IF YOU LIKE DALLAS ON TV and especially if you like the interiors of the Ewing family’s house, maybe you’d like to buy it. Bruce and Jackie Calder’s on again, off again marriage is off again and the house, where the show is filmed, is for sale. She was seen the other night at Ewald’s with Johnny Black, independent oil operator. – Julia Sweeney, Feb. 1, 1980
IT’S HAPPY HOUR AT THE REGENCY ROOM at the Fairmont Hotel, and the social thoroughbreds of Dallas are at play. The first string of the party elite is on stage at this particular function, which means the tab should run a minimum of 75 grand. They are packed in a martini-to-martini matrix, rubbing blue-blooded elbows, decked out in their Oscar de la Rentas and their Halstons, swapping stories of inflation and face-lifts.
Gliding through the middle of all this is a rather nondescript, middle-aged woman in a black chiffon dress. Although she doesn’t look out of place, she is anything but a member of the crowd. She is certainly not on the invitation list because of her station in life. She is not the wife of a rich insurance tycoon; she’s not anybody’s wife. She doesn’t have anything close to the material wealth of her fellow party-goers; she makes less money than some of the waiters in the high-class restaurants she frequents. And she is not anyone’s tower of intellectualism; she doesn’t even have a college degree.
Julia Sweeney is there for something she has in common with the cocktail waitresses, the boys in the band, and the party photographer: She’s working. It’s her job to waltz from crowd to crowd, scavenging gossip tidbits like a seagull following a garbage scow.
Julia is the gossip columnist extraordinaire of the Times Herald. Her title is “society writer,” but she has developed a vast following in the city by becoming the queen bee of bitchiness. She is the woman who publishes the lurid details of society divorces and speculates in print about who, as she says, is a POSSLQ (a census term for persons of the opposite sex sharing living quarters) or what two VIPs might have been talking about when they lunched at the Mansion. (She has a great potential source of information about the latter, incidentally, since one of her society escorts is Clif Zwirner, the top executive at the Mansion.)
She might hit as many as 15 cocktail parties, teas, charity gatherings, and so forth a week, tracing her way through a daily rut that runs from the Anatole to the Dallas Country Club to Jean Claude and back to the Anatole again. Julia changes clothes more often than a model during market week at the Apparel Mart. It’s part of the job.
The logical conclusion is that from an employment standpoint, it beats the hell out of shooting rivets at the bomber plant. Julia isn’t so sure. Because of the nature of the occupation, she really can’t have a good time at all those parties. She limits herself to two glasses of white wine, poured over ice. Her only social life is vicarious.
Every person she encounters is a potential candidate for her gossip column, and she must regard them as such. The gossip columnist’s task is to manipulate every conversation in hopes of extracting another sanguine morsel for the edification of the voyeurs in her reading audience. She scavenges from the rich and gives to the poor. Privately, she regards what she does as the lowest level of journalism. (“No good journalist would have this job,” she once told me. “And I know it.”)
But she doesn’t have time to think about that when she’s working; smiling and chatting, making mental notes on all the gossip gems she gleans from social conversations. Tonight in the Regency Room, Julia has on her game face. She is animated and gregarious. She is working.
The reason I know about all this is that I’m working tonight, also. I’m taking the Julia Sweeney concept a step further, doing the ultimate Julia Sweeney story about Julia. I know exactly where Julia is tonight because the private detectives we hired to follow this social gadfly for a week have been keeping tabs on her every movement. They watch her from the time she leaves the house in the morning until after she goes home at night. If you are going to do a Julia Sweeney job, you might as well be thorough. We checked to see if she has a police record (which she doesn’t). We went through her garbage. We even thought about having somebody pose as a cop, pull Julia over and get her driver’s license number so we could look up more records of her personal life. It’s a dirty job, but as Julia obviously believes, somebody has to do it.
AFTER IT WAS DETERMINED THAT JULIA grew up in Breckenridge, we dispatched a reporter on a joyride out there to do some snooping, hoping perhaps to unearth a scandal in her past. Our journalistic sleuth issued the following report:
“Breckenridge, the Stephens County seat, is another washed-out oil and gas town, where things must have been popping pretty good about 35 years ago, when Julia graduated from high school. Now it looks like someplace where they had a hell of a party and forgot to clean up. The town consists mostly of a lot of vacant lots all junked up with rusty pipe.
