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The Scandal's Producer and Publicist

Lucianne Goldberg and her son, Jonah, after testifying to the grand jury probing Linda Tripp. (Sarah L. Voisin — For the Washington Post)

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  • Key Player: Lucianne Goldberg

  • By George Lardner Jr.
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, November 17, 1998; Page A1

    It was close to midnight last Jan. 17 when the phone rang in book agent Lucianne Goldberg's Manhattan apartment. Internet gossip Matt Drudge was on the line.

    As Goldberg recalls, Drudge wanted her to confirm that Newsweek was spiking a story about a White House intern's sexual affair with the president of the United States. Goldberg knew his story was true – she says she had talked to Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff a few hours before – and though she says it was the first time she'd ever spoken to Drudge, she gave him the confirmation he wanted.

    Within a few minutes, Drudge had put the news on the Internet, starting a media frenzy that exploded days later when The Washington Post reported that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr was investigating the matter. For 11 months – despite the public's growing weariness – the frenzy has hardly subsided.

    "I wasn't going to lie to [Drudge]," says Goldberg, "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?'‚"

    Brassy, smart, and by her own account sometimes downright mean, Goldberg, 63, did her best to keep the scandal pot boiling. In the weeks to follow, she says she leaked the details for many of the startling headlines that kept the public gasping as Starr's inquiry proceeded. If the most shocking parts of Linda R. Tripp's tape-recorded conversations with Monica S. Lewinsky will be long familiar when the audiotapes are released today, Goldberg can claim at least partial credit.

    Mischief-maker or ideologue? Old friends and acquaintances say she's both, compounded by an amoral, anything-goes attitude that makes many of those who know her hesitant to speak up for fear of retaliation. Goldberg relishes notoriety, revels in shocking stories and will do almost anything to avoid being bored. She calls herself the "facilitator" of the investigation into the scandal that has brought President Clinton to the brink of impeachment, but she is much more than that.

    Consider her the producer and publicist, setting the stage for Tripp, the leading lady, debriefing her after every performance and then relentlessly promoting the Lewinsky story in all its salacious detail.

    Among the tidbits that Goldberg said she provided:

    "Monica Kept Sex Dress As Souvenir" – New York Post, Jan. 24.

    "Bill Had Hundreds [of Women]" – New York Post, Jan. 25.

    "Monica's Own Story – Affair started on day we met – after I flashed my sexy underwear," the weekly Star tabloid said in a story that hit the newsstands Jan. 29.

    "I wanted to keep this beast alive," Goldberg declared in a recent interview. "I wanted to give the story legs. I gave the New York Post, which I love and work for, a story a day for eight straight days."

    Richard Gooding, an energetic reporter for the Star, said, "Lucy has been a great help on a number of stories I've done over the months. She was very smart in farming out tidbits here and there. She's an agent provocateur, a delightful person."

    Not all journalists are so enthusiastic. Goldberg has a penchant for embroidering the facts with fanciful details, for glibly changing a story as though she had never said anything different, for denying what she had previously admitted. If she was the New York Post's source for the "sex dress" story, for instance, she got the color, and the style, wrong. The Post said it was "a black cocktail dress." But it wasn't a cocktail dress and it wasn't black; it was navy blue.

    "She was never considered an accurate source by us," says Christopher Isham, senior producer for ABC News's investigative unit. And despite Goldberg's claims to the contrary, ABC News correspondent Jackie Judd, who was the first in the mainstream press to report the stained dress story and who got the color right, says categorically that Goldberg was not the source for that story or any other story about the investigation that Judd put on the air.

    Whatever the embellishments, Goldberg's main source, of course, was Tripp, who had been secretly taping her conversations with Lewinsky since October 1997 despite a Maryland state law prohibiting such recordings without both parties' consent. That the tapes existed at all, as Goldberg confirmed for a Howard County grand jury last week, was due to the fact that she had urged Tripp to make them to protect herself against White House attack. She even told her what kind of a tape recorder to buy, an inexpensive Radio Shack model like the one Goldberg keeps on her desk.

