News & Politics

From the Archives: And Then She Said …

After 15 years with Washingtonian, Diana McLellan has lunch with one of our favorite gossips: herself. And does she dish.

Photograph by Breton Littlehales.

“It’s like having been an ax murderer,” Diana says gloomily. “No one ever forgets you were once a gossip columnist.”

I’d decided to split into two for this interview- sort of like Edmund Morris but without a $3-million advance. For this last “Lunch With” article, I’d decided to go to a nice restaurant, run up a big bill, and talk to myself.

An earlier conversation with old friends had helped me rustle up a few queries. It also revealed, to my horror, that even my old pals were fixated on “The Ear”—that dead-as-a-dodo gossip column I’d written between 1975 and 1985 for the Star, Post, and Times newspapers.

A couple of friends wanted an update on the rather public face lift I’d had for The Washingtonian about ten years ago-there I was on the cover, with my old face and new face, and I’m told it sold very well.

I decided to sit in the bright front room at Georgetown’s Cafe Milano. Bellini in hand, I crane to peek for scarring behind Diana’s ears. Is there something funny over the right one? Maybe. Any regrets, Diana?

“No, I’d do it again! Probably will! Get a nose job too, if my ship comes in.”

Now tell me the truth: You don’t look that decrepit. Why retire?

“Not retire,” she protests, a little huffily. “Slack. I long to slack again. I slacked through grammar school, my English high school, art school. I dated a couple of British journalists but never dreamed I’d write for a living. Too much like homework. I’ve been doing homework for 40 years!”

But fess up, girl: At 62, you’ve noticed signs of age, right?

“Well, my lip liner’s crept closer to my nostrils. One knee cracks when I crouch.”

No memory problems?

“Never! Did I mention that one knee cracks a bit?”

So has the city changed much, Diana dear, since you came to work for The Washingtonian 15 years ago?

“Everything! Everyone’s on TV! I remember feeling quite hotsy-totsy doing a little gossip spot on the CBS morning news in ’81—now, throwing your face about has become positively common.

“And if you walked along K Street muttering into your hand in ’85, people crossed the street to dodge you. High-powered people who really wanted to get in touch with other people found them through the White House switchboard, not cell phones.” 

• • •

What about politicians?

“Glad you asked. They’ve gotten so nasty! Cokie Roberts thinks they were nicer to each other when it was too expensive for the Congress to keep running home, so their families were all stuck here together and became chums.

“Washingtonians have gotten more nastily partisan. The Clinton scandals split so many old friends—people no longer talk to their kids’ godparents, that sort of thing. They’ll all kiss and make up later. Washingtonians are very good at forgetting old opinions once they’re out of fashion …. “

A grace note of the late ’80s and early ’90s, we agree, was the wave of kindnesses that swept Washington in the form of cheer-up parties for the wives of men who’d disgraced themselves—women like Mrs. Richard Berendzen, Mrs. Marion Barry, Mrs. Jim Wright.

“I remember once asking a grand old Texas gal how she bore up under her husband’s scandal, and she said, ‘You jes’ grin it out.’ It really took guts when you were shunned for someone else’s deeds. Sadly, she got dumped when he made his comeback, and vanished from his biography …. “

So what about your “lunches” over the past half-dozen years?

“They’ve been great! I’ve gotten to snoop into different Washington lives at close quarters—everyone from G. Gordon Liddy to the headmistress of Holton-Arms. A romance novelist, a dumped political wife, a nutritional guru—we ate sardines—and the head of the National Gallery. My all-time favorites were the radio disc jockeys Don and Mike: An enraged woman came storming in, screaming at Mike because he’d stolen her parking place, and we spent most of lunch figuring out how to placate her. Send her a bottle of beer, maybe, or some gum?

“Oh, and Michael Robinson, then director of the National Zoo. We lunched in Amazonia, the zoo’s rain forest, and talked about sexual selection, tribalism, toad licking, spider mating, the origins of intelligence, and pandas. We watched a pair of Brazilian titi monkeys sitting in a tree with their tails intertwined, and they watched us.

“The former British ambassador was grandest. He had a table for two set up on the portico-fabulous food, glorious wine, perfect service, just for me and my tiny tape recorder. Oh, one confession. When I went to Jaleo with Peter Steiner, the cartoonist, the tape got soaked in wine. I didn’t realize it until I got home. We reconstructed the whole lunch from memory on the phone.”

• • •

Another round of bellinis and it’s an easy jump back to gossip. Can she tell what makes a good gossip item?

“Great question! The right people doing the wrong thing. Teddy Kennedy’s nude walk along the beach.” (Is Diana actually rubbing her hands?) “Zbigniew Brzezinski’s wife, Muska, racing outside onto Old Dominion Drive each time a deer got hit by a car, wielding her butcher knives, to pack her freezer with venison.

