Tracing Vanity Fair’s literary and journalistic footprint
VANITY FAIR’S WRITERS ON WRITERS Edited by Graydon Carter Penguin Paperback Original, $20, 424 pages
The magazine Vanity Fair has had more than one incarnation. Founded as a rather classy publication in 1914, it lasted until the Depression killed it off in 1936. Along the way, publishing some of the most distinguished writers of its day, from Noel Coward to D.H. Lawrence and from humor to reportage. Some of the best in the latter category by John Gunther in the 1930s formed the core of his groundbreaking “Inside Europe,” which led to his series of inside looks at all the continents except Antarctica.
Resurrected in 1983, “its founders — Conde Nast chairman S.I. Newhouse, Jr., and editorial director Alexander Liberman — set a high bar for serious prose,” writes current Vanity Fair editor David Friend in his compact, but remarkably informative “Introduction: Ink in Our Veins.” He goes on to add tactfully, “Graydon Carter arrived as Vanity Fair’s editor in 1992, intent on broadening the magazine’s literary and journalistic footprint.”
Did he ever. And this collection is redolent of Vanity Fair’s latest incarnation, which has loomed so large, for better or worse, in our culture for the past quarter-century. Yes, attention is paid to serious authors and to their biographies, but its fame — or notoriety, depending on your viewpoint — rests on its twin pillars of showcasing a series of interconnected literary coteries and great dollops of gossip. Indeed, the patina of gossip, which so many readers buy the magazine to gobble up with such relish, seems to lie over this much of this engaging collection drawn from its pages.
There are occasional looks at the past, most notably when Christopher Hitchens, one of the brightest lights in Graydon Carter’s Vanity Fair, celebrates Dorothy Parker, who sparkled in its first go-round:
“People revere and remember Mrs. Parker’s work to this day, for its epigrams and multiple entendres and for its terse, brittle approach to the long littleness of life. There’s a tendency to forget, though, that the ‘edge’ and the acuity came from an acidulated approach to stupidity and bigotry and cruelty.”
An absolutely spot-on homage and analysis from one master recognizing another. And he goes on to expand on his point with a serious discussion of her complex relationship to her Jewishness and her passionate support for civil rights, which led her to make the NAACP the beneficiary of her estate. But even here, 1999’s Vanity Fair being what it is, he inserts an anecdote about Jessica Mitford, which is supposed to parallel Mrs. Parker, but seems more like a piece of self-indulgent namedropping, the magazine’s (raw) meat and drink, if not its hallmark.
Hitchens, along with such contemporaries as Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis, are not so much part of the publication’s coterie as its heart. So there’s some all-too-predictable circular backscratching and worshipping at the altar of their literary gods. Still, it is a pleasant surprise that Martin Amis’ piece on his ne plus ultra Saul Bellow is not just another repetitive encomium, but rather a serious, if brief, look at Zachary Leader’s excellent critical biography and through it at the subject himself. But the piece by longtime Vanity Fair mainstay Dominick Dunne about his brother John Gregory Dunne, followed by one on Dominick by the one-time assistant to his editor and current digital director of the magazine seem, a bit too cozy, nay hothouse, for comfort.
Unlike Dominick Dunne’s gossip, drawn straight from the headlines and informed by a lot of peripheral insider tales, Laura Z. Hobson’s equally gossipy 1983 “Bosom Buddies,” a noholds-barred memoir of her encounters with Henry and Clare Boothe Luce, seems to have deepened with age. Compared to Dominick Dunne’s Beaujolais Nouveau, it has the complexity of a fine vintage wine.
But the real jewels sparkling in “’Vanity Fair’s Writers on Writers” are the unexpected finds. Like biographer A. Scott Berg’s vivid 2011 account of his trip to Cuba and his struggle with Communist bureaucracy in an ultimately successful search for a treasure trove of Hemingway papers and artefacts.
Or detailed looks at two bestselling authors, Grace Metalious and Jacqueline Susann, who have generally received short shrift from critics. Sure, they also provide a golden opportunity to dish the dirt both about the subjects themselves and what was fodder for their oeuvres, but it is rare to find such serious and understanding accounts about writers of this ilk. Metalious was almost literally consumed by her meteoric notoriety and squandered wealth, as was her continuing career. Susann’s absolute determination to achieve hers by any means was rendered tragic by cancer, which dogged her all too-few years in the long-sought limelight she so relished.
At the end of his introduction, Mr. Friend tells us: “It’s a great life, the writer’s life. So, too, the life of the reader. Please have at it.”
Good advice, for there is a lot here to please readers with diverse tastes, as long as they are selective.