Thursday, June 9, 2016

George Gurley's New York: Nikki Haskell

by George Gurley

Nikki Haskell was feeling ecstatic the other day. For one thing, 27 episodes of her eponymous public access show are now available on Amazon Prime and another hundred will go up before September. She is also shopping around a half hour TV pilot.

“Hi, I’m Nikki Haskell!” the sizzle reel begins. “During the '80s I had a groundbreaking television show and traveled all over the world interviewing famous movie stars, celebrities, rock stars, dignitaries, artists, fashion designers and even drag queens. ‘Flashback to the Future’ is going to give you a look at everything that’s happening today, all the new young hot stars ... and then we’re going to go back to the '80s and you’re going to see friends from yesterday.”

Nikki wanted to give a quick tour of her Upper East Side penthouse with stunning views.
NH: I spent half my life in Studio 54, and coming home at night after being eyeball to eyeball with people — a lot of times the sun was coming up — and I would stand here and look as far as the eye can see. It gave me this calming effect. If you look around the apartment you’ll notice there are thousands of portraits of me. I have about 40 LeRoy Neiman paintings. I was his muse.

In the kitchen are framed articles about her, one by Eugenia Shepherd after she won a “stockbroker of the year” award.

NH: I was a stockbroker for ten years. I was among the first five female stockbrokers in the world.

A plaque honoring Nikki for her contributions to the Democratic party. A picture from her modeling days.
Various portraits of Nikki by LeRoy Neiman.
GG: You’re a bombshell. Why didn’t you go into the movies?

NH: I don’t know, nobody wanted me. It’s not over yet!

GG: Your last name was Greer back then?

NH: No, my real name is Nikki Goldbus but I hated my maiden name. They used to call me Silver Tits and Copper Cart. So one day I decided to change my name. I called my mother and said, “I’m changing my name to Greer.” She said, “Oh, Greer Goldbus, I like it, much better!”

On a wall in the hallway is a long article about The Nikki Haskell Show.
NH: I’ll never forget the day it came out. I was with Rick James, we were going to L.A. So we get on the airplane and they used to give out newspapers, and if you could’ve seen the look on the peoples’ faces in first class. They almost fainted (italics) when they saw me on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Now we can sit down. I was called The Cable Baby of the '80s. I named myself that. This was the very, very first groundbreaking show ever to appear on television. Entertainment Tonight hadn’t started yet. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Insider, Extra! — they all came from The Nikki Haskell Show, and every reality show.

GG: Who are some of the guests in the first batch of your shows on Amazon Prime?

NH: George Hamilton, Jack Valenti, Michael Caine, Joe Bologna, Donald Trump — we got Donald on the show with Timothy Leary! Zsa Zsa Gabor, Christopher Atkins, Phyllis Diller, Carl Reiner, Kirk Douglas, Lloyd Bridges, George Burns, Dick Cavett. Who else? Diana Ross, Sammy Cahn, Divine, Steve Rubell. I was the only one who ever had a television show that shot at Studio 54. I love it when people call me and say, “Oh you know I saw this Studio 54 footage and you’re in it.” I go, ‘It’s my footage!’ When I shot my shows I knew it was a phenomenon. I have fashion footage that nobody has. You know they did two take-offs of my show on Saturday Night Live?
Nikki with George Hamilton and Joan Collins.
Nikki with Aretha Franklin.
Nikki with Bob Evans.
NIkki with Hillary and Beverly Johnson.
NIkki with Bill.
GG: Can you start at the very beginning?

NH: I was born in Chicago and was very spoiled. I was a champion horseback rider. I think it gave me a great sense of who I was, of timing, and it made me actually fearless. I had custom made riding suits, tuxedos with white wing collars and high silk hats. My father was in the millinery business. My mother was very glamorous. They used to take me to the nightclubs. The first time I went with them I saw Carmen Miranda and ever since I’ve had a little of her in my act. I saw Jimmy Durante lots of times. Dean Martin. I’ve known Don Rickles since I was a little kid. Shecky Greene, Red Buttons, all those guys. I was friendly with Milton Berle from the time I was six to the day he died.

Was yours a happy, trouble-free childhood?

