It's National De'ja Vu Month at the newsstands.
After $10 million and 18 months of promotional St. Vitus' dance, Conde' Nast's revival of Vanity Fair, the modish monthly last seen in 1936, finally hits the racks today. At $3 for 290 hefty pages, it's guaranteed to reduce all but the most impregnable coffee tables to rubble--while also spraining the brains of readers with its maddening layout, editorial anomie and general identity crisis.
Even VF's stupendously vague mandate--"literature and the arts, politics and popular culture"--can barely explain the incoherent gumbo of contents. Calvin Trillin's wandering jeux adjoin sole staff writer John Leonard's prose nimbus on organic social harmony or something. Ronald Steel's fact-packed analysis of America's retreat from internationalism abuts Gore Vidal's trivial travel notes from Mongolia. The new novel by Gabriel Garci'a Ma'rquez elevates a small-town murder of revenge to mythic purport through sheer power of empathy; a micro-excerpt from Nora Ephron's forthcoming "Heartburn" reduces the pain of divorce to scrannel wit. ("My first husband was so neat he put hospital corners on the newspaper he lined the hamster cage with.")
VF promises that "visual material is as important as text," and no graphic expense has been spared. Big features boast photos by Annie Leibovitz and art by Philip Burke, Fernando Botero (for Garci'a Ma'rquez) and the inevitable Andy Warhol. A "gatefold" holds Richard Avedon's stark black-and-whites of coal miners. And strewn at random are a dozen "free-standing visual features"--a Lichtenstein, pix of V.S. Pritchett by Snowdon, Debra Winger by Leibovitz, John Huston by Irving Penn, etc.--sometimes with a little word-bouquet appended, sometimes with the caption squirreled away pages later.
Sound enticing? Well, strap on your Foster Grants: The result is a three-Bufferin retina-buster. The constant ricochet from style to style makes for painful discontinuity; those "free-standing" thingies keep obtruding into running stories, which jump away without mentioning where they're going; vast gray text-blocks alternate with acres of images. Worse yet, the impact of even the best art is lost when embedded in 168 eye-exhausting ad pages from haute monde chattelmeisters, odor-moguls and exotic boozeries. That picture of Winger in bed--is it an ad or a free-stander? That 12-page Ralph Lauren spread--photo essay or lustrous hucksterism?
The writing offers equal bafflements. First: Who is the intended audience? Audio erudites who will follow Martin Bernheimer and Walter Clemons on Wagner's "Ring" cycle? Or those benighted proles who have to be told, in a free-standing tribute, that Elizabeth Hardwick is "a New York intellectual of formidable credentials" whose "shrewd sidelong glance and skeptical smile can be as eloquent as her dangerous wit." (This kind of verbal blush-on pervades the captions.) Second: Did a native English speaker edit some of this stuff? And if so, who signed off on that delirium by art critic Peter Schjeldahl, with its quagmire semantics (the new avant-garde "had the feel of fire and ice, of emotional ferocity locked in gelid presentations, that seemed to come out of nowhere") and Mixmaster metaphors (Julian Schnabel "appears not to have an embarrassable bone in his body. This plus talent and timing made for one of the luckiest hands an ambitious artist was ever dealt. So through the breach made by Schnabel's broad shoulders has come the torrent"). Ruskin wept.
And finally, what--beyond the flaunting of bankable bylines--is the unique personality or unifying point here? VF's avowed aim is to yoke the "noisy mix of high and low cultures" in our daily existence to "capture the intensity, curiosity and sophistication of life today." Yet most pieces lack any sense of timeliness or urgency, and many are plainly gratuitous: Clement Greenberg on an admittedly second-rate Fra Angelico; Darryl Pinckney on the depiction of blacks in TV sitcoms; a sophomoric mock Renaissance painting of movie stars as Olympian deities.
A disappointing debut. But let's give the mightily pressured editors the benefit of a few more issues. And let's be grateful that Conde' Nast, for whatever mercenary motives, has added to the few national forums for our best writers instead of devising some kind of Glamour-clone. After all, It Could Be Worse
Consider March's other revival, the new/old Saturday Review, now a bimonthly. For 58 years, SR has been the Count Dracula of arts journals, periodically subsiding to oblivion before arising to suck the resources from yet another patron. Last fall, publishers Jeff and Debbie Gluck of Columbia, Mo., became the latest to take a stake in it.
