Jerry Berger, a former Post-Dispatch columnist and longtime fixture in St. Louis society circles, died Tuesday (Jan. 5, 2021) at a hospital in Coral Springs, Florida. He was 87.
After surviving several bouts with cancer in the last decade, Berger’s health began to decline in the last month after he suffered a broken leg in a fall, said Victor Isart, his husband.
“But he died peacefully, which was my only wish for him — that he didn’t suffer,” Isart said.
Isart said that Berger did not want any memorial services or ceremonies, “but just wanted to tell people to donate money to their favorite animal shelter.”
For more than a quarter of a century, Berger was the newspaper columnist St. Louisans turned to for their daily fix of gossip.
He famously tattled on — and got tips from — politicians, the rich and famous, and some of our most notorious gangsters.
He let them all know that he was watching.
“Can’t you find a good chiropractor in the city?” Berger wrote when then-Mayor Vince Schoemehl slipped out of town to patronize a chiropractor in West County. “And can’t your driver hide the car while you’re being treated thrice monthly?”
In person, Berger made you feel like you were his best friend, and that he was giving only you the straight poop, Babe.
As his colleague Bill McClellan wrote: Berger could transform a bit of speculation into fact.
“You have to swear not to tell a soul, and I’m telling this only to you, but this is what’s really happening,” Berger would confide.
McClellan would so swear. And then a few minutes later, Bill would tell another colleague, who would invariably say: “Jerry told me that already.”
Berger knew that people love to gossip — and can’t stop.
He loved a good scoop, and got them because of the clout of his column.
Public relations flacks loved Berger because, if he used their item, every news outlet in town would pick it up — without having to call a press conference.
Berger said his idol was Walter Winchell, a columnist who broke important national and international stories.
Berger defined gossip as, “That which runs ahead of news all wrapped up in satin ribbons.”
But he wanted to be known as a “saloon columnist or people columnist, because gossip usually refers to hearsay.”
When breaking a news item, he said he tried to get at least two confirmations; in reporting lawsuits, he insisted on having a copy of the petition.
Colleagues offered Berger stories they couldn’t get published themselves because Berger could.
In return, Berger had a Rolodex that held the number of just about any source a reporter could want.
Berger was such an institution, he was better known than most of those he wrote about. At a roast honoring him in 1989, Rabbi Jerome Grollman of United Hebrew Congregation told the audience that this was the night they had been dreaming of: “This is the night we get even.”
Gerald Allen Berger was born June 30, 1933, at Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, the youngest child of Julius and Rae Berger. He had Hungarian ancestry on his father’s side and British-Russian ancestry on his mother’s side. Berger and his sister, Shirley, grew up in north St. Louis.
Berger graduated from Soldan High School and enrolled for a time in the St. Louis College of Pharmacy.
But he loved the movies and got himself hired as a junior manager and publicist at a string of St. Louis theaters, including the Loew’s Orpheum in midtown, the Loew’s State downtown and the Esquire.
Berger’s career took off during the early 1960s when 20th Century Fox hired him as publicity manager for its operations in the Republic of South Africa, the Rhodesias and East Africa. He was not quite 30. He was headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa, when apartheid was the law.
He traveled to Paris, London and New York. He met Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton filming “Cleopatra” (“The studio pulled them out of a bar at 4 a.m. to be on the set by 6 a.m.,” he recalled.)
Next, Paramount Pictures sent him to Hollywood, where he met John Wayne, Rock Hudson, Frank Sinatra and his idol: director Otto Preminger. After a stint in New York, he said he was ready to come home.
“We all come back to St. Louis,” he recalled in a February 2009 interview. “There’s an undertow in St. Louis that no other city has.”
In 1968, Berger became publicity manager of the 12,000-seat Muny Opera. He was press agent there for 10 years and met many of the town’s movers and shakers, including Bob Hyland, who put him on KMOX radio. The contacts were to prove invaluable in his next career.
In 1978, columnist Bob Goddard at the Globe-Democrat died. Berger wrote some trial columns and got hired. He broke the story that Dillard’s would buy out Stix, Baer and Fuller. The Post-Dispatch’s business editor at the time saw Berger at Dunie’s restaurant downtown and asked: How did you get that story?
“Didn’t he know that I was at the Muny,” Berger later recalled, and that the head of Stix, Baer and Fuller “was on our board?”
In 1984, Berger left the Globe shortly before it folded. He wanted to get on at the Post-Dispatch but said Bill Woo, then one of the Pulitzer paper’s top editors, didn’t want him.
But Joseph Pulitzer did. Berger knew him from the Muny. “I always make it a point to read your column — call me Joe,” Berger quoted the publisher as telling him.
Berger started at the Post-Dispatch a few months after leaving the Globe, which briefly had gone from being the Post’s financial partner to its morning competitor.
Being a gossip columnist had its risks because Berger could never be sure of the motives of his numerous snitches who planted stories with him.
But he insisted he never shied away from correcting his mistakes: “It helped my credibility.”
As to rumors that his column was ghost-written by one of his PR buddies, Berger replied that he had a core of “15 to 20 regulars — people I could count on” to come up with a steady diet of items.
In a 2011 story in St. Louis Magazine, the attention turned to Berger himself. He talked about learning that he wanted to have sex with men, but said he did not “label himself” as gay or bisexual.
A year later, Berger was charged with two counts of first-degree sexual misconduct, which are misdemeanors. The charges said that Berger inappropriately touched another man who was in line at a FedEx Office store in Creve Coeur. Berger pleaded guilty in June 2013 to one count; the second was dismissed. Berger was fined $100.
Berger liked to say that he had one problem in schmoozing it up with sources at the restaurants he frequented for items: he wasn’t a drinker. “I don’t like the taste,” he explained.
He did smoke — for more than 50 years, up to and including the day of his second cancer operation in May 2008.
Berger chain-smoked a half dozen cigarettes minutes that morning before a seven-hour operation at Barnes Hospital to remove his malignant epiglottis.
(About 16 years earlier, a surgeon removed a malignant polyp on his vocal cords.)
After the second operation, St. Louis’ most famous gossip columnist all but lost his voice. He took voice lessons and had to learn how to swallow food again. He spoke in a strained whisper or with the aid of a voice amplifying device called a ChatterVox.
Berger described his recovery from surgery as a nightmare, with hallucinations from narcotics, pneumonia and staph infection.
“It was not the best year of my life,” he recalled.
“But I’ve had a charmed life. I have absolutely no regrets. I’ve done everything I wanted to do.”
Nearly everything. It wasn’t easy, but Berger said, “I haven’t had a cig since the surgery.”