When Graydon Carter pulled an intern named Michael Hainey aside at the Spy magazine Christmas party in 1989, the legendary editor had probably had a few. “I think you’re going to be a star,” Mr. Carter said. And then the advice he’d repeat over the years: “Don’t fuck it up.”
Twenty-five at the time, Mr. Hainey knew he’d have to move quickly if he was going to make good on his boss’s intuition, since he also believed—beyond reason or doubt—that he would be dead in a decade.
Such was his inheritance.
“For many years, I just thought, ‘I’m never going to outlive my father,’” Mr. Hainey said last Wednesday, in his low monotone. We were sitting in a diner just east of the Avenue of the Americas, kitty-corner from the GQ offices, where Mr. Hainey serves as deputy editor, less than a week before the publication of his new memoir, After Visiting Friends. The book, out this week, details a 10-year search for the truth surrounding the night his father died at age 35, when Mr. Hainey was 6. “That was the thing that defines me,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll ever be free of that day.”
This book represents Mr. Hainey’s latest creative endeavor; he has previously had poems published in Tin House and exhibited paintings at Thom Browne’s Tribeca store. It also may be his most personal. From the time he was 9 or 10, Mr. Hainey remembers a specter of death hanging over him. He had questions about his father, questions about how he’d died, that had gone not only unanswered but, for years, unasked.
“I had tried to imagine his last night,” Mr. Hainey said. “Did he die alone? It frightened me as a boy that no one was with him.”
A Chicago newspaperman, Bob Hainey was found dead in the street on the city’s Northside on April 24, 1970, struck down by an apparent heart attack or cerebral hemorrhage, depending on which paper’s obituary you read. The author’s uncle, also a journalist, broke the news to the family. But there were other inconsistencies. According to one of the obits, he had passed away “while visiting friends.”
“We all long to go in search of our family secrets,” said Mr. Hainey, whose journey into his family’s past didn’t begin until sometime after he had celebrated his 38th birthday, having avoided the Grim Reaper’s scythe. His thoughts kept returning to those obituaries, which he had read at the library as a high schooler when curiosity finally boiled over. Who were these “friends,” he wondered? Why had they never come forward?
Having followed in his father’s footsteps, Mr. Hainey was a newsman now, and his reporter’s instinct told him something didn’t add up.
After graduating from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Mr. Hainey worked for a time at The Chicago Tribune, one of the papers that had employed his father. But he credits his first experiences in New York, and his time at Spy in particular, with teaching him the real ins and outs of reportage. He counts Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen, Spy’s founding editors, as his earliest mentors, as well as Susan Morrison.
“They really taught me what it meant to be a writer in New York, and at that level of ambition,” Mr. Hainey said.
Ms. Morrison, now at The New Yorker, remembers Mr. Hainey, just off the boat from Chicago, as a kind of Jimmy Stewart character. “Before he had the new-wave hair and important eyeglasses and Thom Browne suits, he was this kid with hay in his hair,” she said. “That made him the perfect candidate to do certain kinds of interactive Spy stories. Stories that in another context would probably be called hazing.”
On one such assignment, Mr. Hainey was tasked with chasing after girls on Amsterdam Avenue to test-drive a variety of actual celebrity pickup lines. “He was terrified,” Ms. Morrison remembered. “I think he actually did pretty well with [Warren] Beatty’s line, which was ‘Make a pass at me.’”
Anthony Haden-Guest’s pickup line, on the other hand—“God meant for us to be naked together”—did not go over so well.
“He had, from the beginning, in his understated Midwestern way, a combination of confidence and gameness,” said Kurt Andersen, the Spy co-founder-turned-novelist, “just a kind of willingness to do whatever we asked.”
As deputy editor of GQ, Mr. Hainey has interviewed some of the most iconic cultural figures of our time, from Keith Richards to Clint Eastwood to Bruce Willis, the cover boy of the magazine’s current issue. In his book, though, Mr. Hainey talks about how he still needs to get into character before doing reporting. “By nature I’m a shy person. I get rattled easily,” he said.
