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.


‘Spy’ April 1990 cover

May 1989

Now with ILLUSTRATIONS thanks to Michael Russell

This month, we feature what is indisputably the finest and indeed the definitive SPY article. Ay-yi-yi!


I am not kidding when I tell you that SPY influenced my entire writing style. It’s not quite to the point where it’s a crutch, an affectation, a cliché. The SPY style and my own have merged into a kind of mycorrhizal discursive form, with both component parts different from their original states yet are inseparable.

And what pushed me over the edge? What was the straw that broke the camel’s back? “Ivanarama! An Investigative Tribute to the Most Superspecial Trump of All,” an article by Jonathan Van Meter, the white homosexualist who would later edit Vibe. (I sat in his office back in the day. And was bitched out by Scott Poulson-Bryant. Grow up, motherfucker.)

That single phrase – the most superspecial Trump of all – is the Rosetta stone you need to decode and reproduce the entire SPY argot. SUPERSPECIAL. The word says it all. SUPERSPECIAL is the “You had me with ‘hello’ ” of the SPY vernacular, but only if you utter it as fast as possible: It’s one word, not two.

It’s a killer piece, and if anything the horrific supercloseup cover photograph surpasses it. It’s an unimaginably gruesome image of a woman who epitomized her present day while quite obviously communicating her past and future. Ivana Trump: Jumped-up dowager.

Now, the byline is deceptive. I recall reading an article about SPY in which it was stated that its articles are not so much written as rewritten, with the editorial committee iteratively fine-tuning and tweaking each and every word for that uniform SPY feel. (That is not always an emasculating, individuality-sapping process for the writer. It wasn’t at the Economist. I don’t think it’s very onerous, at least not anymore, down at the New Yorker.) The meticulous consistency of this very lengthy piece suggests not only that everyone on staff busted a gut over it, but the lawyers carefully weighed every single word.

And that’s another amusing component: A companion article, “Dear Donald: An Epistolary History of a Year in the Life of Donald J. Trump,” reproduces, retypesets, and reprints a series of letters among Donald Trump, his lawyers, SPY, and an old Trump friend. The letters presage Internet flamewars in their inevitable spiral into acrimony and accusation – in this case, extortion.

One does have a wee problem here. It is of course perfectly kosher to quote insubstantially for the purpose of review and commentary, but I’m not entitled to retype the whole shebang. I wouldn’t want to, either: I’ve got soft tissues in the arms to safeguard.

The upside? So many little nuggests are just killer. And throughout the piece are illustrations using a custom-built Ivana(rama!) doll: TOP OLYMPIC SKIER! TOP MODEL! TOP LICENSED INTERIOR DESIGNER! (“Top” she certainly was. But what about those other things?)

