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Spy: The Funny Years

Spy, the satirical monthly named for a 19th century caricaturist and the magazine in "The Philadelphia Story," was perhaps the ultimate club. Although its wit was spiked with egotism and "gotcha" tendencies, even its most regular targets were desperate to join. This fetching memory-jogger is equal parts historiography and greatest-hits parade.

Magazines function, for good or ill, as clubs. Members often speak the same, dress the same, and avidly cultivate an aura of a place where everyone wants to be. Spy, the satirical monthly named for a 19th century caricaturist and the magazine in “The Philadelphia Story,” was perhaps the ultimate club. Although its wit was spiked with egotism and “gotcha” tendencies, even its most regular targets were desperate to join. (OK, maybe not Donald Trump.) This fetching memory-jogger is equal parts historiography and greatest-hits parade. You get a colorful account, plus undiluted doses from the mag itself. It’s a swell combo.

George Kalogerakis, a former editor and writer at Spy, provides the book’s main text. It is annotated by co-founders Graydon Carter (now editor of Vanity Fair) and Kurt Andersen (now a novelist, columnist and radio host) and designed by Spy’s original art director, Alexander Isley.

The founders hatched Spy while still on staff at Time magazine, using company time and facilities until well after the first issue. Initial backers put up $2.4 million and were mostly heirs linked to Coca-Cola, Safeway, Merrill Lynch and Pulitzer publishing. That indie pedigree meant the magazine, while still dependent on ads, could fire at will, and 20 years later, staffers still talk of encountering resentment over past indiscretions.

The founders envisioned a Gotham-centric magazine with inspirations from Trollope to Perelman to 16th-century graphic design. In the crosshairs were all manner of arrivistes — yellow-tied Wall Streeters-turned-inside-traders, L.A. and N.Y. scene-makers, Michael Ovitz, Liz Smith and Donald Trump were reflected “as the mummified boulevardiers, socialite war criminals, beaver-faced moguls, tigress survivors and, of course, short-fingered vulgarians they were.”

They generally nailed it. Up front were regular gems like off-kilter society page Party Poop, Reviewing the Reviewers, book blurb expose Logrolling in Our Time and Separated at Birth, which is, in retrospect, a feat of subtle brilliance, a “Hocus-Focus” for a jaded generation.

Words and pictures attained a dizzying, Astaire-and-Rogers fusion. The “Buddy-o-Matic” offered a “guide to making hit movies the surefire, scientific way.” Another feature found layers of meaning in Newport’s “Alive with Pleasure” cigarette ad campaign (“This male is surprising and delighting the female by plunging his hands into her pumpkin”). Often there were scoops, such as when CAA’s entire client list was published or when former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown unabashedly sucked up to Michael Ovitz in a letter the magazine obtained and printed with footnotes. “Probably no one since Thalberg has seeded so many creative partnerships or brought so many movies to the screen,” Brown fawned.

There are chuckles and insights on nearly every page, and the only quibbles to lodge are that the authors sometimes strain to magnify the import of their contribution to culture. There’s a bit much about the zany office environment (shouted comic rejoinders! insufficient air conditioning!), marathon drinking exploits, grudges and pranks. By the time the “funny years” of 1986-93 give way to the end in 1998, the going has become a chore. Single-sitting reading is not an option.

What lingers after the ignominious fade is a staggering accumulation of names, which are helpfully listed in the back of the book. Most are running or writing for an array of elite magazines and TV shows, and the ones quoted in the book almost invariably confirm that, just as Carter promised while at the helm, Spy was the best job they will ever have.

The club lives on.

Dade Hayes is working on a book about preschool entertainment for the Free Press.

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