The indiscreet charm of Lucianne
Her cocktail of sex and gossip proved irresistible, if not deadly
By Andrew Ferguson
December 21, 1998
Before there was Linda Tripp--before there was Monica Lewinsky, even--there was Lucianne Goldberg. There's always been a Lucianne Goldberg. "This was years ago," Lucianne is saying. She's sitting in the bar of a steak-and-martini joint on Manhattan's West Side. We're done with the martinis, and now she's stabbing at a plate piled with steak tartare.
"This gal calls me, says she wants to do a book about all these Republican Congressmen she's--well--she's known." The way she says it, the word drips with such lubricity that you can't help knowing what known means.
"One chapter on each Republican," she continues. "One on [famous Republican name deleted], one on [ditto], another on [ditto]. And she has this great story about [very famous Republican name]. It turns out he would not take off his glasses--even when he was buck naked, performing a particular sex act that I will not describe. But you can imagine. Anyway, his glasses would get so steamed up he couldn't see. And he'd say, 'Baby, you look so beautiful.' And she'd say, 'How the hell would you know? You can't even see me, you [euphemism for body part deleted]!"
She laughs an unmistakable laugh--a Lucianne laugh, which begins as a moist chortle and inevitably escalates into an alarming smoker's cough before it subsides to a husky, satisfied sigh. This is how it goes during an evening with Lucianne Goldberg: martinis and heaps of red meat, high-end gossip and lots of cigarettes. And laughter--a great deal of laughter. With the scandal she midwifed and nurtured moving to an even bigger stage, Lucianne is determined to enjoy herself.
And who would expect otherwise? If a scandal hangs around long enough and becomes familiar enough, it takes on the quality of a melodrama, pushed along by characters that quickly harden into recognizable types. Depending on your point of view, Linda Tripp is a double-crossing shrew or a courageous whistle blower. Monica Lewinsky is either a vixen or a violated innocent. (An innocent in thong underwear, but still.) And Lucianne? At a minimum, she is forever sealed in history as the New York City literary agent who uttered to her friend the most ruinous sentence of the Clinton presidency: "Linda, buy a tape recorder."
In the now familiar story line--Linda tapes Monica, Linda plays tapes to Lucianne, Lucianne urges Linda to go to Kenneth Starr--Lucianne emerges as a type known to everyone, for better or worse. ONE WOMAN'S PLEASURE IS THE PRESIDENT'S PAIN: LUCIANNE GOLDBERG REVELS IN FRENZY SHE HELPED START, read a Washington Post headline early on in the scandal. "I'm not going to say that I did this because I'm some great Christian," she told the New Yorker during the scandal's first week. "I did it because it's f__ing fascinating! I love dish! I live for dish!" Goldberg was the mixer, the thrill seeker who makes mischief merely for the fun of seeing the fur fly.
It's a type as old as melodrama itself, ranging from the truly malignant (Iago) to the merely heedless and goofy (Auntie Mame). Where you place Lucianne between the two extremes is a matter of taste and political predisposition. But there's no denying that she brought color and diversion to a scandal that might otherwise have sunk under the weight of its own tawdriness. The highlights of her bio became quickly familiar even (maybe especially) to those who pretended to hate the scandal. She served as a hired spy for Richard Nixon's factotums on George McGovern's press plane in 1972; every night she reported back the latest (and by all accounts politically worthless) gossip. She is the author of a series of racy novels about sex and intrigue--"chick stuff," she calls them. As a literary agent she has specialized in pariahs and troublemakers: Mark Fuhrman; Watergate figure Maurice Stans; Prince Charles' gabby valet; and Dolly Kyle Browning, a high school friend of the President's who wrote a novel about their alleged decades-long affair.
Most everybody loves a saucy gossip at one remove; pot stirrers can be vastly amusing as long as they're stirring someone else's pot. But in the Lewinsky scandal, the pot Lucianne was stirring wasn't merely Clinton's but the country's. Some resentment, to put it mildly, was inevitable, and so were the counterattacks. Clients and old friends dropped her. Within days of the scandal's eruption, the Democratic National Committee faxed reporters an "information sheet" it hoped would prove damaging. A sheaf of unflattering profiles appeared.
Some of the stories about her shaded into fantasy and wishful thinking. Reporters buzzed with the rumor that she had a CIA connection. On Meet the Press, Louis Farrakhan suggested she was part of an Israeli plot to bring down the President. And this fall an interviewer for the New York Observer asked her whether she'd had a lesbian affair with Tripp. (For the record: she hasn't. God is merciful.)
