Lucianne Goldberg, a New York literary agent and conservative provocateur who took on a Machiavelli-style role in the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton by encouraging a former White House aide to secretly tape Monica Lewinsky discussing her affair with the president, died Oct. 26 at her home in Weehawken, N.J. She was 87.
Author and political commentator Jonah Goldberg confirmed the death and said his mother had kidney and liver ailments.
For decades, Ms. Goldberg had cultivated a reputation as brash, brassy and sharp-tongued in her takedowns of progressive causes. As a younger woman, she co-wrote an anti-feminist manifesto called “Purr, Baby, Purr” and said she had been a spy for President Richard M. Nixon’s campaign in his 1972 reelection bid. Later, after a long career writing or ghostwriting sexy potboilers and representing such authors as Kitty Kelley and discredited Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman, she delighted in taking aim at Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Ms. Goldberg carried such a big personality that there were always questions about whether her right-leaning political sentiments were genuine or a kind of performance art. Either way, her place in the Clinton scandal made her, to some, a conservative hero.
At the suggestion of conservative columnist Tony Snow, former White House aide Linda Tripp had first contacted Ms. Goldberg about a possible project on White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster, whose 1993 death was ruled a suicide but remains a focus of conspiracy theorists. Tripp was reportedly one of the last people to have seen Foster alive and was deeply shaken by his death. The project fell through, but Tripp then tried to sell a tell-all White House memoir highly critical of the Clintons before telling Ms. Goldberg that the president had an affair with a former White House intern.
“And I said, ‘Yeah, yeah,’ you know the kind of agenting that I did, I heard a lot of wild stuff, and people have to prove things,” Ms. Goldberg said in an interview for the 2020 PBS show “American Experience” on the Clinton years.
Tripp said she had conversations nearly every day with Lewinsky, who had left the White House and was working with Tripp in the Pentagon’s public affairs office.
“And I said, ‘You say you talk to her every day — how about taping your phone conversations?’” Ms. Goldberg recalled.
Ms. Goldberg even suggested the type of tape recorder: a Radio Shack model like the one she kept on her desk at her Manhattan office. Tripp wasn’t sure.
“She always was reluctant,” Ms. Goldberg recalled to The Washington Post in late 1998. “She said, ‘I think it’s kind of sleazy.’”
Ms. Goldberg pressed Tripp and reportedly assured her the taping was legal, even though recording someone without the person’s permission is illegal under the law in Maryland, where Tripp lived at the time. Yet the recordings became a centerpiece for special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, whose probes of Clinton began with allegations over improper real estate deals in Arkansas but mushroomed into a blanket inquest on the Clintons.
The tapes became key evidence in Starr’s probes and led to Clinton’s impeachment by the House in December 1998 on charges that the president had lied under oath when questioned about the affair with Lewinsky and obstructed justice. The Senate acquitted Clinton in February 1999.
“I’m not ashamed of it,” Ms. Goldberg told PBS about her role. “I’m proud that I knew the truth. That once I knew the truth, I got the truth out. … This was a great national soap opera.”
With the tapes in hand, Ms. Goldberg said, she initially wanted to give access to Newsweek and the lawyers investigating Paula Jones, a former Arkansas civil servant who alleged she was sexually assaulted by Clinton while he was governor. (The case was settled out of court.) After Newsweek apparently hesitated with a story, Ms. Goldberg received a late-night call from journalist Matt Drudge in January 1998. He had heard that Ms. Goldberg had information that suggested Clinton had a sexual affair with Lewinsky.
“I wasn’t going to lie to” Drudge, Ms. Goldberg told The Post. “I mean the man had all the information. He’d already written it when he called me. He read me parts of it. It would have been kind of dumb of me to say, ‘Huh?’”
Once Drudge posted the story, everything went, in Ms. Goldberg’s words, “kaboom.” Starr’s investigators zoomed in. Tripp went into hiding to avoid the media. Ms. Goldberg was having her moment.
She drip-fed tidbits to the New York Post and other eager tabloid outlets. “I wanted to keep this beast alive,” Ms. Goldberg told The Post. “I wanted to give the story legs.”
Ms. Goldberg also had her own brief cult of celebrity in right-wing circles. In late October 1998, chants of “Lucy, Lucy, Lucy” greeted her as she stepped off an elevator at a Washington hotel on the eve of an anti-Clinton rally on the National Mall.
Ms. Goldberg smiled at the hotel crowd.
“They need heroes,” she said.
Lucy Ann Steinberger was born in Boston on April 29, 1935, and grew up in Alexandria, Va. Her father was a government physicist, and her mother was a physiotherapist. According to her own accounts, she left high school at 16 to begin working.
“I had 15 jobs before I was 21,” said Ms. Goldberg, who later merged her first name into one. “I got fired from 14.” (She earned a degree in 1957 from George Washington University.)
She married a high school boyfriend, William Cummings, and divorced after three years. She worked in the late 1950s as a clerk at The Washington Post promotion department and, in 1963, started a one-woman media shop in the Press Club under Lucianne Cummings & Associates, which claimed to have satellite offices in London and Paris.
A friend, former Washington Star drama critic Emerson Beauchamp, told The Washington Post in 1998 that Ms. Goldberg once said she was practicing a British accent “so she could pretend to be her English secretary when people called.”
In 1970, Ms. Goldberg and journalist Jeannie Sakol founded the Pussycat League as an anti-feminist group and together published “Purr, Baby, Purr.” During the 1972 presidential race, she claimed she was paid by Nixon’s staff to pose as a journalist covering Democratic nominee George S. McGovern, a U.S. senator from South Dakota, and report back insider dirt from the press corps and campaign trail.
Ms. Goldberg dipped heavily into the media world with her own novels, often with lurid plotlines. Her 1979 “Friends in High Places” features a “star feature writer who will take almost any man to bed for her next day’s lead.” In “People Will Talk” (1994), the main character is a tabloid columnist named Baby Bayer who “can unzip a fly with her toes.”
As a literary agent, she found a niche with right-wing conspiracy theories and tell-all memoirs. In a 1983 lawsuit, author Kelley accused Ms. Goldberg of breach of contract and other charges for failing to pay for foreign sales on “Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star” (1981). Ms. Goldberg was ordered to pay Kelley more than $41,000.
Ms. Goldberg took on author Leo Damore after Random House rejected his 1988 book “Senatorial Privilege,” on Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and the 1969 Chappaquiddick car accident that killed passenger Mary Jo Kopechne. Ms. Goldberg was also the agent for Fuhrman’s account of the O.J. Simpson trial, “Murder in Brentwood” (1997), and she was ghostwriter for “Washington Wives” (1987) by Maureen Dean, the wife of Nixon’s Watergate-era White House counsel John Dean.
Ms. Goldberg’s second husband, newspaper executive Sidney Goldberg, died in 2005. In addition to her son, she is survived by a granddaughter. Another son, Joshua, died in 2011 after a fall.
In the past, Ms. Goldberg had often described herself as political independent, but she increasingly found a home in conservative media and with her own website, Lucianne.com.
“I was ready for my Warholian 15 minutes,” she told the New York Times, “but it really wears you down.”