Under some pressure from Clownboy fans (Stevenson, DiGiacomo, Windolf), Susan Morrison made a call and I was hired as a freelance fact-checker at Spy magazine—not a happy place to be by this time. Still, I had the pleasure of fact-checking Joe Queenan’s brilliant series of things everyone’s supposed to like but actually suck (the Civil War, jazz). And I got to know future star TV writers and producers like Tim Long (Letterman, The Simpsons), Eric Zicklin (Frasier, Dharma & Greg) and Louis Theroux (Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends). I lasted three months at Spy and had to threaten to sue to get paid $600.
A week didn’t go by that I didn’t show up at The Observer to fetch coffee. I also curried favor by mailing crazy, mildly amusing letters, some detailing my sexual fantasies about famous “editrixes.” Recently I dug up some copies from “The Gurley File,” rough drafts that are so awful, disgusting, excruciatingly embarrassing, not the slightest bit amusing, worthless and depressing that I am going to burn them. I should be shot for writing, let alone mailing, those letters to The Observer.
Next, I was hired as a fact-checker at The New Yorker. I decided this was my calling. Forget writing. I’ll do this for the rest of my life. There was a big problem, though: I didn’t fit in with the other checkers, who were all Yale, Harvard, Harvard Law and spoke six languages. It was cool, though, seeing legends like Tina Brown (so fucking hot), John Updike and Joseph Mitchell in the hallway.
My first mistake: getting Roger Angell on the horn and calling him “Mr. Ann-gell.” Then asking Calvin Trillin if some of the lines in his Shouts and Murmurs were jokes. He kept repeating, “Joke … joke … joke.” He was nice about it, unlike Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, who kept snapping “critical commonplace” at me.
After I challenged some perfectly legal, slightly cleaned-up quotes in a “Talk of the Town” piece on Saul Bellow (an “a” to an “an,” a “that” to a “this”), its author asked for my name. He didn’t want to be pals.
Soon I was working two days a week as the movie review fact-checker. Fine by me! Thrilled to do that for decades. Getting paid to see screenings of Reality Bites, Wyatt Earp, The Crow and give changes to Anthony Lane and Terrence Rafferty, Pauline Kael’s successors? Wait—this was a demotion? Ha!
With a penlight in one hand and a pencil in the other, I’d tick off lines of dialogue, kick back and enjoy the rest of the flick. Reviewer Joel Siegel once yelled at me for shuffling galley pages in the middle of Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. Jeez, dude, just trying to do my job.
While going over Mr. Lane’s review of the movie Speed, he said “Point taken” a few times, and it didn’t sound so chummy.
So then it was down to one day a week. Then once in a while.
I started spending more time at The Observer and finally met the new editor, Peter W. Kaplan. He told me about Esquire in the ’60s and a famous George Lois cover, and then he had to go back to work. But it was implied that I’d be working there someday.
The last piece I checked at The New Yorker was a short story about a serial killer. During my research, I discovered that it was, to some extent, a fictionalized treatment of the real Jeffrey Dahmer story. After devouring books on the grisly subject and finding about 50 similarities (street names, killing techniques, etc.), I gave my heavily annotated galley to an editor, who passed it on to the managing editor and a lawyer, and then a memo was drafted and sent to Tina Brown.
Changes were made. But I thought readers should know that this story had been inspired by actual events. I was so outraged that I made sarcastic comments in the margin of my galley, which was sent to the famous author, Joyce Carol Oates. Well, I figured that was the end of my career at The New Yorker, so I leaked the memo to The Observer, and they ran an item. That scored me some points, but no job.
I fact-checked at a dozen publications, among them Allure, Interview, Rolling Stone, House Beautiful—where I lasted two days. I’d just been rejected from Fordham business school, and a move back to Kansas was in the cards. If I was lucky, the Free State Brewery would rehire me as a dishwasher. Then, miraculously, I was hired as a full-time fact-checker at GQ. That summer, Mr. Windolf told me (on the corner of Lexington and 62nd Street) that he was starting a new column for shorter pieces called The New York World, and asked me to send him ideas.
On a Tuesday in August, I took the Jitney to East Hampton to see Tom Wolfe read from his novel-in-progress, The Mayflies (later retitled A Man in Full). I was the only journalist there, and my piece made the front page of The Observer. All I wanted to do in life was make that happen again.
Next I enjoyed a private chat with Allen Ginsberg, who held forth on Cézanne and the lovemaking style of William Burroughs. Alone in a basement with Kate Moss, the two of us played word association. When I said “Frying pan,” she said “Sausages.” When I said “Giuliani,” she said, “Who’s that?”
For an unassigned piece (which never ran) about a witch war, I hung out with a dozen witches and a Satanist. During a two-hour interview with Drew Barrymore’s mother, Jaid, then 50, she said she loved the missionary position and “Tarzan and Jane.” “As in doggy style,” she explained. “I feel like Jane when he is overwhelming me, taking me from behind. I like that. It’s nice.”
At the Wetlands music venue, I covered an event promoting a rare, unreleased album by Blind Melon. Everyone there missed the lead singer, who had recently died from a cocaine overdose. “Fuck MTV,” said a guy sucking on a fat joint. “They killed Blind Melon.” At the end of the item, I mentioned that the band was looking for a new lead singer, and gave the address in Hermosa Beach to which those interested could send an audition tape.
One night I crashed three parties with literary man-about-town C.S. Ledbetter III. First we chewed the fat with NBC chief Robert Wright at the Rainbow Room. Then at Maxim’s, we hobnobbed with William F. Buckley, Morley Safer, Jane Pauley, Garry Trudeau and Kurt Andersen. Then at Gagosian Gallery, we met two lovely Vogue assistants, Francesca Stratton and Emily Lyon, and the four of us piled into a cab and winged down Fifth Avenue.
Another night, C.S. and I made time with the models Bridget Hall and Christy Turlington. Another night, we shared a table with Pia Zadora at Sardi’s. Another night, we went on a double date with Sydney Biddle Barrows (the Mayflower Madam) and Baroness Sheri De Borchgrave (author of A Dangerous Liaison). Tom Wolfe compared us to Addison and Steele.
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