Turnabout is fair play, of course: gossips should get gossiped about. She concedes the point. "I have never thought of myself as a victim in all this," she says. "Never. Let them take their best shot. I can take a truthful slime. If it's truthful, fine. I mean, it's my life, I lived it, I can't refute it. That's the game. But you have to be bulletproof to survive something like this. And there is enormous freedom in not caring whether people like you. And I can tell you honestly: I do not give a s__."
Besides, plenty of people do like her--now more than ever, as they used to say in '72. Among the vast right-wing conspiracy she has attained the status of folk hero. I met up with Goldberg the other night at Manhattan's Princeton Club, where a group of New York conservatives meet monthly for drinks and palaver. She swept into the room wearing a black pants outfit and a long, charcoal gray feather boa. With her gold cigarette holder and her swampy voice, she seemed a cross between Angela Lansbury and Jimmy Cagney. She made straight for the bar, and conversational clusters parted like the Red Sea as she passed.
She had spent the afternoon watching the impeachment hearings. One witness had particularly caught her eye. "Did you see that nose?" she cried to the admirers who quickly gathered round. "My God, he's got the same nose job as [name of Congressman deleted]! Got it right off the plastic surgeon's wall chart. There's only three styles of nose jobs on the chart, you know--A, B and C--and they both chose B. Do you suppose they were embarrassed to be seen together?"
When we left for dinner, it took us several minutes to get to the door. "I can't thank you enough for what you've done for this country," said an earnest young woman in a business suit. A man pumped her hand. "I can't believe I have the honor of standing here talking to you," he said. "Aren't you sweet," Goldberg purred.
In the restaurant, she talked about her new fame. She is, of course, recognized wherever she goes. "I don't particularly like it," she said, twisting the butt of a Marlboro Light from her cigarette holder and drawing a fresh one from a gold case. "You have to be nice and polite to people, whether you want to or not. But it's bearable. My life hasn't changed that much. Life is still fine, just slightly different."
She lives with her husband, an executive with a news-feature syndicate, in a nine-room apartment on the West Side. "I don't get out that much, anyway. I cook. And talk on the phone. I have a huge phone network--50 or 60 calls a day. I have a wonderful life. That's part of the frustration people might have dealing with me. I want for nothing. I have a wonderful husband. I have wonderful kids. I have a wonderful life-style. I'd like to be 30 lbs. lighter, but what the hell. I mean, what are they going to do to me?"
If she sounds tough, it's because she probably is--as many people have learned. She mentions a TV talking head. "He trashed me. On the air. I got his home number. Called him up. His boyfriend answered and put him on the line. I said, 'You mention my name again, and you are outed.' He said, 'I don't take kindly to threats.' I said, 'This is not a threat. It's a promise.'" She adjusts her feather boa and raises her eyebrows.
"And he's never mentioned me again."
Not that she cares, but she now says she was slightly miscast when the scandal broke. She loves dish, of course, but she had a higher purpose in loosing the Lewinsky scandal upon the world.
"We, as a country, needed a test," she says. "And that's what this scandal was: a little priority test, for everybody--particularly for people who've had kids in the past 30 years, when all this nonsense was going on. You know what I mean, this whole mind-set: screw everybody you want. Don't have a husband if you have a baby. Walk out on relationships. Latchkey kids are O.K. Don't marry anybody. The whole general morality. Get [oral sex] in the bathroom of the Oval Office. We needed a wake-up call, and this was a major wake-up call."
The mind reels: Lucianne Goldberg, moralizer? Hearing her discourse on moral rot, you realize the extent to which the scandal of 1998 was an extension of her--not simply in its mechanics but in its tone and flavor. "Everything is gossip," she likes to say, and who, having lived through the Lewinsky scandal, can doubt her? The scandal was a gossip's dream--and a moralist's too. For a solid year we were all part of Lucianne's phone network, and the media culture was remade in her image. Our giddy appetite for gossip--for chicanery and sexual indiscretion and human failings in all their ruinous possibility--got bound up inextricably with moralizing and political ideology, just as it did when she and Linda Tripp decided the world should know about the President and Monica Lewinsky. So thoroughly have the high-minded elements been mixed with the tawdry ones that it may take us forever to disentwine them.
This is Lucianne's legacy to us. And be warned: she's not going to go away.
"After this thing is over," she says, "we'll move on to the next thing. There's always more to come. Especially now that I know how."
That sounds like a threat.
"Oh, it's no threat," she says, adjusting her feather boa and reaching for another Marlboro. "It's a promise."
And she lets out one long last laugh.
MORE TIME STORIES:
Cover Date: December 28, 1998
The story of the year
The Clinton in us all
The better half
How Starr sees it
The Starr report
The outrage that wasn't
Where the Right went wrong
On to the Senate
The rest of Monica
The friend from Hell
The indiscreet charm of Lucianne
The Speaker who never was