  • Her specialness is everywhere apparent: In her special set of white-white teeth, in the slabs of polished pink marble with which she has all but tiled Manhattan... in her charmingly old-world relationship with her husband, Donald. The Don, she calls him. (“You know how she always puts the before people’s names?” says the wife of a Trump Organization vice-president. “Well, one day she was all flustered and she needed to talk to her vice-president of administration, Richard Wilhelm. She went tearing through the halls of the executive offices shrieking ‘Where’s the Dick? I need the Dick now! ’ ”)
  • And if Donald exaggerates a little, does it really matter? [I]n Donald’s eyes Ivana most surely is all those things – yes, even a licensed interior decorator.... Donald, as he will tell you, knows what real quality is, and “in terms of quality,” as he is fond of saying, Ivana is quality goods.
  • Seeking to discover for ourselves Ivana’s no-doubt-very-high standing among world skiers, we spoke with Petr Pomezny, the secretary-general of the Czech Olympic Committee. “Who is this Ivana woman, and why do people keep calling us about her?” he asked in an irritated voice. “We have searched so many times and have consulted many, many people, and there is no such girl in our records.”
  • [S]oon after her arrival [in Montreal] in the early seventies, she was signed by Audrey Morris and Associates in Montreal, an ultra-superprestigious modeling agency. A top modeling agency, you might say.
  • [S]omewhere along the way, Ivana claims to have picked up an “interior design license.” Exactly when and where is unclear. Also how, because according to the American Society of Interior Designers, interior-design licensing only became available in 1982 – and only in five states, and only after a demanding, days-long exam – and Ivana doesn’t have a license anyway.
  • Although [veteran restaurant executive Paul] Patay says Donald had promised that he would be “insulated” from Ivana, eventually Ivana though it best that he find work elsewhere. The fact that the two had never got along surely had nothing to do with it, nor did the fact that during on executive meeting Patay reportedly provoked Ivana to throw a glass ashtray at him from across the table (he must have provoked her – people don’t go around throwing ashtrays at top food-and-beverage executives without first being provoked).
  • Looking out for their beauty interests, she instructed her waitresses to sweep their hair off their foreheads, Ivana-style – bangs were strictly forbidden.... “Erotic/subculture jewelry, earrings or nose rings... noticeably hirsute legs or underarms,” for example, are “unacceptable.”
  • The Grand Hyatt was just the beginning of what would become a career-long obsession with striking contempo styling: Replacing dowdy old prewar structures with sleek, shiny metal, and filling the new buildings with efficient staffs eager to feel the lash of her Warsaw Pact perfectionism.... She and Donald reportedly disagreed about only one thing: Ivana, who has had a lifelong fear of natural gas, wanted an all-electric Tower, and Donald wanted gas because architects and advisors had told him that gas was more upper-class. As his biographer [Jerome] Tuccille has noted, Donald knew when he simply had to say “Tell Ivaska to stay out of this.”
  • And on the ceiling of the Trump Tower triplex, nothing less than a “Michelangelo-style” mural of mythological heroes. “If this were on the ceiling of hte Sistine Chapel,” Trump told a reporter, “it would be very much in place in terms of quality. This is really what you call talent.” [...] “As you are aging, in a sense your tastes are changing somewhat,” she told a reporter recently, sounding like a hypnotist, or Jay McInerney, but in fact talking about herself. “And as we appreciate the old beauty and the paintings and the antiques, which is just grand, which is what the Plaza is going to be.” But have no fear – old beauty doesn’t have to mean “no shiny marble.”


Turns of phrase

We rely on SPY to provide us with an unending array of adorable turns of phrase.

Well, they don’t know “just what the bosomy dirty-book writer Shirley Lord actually looks like,” and they want SPY to run a photo of Ms Lord. We already have – several times, in fact.... [M]ost longtime SPY readers should be able to recognize the well-endowed pornographess at 50 paces.

Better than a poke in the eye, shurely?!

Letters. We get lots and lots of letters

Presaging the full-page reproductions later to be found on the topic of the Donald, we view a letter, charmingly dated 1/1/89 (let’s get the year off to a good start!), from Blaine Blanks of New York. Printing with geometric care on ruled paper, Blaine writes:

I am very annoyed because you take cheap shots at Donald Trump. He is a very intelligent and he has made smart real estate deals. It is not very wise to criticize a man of such stature.

Trump Tower is a glittering tribute to Manhattan. With articles like these, you will go out of business very soon.

Chronicle of our death foretold?

“[My colleagues and I] have found that, in running these programs, our worst nemesis has been the administration. Can you please make various bitter and random attacks – no matter what you say it will apply to someone in the Office of Student Activities.” [...] Although we sympathize, it is not in SPY’s nature to make bitter and random attacks.

But surely those are the best kind.

Typography smackdown (version homosexualiste)

Remember our early glimpses of the meteoric rise to fame of Jonathan Hoefler, as refracted through the lens of SPY’s Letters page?

Well, who’s up next?

We have had it up to here with people who are fed up with people who are sick to death of magazines that print letters from people who just can’t take it anymore. Period. Also, does SPY really stand for Special Pink yeast? Our friend Sandy said so.

Chip Kidd and Barbara DeWilde
New York

Mr. Kidd is, of course, the egregiously talented and charming book designer–novelist–Batman fetishist, and one of the few inverts working in the most heterosexualist outpost of the visual arts. Barbara DeWilde I’m not even gonna bother to Google.

But the interesting thing here is the outright absence of originality. Kidd’s letter is of course a recapitulation of an old Monty Python skit on record: “I think all right-thinking people in this country are sick and tired of being told that ordinary, decent-thinking people in this country are fed up with being sick and tired. I’m certainly not – and I’m sick and tired of being told that I am.” (Don’t bother Googling that. Seemingly every citation is incorrect. Mine isn’t.)

Give Yourself Enough Rope Dept.

