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From the Archives: “Suzy”

Thursday, January 4, 2018
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This article was first published in the November 1977 issue of AVENUE. 


The Pulitzer Prize nominating committee may or may not have read the New York World Telegram of May 6, 1963, but in that long-defunct evening sheet it was offered one of the best suggestions it may have received all year. The coveted prize, urged Columnist Inez Robb, should go to the redoubtable society writer for the New York Mirror.


“The prose of this writer,” Inez intoned, “may offer no threat to Katherine Anne Porter or John O’Hara. But it has so pinked Zsa Zsa Gabor that she has threatened to renounce her American citizenship in favor of a British passport, a consummation so devoutly to be wished that the Pulitzer committee cannot overlook [this writer] when it begins considering candidates for its Meritorious Public Service Award.”


The nominee was Suzy, the two-round knockout victor in a verbal punchout that deserves to be recalled in this age of Bland-X journalism. Suzy had written some rather unflattering comments about La Gabor. The latter, invited to appear on the Johnny Carson show, responded by practically pre-empting the hour with a nonstop attack on Suzy and fellow-scrivener Sheilah Graham, whose movie column in the Mirror had been equally blunt about the ways, and means, of Gabor. Zsa Zsa suggested to the television audience that a private detective should be unleashed on her two “aging” betes noires (“You would be surprised, such a life they lead”) concluding with the ludicrous plea: “Now, why should these two women be allowed to write a daily column [sic] and poison our children’s minds just because they are jealous?”


Sheilah Graham did not deign to reply. She didn’t need to. The evening after, Suzy’s column opened: “Monday night a ridiculous figure looking like a fourth-rate-road-show Lady MacBeth in an Empire job with a bow under the bosom waddled into the Johnny Carson show…” Thereafter, Zsa Zsa was variously Suzyqueued as “Hungarian blabbermouth,” “Fatty,” and “Miss Tank Town.” Opined Suzy: “Zsa Zsa has an age complex, and in her case she has a right to one… I’ll match birth certificates with her any day and spot her ten years. My teeth are my own, not covered with phony caps, and my nose is the one I was born with and I’ve never had my face or anything else lifted.”


Well, maybe Suzy could be accused of overkill. But she pinned one phrase on Zsa zsa that stuck like athe line about the old and indefatigably amorous Aga Kahn (“He Kahn’t”), Suzy dubbed her foe “Miss Chicken Paprika of 1910.”


**


Mirrors and World Telegrams come and go, but the Suzy-Zsa Zsa roundhouse is still fondly remembered in newsrooms across the U.S. Atlas, there have been no such battles since, involving Suzy or any of the countless celebrities, Beautiful People, partygoers and throwers, Old Rich, climbers, parvenus, showfolk, show-offs, clotheshorses, horseowners, movers, shakers, sheiks, has-beens, would-bes, bees, wasps, wits, nits, tycoons, tyros, royals and kingmakers who rate boldface type in her column. It appears these days, of course, in the New York Daily News and some ninety other papers, and on an average day the column may name some sixty people. Indeed, in tone and substance the Suzy Says column has almost never been combative – though, admits Suzy, she does “sometimes kick ‘em in the pants” with a diamond-buckled shoe. Rather, the column is joky, a touch sardonic, pointilliste in detail, and seemingly as aware of each boldface name’s travails and triumphs as if its author were a trusted and intimate confidante. In many cases, she is.


By now, just about everyone knows that Suzy is, in fact, Aileen Mehle. An attractive, blue-eyed, sometimes bouffant blonde of five feet three-and-a-half inches, she commands an East Side duplex that is happily near to her hairdresser, Sabu, on Madison Avenue. Cabs are easy to get in that venue, but otherwise Suzy could just as well live in a SoHo loft. The telephone is her lifeline – and her curse. It rings at least two hundred times a day, and – amazingly – it is almost always Aileen who answers the call.


