Elizabeth O'Brien
May 14, 2001 12:00 PM

It was 1969, and Rona Barrett was going through her mail when she came across an odd package in a plain brown-paper wrapper. “It seemed weird that it had no return address,” recalls the longtime Hollywood reporter. Even weirder was what was inside: a live tarantula. Barrett suspected that the creepy arachnid had come from a celebrity angry about her reporting; a few weeks later a friend’s phone call confirmed her theory. “He said, ‘I’m at this party with Ryan O’Neal, and he’s talking about this tarantula in the tennis [ball] can,’ ” recalls Barrett, 64, with a laugh. ” ‘He said he hasn’t seen you on TV, and he thinks he killed you!’ ”

Of course, the slings and arrows—and even tarantulas—of outraged celebrities never stopped Barrett from reporting on the lives of Hollywood’s elite. In her 30-year career (1960-90) as Hollywood’s premiere gossip reporter, “I was never out to do anyone any harm,” she says. “I was out to report the truth.”

These days, though, when Barrett goes digging for dirt, it’s on the 40-acre farm she owns in California’s Santa Ynez Valley, where she grows lavender. In December she launched Lavender by Rona Barrett, a line of beauty and food products that range from a $100 face cream to a $13 mayonnaise-and-mustard condiment set. Barrett says she created the line because of the plant’s curative powers and “absolutely heavenly” scent. But she had another motivation as well: The bulk of the company’s earnings will go to the newly formed Rona Barrett Foundation, which helps fund nonprofit groups that aid the elderly. “Caring for an aging, infirm person could wipe out any family financially,” she says. “We need a force of well-trained caregivers who must be paid a decent salary.”

Barrett should know. Since 1994, her father, former grocer Harry Burstein, 93, has lived with her and her husband of 27 years, retired real estate developer Bill Trowbridge, 72 (Barrett’s mother, Ida, died at age 80 in ’94). “Rona’s watching over me,” says Burstein, who suffers from heart disease. “I love her for that.” Still, Barrett, who employs a full-time aide to help with her father’s care, admits it hasn’t always been easy. “I think Bill and I feel like the last six years have been 13 years long,” she says with a chuckle. “If you don’t have a sense of humor, you can’t get through this.”

Barrett learned to laugh at adversity as a girl in Queens, N.Y., afflicted with what doctors termed a rare form of arrested muscular dystrophy that made walking difficult (she still undergoes physical therapy several times a week). Sidelined on the playground, she honed her interview skills. “When [the kids] didn’t want to play, they’d sit next to me, and I’d ask them all sorts of questions,” she recalls. “They knew I wanted to hear what they had to say.”

In 1956 Barrett put that talent to use writing $25-a-pop celebrity reports for Photoplay magazine. By 1960 her daily columns were syndicated in newspapers across the U.S., and by 1969 her TV reports were broadcast in more than 100 markets nationwide. “She was very fair, even at the height of her power,” says longtime pal Joan Rivers. Stars “always knew that you could count on Rona to tell the story right.”

But while Barrett’s career was thriving, her personal life was unraveling. In 1971, depressed about her nonstop work and the breakup of an 11-year relationship, she tried suicide by swallowing a handful of sleeping pills. “I was tired, my personal life was a mess. I just wanted to sleep,” she recalls. “But I know I was crying out for help.”

Rescued by a friend, Barrett was later diagnosed with manic depression, a condition she still controls with medication. And with the support of Trowbridge, a father of four whom she met on a blind date in 1973, she returned to work. But after stints on Good Morning America, The Today Show and Entertainment Tonight, and a soured deal with NBC to develop original novels for broadcast, she says, “it was time to go. The work had always been a thrill. I felt that thrill every day, until the day I didn’t feel it anymore.”

These days, when not working on her lavender line, Barrett writes a celebrity column for her Web site. But she insists she doesn’t really miss showbiz. “In my head,” she says, “I have moved on to a better place.”

Elizabeth O’Brien

Jill Movshin Singer in Santa Ynez

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