Cindy Adams Is the Queen of Gossip. Just Watch She Doesn’t ‘Kill’ You.
The NY Post’s Cindy Adams tells Tim Teeman about her loyalty to Donald Trump, why crooks and authoritarians make great copy, and how modern celebrity killed the gossip she loves.
Somewhere in Cindy Adams’ Park Avenue penthouse, there is an intercom. Today it does not appear to be working, so the queen of New York gossip must ask her housekeeper Nazalene to bring us two glasses of chilled white wine. She asks me not to say what specific furnishings the penthouse contains for fear of attracting thieves, so I will simply note that I sit next to a jug of pink feathers. There are swagged drapes, intricately carved cabinets, fine art, sculptures, and plush, overstuffed sofas. This penthouse was once Doris Duke’s; Adams bought it in 1997 from Duke’s lawyer, “all with my own money.”
Later we will adjourn to the office where Adams, 91, filmed her interviews for the excellent forthcoming Showtime series Gossip, directed by Jenny Carchman, which analyzes—intelligently, replete with colorful dish and superb stories—the history of newspaper gossip columns of which Page Six and Adams’ own are the most redoubtable survivors.
Her office is covered, ceiling and walls, with around 500 New York Post front pages featuring her own stories. They are lit by bright bulbs. There is a bathtub, desk, and huge perfume bottle to mark the moment Adams became a perfume (it didn’t sell that well, she concedes blithely). She once also became a paint color, Cindy Adams Gossip Red. An old can of it is in the kitchen.
Adams is so much the outstanding talking head in the four-part documentary that it really becomes The Cindy Adams Story, with anecdotes stuffed in anecdotes about such notorious figures as Donald Trump, Imelda Marcos, and Leona Helmsley. “Fade in, fade out,” Adams likes to say to convey a passing of time, before launching into another tale. She proudly confesses to having a special fondness for authoritarians and crooks because they make the best copy.
“OK, what do you need?” Adams asks in her low-toned commanding voice as we take our first sips of wine. Her hair is pulled back in its trademark spun-swirled bouffant. She is wearing black pants and a black top with “Made in NY” in a glittery typeface. I ask what gossip she has heard that day. Well, her friend Judge Judy, who she has known for 25 years (“She makes a minimum $54 million a year, plus benefits”), and who she plays gin rummy with, is about to write a flattering piece “peeing all over me” for the Post. Otherwise, she’s heard nothing.
“Can you write a column daily if you’re not anywhere?” Adams asks sadly, about the death of social life wrought by COVID. Don’t people ring her? In the documentary we see her answering the phone brusquely, and just as icily hanging up if whoever on the other end hasn’t brought her a juicy-enough morsel of tittle-tattle. “They don’t know anything, because they haven’t been anywhere,” she says of her sources. That night she will go for “dinner at a quiet place” for something Broadway-related. While she rarely stays to watch the show, Adams is often at Broadway opening nights, notebook in hand, gleaning quotes from the famous and beautiful.
“I’m not so sure New York is waking up,” Adams said. “It’s supposed to be.” The pandemic has meant she could not have a big party for her 90th birthday—“I had a guest list of like 500 people, the biggest people everywhere”—or celebrate Gossip the documentary. “I don’t want a big party, but it would be nice to have 20 of your friends for dinner or cocktails or something. I will end up alone watching it with the dog (her beloved Jellybean, a Yorkie).”
The documentary is “OK,” she says, with an expression that says not-OK. She’s annoyed that the pandemic meant she couldn’t be filmed at work. “There’s no red carpet. There’s no backstage. There’s no gala. There’s no interview. These are the things I do every day, that I have been doing for 41 years at the New York Post. And now I can’t do anything. I am hamstrung, and so were the filmmakers.”
Can she imagine retiring? “Would I want to? I’ve done it enough. I certainly don’t need the income. I don’t really need the stress any longer. I don’t think the Post wants me to leave. I am pretty sure they don’t want me to leave. So I’m still there. I’m not sure that I should be carrying on anymore. I don’t know that I want to, but what’s the alternative? I should stay home and bake? That’s the alternative? As long as I have the ability, strength, and opportunity, and obviously if the paper wants me, I’m there however long I’m going to be there. How long is anybody going to be there? Your paper could fold by Thursday. That’s the way things are going. How do you know?”
She could have left the Post, she says. “I was romanced by the Daily News a long time back. Three times they came to me with offers of a lot of money, put me on a truck, all that sort of stuff. But you know, I don’t believe you leave who brought you to the party. I believe in loyalty.”
