Gossiping With Tabloid Icon Cindy Adams

The stalwart of the New York Post gets ready to tell all — kind of.

Cindy Adams at home with her housekeeper, Nazalene Persaud. Photo: Gillian Laub for New York Magazine
Cindy Adams at home with her housekeeper, Nazalene Persaud. Photo: Gillian Laub for New York Magazine

The penthouse that gossip built looms above Park Avenue guarded by a one-and-a-half-year-old Yorkie, Jellybean, who was sososososososoexcited to have a guest, and a 91-year-old New York Post columnist, Cindy Adams, who was not.

“What is it you’re looking for?” she asked me. “What do you want?!”

The occasion for my visit was Gossip, the four-part Showtime documentary series, out August 22, in which director Jenny Carchman tells the story of the New York Post and the Murdochization of American media through the newspaper’s most enduring star, who has for almost 40 years devoted five hours a day, six days a week, to crafting her column.

“I would never leave the Post,” Adams told me, “because I’m very loyal and because the New York Post is the flavor of New York. If you go to the Hamptons — I sold my house there, I don’t want to go to the Hamptons — they say that you can’t go to dinner unless you first go to the newsstand and pick up the Post. I don’t know about Colorado. I don’t care about Arkansas; I don’t even know where they are — but if you’re in New York, it’s the New York Post.

On the page, Adams is a few hundred words of zigzagging chitchat concerned mostly with celebrities and socialites and personal friends or allies. To grab from a stack of Posts at random is to shake a Magic 8-Ball of Adams’s fortunes for the fortunate: One recent column included an update on Reese Witherspoon’s ascent to Hollywood moguldom amid news of her funding deal with Blackstone and, pegged to no news at all, a brief introduction to John Catsimatidis’s wife, Margo. The union of Mr. and Mrs. Catsimatidis is more than 30 years old, but Adams and Catsimatidis have a new partnership; as a side hustle, she’s hosting a talk-radio show on his station, WABC. (She left that part out.) Another recent column was devoted almost entirely to a casual accusation that movies create gun violence, which she backed up not with argument but by listing a random assortment of celebrities — Brad Pitt, Ice-T — who have owned firearms.

This is reporting of the kitten heel rather than the shoe leather — proudly transactional, rarely transparent, tailored not for the public interest but for private grievance or professional maneuvering or petty warfare. Adams has a term for the distinct manner in which she communicates: “I write smartmouth,” she said. “I write like a city person. My English is perfect, but I don’t write that way. I write the way a New Yorker sounds.” New York’s city editor, Christopher Bonanos, assessed the Adams style this way: “She’s the last known survivor of the art she practices, and the last person on the island who speaks the language of a lost population — that rat-a-tat thing of Walter Winchell and Leonard Lyons — and she’s got to write it down to pass it on.”

It’s all very simple to Adams, who views the world as divided between “somebodies” and “nobodies.” And, as she explained it to me, “I’m not gonna write about nobody!” I guess I wanted to understand why.

We were seated in a corner of her 4,200-square-foot palace, late-afternoon light streaming in from the terrace and reflecting off the metallic spikes on the collar of her Prada blouse. She is pretty in a way that I probably would have described as girlish had I not seen her face squished next to Jellybean’s; it’s more accurate to say that Adams is Yorkie-ish. Unlike Jellybean, she eyed me with disdain.

“What’s the question?! I don’t understand the question!” she said, leaning back in her chair and rolling her eyes. “Your questions are about gossip. I. Don’t. Think. About. Gossip.”

By this, Adams did not mean that she doesn’t devote much of her life to the sport of acquiring and disseminating shards of information about the people she thinks matter most but that she does not care to analyze gossip in any sort of philosophical way. Why would anyone spend time talking about gossip when they could be busy doing something useful, like spreading it? “It means nothing!” she said, exasperated. “Gossip doesn’t mean anything!”

The way the studios forged starlets from plain Janes, Adams says she was forged for a life in New York society. Her family had no money, but her mother, Jessica Sugar Heller, got Cindy a nose job (illegally) when she was 15, plus a procedure to push back her hairline. She sent her to etiquette classes and banished any trace of a class-betraying New York lilt with broadcast-English lessons. Adams says her mother “improved” her, and when I asked if it fucked her up at all, she responded like I was from outer space. “My mother was wonderful to me,” she said. “She. Created. Me.”

The project was a success, and by 17, Cindy was a local pageant queen going steady with Joey Adams, a vaudeville comic who seemed to have the keys to the city. “I went from one to the other: a mother who took care of me no matter how ill I was, how unpretty I was. And then I married a man exactly the same age as my mother who took care of me.”

