Trashy, Fun Talk Wants to Be Oh So Serious

It’s a … magazine.

Part Life , part Sunday newspaper silky, part Disney-Miramax house organ, part Stern , the first issue of Talk is sometimes dull, sometimes even laughable, but it has a pulse. With it, Tina Brown, who rescued Vanity Fair and razed The New Yorker , is making one last great argument for the general interest magazine. Here’s hoping her bosses at Miramax Films and their bosses at the Walt Disney Company don’t stomp all over her creation, flawed as it is.

Talk has Ms. Brown’s usual mix of highbrow material (former United Nations Special Commission head Richard Butler on his thwarted attempt to disarm Iraq), amusing trash (the centerfold of Miramax starlet Gwyneth Paltrow in skimpy black leather, with a whip), and the tasteless (photos of John F. Kennedy Jr. as a child, especially the blurry one in the helicopter). But there’s something new here, too–a certain informality, an underproduced, casual feel, a warmth, even, that you don’t usually associate with other products turned out by that cold, calculating, control freak, er, I mean, Ms. Brown.

The magazine’s texture–those thin, thin pages, like the ones in The New York Times Magazine , maybe even a wisp thinner, and its staple-bound floppiness–accentuates Ms. Brown’s new mussed quality. Could be an economic move, but it works esthetically. So does the dashed-off Eric Palma cartoon illustration of the editor on the back page–a nice contrast to the self-serious black-and-white portrait of Ms. Brown in pearls that ran above her editor’s note back in her Vanity Fair days.

The articles, too, seem to find their own lengths, rather than being hacked down to fit into a slot; there’s a lot of continued on page 239 in Talk , if you know what I mean. The magazine’s look, overseen by its art director Lesley Vinson, is heavy with type and headlines–fonts straight out of Clay Felker’s New York magazine. It’s a rough look, a not-so-pretty look–and that’s good. It makes Vanity Fair seem like a beautiful drag queen in comparison.

But while Ms. Brown seems to sense that she must publish a magazine that is the opposite of slick, she can’t quite overcome her proper, career girl impulses. The much-ballyhooed cover article on Hillary Clinton, for instance, is stiffer and more compromised than its subject.

Mrs. Clinton knew to expect friendly treatment from Talk . Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, the heavy behind Talk who has long had a case of editor envy, is a big Clinton contributor. The piece’s writer, ex- New York Times woman Lucinda Franks, is a Martha’s Vineyard friend of Hillary’s. And Ms. Brown herself once wrote a schoolgirl’s love letter to Bill Clinton in the form of a Talk of the Town item toward the end of her New Yorker run. Even with all the good will toward the First Lady, the Talk team wanted something out of her–namely, a confession of how she has survived living with that lout, with some tears, please, too, if you don’t mind. And a confession they got … but just barely. At least it was enough to satisfy the New York Post and Daily News , which ran with the Talk interview on their front pages the day before the magazine’s debut.

This seems to be the Talk setup. They’re going to need a big-time celebrity each month–and that celebrity will get preferential treatment, lavished with gobs of sloppy prose, but in return, the celebrity must cough up a confession. It’s like a Barbara Walters special. The lighting is luscious, the soft-focus is on, but you better bleed a little, missy.

“You just don’t walk away if you love someone–you help the person,” hiccoughed Mrs. Clinton. Talk paid dearly for that. To show its readers that she’s a viable politician, the magazine claimed that Mrs. Clinton–who was traveling through northern Africa at the time the story was reported–had improved the lives of women in Tunis with the “new ‘microcredit’ loans she has championed.” Wow! And to prop up the Clinton marriage, Talk quotes one Mohamed Benaissa, identified as the Moroccan minister of foreign affairs. He says, perhaps at gunpoint, “I think she fell in love with him again when she came here.” To use a Moroccan minister’s quote as evidence that love has returned to the White House … man, we are pretty far from the land of journalism.

