Book Review: “Gatecrasher – How I Helped the Rich Become Famous and Ruin the World”

Ben Widdicombe

Dear former reader of the New York Times Society Column “No Regrets,” Here’s a whole book of what you’ve been missing! One caveat: if you’re not enamored of our current commander-in-chief, blame Paris Hilton. If you’re not a fan of fame-whoring rich people, blame Ben Widdicombe.

Although Widdicombe may have recently moved on as Editor-in-Chief of the newly re-imagined Avenue Magazine, his high (and low) society observances, celebrity snark, and Aussie-takes-New York City adventures live on in this fun, juicy, quick-reading memoir. The book is divided into three “F’s—Fashion, Fame, and Fortune beginning in 1998 when Widdicombe and his then-boyfriend Horacio Silva arrive in the Big Apple, through his years at The New York Times.

On penning a gossip column, he offers this bon mot: “as writing goes, it ain’t Proustspeare.” Nor should it be –“Gatecrasher” is the perfect breezy quarantine read. Its July release date places it as an intended ideal beach read, assuming that beaches are open then.

“The thing about writing a daily gossip column on a print deadline is that the bus leaves every day at six p.m., and somebody has to be under it.” – Ben Widdicombe

Part One of this snappily told tale encompassing the author’s series of odd jobs (due to dubious immigration status) — a souvenir photo booth, a hot dog stand, an art gallery, online fashion/cheeky gossip column “Chic Happens” for Lee Carter’s working with Horacio Silva in the early days of the internet — gives the reader a pitch-perfect look at late ‘90s New York.

I enjoyed the way the author conjures up a bygone era pre-Google takeover of Lower Manhattan; the women of the UWS rocking their diamonds with their workout wear; the couple’s ever-revolving living quarters; even the sounds of connecting to dial-up AOL are evocative of 20 years ago. This, even though everyone he and Silva encounter tells them that they “missed New York”—it was better in the ‘80s.

The author describes NYC’s underground transit like this: “Everything about the city that the first year was surprising and wonderful. The subway was a revelation: an entire canal boat system, installed in the sewers. It was an adult version of the “It’s a Small World” boat ride I remembered from a visit to Disneyland as a child in the 1970s, except with rats and knives instead of dolls and cultural stereotypes.”

The early “gatecrashing” scenes are also some of the best as he learned his way around and through the velvet ropes sans valid invite. Did you know it’s possible to gauge the quality of a party based on whether the “door bitches” are or aren’t packing (chewing gum, that is)? The hierarchy of these sentinels is thus: “Clipboard,” to” iPad,” to “Wristband,” and finally to “Headset.” “The headset is a clipboard with superpowers. She stands at the threshold like Hecate, the Greek goddess of crossroads and entryways, linked to an invisible host of her fellow beings via radio-connected microphones.”

One of Widdicombe’s first celebrity encounters in New York takes place at Henri Bendel’s press party for a featured “handbag designer.” He found Monica Lewinsky to be charming (she playfully hit him with her handbag in response to a jokey comment). She had chosen fame over shame – the latter being something you’d expect “a girl like that” to wallow in. Apparently, in today’s celebrity milieu, no one actually feels shame anymore – they leverage it. I thought his take on having a celebrity right before your very eyes is relatable.

“Encountering a celebrity is like watching a film with 3-D glasses. The brain has to merge two stereoscopic images—the person and the persona—into the single figure who is standing in front of you.” – Ben Widdicombe

Interestingly, when he was able to “gatecrash” some of the higher caliber parties, they turned out to not be all that and a tin of caviar. “As glamorous as it may look, hanging out with rich people is mainly just stressful and expensive,” he notes. While freelancing for AOL, The New York Observer, T Magazine (perhaps through a connection to the late New York Times editor Amy Spindler) and other outlets he gets to attend top events including the Oscars, Mar-a-Lago for Ivana Trump’s second wedding, book parties at Elaine’s, events and guests all written about with his wry acerbic tongue. He also visits some places you wouldn’t want to visit, such as the Metropolitan Correction Center (MCC) a few times at the height of what he calls “Ponzi Palace” procuring White Castle sliders through a vending machine for inmate subjects.

In the mid-2000s, while freelancing at the New York Post’s Page Six (he began by answering Richard Johnson’s phone), he was “poached” by the New York Daily News — giving him his own spill the tea column which he dubbed “Gatecrasher.” “The thing about writing a daily gossip column on a print deadline is that the bus leaves every day at six p.m., and somebody has to be under it.” In addition to occasionally receiving emailed or called in tips, early on in his career, Widdicombe attributes his best leads to positioning himself near the Chardonnay, where people will end up wanting to dish the dirt.

There are so many funny anecdotes, descriptions (Mariah Carey’s push-up bra “could have doubled as a medevac device for large marine animals”) and stories throughout (one of my favorites takes place in Rupert Murdoch’s kitchen), as well as some that are thought-provoking. Widdicombe has a chapter on his stint in LaLa Land at Harvey Levin’s TMZ — a job he disliked but which gave him the dubious distinction of being “the only person to have both TMZ and The New York Times on a resume.” Another badge of honor — he never learned to drive.

As mentioned at the beginning of this review, the author draws a direct line — from a certain heiress’ reality star fame to the succession of another reality star (besides Kim Kardashian) and longtime friend of the Hilton family — straight to the White House. “The Simple Life” star who, according to author eyewitness, once barfed on the linoleum floor of a trendy MPD restaurant, “nonetheless created the cultural context that made the Trump administration possible.”

Lastly, he points out a disturbing trend which his “No Regrets” column bore out. It’s become endemic among the 1 percenters (or is it 0.1?) in this ”post-shame culture” to covet publicity. Gone are the days of New York blueblood society in which it was only acceptable for your name to appear in print three times during a lifetime– birth, marriage, and death. Today’s uber-wealthy, no longer content to enjoy fortune without fame, sustain the publicity industry as they hire multiple PR firms to fill the voracious belly of the beast.

Widdicombe ventures down that slippery slope (“No Regrets”?) with his feature-length profile of a certain “non-recluse ” ball gown wearing philanthropist putting him in demand for others of means to request press. The one ultra-rich subject that was perhaps not so willing? Scheduled for an interview that would have happened posthumously was none other than Jeffrey Epstein.

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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