NEW YORK -- The editors of Spy ("The New York Monthly") are sitting around a corner table at a crummy deli on Prince Street (where one of them has actually ordered french fries with gravy), penciling in entries on a chart.
The project at hand, editor Kurt Andersen explains, is "a massive family tree purporting to show that all famous people are related to all other famous people," the centerpiece of an upcoming cover story on "the plague of hereditary stardom, this proliferation of Sheens." A writer has already rounded up the suspects, but the editors have nominees of their own.
"We should have a list of pathetic, failed ones," suggests Andersen. "Lorna Luft. Joey Travolta. Frank Stallone."
"Gary Lewis," adds E. Graydon Carter, Spy's cofounder. But he has a problem with one of the entries. "Chastity Bono doesn't do anything for a living."
"She has an act with Sonny," executive editor Susan Morrison assures him. "A stage act."
"I don't believe it," Carter gasps. Truth outpaces satire once again.
What about sports figures, wonders senior writer George Kalogerakis.
"Too meritocratic," Andersen argues. "It has to be in industries where you don't really have to have any talent."
Trying to fit all these people on a single sheet of paper, tracking their interconnections by blood and celluloid, is proving difficult. "We could have dotted lines for 'worked with,' solid lines for 'begat,' " Morrison proposes. She's jotting names at a fearful rate, Redgraves, Carradines, Debbie & Eddie, Cheech & Chong, Ozzie & Harriet, Artur Rubinstein, Vic Morrow.
Vic Morrow? Why, yes. Before his ghastly demise in that John Landis movie, he begat starlet Jennifer Jason Leigh, someone points out.
"And her mother!" Carter cries triumphantly (though this morsel will prove incorrect). "Her mother! Is Ryan O'Neal's ex-wife!"
One should not conclude from this that Spy is not a serious publication. Even though it's fairly young (having marked its first anniversary last month), rather small (circulation: about 50,000, almost 70 percent of it in New York, 6 percent in Washington) and not quite profitable yet, it's not afraid to take on the big issues.
Today, for instance, Spy will hold a press conference in Washington to announce the results of a bona fide national poll ascertaining -- among more prosaic items such as who's ahead in the presidential race -- which pol has committed the worst sins and whether any announced candidate in either party could draw more votes than Johnny Carson.
In the last few issues alone, Spy has:
Alerted readers to the imminent threat of Little Men (a compendium subheaded, "How the runty and the undersized have conspired to take over ..."), pointing to such examples as Ralph Lauren and H. Ross Perot but including an "asset-adjusted height" chart demonstrating that, placed atop their fortunes, guys like Mort Zuckerman and Laurence Tisch aren't so tiny after all.
Interviewed half a dozen theologians -- as a sidebar to an extensive Chappaquiddick retrospective -- on whether Sen. Edward Kennedy might go to hell ("a SPY Interfaith Symposium").
Concocted a mathematical formula that awarded up to 10 points for "inherent loathsomeness" and factored in Misdeeds and Mitigating Factors (i.e. George Bush's not being president) to establish the Spy 100 census of "the Most Annoying, Alarming and Appalling People, Places and Things in New York and the Nation." Ivan Boesky, Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump and Corporate Lying took the top spots; Amy Carter, Movie Colorization and Duchess Fergie barely made the cut.
Plumbed public records to report on celebrity voting frequency (Jimmy Breslin and Griffin Dunne, 100 percent; Rupert Murdoch and Sydney Biddle Barrows, 0 percent) and determined, through correspondence with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, that convicted inside-traders will not be permitted to wear their toupees in federal pens.
"Everything is serious here," E. Graydon Carter insists. "We make the same points that 10,000-word articles make. We just don't bore people to death."
