Journalism was about the last thing she was supposed to be doing with her life. Born into wealth, Finke was raised to be somebody’s wife. She attended the Buckley Country Day School and the Hewitt School and went on to Wellesley. “Lots of women in hot pink and lime green and playing field hockey,” says Finke. “Beware of women with sticks.”
After graduating from college, she took a job in the Capitol Hill office of New York congressman Ed Koch. Engaged to a multibillionaire’s son, Finke suddenly did the unexpected: She took a pay cut and started working for the Associated Press in Baltimore. She says with great seriousness that Brenda Starr inspired her to be a journalist.
Years later, Finke asked her boss at AP, Why did he hire a woman with no experience? “Because you were blond,” he replied. By all accounts, Finke made a vivid entrance in the ’70s: “A combination of beautiful and like a guy” is how one friend describes her. When she worked at Newsweek, fabled editor-in-chief Maynard Parker declared to an associate of Finke’s that she was “the most captivating woman to ever walk the halls.”
Finke says pursuing a journalism career led to the dissolution of her engagement. “I was never brought up to have a goal,” she says. “I think it gives me tremendous insecurity because I wasn’t brought up with a strong sense of self. I wasn’t brought up with ‘You can be anything.’ So every day there’s a lot of questioning: What am I doing? How did I get here? What is this?”
She became an AP foreign correspondent based in Moscow, then took a job at The Dallas Morning News. Moving to Newsweek in 1983, she reported from Washington, D.C., until management asked her where she would like to be assigned. Los Angeles, she told them almost absentmindedly. “I wanted to go to Disneyland,” she says.“My family said, ‘You’ve already seen real castles!’ They couldn’t believe it.”
In 1987, Shelby Coffey III hired Finke to write features for the L.A. Times. For coworkers flummoxed by her loudness, Coffey provided some perspective by comparing her to another in-house terror he’d worked with at The Washington Post: “You think she’s difficult. She’s nothing compared to Sally Quinn.”
While interviewing producer Aaron Spelling at the Times, Finke says she experienced a transforming moment of clarity. Their conversation was going nowhere, the producer spinning on and on, until Finke called him out and ended up with an honest quote and a substantive story. It offered, she says, a lesson: “In this town you’ve gotta get ’em when they’re angry. That’s when they tell the truth.”
Since that time, many others have found themselves in Spelling’s place, wondering how the hell a perfectly pleasant afternoon of lies and ego stroking changed into a crazed jag with a broken piece of chalk, a blackboard, and a blond prosecutor. Finke wraps you up in a web of smart talk and impolitic confidences, laughing about the jerks who make colossal blunders. It’s so much fun, you almost don’t hear her inquire about your own colossal mistakes.
“Hollywood is a place where it’s not good to have strong opinions,” says screenwriter and former Vanity Fair contributing editor Bruce Feirstein. “The social construct out here is that you do not tell the truth. It’s that you never tell anyone that their movie sucks. So what is Nikki’s reputation in the Industry? I don’t know. But if you are going to print unpleasant truths—the stuff everybody knows about, and talks about, but no one is willing to put into print—you’re going to make enemies. Nikki is part of a tradition of women reporters in Hollywood who terrify people. They’re tough broads. Whether it’s Lynn Hirschberg, Kim Masters, Anita Busch, Claudia Eller, Anne Thompson, or Nikki.”
This feature originally appeared in the September 2004 issue of Los Angeles magazine.