An excerpt from ‘The Vanity Fair Diaries’

Sunday, April 10, 1983

I am here in NYC at last, brimming with fear and insecurity. Getting in late last night on British Airways, I suddenly felt the enormousness of New York City, the noise of it, the speed of it, the lonely obliviousness of so many people trying to get ahead. My London bravado began to evaporate. I wished I was with Harry, who I knew would be sitting at his computer in front of his study window, in Kent, furiously pounding away about Rupert Murdoch.

I am staying at the Royalton Hotel on West Forty-Fourth Street, opposite the Algonquin Hotel. It’s a bit of a fleapit but in walking distance to the Condé Nast HQ at 350 Madison Avenue. The man at the desk seemed half-asleep when I checked in and there was no one around to haul my bag to the elevator. All the way in from JFK in the taxi, a phone-in show was blaring a woman with a rasping German accent talking in excruciating detail about blow jobs. The instructions crackling from the radio to “tek it in the mouth und move it slowly, slowly up und down” got so oppressive I asked the cabdriver what the hell he was listening to. He said it was a sex therapist called Dr. Ruth who apparently gives advice on the radio and has an enormous following.

As soon as I woke up I rushed to the newsstand on the corner to look for the April issue of Vanity Fair. The second edition is even more baffling than the first one I saw in London in February.

 In April 1983 when the entries begin, I was professionally listless after four years as a successful magazine editor in London.

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Sunday, April 10, 1983

I am here in NYC at last, brimming with fear and insecurity. Getting in late last night on British Airways, I suddenly felt the enormousness of New York City, the noise of it, the speed of it, the lonely obliviousness

of so many people trying to get ahead. My London bravado began to evaporate. I wished I was with Harry, who I knew would be sitting at his computer in front of his study window, in Kent, furiously pounding away about Rupert Murdoch.

I am staying at the Royalton Hotel on West Forty-Fourth Street, opposite the Algonquin Hotel. It’s a bit of a fleapit but in walking distance to the Condé Nast HQ at 350 Madison Avenue. The man at the desk seemed half-asleep when I checked in and there was no one around to haul my bag to the elevator. All the way in from JFK in the taxi, a phone-in show was blaring a woman with a rasping German accent talking in excruciating detail about blow jobs. The instructions crackling from the radio to “tek it in the mouth und move it slowly, slowly up und down” got so oppressive I asked the cabdriver what the hell he was listening to. He said it was a sex therapist called Dr. Ruth who apparently gives advice on the radio and has an enormous following.

As soon as I woke up I rushed to the newsstand on the corner to look for the April issue of Vanity Fair. The second edition is even more baffling than the first one I saw in London in February. The cover is some incomprehensible multicolored tin-man graphic with no cover lines that will surely tank on the newsstand. Some stunning photographs—they can afford Irving Penn and Reinhart Wolf, which made me pine with envy, and they don’t disappoint—but the display copy is nonexistent, so it’s not clear why they are there. There’s a brainy but boring Helen Vendler essay next to an Amy Clampitt poem, a piece headed (seriously) “What’s Wrong with Modern Conducting?” and a gassy run of pages from V. S. Naipaul’s autobiography. All this would be fine in the Times Literary Supplement, but when it’s on glossy paper with exploding, illegible graphics, it’s a migraine mag for God knows whom. Plus I learned today the Naipaul extract cost them seventy thousand dollars! That’s nearly a whole year’s budget at Tatler!

The question is, how long can Richard Locke survive as VF’s editor?

Leo Lerman, the old features legend at Vogue, heard I was in town and called me at the Royalton early this morning. He twittered on about last night’s screening, then asked me to think of a piece to write for Vogue, so that’s a relief. It means that leaving Tatler in the UK so abruptly hasn’t alienated the US Condé Nast powers as I feared.

 

Tuesday, April 12, 1983

What a strange place the Four Seasons restaurant is. I went there for my lunch with Alex Liberman. It’s at Fifty-Second and Park Avenue and supposed to be the big power spot. So antiseptic and colorless. Why do power people want to go there? The booths are widely spaced, which I suppose is nice as people can’t overhear each other. It was designed by the famous architect Philip Johnson but has no personality at all, except a big Hollywood fountain in the Grill Room next to where we ate.

