Ten Years Ago in ‘Spy’
Reliving one’s formative years of logrolling, short-fingered vulgarians and Separations at Birth

We hereby cast our eye back on SPY, “The New York Monthly” – that exemplar of “irony,” memorably belligerent, bilious adjective chains, and thrillingly recherché typography, from which our entire writing style (and ironic, memorable, belligerent, bilious, and recherché personality) derived.

Where possible, we do actually attempt to stick to a precise ten-year retrospective, but we reserve the right to mix and match.


February 1990

We finally arrive at February, the cruelest month, if for no other reason than it contains my birthday.

We like to think of February – a string of fakey, passionless holidays (Groundhog Day, Presidents’ Day, Valentine’s Day) and weather so awful that there are moments you’d actually rather be in a haphazardly-run apartment complex outside Cocoa Beach, Florida, than here – as the Henry Kravis of months: Too short, too cold, overcommercialized, and about four weeks shy of being over.

But the February 1990 SPY is certainly a bumper crop of bile and wit.

Two dead princesses

Is it some sort of curious coïncidence that your 1964 début reprint [“SPY’s 25th-Anniversary Commemorative Keepsake Issue: A Facsimile Reprint of the Very First Issue of SPY,” November (1989)] features a poem by “Faun Rosenberg,” the same name as the spooky, turtleneck-clad poetess in National Lampoon’s 1964 High School Yearbook Parody? Would that be explained by the editorial assistants listed? Doug Kenney as intern?

Ian R. Beste
Montrose, California

An early and eager contributor to SPY, Faun Rosenberg eventually joined our staff as a senior editor and played an important, albeit brief, role in our so-called Golden Era (when SPY, as we are frequenly told, was “still funny”). Tragically, Rosenberg’s life was cut short in a freak 1967 boating accident. Doug Kenney, meanwhile, built on his invaluable training as an unpaid SPY intern to become a founding editor of National Lampoon in 1970 and co-creator of its legendary yearbook parody several years later. Rosenberg’s “appearance” in the parody was thus no coïncidence at all but, as you surmised, a sort of sly memorial to a woman Kenney had known and liked and whom one or two of our older staffers still remember fondly. (Eerily, Kenney’s life was cut short as well, in a 1980 hiking accident.)

The High School Yearbook Parody is in the house here somewhere, but hands cannot immediately be put on it. The memory of Faun Rosenberg cannot be allowed to fade. I will work night and day until I dig up the original.

I continue to pine for a scanner, which would let me show you the echt-’80s Photo-Lettering Inc.–esque type treatments, including, in this month’s issue, an ad for a book cunningly entitled Topsy Dingo, Wild Dog set entirely in Serif Gothic. Appalling in its majesty, and, I must admit, vice-versa.

Meanwhile, Mr. Spock continues to be exhorted to name that tune! A letter to the editor contributes:

Adult male human who plays a percussion instrument with a tightened diaphragm and small circular appurtenances, male human.

I mean, you figure it out.

And at long last, one rediscovers the best-ever SPY comic: At Home with the Modeling Clay People. Boy points to pile on floor and shouts: “Mama! Mama! Grandma passed through the wicker chair!”

Gold. This stuff is gold.

Contemporaneous with Haynes’ Superstar

I believe we now enjoy the first appearance of You Are There!, “SPY’s Exclusive Monthly Behind-the-Scenes Celebrity Vignette.” Imagine every 1980s-era Barbiësque action figure of a celebrity united in the same diorama. (I pine so very forlornly for a scanner.)

It’s checkout day at an ultraexclusive southern California clinic and the traffic is a mess! Caught at the side exit after their special checkups, the usually chummy Mr. and Mrs. Motown, Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, go head-to-head in a frenzied battle for limos in their eagerness to escape the flash of the paparazzi bulb. Not many steps behind, tight-as-a-drum Cher, while frantically catching her driver’s attention, risks popping a surgeon’s stitch.

