WASHINGTON -- Jan Pottker is idling her Jeep outside the stone mansion, staring at the sprawling estate where television's former Wonder Woman lives.
"Did you know Lynda Carter's house is so big, her tile guy got lost in it and had to come outside just to get his bearings?" Pottker asks. "It's the truth."
She is praising the tile guy, who was happy to blab about the actress, when a dark van tears up the driveway toward the house Carter shares with her husband, Washington superlawyer Robert Altman. Suddenly, Pottker is clutching her steering wheel and screaming.
"Oh my GOD," she says, jostling her full mug of coffee, which sloshes under the twisted cord of her cell phone. "Was that Lynda? She was wearing a hood -- I couldn't see. We should have brought our binoculars!"
Jan Pottker is the kind of celebrity hound only Washington could have: A 48-year-old suburban mother and federal bureaucrat who finds people with power endlessly interesting. Swathed in a black leather jacket with dark sunglasses, she stalks the homes of senators, cabinet secretaries, television reporters, even the guy who runs the World Bank.
Forget German shepherd warning signs, like the kind in Carter's neighborhood. Pottker is bold. She shifts her Jeep into park on busy streets and deserted roads, taking notes, peering at darkened windows and interviewing neighbors. She'll stand on the hood of her 4x4 and take a picture of a nondescript apartment building if she thinks someone famous lives there.
She uses perfectly legal ways to gather public information about the homes that many Washington insiders like to keep secret. Her research is highlighted in her self-published book, "Celebrity Washington," a guide to the homes of quintessential capital personalities.
Forget that some of her big-shot neighbors are not exactly thrilled by her work. Pottker is wildly curious about the rich and famous and thinks other people are, too. The way she sees it, giving information about the city's big shots is just another form of public service.
"Everybody today is interested in celebrities," Pottker explains. "I think that knowing how someone chooses to live really illuminates their character. It says something about their personality."
Since her book came out, she has gabbed on dozens of radio programs, gotten a very expensive cut from Madonna's hairdresser (three different color highlights) and fed gossip to People magazine.
But she's sold only 3,000 copies of "Celebrity Washington." Does anyone really care where Janet Reno, Newt Gingrich and Dan Glickman live? Most people don't even know who Dan Glickman is. (Don't wrack your brain: He's agriculture secretary.)
The book is really aimed at serious Washington junkies who can't get enough of the celebrities born on C-Span -- the people made famous by getting elected, getting indicted or simply popping up a lot in a Nexis search.
No one could be more fascinated than Pottker herself. Nothing these celebrity insiders do is unworthy of mention, at least not when Pottker is behind the wheel. The running commentary starts the second the key is in the ignition.
Idling outside Rep. James Oberstar's house: "It's so ordinary looking, isn't it? Makes you wonder about his sense of style." Free-associating on the road: "Newt Gingrich's apartment building? What a dump!"
Staring at Jack Kemp's house: "Ooh Look! The Kemps have a sun room." Struggling to leave columnist Jack Anderson's driveway: "How in the heck am I going to get out of here?"
No detail is too irrelevant: "Kathie Lee Gifford grew up in Bowie." No thought is too trivial: "I don't think Dick Morris' girlfriend is much of a celebrity." No observation is too inane: "Did you know Sonny Bono's children walk Donna Shalala's dog?"
To track down the more than 300 addresses for her book -- and to find the dozens more she hopes to include in a second edition -- Pottker collects news stories and real estate advertisements on celebrities. She began gathering this information in the early 1980s and keeps it in color-coded files in her basement.
Pottker scans house deeds on microfilm, studies old telephone directories (before people wised up and went unlisted) and reviews voter registration lists. When she finds the right neighborhood, she interviews neighbors and mail carriers to verify the addresses. She never steps on their property, she says, or calls their homes.
Pottker tries to give her star guide a little sex appeal, but it's tough. She doesn't have much material to work with. Instead of Clint Eastwood, she lists the roof from which he dangled in the movie "In the Line of Fire." In the next edition, Pottker hopes to get the address of director Quentin Tarantino's mother.
With a crumpled map on her lap, she careens down Democracy Boulevard, swings through Bethesda and treks up and down country roads in swank Potomac. At every turn she is ready for a celebrity encounter. Nobody seems to be home at Mike Tyson's house -- the iron gates with two big T's are locked -- but surely there must be celebrities roaming around elsewhere.
Pottker decides to make a Sargent Shriver stop. At first, all she can see are the Maryland and U.S. flag flying on a high berm that blocks her view. So she turns back to her map, looking for the next good stop. That's when a car zooms from the house.
"Did you see who that was? I think it was Sarge!" she says, straining for a glimpse from her car, which is mostly blocking Shriver's driveway. "If it was a black Mercedes, then it was him! I know it."
A spy in their midst
Most of the time, these houses are deserted -- or too far from the street for the assorted riffraff to see a thing. But that doesn't stop Pottker from reading meaning into just about anything, including a driveway.
"I can't believe Ted" -- she means ABC anchor Koppel here -- "paints these yellow lines on the blacktop where his staff parks outside his house, like it's a commercial lot. Don't you think if you work for Ted Koppel you're smart enough to know how to park straight?"
She is an unlikely spy, living smack in the middle of the exclusive Potomac power scene she writes about. Her kids went to school with congressional offspring. Koppel jogs by her house. Her neighborhood is like a big waiting room for "Larry King Live."
Discretion is the key to her celebrity watch, Pottker says, particularly since she still has her job as an analyst at the Department of Education, where she has worked for nearly 20 years. Her husband, Andrew S. Fishel, tries to keep a lower profile as the managing director of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.
He jokes that it's a good thing they don't use the same last name.
Like much else in this city, Pottker's celebrity directory has created a little bit of paranoia. Some folks are horrified that their addresses are available in softcover for $9.95.
"Good Lord! My home address? Good heavens!" sputters William F. Clinger Jr., a former congressman who became a small celebrity during televised hearings into various Clinton administration scandals.
The Republican keeps his address unlisted because he doesn't want any of the city's assorted nuts dropping on his doorstep. "You can see where some members of Congress, if their addresses were known publicly, they could be put in a dangerous position," he says. "Somebody a little off the wall would try and come after them."
On the other hand, some folks might wonder if they're not in the book, maybe that means they're a nobody. Like former Office of Management and Budget director Richard Darman. At a book signing last year, he approached Pottker and asked how she decided who is and is not a celebrity. She told him in many cases, she calls her relatives in Peoria, Ill., and sees if they recognize the name. He thumbed through the index, harumphed and walked away.
Knowingly or not, others have narrowly escaped Pottker. She cannot, for instance, locate the home of former CIA director John M. Deutch. "The CIA is smart enough to say to him, 'Remove your name from everything,' " she says. "But I haven't given up yet."
Some wonder whether the home addresses of public people are really anybody's business.
"These are public figures but they really deserve more privacy than a showbiz person," says Letitia Baldrige, the queen of good manners whose address is listed in Pottker's book. "I mean, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Colin Powell are two different people. Colin Powell works for his country. He should not have people prying and peeking through his windows."
Such criticism can make Pottker feel a bit self-conscious -- but all in all she doesn't mind the attention. Her job, she says, is too much fun to be stalled by a disapproving glance or two.
She pulls her Jeep into her garage and kills the motor. The star trek is over for today, but the burning questions of the day are still unanswered. Do Mary Matalin and James Carville live in the District? What does Sam Donaldson's house look like? Is Warren Christopher still in the area?
And by the way, what's the best way to Kathie Lee Gifford's ancestral home? A certain housewife from Potomac was just wondering.
Pub Date: 3/10/97