Adams likes to say that her husband was “a No. 2 with a No. 1 lifestyle.” Joey’s connectedness — in show business, in media, in politics — primed Cindy to become something beyond an access journalist and more like a spokeswoman for the stars.

When Joey went to Asia on tour with a variety show, Cindy made friends with other powerful couples: the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his wife Farah, and Indonesian president Sukarno and his wife Dewi. In 1965, she published her first book, Sukarno: An Autobiography, As Told to Cindy Adams. She got her break in the news business in 1979, when she was summoned to visit the Shah on his deathbed and the invitation conflicted with her dinner plans with then–Post editor-in-chief Roger Wood. Adams skipped the dinner, met the Shah, and wrote up what she saw for Wood, who slapped the exclusive on the cover. Adams officially became a Post columnist in 1981, just in time for the tabloid rise of her close friend Donald Trump (whom she met through her other close friend Roy Cohn).

Adams is a registered Republican with what she calls her own “values,” but her decisions over the decades have been largely in service to one cause: the advancement of Cindy Adams. In Gossip, Carchman details how Adams maneuvered through the paper, making herself useful to her bosses; in one scene, Adams recounts working with Governor Mario Cuomo to get Rupert Murdoch the legal rights to run the Post and his television network, Fox News, at the same time. What was good for the Post was good for Adams, and she remains proud of her ability to use her pen to secure these intertwined fates.

“What struck me was how politically savvy she was in terms of how to handle people like Col Allan,” one tabloid vet told me, referring to the onetime Post editor-in-chief and Murdoch confidant. “Cindy noticed that Col was this alien from Australia who didn’t know what was going on and felt lonely and isolated, and she took him under her wing, squired him around Manhattan, made sure he was invited to things, and thus secured her role there.”

The less generous view was that Adams was a “political opportunist,” in the words of one media executive, who said her coziness with Murdoch meant that her column was essentially corrupt, since readers could never know when she was carrying out her boss’s bidding. “Cindy was a good girl,” the executive said, “She did what Daddy wanted.”

Adams sometimes rationalizes her role as a mouthpiece for monstrous people by framing it in careerist terms, arguing that, when everyone else is savaging a public figure, the only way to be original is to sidle up and make the defense’s case instead. Other times, she’ll rationalize these relationships in terms of personal allegiance. When asked about her conspicuous lack of coverage of the Trump presidency, Adams said, “I take care of my friends, and I continue to love my friends. I didn’t write about any of the difficulties of Donald Trump, nor am I going to.” (She claims, for instance, to have known all about his affair with Marla Maples long before it became a matter of public record but didn’t report it. “Donald’s my friend,” she said, “so I wouldn’t have printed it.”)

When I asked her about moral conflict, she glared again. “What does that mean?” she said. “I don’t have that problem because I do not do anything that starts in here.” She turned her hand toward her heart and moved it up and down. “If it starts to upset me in here, if I feel it’s making me uncomfortable, I will not write it.”

This from the woman who once said in a TV interview, “Lying, to me, goes with the turf. Of course you lie. You do anything. And I’ve done almost everything … Hell, you’ve gotta get the story.” To me, she denied this was her view. “I don’t think lying is part of the job,” she said. “I think doing what you have to do is part of the job.”

Biography such as this, about a public figure of a certain age, invites media coverage that resembles obituary, and in fact, one of the first things people do when you call them to talk about Adams is ask if she’s dead, which she’s not, or dying, which she’s also not, any more than we all are, or if she’s still writing, which a daily thumb through the Post confirms she very much is. Even today, so far into the era of the democratization of the gossip industry that its most popular practitioner is an anonymous social-media user named Deuxmoi, Adams commands a devoted readership. My Aunt Dianne gets the Post delivered to her doorstep in Queens and reads it on her patio with her iced coffee each morning. When she’s finished, she folds the paper up, slips it back into its plastic, and throws it over the fence for her neighbor. I didn’t expect the ritual had anything to do with attachment to a particular writer — and anyway, I could tell Aunt Dianne that I interviewed Jesus Christ and she would probably say something along the lines of “That’s nice, Liv! Was he handsome?” — but when I mentioned that I’d met Cindy Adams, she yelped. “Oh my God! I LOVE Cindy Adams! I can’t get through a day without reading Cindy Adams,” she said. “I get such a kick out of her. She’s old-school!”

