“Hello? I’m looking for Margie Beck. Do you have any idea where I might find her?”
It was Sunday night, less than 24 hours to go before my book party, and I was desperately trying to get in touch with a woman I’d heard about who ran a celebrity look-alike agency in Manhattan. It was part of an elaborate publicity stunt I was planning to coincide with the launch of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People , a tell-all memoir about the five years I spent working as a journalist in Manhattan.
“This is she.”
“I wonder if you can help me. I’m trying to get hold of a Graydon Carter look-alike.”
“Graydon Carter. He’s the editor in chief of Vanity Fair .”
About 50 percent of my book describes the two and a half years I spent working as a contributing editor at the magazine, and my plan was to have the Graydon look-alike gate-crash the party, beat the crap out of me, and then make a getaway in a Big Apple Town Car.
“Oh boy,” she said. “Not somebody I’ve ever, ever had. You know, that’s going to be a tough one. I don’t think that anyone has ever had that request.”
It was time to try a different tack.
“He looks a little like Garry Shandling.”
Clearly, this wasn’t going to work out.
I first got the idea for this stunt a few weeks ago, when I read a piece by Alessandra Stanley in The New York Times called “Revenge of the Underlings.” Citing my book alongside The Nanny Diaries , American Son and Trading with the Enemy , she claimed to have identified a new literary genre called “boss betrayal.” Graydon was one of the few bosses prepared to go on the record about this new trend. “You’re forced into playing it cool,” he told her, “when all you really want to do is throttle them.”
On the face of it, this quote was a little odd. What’s the point of pretending you’re not bothered by something if you then go and tell The New York Times that you’re absolutely furious about it? Still, it did have the effect of making him look more honest than Anna Wintour. In the same article, she was asked how she felt about a forthcoming roman à clef by a 25-year-old ex- Vogue employee called Lauren Weisberger. “I look forward to reading [it],” she said. The title of the book is The Devil Wears Prada .
When I first sent Graydon a copy of How to Lose Friends last August, I got an e-mail back from him saying how much he liked it, but in the intervening 11 months he appears to have changed his mind (or dropped the pretense). My sense of it is that he wasn’t too bothered when it was just a British book-it was published in the U.K. last November by Little, Brown and Company-but when it became a best-seller and I sold it in America, his attitude began to change. The final straw was the movie deal I did last April. According to a mutual acquaintance, he now refers to the book as an “unauthorized biography” and describes it as “a gross violation” of his “privacy.” It’s hard to believe that this is the same Graydon Carter who co-founded Spy with Kurt Andersen in 1986.
Actually, it’s not that hard to believe. Graydon is notoriously quick to take offense. Toward the end of my time at Vanity Fair , a young man appeared in the office next-door to mine named Morgan Murphy. After I heard his Southern drawl I started referring to him as “Forrest Gump,” but he was a nice enough guy, always eager to ingratiate himself with whoever crossed his path. Like the simpleton played by Tom Hanks, he was completely guileless. One day Morgan bumped into Graydon in the elevator and, without thinking, said he hadn’t seen him around much lately. Instead of replying, Graydon scowled at him, and the following day Morgan was summoned into the office of senior articles editor Aimée Bell, one of Graydon’s closest confidants.
“Here’s a piece of advice,” she said. “In future, don’t tell the hardest-working editor at Condé Nast that you haven’t seen him around the office much, O.K. ?”
In my experience, those journalists who make a living from dishing it out, and then accuse their victims of losing their sense of humor when they kick up a fuss, usually fail to see the funny side when they’re given the same treatment. After I wrote a fairly waspish profile of the Australian humorist Clive James in 1993, he told a mutual friend of ours that he wouldn’t have minded if it weren’t for the fact that my piece “just wasn’t funny.” Harold Evans was so enraged by an article I wrote in 1997 suggesting his departure from Random House was less than voluntary that he threatened me with a libel suit unless I signed a legal document promising I wouldn’t write about him ever again. I refused and the libel writ never materialized, but it taught me a lesson in just how thin-skinned journalists can be.
Much more surprising has been the reaction of people like Alessandra Stanley. In her Times piece she sided with the bosses, loftily dismissing the books under discussion as the work of “servants and office assistants trying to cash in” on the fame of their former employers.
“They are a variation on the tell-all exposé,” she sniffed, “written not by peers or rivals or the principals themselves but by subordinates, books that all could be subtitled, ‘You’ll Never Serve Lunch in This Town Again.’”
