×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

More Reviews

  • 'Russian Doll' Review

    TV Review: 'Russian Doll'

    This is a particularly tricky review to write, but not because the merits of “Russian Doll” are at all ambiguous. On the contrary, the show is so striking and smart that I made a note to include it on my favorite TV shows of 2019 immediately after blowing through the season — which is saying [...]

  • Black Earth Rising Review

    TV Review: 'Black Earth Rising'

    Bringing to bear a talented cast on a story of real geopolitical significance, “Black Earth Rising,” Netflix’s drama about the long-tail aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, would seem to have had the potential to be one of 2019’s early television successes. Which makes its falling short all the more painful and pronounced. The show, previously [...]

  • maggie rogers

    Album Review: Maggie Rogers' 'Heard It in a Past Life'

    Maggie Rogers earned one of those very rare “Saturday Night Live” slots in which a musical guest is booked onto the show well in advance of her major label debut album’s release — two and a half months prior, in this case. And the scrutiny of such an appearance is not always pretty. Rogers’ “SNL” [...]

  • iHeartRadio Alter Ego Review

    Concert Review: Muse, Weezer, the Killers Rock iHeartRadio Alter Ego 2019

    iHeartRadio’s Alter Ego — a multi-band bill that serves to showcase some of the biggest names in alternative rock — is a relatively new creation, but clearly one that’s been embraced by radio listeners in the greater Los Angeles area who filled the Forum on a Saturday night. Twenty-One Pilots, the Revivalists, Rise Against, Bishop [...]

  • 'St. Bernard Syndicate' Review: A Quietly

    Film Review: 'St. Bernard Syndicate'

    John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan may have received major award nominations this season for their fine work in “Stan & Ollie,” but there’s arguably a superior Laurel & Hardy tribute act to be found in the droll Danish comedy “St. Bernard Syndicate.” As a pair of bumbling losers who turn an already dubious business [...]

  • Dragon Ball Super: Broly

    Film Review: ‘Dragon Ball Super: Broly’

    Late in “Dragon Ball Super: Broly,” the 20th Japanese anime feature in a 35-year-old franchise that also has spawned scads of TV series, trading cards, video games, mangas, and limited-edition collectibles, a supporting character complains, “I don’t understand a single thing you’ve said the whole time.” If you’re among the heretofore uninitiated drawn to this [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content