place cards so they can all sit together during lunch, but a stern handler stops him. "Someone planned the tables this way!" she hisses before dashing off to help a camera crew set up a light over Terry's table.
Blake starts heading over to his seat in the front of the room. "Being trailed by a camera crew is the new status symbol," he whispers in Kate's ear, nodding at the cameras.
Kate wishes she could sit with her new friends, but she's stuck with balding and bearded foreign correspondents talking about the "situation in Syria." At Terry's table, Blake's sitting between a powerful politician's daughter and the Wunderkind, who is studying his silverware while being talked at by a deep-pocketed divorcee (who likes to be called a Democratic fund-raiser). Tim will later mention that before she was well married and divorced twice, she was found handcuffed to a radiator in Amsterdam by her first husband, whom she pretends never existed.
Blake is probably going to ask Terry about the rumors about her magazine folding--which is what Kate is here to do--before Kate can even introduce herself to the editor. He seems to be her columnist pet and Kate wonders if she'll ever get that kind of seat at a party and what she will do if she does. She's not sure if she should try to interview Terry before or after lunch is served, or to not even bother. She feels as if an invisible chain has her locked to her seat.
Tim's real estate is even worse. He's across the room at the table farthest from Terry's, looking miserable next to a woman wearing a low-cut, short black cocktail dress. He'll later explain that she's a baroness, though she was only married to a penniless baron with a big drafty castle in Austria for a few months before he burned all her gowns and locked her in a tower for a week. All she got out of the settlement was the title and a book deal using Terry's agent, who's also at their table.
Tim gets up and stops by Kate's table on his way to the bathroom.
"I'm hearing about who the baroness fucked this summer to get helicopter rides to the Hamptons, while Blake's getting the item I came for," Tim says quickly to Kate without revealing what that item was, but Kate's pretty sure they all came here with the same mission. "At least the food should be good. Terry got some hot new chef named Marco Mancini to make lunch. She probably got him to cater in exchange for exposure because he's got a new restaurant opening up soon. When he becomes a big shot, all her friends will know she got to the guy first."
Tim leaves when the food arrives. Kate is suddenly starving and she's relieved she has something else to focus on because the situation in Syria isn't becoming any friendlier. She tucks into a roasted fig-and-Gorgonzola salad, trying to figure out the ingredients in the delicious dressing.
"Aged Italian balsamic," says a guy in thick glasses sitting across from Kate. "Good enough to put on ice cream."
Kate tries to look busy, afraid he'll ask her about the Middle East. Kate reads all the papers every day and could fumble her way through local or national politics, but Syria is just unfair--it's as if everyone else at the table has a seven-letter Scrabble word and she only has vowels. So far, not one person has mentioned the book being feted today.
"I help Paul Peterson cover parties at the Examiner," she tells the man sitting next to her in a brown tweed blazer with arm patches, who looks like Kate's favorite history professor in college. It will be months before she realizes that he's her dad's favorite political columnist.
"That must be fun," he says, sweetly.
"Fun," she agrees, nodding and stuffing her mouth with a big bite of salmon covered in sweet-and-sour rhubarb compote. She makes a mental note to ask Zoe, who works at Gourmet magazine, about this new chef, Marco Mancini. They should try to get invited to his restaurant opening.
Even though Kate's unsure of what she should be doing she feels a buzz building inside, an electric thrill to be at this party, in a room full of important people she can later brag about meeting--even if she didn't know what to say to them. It reminds her of her job as a hostess one summer in a popular restaurant in Woodstock, where she got the first of many lessons in VIP treatment. She once led Bob Dylan to his favorite table and could hear people hold their breath as he passed. It was an exciting hush that keeps echoing through her ears all these years later.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from 4% Famous by Deborah Schoeneman. Copyright © 2006 by Deborah Schoeneman. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.