Meanwhile, Gracie was always OK with a simple Scotch on the rocks

Steve Allen: Never too washed up to act like a tinpot prima donna when addressing illegal-immigrant American hotel staff. A leaked memo “written in an implausible third-person voice”:

  1. Mr. Allen has an allergy to cigarette and cigar smoke. I mention this in case it might have some relevance to the individuals who will be working with him. If there are any heavy smokers in the group, it would be well to advise them to do their smoking as far away from Mr. Allen as possible. He is extremely grateful for this consideration and courtesy.

  2. Although Mr. Allen’s hosts are generally known for the hospitality they extend, he does not wish anyone to go to the expense of setting up in his hotel suite any kind of hospitallity bar.

    Mr. Allen prefers fruit juices – orange juice,** grape juice – and perhaps a supply of grapes, bananas, oranges – that sort of thing. Also, it should be in his suite when he arrives, not sent up hours later, as sometimes happens.

    **I know that Mr. Allen is not particularly fond of orange juice made from concentrate. If they have only that kind of orange juice in your town, well, of course, I’m sure he’d rather have that than none at all. But you can get real juice just about anyplace these days, so please do that if you can, and buy the concentrate type only as a last resort.

    Special Note: As may have already come to your attention, there has been a serious collapse of efficiency in America across the board in recent years. We see this reflected in Mr. Allen’s personal experience, particularly when he travels. For example, the simple instructions above – having fruit juice and fruit available in his hotel room when he arrives – has [sic], in recent years, only rarely been properly attended to.

    At the risk of sounding dramatic, therefore, I must emphasize the importance of this detail.

    Formerly, employers were able to attend to it by simply giving instrucitons to a hotel staff, usually the Room Service department. The day when that sort of instruction could be depended upon is – as I say – apparently long past.

    Accordingly, it will be necessary for you – or someone you designate – to personally supervise this one detail. This means, obviously, that the hotel management office will have to be called – on the day of Mr. Allen’s arrival – to make sure that more than one person on the hotel staff is assuming personal responsibility for following up this simple-enough instruction.

    If there is the slightest quesiton in your mind about this, please feel free to discuss the matter with me by phone. Naturally, neither Mr. Allen – or [sic] any other entertainer – ought to have to be personally concerned abou tmaking inquiries about such things when he arrives in your city, so I would really appreciate it if you could just arrange to have the juice and fruit waiting in his room, the wayit was for many years. Thanks for your attention to this detail.

Bruce Springsteen: Ben Affleck
Peter Frampton: Casey Affleck

Meanwhile, I thank SPY for clarifying what has actually been evident for a good solid decade. Separated at Birth: Bruce Springsteen... and Ben Affleck?

In one of those quasi-obsessive literature driftnettings that set SPY apart well before the advent of Lexis-Nexis (well, actually, that was SPY’s secret weapon), the satirical monthly investigates more than 19 citations in Rolling Stone documenting the heavily-indulged practice by “the Boss” (of what? since when? says who?) of upstaging lesser singers. “But nothing has been quite so consistently intimate as the magazine’s coverage (in its Random Notes section) of those entirely spontaneous, supersurprising guest appearances that the Boss is fond of making at other people’s concerts.”

Memories of Marcel Massé mincing onstage at Dorothy Chandler and manhandling the Oscar away from the NFB.

How’s the Boss’s prostate health these days, I wonder?

The average person

A fellow named Seth Roberts set himself a task of Herculean proportions with decided Woody Allen overtones: Boiling down 120 personal ads to an “average” formula.

The New York Review of Books

ATTRACTIVE, SMART PROFESSIONAL – SWF, 43, loves life and the arts, seeks divorced or widowed [!] man, 45–55, with a good sense of humour who enjoys music. For mutual support through life’s daily struggles.

A footnote warns:

Each average is based on 20 randomly-selected ads. First, the contents of each ad were reduced to five categories: Me, You, Age, Us (what we will do together), and Reply (the type of reply desired). Then the contents of these categories were sorted into narrower subcategories. The Me and You categories, for instance, were each sorted into Résumé, Looks, Personality, Likes, and Other. Then, wherever possible, the subcategories were divided.... For each of the chosen subsubcategories, the most frequent or the median item was determined. Warning: Doing such calculations in a café may be embarrassing.