Unhappily, this SR is the spiritual equivalent of 10 hours in your tire-dealer's waiting room. Cover subject Richard "The Wanderers" Price is questioned lethargically--and much too briefly--about his career and new novel, "The Breaks" ("I always felt I had a problem in that I was smarter than any of my characters"); but it's virtually encyclopedic compared to the stingy 1,000 words grudged to an interview with Jorge Luis Borges.And a drear lassitude even haunts the work of returning regulars Stanley Kauffmann, Judith Crist and editor emeritus Norman Cousins. Managing editor Bruce VanWyngarden, with premature sanctimony, proclaims that "we'll be less concerned with what is 'hot,' and more interested in what will endure. We'll leave the newest 'mega-exhibit' and the latest cultural 'cover boys' to the other media." Then what about that long piece on the long-gone El Greco show, and the thumbsucker on PBS' Wagner orgy? And the next issue promises a gab with cultural cover-boy Garrison "Prairie Home Companion" Keillor and these "enduring" topics: "up-and-coming off-Broadway composers, a look at artists' colonies" and--be still my heart!--"a survey of the summer music festivals." The cartoons, by the way, are terrific.
Although not nearly as funny as Esquire. Flip to page 48 for the most humiliating snafu in recent memory: The huge headline on Chris Welles' intriguing survey of cognitive research, "Teaching the Brain New Tricks," faces a full-page, full-color soft-porn ad of a languid stud wearing nothing but Calvin Klein underwear.
But The Case of the Upscale Skivvies proves less mortifying than the two new features in this issue. Truman Capote squanders his talent on a viciously bitchy gossip collage reportedly rejected at Vanity Fair: a tour of Greta Garbo's home furnishings; a 30-year-old story featuring Noel Coward singing in the nude; snipes at Meryl Streep's nose ("reminds you of an anteater"), Pia Zadora's "mouselike eyes and fat cheeks" and the late Tennessee Williams. You read it with the same horrified fascination that makes you gawk at a bad car wreck. Ditto for the new section on the technological revolution. "We plan to become," honks editor Phillip Moffitt, "the clearing-house for the New America of the Eighties." Hot trends sighted: Stewart "Whole Earth" Brand's latest pratings, the joy of organic cashew butter and a mail-order meditation course! Where the Action Is
Harper's. Especially Andrew Cockburn on the Soviet Army (depicted as underpaid at $6.50 a month, chronically larcenous, grossly demoralized and frequently drunk on shoe polish, eau de cologne, antifreeze, brake fluid and alcohol pilfered from MiG-25s, "popularly known as 'The Flying Restaurant' "), Robert Kaus' scathing account of the "ominous" Lillian Hellman/Mary McCarthy libel tiff and the ever-eloquent Hugh Kenner on "the brainteaser boom."
* Scientific American on: 1) The future of the universe. If it's infinitely expandable, look for stellar burnout and "galactic evaporation" in a few zillion years; if it turns out to be finite, get ready for the "big crunch"--flip side of the Big Bang--in which supermassive black holes swallow everything. Otherwise, continued cool through tonight and partly cloudy tomorrow. 2) The amazing memory of birds. A nutcracker will bury as many as 33,000 seeds a year and retrieve enough to get through winter. (And you can't find your car keys.) 3) The--urp--grisly art of the autopsy, now performed in only 15 percent of U.S. deaths despite the fact that "even with the many recent advances in medicine the major diagnosis turns out to have been wrong in as many as 40 percent of the people autopsied." As a result, our "health statistics dealing with the causes of death are not useful."
* Psychology Today. Thirty minutes after announcing the Japanese surrender, Harry Truman called his mom for a nice chat. Douglas MacArthur's mother Pinky not only followed him to West Point--she stayed there all four years, watching over him from a nearby rooming house. And FDR, LBJ and Frank Lloyd Wright too were "Mama's boys," says biographer David McCullough, and may have owed their success to "maternal adoration" and "sense of mission." Among the exhibits, this poem from Pinky to the future general: "Like mother, like son, is saying so true/ The world will judge largely of mother by you./Be this then your task, if task it shall be/To force this proud world to do homage to me." The all-engulfing Ma! What do you get her for Mother's Day--Japan?
