Le Cirque's VIP List, From A to Zappa

In a new memoir, Sirio Maccioni, owner of New York's snooty Le Cirque restaurant, gleefully dishes the names of luminaries he has fed over the decades: Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, Donald Trump, Woody Allen, Barbara Walters, Bill Blass and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to list a few. But none of them, he says, became "my best friend." That honor belonged to a long-haired, "rough-looking" musician initially barred from the restaurant as woefully underdressed: Frank Zappa.

"It was a very difficult beginning of the relationship," Maccioni, 72, told us during a stop in Washington last week. He still tears up when talking about Zappa, the Baltimore native who died of prostate cancer in 1993 at age 52: "He was a great man and a very intelligent man. . . . I wish he was alive today."

The book, "Sirio," recounts how Zappa, in the early '80s, had to don a suit and tie before he could claim a table among the swells at Le Cirque. "This better be the best [expletive] meal of my life -- I've toured the Kremlin, met the pope, and I've never needed a suit," the restaurateur quotes him as saying. "If I don't like this meal, you're paying for the suit!"

But somehow the two Italians bonded like long-lost paesanos. "He came to eat at my house. He became friends with my wife. I spoke with him two days before he died," Maccioni told us. To comfort Zappa, "I sent my pastry chef to make creme brulee for him in Los Angeles."

And, as a true friend, Maccioni was always honest: "I had the courage to tell him I did not understand his music."

Richard Clarke's New Offensive

* After his blistering book and congressional testimony alleging Bush administration failures to heed the threat of al Qaeda, former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke takes another shot in the July issue of Vanity Fair.

"I'm not sure everybody has grasped this," he says, pointing out that CIA Director George Tenet mentioned al Qaeda to the president "on 40 occasions" in morning briefings before Sept. 11, 2001. "Forty times, many of them in a very alarmed way, about a pending attack," Clarke declares. (The emphasis appears in the article.) "And, as far as I can tell from what has been said at the [9/11] commission, on one of these occasions, one out of 40, the president must have said something like, 'Well, what are we going to do about it?' "

CIA spokesman Bill Harlow was quick to blast back: "Richard Clarke was not present during those daily briefings and therefore could not know what was said," he told us. "While we never discuss what we say to a president or what a president's reaction is, the notion that President Bush was not concerned or engaged on counterterrorism is ridiculous."

But just where did that magic "40 times" come from? Turns out Clarke's old pal Condi Rice used it in her testimony April 8 defending the administration: "At these meetings, the president received up-to-date intelligence and asked questions of his most senior intelligence officials. From January 20th through September 10th [2001], the president received at these daily meetings more than 40 briefing items on al Qaeda, and 13 of those were in response to questions he or his top advisers posed."

See, it's all a matter of emphasis.

Macaulay Culkin, a Grizzled Vet at 23

* Macaulay Culkin, who plays a wheelchair-using high-schooler in the new movie "Saved!," is 23 and already considered "old hat," as co-star Jena Malone told us. She has a point. "I've been doing this for 19 years," Culkin said, happy to refresh our memory during a recent stop in Washington. And not just ours: "I like to remind my manager that I've been doing this longer than she has."

The waifish actor certainly has been through a lot: a friendship with Michael Jackson, a court fight with his father over his $30 million fortune, a stint as a recluse, marriage and divorce. He now splits his time between New York and Los Angeles and talks openly in interviews about his grown-up habits (drinking, smoking, gambling). But on some topics he remains guarded.

"I have a girlfriend in L.A.," Culkin said. Who is that girlfriend? "My girlfriend's my girlfriend." (We have a feeling he's referring to "That '70s Show" actress Mila Kunis. ) He said she is against him working in TV "on principle," but he nonetheless has signed to a sitcom pilot called "Foster Hall."

With nearly 20 movie credits to his name, Culkin swears he's still not used to watching himself on the screen. "You know when you hear yourself on an answering machine and think, 'I don't sound like that.' It's the same thing." We almost can relate.

SQUIBS

* Simon & Schuster, publisher of Bob Woodward's best-selling "Plan of Attack," has canceled plans to sell a translation of the book in China after a government-backed publisher there sought to cut some passages. We're told the censors particularly didn't like a quote from President Bush, who asked, during a prewar meeting with Iraqi exiles in the Oval Office: "What are the elite [in Iraq] like? Are they well educated? Are there many left or have they been purged like in China?" Last year, Simon & Schuster withdrew translation rights for Hillary Rodham Clinton's "Living History" after discovering that the Chinese had rewritten or excised passages. Bill Clinton, author of the forthcoming memoir "My Life," also is expected to forsake sales in China unless the translation is done in toto. "It will be very difficult for journalists, public figures and other nonfiction writers in the U.S. to publish their books in the People's Republic of China in the future if government censorship continues to intrude," Robert Barnett, lawyer for all three authors, told us Friday.

* We're not sure this serves as any indicator of further changes within the Bush administration, but here's a scoop from the online newsletter of the Meadowlands Racetrack in New Jersey: "The two members of the Bush Cabinet were on display Friday morning at Meadowlands' qualifiers. The three-year-old trotter Tom Ridge, named for the secretary of homeland security, finished second in the third race qualifier, timed in 1:56.2. Another trotter, Rumsfeld, broke stride and finished last in his qualifier." No horse named Tenet was in the running.

With Anne Schroeder