Thursday, February 13, 2020

Manhattan Interlude #1: A peek under the cover of Spy

The Puck Building, home of Spy magazine.
     Big time authors of course are obligated to go to New York City to meet with publishers and agents and publicists and such. While lesser lights go to visit their boys in law school and take in a show. So while occupied, I thought I would reach back into the vault and dredge up a few reports from previous bites of the Big Apple. 
     This one sticks in mind because setting it up was something of a scam. First I told my boss that I was visiting New York anyway, and while I was there I might as well pop into the hot new magazine, Spy, which I adored, like every other 20ish wisenheimer at the time. He fell for it. Then I called Spy and told them they were so popular in the Midwest that the Sun-Times was sending me to New York to take their measure. They fell for it. While I was at their offices, reporting this valentine, I also pitched them stories, and got assigned to write the sidebars on a delicious take-down of Bob Greene. Later, I fished for a job. Graydon Carter had an editorial assistant opening that paid a quarter of my salary, and though I begged for it—I remember being on the phone to him, standing in my apartment in Oak Park, feeling my life teetering—he wouldn't give it to me. "You wouldn't be happy," he said. He was probably right.

     NEW YORK — Not long ago, E. Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen were just another pair of writers sweating below decks of giant Time magazine, shoveling words into its roaring furnaces, straining to move the behemoth along.
     Like most writers, they felt they knew better than their bosses what kind of publication people wanted to read.They envisioned a wry, witty magazine, poking fun at the hubris-laden egos and Jabba-the-Hutt lifestyles routinely adored in the pages of their employer.
     "We both loved magazines," said Carter, relaxing in his small office on the ninth floor of the Puck Building, a whimsical, cherub-studded structure in New York's Soho district. "We loved National Lampoon, Mad and Rolling Stone, and wanted a magazine that affected us like those did."
     Unlike most writers, however, they paused from dreaming and griping long enough to turn their vision into reality. They gathered together investors, raised a few million dollars, and gave birth to the hottest, most cuttingly written new magazine around: Spy.
     Since the first issue hit the stands in October, 1986, Spy has provided what had become a rare commodity in American magazines: journalistic satire aimed at the undeservedly rich and the glaringly famous.
     Just a glance at that first cover was enough to show that this would be a different kind of publication.
     "JERKS," it blared, in orange type, accompanied by a photo of David Letterman sidekick Chris Elliot doing a groveling dance. "The Ten Most Embarrassing New Yorkers."
     "They move, they shake, they showboat. The rest of us cringe. And you wonder why America hates New York?" the article began, introducing a cast of character—Donald Trump, Rex Reed, Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, Leona Helmsley — that Spy was to revisit, issue after issue, with malicious glee.
     "Most magazines spend their time pumping up those who are already pumped up," said executive editor Susan Morrison. "We try to be an antidote to that, to bite the ankles of the overdog."
     Picking up the long-ignored tradition of Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken that married reporting with rambunctious wit, Andersen and Carter produced a magazine eclectic enough to critique Reagan's presidency and teach readers how to sneak into Ivy League club bathrooms in the same issue.
     It is difficult to categorize a typical Spy article. They tend to be short, broken up into small units, encased in boxes or scrolled down the side of a page. They assume the reader knows a lot — for example, what an arbitrager does — or at least is confident enough to guess.
     They frequently attack in an oblique way. An article titled "How Rich Is That Doggie in the Limo?" never comes out and criticizes giving your dog a face-lift, or a strand of cultured pearls, or an $800 fur coat. But the message gets across.
     "Cindy Hughes takes time out from her very busy career as a designer to cook twice a day for her Shar Pei, Coco Chanel Puppoir," writes Nell Scovell. "She uses recipes from a holistic dog cookbook. `People say I'm crazy,' Hughes says, like a mind reader, `but my sister had two kids at this age, and she cooks for them three times a day.'"
     And then, there is what has made Spy famous: the razors-bared, rabid wolf-pack attacks.
Being foremost a New York magazine, Spy saves its deadliest venom for its favored gang of New York characters: the omnipresent Trump, Mayor Ed Koch, socialites such as Mercedes Kellogg and Jacqueline Onassis, new wave writers Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York, liquor ads) and Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City.)
     "We chose people whose reputations, we feel, are exaggerated," said staff writer Tad Friend. "We don't try to do hatchet jobs. We don't pick on Mother Teresa."
     The people they do pick on are people like Revlon chairman Ron Perelman and his wife, gossip columnist Claudia Cohen, who are assaulted separately (Cohen: "arrogant, insensitive, maniacal." Perelman: a "rapacious," "balding" enigma) and in tandem ("at dinners Claudia would use her fingernails to pry food from between Ron's teeth.")
     "Claudia Cohen made a million phone calls, trying to find out where we got our information on her," said Morrison. (Perelman took a more practical approach, according to Andersen. He had Revlon offer Spy a lucrative advertising contract provided, of course, that the profile was shelved. Andersen turned them down.)
