Page Six editor Richard Johnson, whose imminent departure from the New York Post’s marquee gossip column was announced Thursday, remains a feared figure in New York society. How do we know this? Because even folks who’ve been his targets had only nice things to say about him.
“Richard was always a class act,” billionaire Ronald Perelman told The Daily Beast, notwithstanding the fact that Perelman’s colorful personal life was frequent fodder for Johnson. “He was such a part of the New York scene he will truly be missed—even by those who were the subjects of column. It is really the end of an era.”
Donald Trump, who has received kinder treatment from Page Six, echoed Perelman’s sweet sentiments.
"I think Richard Johnson has done a spectacular job,” he said. “At the same time, in a very violent business—which was the business that he was in—I thought he was a very responsible person. I don't know who he's written about more than me over the years. I always felt that Richard was a really responsible writer in a not very responsible business."
And Alec Baldwin—with whom Johnson feuded for years, nicknaming him “The Bloviator” before they both called a truce in recent times—had this to say: "Look out Hollywood. Richard Johnson is coming. To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, in his own inimitable way."
What else would they say about a guy like this?
This, after all, is a man who once sent a letter to a rival columnist saying, “I’ll be waiting in the tall grass.” Another time he showed up at The Village Voice, barged in, and gave writer Joe Conason a nice old knuckle sandwich.
Still, it was in print that he was most fearsome. That was where movie stars and politicians alike got flogged, taking it on the chin for everything from their romantic conquests to their failure to pay their bills on time. Perhaps because News Corp leans right and so does Johnson (a thing that made him a good fit at the Post) Democrats fared worse under his leadership than Republicans. Still, he and his team weren’t averse to running a juicy item about an extramarital relationship involving a member of News Corp’s preferred party. For example, Page Six was the first place to name Judith Nathan as the object of the mayor’s affections, back when he was still married, but estranged from his then-wife Donna Hanover. And though the relationship between the gossip column and the Clinton camp was for many years, notoriously cantankerous (to use a favorite Page Six word), that’s long since been smoothed over.
From time to time, there were claims that Page Six got too close to sources and bullied people who were not sufficiently deferential to them. Whether or not either of these things were true may ultimately be beside the point in a world where the ordinary rules of journalism are not fully recognized and may even be detrimental to one’s success.
Was The New York Times mistaken when they pointed out Thursday night that Johnson had admitted a few years back to having taken $1,000 in an unmarked envelope from a source of his? No they were not.
And were they mistaken that Girls Gone Wild honcho Joe Francis shelled out $50,000 for a bachelor’s party for Johnson a few years back? No they were not.
If nothing really stuck to him, if Johnson survived it all, that’s partly because, he’s a pretty likeable guy.
Even his victims will say that.
I should know. I first appeared in Page Six when I was 15 years old and Page Six outed me in a blind item. My parents happened to be well-known, and I had in fact already told them I was gay, so I was a little amused by it, though I did call Johnson from a payphone at school to tell him he was scum.
Years later, I became a journalist, and I quickly learned that there were few greater miracles than having a story of mine “picked up” on Page Six. Luckily, Johnson never held the phone call against me, at least not in a way I could discern.
I also read Page Six religiously, perhaps because it is one of the few places to offer one stop shopping for everything from entertainment to politics. To quote George Rush, a onetime Page Sixer who went on to do his own column at the Daily News, “Richard could straddle a lot of different worlds. It was a mix of show business, politics, fashion, Wall Street, and media. The weaker gossips tend to have sources only in one arena. Political reporters don’t deign to write about Lindsay Lohan and people who follow Lindsay Lohan don’t know anything about Carl Paladino. He had an interest in both of those things. It wasn’t beneath him to talk about the Olsen twins and it wasn’t beyond him to talk about Milton Friedman or Timothy Geithner.”
When Mickey Rourke became a pro boxer, Johnson challenged him to a fight in the ring, though it never actually took place.
Now, Johnson’s headed West for a job in digital ventures with News Corp. No one’s really saying what he’ll be doing for the parent company, but the smart money—according to several gossip world sources—centers on his going to work for a new tablet newspaper the company is said to be working on. At least, that's what we hear. (Johnson declined comment for this article.)
Lloyd Grove contributed to this report.
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.