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.


March 1988

Our cover this month induces stark terror on sight and has indeed stuck in my mind for 14 years: Milton Berle in a woman’s business suiting, complete with bow and – since this is the ’80s – clashing white sneakers.

Milton Berle is a sop to queasy assimilationists. His drag act is less sincere than Jack Lemmon’s in Some Like It Hot, itself the working historical minimum to be taken seriously. Berle’s transvestism signals revulsion: You can’t take me seriously. It would be too freaky if you did.

One read of an interview: Some querulous brain-dead girl (tautological, shurely?!) asked Scott Thompson if, in fact, Milton Berle was an inspiration. You can just imagine this grasping arriviste’s vanishing brain cells, virtually funnelling smoke with the effort at reaching back all that while to the distant days of Uncle Miltie, in hopes of avoiding at any cost the suggestion that guys in drag are queer. And that they might be so “passable” that straight guys might crack a bone looking at them.

(Scott Thompson’s response: No, Bugs Bunny was more of an inspiration. At least he kissed Elmer Fudd smack on the lips.)

SPY’s pervasive influence (our theme this month) extends from the paper of record all the way down to, oh, Michael Musto, whose chart-form summary of movie-star biographies in the December American Film owes something – maybe everything? – to “Telling It All,” the celebrity-bio foldout that SPY published a year ago.

That Musto. He’s been around. I guess that makes him old as fuck. I know what that’s like. Here I am pushing a ten-year-defunct magazine, for fork sakes.

SPY typography smackdown!

I feel compelled to respond to [SPY Letters column mainstay] Mr. Jason de Menil’s comments in your December issue. Two points I found annoying, the first being the reference to SPY’s “ugly postmodern” layout. The term postmodern has long since lost its hep blanket-adjective status. I see SPY magazine’s use of type, photography, illustrative devices and colour as being influenced by the Dada experimentalists and 1940s advertising designers such as Paul Rand. I applaud your publication’s fun and innovative design sense, sophisticated as it is. [...]

Michael Shea
Adams Morgan, D.C. [sic]

Well, lookit. I’m dwelling in the past here. Let’s do a Swoon and zoom back to the future. Mix and match a little.

Michael Shea’s informed defense of the SPY graphic œuvre is appreciated. But which international megastar of underground beaux-arts typography would write his own letter of typographic defense to SPY a mere four issues later?

Here’s to you, Jonathan Hoefler!

As both a fan of your magazine and a staunch defender of its graphics style, I am somewhat shocked at your recent behaviour. Your “postmodernist” typography – which is somewhat exclusive to SPY – is the very thing you inadvertently attacked in your March feature “Filofax Madness.” You noted the “perverse company spelling” of fILOFAX without considering your own. Does SPy not reek of this? Or THE fINE PRINT? Or your April “NiCe” features? This enigmatic form seems to be the SPY thing to do.

Dismiss meaningless terms such as postmodernist and neo-Dadaist, but also dismiss your own cheap shots at your typographical predecessors, such as Filofax.

Jonathan Hoefler
New York

Yes. fILOFAX. Technically, it’s the cover story (“Milton Berle as That Filofax Gal”), but it elicits no spark 14 years onward.

But let’s mention the limitations of HTML. There is no such thing as a baseline shift in this decidedly antitypographic “markup language.” Thus the example given above, SPy, cannot be accurately rendered here: The y ceases to descend and sits on the baseline.

Consider yourselves informed.

It must also be pointed out than an advert for Rothman’s (not cigarettes) clothiers depicts two rarities of 21st-century life: A semi-clothed model who isn’t built like a god and an historically correct Palatino Bold.

There may be no better exemplar than Bob Hope of the wisdom of quitting while you’re ahead. Hope has not been funny since 1961. And yet there he is on television, season after season, going through the motions – the cue-card readings increasingly laboured, the laughter canned beyond all plausibility, the female costars more like one blurry, generic 1960s bimbo (is that Connie Stevens or Joey Heatherton?) than distinct performers. For his January TV special, taped before thousands of American servicemen in the Persian Gulf and the Philippines (performing for audiences of lonely 19-year-old half-wits from Kentucky is the way to keep comedic timing sharp), Hope’s costar was Barbara Eden. Strange, you said to yourself as you watched Eden’s dance number, those bumps and grinds and kicks look even more uncannily unoriginal then usual. And so they were: Instead of paying for new choreography, Hope’s team of super-high-powered top creative Hollywood professionals simply handed Eden a tape of Raquel Welch shimmying in South Vietnam a generation ago and told her, Do this.

Lola Heatherton, shurely?!

You lost me with the hair

Really, can we credit Annie Leibovitz for originating the Common Era’s persistent undercurrent of homoerotic sports advertising? The renowned Amerikanski Express advertisement, consisting of a very plain medium-format photograph of a swimsuited Eric Heiden in crouch position, certainly caught a young lad’s eye. The adult eye, however, notes the tawdry ITC Garamond typography (actually, I noticed that when it first came out), the obvious painted backdrop, and Heiden’s greasy glorified mullet.

The best part? The sepiatone colouration, no doubt produced by a filter.

