The Strip's fearless guru of gossip

Abowitz is a freelance writer.

At a recent party to launch the book "Norm Clarke's Vegas Confidential: Sinsational Celebrity Tales," the Palms' Playboy Club was packed with many of the Vegas personages who populate Clarke's daily newspaper column in the Las Vegas Review-Journal: casino owner George Maloof, Strip headliner Rita Rudner, celebrity chef Kerry Simon and fellow Vegas chronicler Robin Leach.

"His column doesn't just trade in stupid gossip," said Leach, himself a groundbreaker in the field of celebrity coverage. "Norm understands that in Vegas, buildings are stars, architects are stars, chefs are stars, and the whole city is the star. And, as a result, he is the No. 1 read person in Vegas."

To be sure, celebrity is the dominant theme of Clarke's column, which has broken stories including Britney Spears' oopsy 55-hour marriage to a childhood friend in 2004. He was also the first to report that Celine Dion was on her way to being a contracted headliner for a multiyear stand at Caesars.

"My approach isn't to treat gossip like most people and sensationalize it. Things are sensational enough in Vegas," said Clarke, who attributes his style to spending decades reporting for the Associated Press, primarily in sports. "You just have to lay out the facts for people."

Though it may be traditional reportage, his subjects (including sex tapes, pregnancy rumors and bizarre celebrity behavior) prove Clarke doesn't shy from the dirty work of gossip any more than one would expect of a man who names his two dogs Rumor and Scandal.

Because of his popularity as a man-about-town and his distinctive look -- especially his black eye patch, a result of having lost an eye to disease years ago -- Clarke, who turns 66 today, has become something of a local celebrity himself.

Frequently, he must encounter those displeased by something he has written. At the book party, his most recent feud with magician Criss Angel came up. Angel, the headliner of Luxor's Cirque show "Believe," earlier this year was unhappy about a mention in a column. Clarke said Angel accosted him backstage at an event with the words, "Don't ever write another word about me, or you'll need an eye patch over your other eye." Clarke uses the quote as a blurb on the back of the book, and at the party, guests were given copies of the book wrapped in an eye patch. Nothing is subtle about Vegas.

But even here, Clarke sees more than the story of a temperamental star.

"Criss Angel is a celebrity that is getting a lot of publicity, where part of it is personality and part of it is the new show doesn't seem to be working," he said. "But there are so many layers to that. The Luxor brand is now in question. . . . You know Cirque has to be asking questions. What if they have to pull the plug on that? It isn't just a celebrity issue."

When he started in 1999, Clarke was the first full-time gossip columnist to focus on contemporary Las Vegas. He had done a similar column in Denver for some years, but it was all he could do to get a glimpse of Bill Cosby once in a while. Moving to Vegas, however, provided him with an embarrassment of riches nearly every day.

As Clarke sees it, he arrived in town just in time for the period of celebrity excess and ridiculous spending sprees that he documents in the book -- "a Gilded Age for Las Vegas," as he puts it.

That doesn't mean Vegas was welcoming to Clarke, though. The city had prided itself on being a place where people could have fun without word getting to the media. Clarke's column became a direct line to the national media in part, he writes, because of support from friend Matt Drudge. At their first dinner in Vegas, Drudge witnessed a furious Pete Rose walk up and slap Clarke in the face -- retribution for having called Rose a bad tipper in an earlier book, "Vegas Confidential: Norm Clarke! Sin City's Ace Insider, 1,000 Naked Truths."

Like that 2004 book, Clarke's latest is seeded with column highlights, but this time he offers a more personal, behind-the-scenes touch, including regrets such as reporting a celebrity marriage on the rocks that turned out to be just fine. Still, there is plenty of dirt. "I wanted edgy, and I got edgy in this book," said Clarke, who is now doing signings around town. "I got a lot of help from some casino VIP hosts, anonymously of course."

Only in recent months, as the economy has tanked, has Clarke realized that the book might also mark the end of an era. "Who knew that, as this book was going to press, the Gilded Age for Las Vegas was basically over? About a month ago, I started reporting that celebrity hosting fees are crashing. Have you noticed the number of C- and D-listers who are hosting at nightclubs now? I already hear Paris Hilton is going somewhere else for New Year's."

But Clarke isn't concerned the economy will adversely affect his column: "The news for the past decade has been the exploding city and celebrity aura that has all made for this city's startling success. Now, the story is going to be how that is going to be affected. But Gilded Age or deep recession, I just keep covering whatever is the story of Vegas."

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