Thursday, October 19, 2006

Kurt Andersen & Co. -- Spy Magazine

Kurt Andersen is from Nebraska. He attended Harvard University, where he was an editor of the Harvard Lampoon. In my mind, this combination means something, although I am still struggling to complete the picture. Johnny Carson was from Nebraska. I always thought that was important.

Back in 1980, Andersen wrote a book called The Real Thing. It's a smart-aleck book, a know-it-all book. He names a category, for instance, Breakfast Cereals, and then tells which is "The Real Thing" of breakfast cereals, the one that most fully exhibits the quintessential qualities of Breakfast Cereal (the answer is: Kellogg's Corn Flakes). Here's a footnote from that chapter: "*Mr. Graham, of cracker fame, was also a fin de si├Ęcle resident of Battle Creek and health-food fanatic. Battle Creek was to cereal what Paris, at the same moment, was to modern art. They get Cezanne, we get Sugar Smacks." But quoting out of context doesn't do Andersen justice. His wonderfully even tone is sustained throughout: he is just on the edge of insufferable but delightfully balances there and never goes over. His photo on the back of the book shows an unsmiling prepster posing, I was certain at the time, outside Boston's Quincy Market. He seemed very familiar and I loved the book, so I sat down and wrote him a letter.

A few weeks later, I received a letter from him. He said he was impressed to get mail from Key West. He said, "Yours was the first appreciative correspondence I received, and it warms me still." And at the end of the letter, he said (apparently in answer to a question I had asked, though I don't remember anything about the letter I wrote) "...And yes, I am writing fiction."

Well, we both went on with our lives, but that book and his letter have traveled with me through all my domiciles and lifestyle changes. I waited 20 years for the promised novel; it was finally published in 1999: Turn of the Century. Bought it. Read it. Not a bad book, nicely futuristic in a moderate way.

One of the projects Andersen did while he was not writing the novel was Spy magazine; his partner in the venture was Graydon Carter, whom I know from Vanity Fair. And now they've written a book about the experience of creating Spy. I started reading the book last night and just got sucked into it and almost never came up for air. It's a fun read--that is, as long as I can forget how irritating these people seem--they are all so clever and so superior; the world exists so they can mock it. But they are, in fact, extremely intelligent and most of their targets are pretty much fair game. The first article that is reproduced in the book is called "Too Thin AND Too Rich" and features hideous photos of skinny socialites and celebrities. What's not to like.

Here's the punchline that I've been making you wait so long for: on page 28, the book discusses how they put together the staff of the magazine. "There were freelance copy editors, headed up by the peerless Joanne Gruber, who got her job by sending a fan letter to Kurt several years earlier, and whose career at Spy would outlast everyone else's; within a year she was managing editor and even before that was the unofficial moral compass of the magazine."

So THAT'S who has been living my REAL LIFE all these years. Joanne Gruber. I won't forget that name.

Seriously, I would have to have more than one life in order to spend one in New York. But publishing...that would be a career I would enjoy. Hey, here I am on the internet--now in the 21st Century, everybody is a publisher, everyone is an author, and unfortunately, I have only myself to look to for copy editing.

This has been a supremely self-indulgent post and I hereby dedicate it to Mr. Kurt Andersen and all his fabulous friends.


yellojkt said...

I was a huge fan of Spy. I have got to read that book.

Joanne Gruber said...

Dear Read/Think/Live,
If only I knew what it was, I'd never forget YOUR name, either--I've never been the object of envy-tinged reverie (or any other kind) on the Internet before! But please note that not ALL of us are what most folks would call fabulous: most nights find me at home with the remote in one hand and a forkful of Lean Cuisine in the other, and I've been wearing the same cloth coat for more than a decade. And yet, as one of your favorite singers would say, je ne regret rien (but don't let that last mislead you--like one of your favorite movie characters, Linus Larrabee, I don't speak a word of French).