For nearly 20 years, society tattletale Danny Medina, publisher of Arizona Trends, has tickled the Valley's upper crust with his newspaper columns detailing marriages on the rocks, failing fortunes, cosmetic surgeries gone awry and other low life among the high life.
Couched in a catty, chatty style that even the late-period Truman Capote might have deemed excessive, these bitchy bonbons were inevitably preceded by disclaimers like "A million horses couldn't drag it outttta me butttt . . ." or "No amount of Beluga caviar can drag it outtta me buttttt . . ."
But last week, those stampeding stallions and imported fish eggs would have come in handy while attempting to get to the bottom of a rumor so juicy that even Medina himself would never print it: Following a business deal gone sour, Danny Medina had been ousted from his own newspaper.
Or so Medina told friends last Wednesday, the day after he sold off controlling interest in his papers to two investors. According to insiders, Medina said he'd hoped his new partners would attend to the business end of the operation, freeing up his time for more writing. Instead, the pair -- former labor attorney Leslie McCarver and former Trends employee Bill Dougherty -- reportedly told Medina his services as a columnist would no longer be needed.
Reached for comment later in the week, Medina concedes that his days as a society reporter are over. But contrary to what he told friends just days earlier, he insists that the decision to stop writing his two popular columns, "Whispers" and "Table Hopping," had been his idea, not the investors'. "It does sound like I've been ousted, [but] no, I have not been ousted," Medina tells New Times. "I chose not to do the column. If I'm going to do the columns, what the hell would I sell the business for?"
A good question. But for many observers, a bigger head-scratcher is why anyone would buy the paper, then kill off Medina's popular columns, the only reason many of the paper's 45,000 readers -- mostly subscribers in the city's tonier zip codes -- ever look at the publication.
Making the story even more intriguing is what appears to be a stormy history between Medina, who describes himself as "eternally youthful," and former employee turned partner Bill Dougherty, 36, who wrote a column in Trends for several years. Following Dougherty's departure from Trends in early 2000 (he reportedly didn't get along with a female superior), Medina purportedly attempted to thwart Dougherty's efforts to land a similar job at the Scottsdale Tribune by warning an editor at that paper that Dougherty was a sloppy reporter.
Quizzed about the incident, Medina's memory goes fuzzy. "I can't imagine my ever doing that to someone, unless I were forewarning [the editor] that if you do hire [Dougherty], be sure you check his facts very carefully," he says. Although Medina swears he can't remember making the call, he says that if he indeed phoned the Tribune, it was as a courtesy to Tribune publisher Karen A. Wittmer, "my very, very good friend. I guess I wanted them to know that if they hired Bill, they should edit his work very closely."
That said, Medina insists that there is no bad blood between himself and Dougherty -- even though Dougherty, who wrote a few society columns for the Tribune despite his former employer's intervention, described Medina's appearance at a social function last summer as "a scary version of Tiny Tim on Quaaludes."
Claiming "I could not have hand-picked a better person for the job than Bill," Medina now can't sing his praises of Dougherty loud enough. Or at least that's the case until he learns that when a New Times reporter phoned Dougherty earlier that day, his new co-partner denied knowing anything about the deal.
"Bill said that?" responds Medina with a groan. "Well, he's green to the game. I guess he didn't know what to say. Still, he should have known better. The phone rings . . . it's the press . . . eeek!"
It's a story that keeps changing as frequently as the seating arrangement at a party to which both Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman have inadvertently been invited.
Reached for comment over the weekend, Dougherty confesses that he and partner Karen McCarver did indeed own a controlling share in the publication and explains that he'd originally lied about his financial interest in Trends because Medina had sworn him to a strict gag order -- even though Dougherty and McCarver are now Medina's boss. (McCarver, who will assume the role of publisher, was unavailable for comment.)
Dougherty assures the faithful that the magazine will continue its annual "Beat the Heat" fashion extravaganzas, albeit on a more subtle note. "I'll show up in a suit," he says. "Danny would have worn fruit on his head."
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Contrary to what Medina had earlier told friends, Dougherty insists that Medina wasn't ousted and that he voluntarily opted to kill his columns so he'd have more time for travel. "What I'm telling people is that Danny's arrangement is much like the arrangement that Helen Gurley Brown has with Cosmopolitan," says Dougherty, citing a rather unfortunate example; several years ago, the aging Cosmo editor was in essence put out to pasture. "Danny will still pop up from time to time."
But unless "from time to time" means on a monthly basis, many observers foresee a Medina-less Trends as the air-kiss of death. Who but the flamboyant Medina can regale readers with items like the one about the local florist who recently became so flustered by a demanding hostess "that the poor darling had diarrhea for two days!" Or the story about a former local TV personality who showed up at a fete sporting a freshly broken arm, prompting Medina to tell readers: "Yes, I know the old story -- 'I tripped over the cat' . . . yeah, while sipping your third mint julep."
And while some people are no doubt celebrating (like the zaftig rival columnist whom Medina recently nicknamed "Honk if you love buffets"), other readers are already planning a wake. "An era has ended," says one longtime media buyer, who predicts ad revenue will plummet once Medina's touch disappears. "Ninety percent of the advertisers who advertise in Trends are in there because of Danny Medina and his audience. It doesn't do any good to run ads in any publication if you don't have readers looking at the goddamn thing." However, Art Talk, another Medina publication, will not be affected by the deal.
As he prepares to enjoy his puzzling sabbatical (this week, he's off to Peckerwood, his Payson summer home), Medina already seems to miss the limelight. "I know what people are saying. 'Ding dong, the witch is dead!' But give them a couple months. They're going to say, 'We miss that little bastard. He was fun to read.'"