The magazine was originally going to have the phrase “The American Conversation” as its slogan, but Talk is the least American magazine Ms. Brown has edited since Tatler , with a news sense as international as that of the BBC. In Talk , Virginia is treated as an exotic land and Africa and Iraq are just a hop over the backyard fence.

Now a quick run-through: Gerald Posner’s story of Mohamed al-Fayed’s theories on the deaths of his son and Diana, Princess of Wales is a tangled and ultimately pointless read. Tucker Carlson’s on-the-road look at George W. Bush is a breeze, a very nice piece that brought the candidate to life. The highly descriptive article on the trailer park in Virginia, written by Eddie Dean in traditional Esquire style, seems too good to be true, with its one-armed man named Rocky who was struck by lightning and has a dog named Prozac; this article really, really made me wonder why there were no photographs of the colorful characters Mr. Dean so delightfully brought to life. The Patrick Demarchelier photo of much-hyped-by-magazine-editors vixen Angeline Jolie is a phony, since she’s doing that clichéd hand-covering-the-face thing. The article on divorce activist Lorna Wendt was old hat–I seen that one on the TV.

That thing by “Vox Talkuli”? Not funny. The supposedly self-mocking letters to the editor by professional humorist Christopher Buckley? Also not funny. Save that stuff for the staff party. That small piece on ESPN anchors’ home-run calls? Good. James Atlas’ number on how his social inferiors are busier and more fabulous than he is? Not bad, but Tom Wolfe has been doing a similar riff in his lectures for about 20 years.

The showpiece by the African safari guide who was taken hostage by the Ugandan terrorists has a lovely beginning and ending. The story on the murders of up to 200 women in Juarez, Mexico, by Charles Bowden–who has written a book on Juarez–is larded up with too much sociology and too much Mexican “atmosphere” and could have used more straight narrative; that can happen with a piece written by an expert.

But that’s not important. Talk flops around and flaps in your hand. It’s a staple-bound pixie of a general interest magazine that just might work, if it survives. Right now, it takes itself oh so seriously, but it longs to be naughty. Kind of like Gwyneth. Maybe she could be the Talk logo.

E-Mail Indignities

“There’s certainly nothing wrong with having an e-mail address on a business card,” said Peggy Post, great-granddaughter-in-law of Emily and guardian of the family’s etiquette franchise. “If someone wants to put it on there, I say it’s fine.”

But is it, really, so fine? What if someone doesn’t want to put it on there? Let’s face it–there’s no dignity to e-mail, with its silly little squiggles and shorthands, its unwieldy punctuation, its overly casual lower-caseness, its runaway replicability.

“I can’t stand it,” said Joseph Singer, 35, an associate at the downtown architecture firm Ferguson, Shamamian & Rattner who ordered his cards printed sans e-mail address. “It clutters up the computer, you know? It’s just more shit you can’t get rid of.”

“Maybe some people don’t think it looks as clean-cut on a card to have so much information,” suggested Ms. Post, who vows her next batch of cards will bear her e-mail handle, which she declined to hand over. “But cards are functional as well, and e-mail is here to stay.”

E-mail is cheap and easy. Maybe too cheap, too easy. Most people get to play some part in choosing their e-mail address, which can involve an embarrassing little display of personality. It’s as if the whole world suddenly decided to use vanity plates. “Like the AOL people,” said Mr. Singer, and sighed. “It’s tacky. When AOL first started like a gazillion years ago or whatever, it was cute when everyone had like a funny little name, but now we’ve, I think, escalated past that!”

There’s no fancy ZIP code in cyberspace to which the tasteful may flee. There is, however, a gutter: If your employer is too cheap to give you an e-mail account, you must resort to Yahoo or Hotmail. Yahoo sounds unnecessarily ebullient. Hotmail just sounds like a porno Web site.

“Euuuuch,” said Mr. Singer.

–Alexandra Jacobs