Muhammad Ali is visiting Detroit on a one-day promotional tour, and the mission is to get something, anything, from him, to run in the next column. An unguarded comment from The Champ would be a nugget of pure gold.
It’s the mid-1980s, both Detroit daily newspapers feature regular, absurdly popular gossip columns that appear at least three times a week, and “items” are the currency by which their competitive success is measured. The juicier, more exclusive, or potentially scandalous the morsel, the better.
The two principal combatants of the period — Carol Teegardin, or “Carol T.,” the raspberry beret-topped originator of the craze at The Detroit News who sold her services to the rival Detroit Free Press, and Diane Hofsess, one of a string of writers who succeeded Teegardin at The News for a column curiously dubbed “Yours Truly” — are on Ali watch, their pencils and talons sharpened.
“I got there before Carol T., and suddenly she comes flying in the door, nail polish not dry yet, and says, ‘I heard that Muhammad Ali is here!’ ” recalls Hofsess (who once agreed to be photographed in a red-satin outfit with horns and a pitchfork for the cover of a now-defunct local magazine that asked, “Is This the Meanest Woman in Detroit?”) “And she’s asking me, which way did he go? Well, of course I pointed her in the wrong direction and watched her run away in her high heels, and I was laughing all the way. Those were the kinds of things we used to do.”
It was a most improbable era in this city’s colorful media history, but for nearly a decade, the most powerful and talked-about element of Detroit’s newspaper wars was the battle of tidbits about the personal goings-on of the rich and famous. Robin Hardin, a longtime Detroit radio and TV professional who’s now vice president of public relations for Berline, remembers the time vividly. “You couldn’t wait to get the papers, and you went right past the front page and the local news to read ‘Yours Truly’ and ‘Carol T.’ on the feature sections,” she says.
The columns reflected the times, an era of conspicuous consumption and nightclubs, when names like Ford, DeLorean, and Iacocca meant more than automotive news, and local TV and radio talents carried the aura of celebrities. Detroit’s two major dailies were fiercely independent and combative, and people actually read newspapers. So, long before TMZ, bloggers, and The Drudge Report, our city boasted a memorable procession of gossip girls — and two guys, most notoriously the late and legendary Matt Beer.
Credit (or blame) for the phenomenon should go to the late Bill Giles, the former Detroit News executive editor nicknamed “Armpits” for the hands-behind-his-head photo that accompanied his regular “News Notes” column, or “Giles the Good,” to differentiate him from another man with the same surname who later ran The News. Giles had come to Detroit from the old National Observer and was enamored of East Coast gossip columns like Page Six in the New York Post and declared that The News should have such a feature of its own. What’s more, he determined that Teegardin would be the staffer to carry out his vision. “I thought he was out of his mind,” recalls Ben Burns, Giles’ managing editor, now director of journalism at Wayne State University.
Teegardin was a recent college graduate whose newspaper experience included brief stints at the Clarkston News and Utica Observer. Hired a year earlier at The News as an editorial assistant, she was struggling to find writing space in the fashion section. “When Bill Giles called me in to do this column, I had no idea what I was going to do and neither did he,” Teegardin says over lunch in Ferndale, where she recently relocated after spending years as a high-school teacher in California. “He said he wanted me to do sort of a social column, not a society piece or a Miss Manners, but a biting social commentary.”
“Carol T.,” the column, debuted in late 1980. By January 1981, Carol Teegardin’s column had caused such a sensation that it expanded to twice a week: Sundays and Thursdays. The jaunty chapeau that accompanied her byline photo and became her trademark was added out of necessity, she says: She couldn’t find time to do her hair.
“I think back on those days as a lot of fun, but it was a full-time, 24/7 job,” Teegardin says. “You never got to rest. I got up in the morning, got on the phone every day to check for news before my afternoon deadline, then out again every evening. It wasn’t as glamorous as it sounded. It actually made me permanently wary of parties.”
Though fact-checking was mandatory, even for the scoops some local luminaries supplied about themselves, every item was fraught with peril. Once, Teegardin wrote that a prominent Birmingham retailer was spotted at a party in close company of a voluptuous blonde obviously not his wife. An editor — possibly Gerry Storch, who by many accounts often spiced up her copy with zingy embellishments of his own — inserted the word “inamorata,” or mistress, to describe the companion. The woman turned out to be an advertising manager at The News, angling to get more business. Oops. “He was furious, his wife was furious,” says Teegardin. “I dealt with The News’ lawyers for months.
