Chasing Hollywood's Last Great Gossip
Last month, my first book was published and I noted it was the culmination of my efforts to solely focus on covering the January 6 attack. With that project complete and the House select committee hearings coming to an end for now, it is time for me to broaden the focus of this newsletter.
From here on out, I will be sharing stories about whatever’s on my mind. Things will probably get a little more weird. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s also going to be totally free for the time being and I will let you know well in advance if that is going to change.
It’s kind of fitting that I transition from the story that has completely captivated me for the past 21 months by writing about one that obsessed me at the start of my career over a decade ago.
In a past life, I was a Hollywood reporter and Nikki Finke was my white whale.
Finke, who died last Sunday at the age of 68, was not a household name. However, for years the movie and television industry was captivated by her work. A former debutante from Long Island, Finke wrote stories and columns about Hollywood for a succession of newspapers and magazines. In 2006, she struck out on her own and launched Deadline, one of the first online news outlets dedicated to the business.
Her embrace of the internet was visionary, but it wasn’t the only thing that made Finke essential reading for moguls, agents, actors, storytellers, and all those who aspired to join their ranks. Finke’s writing was absolutely vicious. She would skewer execs and stars alike. Finke was also a tenacious reporter who posted news quickly and relentlessly in an era when the concept of fast paced incremental scoops was still novel. Her site featured streams of exclusives and updates, which were often embellished with her signature, “TOLDJA!”
She was a pioneer of web journalism, an industry that has always had a dark side. Finke’s work was no exception. As the great Richard Rushfield wrote in his Finke obituary at The Ankler, “she lied about things small … and things enormous.” Many of her lies and barbs were also in service to hidden agendas. Finke carried water for her best sources in her scoops and rants.
As a young reporter in Hollywood, I wasn’t drawn to Finke because I cared about her take on each week’s box office or even for the juicier bits of gossip she published. Her life behind the scenes was a better show than anything on her site. Finke’s telephone tirades against rivals, sources, and even her own employees were the stuff of legend. Her reporting, wheeling, and dealing meant constantly working the phones where she would alternate between being extravagantly sweet or completely unhinged.
Paradoxically, along with being known for losing her shit all over town, Finke had developed a reputation as a serious recluse. Almost no one in Hollywood had seen her in years — online or off. She was rumored to stay largely confined in an apartment on LA’s West Side. Even as she wrote every week, her own site only featured one decidedly soft focus portrait.
Finke was the Hollywood equivalent of an unidentified flying object. A current photo of the infamous columnist would be an object of intense fascination and a major prize, to the point that Rushfield and the Hollywood blog Defamer once put out a four figure bounty for Finke’s picture.
I found the whole thing irresistible. I moved out to the West Coast in mid 2010. It was the height of Finke’s power. She was one of the only great characters in an industry that had been sanitized by massive public relations machines and the reporters who parroted them. I was covering the business side of entertainment and Finke was one of its most important and esoteric figures.
Along with being an inveterate media gossip, I can’t resist a chase. Obtaining a Finke’s photo became a mission for me from the moment I got to the West Coast. It was a goal that struck me as both irresistible and realistic. How hard could it be to snap a shot of one well-known woman living in the most photographed “thirty mile zone” in the word?
The whole thing turned out to be far more difficult — and weirder — than I ever could have imagined.
My first job in Hollywood was at The Wrap, a competitor to Deadline run by Sharon Waxman. Prior to The Wrap’s launch, Finke and Waxman had been close friends. They had a vicious falling out because Finke felt Waxman stole her idea for an online trade to launch a competitor. In my view, Finke wasn’t really wrong.
Waxman was a second rate version of Finke. She was an abusive boss who would ultimately be called out for her own bad behavior. Waxman also shared Finke’s penchant for peppering her coverage with hidden agendas and axe grinding. She had all of the downsides with none of Finke’s colorful personality, humor, originality, or talent.
