Former Staffers Remember Details Magazine

Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images

Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images

Condé Nast announced today that Details, the monthly men’s interest magazine, will cease publication. Its next issue, which covers December and January, will be its last—and the website will be gradually phased out as it moves under the (Condé-owned, male-oriented) GQ umbrella. Since it was established in 1982 (and relaunched in 2000), Details has seen an impressively wide array of talent circulate through its pages. We tracked down some alumni to get their eulogies for a publication that’s always been slightly harder to define than the more straightforward lad mags like Esquire and Maxim.

PETE WELLS, New York Times Restaurant Critic
(Former articles editor at Details)

One of the best things about that place was working with Rockwell Harwood, the creative director. He had this almost dogmatic belief in using photography not to accompany the story but to embody it in a visceral way. We did a story called “Daddy’s First Affair” and he commissioned a photo of a thong hanging off a child car seat. You looked at it and you got it right away. When Bart Blasengame took cunnilingus lessons and wrote about it, Rockwell opened the piece with an extreme closeup of a guy’s tongue. That tongue looked like it was about to pleasure the camera lens. When I saw those images I sometimes thought he understood the story better than I did. This always surprised me because when I talked to Rockwell he rarely said anything. He would grunt, or grin, or roll his eyes, or grimace, then walk away. He’s a surfer. He’s almost pre-verbal. One day I was trying to explain the idea of a story to him and he kept asking questions. I kept explaining. He kept asking. Finally he came out with what I think was the longest sentence I ever heard him say: “I just can’t figure out what the objective correlative is.”

The other really remarkable thing was how much freedom Dan Peres would give us at times. He let us explore weird ideas, some big and some small, if he believed in them. One of the most satisfying moments of my editing career was working on the profile Jeff Gordinier wrote about the Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov. Jeff went back to Russia with Vengerov, and the piece had the craziest structure, it was 5,000 or 6,000 words written almost in reverse chronological order. But Dan published it, and it was great. That was exactly the kind of writing that drew me into magazines in the first place–into reading them and later into working for them.

Dan would go with a story if he felt the truth in it. You couldn’t argue him into it, he had to feel it in his gut. I wrote a short essay on the virtues of letting yourself go. Then Dan went to the fashion shows at Milan and hung out with a bunch of fashion-world sparrows with 22-inch waists. When he came back he said, “We’re holding that piece. I don’t believe men are letting themselves go.” Then, maybe a year later, there came a time when he started walking into the office unshaven, with his shirt untucked. One day in that phase he said, “Whatever happened to that story on letting yourself go? Let’s run that.” 

IAN DALY, Chief Strategy Officer for The Barbarian Group
(Former assistant editor and senior writer at Details)

Details was always a very polarizing magazine […] People always treated it like a man that was obviously gay but refused to come out of the closet. And I can say from the inside that we very definitely were not; I think we were interested by the intersection and the overlap between straight culture and gay culture. You can’t take a modern look at masculinity without considering both—and to think of them as anything other than a weird continuum would be a lie.

Details, at least as it was redefined under Dan [Peres] in 2000, came at a time when the definition of masculinity was changing. It was dynamic, and archetypes were breaking down, and I think fusty ideas of what made a man a man were beginning to crumble—and rightly so.

Of the stranger things that I actually expensed: a used pair of panties; opium, which I smoked in Richmond with a bunch of yuppie opium smokers; and a hand job.

KAYLEEN SCHAEFER, Freelance Writer and Contributing Editor at Details
(Former staff writer at Details)

Do you remember “Bros Icing Bros”? It was a 2010 phenomenon where Guy A would sneak up on Guy B holding a Smirnoff Ice. Guy B would then have to chug the Smirnoff Ice on bended knee. I (mistakenly) thought this would make a brilliant Details story and brought it up in an ideas meeting. It did not get approved, but later that day entertainment director David Walters snuck out, got a Smirnoff, and iced me. I chugged my Smirnoff on bended knee in the middle of the office. It was great. 

There was also the time we sent an intern to Times Square to buy “1 Night In Paris” because we needed a screenshot for art for Rick Salomon’s entry on the Power List. 