NH: One day I came home from school and my mother told me that my father was in an automobile accident and my whole life totally changed. The first thing that went were the horses. Then my parents decided to move to Beverly Hills. Right away, everybody liked me. My first best friend in grammar school was Barry Diller. The day I started the eighth grade my father died of a heart attack. I was 13 and everybody was so wonderful to me. The first Saturday I went to the state theater, and they were chanting my name: “Nik-ki, Nik-ki!” We went from being super rich to not being rich at all. My mother had to go to work, a buyer for a very prominent furrier. Most of my friends were a lot richer but everybody was just great. I never had a bad day. My mother used to always say, "Take good days and bad days and treat them the same."
Nikki with Jamie Foxx. Nikki with Lenny Kravitz.
Nikki with Harry Hamlin.
Nikki with Robin Williams.
Nikki with Sly Stallone. Nikki with Hugh Jackman.
GG: What were you known for in high school?

NH: I was head cheerleader of my freshman class at Beverly High. I was voted Biggest Flirt. I barely graduated and was totally ill-equipped to do anything. So then I was going to get married and live happily ever after. I got married in 1962. Jack Haskell was in the real estate business and I got my license and went to work for him. That lasted about a year and a half.

GG: What happened after the divorce?

NH: Oh, I had such a good time, lots of cute boyfriends. So I took $18,000 from the settlement and made $2 million in the stock market. What happened is I went to this girlfriend of mine whose father was Pandro S. Berman, a very famous movie producer who discovered Elizabeth Taylor and Sidney Poitier. So I said to Susan [Moshay], who’s still a close friend, “Give me a list of the stocks your father bought for you.” I bought 10 shares of this, 20 shares of that, and in like a week everything doubled. But I was really disappointed in myself because I’d failed at the one thing I really wanted to be: happily married. So for all the wrong reasons I remarried my ex-husband because he professed his love and was very, very successful.
Nikki with Rod Stewart and Penny Lancaster. Nikki with The Donald.
Nikki interviewing Tony Danza.
Nikki with Barbara Davis. Nikki with Aretha Franklin.
Nikki with Alan Cumming.
Nikki with Kim and Kanye.
Nikki with Nicky Hilton, Nancy Davis, and Paris Hilton.
GG: When did you move to New York?

NH: Late '60s. We took an apartment at 470 Park Avenue. My husband said to me one day, “Why don’t you get a job? I said, “A job? Why?” He said, “Well, you can’t just go to '21' for lunch every day.” At the New York Institute of Finance, I was the only woman in a class of like 1800 men. In the middle of that I got divorced. So I went from living on Park Avenue to a furnished sublet on 34th Street and Second, and making $75 dollars a week as a trainee. My first account was Revlon and my first order was to sell 30,000 shares of Restaurant Associated stock. I was hot stuff. Big commissions in those days.

GG: So you were focused on work and little else?

NH: No, I was going out every night, partying! I was a member of Le Club, the greatest place in New York at the time. One night I saw this really handsome, hot guy, and asked the maître d’ who that man was over there. He said he’s a new member, his name is Donald Trump, and I said I’d like to meet him. I found him very empowering, very attractive. Several months later Roy Cohn invited me to a dinner at '21' and I sat next to Donald. We clicked right away. The first night Donald took Ivana out we double dated. She and I became friends like that and the night Studio 54 opened in 1977 I went with Donald and Ivana! They were not party people but I convinced them to go ... People used to say, “Where do you live?” and I’d say, “I live at Studio 54 but I keep an apartment in the East '60s.”
Nikki with The Donald.
Nikki with Ivanka.
GG: You were still working on Wall Street?

NH: I quit my job at Drexel. One night I decided to stay home the first time in years, take one night off. Then a friend called and said there’s this fabulous dinner tonight at Doubles. So I went to that and ran into Egon von Furstenberg at Regine’s. He said, “How would you like to be the co-host of this cable television show they what me to do?” I said yes. Egon and I had this magical connection. I went off to the Cannes Film Festival and kept wondering why there was nobody there doing a television show. I thought, Oh, this is what we’ll do. We’ll bring the show here. Then Egon said, “Dahling, I’m not going to be able to do it, I have a new line of clothes and I’m so sorry.” I drove to St. Tropez and all the way was thinking, Well, that would have really been fun. I was staying with a friend, Larry Collins, who wrote O Jerusalem!, and he had a big house. When I pulled in there was a phone call for me. They said, “Egon doesn’t want to do this show but we decided to make it your show.”

