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Saint-Simon’s self-serving self-image is a good likeness of Epstein’s, I suspect. Epstein understands that gossip can be hurtful, but he can’t help but admire the right kind of gossip. He is himself partial to the blind item, and his book is full of tantalizing half-morsels, names omitted. This coyness makes for a fun guessing game. His story about the poet who chooses to become a bureaucrat in part for the perk of having a car and driver? Methinks he is writing of Dana Gioia. (But what do I know?) Elsewhere I believe I have detected an insinuation about David Denby. And Epstein relays thirdhand what I hope is nothing more than a despicable calumny about “a famous American writer,” who I hope is not Susan Sontag.
Epstein reserves his distaste for the parvenu gossips, the recent arrivals — like Walter Winchell, the much feared newspaper and radio gossip who was on the cover of Time in the 1930s. Winchell was crude, rude and mean. Worse still, he was out only for himself, while the best gossip items, it seems, are conveyed by those embedded in, and indebted to, tight social communities. Saint-Simon’s was the gossip of the royal court; Epstein’s chosen gossip is that of literary circles. Within a court or a professional guild, one’s enemies are nevertheless one’s colleagues, and there is equality: I stab your back knowing that you will stab mine.
The gossip columnists who have played by a set of niceties and rules — Louella Parsons then, Liz Smith now — are likable. Winchell, however, was a man of no country, and that made all the difference.
Epstein’s disdain for mercenary gossip places him at odds with the entire industry today. He almost completely ignores Perez Hilton, TMZ, Gawker, Wonkette, Above the Law and the plotting of “Gossip Girl.” Perhaps that is for the best: Given that Epstein believes that Barbara Walters is the most famous woman in America, “with the possible exception of Oprah Winfrey”; that Rolling Stone began publishing after People, and that Friendster still exists, he is not a trustworthy guide to America after about 1970. But we are living through a golden age of gossip, making this book quite timely. So Epstein might have chinned himself up to the bar and reported what he saw.
Epstein is simply irked by our present world. Cads of the 1950s get the full literary treatment, even when being dismembered. Joe DiMaggio the possible wife-beater, Arthur Miller the neglectful father (of a handicapped son he warehoused) — they occasion well composed, even-tempered sallies of outrage; Epstein’s dissection of the “sick brute” Alfred Kazin culminates in a fascinating character sketch.
What made Kazin creepy, I always thought, was his confident presentation of his own superior virtue. No matter what he wrote about, he always seemed to position himself as better than his subject and his audience. He made himself seem the only man who understood the true meaning of the Holocaust, the only man who knew the importance of radical thinking in America, the only man who kept his own purity when everyone around him was selling out. On his left, the red hordes; on his right, the Black Hundreds; in the middle, one good man, standing alone, you’ll never guess who: Alfred Kazin.
But when we get to Tina Brown, she is just some young filly who could be found, in her university days, “bonking her way up the food chain of Oxford celebrity.” Does Brown not deserve better? Does Epstein not?
“Once a secret vice,” Epstein writes near the end, “gossip threatens to become the chief way we obtain our information, and there doesn’t appear to be much anyone can do about it.” I’ll post that observation to Friendster and see what my friends think. For my part, I believe that Epstein may be right and that the least we can do is read this nifty book about gossip’s better epochs, looking for the kind of gossip to which we might aspire, or descend.
Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for The New York Times. He knows of a famous political writer whose wife allegedly got him two prostitutes as a birthday present.