But shenanigans aside, working at Details taught me pretty much everything I know about journalism, and I’m grateful it existed and really bummed it doesn’t anymore. 

ERICA CERULO, Co-founder of Of a Kind
(Former editorial assistant, online editor and associate editor at Details)

Working as an editorial assistant at Details was my first job out of college, and not to get too sappy or anything, but it very much shaped me. I mean, I cried the day I quit after being there for five years, and I’m not a crier. I’m pretty regularly astounded by just how many of my very favorite people and closest friends are people I worked with there. And I think that’s a very common experience: It was the kind of super-close-knit environment (sometimes too close maybe?) that bred that, and the pseudo-underdog nature of the magazine attracted really smart, savvy, funny, and interesting people who were cool with that.

The thing that really made Details what it was was the point of view—both the voice and the aesthetic. It was knowing…and pushed things, always. There was a TV portfolio we did in 2006 that included Martha Stewart and ALF styled the same way—sweater slung over shoulders, cocktail in hand—and it all went down without Martha knowing what was happening. That feels classic Details irreverence to me.

I think the readers very much got this: The magazine did its first focus groups when I was there, and one of the projects involved readers sorting through images and pulling out ones that, to them, felt very Details. This one photo of a man sitting on a couch with a cat that kept surfacing over an over again, and one guy explained, “I mean, a man and a cat—that just feels like something weird Details would do.” Which, LOL.

ANDREW ESSEX, Former CEO of Droga5
(Former executive editor at Details)

I did two tours of duty at Details. The first go-round was during the waning days of Gen-X (covers: Cusack, Cobain, Duchovny). I defected, in a lucky break, just before the magazine was ambushed by the so-called “laddie” movement, and the hegemonic rise of Maxim (which is ironic, since Maxim later tried to become Details). At the time the editorial muscle there was astounding; many are now prominent editors or writers elsewhere (in no particular order: Michael Hainey, Danielle Mattoon, Mark Healy, Ariel Foxman, among others). The second tour was during the golden era of the metrosexual (covers: Downey Jr, Damon, Josh Hartnett [!]), before the magazine was ambushed by … the internet. Great talent there too: Pete Wells, Jessica Lustig, Jeff Gordinier, among others. The lesson in both cases is that the magazine, like so many other platforms, failed to stay ahead of the consumer behavior it promised to cover. But for a sweet moment there, for both tours, it really mattered.

YARAN NOTI, Deputy Editor at Saveur
(Former editorial assistant and associate features editor at Details)

Details was my first everything: My first real job, my introduction to fashion, to writing, to editing, to big egos, to enormous egos, to the demands of working in New York, to that feeling that all your ideas are garbage and you’ll never have anything to say ever again, to the self-satisfied comfort of a jokey pun done right. It was addictive, demanding, exhausting, degrading, stimulating, and incredibly satisfying. We put as much time and attention into a story about the Iraq War as we did a story about man boobs. That’s what made that magazine so special: Details was like the Google history of the young American man’s mind in all its insecure, anxious, horny, and curious glory. I learned most of what I know about being a magazine editor from the great ones there.

MICKEY RAPKIN, Journalist and Author of Pitch Perfect
(Former assistant editor and staff writer at Details)

Details was my first job in New York. It seemed to be everybody’s first job then, which is what made working there so memorable. Dan was only 28 or something when he was named editor-in-chief. We were all kids. It felt like we were getting away with something. Remember: We were a small, scrappy staff. Everyone talks about the famous Condé Nast cafeteria. But we worked for Fairchild. Our cafeteria at 7 West 34th Street was two guys with a hot plate. The artwork on the wall was an oversized poster of Elle Fanning and Dakota Fanning from the cover of Footwear News.

Everyone says their first office is like a family. But in this case, it really was true. And I wanted to make Dan proud. I remember interviewing this big Hollywood producer one night by phone. It was going to be one of my first real bylines in Details. And it would have been, had the producer not hung up on me after eight minutes because he thought I was disrespecting his work. (I wasn’t, but whatever.) I put down the phone and maybe I cried at Pete Wells’s desk. That wasn’t even the weirdest thing that happened that night. Later, I was at home waiting for Thai food to be delivered (food I couldn’t even afford) when Dan called me to give me the chin-up pep talk he knew couldn’t wait until morning. See? Family.