“The first stop was going to be the high school. That’s always easy enough to locate in a town of less than 6000. This one is really a dandy. It has a green statue of a cowboy riding a bucking horse on the roof. I felt a little uneasy when I walked into the school office. In a lot of these little towns, the people aren’t at all hesitant about walking up to a stranger and staring at him like he’d just come in from Mars.
“The ’Dallas Look’ might work all right in Dallas, but it won’t cut you much slack out in Breckenridge. I presented myself at the counter and addressed the lady in charge. ’Excuse me,’ I said. ’I’m Pastor Watson from Dallas, and a lady in my congregation is trying to piece together a family history. She thinks she has some cousins who used to live out here during the Forties, and several of these individuals are in line for a substantial inheritance. I was wondering if you could verify…”
” ’And just who did you say you are?’ she said.
” ’Well, ah, I’m with the church in Dallas, and I’m trying to give away some money.’ Mumble, mumble.
“The old woman gave me a hard stare and retreated back into some area that looked like a wall safe. She returned with the school records of not only Julia, but what looked like a whole batch of other Sweeneys.
” ’Well, I’m supposed to concentrate on the one called Julia. She’s in line for $56,000,’ 1 lied.
” ’Well, I have Julia Sweeney’s records here,’ the registrar said, pulling one card out of the stack. I attempted to jerk Julia’s records out of the old woman’s hands, a clever ploy I mastered during my tenure with food stamps.
“The wily old lady had seen that stunt once too often and was too quick for me. She clutched the card against what, in 1929, must have been her heaving bosom.
” ’And just what is it you want again?’ she demanded.
” ’Whatever you’ve got. For Chrissakes, lady. It’s for the church.’
“That brilliant burst of inspiration provided me with nothing more than when Julia Sweeney enrolled in and graduated from Breckenridge High School.
“I coaxed the clerk into revealing a little more. ’Her father was A.E. Sweeney, and she lived at 413 MeAmis. That’s just two blocks from here.’
“That house turned out to be a corner lot. The house was handsome, one of the better ones in town, with substantial front and back yards. Nobody answered the door, although the home is obviously occupied.
“A visit to the courthouse turned up next to nothing, except for A.E. Sweeney’s death certificate. He died New Year’s Eve 1952, preceding Hank Williams by less than 12 hours.
“Cause of death: acute nephritis. Julia’s father was born in 1885 in Bonham, Texas, and was an insurance agent. A clerk at the courthouse refused to allow me to sneak a peek at A.E. Sweeney’s will.
“An old lady at the public library could remember everyone who’d ever passed through Breckenridge, but not the Sweeney family for some reason.
“No one I talked with in Breckenridge could remember the Sweeney family, although A.E. Sweeney was prominent enough to rate a front-page obit in the Breckenridge American. But then, they put your name in the Breckenridge paper even if you go to the hospital.
“The trip out to Breckenridge didn’t turn out to be a total loss, though. Debbie, the waitress at the Viaduct Café, is quite a looker.
“But as far as digging up any dirt out there on Julia’s past – if there is any dirt – the passage of time has pretty well covered it up.
“So I bought a six-pack and drove the hell out of there.”
HAVING EXHAUSTED MOST OF THE CONventional legal methods of clandestine investigation, the next logical step was to confront Julia Sweeney in person.
The first meeting took place at Le Relais restaurant at the Plaza of the Americas.
Julia Sweeney has grayish blonde hair and would rate somewhere between attractive and handsome. In fact, for her age (which is 52 or 53), she might rate a nine.
She proceeded to reveal the following details of her past. Julia is the eighth of nine Sweeney children. It was her mother’s ambition for all the children to broaden their horizons, which automatically meant moving out of Breckenridge as soon as they finished high school.
In Julia’s case, that meant heading straight to New York City at age 17 to enroll in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Her father was “very opposed” to this move because of Julia’s age, but his wishes didn’t prevail. At the Academy, Julia was a classmate of Colleen Dewhurst, with whom she remains in close touch, and she studied under Lee Strasberg.
Later, Julia moved to Milwaukee, where her sister Caroline owned and operated a tea room known as the Ambrosia House. Caroline eventually sold that enterprise and moved to Dallas to become a buyer at Neiman-Marcus. Julia followed, and she obtained a position in Neiman’s public relations department.
In 1974, Julia felt stifled by the lack of opportunities for advancement at Nei-man’s. (Rumor has it she had trouble spelling names in press releases.) She applied for a job as a feature writer with the women’s department at the Times Herald. She secured this job without any practical journalistic training or experience.
