Michael Wolff: a dandy hitman and the very best gossip in the business

GQ editor Dylan Jones opens up on his friend Wolff, who The New York Times branded the world’s most famous journalist after his incendiary book on Donald Trump.

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I first met Michael Wolff in the early Noughties at a Condé Nast conference in Venice. He was the star attraction, delivering motivational (and actually rather inspirational) talks on the back of his successful 1998 book, Burn Rate, which was about his failed experiment as a digital entrepreneur.

He was a terrific, if slightly laconic, speaker, and I loved him. We stayed in touch and would see each other occasionally when one of us was in London or New York. He always made a point of visiting Savile Row to stock up his wardrobe and was always the best-dressed diner at the Wolseley in Piccadilly. I was told not to trust him, not to tell him anything I wouldn’t want anyone else knowing and certainly never to hire him. 

So obviously I hired him. Michael, now 64, started working for GQ in 2010 when he was still writing for Vanity Fair, although I think both of us knew that his time there was nearing its end. Michael and I would gossip about everything – media, politics, Hollywood, society – but I rarely asked him about his professional relationships, not least because he was always falling out with people.

True to form, he fell out with the Guardian, left Vanity Fair, and I assumed that one day he would fall out with me. Heigh-ho, I thought, what the hell. He was a terrific journalist, always good company – he hosted a dinner party at his apartment once in New York and I was more than impressed by the number of media luminaries he managed to corral – and he wrote like a dream.

He would skewer anyone: Rolling Stone, Tina Brown, Vice, the Guardian, the New York Times, Jeff Bezos, Uncle Tom Cobley. If you dared to stick your head above the parapet then at some point you’d see Michael on the other side of the drawbridge, about to launch a water cannon at you for a profile in the pages of our magazine.

He was pretty fearless too, as his current confrontation with Donald Trump – and remarkable bestselling-book Fire and Fury – have shown. When Michael wrote his biography of Rupert Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News, ten years ago, he was celebrated and vilified in equal measure. He took repeated kickings from the Murdoch press. At the time, various people associated with the Murdochs on both sides of the Atlantic encouraged me to stop using him – some quite vociferously – but in my mind, this was the sort of contentiousness that made him a great journalist. This was business, I told my friends who were trying to make me fire him, not pleasure. Actually it was pleasure as well, but mainly it was business.

Michael is, without doubt, the very best gossip in the business. Of course, by dint of its very nature, gossip is a slippery beast: the easiest way for conjecture to become fact. But isn’t that why we gossip?

I was first told by Michael that he was writing a book about Trump at the beginning of last year. I was in New York for a dinner, and we had breakfast in the midtown hotel where I was staying, just around the corner from Trump Tower. As we ate, it gradually dawned on me that he was claiming to have been granted access to the White House, where he would be spending the first 100 days of the new presidency.

When I asked how he had pulled off this feat, he replied it was something he had been trying to wangle for some time. When I asked him if they had actually ever read anything he’d written, and were they actually mad, he gave me a classic Michael Wolff look, making a face with his eyebrows and mouth without saying a word, the gist of which was plain to see: “Yup, they are damned fools, but let’s keep that between ourselves, shall we?”

Over the next few months, I would receive emails, often at strange hours of the day, giving me titbits about what was going on in the Oval Office. I would be lying in bed reading, when my phone would light up and there would be a message from Michael that said things like, “Tony Blair has just walked into the White House” (which was weeks before the story of Blair’s visit hit the press). He told me other things, too, but these will remain between me and Michael.

I saw him a few times before Christmas, and he seemed relatively sanguine about the publication of the book. Michael had given GQ its own exclusive extract (which we quickly had to put online when the story broke), and he talked in some detail about the launch. The UK publication of the book was initially planned to coincide closely with the anniversary of the inauguration, but its incendiary content forced an earlier simultaneous release. As swiftly became clear, this book, this story, is one of the defining chapters of Trump’s first year in office. The New York Times has observed that Michael Wolff  is, right now, the most famous journalist in the world. And rightly so. This is more than a coup, it’s a coup d’état.

There were always certain stories that he couldn’t do. There are two or three organisations that I’ve always thought would make good features for GQ but, like all of us, Michael has his favourites, his arrangements. There were relationships that he needed to foster in order to keep his job, plates that he needed to spin in order to carry on being Michael Wolff. This in itself is something of an art. If the work of a journalist is a combination of guile and craft, initiating and keeping relationships is something altogether more sophisticated, and something that Michael is remarkably good at. 

Not least because he has fallen out with more people than you can shake a stick at. And Michael certainly has a very big stick. 

Dylan Jones is the editor-in-chief of GQ and the author of “David Bowie: A Life”

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief