Who’s Here: Richard Johnson, Writer

Every day, about a million New Yorkers read Richard Johnson’s gossip columns in The New York Post. What’s happening with the rich and famous in the city and elsewhere? For 23 years it was “Page Six.” Now, for the past year, it is just “Richard Johnson, The Man Who Knows New York,” a column that runs three times a week.

You might expect that Johnson, having done all this all these years, would be an intense sort of fellow who talks with his hands and name-drops all over the place. But that’s not him. I met him the other day at the Harvard Club in New York. And he is none of that. He is a gentle, handsome, middle-aged family man living on the upper East Side with his Austrian-born wife and their 7-year-old daughter. He’s been coming out to the Hamptons since he was a kid. He sails boats, plays tennis and, more recently, has become a golfer.

As for his job, well, he finds it more satisfying than being a regular reporter or editor, which in his earlier life he was trained to do and often did.

“A reporter gets an assignment, goes to a press conference with other reporters, gets the story and, at least in the old days, rushes off to file exactly the same information everybody else does.

“With this, I get an exclusive. I write stories nobody else has.”

I asked him to give me an example.

“One year, I learned that a chairman of a large corporation was having an affair with a stewardess on his private plane. I had a reliable source. I broke the story. It went around the country, uncontested. And it soon led to a wonderful joke. At the start of the flight, you are told to be sure ‘your seatbelt is securely fashioned and your flight attendant is in an upright position.’ Made the story worthwhile.”

I asked him for an example of a story a reporter gets.

“I was a street reporter for the Post in my earlier days. My editor told me the Pope was coming and was holding mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and I should get down there and get the story. I asked them what angle, and they said ‘no angle, we’re actually covering it from TV.’ Then why send me, I asked. And they said ‘what if a bomb goes off and we have no one there?’”

I did ask how he mostly gets the stories for his column and he says he knows everybody and writes from that and he also gets phone calls and letters from people that help out.

“But not much by email,” he said. “Everybody is terrified to put anything into an email these days.”

Richard Johnson was born at New York Hospital on East 68th Street to a father who was editor-in-chief of Chemical Week magazine published by McGraw-Hill. His mom worked too, but was mostly a housewife. They lived on West Ninth Street in Manhattan between Fifth and Sixth. It was 1954. He has two older sisters. Poppy Johnson, a gifted artist, is one of the librarians in Greenport. His mom Martha, 90, now lives in Greenport. His younger sister Linn, a lawyer, spent much of her adult life in Greenport but recently moved to Roswell, New Mexico.

Richard Johnson, in Manhattan, always wanted to be a newspaper or magazine reporter. When he was in the third grade at St. Luke’s, an Episcopal private school in Manhattan, each student was asked to write an essay about what they wanted to be when they grew up.

“I said I wanted to grow up to be the editor-in-chief of Life magazine,” he told me.

He went to Trinity, the Manhattan prep school, and was on the varsity basketball team. He was also greatly impressed by the movie All the President’s Men, about the two reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, who broke the Watergate story which led to Richard Nixon resigning the presidency.

The summer before his senior year at Trinity, at the age of 16, he and a friend took an Icelandic Airlines turboprop flight to Luxembourg, then with backpacks on, hitchhiked through Germany and Yugoslavia to Dubrovnik and then by ferry to Bari on the heel of Italy and then to Rome, Paris, Amsterdam and back to Luxembourg and home.

“It was a great adventure,” he said. “There was a famous book then called ‘Europe on $5 a Day.’ We did it on $2 a day. And we were told to take Travelers Checks so as not to get robbed. But then we’d come down into a town which was having a nine-day religious festival and all the banks were closed. So we couldn’t cash them.”

“What did you do?”

“We ate crops in the fields. Well, anyway, we got home in one piece and I decided I wouldn’t go again until I could afford to do it correctly, with a car and hotels, for example.”

He went to the University of Colorado at Boulder and subsequently got a degree in communications from SUNY’s Empire State College.

“And then I did a little work for TV and a little work for print. I liked print better, which was probably a poor decision. But I applied around the city for a job in publications. I sent resumés to the Times, the Post, the News and got no replies.”

He went upstate for a while and did building and contracting. He’d done carpentry and painting and renovation work during the summers when he was in high school. He came back to New York, got a loft in the Bowery for $200 a month and drove a taxi. Then he walked into the offices of The Chelsea Clinton News, a free weekly newspaper in Manhattan, and asked if he could be an intern and work for free. They said yes, and also offered him a paying job writing up listings.

“This did not work out well. I typed with two fingers. Took me awhile. I still type with two fingers. Still takes me awhile.”

At The Chelsea Clinton News, he met Katie Kelly, who had left that paper to be the first TV reviewer for The New York Post and he told her how he’d like to be a reporter and she said there was a job opening up at The New York Post and she would set up an interview for him.

“That led to an interview with Roger Wood, the editor. And he gave me my first job on a daily, as Suburban Editor for Westchester, Queens and Long Island—they’d replate one page for each different area. And then the Post union employees, including the reporters, went out on strike.”

The strike lasted for four months.

“I was considered management. That meant I had the unenviable job of crossing the picket line to come into the building on South Street and just sit around. We couldn’t print or distribute the paper. So we had no paper. When the strike ended I was a general assignment reporter and joined the union. I still have my Newspaper Guild placard that I wore on the picket line the next time they went on strike.”

Richard Johnson tells wonderful stories about his life and times as a street reporter.

“The Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus came to Madison Square Garden (MSG) every year. The circus train would go to the railroad yards in the West 30s. And the circus would let certain select reporters ride the elephants to MSG. I got to do that one year.

“I was just leaving the office when John Lennon was shot. I reported on it from the Dakota.

“I was assigned the task of checking out the first scratch-off Lotto Tickets. Readers were saying that there was a scandal. The rumor was that before stores were selling the tickets, they were x-raying them and picking out the winners. My editor told me to get a bunch of tickets, find an x-ray machine and see if this were true. I called the Medical Examiner’s office, and yes, they had an x-ray machine and come on over. I got taken to the morgue. They gave me the full tour. It was horrible, watching autopsies. By the time they got to the spare parts drawer, I almost lost my lunch.”

“And the Lotto tickets?”

“There was no way to x-ray them. It was just paranoia.”

He covered the protests held at Shoreham which, eventually, caused the shutdown of a nuclear plant being constructed there.

“I went to one of the protests,” he said. “I was covering it. The cops arrested me. We ran a photo of me in the Post with the cops putting handcuffs on me.”

During this time, Johnson became a father to Damon, and he and his wife moved to a co-op loft on 22nd Street between Fifth and Park—“prices were still low there then” he said—and he put in sheetrock and a bathroom and kitchen. Damon, 35, is now a painter in Brooklyn.

In the Hamptons, Johnson covered the Roy Radin murder and the Barry Trupin attempt to build a French castle on Meadow Lane.

Following Neal Travis, Claudia Cohen, James Brady and Susan Mulcahy, Johnson took over “Page Six” in 1985. But then Rupert Murdoch was forced to sell the paper, and builder Peter Kalikow bought it.

After wage freezes and layoffs, it was just Johnson and Frank DiGiacomo doing the page.

“And one day, four years later, I got a phone call from Robin Leach. They were doing a TV show they hoped would compete with Entertainment Tonight and they wanted me on board. They offered me a six-figure income, a good bit more than I was making. I went to the editor-in-chief of the Post, Jerry Nachman, and I told him I had this offer—I really just wanted to tell him about it and maybe get paid a little better—and before I could get to that, he put his arm around me and said ‘congratulations, I’m so happy for you,’ and so out I went. The show, called Preview: The Best of the New, lasted two months and then got cancelled.

No surprise. We were calling it, Preview: The Worst of the Old. So I went back to print and began doing my column for The New York Observer.”

An interesting thing when he was at the Observer was that they were running his column on page six. They got a cease and desist order from the Post—so Observer publisher Arthur Carter moved it to page five. Johnson then did his column for The Daily News for two years, and then in 1993 he was back at the Post.

His second son, Jack, is now 22 and graduating next month from Tulane with a degree in business. And his daughter is Alessa, now 7, and he and his wife Sessa Von Richthofen, live on the Upper East Side.

Richard Johnson rented with friends in the Springs and Wainscott before he bought a house in Bellport in the early 1990s.

“I like having a place for weekends and the summertime,” he told me.

He loves sailing and for a while owned a 17-foot Lightning and later a 19-foot Flying Scott, which he had docked at the Lobster Inn for several summers.

However, in 2010, the higher-ups in Murdoch’s News Corporation decided to create a newspaper for the iPad called The Daily and asked Johnson to head its Los Angeles bureau.

He lived in Brentwood up in the hills for three years until last year, when the Daily folded because not enough readers are willing to pay for content. He then was able to come back to New York, not to reclaim his post at “Page Six” after his 23 years at that stint, but with his own column which he runs today.

Today, he and his family live in a house in Hampton Bays where he and friends and family hold barbeques, and he has recently taken up golf to go along with his daily bike-riding and tennis. He’s golfed with friends at the Hampton Hills, the Bridge, at Noyac, at Cherry Creek and at Indian Island. The most recent addition to the family is a Beagle mix named Coco.

“Favorite places?” he answered to my question. “We love Scotto’s for their great sausage, we love Rhumba and Cowfish, on the canal.”

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