Society Columnist Ann Gerber Speaks Out
by sarah preston gorenstein
Ann Gerber at home.
There are gossip columnists, and then there's Ann Gerber. The queen of Chicago's society beat is in a league of her own, dishing up the dirt on local and national headline makers for 62 straight years. "Gossip is a form of news," she says, "and news is what happens to people."
Not one to miss a good social gathering, Gerber is back home from her annual two-month sojourn to Palm Beach to cover the big spring galas for her long-running column in Skyline. "For 25 years I was attending five galas a week," she says. "In the spring, I still go out at least three nights a week."
The hard-working Chicago writer has been pounding the pavement since she was 16, when she landed her first reporting job at the Lerner Newspapers while attending Senn High School in Edgewater. "All I ever wanted was to be a writer," Gerber says. By the time she was 17, Lerner had been promoted to editor, and the rest is history. And what a colorful history it's been. It was 1987 when then-Sun-Times publisher Robert Page hired her to be the paper's society/gossip columnist. Many still remember, and talk about, the blind item Gerber ran on Oprah Winfrey's sex life. "They fired me for printing gossip, which is exactly what they hired me for—printing gossip," she says. But she insists Winfrey never called the paper to complain, and there are no hard feelings between them. In fact, Gerber and Winfrey ran into each other at RL restaurant as recently as last year. "She came over and said, ‘Ann, you look great.' I told her she looked great, too, and we shook hands."
Gerber recalls some of her best memories interviewing celebrities over lunch: "I dined with Clark Gable at the old Pump Room; he drank his lunch," she says. "He must've had six glasses of bourbon, but he was charming in a sweet, unaffected way."
She also remembers having lunch with a 30-year-old Marlon Brando. "He was the most exciting celebrity I'd ever met, but [when he asked me out] I said no. I was afraid he might expect something. Today? It would've been a different story."
So, what's the biggest difference between the social scenes now versus then? "It used to be there were a hundred people who went to all the big galas. Now, the social scene is more diluted—more people have more access. I remember attending a party at the Field Museum in the 1990s when Princess Di came to town—everyone was there, from the mayor to the governor."
Gerber has also mellowed out a bit over the years. "I don't try to judge people, and I'm not out to destroy anyone," she says. "I would never want to disrupt a family, marriage or anyone's job." She has a true appreciation and sensitivity for the people she writes about. "Everyone has a story—whether it's remarkable, boring, sweet, sad, sexy, embarrassing, or historical."
As for the future: "I'm trying to make arrangements to write my column from the grave," she says wryly. "I never want to retire."
photography by anthony tahlier