    "She always was reluctant," Goldberg recalled. "She said, 'I think it's kind of sleazy.' "

    Some of Goldberg's old friends think it's much worse than that. Author Dominick Dunne, whom Goldberg once described as a "national treasure, personal hero and cherished friend," says they've stopped talking to one another because of her role in the taping.

    "I think it's incredibly immoral," he said.

    Journalist Carl Bernstein said he met Goldberg when she was a fun-loving Washington publicist and he was a copyboy and then part-time reporter at the Washington Star. "She hung out with the Star people and would go out with us to drink," Bernstein said. "She always liked action, but I never saw anything from those days that would indicate how venomous she could be."

    Sharp-tongued and husky-voiced, Goldberg has her supporters, too, thousands of them, united in their contempt for Clinton. They were very much in evidence in the lobby and diner of the Howard Johnson Premier Hotel Oct. 30, on the eve of an anti-Clinton rally on the Mall to call for his impeachment. A cheer for "Lucy, Lucy, Lucy" went up as she stepped off the elevator.

    Goldberg, who has called the president a "schmuck" among other things, smiled appreciatively. "They need heroes," she said of her admirers.

    Dunne, an inveterate gossip who used to talk with Goldberg over the phone every day – as Goldberg did with Tripp – said he knew about the semen-stained dress and oral sex in the White House months before they became public knowledge. Goldberg, who "loves to dish," told him about it.

    Dunne said Goldberg told him that Tripp was taping her conversations with the young woman Clinton was dallying with. What he didn't know until late January, he said, was that Goldberg had told Tripp to make the tapes.

    "I never picked up on the seriousness of what I was hearing," Dunne said. "To me, it was going to be another book . . . a money deal."

    Even so, Dunne said, he came close to tipping off the White House last November when he went to the Four Seasons Hotel in New York for lunch and spotted Vernon E. Jordan Jr., the president's close friend, at a table across the room.

    "I've known Vernon for a long time and like him very much," Dunne said. "As he was leaving, he came over to my table to say hello. I was going to say to him there's a kid in the Oval Office who's being taped. . . . I knew all that stuff: the semen-stained dress, the [oral sex].

    "That's what I was going to tell him. . . . But it seemed so absurd, a made-up thing. I was embarrassed and didn't tell him. Instead, I said to him, 'Give my love to the president.' I blew it."

    Goldberg responds indignantly that "I have stopped talking to Nick Dunne after 13 years. I found out he was going around and dining on this and actually giving speeches on the Lewinsky matter. I told him this story totally off the record."

    "She was always elevating herself beyond what she was."

    Goldberg has described herself and Tripp as "two middle-aged women who couldn't take it anymore," morally outraged over the president's dalliances. But there is little in Goldberg's past, or in her books, that suggests distaste for sex or scandal. Phone sex, oral sex, talk of wintergreen mints to spice up the action – many of the most salacious parts of the notoriously explicit Starr report – can all be found in the collected writings of Goldberg, a novelist as well as a book agent.

    About the only difference is that Lewinsky suggested Altoid mints during one of her 1997 visits to the White House. Goldberg, in a steamy 1992 book called "Madame Cleo's Girls," recommended Lifesavers.

    Another of Goldberg's novels, "People Will Talk," features a tabloid columnist named Baby Bayer who "can unzip a fly with her toes." Still another, "Friends in High Places," is a roman a clef that includes a "star feature writer who will take almost any man to bed for her next day's lead" and a publisher's wife given to lesbian encounters.

    Women, Goldberg suggests in her first book, an anti-feminist tract titled "Purr, Baby, Purr," should think of themselves as "a switchboard with all sorts of lovely buttons and plug-ins for lighting up and making connections."

    Goldberg's book jacket biographies are somewhat exaggerated as well. One says she "started her journalistic career at The Washington Post" and another describes her as "a former Washington journalist." In fact, she was neither a reporter nor columnist, but a "general clerk" in The Post's promotion department from 1957 to mid-1960, when she quit to take a job as "a press aide" with Lyndon Johnson's presidential campaign committee in the old Ambassador Hotel.

