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 1991

I have this bias against any old Spy ish dated from the 1990s. Long past the halcyon days, right? And I certainly fall prey to halcyonism, as we will appreciate shortly.

I can name a grand total of two girls (I use the term advisedly) whom I would actually do, and Jamie Lee Curtis, in her own halcyon days, is one of them. (Who’s the other?) And there she is on the cover this month. I’ve kind of always hated the cover, shot by Bonnie Schiffman. (Actually, the full credit plugs whatever disposable Amerikanski situation comedy she was stuck working on at the time: “THE COVER: Anything But Love’s Jamie Lee Curtis photographed by Bonnie Schiffman.”)

First of all, J.L. Curtis looks pregnant: The orange and red everything, the stringy hair, the mishmash of styles, and particularly the Seussesque stacked striped hat and indeterminate red-gloved appendage draped over it. In other words, the cover is devastatingly effective at illustrating “The Tyranny of Trendiness,” the first article I read on trendspotting, which has now morphed into coolhunting.

Let’s take ’er from the top, though.

Not much to gripe about this month, actually, to my chagrin. Bruce Willis looks smashing in a Leibovitz-AmEx-style square-format photo in an ad for Us, or, as my esteemed colleague used to call it, pUs. But it’s another advertisement for the advertising industry: “It is a well-documented fact that the American public has a fanatical preoccupation with people in the entertainment industry We offer you the opportunity to take advantage of that.”

Actually, B. Willis looks almost exactly the same in this photo as he did on Regis this morning. I think somebody’s had work done. In any event, read Richard E. Grant’s With Nails and you’ll never look at Willis the same way again. Or Sandra Bernhard, for that matter. Or the Hungarians. Or Steve Martin.

Anyone remember the Quality Paperback Book Club? Talk about branding with type: I signed up because of the Goudy usage more than anything. This was when I was a youngster, with no independent income or chequing account. Or much interest in middlebrow suburban book-club titles.

To this day I think of the advertisements’ claim that some QPB books were resized “to fit special presses and save you even more.” The locution implanted a mental image that books are sort of cookie-cut-stamped by gigantic metal-walled dies on an assembly line. (I see the locution is in use by someone else. In fact, there seems to be a conspiracy afoot.)

Well, they’ve got an ad in this issue. I’m not wild about it. Worse, they still exist.

Dim racial memories of the sort Spy tends to trigger were, unsurprisingly, triggered by the advert for something entitled Amok: Fourth Dispatch, a kind of precursor to Re:Search, which I suppose would in fact have been listed in its pages, given that Amok’s subtitle is Sourcebook of the Extremes of Information in Print.

It’s a quaint topic. Do you remember the days when it cost a fortune to produce a treatise on freaks with malformed partial Siamese twins jutting out of their abdomens, or particularly shocking genital mutilations, because you actually had to design and print them, then mail them at great cost to the four corners of the earth? And, like actors requiring ten-percenters, your pet project required publicity; readers would have to send away for an expensively-designed-and-printed catalogue by mail. Months would pass.

Now you just do a fucking Google image search.

Sorry, Amok. Your time has passed.

Rotisserie® League Life

Now, this I don’t understand. Perhaps because I do not understand the Rotisserie® League concept. You say “rotisserie” to me and all I think is Felix Unger getting all upset on The Odd Couple because he chose the wrong door on a game show and lost out on one. Rotisserie® League is today a difficult concept to Google.

I think it has something to do with betting on fantasy teams. You mix and match players – or, I suppose, in my case, 200-pound-or-heavier or red-haired bobsledders (we do, in fact, have a selection of both, of various nationalities) – onto a dream team of your choice, and then tabulate their results from their actual teams. And if you’re extra-smart, you bet on Canada over Bangladesh in cricket.

Spy pushes the Rotisserie® pedal (pedal?) to the metal in Rotisserie® League Life. “To assemble your team, pick one entry from each category below, then call 1-900-884-4-SPY.” Player positions include:

Greedy Tycoon
  • Leona Helmsley
  • Rupert Murdoch
  • Donald Trump [inevitably]
Scary Organization
  • Hezbollah[“-like splinter group, the vegans”]
  • Ku Klux Klan
  • Mafia
  • Medellín cartel
  • New York Times
Get-Rich-Quick Schemes
  • get bought out by the Japanese
  • own the film rights to a tragic tale
  • “900” phone numbers
  • Simplesse
  • write a screenplay

Stratagem: Megatarts

Our Contributors page this month lists:

Steven Guarnaccia’s illustrations have accompanied our Review of Reviewers column for the last year. He also illustrated Spy’s June 1987 map of the Russian Tea Room, which he unconscionably allowed the publishers of 50 Maps of New York... to reproduce without first asking the Spy editors’ permission, let alone giving the magazine credit in the book. An inveterate palindrome enthusiast, Guarnaccia has illustrated William Irvine’s palindrome book Madam, I’m Adam (Scribners, 1988) and its forthcoming sequel, If I Had a Hi-Fi.

