Many years ago, CBS Radio had a wonderful program called You Are There , which simulated on-scene broadcasts that transported listeners back in time to history’s great events: “This is Douglas Edwards at Runnymede, reporting live. Robert Trout is with King John and his court. Come in, Bob …” (Note to recent Brown University graduates: “Runnymede” is a meadow in Surrey, which is not a hotel on East 76th Street where Restaurant Daniel is, but a county in England, which is part of Europe, although an island. The place is on the Thames, a river that also flows through London, which is where you can get Lobb shoes and Vivienne Westwood clothes. It was at Runnymede where the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. “Magna Carta” does not mean “large menu” at Harry Cipriani, but is a document which limited the power of the English king.)
If You Are There is revived 100 years from now, I suspect I can guess what its premiere show may be. “This is Douglas Edwards VIII, reporting live from the Condé Nast building …”
Certainly the New Yorker events have put in our place those of us who foolishly thought that being on earth for the John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. assassinations, the Bobby Thomson and Carlton Fisk home runs, Hiroshima and V-J Day, constituted a respectable measure of real-time, real-feeling experience of momentous events. “Where were you when you heard J.F.K. had been shot?” is now a nonstarter next to “Where were you when you heard about Tina?” The fact is, I doubt that even having been on Calvary for the momentous events of some 1,965 years ago would any longer qualify one for serious consideration as a witness to real history.
What a pity Homer’s gifts should have been wasted in the ninth century on the likes of Helen and Paris and Menelaus (for Brown grad … oh hell, forget it! Does anyone know the 800-number for Hermès?). A deity with His priorities straight would have reserved that prosodic genius for later, to sing the tale of Tina and Si and Harvey.
As grown-ups might suspect, nowhere did the momentous, earth-shaking news burst more heavily upon self-regarding media sensibilities than here at the offices at the Journal of Record of Jamie Tarses. It set off a frenzy of pants-wetting that bid fair to tear the building from its very foundations and, in a micturative reprise of the centerpiece of Deep Impact , send it bobbing hysterically down 64th Street on the crest of a boiling tsunami of number one.
Personally, I got a kick out of the whole business. It was kind of fun when yet another media freak called to ask, breathlessly, “What do you think?” to answer “Who gives a s–?” and enjoy the shocked silence on the other end.
For what it’s worth, here’s what I do think. I wish Tina well, but have my doubts. We are definitely talking downmarket here. This fellow Ron Galotti who is joining her from Vogue makes Steve Florio look like Cecil Beaton.
On a more significant level, with the Tina Brown-Harry Evans axis no longer powerful in major media (the Zuckerman media are, collectively, a joke, a jungle into which first-rate talents and journalistic standards disappear, never to be heard from again until fired), we have perhaps seen the beginning of the ebb of “the London Syndrome” in New York journalism.
Here’s what I mean by that.
It is a curious fact that Americans who feel themselves lacking in social or cultural self-esteem or couth try to remedy the situation by purchasing the company and services of Brits, mainly London-formed or bred. What comes along with the deal, however, is the sort of self-centered, arrogant, center-of-all-things, how-interesting-we-are sensibility typical not only of London, but of Paris, Vienna and other Western capitals that are the home of all the action: political, financial, cultural, social. This sensibility gravitates to the media, where its endless fascination with itself can be endlessly and publicly displayed and reprised. It is a view of society and culture as a kind of club, with the media functioning as a combination admissions and house committee. In a social order as intensely class-conscious as the U.K., those who make the grade understandably strut their “clubbability” aggressively. Thus, publishing ceases to be about books and writers and readers, but about publishing parties; the news is no longer the incident reported in a story, but the story reporting the incident. The circles narrow and narrow and become a pinpoint with the cultural consequences of a black hole, with triviality substituted for gravity and the energizing force.
It is, not coincidentally, a cultural ethos that works to the advantage of the second-rate, who compensate for a lack of creative talent and integrity with a grasp, almost sublime in its subtlety, of institutional process and structure in which running an art gallery or manipulating a critic yields more in the way of money and social status than painting a great picture. Success becomes more a function of shrewd career management than achievement.