It’s us or it’s death


“Enter a world of grace: Victoria, the new magazine of living beautifully ever after.”

Yes. That is exactly what it says. The advertisement’s grainy photo (slower film is in order) depicts a young Hesteresque woman with raven hair in some kind of white-and-pink silk blouson. An inset magazine cover appears to list the magazine’s subtitle as A TIMELESS POINT OF VIEW.

There is no other information, apart from a copyright declaration from Hearst.

I don’t get this. I don’t see how anybody could. The ad appears to promote a magazine of, by, and/or for the dead. I seem to recall Nationalnishchei Lampoon parodies along these lines.

Or is it a fashion magazine for corpses? How to look beautiful in a casket? The “timeless” fashion model reinforces the impression.

An in-crowd demographic

What I don’t get is the preponderance, in later SPY issues, of advertisements pushing other magazines and aimed at ad executives. Is this Advertising Age?

Don’t these adverts imply that SPY isn’t the sort of magazine real people read but is the sort that “insiders” read?

Or are the “real” people the sort – rather presaging 1990s-era media queens – who like nothing more than to read the entrails of media mechanics? You’re not an insider, but you can read about demographics, just as insiders do?

This month’s example: Three consecutive right-hand pages pushing Time (using Times Roman as a font). 60 MINUTES, L.A. LAW. CHEERS. NBC NIGHTLY NEWS. NOT ONE OF THEM REACHES AS MANY PROFESSIONAL/MANAGERIAL ADULTS AS WE DO (absence of italics sic).

I mean, ask me if I care.

Death Be Not Cardigan-Clad

Dan Rather. To right-wing direct-mail fussbudgets, the name is synonymous with left-leaning East Coast media perfidy. But is the natty anchorman really telling us that government is bad, religion dumb, nuclear weapons goofy? Reading between the lines of the CBS Evening News reveals a message far more sinister. Consider this partial list of sponsors from a recent newscast: Super Poli-Grip, Sunsweet pitted prunes, Maalox Plus, Kellogg’s 40% Bran Flakes, Geritol Complete, Sominex, Rolaids.

What Dan Rather really wants to drum into your head is that your body is imperfect, that its decay is inexorable, that one day – maybe even this one – no matter how desperately you try to squeeze out the last dollops of youth from the toothpaste tube of corporeal existence, you will die.

– Bruce Handy

Let’s hear it for Jamie Malanowski. (Gimme an M! Gimme an A! &c.) “Celebrity Sports Statistics” uses impressively obscure research to document the football careers of Burt Reynolds, Bill Cosby, Chuck Connors (!), Mark Harmon, Tommy Lee Jones (good profile shot, albeit epitomizing the term “dozy”), Tom Bradley, “Representative Morris Udall,” Sam Hall (“[t]he wacky contra mercenary who spent six weeks in a Nicaraguan prison last winter”), and Stanley Friedman (“[f]ormer Bronx Democratic Party leader”).

In “The New Postliteracy,” Roy Harley name-drops Allan Bloom en route to extolling E.D. Hirsch, Jr., whose “Cultural Literacy advances a truly dangerous notion: That it’s not enough to know how to read, you’ve got to understand what you’re reading. The book’s crux, a 63-page appendix titled ‘What Literate Americans Know,’ lists 4,500 names, dates, events, and phrases known by the educated.”

Harley carries out the oldest trick in the book – the copycat media artifact – and attempts to define the culturally literate against the “postliterate,” with miserable results.

Culturally Literate Postliterate
coat of many colours tour jacket
Heisenberg uncertainty principle Heimlich manœuvre
justification by faith “Survey says...!”

To reinvent a catchphrase, it just doesn’t get any better than this.

“Holding deep-sea fish for a second”

On a rainy day last summer, when fog erased the World Trade Center and scandal eclipsed our leaders, I got a package I’d been expecting from an international intelligence organization and ripped it open on the desk. Checking that the codes assigned to me – K04, N91, N93 – were correct, I read over the enclosed materials. Their meaning blazed forth.




No, Mensans. “Supernerds” by Philip Weiss (itself a supernerd’s name) explains that “American Ms called the lower 98 percent ‘dummies’ and ‘Densa.’ ”

Well, I mean, they are.

Mensa worries

  • dividing restaurant checks accurately

Mensa humour

  • “I wonder about the meaning of the word cipe; is recipe to cipe again?”

Ten Years of Boredom in SPY

It can now exclusively be revealed that I was so dang bored when SPY was in original circulation that I read and reread each issue. Obsessively. I became queasyingly overfamiliar with SPY advertisements – the annoying ones, at least, like this issue’s double-page mirror spread (2/3 page at bottom outboard of facing pages) for Wellington boots. Twee, yes, and I’m certainly anti-twee. Tweëst of all is the reduced heel section of the sole, narrower in all dimensions than the rest of the foot.

In other words, Amble after corgis through the estate in high-heeled booties.

The Wellington is hubris in rubber and invites retribution, though a kick in the teeth might hardly make a difference.

You are here: fawny.orgTen Years Ago in SPYArchives → March 1988

Updated: 2002.03.05


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