Jody Jacobs and Barney Leason Dine Out on L.A. the Party Scene
"They're the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of the gossip circuit," says Wallis Annenberg, publishing heiress and a ubiquitous presence on the circuit herself. "Having Barney and Jody at a party," she says, "is a little like receiving a papal blessing." There was a time when Leason found his place card at posh dinner parties labeled "Mr. Jacobs." But Barney was salting away more than martinis and free hors d'oeuvres, as he proved three years ago with the publication of his first novel, Rodeo Drive, a scathing look at Beverly Hills society.
Leason's novels are thinly disguised romans à clef. In 1982's Scandals an aging columnist, not unlike the late fashion doyenne Eugenia Sheppard, maintains thick files on New York's shameful affairs. Grand Illusions, published the following year, is a fictionalized account of the von Bülow trial, and the recently released Fortunes (Pocket Books, $3.95) is about a woman who climbs to the top of the corporate ladder while romantically involved with the chief executive of the company. Sound familiar, Mary? With over five million paperbacks in print, Leason maintains a refreshing attitude about his books. "They're trash," he says, with a hint of pride.
Leason and Jacobs have both been married before. But unlike many of Jody's post-divorce escorts who became cross if she left them standing alone at a party, Barney knows that Jody is there to work the room. As his gregarious wife makes the rounds, Barney cases the joint, becoming more expansive with each passing drink. That's when you'll see him charming women guests with his acerbic wit, cornering U.S. Attorney General William French Smith to talk about national events or waving across the room to Nancy Reagan, as he did at a White House function earlier this year.
Jacobs, whose connection with the First Couple dates back to 1965 when Ron was campaigning for his first term as governor, draws heavily on her ties to the Reagan crowd—"the women are on the phone to Nancy every day," she says—as she goes about her business. She covers some 300 social functions a year, and Barney picks up his juiciest tidbits tagging along with his wife, as he does roughly 90 percent of the time. It's the simple vignettes Barney makes note of and stores for future use, like the time he met G. Gordon Liddy and remarked that the Watergate conspirator's trench coat appeared to be brand new. "Yeah," confirmed Liddy, "the old one was full of bullet holes."
Leason and Jacobs complement each other. "Barney loves to puncture pomposity," says James Brady, former Women's Wear Daily publisher and boss of both Leason and Jacobs. "He's much more cutting than Jody is. She's more gentle with people."
Though Jacobs is a most welcome guest at any L.A. party, she keeps her position in perspective. "I've got Barney to keep me from taking myself seriously. Some columnists think of themselves as more interesting than the people they write about," says Jody. "I don't. I never forget that I'm a reporter. Besides, you go to a party and it's very glamorous. But the next morning there's your word processor waiting for you. Everyone else who was at the party is sleeping in."
Jacobs was born Josefina Caceres on the island of Margarita, off the coast of Venezuela, where her father was an importer. Jody was exported to live with an aunt in New York at age 5. Though she earned a degree in journalism at New York's Hunter College, an early first marriage to Russell Jacobs, an advertising artist, and the birth of her daughter, Jessica, now 37, kept her from launching a career. But after a year and a half of marriage, she decided "I had to get out of the house," and she soon landed a job writing for Women's Wear Daily. It was on a foreign assignment that she met Leason, who was WWD's London bureau chief.
Although Jacobs was by then divorced, Leason was still married (he is the father of four children). There was no romance at the time, just a good working relationship. Besides, less than 18 months after she arrived in London, Jody left WWD to assume her current mantle as society maven for the L.A. Times. A year later, however, Fairchild Publications (WWD's publishing company) transferred Leason to the West Coast. By this time he was separated from his wife and filing for divorce; he called Jacobs when he got to California to ask advice about whether he should work out of L.A. or San Francisco. L.A. won out. Two years later they were married. Hollywood celebs aren't the only stars Lea-son and Jacobs follow: After being married in a tiny chapel near the L.A. Times, they had a second ceremony two days later, on Dec. 29, 1974, because astrologer Carroll Righter said it was an auspicious day.
The son of an immigration officer, Leason was born in Detroit but raised in Rouses Point, N.Y. He wrote his first novel at 12 and was destined to pen "a whole trunkful" before he was published. After earning a B.A. in English from Union College in Upstate New York, he spent 20 years as a journalist in Europe, first with Radio Free Europe, then for Fairchild. He left Fair-child in 1977 to pursue his dream of writing novels full-time. But after two years and a mass of rejection slips, he signed on as West Coast editor of the newly revived Look magazine. It was about the time that the magazine permanently folded in 1979 that a friend suggested Barney write about what he knew best—the L.A. scene. The result was Rodeo Drive, which took just four months to finish. The book earned him $100,000 and this ironic label from one reviewer—"overnight success."
Leason and Jacobs live in a rambling Spanish-style house in the old-money section of Los Angeles known as Hancock Park. Souvenirs from long-ago fetes dot the cozy, beige interior—an inscribed crystal box from a swanky soiree, a pair of fancy napkin rings by party designer Marcia Lehr and a satin doggie bag to squirrel away party favors. Leason and Jacobs say that one reason their relationship works is because they don't see each other all day. While Jody is out covering her beat, Barney stays at home, working in a cluttered office next to the family room. "When I come home," reports Jody, "Barney races out of his office, rubbing his hands gleefully, exclaiming, 'Boy! What I did to them today!' "
The days of "Mr. Jacobs" place cards indeed are gone, but considering the way he handles his subject matter, Barney may not even make the guest list in the future. No problem; he'll just rely on pillow talk.