Rush & Molloy: An Oral HistoryS

George Rush and Joanna Molloy published their final gossip column in the New York Daily News yesterday following a 15-year run. Ben Widdicombe, a Rush & Molloy protégé and former Daily News gossip columnist himself, looks back.

"The Daily News is read by one million people every day, none of whom you'll ever meet," one long-time News staffer told me the week I began as Rush & Molloy's assistant, back in 2003. It was meant as a wry comment on the fact that the paper's journalists were whiter, generally better-educated and more Manhattan-centric than the paper's blue-collar, outer-borough base.

But Rush & Molloy worked every day to make sure that "truism" was never true. Joanna especially impressed upon everyone who worked for the column that we were speaking for the little guy; that no matter how many fancy events we attended, we were there to be the eyes and ears of the ordinary person who wasn't invited to the party. George, who in my years more often ran the column day-to-day, has been a role-model for ethical journalism to everyone who has worked under him. As has been reported, the restaurateur who sent a parcel of cash to that other newspaper's gossip column in 1997 also sent a similar "bag of lettuce" to Rush & Molloy. The only difference is, George returned his.

Early in the 18 months I served at Rush & Molloy, I was listening to George have a phone conversation with a person who, at the time, was among the most powerful men in the music industry. George mentioned that he was aware the figure had a daughter who was in rehab, but was not going to do an item out of respect for the fact that a child of a famous person is not necessarily a public figure themselves.

"I would give you a lot of money if you told me told you about that," the Powerful Figure said. "Like, enough to buy a house." Needless to say, George did not give up his source.

"I learned a lot about how to be a reporter from George, even the very simple things," says former assistant Chris Rovzar, now the editor of New York magazine's Daily Intel blog.

"At the very first party I covered, Jo Piazza and I talked to Rosie Perez and she gave me a pretty good item about some fight she had with HBO. We excitedly told George about it the next day, and very sweetly he asked, 'Did you record what she said?' We hadn't. 'Did you write any of what she said down?' We hadn't. This is what he was dealing with, and he was much more nice about than I would be."

Piazza, who graduated to her own gossip column in the Daily News, recalls George and Joanna as "an incredibly nurturing force in the career of a young and hungry journalist."

"So nurturing, in fact, that behind their backs my fellow-assistant Chris and I took to calling them Mom and Dad, a fact that became embarrassing when we accidentally called George 'Dad' in the office after a few late nights of reporting."
Sean Evans, who followed Rovzar and Piazza with his contemporary Shallon Lester, remembers:

Rush & Molloy: An Oral HistoryS

"My fondest memory of Joanna was watching her act like a giddy schoolgirl around Andy Samberg at a Comedy Central bash; her one celebrity crush. She was always calm and collected but around Andy, it all went out the window. It was very cute. She was too nervous to even approach him, so I brought Andy over to meet her and she was beside herself."

"My favorite George moment came during a Vanity Fair Tribeca Film Festival bash. Bono and Larry David were chatting and George just slipped himself right in the middle and asked Larry about his then ongoing divorce, prompting Larry's publicist to freak out. George has a great gift for jumping into any scenario, tactfully asking the hard-hitting questions and getting real, solid answers. It was something I always admired."

His colleague Lester went on to land herself an MTV reality show, and will star as a Glamour.com blogger in the forthcoming series Downtown Girls. She says pithily: "Rush & Molloy taught me a lot about journalism: never leave home without a change of shoes, your recorder, or your ethics."

E! Entertainment online and on-air personality Marc Malkin served his apprenticeship at Rush & Molloy with Marcus Baram, who is now at The Huffington Post. "George gossiped like a true journalist. He never lowered the bar," says Malkin. "I certainly wouldn't be who I am today if it wasn't for Rush & Molloy. Who knew that a simple phone call from George and Joanna one night telling me they were looking for a reporter would lead me down a path that's going on more for than 12 years. It feels like yesterday when Marcus and I were running around New York for R&M like kids in a playground reporting back about Puffy's first white party, or the fireworks-filled launch of [Tina Brown's short-lived magazine] Talk."

Others who apprenticed with George and Joanna who went onto successful careers in celebrity journalism include Larry Sutton, Kasia Anderson, Sue Rozdeba, and People magazine contributor K.C. Baker.

"Rush & Molloy was the gold standard. This is truly the end of an era," says Baker. "George is a gentleman and Joanna is one of the best reporters I have ever met. She taught me how to cultivate sources and to always make that one extra call, because you never know who knows what. Boy, was she right about that."

Baker remembers: "One of the funniest memories I have working at the column was in March 1998 when George and I were going crazy to finish the column on deadline and some guy with a thick Italian accent I could barely understand called, asking for Joanna. We had all kinds of crazy characters calling for George and Joanna all the time, saying they knew them when they really didn't, so I figured this was just another loon. I put him on hold and told George about the guy on the phone. He said to tell him to call back later because we were so swamped. The man was very gracious about it all and said, 'Thank you so much. I will call back later.' When I told Joanna that some Italian guy called looking for her, she said, 'Oh, that was Roberto Benigni,' who had just won the Academy Award for Life is Beautiful. Ahhh, life in celebrity gossip."

Rush and Molloy met in 1986 at the New York Post, when Joanna co-edited Page Six (with Frank DiGiacomo who, in a turn of the wheel, is coming to the Daily News next week to helm the column I founded, Gatecrasher) and George was a leg-man. Although Manhattan's rival gossip columnists get along very well in private, officially there is a Tabloid War going on, so current New York Post employees felt unable to speak on the record for this article.

However, former longtime Page Sixer, the fearsome Paula Froelich, said: "I love George and Joanna very much-they're icons. Our dinners are going to be even more fascinating now that we can speak freely. After 17 years they really went out on a high-point-some of their best work appeared when the column went to Sundays. Their stories have really been amazingly good."

Rush & Molloy taught a generation of reporters that despite all the temptations and excesses and stereotypes, it is possible to write a gossip column with integrity. That is their legacy.

[Photo, top left, via New York Daily News. Photo, right, from 2006 via BenefitOffice.org]