back to the Black Table

Jerry Oppenheimer has been writing celebrity tell-alls for 20 years, culminating in his recent bestseller Front Row: The Cool Life and Hot Times of Anna Wintour, a raw, unabashed peek into the world of the fascinating -- and venomous -- editor of Vogue. Before he deconstructed the bitch-eat-bitch fashion world of the bobbed head of the world's fashion bible, Oppenheimer wrote unauthorized bios of such iconic figures as Bill and Hillary Clinton, Jerry Seinfeld, and America's favorite domestic dominatrix criminal, Martha Stewart. But, as big as his books are, not all the best stories made it into print. Taking a little break from the Front Row publicity juggernaut, Oppenheimer served up some of the stories behind his celebrity bios -- and much, much more -- exclusively for The Black Table.



Rock Hudson
Idol: Rock Hudson

Shocking Discoveries: He continued to have sexual relations after he was diagnosed with HIV. A gay friend fed Rock sexual partners who had no idea they were risking their lives sleeping with the star of Pillow Talk. The friend felt he was "doing a good deed" but warned Rock's young lovers to "wear a rubber…" In denial about his illness, Rock took advantage of the situation. Rock's last lover -- blue-eyed, blonde surfer dude Marc Christian, who I spent a month with interviewing for the book just after Rock's death, never became infected, even though he claimed to me they had slept together, and he even won a multimillion dollar lawsuit from Rock's estate. Another shocker had to do with

  Rock's so-called "coming out." As he neared death he approved a press release admitting he had AIDS, and essentially acknowledging he was queer -- something Rock never would have done if he had been all there. But there were forces at work with an agenda -- members of his inner-circle in Hollywood, AIDS activists (think La Liz), among others  

-- who felt by outing him they'd make him AIDS first celebrity poster boy. Believe me, the last thing Rock Hudson wanted was to be a dead gay hero and not have the world know he was a genuine hetero hunk.

Most Surprising Hookup: The rumored marriage of Rock to Jim Nabors -- twangy, bumbling Gomer Pyle on the The Andy Griffith Show. The rumor was started by a pair of L.A. queens who anonymously sent out wedding party invitations to gossip columnists. The fact that Rock and Nabors had


been pals for years, took trips together, and made joint appearances on their friend Carol Burnett's TV show fueled the gossip. Rock was furious, and Nabors took the prank hard. He called the story a vicious lie and was said to have lost his job at CBS because of it. Armistead Maupin, Rock's friend, told me the rumor made it impossible for Rock to be seen together with Nabors. Later, the Harvard Lampoon's parody of Newsweek contained a hilarious item -- an announcement that Rock and Nabors had gotten a divorce.

Best Feud With Fellow Celebrity: He detested Susan Saint James, his co-star on TV's McMillan and Wife. Saint James played Rock's wise-cracking spouse, with Rock playing the police commissioner of, appropriately enough, San Francisco (where, by the way, Rock was making weekend excursions to sample the edgy, openly gay scene at clubs like the I-Beam). When Saint James got pregnant (in real life), the baby had to be worked into the script. Rock fought, unsuccessfully, to keep the kid out of the plot, and was infuriated when Saint James, after having her baby, insisted on nursing the infant on the set between takes. "I don't like seeing tits!" Rock complained. (Eerily, Saint James, who tragically lost a son and almost her husband in a recent plane crash, was written out of the series when her character, Sally McMillan, died in a plane crash.)

Stuff that Couldn't Be Printed and Why: The names of certain closeted Hollywood stars in Rock's circle couldn't be used for legal reasons. They are still around -- and still hiding in the celluloid closet.

Official Celebrity Reaction: Even a séance couldn't evoke a "no comment."

Thing That Would Get Celebrity Kicked Out of the Catholic Church: You've got to be kidding! (However, with recent revelations about the sexual shenanigans of certain priests he might be welcomed with open arms.)

Weirdest Thing That Happened After Book Was Published That You Wish You Could Have Reported On: I was in L.A. doing publicity and was amused to see a stack of Idol piled high on an ornate marble pedestal front and center in the window of a gay bookstore on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. As I was contemplating topping the New York Times bestseller list, a guy sauntered up to me -- guys do saunter in West Hollywood -- and asked for my autograph. I'd never given my John Hancock to a fan before, but as the proud author of my first book I was happy to oblige. I signed and he looked at me oddly. "Shit, I thought you were Lionel Richie!!!" He tore up my siganture and sauntered off. (By the way, The Black Table is the only place I would report such a non-event.)



Barbara Walters
Barbara Walters: An Unauthorized Biography

Shocking Discoveries: One of many: In order to get an even tan on her legs, ankles and feet when she was in college, Walters would tie her big toes together to keep her legs from turning outward. Oh, by the way, she'd share her tanning sessions with her Sarah Lawrence roommate, a sexy, hard-drinking babe who liked to show off her body and was curiously nicknamed "Mike." Their room was in a dorm, appropriately called Titsworth. It was during Babs' college years that she fell hard for the right-wing homosexual Roy Cohn, of McCarthy Committee red-baiter fame. (Friends say she didn't perceive he was a flamer.) Cohn's mother, who wanted to keep her boychik all to herself, despised Walters. Years later, Cohn was


instrumental in helping Barbara adopt her daughter, and Barbara was loyal to Cohn even as he lay dying of AIDS. Was this a match made in heaven, or hell?