* Which reminds us: Hitachi has finally pleaded guilty in the IBM stolen-secrets case. And now the March 7 Fortune reveals how IBM learned of the planned filch and "to teach Hitachi a stinging, humiliating lesson" teamed up with the FBI to catch the Japanese firm in a "superbly executed" Abscam-like operation. Is Hitachi humiliated? Nope. They got a puny fine, a sympathy backlash at home and a "heartening triumph" here recently when our own Social Security Administration "bought two Hitachi-manufactured computers for $7 million, instead of a more expensive IBM system." Ah so!
* Can this economy be saved? Harvard biz-pundit Robert Reich in The Atlantic says yes. Forget deficits, oil prices, federal regulation--the whole Chamber of Commerce crying-towel litany. Reich's answer is to shift our bureaucracy-bloated corporations away from antiquated semi-skilled mass production (heck, the Taiwanese do it better) and merger mania ("paper entrepreneurs produce nothing of tangible use"), into team-oriented "flexible systems" exploiting our advantages in rapid innovation and highly skilled labor. But how's your average Joe Mudflap supposed to fit into one of those high-tech brainpools? Can he be retooled? For that and other agonies of industrial policy, see National Journal's behemoth stat-stuffed overview of the recession.
* Newsweek's special 50th-anniversary issue, "The American Dream," is a genuine soul-hoisting joy. This history of the past half-century as embodied in the lives of five Springfield, Ohio, families with a fierce determination to succeed--and indomitable courage in failure--may at first look like nostalgic cornpone to young urban cynics. But anyone who can finish it without multiple throat lumpages and a rekindled, ferocious pride in the American character oughta go line up for a Libyan passport.
* Also: Science 83's superbly detailed discussions of AIDS and the role of prostaglandins; National Geographic's astonishing wildlife photos shot by Des and Jen Bartlett during years in Namibia; Omni on the chemical origins of personality; Smithsonian on the comic history of eyeglasses; and Discover on scientists' controversial plan to hunt for intelligent life in outer space. (No point in looking at the Social Security Administration!) Read 'Em and Weep
Who brings home the mega-bacon in pro sports? Of the top 108, 70 play baseball and 19 basketball, nine box, three play tennis and two football, according to Sport magazine. Aside from Magic Johnson and Mitch Kupchak (whose uber-swag is still to come), the heaviest hoopster is Moses Malone ($1.6 M); in baseball, Mike Schmidt of the Phillies ($1.6 M); football, the Browns' Tom Cousineau ($667K); and hockey, Marcel Dionne of L.A. ($450K). This story's got more zeros than the attack on Pearl Harbor . . . For the rest of us, Money's special feature on Baby Boom Gloom cites a congressional prediction that America's 74 million BBs (19 to 37) "may never achieve the relative economic success of the generations preceding or following it." One reason: A boy born today to a couple making $50,000 a year will cost them some $278,399 before the kid is 18. Girls tap the till for $17,000 extra. Batteries not included. Quotes to Note
Political pulse-poker Patrick Caddell on women: "I'm fascinated by them. They're more whole, I think. More in touch with life." He wants one to concoct "some elaborate plan to meet me . . . without ever showing her hand." Why? "Basically, I'm very shy. Pathologically shy." Reprinted from "The American Bachelors Register" as Harper's "Dunce of the Month" winner.
"How do stars happen? Invariably, by mistake," says screenwriter William Goldman, wittily dissecting the idol cult in American Film. "If Marlon Brando or Steve McQueen or Warren Beatty had said yes to the part of the Sundance Kid, Robert Redford might well have remained what one studio executive told me he was when talk of hiring him first came up: 'He's just another California blond--throw a stick at Malibu, you'll hit six of them.' " Overachievers I
The George Plimpton Award for Conspicuous Self-Promotion goes to literary voyeur Frederic Prokosch who scores two excerpts from his memoir in one month. In Harper's, he recalls a party at which Edmund Wilson dropped a mayonnaise-slathered shrimp on Edith Sitwell's head. In House & Garden he remembers Thomas Wolfe's failure with chopsticks (rice "exploded from the plate and shot through the air like confetti") and luncheon talk ("There's plenty wrong with Whitman and I guess he was a pansy but when it came to a crisis he had the true virility. Not the Hemingway virility. I mean the real virility").
