A provocative bar scene involving Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and his female companion helped whip gossip about the pair into a frenzy, according to a journalism-conference spy. As if the New York Times publisher needed to seem more provocative.

A business journalism conference in Phoenix last week was rife with rumors about Sulzberger and Kathy Kristof, a CBS MoneyWatch columnist with whom Sulzberger was seen getting "friendly," as we reported last week. We'd heard the pair were together for much of the weekend.

Another conference participant says gossip about the two turned especially dirty after Sulzberger and Kristof were seen at the bar at Phoenix's downtown Sheraton hotel, following a conference awards dinner at the Heard Museum Saturday night. Kristof, who shared a table with Sulzberger at the dinner, is said to have stayed conspicuously close to Sulzberger from the moment he arrived at the bar.

That only made her and Sulzberger's later disappearance from the establishment all the more noticeable. The rumor mill went into overdrive with chatter, circulating throughout the day Sunday, that the pair was, if not in a relationship, then at least having some casual fun.

Even if the most salacious of the rumors are true — and media wags have been wrong about Sulzberger's love live before — there's no big scandal to hide here. Sulzberger announced a separation from his wife two years ago, and Kristof is apparently single.

But it would be advisable these days for Sulzberger to tone down any public partying with his babe, or to at least remove it from rooms filled with the cream of the business press corps. His executive team just doled out $12 million or so in bonuses, hiking his own pay to $5.9 million (and either doubling it or raising it 32 percent, depending who you ask). Staffers are said to be up in arms over the payouts amid layoffs at the Times and pay cuts at the New York Times Company's Boston Globe. There's no need to bait the scolds with any evidence of indiscretion.

On the other hand, some more public hookups just might shut up the juvenile sucker punchers who lay out the Weekend Journal. We'd enjoy that.

Update: In a comment on our prior post, Kristof says she's friends with Suzlberger but denies being romantically linked to him.

Update 2: Of this post, Kristof writes:

Just thought you should know that your SABEW tipster was either really drunk or pulling your leg. I never went to the Sheraton bar. Never had drinks with Arthur after dinner. Arthur and I parted ways long before we got to our respective hotels, which were several blocks from each other. After dinner, I headed back to my hotel (the Wyndham) with a bunch of other friends (and we did go to the bar at the Wyndham). Arthur went back to his hotel (Sheraton) with several people who were staying there. Now that I know we're an item, I'm feeling kinda hurt about that. But it seemed appropriate at the time.

Reviewing our correspondence, it looks like our original source may have been referring to Kristof's close proximity to Sulzberger at the awards dinner and the time Kristof spent with Sulzberger throughout the day Saturday, rather than at the bar, where the pair's absence was noted.