Alex was already at the table when I arrived, looking urbane with a trim David Niven mustache and navy knitted silk tie. He was ultra-charming and clearly in courtship mode, which was exciting. I suppose not many people dive out of Condé Nast Publications unless they are fired, and he was clearly puzzled that I had wanted to leave Tatler so quickly after Condé Nast bought it. I didn’t want to say it was because the whole scrappy news tempo of Tat had been slowed down by Condé, that I hated Vogue House’s faux-gentility thing, with all those B-listers running around the publishing floor failing to sell ads. Still, when you are in NYC you realize how small the whole London operation really is. You feel the New York Condé Nast HQ is the big American machine firing on all cylinders. In London we always felt we were the center of the world, which feels silly from here. Still, fuck it. I remind myself that our little team at Tat was top class and we would never have put out anything as overblown and humorless as the vaunted issue of the new Vanity Fair with their engorged budget! I thought there would be more social fencing around with Liberman over lunch but he came right out with it. The first thing he said was “How do I pin you down? What do you want? We need you on Vanity Fair!” Weeks of speculation and there it was, if enigmatic. This was before the crab cocktail. I tried not to let him see my excitement.

Si Newhouse himself then unexpectedly showed up. He came bustling over from another booth. He was immediately disarming, looking at me with rueful happiness and saying, “I’m so glad to see you! I nearly called you at the Royalton but then I wondered what sort of reaction I’d get.” Amazing, given he owns it all.

I reeled back to the hotel and waited for Miles Chapman, who’s over here, too, from Tatler. I asked him to take me to a Town and Country gala at Sotheby’s for the oldster snapper Norman Parkinson. I was so wiped out that I wanted to go to bed but needed to show support for Parks, who shot so many great covers at Tat. I told Miles about what just happened and he was immediately wildly excited, planning his own move to New York if we pull it off. By the time we got out of the taxi we had already dreamed up a new Vanity Fair front-of-book section called the Smart Set, named after the 1920s mag that competed with VF in the old days.

At the dinner I was seated next to Town and Country’s famous editor Frank Zachary, whom I adored. He is something of a legend here, having once been the editor and art director of the fabulous 1950s mag Holiday, which specialized in all those glorious society escapism pictures by Slim Aarons. It was Zachary who brought Cartier-Bresson aboard. I love his squashed nose and old-fashioned Walter Matthau-ness and the way he hitches up his trousers: “Gad, Gad, is that really so? That’s terrible,” he says when you tell him something that interests him. “Tell me more.” I got him talking about working with the visual genius Alexey Brodovitch. He told me Brodovitch was destroyed when Carmel Snow died in 1961 and they wanted to make Bazaar commercial. I am so envious of those great magazine days.

Parkinson was a delight as always, tall as a guards officer with his dashing white mustache, capering around the floor with his favorite rich ladies, totally reinvented by the patronage of Zachary and Hearst Magazines, Condé’s biggest competitor, to whom he is passionately loyal. He jived and twisted with Gloria Vanderbilt and a succession of foreign countesses. Recklessly, I said to him, “I think Vanity Fair is after me.” He showed consternation. “Don’t expect me to follow you to Condé, darling,” he said. “Good luck.”

Also on the dance floor were Nancy Reagan’s viperish, portly walker Jerry Zipkin, plus Betsy Bloomingdale, her best friend from Bel Air who has the wind-tunnel look of a recent face-lift, and God help us, the Baron and Baroness di Portanova, with whom I made such satirical hay at Tatler, so I avoided them. Zachary mumbled with the enjoyment of the real social anthropologist, “This do is like some terrible double issue.”

 

Wednesday, April 13, 1983

Estée Lauder’s eldest son, Leonard, who runs the Lauder company and seems to be the real powerhouse at the business now, asked me to breakfast (a strange time to meet) at the Plaza’s Edwardian Room. I remember my first sight of Estée three years ago, when I went up to her office on the thirty-seventh floor of the General Motors Building to do a Tatler piece. She was so teeny-tiny, wearing a Givenchy print dress and matching royal-blue hat, but she really is a bit of a phenomenon. It takes a woman to invent miniature pressed perfumes you can put in your handbag at dinner. What will they do when she’s gone? Maybe Leonard is looking for a new “face.”

