My moment had arrived. I was sitting in a Los Angeles television studio waiting to be interviewed by Bill O’Reilly. For a struggling author on a book tour, this was Ground Zero. If I could only be sufficiently entertaining for the next five minutes, I might be catapulted into the big league. Who knows what might come next? Leno? Letterman? Oprah? I felt like a high-school basketball player being eyed up by a talent scout. It was time to show the world what I could do.
The fact that I had a monumental hangover didn’t help. In theory, I’m a teetotaler, but I’d fallen off the wagon in Las Vegas a week earlier. My book tour was supposed to start in L.A., but at the last minute I’d called an old university friend who lives in Mexico City and we’d arranged to meet in Vegas for the weekend. I told my wife that we’d spend our time playing golf and going to the theater, perhaps even take in the Andy Warhol exhibit at the Bellagio. I meant it, too. Having never been to Vegas before, I’d bought into the notion that it’s this ultra-hip, sophisticated place: Soho with sand.
What I hadn’t bargained for was the free booze. In Britain, it’s against the law to serve alcohol in casinos, presumably because the punters are thought to be at enough of a disadvantage without being mentally incapacitated as well. No such niceties are observed in Vegas. In my case, it was the gambling losses that led to the alcohol consumption. At least, it was at first-after a while, it became a vicious circle. By 6 a.m. on Saturday morning, I was $2,000 in the hole and three sheets to the wind.
The rest of the weekend’s a bit of a blur, but I’m fairly sure of one thing: Hip Vegas doesn’t exist. Occasionally you spot someone dressed in black with a ring through their nose, but they’re standing between a 400-pound housewife from Arkansas and a 55-year-old Korean grocery-store owner. And they’re all playing craps. In order for there to be a hip Vegas, there’d have to be an unhip Vegas, and it’s far too egalitarian for that. It’s the most unhierarchical place I’ve ever been to. There are no lists, no V.I.P. sections, no hot restaurants. It’s America in its purest, most down-to-earth form. It’s the anti–New York.
I had a paperback to promote, so on Sunday it was back to reality-or, rather, Los Angeles. It didn’t take long for my own status anxiety to come bubbling back to the surface. After I managed to finagle myself a decent-sized room at the Chateau Marmont, I discovered that an old colleague from New York was staying in the hotel and immediately invited him up to my “suite” for “cocktails.” We’d once competed for the editorship of a glossy magazine, and he’d got the job. I was keen to foster the illusion that I was doing very well.
Within seconds of arriving, he suggested we go to his room instead.
“I have a balcony,” he explained. “I get really claustrophobic in these rooms that don’t have balconies.”
This episode was to prove typical of my week in L.A. In addition to promoting my book, I was there to try to get some Hollywood writing assignments, and I kept making the mistake of trying to pass myself off as an insider rather than the complete neophyte that I am. For instance, I was having dinner at the Grill in Beverly Hills with a successful television producer when David E. Kelley’s name came up.
“Didn’t he just ankle Endeavour?” I asked.
The producer stared at me in open-mouthed disbelief.
“Did you just use the word ‘ankle’ as a verb?”
“Isn’t that the industry term?” I protested. ” Variety uses it all the time.”
“Yeah, I know, but I’ve never heard anyone actually say it before.”
My reason for thinking I might be able to get some work in Hollywood is that a movie producer read my book last summer and hired me to write a biopic about a Broadway producer. I turned it in at the end of May but, rather discouragingly, he hasn’t responded to it yet. The book in question, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People , charts my unsuccessful attempt to take Manhattan, and I came to L.A. with some vague notion of moving back to America, trying to take Hollywood and-when that inevitably ends in failure-writing a sequel about screwing up on the West Coast.
Unfortunately, it soon became clear that people in “the industry”-a term I didn’t hear anyone use out there apart from me-would take real exception to being featured in a tell-all memoir. My colleagues in New York didn’t react well, but I got the impression that Hollywood folk would be even more pissed off-dangerously pissed off, in fact.
“If you repeat what I’m about to tell you, I will literally kill you,” said one mid-level player as a preamble to telling me a bit of gossip. “I don’t just mean you can’t write about it. If you so much as tell anyone what I’m about to tell you and you attribute it to me, I will literally cut off your head with a steak knife.”
I believed him.
After a week in L.A., I came to the conclusion that not only do I have zero chance of re-inventing myself as a screenwriter, but my insurance policy-whereby I would gather material for an exposé of contemporary Hollywood-would be tantamount to a death sentence. No, my best hope lies in trying to establish a reputation as a best-selling author, which made it all the more important that I give a good account of myself on The O’Reilly Factor . At the age of 39, I’ve reached that stage when I’m not going to get many more golden opportunities. This was one of them.
Suddenly, I heard Bill O’Reilly’s voice in my earpiece. The segment had begun.
“In the ‘Back of the Book’ segment tonight, writer Toby Young has been fired from The Times of London, fired from The Guardian of London, fired from The Independent of London, and fired from Vanity Fair magazine here in the U.S.A. He says he was booted because he wouldn’t play what he sees as a corrupt game. Mr. Young joins us now from Los Angeles. He is the author of the new book How to Lose Friends and Alienate People , of which he may be an expert. All right. What’s-what’s the problem that you encountered in the magazine world vis-à-vis the celebrities? What’s really going on there?”
It was an inauspicious start, and it didn’t get any better. I blurted out something about how you were more likely to read the truth about celebrities in The National Enquirer than you were in glossy magazines, but I wasn’t prepared for how adversarial he was. It was like walking onto a tennis court and suddenly finding yourself face-to-face with John McEnroe. After he’d served a succession of aces, I was summarily dismissed.
“All right, Mr. Young, thanks for coming on. We appreciate it.”
Game, set and match to Mr. O’Reilly.
Still, when I arrived in New York on Sunday night, there was one consolation. My publisher called to tell me that my book was No. 7 on The Washington Post ‘s paperback nonfiction best-seller list. Maybe I should forget New York and Los Angeles and move to D.C. At least in that city, no one objects to being written about.