Early on in my time working for The Wrap, I made my desire to get Finke’s photo clear. At first, Waxman laughed off my desire to get a Finke picture. Then, one day, it seemed the pair had some kind of argument on the phone. Waxman apparently wanted me to be her instrument of revenge. She gave me Finke’s address and sent me on a stakeout. It only lasted about a day. Waxman’s relationship with Finke was always an on-and-off turbulent affair. Her desire to print the photo left almost as quickly as it arrived. However, the die was cast, I had Finke’s address.
I managed to flee The Wrap after a few months in about October 2010. I got a job at The Daily, a relatively short lived iPad newspaper project launched by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Murdoch wanted to make a splash. He poured money into the project and sent the legendary “Page Six” columnist Richard Johnson to LA to build a gossip section. I was one of Johnson’s deputies and, as we got things off the ground, had an immediate idea for a flashy scoop. We could get the Finke photo.
In all respects, The Daily was a far more professional operation than The Wrap. We resolved to go after Finke’s photo in early 2011. This time, my stakeout was a long one.
Finke lived in a small apartment complex with only one real exit. After about a week of watching other residents go in and out, I saw no sign of Finke. The Daily sprung for a paparazzi who started alternating shifts with me. After a few days, they spotted her coming out. I was heartbroken to have missed it, but we had the shot.
Johnson and I quickly realized taking the picture was only half the battle. We knew we had the right address and the woman threatened to destroy the photographer in a way that seemed to be distinctly, unmistakably Finke. However, there were multiple residents of the building and neither Johnson, the paparazzo, or I had seen Finke. The Daily was trying to run a classy gossip operation. We had to confirm it was her.
I still thought this would be easy. However, Finke’s reclusiveness made it a very tricky situation. For weeks, I traveled around Los Angeles showing the picture to the few reporters and insiders who had met Finke. It had been so long since any of them had seen her that no one was sure about our shot. A few seemed too afraid of her wrath to give me a straight answer, even off record.
Eventually, I found someone who was able to give us an additional level of verification. There was an aspect to the picture and what the paparazzi had seen that confirmed it was Finke. Even all these years later, I am not going to reveal this information. It’s a matter of protecting both my source and something that was a distinctly private matter for Finke. All I will say is that we were quite confident we had our woman. We were ready to print the photo.
When we called Finke to ask for comment, she was apoplectic. Even as she completely denied the photo was her, Finke threatened to ruin both Johnson and I. She even promised take down Rupert Murdoch.
Johnson and Finke went back and forth on the phone for hours. I joked to a friend that it was like watching “gossip Godzilla versus Mothra.” More than anything, Finke seemed upset we were going to note the woman in a photo was driving a green Toyota Yaris. Finke insisted she would never drive such a low rent car. As they battled, I noticed the two titans were polar opposites. Finke roared, but Johnson always plied his trade with gentlemanly joy.
“What are you worried about Nikki?” he asked. “You look beautiful!”
The story ran, but I wasn’t done with Finke and she was not done with us. During their telephone tussle, Johnson noted to Finke some of the additional ways we’d verified the picture. She realized we had a source who knew her and enacted terrible revenge on at least one suspect. I always felt awful about that.
After about a year in the gossip trenches, I got a dream job offer. I was invited to cover City Hall for the New York Observer. It was a chance to come home and break in to politics. I bought Johnson a bottle of Scotch and told him it was time for me to leave. I was out of Hollywood — or so I thought.
When it was at its best, the Observer blended all the interest of New York’s power players. It was a mix of politics, society, media, and high-priced real estate. So, one week when we were in a pinch for a cover story, I offered to write a feature on the ongoing Hollywood trade media war between Finke, Waxman, and The Hollywood Reporter. Finke hated the story. She spent hours on the phone raging at my editors to the point we had to briefly delay the printing presses.
A year and change after that battle, in January 2013, Ken Kurson was named editor of the Observer. In his own remembrance of Finke, Kurson wrote that she “reached out” shortly after he took over to detail her “issues” with the paper. Her grievances included “beef” with me. That was all about to change.