I am of course fond of matter–antimatter combinations, if only so that I might describe them as such. Certainly my favourite of all time was the Bloor St. restaurant bearing a sign I could not have improved in any way: PISA-N-WONG. Not “pizza.” Pisa. Formidable.

In “Mergermania, 1990s-Style,” Sara Barrett gives us a tour through oil-and-water businesses unaccountably united under one roof – “check [sic] cashing and jewelry repair,” “dessert and games,” and by far the juiciest, “Army-Navy clothing, uniforms, cigarettes, candy, and notary public” (Madison Mens [sic] Shop).

Reason for Merger: “Everything today is specialized. I’m general. If it’s raining, I got raincoats. If it’s winter, I got boots and gloves. We added cutlery when the demand was for knives. I added the notary license in 1945. Why? It shows your good character. That you’ve never been to jail. Let’s say I was disappointed I didn’t go to school. This is my degree. Not long ago, we had construction workers coming in and saying, ‘You should get hard hats.’ So you start in with white, then they want red, green, yellow, blue....”

How It Seems to Be Working: Sort of hard to tell. “I’m here 50 years. When I moved in here, our main source of income was from seamen, back when New York was a big port. I got a lot of work here, and I’m telling you, it’s getting boring, all these people coming wanting to talk to me. I really don’t have the time. I opened the gates for you and now I regret it. My back hurts.”

Win Ben Stein’s Credibility

“The queerest letter Mike Milken ever received” came from Ben Stein and is dated November 23, 1988, pitching “his services as a sort of moral policeman for the firm’s Beverly Hills junk-bond headquarters: ‘[Make me your] in-house vetter of deals from a fairness-to-stockholders standpoint, and teacher of ethics to your young and bright colleagues.”

The postscript to the letter reads “P.S. I enclose a collection of my articles. I do not expect you to read them.”

From start to finish, story of my life, shurely?!

Please give me back my eyes

What appears to be the only multi-page spread displaying graphic-design acumen on a par with a Newfoundland community newspaper is found in “Just Say No-Brows: The Illustrated SPY Guide to Fin-de-Siècle Style.” Yes, six pages of inset photos (on nauseating pastel-green, -pink, and -orange posterized photos of eyeballs and brows) accompanied by X-acto cutouts of Metro capitals on a white ground.

It’s not even good enough to be called amateur.

Are you suddenly as relieved as I am that I do not have a scanner?

The lavish double-truck spreads offended with their awfulness by being immediately followed by a memorably solid profile of professional party gal Nan Kempner, with especial focus on her lizard neck.

Why the illicit union of matter and antimatter, SPY? Why?

Get your story straight

Equally disturbing is this issue’s double-plugging the Pierre Hotel.

  • Page 65 – Nan Kempner: “ ‘Barbara, did you hear from Peter Sharp yet? Is he coming? You sent him a reminder card?’ (Peter Sharp is president of the Pierre hotel [lowercase h sic].”
  • Page 73 – Joe Queenan: “At a March of Dimes fundraiser at the Pierre, Julius Erving gave me a Cabbage Patch Kid for my daughter. I was at the Pierre – I was everywhere – because someone at a PR firm had spent countless hours and dollars setting up the interviews, inviting me to the luncheons, organizing the junkets.”

Either the Pierre was important enough for Nan Kempner or it was important enough for Joe Queenan. Can’t exactly be both, now, can it?

(Queenan: “When I was growing up in the tough streets of north Philadelphia, one of my most jealously-guarded dreams was to one day stand toe-to-toe with the president of Campbell Soup, domestic division, and talk about current soup tonnage. On September 30, 1986, that boyhood dream was finally realized.”)

And anyway, the Queenan piece – in which he recounted the lavishness and foolishness of PR agents wowed by his nominal editorship of an important business publication (actually a scam newsletter) – commits the cardinal error of imagining that an envelope edExFayed from Manhattan to Manhattan actually goes through Memphis. In reality, substations have been in use for over a decade; in-town packages stay in town.

You are here: fawny.orgTen Years Ago in SPYArchives → February 1990

Updated: 2002.02.02


See also: Interview with Alex Isley, former SPY art director