I spoke with the Devil the other day. I called up his 800 number and talked right to him. His name is … well, let’s call him “Nick.” He is smooth and he is seductive. He told me I was wonderful and talented. Then he offered me piles of earthly treasure. All I had to do, he said, was betray the trust of someone I hardly knew.
I told the Devil to go to … heck.
That’s right: I was tempted by the Devil, and I said no. There’ll be no living with me now.
This is a true story. The Devil in this case is an editor at that bastion of fine journalism, the National Enquirer. The person he wanted me to betray was Cybill Shepherd.
Here’s how it happened:
Last winter, my editor here at Memphis magazine asked me if I’d be willing to interview Cybill. I’m a hardened reporter. Yes, I said, I’d be willing to interview a beautiful, blonde Hollywood star who had once shown up on The David Letterman Show dressed in a towel. Hey, it’s my job. So arrangements were made, and Cybill was nice enough to sit for a long interview when she visited Memphis last Christmas. She was fully dressed, but, hey, I could handle that, too.
The result was the cover story in the March issue of Memphis magazine. In it, Cybill was pretty frank about her marriages, her personal life, and her behind-the-scenes battles with Moonlighting star Bruce Willis. The weeks after our Cybill article hit the newsstands, another bastion of fine journalism, U.S.A. Today, mentioned it in their media column. With characteristic discrimination, they quoted one line from the story. It had to do with Cybill twitting Willis for going bald.
The Devil reads U.S.A. Today. The next day the National Enquirer called the publisher of Memphis magazine. They said they wanted to reprint portions of the Cybill story. They said they were willing to pay money. The publisher, whose eyes normally spin like roulette wheels at the mention of the word “money,” must have been having an off day. He told them I owned the copyright, and said they needed to talk to me. He then called and told me what happened. “Money!” he said. “Money!”
At that point, I called the 800 number of the Devil. When he answered, he said his name was Nick, and that he was an Enquirer editor. He said that one of his reporters had read my story and thought they could use it. He offered me $600 to let them reprint it. Six hundred dollars, just to say yes.
I said no. I told him that journalistic ethics demanded I say no. I said Cybill had agreed to sit for an interview with Memphis magazine, not the Enquirer, and that she never would have agreed if she’d thought the story would be in the Enquirer. Nick said, “I can respect that — not too much, but I can respect it. Ha. Ha.” The Devil has a sense of humor.
I hadn’t told Nick my real reason for saying no: I was afraid that if I betrayed Cybill, then the next time I turned on my TV, there she’d be, dressed in a towel in front of the whole world, discussing my hairline on David Letterman.
Nevertheless, I hung up on the phone feeling smug and self-satisfied. It’s one of my favorite feelings.
An hour later, the Devil called me back. “I’ve read the story myself now,” he said. “It’s terrific. You’re wonderful and talented. Let us reprint the story, and we’ll give you $5,000.”
I liked the “wonderful and talented” part a lot. The Devil is an astute reader. But for some reason, at that point I remembered an old joke: A man sees a beautiful young woman walking down the street. He stops her and asks, “If I gave you a million dollars, would you sleep with me?” She looks him over, thinks about it for a second, and says, “A million dollars? Well, yes, I suppose I would.” Then the man says, “How about sleeping with me for a dollar?” And the young woman snaps, “Never! What kind of girl do you think I am?” Whereupon the man says, “My dear, we know what kind of girl you are. Now we’re just haggling over the price.”
I hate old jokes. Anyway, I told Nick that if I couldn’t take $600 to betray Cybill, then I couldn’t take $5,000. Then Nick, the old Devil, said something terrifying. He said, “Do you have a price?” As quick as I could, I replied, “No, I … I guess not.” I didn’t want to give myself time to think about it. I was afraid my brain would undergo a moral meltdown.
So twice I told the Devil no. Now I feel smug, self-satisfied, self-righteous, complacent, and holier-than-thou. And thou. And thou. I’ve earned my smugness. I paid $5,000 for it.
My loved ones and colleagues were wonderfully supportive when I told them the story. My 15-year-old son, for example, was filled with pride. “YOU DID WHAT!?” he said proudly. “YOU IDIOT! YOU COULD HAVE BOUGHT ME A CAR WITH THAT MONEY!” My lady friend, who is in public relations and thus (as I often remind her) in league with the Devil every day, was equally happy when she heard. “Great,” she said. “As if you weren’t already hard enough to live with.” One of my co-editors, a true professional, patted me on the back and said, yessir, I’d done the right thing. Then he asked me for the Devil’s 800 number. Seems he’d recently come across his sweet old mother’s secret diaries, and he thought they might fetch a good price.
So anyway, here I am, feeling mighty good about myself, not to mention just a trifle lonesome. But there is one more thing. Before Nick hung up, he asked if in the future I’d consider working for the Enquirer directly, on a contract basis, if he made it worth my while. My answer was immediate and unequivocal. “Sure,” I said. “Why the devil not?”