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Will 'cranky' Rosie ruin 'The View'?

April 28, 2006 | 11:23 pm

"Admit it, Rosie. You got cranky for a while," a brave reporter asked Rosie O'Donnell backstage at the Daytime Emmys. "Are you still cranky?"

Rosie paused, pondered the question and smiled graciously. "That was a very good choice of words," she said. "I'm not offended, but you've made your point. Yes, I got cranky for a while."

Now, after four years of semi-retirement, she feels invigorated and is looking forward to her next gig on "The View." Curiously, she did not shoot down the rumor that she's itching for a fight with Star Jones ahead. "That's what makes good TV!" she said chirpily as her producer Barbara Walters stood beside her, looking a bit nervous.

Walters, by the way, revealed how she picked Rosie for the job as cohost. The idea suddenly occurred to her when she attended the premiere of Rosie and partner Kelli O'Donnell's HBO documentary — "All Aboard! Rosie's Family Cruise" — about the first-ever family cruise for gay and lesbian families. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Rosie had been a frequent guest on "The View" through the years and demonstrated lively chemistry while bantering with the catty clique. Furthermore, Barbara wanted to work with an old friend. They've been such close pals over time that Rosie once gave Barbara one of her paintings.

"Barbara even hung it up in her house!" Rosie boomed proudly. "When I give my paintings to other friends, they usually say 'Thanks!' and toss them in the trash later."

But Rosie's hiring is controversial and a big risk because Rosie, let's face it, is such a big mouth with a bossy nature that may not gel well with the spirit of camaradie that seals the show's appeal when that clique clicks — that is, stops bickering. Rosie isn't just joining the program as another one of the girls. She's filling Meredith Vieira's chair as moderator. Meredith wasn't a hothead like Star Jones and Joy Behar and knew how to keep the peace when mayhem broke loose. Rosie specializes in making mayhem.


Back in the days when Rosie was still, admittedly, ahem, cranky she was really much worse than that. Her coworkers blatantly called her a "bitch." I was a contributor to Rosie's magazine and can tell you that every staff editor I dealt with had nothing kind to say about her and lots of unkind things to volunteer.

"She's a screamer," one editor told me. "Rosie rules by fear, threats and insults. She berates us and tells us we're idiots — usually at the top of her lungs. Lucky for us she doesn't come into the office very often. We usually just have to deal with her nasty emails and abusive phone calls, but when we hear that Rosie's coming in, we dread it. Everyone's always looking for another job and, when one of us gets one, we go out to celebrate."

Whenever I ran into Rosie's TV producers around New York, I heard the same shameful refrain. "Sure, Rosie's known as the Queen of Nice," one of them once told me, scowling. "But that's b.s. She's really the Queen of Mean. She treats us like dogs. If the public only really knew what she's like!"

I have a hunch — and a hope — that Rosie has been humbled somewhat by the past four years of failures, which included the demise of a once-hot TV show and a Broadway flop (she lost $10 million on "Taboo"). Even worse, Rosie Magazine wasn't just a dud. It killed off one of America's great publications — McCall's, which was foolishly shut down by publisher Gruner + Jahr so its subscription base could be used to launch Rosie's vanity project that was supposed to become as successful as the mags of other daytime TV divas Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey.

But many staffers insisted that Rosie knew nothing about magazine publishing and refused to listen to them when they begged her not to put her friends on the covers of issues that sometimes bombed on the newsstand. Desperate to reverse the skyrocketing financial losses, Gruner + Jahr CEO Dan Brewster tried to invoke a clause in Rosie's contract that seemed to say that Rosie must yield editorial control in the last few weeks of each issue's production schedule. Bullheaded Rosie fought back, pulling out of the deal, claiming "my integrity and name are at stake, and that price is too high. I cannot have my name on a magazine if I cannot be assured that it will represent my vision and ideas."

The $100 million legal smackdown that ensued resulted in the total collapse of Gruner + Jahr, which once reigned as a top media firm, publishers of Family Circle, Fitness and Parents, all of which were sold off when the company folded.

Rosie won the lawsuit, but lost the respect of many media leaders and fans when her dark side came to light during the trial. The mag's top editor Susan Toepfer testified that Rosie was a tyrant who'd "scream and yell obscenities." The worst point came when another staffer, a cancer survivor, broke down in tears on the witness stand as she recalled being taunted in the office one day by Rosie, who said, snidely, "You're lying. You know what happens to people who lie? They get sick and they get cancer. If they keep lying, they get it again."

Rosie admitted she said that, but insisted she apologized afterward. She also did not deny that she often acted combatively toward her staff. Apparently, the office tension got so fierce that, when Rosie announced she was quitting the company, an editor sent out an email suggesting the staff "do a 'ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead' song and dance."

So, yeah, it's clear that Rosie was once rather "cranky." Has she changed? Rosie didn't go that far in her response to questions from the press backstage at the Daytime Emmys. Rather, she made it clear she's looking forward, while sitting in "The View's" moderator chair, to future battles with Star and Joy.

Hmmmm. When did you ever think you'd feel sorry for Star?

Photo: O'Donnell nixed this cover of Rosie Magazine in 2002, refusing to be pictured in between two popular stars of "The Sopranos." Instead, she pressed her staff to run a cover of convicted rapist Mike Tyson and his daughter, but Rosie lost out when her editors rebelled. Such infighting ultimately killed off the magazine entirely and resulted in the demise of parent company Gruner + Jahr, which was once one of America's biggest publishers.
(Gruner + Jahr)