She must have used the competing offer as leverage to increase her Post salary. “Probably, but I don’t remember that I did. It’s going back 15 years now. The question is, would I leave the Post? The Daily News offered me more money, but so what? I don’t need more money. Rupert (Murdoch) and that group has been wonderful to me.”
New York, says Adams, is her “religion. I’m born and bred. I’m a devout New Yorker. I ain’t going anywhere. Where else am I going to find New York? Connecticut? I’m not going anywhere.” Does she contemplate her mortality? “Oh, everybody does. Even if you’re 35 everybody thinks about it. I think about it, I’m not sure I worry about it.” She doesn’t really think about her legacy either. “I would if I had family and children. I don’t. I have a dog. I always, always, always have a dog. Listen, people have been with me forever. My driver was with me for 30 years. My housekeeper has been with me for 25. This is the family.”
In its more conventional definition, Adams says quietly, “I don’t have a family.” Joey Adams, her husband of 47 years—comedian, syndicated humor columnist, presidential goodwill ambassador—died in 1999, the same year as her fiercely cherished mother Jessica. In the documentary, Adams talks about her grandmother and mother, the former intent on improving the life of the latter. Then her mother focused on improving Adams’ life. Adams had her nose done at 15, her hairline moved back, and then went to drama school to learn how to walk and talk. Adams started out as a model and “not a great actress.”
Adams does not talk about her father on screen. I ask who he was.
“I don’t really have one. My mother was married to my birth father, a dentist, my big joke being that she didn’t like anything about him but his teeth. When I was 2 years old she divorced him, and she married this kind, wonderful, marvelous man who became my father and who grew me up. He was a very kind, loving man. But my mother was my everything. She was the kind of mother who loved me more than anything else in the world, and who I then loved more than anything else in the world. I was a sickly child. She took care of me. She had to work, she was an executive secretary, but she was there for me. I loved her more than anything. So that was my life, and then I married Joey. And then he took care of me. It was somebody who cared for me, and then somebody who cared for me. I have been fortunately cared for. Always.”
Adams said she had not missed having children. Joey was the same age as her mother, “so he didn’t want to have children. And in those days I didn’t care. Would I like to have them now? I don’t know. Life was so busy for me. I’m not somebody living in a retirement community or poverty, so what difference does it make to me? Do I miss family? I have people around me who have been with me for ever and ever and ever.”
Joey and her mother died within three months of each other, both from Alzheimer’s. “I took care of both of them. I’ve paid my dues,” Adams says sternly. She bought her mother a house, and employed carers to take care of her, and flew home on private planes from “White House evenings” so she could be there for dinner with Joey.
Does Adams fear Alzheimer’s disease herself? “I think we all fear everything. Life is not like it used to be. We fear crime. I don’t fear poverty, but do I fear age? I don’t fear that as much as the world. It’s the pandemic, it’s crime. It’s everybody hating everybody. I fear the world has changed, and I don’t like what I’m seeing at the moment.”
“I got pushed into doing this. It’s not what I chose. I wanted to write the brilliant American novel”
Adams is adamant that the seeds of her gossip life were not sown early. She wasn’t hanging on others’ words as a little girl. Joey knew legendary gossip columnist Walter Winchell. “In the old days, Joey would be sitting in the Stork Club with the Clark Gables and Marilyn Monroes. He divorced his first wife, so when I came in these were the people he had dinner with. This was his world. He knew all these people. This is what I knew because it is what he knew. Not only was he a child of the Walter Winchell experience, but to him a gossip columnist was the most important, glamorous job you could have. In those days Walter Winchell could make or break presidents. We didn’t have TV or gossip everywhere.”
Through Joey’s work as a presidential goodwill ambassador, Adams met figures like the Shah of Iran, the king of Cambodia, and the queen of Thailand. She translated then-Indonesian President General Sukarno’s autobiography, after interviewing him. Her acquaintances with royalty and celebrities that would later generate so much copy began socially. She didn’t need to batter down doors, she was already the life and soul of the party. Before the Post, she hustled, working as a TV correspondent for ABC’s New York affiliate, reporting—even then, bouffant at sheeny vertical—on “store detective cross dressers” and “apartments for midgets.”
When Rupert Murdoch bought the Post, he also brought the now-defunct Long Island Press, “for two things, its subscription list and the Joey Adams column. Fade in, fade out. We got to know who the Murdoch person was. He had the smarts, but he didn’t have the Rolodex.”
The security that Joey offered gave Adams the space and freedom to write and say what she wanted. “So, I got pushed into doing this. It’s not what I chose. I wanted to write the brilliant American novel, which I never did and cannot do. I wanted to do something great, and never got to do it.”
The documentary makes clear that in the fishbowl world of New York high society, media, and gossip, the likes of Adams and Liz Smith and Page Six did reign supreme over something. For Adams, there were countless front-page splashes trading off her connections with the Shah of Iran, Imelda Marcos, General Manuel Noriega, and Trump, whose side she took when he was divorcing Ivana (who had Liz Smith in her corner). She took her gossip expertise to TV and gossip-centered shows like A Current Affair. Maury Povich noted, “There’s no problem with Cindy when you put her on a throne.”
Today, Adams professes not to be sure how she became such a scoop machine, but posits to me, “It was a New York female with a sense of humor who looked reasonably good, who would answer the Shah or King or Ayatollah with a smartass answer. It was not because I was that smart. I just didn’t know you couldn’t do that. I was new at it. I would answer them as a New Yorker. They weren’t used to that, so they got to love me.”
At Joey’s 80th birthday party, Imelda and John Gotti were among the guests. “If you’re indicted, you’re invited,” was the motto of the night. Adams is heard on one tape asking Imelda Marcos when it would be best to publish one piece, given where her then-trial was at. She has a real thing for crooks, shysters, authoritarians, and dictators, I say.
“Yes, because they’re great columns.”
Did she think she interrogated them hard enough? “Who cares? I got great stories. Who cares? They make great stories. What should I do? I should do some angelic person who’s going to tell me about knitting and cooking? What do I care? Yeah, those were the kings of the world. They were awful people. What great stories. They were front-page stories. That was OK for me.”
Does she still hunger for front-page splashes now? “No, I haven’t done it for years. I don’t need to do it anymore.”
Why did her hunger recede? “I don’t know. I don’t know. In the beginning, I had all these opportunities, and I guess nobody else was doing this. So I had opportunities. So, OK, I did them. And after a lot of them, enough already, I’d done it.” She was doing six columns a week, then five, then four, as well as a regular spot on WABC radio. “What do I want to do? Be home and knit? Cook? Is that what you want to do? No, you want to get a story about me, get some little shtick that will make a great story. That’s what we do.” Louder, slower: “That’s what we do.”
Adams also thinks there has been a degradation of gossip; that it once had a higher form if not purpose. “Don’t you think the level of VIPs has gone down? You think Kim Kardashian is really Marilyn Monroe and Lana Turner? I don’t. I think gossip has gone down. It’s everywhere. In the old days it wasn’t everywhere. Now if you listen to the TV every anchor is doing gossip. Gossip is mainstream.”
Wasn’t it always so? Gossip magazines predate the Kardashians. Humans, not just media types, exchange information by gossip. “I miss the purity of it,” says Adams of the gossip machine of her golden era, the ’80s and ’90s. “I think everyone has gone lower. The wardrobe has gone lower—a guy’s crotch is now grazing the grass on his pants. A woman’s things are hanging out, her boobs and behind. Do I like that? No. So I think that has conspired to make me sour on the Teflon, so-called celebrities who aren’t really celebrities anymore. It’s not what it was. We’re not seeing Clark Gable anymore. I’m not.”
Maybe, but—as the documentary makes clear—on the day of Nelson Mandela’s release from jail, it was the breakdown of Donald and Ivana Trump’s marriage that dominated that day’s tabloid front pages. If you’re arguing that today’s gossip is somehow more debasing than yesteryear’s, you may be mistakenly recasting the history of gossip. The difference is quantitative; it has gone from sweetening a day’s sober news to overpowering it—indeed transforming the news and political agendas themselves. The power and potency of gossip have magnified.
Donald Trump and Adams remain close. But Adams didn’t convey much gossip from the White House when he was president.
“I wouldn’t do that. I would get killed,” she says, looking horrified. “There’s a hate out for Donald. Why would I risk getting killed? New York is very left-wing. I’m not left-wing.” She’s a right-wing Republican, I ask. Adams nods. “Always. Yeah. I certainly don’t like the Alzheimer’s guy who’s in the White House right now. He doesn’t even know he’s there.”