Soon after Kurson took over the Observer, I conducted one of the final interviews with former New York City Mayor Ed Koch. He died about two weeks after our conversation. Finke’s first job after college was as an intern for Koch when he was a member of Congress. I couldn’t resist asking him about it. Koch didn’t have much memory of Finke.
“A recluse?! She was a very pretty woman,” Koch said, clearly surprised, adding, “I don’t remember other than that. She was very nice, but nothing special.”
I phoned Finke to let her know what the ex-mayor had said. Despite our drama over the years, she took the call and immediately turned sweet when I explained what it was about. Finke said she was “shocked” and “flattered” he remembered her at all. She also attributed the internship with Koch to sparking her desire to get involved in media.
“When I saw the way Ed and his staff would genuflect to journalists, I went, ‘Oh, I want to do that,'” Finke said. “You know, the minute a journalist called him, he jumped on the phone.”
The whole exchange was quite revealing. Finke had always approached journalism because she enjoyed power. While she seasoned her stories with vendettas and favor trading, Finke was out to build an empire. That was likely part of why she wasn’t afraid to take on the executives and agents who struck fear in other trade reporters.
Her willingness to expose the rich and powerful along with her innovative entrepreneurship is likely why Finke managed to earn accolades from major journalistic institutions like the Mirror Awards and The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University despite her many ethical lapses.
About three years after The Daily published its Finke photo, another set of pictures was released. I am clearly biased here, but the second time around, the whole thing was far less fun. Finke battled health issues in her final years and the photos showed her in far worse shape than the one that ran in The Daily. They were released by an anonymous group that called themselves the “Committee for Decency in Journalism” who said they were motivated by the fact Finke had “threatened and bullied the Hollywood community.” Their list of her supposed victims included Hollywood superagent Ari Emanuel, erstwhile NBC and CNN boss Jeff Zucker, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the late Viacom magnate Sumner Redstone. It wasn’t exactly a group without its own sins or one that should have inspired much sympathy. In fact, the whole thing highlighted how, as vicious and unprincipled as she could be, Finke was a woman who swam with sharks.
I heard from Finke sporadically over the last few years. She was interested in politics and would sometimes check in with me to offer an opinion about Donald Trump or ask a question about things in Washington. According to Kurson, after her initial efforts to discredit me with my incoming boss, Finke stayed in touch with him and indicated she “admired” me. She also apparently told Kurson that she felt she had “mentored” me. I don’t know about all that, but the experience chasing her was certainly a formative one in my career. We also definitely grew to like each other after those early battles.
The shift in our relationship was a vivid example of how Finke could be delightful and fun when she liked what you were writing. She was also a blast if you shared an enemy, which we certainly did in Waxman. In October 2021, when the Daily Beast published a piece detailing accusations Waxman was the “boss from hell,” I sent an email to Finke linking to a Twitter thread where I described my own experiences at The Wrap. Finke sent back a response suggesting she was a far different type of leader than her rival.
“I was a nice boss, always paying my people more and putting them and their families first,” Finke replied.
It was one of her more outrageous fibs. Multiple people I knew who worked around her had horror stories. When she passed, I texted a friend to ask if they saw the news. They reminded me how she terrorized them and cost them a job at a site where she hadn’t even worked. Suffice it to say, they were not mourning her death.
That text was a stark reminder that Finke could be far less fun if you weren’t on her good side. It would have been hard to write something about Finke without corporate lawyers having my back prior to her passing. Any remotely critical column would have almost certainly led to a barrage of all caps emails, screaming phone calls, and threats.
Despite all that, I truly did develop a begrudging fondness for Finke. Hollywood and the wider internet was a far more interesting, wild, and perhaps even honest place with her in it. For better or worse, there’s nothing to be afraid of now.
Franky, what a vapid, meaningless life.