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For Michael Wolff, the best thing about moving to the East Village from the Upper East Side may be the chance to fight with a whole new set of people: the neighborhood’s restaurant staff. Since arriving in April, the Vanity Fair columnist has tussled with several, and been asked to leave at least one place. (Telling one unsatisfactory server, “Oh? Possibly you’re on drugs?” led to his ejection, Wolff says.)
When Wolff complained bitterly to his daughter about all this, “She went on to tick off 10 restaurants on the Upper East Side that I’d been asked to leave,” he says.
Another problem with the East Village is that, for the first time in 30 years, he doesn’t have a doorman, which makes newspaper delivery difficult. (He has been told homeless people steal the papers.) Though Wolff has lately been publicly gleeful in predicting the death of newspapers (arguing not only that newspapers will die, but also that they deserve to), he cannot do without them. Most mornings he throws his overcoat over pajamas and trudges down to the gas station for The New York Times (which he loves to hate), The Wall Street Journal, the Daily News and the New York Post (which, of late, loves to hate him).
Wolff, who published a biography of Rupert Murdoch in December with his cooperation, has always expressed fondness for the mogul’s down-and-dirty tabloid. And Wolff loves a brawl, having transparently started several himself, often when he has a project to promote, and historically in the pages of the Post. “I don’t mind getting in fights,” he says. “Do I like it? Well, sometimes I like it. You get in fights because there’s something to fight about.”
The last few months have been different. In the spring, the Post ran a series of items and a cartoon about Wolff’s affair with fellow East Village resident Victoria Floethe, a former Vanity Fair temp half his age, his subsequent divorce proceedings, and a messy lawsuit involving his mother-in-law.
“Pretty brutal” is how he describes all this. He adds, somewhat unconvincingly for someone who has artfully skewered the extramarital dealings of politicians and moguls, “The scandalous elements of a man having an affair seem to escape me.”
For now, though, the Page Six glare has faded. “You start getting used to it,” he says of the attention. “And then you pick up the paper and you’re not there and you think, ‘Well, what am I, chopped liver?’”
Wolff denies he is having a midlife crisis, which is what people who talk about Michael Wolff think. The term, he says, “implies a dysfunction or a profound turnaround or something that has gone off track, and what I’m saying is that it hasn’t. It actually proceeds apace.”
Still, downtown is not the only new frontier for Wolff. Lately he has been doing what he says he would never do — blog, which he does once a day for Newser. His disagreeableness can distract from the astuteness of his assessments. But whereas once his columns earned him Manhattan media prominence, even his admirers complain that daily traffic bait for Newser ill-suits his talents. He has tested the limits of his bomb-throwing schtick, bewildering even his friends by repeatedly going after New York Times media columnist David Carr, whom he called a “nitwit” and “semi-retarded” on his blog, and by cheering on the death of traditional media. “I don’t even want to do this,” blurts a friend asked to comment on him. “He gets harder and harder to defend.” (Not everyone agrees. “Say what you want about Michael — that he’s a self-promoter, that he’s an a--hole, but he’s my favorite a--hole,” says Simon Dumenco, the Advertising Age columnist and his longtime editor at New York magazine.)
His credo of acerbic truth-telling and calculated artifice, which in print so sharply reflected New York and its media class, is arguably the same. What’s changed the most, though, is the media landscape itself — and the medium he’s trying to master.
Decades uptown have not erased the hint of New Jerseyese in Wolff’s voice — yuge for huge. In person, he is deliberate and controlled, taking pauses, which recall the commas and parentheticals he favors in writing, and alternating between a half-exaggerated courtliness and spittle-spraying indignation.