“I suspect Tom Johnson might have wanted me on the society staff at the paper because of the glitter image that Neiman’s seems to have in Dallas,” Julia says.
So what, then, qualifies Julia as the judge and jury on who’s in and who’s out in Dallas?
Nothing, really, except the giant printing presses in the basement of the Times Herald building that rumble off 220,000 copies of Julia’s column four times a week.
That’s Julia’s only credential, but it’s enough.
“That Neiman’s background gives Julia the inside track on everything,” concedes Cissy Stewart, society columnist at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
From the standpoint of overall efficiency, most media critics give Sweeney a substantially higher rating than Smith, who once arrived late at a heavyweight charity ball and asked a Morning News photographer if she’d missed anything. The photographer said yeah, that a highly prominent and conservative Dallas personality had smacked the daylights out of his wife.
The photographer assumed Smith realized he was joking, but Nancy breathlessly phoned the deliciously malicious item into the News. It wasn’t until later that she learned the awful truth and succeeded in killing the item just scant minutes before it was to go into print.
“Oh dear…how awful for Nancy,” Julia says, when that episode is related to her. “She’s really a sweet girl.”
Julia admits she’s continually on edge about making mistakes of that sort.
“Just misspelling a name is a continual worry,” she says, “and sometimes I’ll have as many as 40 names in a single column.
“What makes people even madder is when you refer to a company president as the chairman of the board. Or vice versa. That really gets their secretaries upset.
“One woman got angry with me because I referred to her peonies as chrysanthemums. Reporters and baseball players are the only people who have all their errors printed in the paper every day.”
Julia doesn’t feel her column qualifies as gossip. She says her ambition is anything but to reign as queen bee of bitchiness of the Dallas columnists.
Her bosses at the Times Herald apparently agree, since they reportedly wish she’d sling a little more raw meat in the column.
“If I found out that an item I used on somebody had, say, ruined a marriage, I’d be devastated,” Julia says. But of course that sentiment doesn’t stop her from purveying particulars of the private lives of the rich and powerful.
She did, however, agree that she probably knows as many well-placed people as anyone in Dallas. “Well, they may not know me, but I know them.
“Look, there goes Toddie Lee Wynne,” she says, pointing to an individual disappearing into one of the glass elevators at the Plaza of the Americas.
“I’ll tell you a story about him. It’s pretty obnoxious, really.” She did, and it was.
Julia agreed to a second interview.
In the meantime, we interviewed Barbara Richardson, a former co-worker of Julia’s at the Herald, hoping to uncover some offbeat twists to what was shaping up as the bland life story of Julia Sweeney.
This interrogation took place at a fern bar in Oak Lawn.
“Julia’s never been married,” said Ms. Richardson. “In fact, none of the big society writers at the Herald have ever been married while they were working there.
“That’s not an easy job to have in this town, by the way, because you’re always dealing with pseudo-society persons who would do anything to get their names in the paper.
“Julia has that good background, though, and that really helps, although for some reason, she could never spell John Connally’s name right.
“She’s usually just a dear, but sometimes Julia can be a real prickly pear.
“A few years after I left the Herald, I was invited to a wine tasting someone had at Union Station. There were all sorts of different wines available, and I’d tried just about all of them, if you know what I mean.
“Anyway, I saw Julia walk into the wine tasting, and I went over and gave her a hug and accidentally spilled a glass of Bordeaux on her dress. For a few moments, Julia got real upset.
“I forget exactly what she said, but she became real snappish. But that just lasted for an instant, and after that, it was the same old sweet Julia.
“She’s certainly no prima donna who always has hissy fits.”
The second interview with Julia occurred at Hunan. She ate shrimp and drank ice water. The interviewer drank four Coors. It was during this session that she provided the most damning information about herself.
“I suppose the most enjoyable aspect of my private life is watching Three’s Company. I know that must seem absurd, but 1 really am entertained by situation comedies. I get a big kick out of Taxi, Barney Miller, and Mork and Mindy, too.”
She then touched on some of the hollow aspects of life as a professional party girl. She expressed disappointment at having learned a gentleman who had asked her out had done so only in hopes of securing future favors in her column.
“But that’s the first time that’s happened to me, to my knowledge. Most of the people I deal with at these parties -the really wealthy people – have extraordinary manners and go to any possible length to make you feel comfortable.
“You hear things about some of these parties getting pretty wild and that the ’in’ thing is to pass around a bowl of cocaine. I’ve never seen any of that. I guess they bring it out after I leave.