    "She was always elevating herself beyond what she was," recalls a former friend, journalist-author Myra MacPherson, then a reporter for the Washington Star. "She can be witty, but God, she is a scorpion. There were an awful lot of Machiavellian bones in that body."

    Post records still listed her under her maiden name of Lucianne Steinberger when she left the newspaper, but she was by then Lucianne Cummings, married three years and then separated from William Cummings, a high-school sweetheart. Both had been born in Boston in 1935, but he didn't meet her until after their families had moved to Alexandria and they were 13-year-old students at George Washington High School.

    She dropped out when she was 16. Goldberg has told different stories to different people about that but now says only that "I was bored out of my mind" and got a short-lived job selling advertising for a shopper. "I had 15 jobs before I was 21," she said. "I got fired from 14." She moved to Washington after she split up with Cummings. The subsequent divorce was amicable.

    "She was an incredible attention-getter," recalls Tyler Abell, then a young lawyer and Johnson supporter who had joined the committee a few weeks before Goldberg arrived. "She had these tight skirts, kind of bouncy blouses and blond hair piled on top of her head and she'd clack across the room in her high heels."

    Beyond that, Abell said, "she had these outlandish stories to tell." For instance, he said, Goldberg told him that "she was once in a Nazi concentration camp."

    After the 1960 convention, Goldberg got a spot at the Democratic National Committee and then the Inaugural Committee. But she fell out of favor with the Johnson crowd when she charged some items at Garfinckel's department store to the family account of Dale Miller, an LBJ adviser, and Miller's wife, Scooter, took angry notice.

    Goldberg called reports of the incident "a smear" churned up by the Clinton-defending "slime machine" and said she had "permission to charge."

    Asked whether she'd had an affair with Miller, she denied it. But she admitted it earlier this year to Knight-Ridder correspondent Frank Greve. He has it on tape.

    Goldberg said such attacks "absolutely riveted my resolve to hang into this thing." She noted that she has "two wonderful sons" now, Jonah and Josh, and a husband of 32 years, Sidney Goldberg, an executive with a New York news feature syndicate.

    According to one of her book jackets, Goldberg "was appointed to the White House staff" after President John F. Kennedy was sworn in. Although her name does not appear on any staff records, she says she was "buried in the Old Executive Office Building," where she was "almost a temporary worker" in "an opposition-research kind of office" before leaving for public relations jobs in the National Press Club building.

    She opened up her own one-person shop in the Press Club building in 1963 under the name of Lucianne Cummings & Associates. The sign on the door suggested offices in "London" and "Paris."

    "Of course," Goldberg says. "I think I had Kuala Lumpur on there, too. I was willing to do business in those places."

    Another friend, Emerson Beauchamp, then a movie and theater critic for the Star, remembered Goldberg telling him how she was practicing on a London accent "so she could pretend to be her English secretary when people called." Others said the self-aggrandizement included having herself paged in restaurants such as the Monocle and getting pictures of herself with notables such as Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.) by walking up to them at various functions and pretending to know them after making sure a photographer was at hand. She also had a busy social life, during the week.

    "Lucy would claim that her entire social life took place Monday through Friday because she only went out with married men," Beauchamp said. "On weekends they had to stay with their wives. She'd watch TV Saturday and Sunday."

    "Emerson said that?" Goldberg sniffed. "He's a busy little memorist."

    Goldberg had her first 15 minutes of fame in 1965 when she tried to auction off a handwritten note from Jackie Kennedy to Lady Bird Johnson, inviting Johnson to watch one of the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates. Johnson's demand for its return made the front page of the New York Times.

    Goldberg identified herself the next day, saying she had made "an error in judgment," not realizing how embarrassing the sale would be for Johnson. She said she got the letter at Democratic campaign headquarters, delivered it to Johnson, and kept it when the first lady handed it back to Goldberg, telling her to answer it.

    "They were looking for really dirty stuff."