“Mrs. B once told me that the only person who minded eating roadkill was Pamela Harriman, who turned bright green and left the table.”

Wasn’t there a good item at the White House dinner this past New Year’s Eve?

“You mean when the President sat between Liz Taylor and Sophia Loren for the big dinner, and Sophia wore this very lowcut black Armani. And as dinner wore on, Liz said to the President, ‘I hope you’re not going to spend the whole evening staring at her boobs.’ And Clinton said primly, ‘I don’t do that anymore.’ And Liz just said, ‘Bullshit!’ The President turned bright red and barely spoke to Liz the rest of the evening. Best item of the millennium! John McCaslin of the Times had it.”

Why not the Post, I wonder? She toys with her Bellini.

“I guess that even if they’d gotten it from the same eyewitness-who was really up close, by the way-poor old Lloyd Grove would have had to phone everyone involved and been stonewalled and spun till all the juice ran out.”

I don’t think the Post uses blind items, either, does it? The ones where you dish the dirt without a name attached? 

“A pity. Those were wonderful as shots across the bow. A well-worded blinder or two at the right time might have warded off the whole Monica Lewinsky horror.” 

We sigh as one. This must be a tough administration for anyone to gossip about. 

“Yup. Too many secrets, too defensive, too spoiled by getting away with too much for too long.”

• • •

Then who made good gossipees?

Her eyes moisten, twin oysters of nostalgia: “Oh, the Carters were wonderful—largely because they came to town proclaiming, ‘We’re going to ignore the Georgetown set and old-guard Democrats and start out fresh!’ They did, too—and that ticked off people so thoroughly that they couldn’t wait to pass on every scrap of gossip that ever surfaced. I’m amazed, when I look back, at the sheer quantity of anti-Carter-people gossip that poured in.

“‘The Reagan gang was good in a completely different way, corning in as they did armed with the Hollywood gossip experience. They went out on the town. They even dished! Robin Weir, Nancy’s hairdresser, told me that the first thing Nancy read every day was the Ear—and she didn’t seem to mind a bit when he leaked scraps. The Bushes were dreadful. That CIA background, you know. They battened down the hatches; their people didn’t dare go out or blab anything at all. And of course the Clinton people turned everything on its head, becoming proactive and rather nasty gossipers—even about enemies in the press .. .. “

Diana sniffles. I pass her a tissue. We polish off our salads and order Milano’s sublime white-truffle risotto. Outside the window, we spot a seagull trying to perch atop another seagull, sitting on a high post. How Washington!

But I bet even she’d been rolled by her sources on occasion, right?

“Good lord, yes. The interesting thing is that you often don’t find out you’ve been bamboozled at the time—at least I didn’t when I started in 1975. Much later, you can go back and read and think and add things up in context. When you figure out exactly why somebody lied-really think about it-you suddenly get a blindingly clear picture of the truth. That really came in handy over the past five years while I worked on my new book.” 

Which is about? 

“How kind of you to ask. Sex of the sort Greta Garbo called ‘exciting secrets,’ and lies and spies in Hollywood, in the first half of the 20th century. It’s called The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood and will be out in October.”

• • •

But back to gossip. What did you do about anonymous sources? “Of course you had to check much harder, phone around lots more. The funniest ones were people who planted nice items about themselves—holding a pencil between their teeth, pretending to be someone else, or writing on someone else’s paper. Doing that strange work changes the way you read a newspaper forever after—adds a sort of radar about exactly where gossip and hard news are being fed from.”

Who feeds gossips these days?

“Flacks, mostly.

A great pity. Earwise, the best sources were other reporters—especially at the old Star. where we were all scrambling to save it.

They gave me the stuff they daren’t put their names on. Rudy Maxa, who was the Post gossip for years, and I agreed that gossips are like catfish—you live on the droppings in the great aquarium of life. I guess reporters just bury their hot bits now, or save them for the lecture circuit or their memoirs. That’s why whole papers read like the propaganda arms of whoever they’re covering. What a waste!

“Congressional staffers are always good sources. Disgruntled bureaucrats. There was always a core of people with a sense of humor who just wanted to share the fun—including certain politicians. Hairdressers and florists. Decorators are usually pretty stingy, even though they know so much. I guess they have the most to lose.”

As we enjoy our funkily voluptuous risotto, we talk about the coming of age of the Me Generation and how it’s skewed the town. 

“I believe the hypocrisy’s thicker on the ground. And in the nasty climate, people keep their traps shut—like gulag inhabitants terrified of wrong-think. One big change is that people in their forties, fifties, and sixties are on the wagon—both the characters in the political mill and the reporters who cover it. I saw a middle-aged couple at a funeral the other day sucking on bottled water during the service to ‘stay hydrated.’ It’s amusing because your twentysomethings are guzzling martinis like soda pop. The young have a very good influence, in my view. Four-letter words are out of fashion because they disapprove, except during road rage …. “

• • •

What about Washington parties?

