This article originally appeared in the September 11, 1982 issue of The Nation.
Diana McLellan is precisely the sort of British journalist I left London to get away from. The Fleet Street gossip column is a hideous invention, at once bullying and, sycophantic. Under the pretense of daring exposure and rapier wit lurks a horrid conformism and a lust for easy targets. As for the style necessitated by this kind of journalism, it is typically arch, gushing and repetitive. Unfunny euphemisms (“confirmed bachelor” for homosexual) are thought of as subversive coinage. The mighty and the famous occasionally use such columns to take revenge on their friends by means of leaks. But, for the most part the scandal page is a banal conveyor belt for received ideas, old gags and witch hunts against the deviant. The really bad gossip writers aren’t even reactionary—just boring. McLellan is a soupy blend of both.
What on earth, one is moved to inquire, does The Washington Post want with one of these exhibits? The paper has cut down the appearances of “Ear” to four a week, as if to say that it doesn’t really endorse this shop-soiled survivor of the defunct Washington Star, but the comparative rarity of the column’s appearance only makes it look worse. Perhaps Ben Bradlee thinks that McLellan has that elusive Brit cachet? But, no, that can’t be right.
Here is a ripe sample from what some have called a wickedly mischievous love-it-or-hate-it-you-must-read-it anthology:
“I see you wear a hearing aid too, senator.”
“Oh, well, yes. But It’s not because I’m hard of hearing, just helps filter out background noise In the hearing rooms.”
“Oh, really? What kind is It?”
“Let’s see. Exactly 430.”
I wish I had a dollar for every year that has elapsed since I first heard that joke. McLellan attributes it to Senator Charles Percy, which is odd since, for a gossip columnist, she uses blind attributions (“one aide”) more than most—almost as often as she employs the word “darling.”
That habit by itself gives the lie to her claim to fearlessness. (In truth, I have never met a gossip columnist who wasn’t a coward.) You can search through this entire collection of cultured pearls without finding a single real gem, a single item that would embarrass anybody rich, famous or powerful. The only tales that are even faintly waspish concern members of the Carter hick entourage, now safely removed from pelf and power. On their own, these are no funnier than the labored gags about ham-fisted servants that used to appear in Punch. (As I had feared, the antique story about gauche dinner guests drinking from their fingerbowls appears here more than once.)