Carter, 38, and Andersen, 33, are the Time Inc. alumni who -- bored themselves -- fantasized about the scandalous magazine stories they ought to be producing and then recruited a junior venture capitalist (publisher Tom Phillips Jr., 32) to raise the cash to actually produce them. Spy's tab to date has run $2.9 million, more than half of it invested by real estate scion Steven Schragis (called Spy's "publishing director," although, if he played a similar role at another institution, Spy would call him a sugar daddy).
Carter and Andersen are pretty nice guys in person, even though the latter used the word Weltanschauung in the course of an interview. In print, however, they're murderous.
Most journalists (Spy is factual, though thoroughly jaundiced) have to refer to Laurence Tisch as the chief executive of CBS. Spy readers know him (all perennial targets get these little sobriquets) as the "churlish dwarf billionaire." The magazine's Party Poop page calls socialites Blaine and Ivana Trump "overage debs from hell." The Wall Street Journal refers to Boesky as a former arbitrager; in Spy, he is a "ferret-eyed snitch."
"We aim for the lowest ... something unflattering and memorable," Carter says jovially.
Not everyone appreciates such snottiness. Spy can be adolescent and unfunny sometimes (as in "Busty Like Me," in which a flat-chested staffer spent several days in falsies and reported on her insights). It can burden a pleasantly bitchy idea with ponderous execution. Getting the jokes sometimes requires more familiarity with Manhattan's climbers and in-spots than sensible people might wish to acquire. Other times it's the target that causes the discomfort: Carter reports unhappy mumbling from Washington over its recent "Kennedy Bashing" cover, presumably in quarters where giggles had reigned over Spy's persistent Reagan-bashing.
But then, Spy prides itself on being an equal-opportunity destroyer, on practicing "not fair-mindedness, exactly," Andersen says, "but a sort of nonpartisanship about where the artillery is pointed."
And on having some limits. "There is a moral and philosophical backbone," insists Carter. "Anyone we pick on is bigger than us. We don't champion the underdog, but our enemy is the overdog, the fattened grandees that make up New York life."
Among those grandees is The New York Times, subjected monthly to a pseudonymously and venomously written column about the marital and real estate concerns of its high command and the ignominious practices of their "bum-kissing toadies." Spy, needless to say, enjoys high circulation among Times staffers. "You always see people reading it in the restrooms," says a Times mole.
Actually, Spy is not quite as raffish as it would like to appear. Its fans aren't kids, for one thing: Readers' median age is 33, and their median annual income is a hefty $63,000. Its editors aren't such free spirits, either: All that outrageousness is subjected to heavy newsweekly-style editing by Andersen and/or Carter and to scrutiny by a lawyer and the Spy team of fact checkers. ("So if someone calls in and says, 'You said all these terrible things ... and you spelled Benihana wrong,' " explains fact-checker Rachel Urquhart, "at least you can say, 'No, I called Benihana.' ")
Spy is not above coziness with advertisers, running regular "advertorials" that are written by staffers and tout a brand of scotch. It's not above theft: A couple of its features and a chunk of its elegantly rude persona were swiped from the British fortnightly Private Eye.
Lately, Spy's not even beyond seriousness. The comparatively straightforward story in the current issue about author Leo Damore's long struggle to get his book about Chappaquiddick published is "a harbinger," Carter says. There will now be "a major piece of journalism in every single issue, a serious piece."
On the other hand. Having capped its first year of baying about Wall Street greed and Manhattan's wretched social excess by causing the stock market crash (an explanation even the savviest analysts have so far overlooked), Spy is now free to turn its attention to -- The Campaign. Papers are being filed even now with the Federal Election Commission to establish the magazine's very own political action committee. SPYPAC will specialize in "highly ceremonial giving of money and noisy announcements about it at critical moments throughout 1988," Andersen promises. He can barely wait.
Of course, even if Spy manages to turn profitable by June, as its publisher predicts (an assertion inviting some skeptical fact-checking in itself), it will not have wads of extra cash. SPYPAC may have to content itself with 50-buck donations.
"It doesn't matter," Andersen says. No contribution is too small "as long as you can humiliate the recipient.