Still zonked from jet lag, I nearly overslept. It was ironic given how long I pursued anyone and everyone in the Lauder company to buy ads in Tatler that Estée’s son and president of the company (his wife, Evelyn, apparently is vice president, a real family affair) seems to now be chasing me. Leonard is a tall, suave suit of about fifty, with banjo-shaped eyes, enormously charming. I thought he was going to ask me to write Estée’s biography. (Such a great story of striving émigré hardship, but they would never let the true one be told.) Then I suddenly realized he was wooing me to join the Lauder company. He mentioned “heading up their British branch” or suggesting to them a company they might buy and I could run. “If, for example, Burberry were to be on sale, we’d be interested in that,” he said. I was incredulous. I am a journalist. I wouldn’t have a clue about how to run a chain of shops that specializes in raincoats. In America, success in one field seems to make people think you can do anything. Maybe I will be offered a job as a brain surgeon next.

Everyone comes at you with such velocity here. Now that Estée’s beloved husband and business guru, Joe Lauder, has died, I feel sorry for her. She’s the inventor of it all, but you can see the company repositioning for the future and easing her into the background. “If you are interested in working with us,” Leonard said, “we would get to know you, you would get to know us, and we could teach you about our corporate culture.” Corporate culture. That’s not a phrase I’ve heard before. I have to admit, I love the feeling of being at the heart of the media and money capital of the world. It’s high-stakes and frightening, which is pretty sexy.

Leo Lerman asked me to dinner with his boyfriend, Gray Foy. He hobbled down the steps of the restaurant leaning on his walking stick, with Gray holding him up like an eighteenth-century manservant. And with Gray’s full crown of flowing silver hair, it was a glorious period combo. Joan Buck came with the New Yorker cartoonist Willie Hamilton, who I thought was hilarious. Plus the wildly chic beauty and jewelry designer Paloma Picasso, the daughter of Picasso and Françoise Gilot, who was more amusing than I anticipated.

Leo is clearly thrilled at the rude reception to VF, as he’s moldered at Vogue running the features department for so long and has such a love-hate relationship with Liberman.

The Condé Nast politics suddenly took an interesting turn when Leo whispered that Alex and Si had told him at the Four Seasons yesterday that there were “plans afoot to build a bridge” and bring Leo from Vogue onto Vanity Fair! “As features editor?” “No. As editor in chief!” My heart stopped, though I tried not to show it. Maybe that overture to me was really about working for Leo. Returning to the Royalton as soon as I could afterward to think about this stunning development, I decided after a long, hot bath that maybe an interim ed—which Leo surely must be—is not such a bad idea. Leo is about a hundred years old and has never edited a magazine, let alone turned around one so troubled. He’s always been relegated to culture queen at Vogue. Also I realize how few people I know here—only two writers—Joan, and Marie Brenner, the magazine journalist from San Antonio who was living in London with the Times London bureau chief, Johnny Apple, and is now back here. She’s a wonderful friend to have: big voice, big laugh, big energy, radiates warmth. But otherwise, I don’t have any network of writers and editors to staff up a turnaround like I did in London, though knowing Marie certainly helps. Maybe I could play some contributing role for a bit and get to learn the lay of the land. Leo would be less antagonistic to me than the snooty Richard Locke. Perhaps I could be called international editor or something for a year. Or maybe not …

Alex and Si have apparently told Leo to keep all this to himself, but here he was telling me, probably to warn me to keep out of his way. Condé Nast is like ancient Rome with all the politics and secrets, everything revolving round Si as Emperor Augustus.

A good part of dinner was taken up with Gray and Leo’s noisy character assassination of Arianna Stassinopoulos [later Huffington]. Gray described how, even though she had only met him twice, she threw a birthday party for him with a three-piece orchestra and a Greek choir. “My dear,” squawked Gray, “there was a fiddler behind every tree, scraping away. And the guests, in the middle of August! She had called them from far and wide—they came by butterfly wing, yak, and canoe!” Gray suffers from asthma, which I think he hypes up as his cover not to get a job and live off Leo. He’s clearly someone to watch your back around. When the ultracharming Willie Hamilton had left the table, he pitched into him: “What a snob that man is,” he raged, “like a self-mounted butterfly!” Leo looked proud. “Oh, he cuts through it all, does this one,” he said, patting Gray’s knee as if he was the mischievous young Turk he probably once was thirty years ago. “Don’t cross up Gray, anyone! He’ll kill you, that’s all!” I felt put on notice. They hobbled off to a waiting limo. Leo’s dome head, black astrakhan hat, and white beard give him the air of a camp Tolstoy or a boho Santa (not sure which).

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