A black-and-beige Rolls-Royce slithers to the corner of, yes, Hollywood and Vine. Out hops a tiny bauble of a woman wearing a satin jumpsuit zippered in rhinestones and a silver lynx fur that matches her spun-sugar hair. Instantly, passersby dash up for autographs; cars screech to a stop in the street; drivers leap out to talk to her. She pirouettes in front of a newsstand and buys Variety, delighting in the commotion.
A superstar? Not quite. Try super-snoop. At 38, Rona Barrett, after a long claw to the top, has become Hollywood’s supreme queen of gossip. For five years Rona’s ack-ack reports on the stars’ lives mesmerized 30 million TV viewers on her late-night syndicated spots. Then last year she published a let-it-all-hang-out autobiography, Miss Rona, of which some 500,000 paperback copies are now in print. Her two fan mags, Rona Barrett’s Hollywood and Rona Barrett’s Gossip, are pulverizing other pulps on the newsstands.
Miss Rona was known for occasional viciousness in her reporting, and now she is working on that reputation with a familiar single-mindedness (“I demand so much of myself”). Rona is trying to climb farther up that pinnacle of success she calls “Mt. Somewhere” by submerging her image as a gossipmonger in favor of more depth, respectability and editorial range. As “worldwide entertainment and arts editor,” she has begun delivering two daily “celebrity” reports on ABC’s revamped Good Morning America. Her appearances are the liveliest bits on that often soporific show. And this Thursday Rona stars in her second hour-long special on CBS, coaxing beefcakes like Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Michael Caine and Elliott Gould to confide their innermost secrets to no one but Rona and an afternoon TV audience of some 11 million.
The setting for three of the program’s interviews is Rona’s own Italianate villa in Beverly Hills, a stucco symbol of the dreams of a movie fan. In addition to the Rolls (bearing MS. RONA plates), a Continental Mark IV glistens in the driveway. Roz Russell lives next door; Kirk Douglas’ estate backs up against Rona’s lush lawn. In the house, bright with limes, oranges and whites, no less than 11 telephones hum with Rona’s calls. “I am glamorous,” Rona declares, “and I like to surround myself with glamorous things.”
One acquisition is a husband, William A. Trowbridge, 46, an easygoing West Virginian whom Rona married two years ago when she was beginning to think that real love happens only on the screen. “You wonder if you will ever find anybody you can feel comfortable with, that you can belch with and not feel embarrassed.” Four months after she and Trowbridge first dated at the theater and Chasen’s restaurant, they were married beside the fountain in Rona’s courtyard. She is his third wife. “My mother,” he says, “was a lot like Rona. She was really the boss of the household.” “Bill is the first man to give me total support,” Rona sighs. “I don’t think he’s threatened in any way by what I’m doing.” And how does Bill rate their marriage? “On a scale of one to 10, I’d give it a 10.” And their sex life? “I’d give it a 17.”
Not everyone finds Miss Rona so lovable. “Stars are terrified of her,” says an old friend. Ryan O’Neal once mailed her a live tarantula. Tony Curtis has called her “a liar” and her longtime archfoe, Frank Sinatra, slurs her in his nightclub acts as “an ugly broad.” (Of Sinatra, Rona snaps, “A miserable man who has never known how to live with success.”) “When God made Rona,” says one foe, who like most of her detractors insists on anonymity for fear of her televised revenge, “one piece was missing—a conscience.”
Rona sees her life in heroic terms—”the first female Horatio Alger story.” And it’s true that the dainty dynamo who’s Rona Barrett of Hollywood (5’1″, 96 pounds, size 6) bears only the faintest traces of Rona Burstein of Queens, N.Y., a self-pitying (and self-described) “crippled, plain, fat kid” who was the daughter of a grocer. Hobbling in leg and back braces because of an arrested case of muscular dystrophy, Rona endured the cruelties of her classmates and a nightmarish series of failures to cure the disease. She remembers screaming at one doctor, “I’m not going to die because someday I’m going to be famous!”
At first she was just near the famous. As a teenager in New York she changed her name to Barrett and started fan clubs for Eddie Fisher and Steve Lawrence, whom she hung around and fantasized romances with until the inevitable comedowns. (She got back at Fisher in her autobiography by calling him a “shallow and prejudiced boob” who “wished he’d never been born a Jew.” They’ve since made up, though, and Eddie was Rona’s first interview guest on Good Morning America.)
Rona studied premed at NYU but dropped out short of graduation and wrote columns for movie magazines, rooming with then-struggling actresses like Suzanne Pleshette and Diane Ladd. In 1958 she moved to California while working for Photoplay and embarked on an astonishing self-improvement program: resculpting her nose, dieting off her baby fat, overcoming her limp and exorcising her Queens accent with elocution lessons. “I have to take my hat off to her,” purrs one Rona-watcher. “She’s done wonders with herself—and she didn’t have much to work with.”
Rona broke into the gossip biz on TV in 1966, landed on ABC network with a spot called Dateline: Hollywood and then began her five-year run on 50 Metromedia stations. When Hollywood families whom Rona had been close to (the Sinatras) and even lived with (the Michael Landons) began hearing their names on the air she started to pick up the sobriquet “Rona Rat.”
“I’m not friends with the stars because if I were I couldn’t tell the truth about them,” Rona says defensively. “We are all neurotic, but their neuroses are constantly fluctuating, which makes it very difficult to be intimate with them.” One former associate recalls Rona sobbing in “personal agony” over divulging a nasty story about someone she liked or admired. “She’s not uncaring, but is absolutely ruthless about letting people know what celebrities are like. She believes people have a right to know.”
Still, Rona was intimate enough with “one of Hollywood’s top male sex symbols” to suffer through a bizarre 11-year affair that she claims left her on the edge of suicide. As she luridly describes the pseudonymous “Marc” in her book (who is generally thought to be a composite of several romances) he “drank the guts out of my soul like a vampire drinks blood.” Another affair, if Rona is to be believed—and plenty of people don’t believe her—was with “Mr. Washington,” whom she identifies as “one of Lyndon Johnson’s top cohorts.” It also flamed out despite her feeling that “any association with a star, or someone world-famous, would have something special and good attached to it for me.”
Rona credits marriage to Trowbridge with pulling her out of the depression that sent her to an analyst for six months. “I think I’ve mellowed and matured,” she explains. “Bill has the feeling we knew each other in another life. He’s my Henry Kissinger. I send him out to make peace with people.”
For his part, Trowbridge, an independent film and record producer, has enthusiastically entered her life as executive producer of her TV specials and as vice-president of her umbrella organization, Miss Rona Enterprises. (She’s the president of the company, which grosses an estimated $300,000 yearly.) Bill’s only mistake so far was taking Rona seriously when she warbled the song More, accompanied by a string trio, at their wedding. Less than a year later, Trowbridge had produced Miss Rona Sings Hollywood’s Greatest Hits, accompanied this time by a 32-piece orchestra and five backup singers. Trowbridge insists the record will be “a hit” someday, but Rona says, “I wouldn’t let my husband do that to me again—not if he wants this marriage to continue.”
The retort sets off the kind of mocking banter that Bill and Rona have perfected. “She’s sharp,” he claims, “but I’m a razor’s edge sharper.” Rona gazes at him, unblinking. “The key is to let him think whatever he wants, and then go at your own pace.” Bill thrusts, “A marriage is good as long as the man remains smarter than his wife.” Rona looks at the floor. “Did he say something?” Bill tries again, “She can be very demanding, but she’s a pussycat.” Practically twitching her whiskers, Rona adds, “with an iron tail.”
Every morning Rona jumps out of bed at 6 a.m. and hits the deep-pile carpet running. She dresses resplendently for breakfast (a grapefruit) but no longer puts on her face. Now “to give my skin a rest” she goes to the office and “sits with a nude face” until her makeup man arrives. Depending upon the day and hour, she works out of a converted poolhouse behind her villa, where she phones around for gossip items, her editorial office, where a staff of 30 puts out the two fan monthlies with a combined circulation of 580,000, or the ABC studios, where in the late afternoon she tapes her reports for Good Morning America.
Rona’s manic schedule permits little time for relaxed socializing. One old friend complains, “My only regret is that I know that there is no place in Rona’s life for anyone who is not part of what she’s into.” Rona says, “The minute the news was released that I was back on TV everyone came out of the woodwork. The problem was making sure there were no worms in the wood.”
Rona is nothing if not ambitious in her revitalized TV career. On Good Morning America she’s branching out into interviews (“Cher, is it really all over with Gregg Allman?”) and editorials (against TV’s “family hour”). Her style is a waffle batter, then syrup. She dotes on the sly innuendo. Leering over a new Big Sur spa where the Jacuzzi baths “are not restricted to sex or suit,” Rona asks with a saucy smile, “Why not drop by and see how big the big stars really are?” On this week’s TV special James Caan answers Rona’s questions about his first sex experience but then looks incredulously into the camera and blurts, “I can’t believe we’re saying all this on television.” Neither could CBS officials after viewing it. As with Rona’s first afternoon special with female stars last May, they urged “parental guidance” for children watching it.
Rona has two more star-gazing specials lined up, and she’s working on a self-improvement handbook of sorts, tentatively called How to Look-Rich and Achieve Sexual Ecstasy. She and Bill are talking of having a child—”if the good Lord’s willing and the creeks don’t rise,” as he puts it. Their friends have trouble fancying her as a mom. So does Rona. “I never relax,” she admits. “I really push everybody.”
What does make Rona run? “She’s like a tycoon sacrificing everything for success,” judges one former associate. And Rona herself doesn’t doubt for an instant that she’ll push beyond Winchell, Hopper and Parsons. “This isn’t Mt. Somewhere,” she muses of her present success. “I’m not sure if I’ll ever find it. But I would like to keep climbing.”