SOME TIMES IN AMERICA

And a Life in a Year at the New Yorker

By Alexander Chancellor

Carroll & Graf. 309 pp. $25

By Jonathan Yardley, whose e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.

Alexander Chancellor in certain particulars is an entirely familiar type, or stereotype: a vagabond British journalist who has touched down in any number of places--Reuters, the Spectator, the Independent, the New Yorker, the Times (of London, of course) and now the Guardian--without managing to establish a permanent footing in any of them. His prose is smooth and sly, his wit is quick and (when appropriate) self-deprecatory, and his appetite for whiskey and tobacco is prodigious. We have seen his likes many times on this side of the Atlantic, and one thing is certain: We shall see it again.

Now in his early sixties, Chancellor had only scant acquaintance with the United States until the 1980s (when the Independent sent him to Washington for a time), but from boyhood he was fascinated by it. He saw America "as a land of courageous individualists doing whatever they wanted to do, while we in Britain seemed to do mainly as we were told"; and as he grew older "America came to seem increasingly glamorous and seductive, if a little frightening in its immensity."

So when the Independent offered to send him to America in 1986, he leaped at the chance. His stay in Washington "began in an attic room of the Tabard Inn"--an establishment he deftly characterizes as "the sort of place favored by Englishmen who prefer 'character' to room service and by Americans who want to assert their individuality"--but he soon found the city "a much nicer place than it is generally reputed to be," largely because he worked his way into the society of Evangeline Bruce, Joseph Alsop and others of that ilk. He made himself comfortable in the salons of Georgetown, as agreeably dyspeptic Englishmen are wont to do, and enjoyed the "cozy, old-fashioned Southern city" he found there.

But it was in the summer of 1992 that his great American adventure began. He was summoned to New York by his countrywoman Tina Brown, who had just assumed the editorship of the New Yorker; she invited him to preside over its celebrated "Talk of the Town" columns. He accepted, despite wholly legitimate qualms about the competence of an Englishman to edit the quintessentially New Yorky column, because "I wanted an adventure of some kind," because "I was badly overdrawn at the bank and welcomed the money that Tina was offering me" and because "I loved what I knew of New York and wanted to get to know it better."

Chancellor's view of Brown and her editorship of the magazine is decidedly mixed; with her as with others, he tosses bouquets one moment and brickbats the next, which is as disconcerting for the reader as it surely must be for the objects of his attention and which suggests that turning one's back on him would be rash. The following paragraph is a case in point:

"Although, at nearly 40, Tina had changed a lot from when she was young, she was still very attractive, even as a short-haired, square-shouldered, slimmed-down New York executive. She also hadn't lost the ability to arouse a man's protective instincts. But sometimes I wondered if she wasn't a little paranoid. She seemed to fear that the people around her were conspiring to make her fail in her great task--some even by the cunning device of writing bad articles. She was convinced that half New York was out to get her, and perhaps she was right."

Though Chancellor gives Brown credit for shaking the New Yorker up, bringing it to new readers and doing genuine, if irregular and conditional, kindnesses to some who worked for her, his ultimate judgment must be read as negative: She knew the New York media hotshots and celebrities but was utterly ignorant of America, she inculcated in the magazine "a bias towards British themes," and she ran up huge losses. These are views that many American readers have held for some time, but they carry a bit of added force coming from a fellow Brit who has known her for a long time and claims, at least, to like her.

One thing is certain, though: Brown is a fetching trophy in the case Chancellor so proudly displays. Though he claims from time to time to be catholic in his friendships and connections, what his own book says is that he is a world-class name-dropper. On one page alone (Page 307, if you're interested) he manages to drop the names of Saul Steinberg, Brown, Graydon and Cynthia Carter, Julia Reed, Peter and Eleanor Pringle, Michael Kinsley, Grisha and Beatrice von Rezzori, Drue Heinz, Isabella Rossellini, Chip McGrath, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Alison Rose, Lynn Wagenknecht, Christopher Hitchens, Hendrick Hertzberg, Sara Mosle and Brendan Gill. One can only hope, for his sake and his publisher's, that they and all the other dropees buy copies of the book, for it is hard to imagine that many others will.