Corporate Lawyer by Day, Celebrity Interviewer by Night
|George Whipple 3d
'77 is an in-house counsel for the investment banking firm
Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, and the other night he went to a
black-tie tribute at Avery Fisher Hall for the director Martin
Scorsese. No surprise there. Until, that is, you learn that Mr.
Whipple, 43, was covering the event as the celebrity reporter for
New York 1, the all-news cable channel. There he was, in his Brooks
Brothers pinstripes and hunting-dog tie--"My uniform since I was
10," he said--waiting behind the press barricades, along with the
camera crews in blue jeans, for the sight of somebody, anybody,
"Winona!" he exclaimed. "That's
Winona Ryder, the star of Mr.
Scorsese's "Age of Innocence," and very big game for Mr. Whipple,
walked tentatively toward the press barricade.
"Winona George Whipple New York 1," Mr. Whipple jumped in, all in one breath, as he stuck his microphone in Ms. Ryder's face and asked what it was like to work with Mr. Scorsese.
"It kind of makes you feel like it's just you and him making the movie," Ms. Ryder said, supplying a sound bite.
"Isn't that exciting?" Mr. Whipple said after she'd gone. "You get to see and talk to her. It's fun."
Minutes later, he was preparing for his closing remarks in front of the camera, for what would be a two minute broadcast the next day. His trademark Websterian eyebrows (one of his 19th-century uncles was in fact Daniel Webster) overpowered a face that was, at that moment, as shiny as the surface of the ponds on his gentleman's farm in Putnam County. "You don't have any makeup, do you?" Mr. Whipple asked the female reporter who was following him around. No luck, so he turned to his camerawoman--"Do you have any powder?"--but she said no, too. Finally, Mr. Whipple wiped his face with a handsome handkerchief.
"Brooks Brothers," he said.
Mr. Whipple is a graduate of Choate
Rosemary Hall, Columbia University and Columbia Law School. His
first job was as an associate at the prestigious New York law firm
of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, where he worked on the IBM patent
and trade secrets lawsuits of the 1980's. His family arrived in
America in 1630, settled in Providence, RI, and built Whipple
House, a tavern and town hall frequented by Roger Williams, the
colony's leading citizen. Since then, the Whipples have been
ministers, teachers, politicians and farmers. "Nobody founded IBM,
unfortunately," Mr. Whipple said, although his sister married a
PHOTO: ALEX SACHARE
In 1994, Mr. Whipple joined DLJ, where he specializes in employment law. That same year, he got on the air at New York 1, which soon led to his twice weekly celebrity reports. (He makes less than $50,000 a year at New York 1, and more than $200,000 at DLJ.) The day of the Martin Scorsese tribute, he worked from 9 A.M. to 6 P.M. at DLJ's offices on Park Avenue, made it over to Lincoln Center by 6:20 and was home by midnight, which wasn't bad. Sometimes it's later. Sometimes he has to be up for an 8 A.M. meeting the next day.
Mostly, he adores his double life. His old friends say he has always been smart and a little wild. They still talk about the parties he gave at Columbia--and his 1992 photo shoot of naked debutantes for Playboy.
"I love the practice of law," Mr. Whipple said, settling into his seat the other night at the Beacon Theater/VH1 "divas" concert with Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey and others. "But at the end of a long day, I can be exhausted. And then I become refreshed by this. It's not just a concert--it's the social life of New York. What it all seems to have in common to me is that it's people at the top of their game. It's all very exciting, and stimulating, and magic."
But he's not a guest. Doesn't he feel it's demeaning to be herded behind the press ropes?
Mr. Whipple looks puzzled. "I don't know," he said. "How would you organize it differently?" He thought some. "No, it isn't demeaning," he said. "It's sensible." And a challenge, too. "How can you get the big stars to stop? It's like examining a witness. How do you get your results? It's a thoughtful process. You've just got one minute with each celebrity. And you've got to ask the question that your viewers most want the answer to. Tonight, I was in a tent talking to Mariah Carey. If I had been a guest, I would have sat down at 8 o'clock, I would have watched the concert and I would have gone home. But because I was covering it, I got to talk to the stars, and watch the concert and then tell my friends about it. Being a journalist is better than being a guest."