“Darling, how nice to hear from you! Oh, she’s back, too! Yes of course. Monday after next…”


“Sweetiepie, you’re back in town! Yes, yes, I’d love to, but I can’t possibly make it next Thursday. Yes, maybe the other party.”


“Darling” turns out to be Mrs. Gillbert Miller, who has returned from England and is, of course, giving a party.


“Sweetiepie” is Irving (“Swifty”) Lazar, the superagent, who has ventured that her novel, tentatively titled The Satin Jungle should fetch an advance of five hundred thousand dollars, plus a cool million for paperback rights. The only trouble is that Suzy at present has neither the time nor the inclination to write the book – which may be a comfort to the Zsa Zsas of this world. I just can’t bear the thought of some editor calling me all the time to ask how the third chapter’s going,” says Aileen in her faintly Southwestern drawl. “As it is, my job is somewhere between ditch-digging and gallery-slaving, a nick-swiveling, don’t-miss-anything job.”


As Suzy, Aileen goes to about six or seven parties a week – and sometimes many more – and gets the juicy bits from at least twenty others on that hot phone. The diciest part of her business may be deciding which occasions to attend and which to skip. Take a recent evening.


Revlon was giving a big party at Bonwit Teller to promote the wines of Bordeaux and a new line of cosmetics that are labeled, yes, Bordeaux. Now, Aileen happens to be a member of the board of directors of Revlon (“Love that company, adore that Michel Bergerac”), and one might think it would be incumbent upon her, as they say in the boardrooms, to attend the office party. But no to Revlon. Instead, as Suzy, she attended the opening of Hair, the greying reincarnation of the 1967 tribal rock smash. Suzy had arranged in advance to be seated next to Princess Ashraf of Iran, the Shah’s twin sister, who had recently survived an assassination attempt in France (“she looked splendid and cool”). Our intrepid columnist left after the first act – some left even sooner – but not before noting that Prince Egon von Furstenberg, Diana Vreeland, Marian Javits and Producer Michael Butler were among those present.


Then Suzy took a fast cab over to the Rainbow Grill atop Rockefeller Center, where Joshua Logan, the venerable producer-director, was, in her words, opening “a warm wonderful, evocative show of gems from all the smash musicals he has directed.” It just so happened that it was Josh’s birthday, for which his wife, Nedda, laid on a surprise party at the Rainbow Grill. Some eighty dear friends were invited, giving Suzy a round two dozen Beautiful People to boldface. They included the Erteguns, the Cowleses, Hardy Amies, the de la Rentas, Ethel Merman, Pat BUckey, Dorothy Hammerstein, Marietta Tree, Gloria Vanderbuilt Cooper, “and so on.”


**


After the parties, whereat she sips perhaps one glass of wine and smokes True Bues, Suzy takes the pumpkin cab make home, the mental cassette well filled. She becomes Aileen for a few short hours to sleep, and awakens, over coffee, to become Suzy. She never goes out to lunch, because a. not much printable Suzystuff evolves over a sixty-dollar light lunch for two, and b. she has, five days a week, a deadline to meet. Suzy the nighttime butterfly, works as hard by day as any coal miner. In a small study behind her overstuffed living room, she seats herself in front of a large Royal and bangs out a column. “I never tear out a page,” says Suzy. “When I start in,  it stays in. If I wanted to be a perfectionist, I’d have a nervous breakdown. As for the parties, there are masses and masses I can’t go to. Like Blanche DuBois, I have to depend – how was it? – on the kindness of strangers. I would indeed be Blanche DuBois if I went to all those parties.” Instead, Aileen Mehle goes to a few, memorizes the names and anecdotes, and then, five days a week, pushes out the copy to be transmitted by the telecopier in her study to the News and its syndicate by three in the afternoon.