    "We used to say there's the good Lucy and there's the bad Lucy," says Roberta Hornig Draper, a former Washington Star reporter and former friend. "The good Lucy was always helping people, giving them chicken soup and things like that."

    Goldberg never struck those who knew her as having any particular political agenda. "I always thought of [Goldberg] as a personal opportunist," said a former friend. "Not someone with a political affiliation. That evolved."

    Goldberg insists she's "not political." She says "there's a lot about the Republicans that I don't agree with." But her political activities changed after she married Sid Goldberg, then editor of the North American Newspaper Alliance, a news feature syndicate.

    Draper, "a loyal Democrat," was maid of honor at the wedding in New York's Plaza Hotel and remembers getting into a big argument with Victor Lasky, one of Sid Goldberg's close friends.

    The author of several anti-Kennedy books and outspokenly anti-communist columnist for Sid Goldberg's syndicate, Lasky introduced Lucianne in 1972 to Murray Chotiner, a longtime political adviser to President Richard M. Nixon. He hired her as a $1,000-a-week spy planted in Democratic presidential candidate George S. McGovern's press corps. She used the codename "Chapman's Friend" and got credentials as a representative of the Women's News Service, part of her husband's organization. She said she was told "Nixon himself had approved" the scheme.

    "They were looking for really dirty stuff," Goldberg said when unmasked the next year by Washington Star-News reporter Robert Walters. "Who was sleeping with who, what the Secret Service men were doing with the stewardesses, who was smoking pot on the plane – that sort of thing."

    She dictated her observations into a tape recorder and phoned them into Chotiner's office, as often as five or six times a day, where they were typed up and rushed over to the White House.

    Beauchamp said Goldberg's political conversion appeared to be complete the last time they talked over the phone, during the 1988 presidential campaign.

    "She said, 'I suppose you're still a Democrat,'‚" Beauchamp recounted. "I said, 'I certainly am.' She said, 'Being a Democrat is such a dreary, schlocky thing to be. None of my best friends are Democrats.' I assume she was talking about her 'best friends' in New York."

    "We yakked about politics. She'd have colorful gossip. Sometimes it'd be true. Sometimes it wouldn't."

    Although she says she hasn't made a penny from her anti-Clinton crusade, Goldberg has had a series of disputes – some quite nasty – over money.

    In the most publicized dust-up, author Kitty Kelley accused Goldberg in a 1983 lawsuit of breach of contract, fraud and breach of fiduciary duty in handling Kelley's royalties for her best-selling "Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star." Kelley said Goldberg didn't pay her for sales in foreign countries.

    "The checks would come in to her," Kelley said. "There were a dozen foreign sales, including $300 from Iceland. My former husband spotted them. I would never have noticed. I was very stupid, very naive. Now she's being treated like the Auntie Mame of politics. But it isn't ha-ha-ha."

    Goldberg denied any wrongdoing, but after a two-week trial here, a jury found Goldberg guilty, awarded Kelley $60,000 and, in an unusual step, another $640 in punitive damages. The judge in the case later scratched the damages and reduced the award to $41,407.

    Kelley says Goldberg paid her, but "stiffed" her own lawyer, David N. Webster. "He had to sue her," Kelley recalled.

    Goldberg denied that a lawsuit had been filed. She said she paid Webster some money up front and suggested that she shouldn't be expected to pay any more. "We lost the case," she said.

    Court records show that Webster's firm did file suit and that Goldberg received a copy of the complaint by certified mail at her Manhattan apartment on July 14, 1986. She didn't contest it and on Oct. 14, 1986, a judgment was entered against her for $51,045.64 plus "interest from the date of judgment at 5.79 percent and costs."

    Webster said he reminded her of that by letter in July; 12 years after the judgment, he's still waiting for the money. With interest, the bill would amount to more than $100,000 by now.

    There may be more legal troubles to come, perhaps from Lewinsky, who is considering suing both Goldberg and Tripp for invasion of privacy. Lewinsky's lawyer, Plato Cacheris, declined to comment, but a knowledgeable attorney said Goldberg could be implicated in a suit for counseling, aiding and abetting Tripp's wiretapping.