“ ‘That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun”

We keep blowing up space shuttles, which might perhaps be trying to tell us something. Spy, March 1991, also told us exploding space shuttles were trying to tell us something. “Wernher von Braun, We Hardly Knew Ye” (David Shenk):

  • Dated expression: “He’s/I’m no rocket scientist, but...”
  • Original meaning: “He’s stupid”
  • Factors prompting reassessment (as reported in the New York Times in recent months [edited]):
    • “Troubles Raising Questions About Space Agency” (July 1)
    • “Backup Computer Is Balky on Craft Exploring Venus” (August 14)
    • “Shuttle Astronomy Mission Is Postponed by Fuel Leak” (September 6)
    • “Rocket Motor Fire Kills and Hurts 9” (September 8)
    • “Shuttle Launching Canceled Again” (September 18)
    • “Loose Beam Found on Space Shuttle” (October 5)
    • “Device on Shuttle Fails” (December 4)
    • “Shuttle Lands in Good Shape, but Puzzle of Lint Remains” (December 12)

Hitlerian brute?

You thought the piece excerpted above was an eerie coinkydink?

You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

“Saddam Hussein: Hitlerian Brute or America’s Savio[u]r? (Or Ted Turner’s New Best Friend?)” by David Shenk (again) asks:

Saddam to the rescue... of our beleaguered arms manufacturers?

“Along came a ‘rescuer’ named Saddam Hussein. Thanks to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the U.S. defense industry is back in the saddle”
The Christian Science Monitor

“ ‘You can thank Saddam Hussein for $2 to $3 billion in weapons’ spending, [military writer Thomas McNaugher] said”



Laud Humphreys, in the course of researching Tearoom Trade [!], his 1975 book on homosexual behaviour, spent a considerable amount of time loitering in public restrooms recording acts of oral copulation. Humpreys’ method was to move from one public facility to another, where, posing as a voyeur, he would watch the participants. “In some [accommodations],” he writes, “one might wait for months before observing a deviant act (unless solitary masturbation is considered deviant). In others the volume approaches orgiastic dimensions. One summer afternoon, for instance, I witnessed twenty acts of fellatio while waiting out a thunderstorm.”

The rest of the piece is equally prurient and fascinating, but extends half the length of a sex manual itself.

Or perhaps you’d like to compare two devices for measuring penis volume?

Having gone through the trouble of finding six men who would, without financial compensation, be willing to sit in a room with two mechanical devices on their penises and watch an X-rated movie, the researchers wanted to make sure the fellows would actually watch the movie. To hold the subjects’ attention, the researchers rigged the TV monitor so that a light flashed every 15 seconds or so. The subjects were instructed to press a button on their chair whenever the light flashed.

“But your machine wasn’t on”

A Hollywood functionary rang me in the late ’80s. She mentioned she had rung on a previous day, “but your machine wasn’t on.” Because I didn’t have one.

These celebrities, however, do.

Lauren Bacall
“It’s ridiculous, but I’m not here, so if you leave your name, number and the hour of your call, I will get back to you when I am here, if I am here. Isn’t that an amazing... situation?”
Tony Randall
“This is [gives his number]. Please leave your message after the musical tones.”
Robin Byrd
[A man’s voice] “Hi, this is Shelley. I’m out and will be back later. If you’re calling for Robin, Robin’s out and will be back later also.” [Musical accompaniment: Janet Jackson’s “Nasty Boy”]
Michael Musto
“Hello, I love you. Won’t you tell me your name?”

Name that rug, Mr. Spock!

Some U.S. senator or other had a wee hypocrisy problem. He sponsored a bill limiting textile imports, but his tailor was in South Korea.

[Sam] Donaldson: Senator, you’re from the great textile-producing state of South Carolina. Is it true you have a Korean tailor?

[Ernest] Hollings: Well, I’ll tell you the truth. I think I got that suit – this is not the one –

[David] Brinkley: Let’s see the label in that one. What is the label in it?

