This is a gossip column about the way gossip columns feed on each other, taking a blind item that apparently was apocryphal to begin with and embellishing it until it takes on a false reality of its own.
It is a classic example of a tale told and retold so many times by word of mouth and on the printed page that a beautiful young socialite finds herself in a nightmare of denials involving an indiscretion that never happened, and a place where she's never set foot, and a man she's never dated.
Everybody's talking-about-it-so-it-must-be-true. Right?
It all began on March 6 as a titilating blind item in The Washington Star's "Ear" column about a "dumbwaiter" that doesn't exist. It seemed to hint at naughty behavior on the part of either Chip Carter or one of the Mondale boys.
Then it showed up in The New York Post on March 13, and was reprinted in the April 7 edition of the Weekly World News, a subsidiary publication of The National Enquirer. Versions have even been broadcast by Washington radio stations.
Ultimately, it seems destined to end up in the courts.
The original Washington Star item described an alleged incident "at a certain Official Residence here, at night."
The cast of characters was said to include the "son of the family," a "young woman" he was entertaining, the "Master of the House" and the Secret Service.
According to the scenario described in The Star, the father comes home unexpectedly and the young woman doesn't want to be found on the premises. So she climbs into a dumbwaiter "leading off the boudoir," descends into the kitchen, where "Secret Servicemen" are having coffee, and "race for the door."
Joan Mondale's press secretary, Bess Abell, read the item and called her bosss to ask: "Is this William [Mondale]?"
Nineteen-year-old William Mondale is the only one of the vice president's sons currently living at home.
"I knew the item, if true, had to be talking about Chip Carter or William Mondale," says Abell.
Joan Mondale thought the item might be an embellishment of something that did happen to William's older brother, Teddy, two years before, when the family had first moved into the official residence on the Naval Observatory grounds.
Teddy Mondale and a group of his friends had been "horsing around" in the dumbwaiter and someone got stuck.
But the dumbwaiter in the vice president's house goes only from a pantry off the dining room to a pantry off the kitchen. It does not go up to the bedroom floor.
Abell, who was Lady Bird Johnson's social secretary in the White House, says that "anybody who knows anything about the dumpwaiters in either one of these houses knows that item is way off base."
There is no dumbwaiter operating between the family quarters bedrooms and other levels of the White House, a spokesman for the curator's office said yesterday.
The White House dumbwaiter goes from the area in the kitchen where the pastry chef works to a pantry off the family dining room next to the State Dining Room.
Abell says that she did not bother to question anyone further about the Star item since the Mondale boys were not mentioned specificially by name.
A week later, on Thursday, March 13, The New York Post's gossip columnist, Jack Martin, wrote a column headlined: "Chip's Beauty Gives President the Slip Down a Dumpwaiter."
The New York Post's version of the dumbwaiter story quoted "a white House secretary" as saying the incident happened to Chip Carter and the president.
The young woman in the New York Post version -- one whose "exit out of the lift was greeted with "great astonishment' by a pair of Secret Servicemen who were on a coffee break in the kitchen" -- was identified as White House staff member Harolyn Landow.
Landow, who works for White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan is the daughter of builder-developer Nathan Landow, a major Carter-Mondale fund-raiser.
Lawyers for the Landows, according to columnist Martin were on the phone to The New York Post "within hours after the story appeared to say that no such thing ever happened and that they were going to sue."
Martin, in a telephone interview yesterday, said that he did not know The Star had already run a version of the dumbwaiter story a week before he did.
Despite printed reference to an unidentified "White House secretary" as the source of his March 13 column, Martin said the actual source had not been anyone connected with the White House, the Carter administration or even Washington, D.C. It was a New Yorker, Martin says, who has never been wrong in the past on anything he told him.
Diana McLellan, who writes The Star's "Ear" column, said yesterday that she was aware of the Martin column and knew that "He must be embarrased," because her "dumbwaiter" item was not about Landow.
She declines to say who her column was about or whether or not the "dumbwaiter" story is actually apocryphal.
Landow, in the meantime, is said to have lawyers in Washington and New York conferring on legal strategy.
Two radio stations in Washington picked up on the story and broadcast versions of it.
Martin doesn't understand why the Landows were not willing simply to accept a retraction and forget about it.
"I can't believe that in an election year anyone connected to the First Family is going to stir up something like this where the president could be called on to give a deposition."
Harolyn Landow told The Washington Post yesterday:
"I refuse to be the victim of such irresponsible fabrication. I can see no reason why he [Martin] should be allowed to get away with it."