‘Lucky Stiff’ A full-page advertisement shows a naked woman, with extravagantly, even mythologically flowing chestnut-brown hair, rendered in full-on Bakshi sex-U-up animation style. She appears to dangle an untripped leghold trap over her shoulder (faster, pussycat; watch out, boy, she’ll chew you up; etc.).


And the title? Lucky Stiff, with a big bite taken out of the K-Y.

Its own punchline, shurely?!

Who could have imagined that Anthony Perkins could stoop to such depravity?

The Usual Suspects

Our “Usual Suspects” column this month documents an action that would be depraved and decadent in any century.

The rich really are different from you and me: They’re evil – or, at least, they pay pious poor people to debase themselves amusingly at fancy private parties. Details of an extraordinary dinner conducted last Christmas are just now slithering into public view. The 20 revelers included, in fact, a solid plurality of usual suspects: Eyeliner-and-comic-book mogul Ronald Perelman; his wife, Claudia Cohen; Donald and Ivana Trump; groceries commissar Henry Kravis and his dress-designer wife, Carolyne Roehm; and nonbillionaires Jann and Jane Wenner [back when Jann offered pretenses of heterosexualism].

For entertainment, the Perelmans had ordered in a Salvation Army band – how recherché! – and, best of all, a sad, dumpling-cheeked Salvation Army Santa Claus. Wealthy guest after wealthy guest sat on the rented Santa’s lap in turn, and each was given a personalized gift – tiny Henry Kravis, for instance, on the eve of his pointless $25 billion takeover of RJR Nabisco, got a giant Oreo cookie. Is that cute, or what? Is that fun, or what? Is this the twilight of the millennium, or what?

Speaking of Jann Wenner

‘He works as hard as he plays. And he drinks Johnnie Walker’ It all came flooding back to me – the incredulity, the audacity, the sense memory of sitting there staring – as I re-encountered the perverse homosexualist Johnnie Walker advertisement.

Decaying, superannuated readers will of course recall the “He does X. And he drinks Johnnie Walker” series of advertisements, the headline sitting on top of a carefully-posed slice-of-life photograph.

In this month’s example, the hed reads “He works as hard as he plays. And he drinks Johnnie Walker.” Apparently the black d00d is telling this to the white d00d, both of them seated in the corner of a racquetball court looking all sweaty. The black d00d is one of those lads with white-man facial structure and hair, rather like Mario Van Peebles. These fellas are about as queer-looking as a volunteer fire department.

So just think about that for a moment. One d00d telling a second d00d about this third d00d in whom he maintains an interest despite the third d00d¹s apparent alcoholism.

Quite something, isn’t it?

And of course “He works as hard as he plays” here is a euphemism for “He makes a good living and he’s great in bed.”

Yet, for his racquetball needs, the Mario Van Peebles manqué is forced to look elsewhere.

Family Plot

Another of those heavily anomalous unbylined SPY squibettes. You tell me what it means.

Janet Leigh (Psycho) is the mother of the young actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who made a widely-noted seminude appearance during the 1980s in Trading Places.

Ingrid Bergman (Indiscreet, Notorious, Spellbound) is the mother of the young actress Isabella Rossellini, who made a widely-noted nude appearance during the 1980s in Blue Velvet.

Grace Kelly (Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, Dial M for Murder) was the mother of the young actress–model Princess Stephanie, who has made widely-noted seminude appearances during the 1980s in various periodicals.

Tippi Hedren (The Birds, Marnie) is the mother of the young actress Melanie Griffith, who made a widely-noted nude appearance during the 1980s in Body Double.

Moses Znaimer, come on down!

The Illustrated History of Hair, Part 5(a)

Very Modern Men Talking About Their Ponytails: A SPY Roundtable Life-style Rap Session

These quotes were collected individually by reporter Anne D. Bernstein. They have been edited to simulate the kind of vigorous yet caring give-and-take that might result if a bunch of men sat cross-legged on pillows sipping tea and white wine and talking about hair.

The idea works a tad better than the implementation.

SPY: Yes, but have you ever been mistaken for Karl Lagerfeld?

Daniel: I was at a wedding and an older woman came up to me and said, “We’re trying to figure out who you are. We see this distinguished-looking man with a ponytail. You’re not that fashion designer, are you?”

I’d rather be likened to Hitler than that oleaginous troll Karl Lagerfeld. Kevin Aucoin croaks and that old alligator can’t?

You are here: fawny.orgTen Years Ago in SPYArchives → May 1989

Updated: 2002.05.31


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