Dan was cool about that. He was pretty cool about everything, really. Except the famous Black Out in 2003; as midtown was basically evacuating, Dan told us to get back to our cubicles and keep working “with pencils,” the way people used to put out magazines. Pencils! Instead we all went out and got drunk—like a family. I think Dan was secretly proud of that. He’d assembled this band of misfits and made us feel like we belonged in New York. What more could you ask for from a first boss? By the way, an addendum to Kayleen’s post. I was there the night an intern was sent out to get a copy of “1 Night in Paris.” What Kayleen didn’t say is that a handful of us (so to speak) watched scenes from the movie on a pull-down screen in the conference room. We knew what was coming, but we were still a little shocked when it happened. Which I think is how we all feel today.

JEFF GORDINIER, Staff Writer for the Food Section of The New York Times
(Former editor-at-large at Details)

Out on the West Coast I grew up reading about, and revering from afar, a lot of those golden moments in the history of magazines—moments when a bunch of wired & inspired misfits managed to cross paths at a single publication and create something weird & fresh: Esquire in the ’60s, Rolling Stone in the ’70s, Spy in the ’80s. I moved to New York City from California in late 1993 and had the very good fortune (sort of accidentally) to land at two magazines, consecutively, that seemed to capture that hey-whoa-something-cool-is-happening-here spirit: Entertainment Weekly in the ’90s, led by Jim Seymore; and Details in the first decade of this century we’re in, led by Dan Peres. Sometimes, with these matters, the evidence is clearer in retrospect. Talented people move on, and create more incredible stuff, and you can’t believe you were lucky enough to work alongside them and become friends with them. Ian Daly, now a close friend of mine, went on to become instrumental in the rollout of Apple Music. Laura Brown became a superstar at Harper’s Bazaar. Andrew Essex, a powerhouse in marketing and media. Mickey Rapkin went off and wrote Pitch Perfect. Erica Cerulo launched Of A Kind. Grady Laird turned into a cold-brew-coffee tycoon. Bart Blasengame, Jesse Ashlock, Yaran Noti. I mean, my two main editors at Details were Pete Wells and Jessica Lustig, and I am quite certain that it would be impossible to find two sharper, more literate, more gracious, more word-sensitive editors in all of New York media. Pete is now the restaurant critic of The New York Times; Jessica is the deputy editor of The New York Times Magazine. So there you go. 

So who deserves credit for all of this? Dan Peres. Dan Peres—this dude lasted an actually kind of epic 15 or so years at Details (and started out his run having to listen to critics who didn’t think he’d last six months), spotted and cultivated all this talent, and (in my opinion, at least) never really got enough credit for being a wildly gifted EIC. As I pointed out on my Facebook page, here are just some of the people and ideas that Dan got me to write about: A violinist going home to Siberia. A pack of rogue bodysurfers in Southern California. Keanu Reeves searching for a sandwich. A dude who repaired broken sex dolls. A kaiseki meal with Tom Cruise. Polygamists in the American Southwest. Bariatric surgeons in Kentucky. Oasis in London. A guy in Arizona who was put in jail for having tuberculosis. A guy in North Carolina who was freed from prison after years on death row. A contortionist. Neil Young, Mila Kunis, Francis Ford Coppola, Kate Beckinsale, David Duchovny, Sam Shepard, Jackson Browne, Charlie Watts, Walter Cronkite, Johnny Rotten. Anthony Romero, the head of the ACLU. The actor Andrew Garfield, wandering around Venice Beach while gearing up for the Spider-Man movie. Absinthe with Marilyn Manson in his Hollywood castle. Life at an all-male college in Indiana. A lawyer defending alleged mobsters in Philadelphia. A road trip to Las Vegas with a young British man with Down syndrome. A gang of Vietnam War reenactors in the woods of Mississippi. Obsessive Michael Jackson fans. 

I stuck around at Details for eight years and Dan pretty much kept saying “yes.” All I can say in return to the guy is “thank you.” I happen to believe that American magazines could use a lot more of that rogue energy and that sense of adventure these days, if they want to stay vital. To borrow some words from the great American poet Eileen Myles: “I squint. I wink. I take the ride.” 

