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Old 11-11-2016, 09:12 PM   #1
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Unhappy Gossip Columnist Aileen Mehle (AKA Suzy Knickerbocker) 1918-2016


Aileen Mehle, who titillated readers with her rapier wit for five decades as “Suzy,” the glamorous, nationally syndicated grande dame of tabloid society gossip columnists, died on Friday at her home in Manhattan. She was 98.

Her death was confirmed by her son, Roger Mehle.

“Glamour was her occupation; she wrote about it and lived it,” Blaine Trump, Donald J. Trump’s former sister-in-law, said in an interview. “She was the social historian of her era.”

Mrs. Mehle (pronounced MAY-lee) admitted to indulging in trivia and superficiality, but was unapologetic about her professed mission: to add some spice to the quotidian lives of her millions of readers.

Those millions read her column in scores of newspapers across the country and knew her face from her regular appearances as a panelist on the CBS game show “What’s My Line” in the 1960s.

Mrs. Mehle, William F. Buckley Jr. wrote in 1982, is “known to a few dozen million people, plus the few hundred who really count, as ‘Suzy.’”

She was recruited in the early 1950s by The New York Daily Mirror, a raffish Hearst tabloid, and worked, in succession, for The New York Journal-American, The Daily News, The New York Post and Women’s Wear Daily. Though readers knew her across the country as a syndicated columnist, New York was always her base.

Phyllis Cerf, the children’s book publisher, said in 1970 that Mrs. Mehle had performed in the guise of a “Mother Goose for adults,” eavesdropping and rubbernecking to report on the very people with whom she partied.

“The people I cover have no more secrets than any others,” Mrs. Mehle said. “Just more money.”

Life magazine labeled her America’s “No. 1 Society Snooper.”

Mrs. Mehle once waggishly labeled Truman Capote “the Tiny Terror.” (She said his thinly veiled autobiographical novel “Answered Prayers” contained “only a skein of truth.”) She called Zsa Zsa Gabor “Miss Chicken Paprika of 1914.” Describing Aristotle Onassis’ ostentatious yacht, she deadpanned: “I would love to tell you the precious mosaic swimming pool on deck was filled with champagne, but it wasn’t. Everyone else was.”

She drolly described one party at which “Elizabeth Taylor and a flirtatious Richard Burton — he flirted with everyone but Elizabeth — stayed late.” And in 1986, she dropped a bombshell that shook the pillars of Nouvelle Society: Sid Bass, the Texas oil billionaire, was leaving his wife to marry Mercedes Kellogg. (They asked her to wait a day so Ms. Kellogg could tell her diplomat husband that she was divorcing him.)

After late nights of dogged merrymaking, Mrs. Mehle typically worked from her palatial Manhattan apartments, first on Park Avenue and later in an Upper East Side townhouse, preferring not to be disturbed before noon and delivering her columns to downtown newsrooms by messenger.

“What I do is somewhere between ditch digging and galley slaving,” she told Life in 1966. “It is a neck-swiveling, don’t-miss-anything job. When I walk into a party, while I’m saying, ‘Hello darling, hello dear, how are you?’ to everyone I haven’t seen since yesterday, I case the place. I have a fast eye.”

“I also listen, listen, listen,” she went on. “When I come home dog-tired at 1 a.m., I often haven’t a line to go on. I’ve even put my little head down on the typewriter and cried a few rusty tears. But then I snap out of it and get to work.”

She entered the crowded, fiercely competitive field of gossip columnists in the waning days of Walter Winchell (who was also at The Mirror), when high society still preoccupied mass audiences as passionately as Hollywood stars did, and when the rich still delighted in tattling on one another in print.

“No matter what I say about them,” Mrs. Mehle confided, “it can’t begin to compare with what they say about each other.”

She recalled an editor’s advice that ‘I’d be a success only when I could walk into a room full of people who whisper, ‘Here comes that bitch Suzy.’”

As it turned out, she managed to be a success without earning that epithet.

Unlike some of her more scathing peers, Mrs. Mehle preferred to elicit a laugh and take swipes so gauzy that even Frank Sinatra, no fan of powerful gossip columnists, would conclude, “Aileen wields that power with a feather duster.”

As she told New York Magazine in 1976, “I give them the needle, but in a way that they don’t feel till three days later.”

It was perhaps a commentary on Mrs. Mehle’s potency, as well as on the decline of the American aristocracy, that Clare Boothe Luce, the journalist, congresswoman and ambassador, would say in 1970, “Today, getting into society means getting into Suzy’s column.”