Unlike most columnists of her ilk or silk, Suzy has no paid assistants or even a secretary. (She does have a maid, Anita, seventeen years in her service, who does occasionally answer the phone.) “I love what I do,” says Suzy. “I’m right for the job, and the job is right for me. It’s not easy. I don’t attempt to be a sociologist, nor do I want to be a bloody bitch or a Saccharine Sue. If you start analyzing society, it’s like pinning down a butterfly.” Mixing metaphors, she continues, “I’m sort of like a high-wire cyclist riding a tightrope.” Her mentionees seldom get really mat at Suzy. When, for example, she reported that President Kennedy’s two-button suits looked rather wrinkled, J.F.K. sent her a note: “Tell Suzy I had my pants pressed.”


**


What Suzy has done for journalism is to inject what was once the society or gossip column an element of fantasy, of style, of voyeurism in its most benign sense, wit, zing, affection, fun and the feeling, for the reader, that he or she had been at the party and been served, on Suzy’s platter, the champagne (“She’s marrying her former husband’s mistress’s favorite man”) and the caviar (“Their marriage was, like, forget it, but their divorce is a poem!”).


Suzy is also one fine reporter. Some years ago, when she confided to her readers that Lord Rothermere, the English press lord, was about to marry the former Mary Murchison, a Texan lady many years his junior. Vere Harmsworth, Rothermere’s son, flatly denied the report. “Suzy,” he said, “is dead wrong.” Suzy, of course, was dead right. A few years later, while doing a guest stint on Rothermere’s Daily Mail (it was the first time an American had been invited to tell the British their own gossip), Suzy broke the news that Stravros Niarchos was about to marry Christina Onassis. “The editors wouldn’t run it for three days,” Suzy recalls. “They had umpteen lawyers going over it. When the item finally ran, was I the big oracle!” Suzy followed with other exclusives – about Charlotte Ford’s impeding wedding to Tony Forstman and the upcoming nuptials of Christina Austin to Henry Ford II, who had meanwhile… etcetera, etcetera. “I always tell the truth,” Suzy says. “At least ninety-nine percent of the time.” Unlike many of her rivals, she is an extraordinarily accurate chronicler.


Part of the Suzy mystique is that readers know almost nothing about her. She almost never uses the first person in her writing, preferring eyes to I’s. It can be briefly said that Suzy was born in El Paso, where her great-great-great-grandfather was the first Anglo-American settler. All of her maternal ancestresses were of Spanish descent, and a part of El Paso – Ascarate – is still named for them. She was married, quite young, to Ensign Roger Mehle, a Naval flier, now an admiral, and the marriage shipwrecked in Miami after five and a half years. Aileen was married later to a Washington, D.C., real estate developer, who died about eight years ago. It was then, after six years in absentia from journalism, that the Hearsts beckoned her to Manhattan, where she had never worked. Says Suzy: “It was like a plunge into the shark tank.”


In fact, covering the Beautiful People (Suzy has never sued the term “jet set”) does not so much involve fighting off Jaws as repelling bores, and it can be wearisome. “I wasn’t cut out for this job,” she once told her editor. “You were made for it,” he replied. On another occasion she complained: “This job’s killing me.” Said he: “This job’s keeping you alive.” Editors may not always be right, however. Early in her New York career, Suzy was advised by her boss, “When people start saying ‘Here comes that bitch Suzy,’ you’ve got it made.” If, in fact, she had earned such a reputation, the columnist reflects, “it would have meant that doors started slamming, and the phone stopped ringing, and the pipeline closed down.” She adds: “I don’t want to hurt. A few times I may want to sting. I think of myself first. I just try to keep on an even keel.”


That she does, in America’s Cup style. And though she has been dubbed “the most beautiful sob in the world,” she does not appear to be unduly preoccupied with status or wealth (otherwise she would have written that book for Swifty). If she has been heard to voice a mild brag, it was probably about her son, Roger Mehle, who is the youngest-ever vice president and board member of the First Boston Corporation, which is to high finance what Harry Winston is to diamonds. It says something about the Mehles that Roger worked his way through night school to get degrees in law and business administration. As for Aileen, for a bit of a scoop, it is reported that her own love life is quite satisfactory, thank you. And, as she herself might say, isn’t that just beee-autiful?



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