Thursday, February 22, 2007

Aileen Mehle

The dowager, doyenne and queen of society columnists in America, Mrs. Mehle is said to have been “discovered” by Truman Capote who first started talking about her in New York (buzz-buzz) when she was writing a society column in Miami. Born deep in the heart of Texas (El Paso), her stiletto wit, always accompanied by the signature satin-y slap and a tickle made her a must-read for anyone with the slightest appreciation for the puncturing of pomposity and the human comedy.

She first came to the New York Daily Mirror, which was the Hearst morning tabloid which competed with the New York Daily News, in the late 1950s, writing under the nom de plume Suzy. There were seven major daily papers in those days, four morning papers the News, the Mirror, the Times, the Herald-Tribune, and three afternoon papers: The World Telegram and Sun, the Journal American, and the Post. And they all had a society column of one kind or another. Although the then left-leaning Post, owned by Wall Street banking heiress Dorothy Schiff, eschewed the notion of society in homage to the notion of the proletarian idea. She was, it turned out, ahead of her time.

The number one social column for decades had been Cholly Knickerbocker, also a nom de plume which was then the domain of Igor Cassini, the suave and sophisticated brother of designer Oleg Cassini. The reason for its prominence was circulation and syndication. Cholly Knickerbocker was in the Hearst afternoon paper, the New York Journal-American and had been created first by a man named Maury Paul who coined the term “café society” after the repeal of Prohibition when society began its long and ultimate descent into proletarian manners and mores that we find ourselves with today.

By the late 50s, early 60s, Mr. Cassini (known as Ghi-ghi to his legions of socialite friends) left most of the grunt work – the writing, that is, to another young Texas girl who’d been in town only a few minutes longer than Mrs. Mehle – Liz Smith. This juxtaposition of Texas girls covering the social scene never was to be, it turned out, harmonious. As the French would say (even in Texas) “c’est la vie.”

Number two on the list of prominent society reporters in those days was the Daily News column written by Nancy Randolph (also a nom de plume) who was more of a hat-and-white-gloves sort of reporter (Cholly Knickerbocker was a little clubbier and intimate than Randolph’s textbook reportage where a big story was who got kicked out of the Social Register for marrying whom). The Daily News, of course, had the largest circulation in the city.

The New York Times and New York Herald-Tribune never had a society gossip column per se, being above all that (or so they pretended — or were possibly uninterested — the Trib was owned by the very rich and top drawer social Jock Whitney) but they did have society pages that were devoted to the ladies who lunched and volunteered and married (and eventually died). Divorce, even when it occurred, was never touched on and only vaguely alluded to in those papers.

And the World Telegram which started out life in the 19th century as three different papers, namely Joseph Pulitzer’s The New York Evening World, had a column written by another hat-and-white-gloves proper lady named Mimi Strong (Mrs. Stephen van Rensselaer Strong), now a top literary agent, whose husband’s family went all the way back to the real Knickerbocker families.

So when Mrs. Mehle arrived on the scene, The Daily Mirror’s number one columnist was Walter Winchell, who was and remains the most widely read gossip columnist in American press history (30 million people a day!). These were, it would turn out, Winchell’s last days and so society, or café society, or the horsey set (who often mingled with café society) was open season for the clever and never-not-amusing Mrs. Mehle, now known as Suzy. She had free rein and they were ready for someone to rustle up the silks and satins. And that she did.

A very goodlooking woman, movie star glamorous (a real babe), she was already the lady of choice to a lot of panting South American playboys and rich American sportsmen (the accepted word for rich boys who didn’t do anything but play). And she always had a few words of wisdom that were sufficiently sympathetic and empathic for the ladies of the smart set, so she was never a threat. Although she had already been married and was mother of a son, for a long time she was romantically linked to Barbara Hutton’s first cousin Woolworth Donohue. Later in her life, she had a long relationship with film producer Walter Wanger but she never married either man.

As light as the bubbles on a glass of champagne as she could be in print, she could be feisty too, and it was some of her press feuds that brought her attention (and always victory) and endeared her to her gathering fans who reveled in her snarky seasonings. Once in a feud with Zsa Zsa Gabor, she referred to the Hungarian-born beauty as Miss Chicken Paprika of 1914. Zsa Zsa lost, alas, my dollink.

By the late 1960s, the seven major dailies were reduced to three – the three which remain today (the new New York Sun notwithstanding): The Times, the News and the Post. Mrs. Mehle left the defunct Mirror for the Journal-American, replacing Cassini who got in trouble with the Feds because of international public relations clients that he hadn’t registered with the State Department. There she was given the moniker Suzy Knickerbocker (“well, they finally gave me a last name” she began her first column in the afternoon paper). When the J-A went belly up, she went off to the News, or the Post, or vice versa and before she was through, wrote for both of them.

By that time (the early 70s), she was the only society columnist in New York, and therefore the most important one in the world. Liz Smith, not so incidentally, had moved on to her own column which took up the reins of the great Winchell column, where she remains today also. After a number of years, Mrs. Mehle moved to Women’s Wear Daily and W where she remains today.

In the process, the transmogrification of what was called high society, and then café society was succeeded by the jet set and eventually what became (dubbed by Women’s Wear) Nouvelle Society and the society of charity benefits. And Mrs. Mehle, still writing as Suzy (they dropped the Knickerbocker when the J-A ended) became not just the chronicler and commentator of society in New York but the actual ad hoc arbiter of what people regard as society, and there she remains today (the Mrs. Astor may she R.I.P.) — still looking like the movie star she never was but might have been.

Her items now have more to do with Brad and Angelina that Bitsy and Reggie because, as she might possibly agree herself, those days are gone for ever and the reading public (what’s left of them) want to feast on celebrity-dom, no matter how dumb they might be.

Last year, after a half-century of chronicling the ways the international rich and social, Mrs. Mehle retired from her daily column in W.