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 Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Martin Ru­bin Martin Ru­bin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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.

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