Adams said she “stayed away” from Trump tidbits in recent years for fear of “people crashing in here,” referring to her penthouse. “One day I stood on this terrace and watched hundreds of thousands of people marching right in front on Park Avenue. But there was such hate out there. I should get involved in that hate? I can’t do that. I want to save myself. Donald called me, Donald would send me notes. I did not go after him. I did not.”
Does she agree with his contention that he won the presidential election?
“I don’t know and I’m not going there.”
Will he run again? “Not sure. There will be an age process.” Would she like him to run again? “I don’t know. He’s my friend, so I want him safe. I don’t want him harmed.”
Does she think Trump conducted himself properly as president? “I’m not going to do an interview on Donald. There’s no reason for it.”
New York City is closed socially to the Trumps, said Adams, “because New York is closed to almost anybody who’s not left wing. Ivanka and Jared have enough money and enough fame that they will build up a social life in Europe and Florida. But the hate for Donald is awful.” She “doesn’t know and I’m not going there” if the divisiveness of his presidency merited such protests.
The night she met Trump, the lawyer and powerbroker Roy Cohn—another Adams pal with a hallowed spot in the annals of the immoral and amoral—told her, “One day this kid will own New York.”
Almost as a lit-from-within elegy, Adams recalls being with Trump the night of his election in 2016, in his office, he standing alone watching seven flat screen TVs. “The only thing… the only thing he said to me, the only words he said were, ‘Do you remember what Roy Cohn said?’ I said, ‘Yes I do.’ That was the entire conversation. Not another word we said. Nobody else heard it. Nobody. Just him and me. We looked at each other, and nobody else in the world could have shared those words.”
Does she ever offer criticism of Trump to him? Adams shakes her head.
“He’s been my friend 50 years. If somebody came up to me 10 years from now, I would say he was wonderful to me. He was honorable and I believe him, and he was a nice man. That’s what I would say because I’m loyal. I believe in loyalty.”
Has this blinded her to people’s faults perhaps? “Who cares?” she erupts. “I do what I think is right in my heart. Who cares? What do I care? I’m not harming anybody. I will do what I think is right. If they don’t like me, they’re never going to like me. What can I do? So, what’s your point? Donald was very, very, very, good to me always.”
In the documentary, Adams claims that Trump chartered a helicopter for her to scatter Joey’s ashes over Central Park. He also oversaw the installation of a “security system” in this penthouse apartment, she tells me, “because he wanted to make sure I was safe. I remember that.”
“I sent word to Leona: ‘If age doesn’t get you, I will personally kill you’”
“If you get on the wrong side of Cindy, she’s merciless,” Ken Chandler, a former editor in chief of the New York Post, tells the documentary, in which Adams talks of her desire to “kill” Leona Helmsley after the latter mistreated Adams’ mother. The documentary maker is also kind-of-menaced: “I will find you. You understand that? I will locate you. OK.”
Apparently, these are not literal threats, even if they sound pretty literal. “No, I wouldn’t take a knife,” Adams says of the definition in relation to Helmsley. “I would write vicious things about her every minute I could.”
Helmsley, the “Queen of Mean”—who infamously thought taxes were for “little people”—was a friend of Adams’, “though not like a friend, friend, friend,” she tells me. “Joey knew Harry (Leona’s husband). People who run New York know people who run New York. She was not somebody you could love or be close to. When she got arrested I thought it was a good story, and I was on her side. I figured she doesn’t deserve to go to jail. Fine her $5 million.”
When Helmsley asked Adams what Imelda Marcos had done wrong, Adams responded not with the facts of the Marcos’ crimes, but that Marcos had “mathematical Alzheimer’s” and had misplaced $800 million. Helmsley replied: “Only 800 million? I’ve got more.”
Adams told me she and Helmsley remained friendly, but “not emotionally friendly. One day she wore a ring with little pearls in it—the kind of ring every person on Park Avenue has. When you turn 17, you get a goddamn pearl ring. I couldn’t think of what else to say in the moment, and said to her what a pretty ring it was. Fade in fade out. Some time later, she called me and said, ‘You know my pearl ring?’
‘You like it?’
‘Yes, it’s a lovely pearl ring,’ I said.
‘Well, it cracked,’ Leona said. ‘I got a new one. Would you like the cracked one?’
“That was the first time I thought, ‘This is not good,’” Adams says. “I knew she was not a good person, but here she was being not good to me.”
Adams’ ire was fully activated when, having offered to let her mother use a cabana and pool at a property in Florida she owned, Leona Helmsley then called the police because Adams’ staff of gay men who cared for her mom were using the pool.
