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Ring Around the Rumors

New York press hounds are hot on a story that can't be verified--that the mayor's marriage has gone south. But it's the silent first lady who's being scorched.

March 05, 1997|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Readers of the New York Daily News may have been puzzled by an item that ran in a recent gossip column. But the city's press corps was riveted:

There was a press riot at 7 a.m. yesterday when the wires moved an advisory that Mayor Giuliani would make a "personal announcement" at 11 a.m. One hour later, the correction came. It would be a "personnel" announcement . . . Never mind.

"It" is the hottest rumor in New York, the kind of political dish this town devours for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But the story only rarely surfaces because newspaper and TV journalists can't verify it--despite their obsession.

For two years, there have been hints, tart jokes and tidbits in the press suggesting that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's marriage to Donna Hanover, a TV journalist and budding movie star, is about to rupture. There have also been rumors that the mayor enjoys what one magazine called "an extraprofessional relationship" with his communications director, Cristyne Lategano.

Giuliani and Lategano have denied any hanky-panky, and the first couple--who have two young children--insist there is nothing wrong with their marriage. Yet media fascination has spawned a circus of speculation and pursuit that is extraordinary, even by Big Apple standards:

On three occasions, twice with TV cameras rolling, reporters have bluntly asked Giuliani if he is having an affair with Lategano. Each time, he blasted them for daring to raise such a question. Meanwhile, the press has staked out Hanover, trying to determine whether she still spends nights at Gracie Mansion, the mayor's official residence, or at a private apartment.

Angered by the mayor's refusal to release information about Hanover's activities and her staff's salaries, the Daily News has launched the Donna Watch. In it, reporters question the first lady's need for city staff, given Hanover's move to put her career ahead of official duties--as well as her decision to use only her maiden name.

Further clues: Hanover, who was once the mayor's biggest booster, is rarely seen in public with him anymore. In the New York Yankees' victory parade last fall, the first couple rode on separate floats. The mayor's office won't say how much of a role, if any, Hanover will play in his upcoming reelection bid. When she was feted at a dinner in December for her role as Ruth Carter Stapleton in "The People vs. Larry Flynt," Giuliani was conspicuously absent.

Last weekend, Hanover failed to make a traditional appearance at the Inner Circle dinner in New York, where the press and the mayor's office roast each other with elaborate musical productions. When journalists got word backstage that she would not appear, one cracked: "May divorce be with you." During a skit lampooning Hanover and Jane Fonda, the character playing Fonda said: "I notice you've dropped the 'Giuliani.' " Answered Hanover: "Wouldn't you?"

The first lady subsequently said she couldn't attend the dinner for medical reasons. On Monday, when a TV reporter asked Giuliani if his marriage was in trouble, he erupted with anger, denouncing the question and saying: "You should be ashamed that you asked it."

All the while, Lategano, 32, continues to work long hours with the mayor, 52, and her clout is secure--even though she's had limited experience in big-time politics. Her power has sparked an exodus of key advisors, including media guru David Garth, from the mayor's 1997 campaign.

In New York, the personal--and the personnel--are political. When the mistaken Associated Press item about Giuliani's announcement moved last month, journalists were convinced that he was finally going to confirm the Marital Breakup Rumor. Their tragicomic letdown only underscores that, while media interest in the first couple is keen, City Hall reporters keep dancing around the story.

"The press would be idiotic if they didn't consider this a big deal," said gossip columnist Liz Smith. "If the mayor of the biggest city in America and his wife have some unusual domestic arrangement, it certainly speaks to character, to family. But the problem is that you can't prove any of this stuff."

*

In the late 20th century, American politicians are hardly immune from media speculation about their private lives and personal morals. But what makes this soap opera so intriguing is that Hanover--a warm and cheerful Californian who seems too nice for New York--has taken much of the heat that might normally be expected to singe her husband.

Unable to verify rumors about him, reporters have focused on her. And as the whispering gets louder, New Yorkers are learning more about this first lady than any other in recent memory.

Growing up in Sunnyvale, Calif., Hanover, now 47, showed an early flair for journalism and debate. She entered Stanford, majored in political science and began working in cable TV programming. After receiving a master's in journalism from Columbia, Hanover held radio and TV jobs in several cities, including Miami, where she met Giuliani in 1982.

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