March 10, 1986 12:00 PM

Strange as it may seem, many people would sooner reveal the most intimate details of their sex lives than talk about how much money they make. At least that is what Mary Vespa discovered while orchestrating this week’s cover story on celebrity salaries (page 32). Nevertheless, of the 100-plus notables pursued by Vespa and PEOPLE reporters, only 15 eluded them completely, among them Anjelica Huston, John Candy and, not surprisingly, Woody Allen. “He does seem to have pretty good control over his coterie,” says Vespa. “No one I knew would talk about him.”

When a celeb proved reticent, Senior Writer Vespa turned to secondary sources, “who are knowledgeable but not close enough to the celebrity to feel disloyal or threatened.” They can include lawyers, professional rivals and even disgruntled ex-employees. “I found out how much Gloria Steinem made from former Ms. staffers and writers,” says Vespa.

According to Senior Editor Dick Lemon, it was Vespa’s experience and reportorial skills that suited her so well to the task. “She wasn’t intimidated by the odds,” Lemon says of the project that began more than four months ago. “She enjoyed doing it. We had a good time.”

The daughter of a nursing supervisor and a college business teacher, both retired, Vespa, now 40, grew up on Long Island and graduated from New York’s City College and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. She did stints as a reporter/ photographer for the Providence Journal and as a reporter for Newsday before joining PEOPLE at its inception 12 years ago. She has covered nearly everything from politics to showbiz and produced memorable stories on killer Jack (In the Belly of the Beast) Abbott and the drug and legal woes of “Papa” John Phillips and his actress daughter, Mackenzie. Vespa’s own favorite is her biography of fashion doyenne Diana Vreeland. “She’s complicated,” Vespa recalls. “I found her fascinating and a challenge.”

Of all the income figures Vespa’s sleuthing turned up, she found Deng Xiaoping’s $2,200 per annum most surprising. “But,” she adds, “he gets perks.” One of the toughest figures to nail down was Joan Collins’ $47,000 fee per episode for Dynasty. How did our reporters get it? “I’m not going to tell,” says Mary firmly.

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