     A Spy trademark is turning the light of analysis onto people who just are not used to being written about. "Review of Reviewers" is a monthly feature taking the entertainment press to task in a way not seen since A. J. Liebling pilloried the media in the '40s and '50s.
     "Letters to the Editor of the New Yorker" permits readers to comment on the stuffy publication, which itself does not print letters. (Nor does it print a staff box, which, at a reader's request, Spy printed: a staggering exercise in research and, due to the jarring impact of its sheer size, very funny.)
     Spy prides itself in the accuracy of its reporting, and its Rabelaisian cast of victims tends to respond to questions about the magazine with grim silence.
     Contacted several times for comment, Perelman remained mum. The upper management of the New York Times, excoriated each month in a column devoted exclusively to its ridicule, would not utter a word in its own defense.
     Slightly less reticent are Koch and Trump, who made surprisingly similar contradictory statements, through their spokesmen.
     "He doesn't read it," said a mouthpiece for Koch. "He doesn't take it too seriously."
     "I don't think he's seen it," said Trump's representative, ignoring rumors that Trump personally yanked copies of Spy from Trump Tower's newsstand. "I think he's probably seen an issue or two. I'll ask him."
     In their constant search for egos to puncture, Spy has not overlooked Chicago. In the first issue, "The Illustrated History of Hair, Part I," a wordless series of photographs traced the retreat and sudden, almost magical, re-emergence of nostalgicist Bob Greene's hairline. And last month's issue included a stomach-churning account of Harold Washington's gluttonous habits.
     In addition to jabbing individuals, Spy takes on trends breathlessly trumpeted in the popular press. "Filofax Madness" emphasized the grim desperation of charting one's life in an expensive little book, and "Waspmania" deplored the emotionally hollow worship of the discarded trappings of British aristocracy.
     Spy also has a genius for the unexpected interview. In one issue, a representative of DuPont, the makers of Teflon, was questioned as to whether the conglomerate had considered Ronald Reagan, the Teflon president, as a potential spokesman for their product. ("We negated it a long time ago," said DuPont. "It gives the trademark a bad name.")
     Spy's visual style has received almost as much notice — and imitation — as its writing. Spy's make-up is an explosion of typefaces and visual elements, thin border illustrations snaking across the tops of pages, and spatterings of tiny clip art images.
     "It can't look sober and serious," said Andersen. "So we had to invent a style that's appropriate to a magazine editorially aware of everything from Moby Dick to the Jetsons."
     "Spy has a lot of writing, crammed together," said art director Alexander Isley. "It's kind of like walking down the street in New York, with the signs and everything. It is not meant to be browsed through, it's meant to be read."
     "Waspmania" illustrates another Spy strongpoint: editorial purity. The article ruthlessly degraded designer Ralph Lauren, and while most magazines would think twice about ridiculing such a big-bucks advertiser, Spy didn't hesistate to run the piece.
     "We're not reckless, or self-destructive about it," said Andersen. "But what you see everywhere are editorial decisions that are marketing decisions as well, and you get things like New York Woman putting `Red, White and Bloomingdales' on their cover.
     "Once you say to yourself, `We're not going to truckle to advertisers,' its easier to stay with it," said Friend. "It's something we're proud of here."
     In spite of its cavalier attitude toward advertising, or perhaps because of it, Spy is enjoying soaring success.
     "We have thrillingly good demographics," said Morrison.
     Circulation, which started at 25,000, is now closing in on 100,000 copies a month, with 40 percent of its readers in cities outside the New York area. The magazine is particularly popular in Chicago, although distributors couldn't say how many copies are sold here.
     "It's the best-selling magazine we have here," said Patrick Ude, manager of News Two, 2939 N. Broadway, in the Lakeview East neighborhood.
     The magazine is also "perilously close" to turning a profit, something its business plan had not anticipated until 1991.
     "We thought we would be losing $50,000 an issue at this point," said Carter. "We're not losing a fraction of that; in fact, this is as close as you can come to profit and still lose money."
     While making money is certainly important, what particularly gratifies Carter and Andersen is that they, and not someone else, were the people who created Spy.
      "What would have driven us really, really crazy is if one of our friends had done this," said Carter. "We wouldn't be alive."
     "That's what drove us," added Andersen. "What if somebody else had done this? We'd spend our lives in bitterness."

           —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 8, 1988


  1. I really miss Spy & its constant ridiculing of the Short Fingered Vulgarian!

  2. You were willing to move to New York to be an editorial assistant at Spy for a quarter of your then-salary?

    Wow. I liked Spy, too, but not that much.

  3. Is there a good shortcut to the Spy archives? One of my guilty pleasures has always been reading those Eighties pieces about Bob Greene's total shmuckiness.

  4. I came to Spy late, a consequence of geography and occupation. Then it was gone too soon. I came to appreciate Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair and miss his hand on that tiller. I'll try the Google route for old Spys, thanks Scribe.


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