KARL TARO GREENFELD, Journalist and Novelist
(Former contributing editor at Details)

I wrote for four editors at Details over the years. The James Truman Details gave me my first real breaks in the magazine business, running my stories about Japan and Asia. I wrote for Jon Leland and then Joe Dolce, but missed the Michael Caruso and Mark Golic period, and then in 2004 or so, when I was at Sports Illustrated, I wanted to do some non sports writing so I asked Jeff Gordinier if I could do some celebrity stuff and he put me in contact with Brian Farnham and Katherine Wheelock and over the next couple of years I wrote about 15 pieces for them. Sometimes they would call me, and assign an essay on, like, “Stop Trying to Be a Cool Dad” or “Stop Pretending You’re Straight” or “Stop Saying We’re Pregnant,” and they would give me a day to turn the 1500 word or so essay around. The money was great, like $6000 for the piece, and it was fast. I remember once they e-mailed me while I was on a flight to Japan—this was when onboard wifi was still a novelty—and told me they needed the piece in like 8 hours. I wrote it on the flight.

At some point, I decided I wanted to get a regular draw from them, like $4000 a month and I would owe them 12,000 words a year, and I must have met with Dan Peres five times about that subject, but he would never give up that contract. Eventually, in 2008 or so, I went and covered the World Polyamory Convention for them, and Dan didn’t think the piece was funny enough, so he killed it. I think that sort of ended things for a while.

Until last month, when they assigned me another piece, about Chinese rich kids. Then Dan killed that as well. I will miss that magazine, which has been a part of my life for 25 years or so.

ALEX BHATTACHARJI, Current (now former) Executive Editor at Details

I read Details in all its incarnations—from the Annie Flanders days through James Truman era. The lad mag version lost me, but I was taken by idea of a modern, young and urbane men’s magazine. When I started at Details in 2006, it was a trip: I remember we were doing a Power Issue— those lists would spark surreal-but-serious debates about where to rank Trig Palin versus David Plouffe, Perez Hilton versus Bashar al-Assad, and why the influence Maddox Jolie Pitt kind of trumped everybody.  

We referred to the place as the Island of misfit toys, and that was a boast of sorts. The staff was a cast of characters, and expressing your personality was encouraged. In fact it was the only way to produce memorable pieces and get a story approved. Pitch meetings were like Thunderdome, with Dan playing the part of Tina Turner. I still can’t believe that Dan greenlit some of the things he did, but the risky stories were almost always the best ones. The Mandingoes, the plot to murder Justin Bieber, Balloon Boy’s next act as a Heavy Metal singer—I remember sending poor Kevin Gray to a crash the Austrian Neo-Nazi party’s holiday soiree. Who else would run a story entitled “Is Anal the New Oral?” alongside a profile of the ACLU leader—especially in Condé Nast? I always wonder what dear, wonderful SI Newhouse thought of those pieces as Dan would run through the issue for him. I give Dan credit for seeing that our readers cared, pretty much equally, about reading about Bobby Jindal and Brody Jenner, and I’m glad we had them in our pages first. At our best—and we had our share of misses—Details turned the mirror on young men and showed them their visages, warts and all. And, at the same time, we told them it was, like, totally okay to use their girlfriends’ cover-up on those blemishes.

Turnover was a constant, and some of the wildest times were had at going away parties. Pete Wells’ send-off early in my Details career was a blur of epic proportions—pig noses were worn, who knows what was consumed. It may sound trite, but the people who passed through the halls are what made it worth coming to work each day. Details attracted a lot of incredible talent over the years, and it shows in what many those folks have gone on to do. Working at Details was never easy—but I like to think it was like training at altitude, or growing up on Krypton, and when they left, those people’s skills were that much stronger for it. 

In the last months, the digital growth was phenomenal, but it came at the expense of what made the magazine unique—traffic moves on mass appeal, after all. That trend probably would’ve continued. For the people who loved Details—and it wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea—perhaps there is some solace in knowing the corporate ax fell before its freak flag did.

Some recollections have been condensed and edited. We will update this post as we receive more responses.

Former Staffers Remember Details Magazine