“And frequently, I don’t get a chance to eat at the parties. I’m always on the job. So many times I find myself arriving home at midnight and fixing myself an egg or something.”
“Another thing that bothers me sometimes is driving around late at night by myself. I even went to the extent of buying one of those life-sized inflatable dolls to put in the front seat so that it would look like there was a man in the car with me. (Our surveillance tends to indicate Miss Sweeney spends a lot of time alone. Her dates don’t stay long at her house.)
“Then, one night a carload of teenagers pulled up next to me at an intersection, saw the doll, and started laughing and pointing at me.
“I put the doll in the trunk, and it’s been there ever since.”
At this point, Julia was still unaware that we’d had her followed.
The next day she found out.
It’s 4:58 p.m. My phone rings at the office. It is, as the private gumshoes like to say, “the subject.”
She wants to verify the spelling of a name in a column item I suggested. “Yes Julia, that’s Tony D, as in dog, O-R-S-E-T-T.”
And then she says, “By the way… [’By the way’-I loved that], there’s a rumor going around the newsroom up here that you had me followed by a private detective.”
This was followed by a pregnant pause that lasted about nine minutes. “Hmmm,” I thought. “Somebody got loaded and spilled the beans. Hope it wasn’t me.”
“Well, the word ’you’ doesn’t exactly mean ’me,’ ” I say. “Does that make any sense?”
“I heard you went through my garbage can. How did you know which garbage was mine? It might have belonged to that slob who lives next door.”
“Well, we’re pretty sure it was yours, Julia. We scored this ’thank you’ note in there that: was addressed to you. It’s in my desk drawer right now.”
Her next question was, “Why me? I mean, after all, why me?” (Why me, huh? That’s probably what Oliver Reed said when he read in Julia’s column that his traveling companion, Josephine Burge, “appears to be about 16 years old.” And that’s probably what Patti Hunt said after reading about how she ditched her new fiance. Why me? James Batt, night manager at the Plaza of the Americas, might have uttered those exact words after reading all about how he mistook a drunken customer for a restaurant cashier and fired him. Magazine writer Richard West might have said that, too, after Julia’s item about him sharing an apartment in New York with one Valerie Salem-bier. Or Don and Ruth Riddle, after Julia’s scoop about how they had to go to London for two weeks to learn how to drive their new Rolls. Or oil man Travis Ward, whom Julia linked romantically with Debbie Reynolds.)
“Why not Nancy Smith? She’d be a lot more interesting. She’s been married four times.
“I’ll tell you what. I feel sorry for that poor detective. He sure must have been bored stiff all week. If you’d done this a year ago, you might have been able to come up with something. But as it stands now, I have to be one of the most uncolor-ful people in Dallas, unfortunately.
“And if your article implies that Dallas society and I sort of cater to each other, that’s not true. It’s just not true.
“If the paper felt I was giving special plugs to certain people or events, I wouldn’t last here five minutes.
“I can’t understand why you want to pick on me. I think people in Dallas like me. Of course, I look like a perfect ass for saying that. Well, just say whatever you want to about me. Unless you say I have a beard or fat ankles. Then I’ll sue.”
Julia acknowledged that her life hasn’t always been as dull as she considers it now.
“There was a point when I was just as wild as you are,” Julia says. “But now – going to all these parties and not really being a participant: It puts real limits on the other aspects of my life.
“Some of these parties and other occasions I genuinely enjoy and look forward to going to them. But some of the others – well -I’d just as soon be in Philadelphia.”
All right, Julia. But it’s like they say in Verdi’s Puccini:
“The nightlife ain’t no good life, but it’smy life.”
Julia Sweeney’s Garbage
On Tuesday, March 10, 1981, the reporter did a trash pickup at subject’s residence, and the following items were noted in this trash pickup:
1 Thank you note from Bruce H. Harbour
1 Empty Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup can
1 Empty carton (4% milkfat) Lucerne cottage cheese from Safeway store
1 Empty 6 ounce can Tree Top apple juice
1 Plastic rice bag
1 Grocery receipt from Safeway for $3.09 dated 3/9/81
1 Paul Masson wine cork cap
1 Twinings orange pekoe tea bag
2 Paper wrappers “After EightWafer-Thin Mints” (RountreeMackintosh Ltd., York, England)
2 Pink carnation flowers and 1white daisy
3 Orange peels
1 Grapefruit in halves
1 Advertisement for Vision magazine (application card)
1 Advertisement for Sports Illustrated (application card)
Various paper towels, paper napkins, egg shells, coffee grounds, etc.