    Goldberg has said she told Tripp that the taping was legal, erroneously confusing federal law requiring only one party's consent with Maryland law requiring the consent of both parties. The attorney said Goldberg could also be open to litigation "to the extent she had a hand in disseminating the tapes."

    Goldberg's relationship with Tripp began several years ago when Tripp, who worked at the Bush and then the Clinton White House before moving over to the Pentagon in 1994, was thinking of doing an inside-the-White-House expose». Fox News talk show host and syndicated columnist Tony Snow put them together. Snow had been a speechwriter at the Bush White House and he met Tripp there in the media affairs office.

    "We yakked about politics," Snow recalled. "She'd have colorful gossip. Sometimes it'd be true. Sometimes it wouldn't."

    Snow met Goldberg through a mutual friend after leaving the White House "and we started chatting over the phone."

    When Tripp expressed interest in doing a book, Snow gave her number to Goldberg, who was "basically the only agent I knew." Goldberg told the FBI this happened in the summer of 1996, but Snow has indicated variously in his columns this year that he put the two together in 1993, 1994 or early 1995.

    Snow said he didn't know just what kind of a book Tripp had in mind, but he said "she was bugged by the Foster stuff." (Deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster killed himself in 1993 while Tripp was still at the White House.)

    According to Maggie Gallagher, a syndicated columnist Goldberg enlisted to draft a Tripp proposal in the summer of 1996, it would have included a section on Foster as well as a chapter titled "The President's Women" (but not Lewinsky, who had yet to confide in Tripp). The working title for the book: "Behind Closed Doors: What I Saw at the Clinton White House."

    Goldberg, who holds that "the answer to everything is sex, power and money," was no doubt enthusiastic about the putative chapter on "sexual harassment in the White House," Gallagher said. And so was Tripp. "This was something that she and Lucianne had discussed and settled," Gallagher recalled. "Linda did not have to be dragged kicking and screaming."

    Once the proposal was ready to be shopped to publishers in New York, however, Tripp got cold feet. She had just received a raise at the Pentagon, Gallagher said, and she was afraid of the worst of possible worlds: No one would publish the book but word about it would get to the White House and she would lose her job.

    "The project was dead by the end of August," Gallagher said. "The last thing I heard from Lucianne was that she was quite upset for her backing out this way."

    The acid-tongued agent made her displeasure plain to Tripp, too. "Who do you think you are, the Queen of England?" Tripp recalled Goldberg telling her before slamming down the phone on their final conversation about the book.

    The next summer, Tripp tiptoed back to Goldberg, using Snow as an intermediary. Tripp was worried about her job again after telling Newsweek about Clinton's alleged groping of White House volunteer Kathleen E. Willey, but Tripp was eager at the same time to tell the world about another woman whose relationship with Clinton she now knew something about – Lewinsky.

    When Snow told her Tripp wanted to talk to her again, Goldberg recalls, "I said, 'My God, spare me this woman.' But it had been 14 months. I thought to myself, 'Maybe she's been typing.' So I said to Tony, 'All right, have her call me.'‚"

    When Tripp called, Goldberg says, "I said, 'Did you change your mind about a book?' She said, 'No, I just need somebody to talk to.' She wanted to give Isikoff the story, but she said, 'I don't want to talk to him alone.'

    "Then she told me the story. . . . I thought it was fascinating and I can't stand Clinton. I think he's a criminal. She knew she was dropping a hunk of red meat in front of me. I loved it."

    As Dominick Dunne recalls it, Goldberg told him about Tripp some "four years ago, after Vince Foster's death." He said Goldberg described her then as "the woman who served Vince Foster his last hamburger" and who knew about "sex things in the White House."

    Dishing over the phone as usual last year, probably in September, Goldberg asked Dunne if he remembered "Linda." He didn't.

    "The woman who served Vince Foster his last hamburger," Goldberg prodded.

    "Oh yes, oh yes," Dunne replied.

    "Well, she's back," Goldberg said.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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