“Well, the Perle Mesta rule still applies—hang out the lamb chop and they’ll come running. But again, people can’t relax. Because of the drunk-driver crackdown, nobody gets drunk except Christopher Hitchens, and I’m sure that’s just to make everyone else seem interesting.

“One politician’s wife described Washington as like an Ivy League university during a never-ending week of finals.

“Food’s more moral, too. The four basic food groups at Washington parties—lobster, shrimp, filet, caviar—are vanishing, except at really unpopular embassies. Lots of veggie plates. It’s interesting that fur coats went out, then suddenly reappeared this year . . . . “

As Diana is chattering away, I notice she still has a British accent. Isn’t that a bit, well, de trop after 43 years stateside?

“Oh, they rub it in so hard over there. I can’t lose it. I’ve tried. Ah cain’t.”

Did it help your career?

“It started it! A British accent makes people think you can write. My very first journalism job was when I worked on the Washington Star‘s business counter in the early ’60s, peddling classified ads and being nice. I’d applied for a job in the art department and didn’t get it, so I decided to hang around for another vacancy. I didn’t have a scrap of ambition. But the magazine editor asked me to freelance a couple of pieces—based solely on the accent, I imagine. All the writing I did at the time was helping with In Memoriams.”

Come again?

“You know, those sweet sad poems addressed to dead people, that appear near the death notices? Mine were quite Wordsworthian. Anyway, I found out that writers always have a reason to be somewhere-and license to snoop.”

• • •

“Eventually I got a job in the Star’s promotion department, writing direct mail and promotional letters. I wrote and produced radio and TV commercials, too. One I did about the editor of a new Home section convinced her I’d be useful on the staff. So I became a reporter in ’69—features, interviews, artsy stuff, party coverage for the old women’s section.

“Then Jim Bellows, this editor who’d made the New York Herald Tribune so great, came to the Star and shoved me screaming into gossip. I bet that was the British accent too, come to think of it.

“I hated the idea. Besides, it was scary. So I wanted to be anonymous. I gave him a list of names, and he picked out the Ear. I also said I wouldn’t do it alone, so Louise Lague, a wonderful light writer, joined me. She got fed up after 18 months. I understand why. You have a sort of power, but as my husband, Richard, once said, it’s just the power of a ghost in a ballroom, to trip the dancers as they fly by.

“It’s weird work, even if you’re trying to amuse people. Trivia rushes in one ear and out your computer. Although it got easier and easier, after ten years of it, you feel you’re made out of paper. I took a salary dive to move to The Washingtonian, but it was worth it.”

Speaking of job changes, wasn’t Diana canned from the Post for some item about Carter people eavesdropping on Blair House while the Reagans were staying there, waiting to go into the White House?

“Actually, that appeared very near the beginning of my Post stint. Ben Bradlee was a prince during that case, running around to check my sources. And at the end of the year the Post offered me another contract, with a raise. I used to send photocopies of it to people who said I was canned. I went to the Times because they gave me so much money. It was really fun working for an unpopular paper, which it was then—but harder to get items.”

I guess Diana has made a lot of enemies over the years?

“A couple of presidential press secretaries. Mayor Marion Barry once had all the cars towed from outside the Star when I wrote something that enraged him. Luckily, I didn’t drive myself. I once figured out statutes of limitations for writing unkindly about different Washingtonians. Busy people forgive you faster than idle ones. Southern congressmen before Northern. Other writers and editors forgive when they do back unto you. Cabinet members recover before senators. Academics never forgive. Kennedys get even.”

Any advice for the gossips of today?

“Yes. I wrote some of them when I quit the Times: Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it. Don’t get too serious—you’ll never get the Pulitzer. Remember what the Due de Saint-Simon wrote at Versailles, ‘Kindness does not require us to tell it as it is not’—but don’t be mean to little people. Big ones can take care of themselves.

“The most important thing is to notice how, when you become a published gossip, you’re suddenly wildly popular, witty, and wise, and you find you have dear new friends you never knew you had. I know at least two ex-gossips who almost had breakdowns when the invites dried up . .. . “

Speaking of departing, will Diana move, now, to some idle sunny clime?

“Certainly not! It’s much more fun to slack in a city where everyone else is rushing around—reading their papers on the treadmill, shaving in the shower, eating breakfast in their cars. And Washington’s at its very best in the months before an election. Everyone returns phone calls—especially administration people who don’t know where the next job’s corning from.”

And in your wisdom, Diana dearest, do you have any parting advice for the men running for president, or their wives?

“I know they’ll do the right thing. So I’ll just offer the words the Queen of England lives by: Never stand when you can sit. Never sit when you can lie down. And never miss a chance to go to the bathroom.”

Well, thank you very much, Diana. And goodbye.

This article originally appeared in the August 2000 issue of Washingtonian.