Several weeks ago I was awakened by a phone call from a man who, speaking in a loud and excited voice, demanded to know the fine details of my personal life. Was I in a relationship with the Vanity Fair columnist Michael Wolff — and under what circumstances? Who had introduced us? Who had I seen in the past? Where did I work? How much was I paid? He was, I gathered before I hung up, a man with a website.
More puzzled than rattled by his aggressiveness and seeming rancour, I googled his site and, as I sat there, saw my name appear and myself go from a girl with no reputation in the city to a girl who, as my mother in Atlanta would soon point out, had lost her reputation.
From this unknown man’s unknown website, my terrible scandal quickly moved to Gawker, the gossip site of record in New York, which published every saucy picture it could find of me, and then, shortly after, to tabloid headlines in the New York Post. I was, in the initial report, a hapless naïf, prey to a ruthless older man. In the Gawker view I was a shameless hussy furthering my career. In Page Six (the New York Post’s gossip column), I was merely a comic-book blonde.
Three gossip items later — and one horrid though amusing cartoon (by the guy who equated President Obama with a chimpanzee) portraying me as a 13-year-old girl in bed with an 80-year-old — I asked the question any normally insecure person would in such a situation: ‘Am I a sleaze?’
And, if so — since I was not involved with Alex Rodriguez (the baseball player and ex-squeeze of Madonna), nor a public official, billionaire or financial schemer — when had the public sleaze bar been so dramatically lowered?
The circumstances of my disgrace? I had a low-level job at Vanity Fair — so in scandal parlance I was an ‘intern’, although, actually, I was a freelance researcher on an hourly wage; my romance with Michael, a married man, was, in the telling, a torrid office affair (although in my short tenure he never came into the office, as he worked at home); and to boot, I’d had another beau before him, uncovered by the gossips, with a problematic marriage. (This in a city of men with problematic marriages.)
Much to my surprise, a rather ordinarily complicated New York romantic life turned out to be newsworthy. I was a ‘femme fatale’; I was sleeping my way to the top (Michael is one of the founders of Newser.com, a web aggregator, which paid me $12 an hour to do some writing); I was, well …a girl who had sex.
I would have said, before becoming the subject of scandal, that one of the reasons I had moved to New York from romantically regulated Atlanta — my mother and early-to-marry friends being vigilant dating sentinels — was to be able to be involved with whomever I pleased without having to explain or (although this possibility had never occurred to me) face public censure. Now I think that I’d have been better off in Atlanta.
There’s a new scourge-like atmosphere in New York. In Atlanta they continue to believe New York is as accepting in romantic matters as it is depicted in Sex in the City (surprisingly, even haute Atlanta, attuned to popular culture, has adopted a certain Sex in the City nonchalance in the last few years). But something’s changed in New York. I’ve noticed this among my many friends who have moved to Park Slope in family-oriented Brooklyn — they’ve come to regard Manhattan as the borough of dubious characters. If you can afford to live in Manhattan you must be up to no good. Possibly it’s the long descent into recession that has created a new culture of opprobrium — nobody these days should be having much fun.
The new sanctimony is, too, the result of internet journalism. Gossip mongering on the internet could be as competitive now as when New York was a city full of aggressive and prying newspapers (cf. Sweet Smell of Success with the evil columnist J.J. Hunsecker — it’s always been a favourite of mine). But the internet is probably worse. Its cliquishness makes it more high-school-like than journalism-like. And high school is more hurtful than journalism. The cruelties of the internet are due, surely, to its fishbowl properties — everybody who is writing gossip on the internet knows everybody whom they are writing about; indeed, everybody seems to be writing about each other. Or going out with someone who is doing the writing. In its article about me, Gawker referred to a former boyfriend of mine who went out with a former Gawker editor.
And I became Rupert Murdoch’s incidental sideshow, too. The internet may have revealed my romance, but it was my bad luck to be involved with someone who’d written a biography of Murdoch perceived by him to be unfavourable. Murdoch’s paper the New York Post, in an act of obviously gleeful revenge towards Michael, could — by merely reporting the internet rumours — make me the harlot in the middle of a banner headline scandal.
New York, once a big and anonymous place, is — on the internet, and in the Murdoch press — reduced to a horrifyingly captious and moralising small town.
You’d think such a parochial view would be of limited interest to the rest of the world. But I was shortly notified by my Atlanta girlfriends that my scandal had spread to the South in an email chain, prompting the image of my devastated mother having to face the Buckhead ladies at bible study. And my father informed me that I was guilty of besmirching the family name (made all the more vulnerable by its uniqueness and, hence, googleability).
As I cooled my heels, receiving each new gossip shock (desperately trying to account for and recall all my other possible gossip-worthy actions — ech, yes, hmmm… I hoped the gossips wouldn’t get on to that), and holding the door against the pair of meter readers who looked suspiciously like tabloid reporters (we don’t actually have meters in my East Village tenement building), I started to feel something like a surge of gossip rapture. It turns out to be easy to believe what’s been written about you. I had gone astray. My morals were loose. I was that girl in New York caught with a married man, that foolish blonde in front of the popping flash bulbs. A Weegee grotesque. I was suddenly seeing myself as the gossips professed to see me, deeply chastened.
I knew what I needed to do: swear off interesting (e.g. older) men, buy a ticket back to Atlanta, and have two tow-headed children with a tow-headed southern boy (emphasis on boy) asap.
So I thought I’d better beat a tactical retreat. New York, let’s face it, is going through a very tough time. Everybody, it seems, feels guilty about being part of the long New York bacchanal, so everybody must be guilty — all the more so if you’re not acting guilty. It was Sex and the City that connected sex to everything else in the city: careers, real estate, Wall Street, media. The less inhibited you were, the more successful you could be, was part of the impudent message received by financiers as well as adventurous girls. That New York, the boom town, is now a suspect place. We now believe that spirit of excess and devil-may-care is responsible for the present apocalyptic mess. Hence my undisciplined romantic life can be discussed pretty much in the same breath as Bernie Madoff — at least in adjacent newspaper pages.
So surely I should get out of Dodge before it’s too late?
Except, it’s hard to quell the itch that got me here in the first place. Nor does it seem likely that everybody else in the re-regulated, closely monitored city will agree to behave — so maybe we get to look forward (at least
I look forward) to a new licentious underbelly of New York (where the gossips, always bribable, are paid to stay away). Sex and the City actually made New York a rather more boring place, helping to take the sin out of sin city.
I think I’ll stay and thumb my nose at the finger-wagging metropolis — hat pulled low.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 4, 2009