Getty Images News/Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla
By Amy Phillips Penn

“Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets…” — Napoleon

 

A first byline should be a celebration for a writer; a treasured coming of age. A time to rush out and buy several copies of the publication for posterity. My byline inked into newsprint, unexpectedly, upon the death of my mentor, Eugenia Sheppard. No Champagne cork blasted sky high — we were in mourning.

Eugenia was gone, and I was still working in her home, at least for a tentative while. Her family was living there, and I was being consulted on funeral details, while trying to maintain my hold on the column. Rumors were imploding within the salivating society scope of scoops: word had it that thousands were applying for my society column at the New York Post.

I maintained that column for close to a year, had absolutely no personal life, and then went on to write features for the paper and other publications. Taking newspaper 101, I found that the competition was often scarier than famous Post headlines like, “Headless Body Found in Topless Bar,” which rose into T-shirt fame.

A writer, who was also named Amy and worked in another department of the paper, was checking out stories, using my sources, and telling them that she was me. How did I unravel this mystery? Easy. She told me herself, as if it were a perfectly viable thing to do. Try making friends with your new colleagues when they’re shamelessly wrapped and warped in your identity.

I was repeatedly invited to a charity luncheon. I declined, as it interrupted my deadline, and promised to write about their event. Their PR rep was relentless; she kept asking, I kept declining. The luncheon came and went, when a close friend called.

“Why didn’t you show up for the luncheon?” he asked.

I explained that I had declined the invitation.

“Someone called, said that they were you, and demanded the best table in the house. They never showed up.”

Of course they never showed up, because it wasn’t me who had called. I would never have demanded the best table, and whoever had played the fake me, was out for road kill.

On the fun side, a journalist knows that “all the world’s a stage.” Lassoing a story that’s playing hard-to-get often involves more than getting your pen and mascara separated.

A publicist called me sounding elated, and rolled into her request with all the pomp and glory of a royal wedding. Wait for it, wait for it…

“How would you like to get on the boat where Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley are celebrating their marriage? We can sneak you on as a waitress.”

If anyone had ever seen me wait tables, my cover would have been blown, stomped on, and pink slipped. Another reporter went as a waitress, and aced her story.

There is a wonderful story about Princess Grace’s wedding. One of the most competitive journalists fainted in the aisle and was rushed away. She who files first, laughs last. The columnist was feigning fainting, so that she could get her copy in first. Sly move, Madame.

All About Eve said it best. One of the most effective ways to get a column (the good ones are scarce and coveted) is to smooth or slither your way into a columnists life, become their assistant, confidante, or would be friend. Even the worldliest journalists can’t judge a climber by its family crest.

Blackmail. Yes, blackmail. One well-known columnist bulldozed her way into print by writing an unauthorized biography of a cosmetics queen. In order to have the book stopped, the subject-to-be signed on for ongoing advertising in the paper, in exchange for the author backing off the book, and writing a column for the paper.

Yet another way to get a writer off her game is to give them a bad tip. When you’re writing on your own, with a deadline that needs to be met to the exact minute, it’s more than overwhelming to check every fact. Newbies beware, check away, or don’t print.

What makes it all worthwhile? When I was officially writing for the Post, my parents sighed in their snottiest New-York-what-a-bother voice, “We only read the New York Times. Now we have to buy the Post,” they hissed the ‘s’ for emphasis.

My sister whispered that when the Post arrived, they all but battled and tore the paper into slivers of questionable gossip, in their effort to read just about anything but my column.

A wise man, who was a publisher, summed it up neatly.

“We teach our children to grow up to be ladies and gentlemen, then expect them to go out into the world with the hearts of firemen and policemen.”

Remember:

“A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier.” — H.L.Mencken

 

Happy scooping!

Leave a Reply