GG: Was it on Channel J?

NH: Four times a week. There was an empty gay discotheque called The Underground and that’s where we filmed the first Nikki Haskell Show. Then I started doing the show myself. It was so much fun to shoot, I loved every minute of it. But I had no money and it was so complicated in those days. I shot, produced, edited and hosted. I used to always say, “All right, everyone, fasten your jet-set seatbelts!” Otherwise, it was totally unscripted. I never really interviewed people, I had conversations. I can’t really call myself a journalist but in fact I am. I can’t really call myself a documentarian but I documented the '80s and my footage was the only of its kind.
Nikki with Chris Rock.
Nikki with Alicia Keys
Nikki with Sofía Vergara. Nikki with Lionel Richie.
Nikki with Denzel Washington.
GG: How did you keep the show going?

NH: Clubs would pay me $5,000 to create some fabulous party. Then the club would open up and lots of celebrities would come. I gave one for Yul Brenner. We totally converted Studio 54 into this set of “The King and I” and Michael Jackson came — we launched “Thriller” at Studio. The show was really popular because there wasn’t anything on the air like it. It got to the point where everyone was calling me because I was working for 20th Century Fox, Orion Pictures, music companies. I did a great party with Clive Davis for Whitney Houston when her album went double platinum.

About six months ago, I was with Clive at a party for Quincy Jones and Robert De Niro was sitting there. I walked up to him and said, “I’m sure you don’t remember me, I’m Nikki Haskell,” and he said, “Do you still have your television show?” I once chased him down the street in Cannes and got into an elevator with him. He turned his back on me and I interviewed his back! At another big premiere I was wearing this gorgeous ball gown and a wireless mic. I decided I’m not going to stand in the press line ... I’m going where cars were pulling up. I looked into one and there’s Sophia Loren. She got out and I said, “Hi, how are you?” and put my arm right in her arm. The two of us walked right into The Carlton. It was fabulous. She didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be with her!
Nikki With Andy.
Nikki with La Toya Jackson and Joan Collins.
Nikki with George Clooney. Nikki with Rob Lowe.
Nikki with Keith Haring.
Nikki with Any Warhol and Richard Weisman.
GG: More highlights, please.

NH: Reverend Moon made this movie called “Inchon” and they sent us to the South of France. Warren Cowan sent me all over the world. He represented all these dictators. I went by myself to the Philippines for the Manila Film Festival. So I go to the American Embassy the first night with Jeremy Irons who’s there for “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” and I see Madame Marcos — and I have been close friends with George Hamilton since I was 19.

GG: How’d you two meet?

NH: I lived in Beverly Hills. Probably at The Daisy, a very fabulous private club. First time I went out with George we ended up with Howard Hughes at the Beverly Hills Hotel. So then I look across the room and there’s George coming in with Madame Marcos. I have made up my mind that I am going to interview her no matter what ... Anyway, so Madame Marcos was stopping to say hello to everyone. She introduced herself to Jeremy Irons and then said, “You’re Nikki Haskell, aren’t you? I just saw you on television interviewing Peter Ustinov and this one and you come with me.” After that I was always with Madame Marcos, wherever she went. She was incredible, very serious but very cool. Listen, dictators do what they do, buy hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of art, abscond with all the jewelry and money but in the meantime she did a lot of good for the country, too. She started the shoe industry. She got a bad rap with her own shoes story. Is this story boring you?
Nikki with Charlton Heston.
Nikki with LL Cool J.
Nikki with Pamela Anderson.
GG: No, are you kidding me?

NH: Madame Marcos said, “Yes, I know you want to interview me. Okay, I will send a car and it will take you to the palace.” I was never an investigative reporter. I was sort of like “what’s your favorite color?’ and “what do you eat for breakfast?” kind of an interviewer. I made up my mind to ask a few easy questions first: How did you meet President Marcos? Why do you like to stay up late every night and go dancing? Don’t you think it’s frivolous? What do you think when people compare you to Eva Peron? She didn’t like that one: “I am not Eva Peron!” Then I asked her if she had her son-in-law kidnapped. That was the toughest question I ever had to ask anyone. She said, “No, this is an act of a simpleton and I am not a simpleton.”

GG: Did anyone ever find out if she did it?