A dashing but diminutive 5-foot-3 (she wore size 4 shoes), Mrs. Mehle inflicted her stiletto ripostes without drawing blood. And on the occasions that she did — in response to a perceived betrayal or to backbiting by a fellow columnist (like her notorious spat with James Revson of Newsday, who reported in 1988, accurately, that she had reported vividly on some parties that she did not attend) — the gore would rarely splatter on the custom-made ensembles lovingly designed for her by Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera or Pauline Trigère.

That was because Mrs. Mehle’s blood was as blue as her subjects’. She navigated those nightly celebrity dinners and charity benefits (whose success she assured by a mere mention beforehand) not as some interloping ink-stained wretch, but as a peer.

Aileen Elder was born on June 10, 1918 (not in the 1920s, as most biographies say), in El Paso, Tex. Her father, Lawrence Herman Elder, was an oilman who moved the family to California a few years later and left before Aileen was a teenager. Her mother was the former Aileen O’Keefe, a privileged descendant of pioneers who had received vast land grants from the Spanish throne.

Hoping to be discovered in Hollywood, Aileen attended Long Beach Junior College and Santa Barbara State College (now the University of California, Santa Barbara), but interrupted her studies, and her plans to become an actress, to marry a Navy ensign, Roger W. Mehle. He became an admiral. When he was assigned to flight training in Florida, she stayed with him part time.

Their marriage ended in divorce. Their son, Roger, a Washington lawyer and retired investment banker, is her only immediate survivor.

After the divorce, Mrs. Mehle decamped from California with her mother and young son to live full time in Florida, where she plunged into Palm Beach social life.

She mutated into a columnist, as she told it, at the suggestion of her friend Jan Cox. Mrs. Cox’s husband, the publisher of The Miami Daily News, called Mrs. Mehle’s bluff when she complained that her 10-year-old son could cover society news better than his paper and its competitors. She submitted three sample columns and was hired.

She borrowed the pseudonym Suzy from a stepdaughter-to-be through her impending second marriage, to M. Kenneth Frank Jr., a Washington real estate developer.

At first, her identify was kept secret. After she characterized Senator John F. Kennedy as a sartorial mess, according to W magazine, Kennedy encountered one of her editors in Washington and demanded to know Suzy’s real name. The editor refused. “Well,” Kennedy said with a grin, “when you get back to Miami, will you tell Suzy I got my pants pressed.”

Her marriage to Mr. Frank (it was her last) also ended in divorce, and afterward, in 1957, she moved to New York and was hired by The Mirror, where Walter Winchell still reigned and a photograph with her column gave Suzy a recognizable face.

When The Mirror stopped publishing in 1963, she switched to Hearst’s Journal-American, replacing Igor Cassini (brother of the couturier Oleg Cassini), who was fending off federal charges that he had failed to register as a foreign agent for the Dominican dictatorship.

Cassini, with a big editorial assist from another ambitious Texan named Liz Smith, wrote under the pen name Cholly Knickerbocker, and when Mrs. Mehle succeeded him, she inherited half of it. “Someone finally gave me a last name,” she said.

As Suzy Knickerbocker, Mrs. Mehle churned out six columns a week, challenging the pseudonymous prima donna of gossip, Nancy Randolph at The Daily News, until The Journal-American and its short-lived merged successor, The World Journal Tribune, also went belly up.

She re-emerged as Suzy in The Daily News in 1967 and remained there until she was wooed away by The Post after its fashion and gossip columnist, Eugenia Sheppard, died in 1984.

Mrs. Mehle left The Post for Women’s Wear Daily in 1991, about the same time that Liz Smith switched to Newsday after decades as the Daily News’s durable celebrity columnist and Bill Norwich, another Daily News columnist, departed, too.

“The world of glitter and glamour (and a little bit of gush) will probably never be the same,” The New York Times said of the three departures.

Mrs. Mehle wrote her last regular column in Women’s Wear Daily in 2005, when she was 87.

“When she stopped writing her column,” Ms. Herrera, a friend and confidante, recalled, “Aileen single-handedly buried society in New York.”
As long as people talk about you, you're not really dead. As long as they speak your name, you continue. A legend doesn't die just because the man does.
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Old 11-12-2016, 06:09 AM   #2
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Sad to hear the news. She was also a co-panelist on What's My Line?. I love watching vintage clips, and on one episode her son was the mystery guest and she was unable to identify him while blindfolded! Her reaction when she found out it was her son was beyond priceless. So sad to me that so much of the grace & glitter of the past is dying away bit by bit...
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