Most Surprising Hookup: Besides Cohn, there was Claudius Charles Philippe, a suave, thrice-married roué eighteen years Walters'


senior. They hooked up not long after he figured in a federal grand jury tax evasion and kickback probe. He was known as "Philippe of the Waldorf" because he headed the Waldorf-Astoria's catering and banquet business. Walter's also had a "secret" marriage to a businessman named Bob Katz. She claimed it lasted less than a year and ended in an annulment. The real story is far different and had its denoument in Alabama, of all places. (Pitch: The book's now out of print. Write your favorite publisher and demand they buy reprint rights from me so you can learn what really happened between the Katz's. By the way, Walters is


reportedly writing her memoir, so it would be fun to have a battle of the books, unauthorized vs. B.S.).

Best Feuds With Fellow Celebrity: Veteran anchor Harry Reasoner despised Barbara when she was made ABC's "million dollar baby" -- the first network news anchorwoman -- and Reasoner was teamed with her. It became a nightmare. On the premier newscast the control room burst into laughter when Walters said "ad-mini-stwation" a la Elmer Fudd. Off-camera Reasoner rolled his eyes. It got so bad as the weeks passed that the two weren't even seen together on camera, and had stopped talking to one another.

Stuff that Couldn't Be Printed and Why: I came upon a case of alleged discrimination involving a black woman who worked under BW. I also tracked down the woman to Brooklyn and interviewed her extensively. The material was part of the finished manuscript and survived the intense vetting process. But for reasons never explained the book's editor excised the story prior to publication. It was all a bit curious -- but, hey kids, that's publishing.

Official Celebrity Reaction: Prior to publication, the queen of the celebrity interview, the one who loves dish and likes to evoke tears with her poignant -- if you were a tree what kind of a tree would you be? -- questions, attacked me in the press, using her gossip column friends such as the New York Post's Cindy Adams, who quoted BW as saying, "I'd appreciate it if no one cooperates." BW asserted -- presciently, I might add -- that the book would be "that only-child, lonely-child…step-on-everybody-to-get-to-the-top, deep psychological stuff."

Thing That Would Get Celebrity Kicked Out of the Catholic Church: Three divorces? Would that do it?

Weirdest Thing That Happened After Book Was Published That You Wish You Could Have Reported On: Gossip columnist Liz Smith has refused to acknowledge any of my subsequent books apparently because I quoted her as telling me among other tasty morsels on the record, "I think she [Barbara] really loves me." Smith was so much of a Walters' cheerleader that Spy magazine in the late 1980s began running a popular feature called the Liz Smith Tote Board, which contained a monthly tally of the boldface names the columnist most often sucked up to. Barbara was usually at or near the top. Years later Smith and I shared the same literary agent who told me, "Forget about it. She won't mention your books." When I asked why, I was told, "She's never forgotten that interview in the Barbara Walters book."


Ethel Skakel Kennedy
The Other Mrs. Kennedy: Ethel Skakel Kennedy: An American Drama of Power, Privilege, and Politics

Shocking Discoveries: Ethel used the "N-Word". Visiting the Kennedy family home, Hickory Hill, after Bobby's assassination, Brother-in-law actor Peter Lawford watched as a black maid accidentally tossed into a trash can some scraps of paper, including a note that Bobby had written and that Ethel had never filed away."Ethel screeched, 'What are you doing?' The maid said, 'I'm throwing this away, Mrs. Kennedy.' And Ethel said, 'You stupid nigger, don't you know what you're doing? You're destroying history. Get out of my

  sight. You're fired!'" (This was the first book excerpted in New York Magazine by its new editor in chief Kurt Andersen -- ex co-editor of Spy magazine , and he gave prominent play to the anecdote, which sparked an angry letter from Bobby Kennedy Jr. who declared,  

among other things, "The thought of her using a racial epithet is so utterly absurd…"

Most Surprising Hookup: After Bobby's death Ethel had a thing with crooner Andy "Moon River" Williams. The two, longtime friends, were spotted being openly affectionate. Another beau was football great Frank Gifford, Kathie Lee's current husband -- infamous for being caught by the tabloid Globe with another woman -- who during his Ethel period was in the process of getting a divorce from an earlier wife. "Mrs. Kennedy was


crazy about Frank," Ethel's assistant, Noelle Fell, told me. "Big-time, teenager crazy…"

Best Feuds With Fellow Celebrity: Ethel ruthlessly mocked her sister-in-law, Jackie, made fun of her big feet, and referred to her as "the debutante."

Stuff that Couldn't Be Printed and Why: Pretty much everything made it. The updated paperback edition (which includes more details on the Skakel murder case -- the Skakels being Ethel's wild and bizarre family) runs a whopping 733 pages.

Official Celebrity Reaction: None by Ethel. But the book was denounced by Bobby Jr. as "an assassination by lies." (Now Ted, what really did happen at Chappaquiddick?)

Thing That Would Get Celebrity Kicked Out of the Catholic Church: Nuns considered her one of their own, so sincerely devout is she.

Weirdest Thing That Happened After Book Was Published That You Wish You Could Have Reported On: Months after the book had been written I checked into a hotel in Palm Beach where the Kennedys have a home -- remember the Willie Smith rape trial? I checked to see if there were any messages for me, and there was one. A recorded phone note had been left some time earlier for another guest, a Kennedy family friend who had stayed in the same room -- it was Ethel's voice. Ripley, are you reading this?


Jerry Oppenheimer is author of Front Row: Anna Wintour: The Cool Life and Hot Times of Vogue's Editor in Chief. Part Two of his column runs tomorrow.

Jim Cooke is a freelance illustrator in New York. His book Heroes and She-roes will be released in March. His work can be seen at