Tom Wolfe Disinters “Tiny Mummies!” After 35 Years

David Kuhn, the new editor in chief of Steven Brill’s Brill’s Content magazine and editorial director of Mr. Brill’s Contentville

David Kuhn, the new editor in chief of Steven Brill’s Brill’s Content magazine and editorial director of Mr. Brill’s Contentville Web site, has given a guarantee, of sorts: He says that both arms of Brill Media Ventures will keep their editorial integrity, despite the fact that Mr. Brill has struck deals recently with such media corporations as CBS, NBC and Primedia Inc.

“You know who I am,” Mr. Kuhn said, “you know who Steve Brill is. And all the people I’ve hired to work on the editorial side of the site are journalists. And even if they aren’t, I’m running it and I’m an editor.”

Mr. Brill made the deals with CBS, NBC, Primedia and other media companies on behalf of Contentville, which is a seller of various media products, such as TV show transcripts, magazines and books. Writers employed by Brill Media Ventures will post reviews on the Web site, but the reviews will not necessarily favor those companies whose wares are being sold at Contentville, said Mr. Kuhn. Never mind that no other e-commerce site has been able to pull off this feat ( Inc. got nailed last for allowing publishers to pay their way onto its “Destined for Greatness” list), or that readers should no more trust critics employed by an e-commerce site than they should catalogue blurb writers.

“I guess people have a hard time believing it because they haven’t seen it before,” Mr. Kuhn said, “but I don’t see why it’s such a hard leap to make, you know?”

While things settle down or else blow up at Mr. Brill’s two seemingly opposed ventures, there is a magazine to run. Just as Mr. Brill’s deals were made public–a spokesman for Mr. Brill sent the news exclusively to The New York Times on Feb. 1–the cover of Brill’s Content ‘s March issue was devoted to The West Wing , an NBC show starring Martin Sheen.

“I think the magazine is very, very good at doing most of what it does,” said Mr. Kuhn, “but I think the direction I will push it in will be to do somewhat less of certain things and definitely more of other things.”

Mr. Kuhn said he liked the story on The West Wing , which was headlined “The Real White House” (although it is actually the fake White House).

“I thought that story is something I would have definitely assigned, and would assign similar pieces,” Mr. Kuhn said.

Three-quarters of “The Real White House” was a respectable entertainment feature by Matthew Miller about how Aaron Sorkin creates the show that follows a Presidential administration and often draws on current events for its plot lines. Tacked on top is a Brill’s Content -ish introduction making the argument that, although The West Wing is fictional, it’s somehow more “true” than the White House presented to the public by the press corps.

(Mr. Brill’s connection to the actual real White House–he gave Bill Clinton $1,000 in 1995–became well-known after his investigation of Ken Starr in the magazine’s debut issue in August 1998.)

After naming eight prominent Washington press corps members who don’t watch The West Wing , Mr. Miller writes: “That’s a shame, because these opinion-shapers are missing what a number of journalists, former White House aides, and media analysts say may be a promising antidote for today’s widespread disenchantment with politics. Can a smart TV show renew interest in public life in ways that real politics brought to us by the real press corps can’t? Although the show indeed has a liberal bias on issues, it presents a truer, more human picture of the people behind the headlines than most of today’s Washington journalists.”

Mr. Kuhn said the article was true to the magazine’s original mission to cover the media. “The piece was acknowledging that it’s a television show and that’s media, and this is a magazine that covers media,” said Mr. Kuhn, who worked closely with editor Tina Brown at Vanity Fair , The New Yorker and Talk magazines. “And it is a television show about Washington and politics and the interface between politics and the presentation of politics which has to do with the press. So, it’s a perfect Content story, in all ways. So it may be a story that wouldn’t have been there eight months ago, but when you think about, it’s sort of like, duh, that’s a good Content story.”

Asked if readers could expect more stories with an entertainment hook in Brill’s Content , Mr. Kuhn said, “I’m not going to say Yes because then it will be just ‘Hollywood David.'”

For the first time since 1965, when it originally appeared in New York magazine–then still the Sunday supplement of the New York Herald Tribune –Tom Wolfe’s two-part “Tiny Mummies!” attack on The New Yorker magazine will be published in a new collection of his work titled Hooking Up , due from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in October.

Mr. Wolfe has published six collections of his nonfiction articles, but has never seen fit to include the notorious piece. Through a spokesman for the publisher, Mr. Wolfe told Off the Record, “Everything in the book is about the year 2000–I threw this in as an after-dinner mint.”

According to Jonathan Galassi, editor in chief of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Mr. Wolfe will also include an essay on the history of the piece and its repercussions.

Two years ago, Mr. Wolfe told The Observer why he had never put the piece (original title: “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!” and “Lost in the Whichy Thicket”) in a book: “I knew that if I did, the book would be reviewed solely for that–that would be the only thing anybody would notice.” He also said, “What I always wanted to do, and would do now if I thought the world had any interest, to do just a book on the piece and reprint the whole controversy. Salinger’s telegram, E.B. White’s telegram, Dwight Macdonald’s two pieces about it. It was a wild story, and no one could figure out why, why Shawn would get that excited about this piece which doesn’t condemn him or denigrate him except to say he’s mousy and tidy and runs a dull magazine.”