Mr. Whipple is, of course, an enthusiast, and evidently so secure in his social position that he never feels as if his nose is pressed up against the celebrity glass. "I'm not aw-shucks in awe of these people," Mr. Whipple said. "I respect them, but it's a little bit more of an equal relationship."
On air he is a hammy, campy presence presiding over well-produced segments about New York's charity dinners and movie premieres, with models and cleavage thrown in. He has become in the process a minor local celebrity. People recognize him in the streets; kids call him "Eyebrow Man." And although Mr. Whipple works hard on tough deadlines without the entourage of a network star--when his camerawoman's videotape malfunctioned at Lincoln Center, it was Mr. Whipple who tore down 65th Street looking for a replacement in her car--he also seems to wink at viewers that he doesn't take what he covers that seriously.
"What's going on in your love life?" Mr. Whipple asked the actress Geena Davis on camera at one event. "Who are the suitors banging on your door?"
"Why are you asking?" Ms. Davis inquired.
"You mean I have a shot, a chance?" Mr. Whipple responded.
"No," said Ms. Davis, in an excellent deadpan.
Mr. Whipple was briefly married in the late 1980s, recently ended a two-year relationship with an aquatic exercise instructor--he met her while covering a Racquet and Tennis Club event--and has no children.
His DLJ superiors say they have no problem with his moonlighting. "I'm envious," said Michael Boyd, DLJ's general counsel. "I'd like to be there interviewing those models. We're all sort of proud of George. I don't know how he does it, but somehow he seems to balance it extraordinarily well. We never get the impression that he's unavailable."
But Mr. Boyd and Mr. Whipple himself say he could not possibly have the New York 1 job if he were still at Cravath, where lawyers work much harder. In-house counsels generally provide guidance and leave the heavy lifting of big trials to outside firms. Mr. Whipple settles employment discrimination lawsuits against DLJ, and also advises the firm on how to avoid them. But he no longer works until midnight, as he did at Cravath, where only six of the 60 lawyers who joined the firm with him in 1980 made partner.
Mr. Whipple left as an associate in 1987, and for the next seven years worked as a freelance photographer. He took pictures for The New York Times Magazine and Town and Country, and also of the naked debutantes, some authentic, some less so, for the Playboy feature, called "Society Darlings." (One darling was Juliet Hartford, the daughter of the financier Huntington Hartford.)
"Who else could do that story but me?" Mr. Whipple said. Mr. Whipple's mother, Joe Ann Whipple, went along on one photo shoot to Bermuda and was listed in Playboy as a stylist. "She picked out the clothes, such as they were," Mr. Whipple said. Mr. Whipple's first exposure to the press came in 1968, at age 14, when he ran for supervisor of Kent, NY, population 8,000, his hometown in northern Putnam County. Mr. Whipple describes his campaign as a protest to get youth into politics, even though he was too young to be elected. Mr. Whipple's parents drove him door to door. (Mr. Whipple's father, who worked in public relations at a New York advertising agency, has since died.) Mr. Whipple says he got about as many votes as his age, but much attention--a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal, for example, and an appearance with Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show." He ran as an independent, and is now a Democrat. "I was a very earnest young man," Mr. Whipple said.
At Columbia, Mr. Whipple was the president of St. Anthony's Hall, the preppiest fraternity, and is still remembered for a Halloween party he gave in the frat house boiler room. There was dancing in the coal pit and a roast suckling pig with an apple in its mouth.
These days, Mr. Whipple also appears on "The Gossip Show" on the E! cable channel and provides entertainment news on CNN-FN, CNN's financial-news channel. He has calmeddown--sort of. "I got her, man, I got her!" he said as he watched the tape ofhis interview with Ms. Ryder in a New York 1 editing room. It was almost 9 P.M. For the next two and a half hours, Mr. Whipple put together his Martin Scorsese story with Robin Sanders, a videotape editor, who would himself be up until 4 A.M. finishing the technical work.
Mr. Whipple left around 11:30 P.M., yawning. "God, she's amazing," he said, as helooked at a close-up of Ms. Ryder's face one last time. "That's all I want out of life."
Actually, there's more. Ask Mr. Whipple about his next big dream, and he'll tell you right away. "The George Whipple Show," he said.