In London, the syndrome is especially pronounced. Even The Spectator , a weekly whose arrival I eagerly look forward to, regularly carries two or three articles a number about who’s up to what in the British (for which read “London”) press, TV. In Private Eye , this kind of gossip grew to such proportions that I finally gave up my subscription after a quarter-century.
Readers of this space are by now tired of my deplorations about how provincial New York has become, sunk in a muck of self-regard that has spliced Hollywood into the picture in a sort of Siamese-twin ego-feast. I view its effect on what used to be a pretty cosmopolitan, independent, diffuse city toxic: a virus not unlike Ebola in its effects (the victim literally melts) but borne not in steerage from the heart of darkness but on the Concorde from the haunts of Fleet Street and Bloomsbury. Now, mercifully, it may begin to wane.
Not that the future is entirely bright. We still have to cope with the Wally’s World theory of creative genius, which seems to believe that Mickey Mouse was thought up by a focus group.
The New Yorker is said to have lost tens of millions. I believe the red ink flowed from a typical Londoncentric market misjudgment, which was to aim The New Yorker at the Vanity Fair audience, which is served intellectually and profitably-and fully-by the latter.
The New Yorker made its money elsewhere. I maintain that when Harold Ross made his famous remark about the “little old lady in Dubuque,” he was being disingenuous, not least because that’s who Ross himself was and he knew it. What the hell else was he going to say, anyway? My opinion is that Dubuque-far from the ersatz Versailles that Condé Nastified New York has become-is/was precisely the audience for whom the magazine was conceived and edited. People who thought of-believed in-New York as a conduit to a wider world of cultural experience and knowledge, not the narrow, gossip-ridden Pinot Grigioklatsch of the Tina Teenies. A far larger, more sophisticated, smarter and more humorous audience than the unfunny London crowd, which really, seriously does think this country is as depicted in the famous Saul Steinberg cartoon: all Manhattan (but modified to include L.A. and Seattle). If David Remnick points the magazine back in this direction, my bet is that the numbers will follow.
As for me, I’m going to spend the summer thinking books. For example, there’s a party at Jerry Della Femina’s on July 25 for a book titled Unspeakable , which I assume is a new biography of the host. Then there’s Charles McCarry’s new book Lucky Bastard . I have always thought Mr. McCarry overpraised by people who assume that if it’s incomprehensible, it must be profound. But his new book interests me. Its premise is the manipulation of the system by Soviet agents to propel a charismatic young man to the White House, where he will lead the United States to destruction. Here’s Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in The New York Times : “As Arthur, a Soviet agent who teaches political science at Columbia, explains to his handler, Dmitri Alexeyivich, ‘The point is, Jack has a great natural gift. Since childhood, he has studied people, found out what they wanted, and made them believe he was giving it to them even when he wasn’t … He has this uncanny gift for making others like him …”
Pretty cool idea, huh? In 1987, I published a novel, The Ropespinner Conspiracy , about the manipulation of the system by Soviet agents to propel a charismatic young man to the C.E.O.-ship of the most powerful private financial institution in the United States and the world, from which post he would lead Western capitalism to self-destruction by doing exactly what Western capitalism, with Citibank’s Walter Wriston as the Pied Piper, seemed in fact to be doing. Here’s how the leading character was described by the Soviet spymaster to the Soviet agent-a professor of economics at Columbia-responsible for handling the young man: “Waldya, I esteem you for finding him … because he is, as you say, genius for selling … Put him on a soapbox in Hyde Park, and I’m telling you, in 10 minutes they would be following him anywhere.”
And so it goes.
First Liar Alert: It seems the First Liar will be staying in East Hampton with the Spielbergs on West End Road instead of the Patricofs on Huntting Lane. This presents an opportunity for marine picketing on Georgica Pond, provided one can steer clear of Ronald Perelman’s heat-packing goons in gondolas. Among the President’s R&R stops will be a visit to an East Hampton antiquarian bookseller, although it is unclear whether he will be looking for an early edition of Leaves of Grass to replace the copy mysteriously missing from the White House, or for an edition of Baron Münchhausen , whose fabrications played the same key part in the formation of the First Character as Dale Carnegie’s did for other Americans.