Renata Adler’s latest book, Gone , a memoir of The New Yorker , gives the Wolfe article another going over.

“I think it’s an important part of what Tom did as a journalist,” said Mr. Galassi. “And, you know, everybody else is weighing in about The New Yorker . This is the piece that started the whole thing, so it makes sense for it to be published. Don’t you think?”

Unlike other New Yorker -ana, Mr. Wolfe does not begin with the premise that the magazine had a heyday that it lost. He says it stunk to start with. Here’s a bit of “Tiny Mummies!” taken from the photocopied scraps of the article that have been circulating in this office for years: ” The New Yorker was never anything more than a rather slavish copy of Punch . Nevertheless, literati in America took to it like they were dying of thirst. The need was so great that The New Yorker was first praised and then practically canonized.”

After the Punch period under founding editor Harold Ross, Mr. Wolfe argues, a monkish feeling overtook the magazine under his successor, William Shawn.

“One went to work there, and one–how does one explain it?–began to get a kind of … religious feeling about the place. There were already a lot of … traditions ,” Mr. Wolfe wrote. “From the first, according to his old friends there, Shawn felt as if he were entering a priesthood. Hierophants! Tiny giants–all over the place–Shawn could look out of his cubicle, and there they were, those men out there padding along in the hall were James Thurber, Wolcott Gibbs and Robert Benchley themselves .”

When he heard about the story, Shawn tried to get it squashed. “This man was asking something very unreasonable,” said New York ‘s founding editor Clay Felker, “given that The New Yorker had printed any number of pieces that people didn’t want to run.”

Herald Tribune editor Jim Bellows went to the press. “He was calling the press editors at Time and Newsweek , telling them that Shawn was trying to kill our story,” Mr. Felker recalled.

Mr. Wolfe and New York were at the center of a national controversy. “It was the making of New York magazine, because up to that point, it was just a Sunday supplement,” Mr. Felker told Off the Record. Following the publication of “Tiny Mummies!” ads went from 15 pages per issue to 30, Mr. Felker said. The boost in both revenue and visibility allowed New York to become an independent magazine after the demise of the Herald Tribune in 1966.

Right now, “Tiny Mummies!” is not even on the Web. (Imagine!) The only place to read it has been library microfiche rooms. Even Mr. Galassi said he has yet to read the piece.

Nonetheless, many have said that “Tiny Mummies!” and its fallout is responsible for keeping Mr. Wolfe out of the New Yorker -dominated literary establishment. When John Updike declared Mr. Wolfe’s latest novel “entertainment, not literature” (in The New Yorker , no less!), when Mr. Wolfe was rejected for membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, when John Hersey decried New Journalism as an attack on the notion of fact itself, the curse of the “Tiny Mummies!” was invoked.

“The New Yorker people have never forgiven Tom,” Mr. Felker said.

In another essay planned for Hooking Up , titled “My Three Stooges,” Mr. Wolfe says he will lay into Mr. Updike, Norman Mailer and John Irving–three of his most rabid detractors.

Since Michael Caruso got sacked a year ago at Details , he has been hard at work on something for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. It’s called Maximum Golf , and it’s due to launch on May 16. Why on earth would he want to jump into a field of magazines that already includes Golf , Golf Digest , Golf World , Golf Illustrated , Travel & Leisure Golf , The Golfer , Golf for Women , Golf Tips and Senior Golfer ?

“All of the other golf magazines have a median age of 50 and up, and the sensibility is very much older,” said Mr. Caruso, an avid golfer himself. “Golf’s gone from being completely uncool to pretty damn cool, and there’s no magazine that even gets anywhere near it.”

Doesn’t the editor worry that he’ll run out of things to say about the sport? “Jeez, I hope not, that would be sort of depressing,” he said. “Golf is one of those things–it’s like crack. People get obsessed with it, addicted to it and can’t get enough of it.”

Maximum Golf has a planned rate base of 350,000. So far, Mr. Caruso has hired 16 editorial staff members–picking up people from Sports Illustrated , GQ , Us and Glamour , as well as some golf magazine editors along the way. The two co-executive editors working under Mr. Caruso are Joe Bargmann, who was features editor at Glamour , and Susan Pocharski, formerly the executive editor of Us .

Heads up, all you new Us Weekly employees: Jann Wenner likes his offices tidy. According to the those ensconced at Wenner Media, the boss can be a stickler about clutter on desks and floors and the stuff on the walls. “The only art that is allowed is Wenner art: photos or prints of photos that have appeared in the magazines,” said one Us staff member.

“At most places, it’s like you’re an editor, you’re an adult, you can take care of yourself,” said one slightly perturbed staff member, who added: “It is a very neat place–I will say that much.”

Tom Wolfe Disinters “Tiny Mummies!” After 35 Years