And the Golden Question Mark for Mastery of the Tabloid Subjunctive: ("Adolf & Benito--Together Again?"; "Can Okra Cure Cancer?") to Rolling Stone for its article, "Did Lee Harvey Oswald Drop Acid?" RS' answer: Hey, c'mon, anything's possible! Passages
Psychology Today has a new superego. Last Tuesday Ziff sold the financially anemic monthly to the American Psychological Association in Washington. The APA, with 17 big-dome journals, "has had its sights on a magazine for the general public for seven or eight years," says spokesman Don Kent. Pop mags can mean real status to sci-clans; and a few years ago APA mocked-up one of its own but finally nixed the project. So last fall, when the APA learned that PT might be on the block, it pounced. Although Ziff-Davis had brought back founding editor Nicholas Charney to redesign the book, it still finished the year with a 26.5 percent drop in ad revenues. "We expect it to make money," says Kent. Official line: No editorial shuffles, format changes or moves are contemplated. Backstairs betting: PT purges staff, heads south.
In three weeks you'll see the premiere issue of Sportstyle, a new 100-page, $2.50 monthly for "active lifestyle" jocksters ("to you, sweat is beautiful," the mailing alleges impertinently) from the Fairchild Publications empire. It'll be big on equipment, clothes encounters and ever more rococo ways to bust your gizzard . . . Rumors persist that Time Inc., set to launch its $100-million TV-Cable Week next month, is planning a working women's magazine . . . Coming soon: a redesign of Essence for its 13th birthday this spring; one more mag on the IBM personal computer, PC: The Technical Journal, from Ziff-Davis in May; the possible return of Inside Sports this summer thanks to Sport Media; and a new half-page of culture/leisure coverage in The Wall Street Journal this fall. Pops Take a Licking
Savvy says that girls raised by mothers alone become more independent than daughters of traditional binary pairs: Because there is only one role model, "a father's absence makes the girl grow stronger." And Parents warns that adding a "Jr." to your nipper's name can retard his development by boosting anxiety over paternal shoe-filling. Moreover, unusual names "can make life very difficult": The afflicted tend to score a full grade lower in school; in Chicago they commit four times as many crimes as their normal-named counterparts; and they are generally less popular with peers. Want extra protection? Here's the top of the most-popular list: For girls, Jennifer, Ann and Jessica; for boys, Michael, Jason and Matthew. (Jennifer? Jason? Sounds like roll call at Waspwood Prep! Somebody turn up the heat on the melting pot.) Overachievers II
And the P.T. Barnum Bait-and-Switch Trophy to Esquire for its excerpt from a new book on mass-murderer Ted Bundy. The steam-heated prose of the opening boasts that Bundy will reveal "the history of a depravity off the scale of human understanding . . . offering unprecedented access to the inner workings of a mass killer's mind." But hundreds of words later, the authors concede that Bundy "was to offer no confession, no rationale," and that they never arrived "at a core truth."
One herd of scapegoats and a sour-grape sorbet to Shana Alexander, who argues in Life that noted killer Jean Harris' real problem was a deficient defense. "The eight days Harris occupied the witness box were fatally damaging to her case. Inadequately prepared and rehearsed, she appeared scornful, spiteful, hypocritical, often foolish and an unrepentant snob." For this, Alexander blames the attorney! And Finally
Yankee Ingenuity At Work. Science 83 reports that one Horace Knowles of our town has patented a thumb-twiddling machine: "a plastic device with two holes for the thumbs, a crankshaft and an electronic counter to keep track of revolutions" (eat crow, Hitachi!) which can "improve the pleasure of thumb-twiddling for even those highly skilled in the art." We hear they're field-testing them at the EPA.