NH: Of course she never had him kidnapped! [His captors] released him two months later. So it was in all the papers that Madame Marcos and I were new best friends. Needless to say I was invited the following year to the film festival. When I got there they sent the army to the airport for me. Madame Marcos had built this “Coconut Palace” out of coconut shells and seashells, the most lavish event you ever saw. I sat next to President Marcos at the opening dinner and he said, “How come you never want to interview me?” I said I’d love to. He said, “You be at the palace on Wednesday. I’ll have the car pick you up at 9 o’clock in the morning.” Tuesday night at like 3 a.m. I got a call saying that Madame Marcos was taking out the royal yacht, an aircraft carrier, so I just assumed the President was coming with us. He wasn’t there, so I had totally stood up the president.
Nikki and MIckey.
GG: How was the boat trip?

NH: Fabulous. One room was magnificently decorated and there were two men on stepladders pouring oil drums of caviar into these gigantic Limoge urns. We got back at midnight. At 6 a.m. the phone rings: “Is Nikki Haskell there?” “Who’s this?” “This is President Marcos. You were supposed to be at the palace yesterday. I’m sending a car for you now.”

GG: Any other scoops you’re proud of?

NH: I did the last interview with Peter Sellers, at the Hotel du Cap. He was there for “Being There” and he died the next day of a heart attack.

GG: This will be on Amazon Prime?

NH: Yes. I did Arnold Schwarzenegger for “Conan the Barbarian.” I did the “Hart to Hart” polo matches. Jill St. John and I are lifelong friends, and when I was a little girl she married a man named Lance Reventlow who was Barbara Hutton’s son. He was my best friend and taught me how to drive on a 350 SL. Then Jill married Robert Wagner and we gave a party for her at Le Club. Kissinger came, Liza was there, and Sinatra.

So that was a pretty cool party. I was throwing six a month back then, sometimes like every other day. I have no idea how I did it. It was a miracle. The show is a miracle.

When I looked at them a few months ago, and I’m embarrassed to tell you this, but tears started running down my face. I was like, How did I ever do this? How did I ever wear all these gorgeous dresses? I did the premiere for “Hells Angels Forever.” I had like eight hundred Hells Angels going down Park Avenue and we closed 42nd and Broadway.
GG: Any other journalistic coups?

NH: Gene Kelly. It’s just the best, best interview ever. Anthony Quinn!

GG: Tell me about Joan Collins.

NH: Joan is one of my best friends. I was just with her last Monday. She’s one of the very few women I can go shopping with. Joan’s smart, fun, funny, and always looks like a movie star. You’ll never find her in a pair of ripped jeans and a T-shirt and a cup of Starbucks coffee in her hand getting in an SUV. I just interviewed Joan for the pilot.
Nikki and Joan.
Nikki with Joan Collins and Don Rickles.
Nikki with Clive Davis, Jackie Collins, Harry Connick Jr., and Joan Collins.
GG: Who else is in your inner circle?

NH: Beverly Johnson ... Barbara Davis ... Jolene Schlatter ... Eleanor Pillsbury ... Brenda Vaccaro ... Cheryl Tiegs ... Jacqueline Bisset and I have a couple of fun new friends like this girl I’m going to co-host “Flashback to the Future” with Megan O’Brien. She’s a tall, pretty blonde in her 30s who writes for Harper’s Bazaar and works with beauty and luxury brands.

GG: What network do you want “Flashback” to be on?

NH: I think the show should be on late night. My show is not a comedy show, it’s much more fun ... but there’s no reason we couldn’t be a morning or a midday show. It will entail me being in New York a lot. One of the pitches is that this isn’t going to be shot in Los Angeles behind a desk. This is a show on the go.
GG: Will there be a party to celebrate the return of The Nikki Haskell Show?

NH: Yes, soon. I’ll tell you the greatest thing is that my show will live on forever. It will always be on Amazon Prime. People a hundred years from now will be able to see Studio 54. I’m taking people on a journey. I never really interviewed anybody who wasn’t really prominent. We went everywhere, we did everything and nobody ever did anything like that. It was so much fun, I can’t tell you. As excited as I am about “Flashback to the Future” — I’ve always wanted to re-interview the same people from my first show, and I really want to have more parties and go to more places — but the fact that the old shows are going up is just absolutely the most exciting thing that’s ever happened. My mother used to say, "If you live long enough, anything can happen." I am just ecstatic. I’m just so ecstatic.