Hollings: – the same place right down other street where – if you want to personalize this thing – where you got that wig, Sam.

Donaldson: Well, I just got to ask you –

Hollings: Well, I got to give it back to you if you want to personalize it.

Coolhunting – before it sold out

I can barely believe the coinkydink. I’m trudging through Pattern Recognition by Gibson, logging and annotating it. The book follows the odyssey of a coolhunter obsessed with anonymous video footage posted online.

In this month’s Spy, “Tomorrow’s Forecast Calls for Shimmery Fabrics, Portable Fax Machines [!], Senegalese Cuisine and Heroic Romanticism” by Lynda Edwards concerns trendspotters, the coolhunters of the ’80s. The article could have used a trim, but benefits hugely from direct quotes by the Eurotrash trendspotters (and Faith Popcorn) it features.

Jean-Paul Dorat... sits at a table smack in the middle of a bustling coffee shop in Manhattan’s financial district, one of those nondescript power-breakfasting places that charge $6.35 for orange juice and a bagel.... They yell across the room, wheel on Gucci’d [sic] feet... and bellow loudly at one another’s jokes. It may be the nineties [barely], but here they still wear slicked-back hair and Italian suits and want very much to be seen.

Jean-Paul is, situationally, very much like [the] Coneheads: He looks different from those around him, he’s observing what he regards a lower form of life, and he says he’s from France. [...]

He spots a group of skinheads lounging near a monument dedicated to the dead seamen of the U.S.S. Maine. Pay dirt! He springs into action: “Your look is fantastic, evolutionary, postfascist. I need it for my book,” he tells them. [...] “Well, a pose, but at least an interesting one. No Nazi trinkets, did you see? The labels on their shirts were 100% COTTON. But this is their regular meeting place, you can tell, and that intrigues me.... Something is happening,” he says. “I can sense a new trend.”

Also: “Faith Popcorn, née Plotkin – she changed her name because a boyfriend once called her Popcorn and “I said I like that name. And I changed it. It was the sixties.”

But getting back to a theme here:

“Some Israeli commando stuff showed up on dance floors. But I don’t think the Fascist style will be a strong one for the nineties.”

Because people will repudiate Fascism?

“Oh, please! No one thinks about it enough to repudiate it.... What attracts them is the look, the clean, strong lines, the physicality. I don’t make judgements. I just note that the visuals are fantastic.” He frowns thoughtfully. “I wonder why the Fascists always have the best uniforms.”

Spy’s own spotted trends (by David Kamp), which presumably will not hold up logging plans in the nationstate of Pacifica?

NIKEs (No-Income Kids with Educations)
Recent college graduates who, owing to the 1990–91 recessions’s depletion of the job market, will be forced to live with their parents and work in tolerably “brainy” minimum-wage jobs: Clerk in bookstore, ticketing agent in box office of nearby repertory theatre, assistant to florist, waiter in café that serves Celestial Seasonings teas, intern at satirical monthly magazine.
[Spy’s explanation is threadbare. Make up your own. The name is just too good]
The Maude Syndrome
[E]xtensive coverage in New York magazine: “...They’re just your typical 26-year-old-graphic-designer-and-seventysomething-widow couple, and they say they’re for real.”

Oh. This part isn’t significant or anything:

There will be a trend away from irony. (“Americans were never good at it,” Jean-Paul writes in his trend book on the subject, “always getting it confused with sarcasm.”)

I see my entire adulthood really has been explained. Believe what I tell you about the influence of Spy on my personality.

The story ends on a crushing note: “the way advertisers market luxury products, which for years have been pedaled as the gross fruits of sheer wealth.” “Pedaled”?

End in whimper

Back of the book is so weak this month that, ten full years later, Cartman would have dismissed it with “Dude, this shit is weak.”


CORRECTION: Last month in this space, Spy offered tips to abnormally small celebrities on how to appear taller in photographs. “If your companion is noticeably taller than you,” we suggested, “instruct him or her to stay several feet behind you at all times.” A photo of teeny socialite–war criminal Henry Kissinger and his giantess wife, Nancy, was offered by way of illustration. Although Spy cannot be held responsible, we reluctantly admit that the method is not foolproof – as is evident in the photograph at left of improbably super-rich actor Danny DeVito and his Other People’s Money costar, Penelope Ann Miller. Spy regrets the error.

You are here: fawny.orgTen Years Ago in SPYArchives → January 1991

Updated: 2001.11.11


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