“My mother was my whole life,” Adams says, still furious in the retelling. “I would have killed for my mother. My mother was 85, with Alzheimer’s, and Leona had her thrown out because there were gay guys in her pool. I then sent word to her: ‘If age doesn’t get you, I will personally kill you.’ Yes.” And so, as Adams had vowed, she turned from Leona-whisperer to Leona slayer-in-print.
Adams laughs merrily. “What else do you need? And get the hell out of my house!” She says the same to her interlocutor in the documentary; as a showman she doesn’t like to disappoint, as a journalist she knows the person opposite wants to know stuff, as she would. She also loves to dish. She also wants to get on with her day.
Adams didn’t remarry after Joey’s death, or have another significant romantic relationship. “Were there opportunities? Yes. We (journalists) have a full life. It’s a full experience. No, I don’t miss anything. I never missed love. If I did I never wanted to marry anything. I would rather have my dog. That’s my love at the moment.”
Similarly, Adams says she has never felt lonely. Partly this is down to work, but there is also a “cadre of very close friends who check in every day,” including Judge Judy who she has known for 25 years. They are very close, and travel together “to see white tigers in India.”
Adams says she trusts loyalty. “I trust people I can trust.”
Loyalty seems so zealously prized by her that I ask if Adams has ever been betrayed. “I have not been betrayed. There are people who don’t love me. Have I been betrayed? No, I haven’t. People don’t like me, OK. People say, ‘She wrote this. It’s not true.’ OK, they can say that, but I haven’t been betrayed, harmed, or hurt. But I tend to love those people who I can trust. If you tell me a secret, there’s no way in hell I would ever tell it.”
She has done “a lot for a lot of people, and nobody knows it.” She’s a confidante for a lot of people, “but I never tell it.” The ultimate irony of her life as a gossip supremo is the number of secrets she keeps.
“Come inside, and get the hell out of the house!” Adams says, laughing.
This contradictory instruction is a prelude to being shown into Adams’ striking inner sanctum, a jostling, art and object-packed laboratory, the walls and ceilings papered with all her front pages. Just as Joan Rivers had a filing cabinet filled with her jokes, meticulously indexed by subject, so Adams has the same for her stories and subjects.
Adams recalls that former Governor Mario Cuomo objected to his front page being hidden behind a table. (She “won’t go there” on his son, the present governor’s scandals.) She proudly shows off the splashes about Hillary Clinton (when they were thrown out of the University Club in 1997 after Adams used her cellphone), Imelda... “Here’s Noriega, here’s Donald, the Shah, the Shah’s wife…” Whatever else, it is the most swaggering visual way for a journalist to show off their greatest hits.
I ask about her relationship with fellow gossip queen Liz Smith, who died aged 94 in 2017; on TV together they smiled and joked, but in reality, one former Post editor recalls Adams insisting her column be given prominence, i.e., run earlier in the paper, than Smith’s when Smith joined the Post. Smith was delightful and popular with people, we hear. Adams got the better stories.
“She was OK. It was no great thing one way or the other,” Adams says to me of Smith. “She was fine. She was the queen. She’d been doing it longer than me. She was older than me. She’d been around a long time. I don’t think she liked the fact I came in. We worked together quite well. When she died, the New York Times did a whole page on her and printed my picture. First edition. My photo and Liz Smith is dead. Great, right?”
Gossip, Adams tells the documentary, may be degraded but it will never die; natural human curiosity will ensure that. Adams tells me that the only interviewee-not-yet-booked Adams covets is Queen Elizabeth. (Unlikely as it is, what an encounter that would be.) I ask what Adams will do next. “I’m going to have to get my face lifted,” she shouts, hurrying me into the kitchen. Adams scoops Jellybean up. “Always Yorkies, New Yorkies!” she says, as she kisses Jellybean, and Jellybean licks her. She had three dogs before Jellybean, who is a year and a half.
Why does she love dogs so much? “Because I have no family. Dogs provide family,” Adams says, her blissed-out face buried in Jellybean’s fur.
Another volley of merry “Get the hell out of here”s follow. Outside her front door, Adams says, “You couldn’t have been nicer.” Then, concerned, she asks, “Did you get the piece?” In the hush of the hallway she is, theatricality temporarily at bay, just one journalist addressing another. “You can always call if there’s anything you need,” she says, as the arriving elevator pings. Adams also asks for my number, so she can complain once this article is published.