Even readers less enthused than Aunt Dianne remain loyal. One frequent target of the tabloids put it this way: “Do you matter in New York City if Cindy Adams doesn’t shit on you? It’s a rite of passage.” Daily News columnist Harry Siegel said he finds value in her “crazy, garbled Winchell shorthand” because she reflects the thinking of her social circle, “a bunch of guys like Trump and Catsimatidis” who exist mostly in analog. “This is where their information is flowing through. She is still, at 91, a conduit for that,” Siegel said. “It’s all through her narrator voice. None of the sentences have all that much meaning. Everything’s soup — but it’s very useful soup. It’s this general mushy-minded understanding of older people, and all of them are talking but I’m not privy to those conversations.” The tabloid target agreed. “People are more likely to see you quoted there than in The Atlantic.

The people of the press are bitchy by nature, but after getting their licks in, almost everyone offers up admiration for Adams’s longevity; old age has the effect of buffing the edge off everyone’s claws. One tabloid vet offered this criticism: “Cindy’s one of those people who views everybody through the prism of how they treat her. So if Adolf Hitler had been nice to her, well …” And then, in the next breath, added, “She’s still showing up to things and unfurling her notebook and getting quotes from B-list actors — I mean, God bless!” And the media executive, who hates almost everyone, said, “Look, you’ve gotta give her credit. She was clever at the end of the day, and she stays in the game because she plays it safe.”

Life is hell and the media is a snake pit, so I am awed by Adams the way I am awed by anything with that much fight in it. But who wants to play a game with rules like this? If you ever stop, you lose, but if you play forever, you still can never win. This is something to admire only if you believe ambition is a virtue and, more practically, if you believe a person like Adams does not owe history a truthful account of all the dirt she has spent a lifetime not reporting. “Normally, someone writes the memoir when they don’t care anymore,” Bonanos said, “and she’s never gonna do it. So the question is, What’s the point of the secrets?”

These days, Cindy Adams is — still — what people used to call a tough broad. Some of that feels like a protective shtick: You don’t survive a near half-century in the media if you don’t learn to assemble a version of you that exists for consumption so that you may emerge without a scab no matter how much you’ve been picked at. And hers is a good shtick, of the variety you’d expect from the wife of the Borscht Belt icon credited with the line “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”

But the performance cracks when it comes to the subject of her friend the former president, who is under investigation by New York prosecutors. There’s a story in Gossip in which Trump flies Adams in his helicopter to sprinkle her late husband’s ashes over Central Park after he died in 1999. I realized later that, a few months before Joey’s death, Trump had been angry with Adams for not attending his own father’s funeral. So this was a tale of Donald Trump showing a capacity for forgiveness and generosity — not to mention defying his germaphobe reputation by volunteering to be within inhalation distance of human remains? It struck me as fishy. “He doesn’t give a shit about the rituals of death,” Mary Trump, his niece, told me. She thought it was unbelievable too. “Unless they aimed over a crowd of people — maybe he would’ve been into that.”

A look of panic came over Adams’s face when I brought up the anecdote. “You know, I’m not sure you should really write that because that’s illegal,” she said. I was confused — whether or not I wrote about it wouldn’t matter since it’s about to be on Showtime. “You shouldn’t do that,” she said. Huh? “To go up in the air and sprinkle the ashes, it’s against the law. So he did it, but I’d appreciate you not saying it.” I wasn’t trying to narc on the guy for littering, I tried to explain, but she cut me off, looking at her watch: “This is an hour! How much longer do we need?” Later on, when she showed me her office — wallpapered, even on the ceiling, with her New York Post covers — I asked about Trump again. “Make sure you say that I love him and I’ll always be there for him,” she said. Is she afraid for him? “Yes, I am. So I say nothing about him. I don’t want anything to be taken — right, wrong — ” She stopped herself. “Yes, I am worried.” She opened her eyes wide and nodded.

Adams would prefer not to get that deep. “Gossip has become pernicious. I don’t appreciate pernicious gossip. I don’t indulge in saying evil kinds of things about people,” she said. “I’m not mean — I’m fun!” By way of example, Adams told me a joke she’d recently written for her column. “I’ve said that Jennifer Lopez should have a tollbooth installed inside her,” she said. “That’s pretty brutal!” I said. “It’s not brutal! It’s funny!” she said. “I am not evil. I am not vicious. I am amusing. I am tweaking little things. I’m not harming anybody. I am not outing anybody. I am not breaking up any marriage. I am not talking about your sex life. I’m skirting all of that. Because I’m doing it with humor.”

Gossiping With Tabloid Icon Cindy Adams