It was a couple of decades ago that James Baldwin's angry "Letter" from black America--a document best known as "The Fire Next Time," its subsequent title as a book--was published in the pages of The New Yorker. As more than one observer noted at the time, the irony of the juxtaposition was considerable: The thin columns of Baldwin's impassioned prose about the victims of discrimination snaked between lavish advertisements for the perfumes, jewelry and limousines favored by the affluent few.
But that incongruity, though powerful and revealing, was small potatoes by comparison with the contrast between editorial text and advertising copy that is now presented in the Conde' Nast revival of Vanity Fair. The articles and illustrations assembled by the magazine's editors in its inaugural issue reveal a strong commitment to culture, both high and popular, and a political-social viewpoint that gives every evidence of being distinctly left of center; but its advertisements reveal only a strong commitment to stroking a readership that is wealthy, self-indulgent and self-infatuated.
Consider, first, its editorial content. The centerpiece around which the issue is constructed is the full text of the new novella by Gabriel Garcia Ma'rquez, the Colombian writer noted for his ardent advocacy of social justice and his contempt for the ruling classes. Robert Stone sympathetically reviews Joan Didion's new book, "Salvador," an indictment of that country's regime of terror; Kai Erickson is similarly enthusiastic about Peter Matthiessen's "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse," an attack on America's mistreatment of its native Indian population. Richard Avedon has a portfolio of empathetic photographs of weather-beaten western coal miners. And John Leonard has an essay that concludes with a pointed and disdainful reference to those private clubs "where the ruling class, mostly male and mostly pale, sits down to eat shame patties and internal contradictions, as if more of the same were a dandy idea of the future, as if the point of every decade were the same sleek me."
And then consider the advertisements. The longest portfolio in the magazine is not Richard Avedon's but Ralph Lauren's. Prefaced by a pinkish page that declares, in lacy script, that "Ralph Lauren captures the essence of the American lifestyle," it consists of 11 full pages of misty photographs of the tastefully idle; the beautiful young men and women and their even more beautiful children are lounging about a beach, unobtrusively flaunting their Polo casual clothing that "only gets better and more traditional with age." So much for the coal miners.
But by contrast with other advertisements in Vanity Fair, Lauren's is positively subdued. There is, for example, the solicitation on behalf of the United States Trust Co. of New York. Its chairman, one Daniel P. Davison, is shown on "the central staircase, in the newly restored landmark building that is our Private Banking office," and in large type is quoted as saying: "Odd as it seems, the 'underprivileged customers' at most big banks these days are those individuals with the biggest accounts. They are asked to fit themselves to the bank's impersonal services. Instead of the right way around."
Having availed themselves of U.S. Trust's "instant $250,000 credit line for those who qualify," Vanity Fair's readers may now turn their attention to the offerings of its other advertisers--with the important caveat that $250,000 most likely will be insufficient for all but a sampling of the pleasures that those offerings promise. These advertisements provide a devastating portrait of that slice of upper-crust American life described, in an ad for Fortune magazine appearing in a number of publications these days, as "the fast-track people." To wit:
* Rich is superior. The Beverly Wilshire Hotel is "For those who appreciate the difference." Remy Martin cognac is for "The privileged few" and Cointreau liqueur is "The tasteful indulgence." Godiva Chocolates are "Well-bred": "Not everyone can appreciate the rare and delicate taste of Godiva . . . How appropriate that Godiva Chocolates are craved by only the most cultured palates. They're the elite treat."
* Rich is pampered. One goes to the Montauk Yacht Club & Inn "for the joys of civilized excess." At Boris leBeau, "Extravagance is its own reward." Omega watches are for "When you can have whatever you want." The Plaza at West Palm Beach offers a concierge, maid and food service, "And, oh . . . the elegance of the private clubs, spoiling residents with everything from Quotron to projection television to billiards."
* Rich rewards its own virtue. Once you "arrive at the top," you will be ready for your Baume & Mercier wristwatch: "When you, too, are ready for a timepiece of indisputable elegance your choice will be obvious." Garbed in her "deco lilac matte jersey" by Jonathan Hitchcock for Reuben Thomas, from The Designer Boutique at Bonwit Teller, milady is ready for "PURE THEATRE. You've waited for an entrance like this. And the world is your audience."
* Rich is disdainful--and scared--of the rest of the world. At Seabrook Island in South Carolina, "You can while away the hours on 3 1/2 miles of private ocean beach." At "The Private World of Sailfish Point" in Florida, you can enjoy a "sea-walled marina, private and secure," a "private, par 72 golf course" and a "private, handsomely appointed golf clubhouse." At Sea Oaks in Florida, which sets "a new standard of excellence," a "vast expanse of lush, natural woods provide [sic] total privacy for the 125-acre grounds."
As the aforementioned Fortune ad puts it, "The nice thing is, you don't have to hide your ambition anymore. 'If you've got it, go get it.' That's what society is telling you these days." As Jeff Greenfield commented last week on CBS, it's an attitude that trumpets, in so many words: I'm rich, and proud of it. Or, in the words emblazoned on a necktie peddled by one of the mail-order catalogues catering to the fortunate few: "DAMN I'M GOOD."
It's the self-absorption of the Me Decade wedded to the instant opulence of the High-Tech fast track. With a vulgarity that recalls Newport, R.I., at the end of the last century, it's wealth--wealth that is often accidental and/or unearned--that flaunts itself. There's no noblesse oblige to be found in the advertising columns of Vanity Fair or, for that matter, The New Yorker, where last week the BMW 733i was described as follows: "It doesn't scream wealth. It just quietly rewards insight," where Le Grand Hotel Rome promoted its own "Self-assured beauty" and where a Caribbean island offered "everything that large resorts have . . . except the crowds." In the fast track, one's only obligation is to oneself.
There's nothing new about this. The rich have always regarded themselves as uniquely gifted, virtuous and deserving, and have treated themselves accordingly. But not since the 1920s have the American rich been so ostentatious about their lack of ostentation, so smug in their mutual self-congratulation, so indifferent to the society upon which they feed. In Vanity Fair, whatever its editorial strengths and weaknesses, it's the medium itself that sends the real message; that message comes through loud, clear and contemptible.