Though she had arguably the most widely read column in either newspaper, Teegardin still was being paid as an editorial assistant. That prompted her to initiate conversations with Free Press executives, who were only too happy to stick it to their rivals. In 1982, Teegardin jumped to the Freep, where she remained as a columnist and feature writer for 18 years.
Matt Beer, fresh out of the U.S. Air Force and Northern Michigan University, was scooping ice cream for his brother-in-law’s business in Greektown and trying to land a job as a feature writer for a Detroit paper. “When we hired Carol T. at the Free Press, it was a big deal,” recalls former Freep sportswriter Joe Lapointe, now a veteran New York Times sports columnist and Beer’s childhood friend. “Matt was the kind of person who knew how to listen to people. They would tell him things they did not tell others. When I heard Carol left The News, I called Matt and said, ‘Hey! Type up all the gossip you’ve heard in the last 48 hours and drop it on their desks at The News. You will be their next gossip columnist.’ He did, and the rest is history. In some ways, I think I unleashed a Frankenstein monster.”
Beer, whom Burns describes as “the most charming, amoral person I ever met,” became the personification of The News’ replacement column, “Yours Truly” or simply “Y.T.,” working with a succession of female rumor writers. Kay Richards, a bubbly TV reporter from WJBK/Channel 2, was his first partner (resigning amid claims of Mafia death threats), followed by Susan Whitall, who came from the counterculture music magazine Creem and still works for The News, and Hofsess, who eventually took over the column from Beer by herself. “Matt rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, but he was a wonderful writer,” says Hofsess, who has taught English courses and served as adviser to the campus newspaper at Southfield High School the past decade. “Everybody read it if he wrote it. And, in the end, isn’t a story somebody reads worth more than something nobody picks up?”
Beer rarely missed a shot to brandish his scathing wit. For example, take Constantina, a fashion model of the era, whose age was a well-guarded secret. “I remember he wrote that the only way to really find out how old she was would be to cut off her leg and count the rings,” Whitall says. “I don’t think she ever got over being angry about that.”
Toward the late ’80s, Lapointe says, “Matt’s behavior became erratic. There was something self-destructive about him, almost sociopathic. The traits got worse as time went by.” Beer’s life at The News and beyond read like the script to a made-for-TV movie. His father, respected Oakland County Circuit Judge William Beer, was uncovered as a bigamist, fathering 12 children by two wives in metro Detroit, a bitter twist for a writer who’d built his career exposing the dalliances of others.
Upon leaving The News, Beer passed the bar, only to be disbarred over allegations of defrauding clients. He moved to the Bay Area and reinvented himself as a wildly successful tech columnist for the San Francisco Examiner at the height of the dot-com boom, and was in the process of establishing a foundation to train journalists in Cambodia when he suffered a fatal heart attack in Phnom Penh on Oct. 6, 2003. He was just 50.
Hofsess, who may have been overqualified for the job (she holds a master’s degree in journalism and a certificate in French from the Sorbonne), wrote “Yours Truly” for two and a half years. “It was my point of entry into The News, she says. “I worked there 11 years, but all anybody seems to remember is the ‘Yours Truly’ column. I had moles all over the place; The London Chop House, Oakland County courthouse, hair salons. ‘Yours Truly’ had a lot of unpaid staff out there. But then I got married, and the lifestyle of an alley cat was not compatible to my transition. So I stepped down, and Tim Kiska took over and ran it into the ground.”
That’s an allegation Kiska doesn’t necessarily dispute. “What’s her point?” says a laughing Kiska, now a Ph.D. assistant professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. “The thing that really blew me away was, when I first took the job everybody was saying, ‘Oh, thank God, a real journalist, an experienced professional.’ Then after the first few months, the same people came back and said, ‘You’re not mean enough.’ So I’d say, “OK, let’s start with you. Who are you sleeping with that you shouldn’t be?’ It was the worst three years of my life.”
Both “Carol T.” and “Yours Truly” faded away as the ’90s arrived, but nearly everyone involved with their history agrees that a revival of the Detroit gossip column wouldn’t be a bad idea. “I think [readers] would be way more interested in that than in the celebrity columns we do now, all this rewritten Britney Spears national stuff,” Whitall says. “I mean, the papers all scream ‘local, local, local.’ What could be more local than what the mayor’s wife is doing at her hair salon? That’s hyper-local.”
Adds Hofsess, “It took a big area like metro Detroit, and sometimes Michigan, and gave it a small-town feel, because you could read items about people you knew. You may have seen them at a party or you watched them on television all the time. They’re the ties that bind us and keep us as one city, even though we’re a metropolitan area.”