I’m quite prepared for a New York Times journalist to criticize my book for being poorly written-and, indeed, Janet Maslin did precisely that on July 11-but for a fellow reporter to object to exploding-cigar journalism on principle seems a tad hypocritical. I was under the impression that throwing a few custard pies in the direction of the ruling class has a long and distinguished history in the annals of American newsprint. Whatever happened to comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable? Ms. Stanley’s complaint, echoed by several other people quoted in her article, is that for a mere “underling” to write a tell-all memoir is unacceptably uppity. Presumably, editorial assistants, like children, should be seen and not heard.
I’d like to think that my book, along with the others mentioned in Ms. Stanley’s article, is in the tradition celebrated by Jim Bellows in his recently published memoir The Last Editor . As the top man at the Herald Tribune Mr. Bellows published Tom Wolfe’s evisceration of William Shawn, and as the editor of The Washington Star he instructed his gossip columnist to write about the love life of The Washington Post ‘s executive editor.
Mr. Bellows is the closest thing we have to Walter Burns, the wisecracking hero of The Front Page. According to Mr. Bellows, journalism “shouldn’t be something ancillary to your life, but something that nourishes your soul and is a lot of fun.”
Alessandra Stanley’s overdeveloped sense of propriety is depressingly familiar to anyone who’s done a tour of duty on a glossy New York magazine. I arrived in New York in 1995 with tales of the legendary bad behavior of Ben Hecht, Herman J. Mankiewicz and Dorothy Parker swimming in my head, expecting to find their modern-day equivalents in the offices of Vanity Fair . I imagined this zany, madcap community where no one stood on ceremony and everyone had a wisecrack at the ready. But that devil-may-care attitude, that sense of fun, was nowhere to be found. Instead, I was confronted with a regiment of pinched and hidebound careerists who never got drunk and were safely tucked up in bed by 10 p.m. In London, I’d seen chartered accountants behave with more abandon. Whatever happened to that harum-scarum roustabout whose status is somewhere between a whore and a bartender? In New York, the people who once thought of themselves as “us” have become “them.”
It’s particularly important that Graydon Carter should be put in the stocks from time to time, because he used to be one of the chief standard-bearers of the pie-in-the-face tradition. He isn’t merely a poacher turned gamekeeper; he now owns the land he used to poach on. I remember one occasion at the beginning of 1996 when I had dinner with Graydon at Le Cirque. The Italian owner, Sirio Maccioni, greeted him in a suitably deferential manner, then turned to his staff and clicked his fingers. Within seconds, two flunkies came scuttling out of the wings carrying a table and set it down in the middle of the restaurant. Clearly, no existing table was good enough for such a distinguished personage. Before long, a team of waiters started making their way towards us from the kitchen bearing trays of expensive delicacies, a perk that’s only extended to the grandest of grandees.
“Oh God,” Graydon said, rolling his eyes. “Here it comes.”
Yeah, right, I thought. Woe betide the restaurateur who treats you like any other paying customer. It may not be possible to hire a Graydon from a look-alike agency, but for all intents and purposes he’s now a fully fledged celebrity. He’s ferried to work every day in a chauffeur-driven Lincoln Navigator. He presides over the most exclusive party in Hollywood. The enormous effort he puts into cultivating his persona, and the huge gulf between the image and the reality, creates an irresistible opportunity for an ambitious young journalist. Indeed, if Graydon himself had ended up working for Tina Brown in 1986 instead of co-founding Spy , he might well have written a similar book about the editor in chief of Vanity Fair himself.
In spite of being such an appalling turncoat, Graydon is still great company. When he’s on a roll, he can spit out one-liners like a Chicago newspaperman of the old school. For instance, when I first met him in 1993 I suggested that Vanity Fair should put together a photographic portfolio of “literary London” featuring headshots of Britain’s most distinguished authors in their favorite pubs. The idea was to illustrate the connection between alcohol and London literary life.
“What, are you kidding?” he responded. “It’d look like a fucking dental textbook.”
Occasionally, you can see glimpses of the revolutionary leader Graydon used to be, a devilish glint in his eye as he briefly considers throwing a bomb at the car of some capitalist fat cat. At one point, I almost persuaded him to run a profile of Jay McInerney in which I treated the ubiquitous partygoer as if he was a notorious literary recluse in the same vein as J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon. Headline: “Who is the elusive Jay McInerney and why is he so publicity-shy?” But Graydon’s newly developed sense of caution got the better of him. As he frequently points out, he has four kids to put through school.
In spite of everything, I still have a soft spot for Graydon and I’m sorry he’s so angry about my book. Indeed, I’d like to take this opportunity to clear the air. Graydon, I have a message for you and it’s this: Hello ! You practically invented this type of journalism. You’ve been dishing it out ever since you arrived in this city 24 years ago, and now it’s time to suck it up. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.