Perhaps, but there is something of a rascal under his soft-spoken Midwestern exterior as well. When The Observer first met Mr. Hainey, for example, we had been instructed by the writer Donald Antrim to give him the middle finger, because that was how Mr. Hainey caught Mr. Antrim’s eye at a party two decades back.
During those early days in the city, Mr. Hainey lived in a Quaker-run boarding house on 15th Street, where, in exchange for a bed, a desk, two meals a day and a communal bathroom, he paid a token rent and did chores, like washing dishes and shoveling the sidewalks. “It always seemed to be snowing,” he recalled.
Now Mr. Hainey is a perennial front-rower at fashion weeks the world over, and along with his wife, Brooke Cundiff, an executive at Gilt Groupe, he represents one-half of a New York fashion power couple. Mr. Carter describes him as a loyal regular of his exclusive West Village watering holes, the inns Waverly and Beatrice, so “I see a lot of him through the bottom of a highball glass.” But none of that mattered when Mr. Hainey found himself trolling through Chicago hospitals and morgues, chasing after the ghost of his father. Or when he found himself face-to-face with the men who had worked alongside his dad back in the day, grizzled newspapermen who still played by an old-school code of silence, admitting nothing but betraying everything.
“Guys stick together,” they said.
“I don’t think you have the right to know the truth,” they said.
The stonewalling did not discourage Mr. Hainey, and clues began to materialize. (“I’m not a talker. I’m an observer,” he told us.) The author questioned family members, sought out his father’s high school classmates and even forged signatures in order to get hospital records released. Precious, long-forgotten hospital records. He did not begrudge those who got in his way. He just had to get past them.
“I had to know,” Mr. Hainey said. “What was that story?”
In a sea of self-discovery memoirs, After Visiting Friends stands out for its level of journalistic inquiry. “Too many memoirs are ‘me me me,’” Mr. Hainey lamented.
And while the book may have paternal-thematic ties to Zachary Lazar’s Evening’s Empire and either of David Itzkoff’s efforts, it shares most of its DNA with David Carr’s The Night of the Gun, in which Mr. Carr goes back in time to report on his own life. “The art of reporting” is as important to Mr. Hainey as it was for his father. And in the end, this doggedness is what brings Mr. Hainey to the truth about his dad—and to the fear that this truth may destroy what is left of his family.
“It’s one thing to be the truth-seeker,” he writes. “It’s quite another to be the truth-bearer. The delusion destroyer. There’s a reason people don’t like revisionist historians.”
So he sat on his newfound knowledge for well over a year. Guilt crept in, as it had throughout his search, when Mr. Hainey wrestled with his own responsibility to his father’s secrets. “Who do you think you are? I made you,” his father would say in their imaginary conversations.
On one hand, the elder Mr. Hainey ought to be proud of his boy. As the author says in the book, “Everything my father and uncle valued in newspapering—good reporting and editing—in the end, it’s what undid them.”
And yet Mr. Hainey admitted that he had “great feelings of disloyalty” about revealing his father’s secrets. “Even though I was a man in my 40s, I still saw him through the eyes of a 6-year-old,” he said. But he knew what he had to do. “There was a lot of doubt, but I had to tell my mother what I’d found out.”
Just as he had to get into character so as not to “let the barking dogs” of journalism scare him, Mr. Hainey felt these were similar fears that had to be overcome. In fact, when asked what advice he might give to some theoretical future son, or what advice he wished he could have received from his father, he said, “It’s about living your life without fear, going toward what you want.”
And 40-plus years later, he is doing just that. Mr. Hainey is already plotting two follow-up works, including a novel, and is in the process of moving into a new painting studio in the West Village.
With all that, surely Mr. Hainey has lived up to that old Christmas-party prophecy.
Then again, Mr. Carter sounded less than unequivocal in his assessment of Mr. Hainey: “I think Michael has proved himself in a number of fields,” the Vanity Fair boss said. “If I could just get him into a suit that fitted him, he’d really go places.”