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

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September 1989

A letter to the editor:

Dear Editors: I didn’t notice that you’d linked my name with Ronald Reagan’s when I read SPY last April (SPY is celebrated for being hard to read). But this linking cut deep [The SPY List].

Let me tell you why: Years and years ago, when it was first rumored that Ronald Reagan might have a chance to win one of the highest offices in the land – it seemed impossible at the time, but sweetly intriguing, like death – my wife and I vowed to leave America if he was indeed elected president. He was and we did. London, le Var and Lanzarote. And now we’re home again.

The SPY List is useful – rich stuff; tough sledding – and shouldn’t be tested against known rules, especially by the listed. I don’t know what The SPY List is. Maybe no one will ever know. But whatever it is, “Ronald Reagan and Gardner McKay” hurt.

And that’s good, am I right?

Gardner McKay
Kailua, Hawaii

A further letter to the editor:

Dear Editors: Ann Hodgman’s fascinating gastronomical tour of pet foods... neglected to mention whether or not one of the Purina company’s claims is true. On the back of Purina Dog Chow’s bags ia a small-print legend: “Formulated to promote smaller, firmer stools.”

Well, does it?

N.P. Bienese
New York

Ann Hodgman replies: “Uh... yes.”

Catch a falling star and document it

“And when I die, and when I’m gone,” wrote Laura Nyro on behalf of rock ’n’ roll performers everywhere, “there’ll be one child born, and this world to carry on.” Plus, in some cases, official documents.

Our story here excerpts from the Civil Æronautics Board Aircraft Accident Report covering the small-aircraft ... rather, the plane crash that killed Charles Hardin (Buddy Holly), J.P. Richardson (the Big Bopper, widely loved and missed), and Richard Valenzuela (Richie Valens). “The high gusty winds... would have caused [the instruments] to fluctuate to such an extent that an interpretation... would have been difficult to a pilot as inexperienced as Mr. [Roger] Peterson.”

Chronicle of Aaliyah’s Death Foretold? Not quite. In the latter case, the self-important starlet demanded that the plane take off even though it was demonstrably overweight, said concern being a curious repudiation of the omnipresent celebrity fear of being overweight. In the Peterson case, the fucker just didn’t know how to fly the plane.

Oh, wait. That’s not correct. “The news comes after revelations that the plane was heavily overloaded with luggage, while the pilot was not licensed to fly it and had been in court on drugs offences.” Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. For those about to fly rockers and their indispensable pile of makeup cases to their vacation retreats, we salute you!

Also, according to Little Richard, Buddy Holly was hung like a dromedary. One can only conjecture how he knows exactly. Something to do with a firsthand account, apparently.

Our Painful SPY Advertising Memory of the Month comes from Aiwa, second-tier yet underrated manufacturer of boomboxen and like goods. (Their tape decks are essentially indestructible, unlike the frangible, motorized papier-mâché art experiments foisted by Sony.)

The full-page advert depicts a particularly ugly Aiwa blaster o’ ghetto, on which slogans have been written in an Upper West Side art director’s simulacrum of graffiti, using attractive block capitals and “neony” colours that are too uniform through the extent of the stroke. GET A GRIP! yells the handle. PUMP IT UP and YO! SO LOW speak the speakers. The best part is of course


on the tape decks, which somehow reminds me of “Buffalo Girls,” a phrase still in inexplicably wide currency.

In “Keep Manhattan, Just Gimme That Countryside,” Henry Alford peers through the wrong end of the telescope all the better to examine the profligacy and excess of Manhattanites’ magisterial summer places.

To the average city person, the prospect of visiting or moving to the country conjures up myriad delightful images: Paying for fresh corn at an unattended roadside stand by leaving money in a battered cigar box; taking long walks on the beach and logging several hours of unrestrained brooding; attending a nearby harvest festival and comparing the handcarved pumpkins with the faces of the local schoolchildren who made them. For... those of us for whom the word summer is a noun and never a verb... the pleasures are only that much more beguiling. And when Brendan Gill, an haut WASP who summers in Connecticut’s Litchfield County, bemoans the replacement of the phrase summer place by the more utilitarian second home – “It’s a shame, really,” Gill says – we want to nod knowingly, wistfully.

The locals, to their credit, display country wile, anticipating the meme of culture-jamming by a good decade.

Although the Millsteins received criticism from neighbors during the process of building their new house (graffiti on the frame of the house read BUILDING A NUCLEAR REACTOR? and TOO EXPENSIVE FOR SUCH AN UGLY HOUSE), they remained steadfast. “Take the old and make them new,” Mr. Millstein told the East Hampton Star. “You can quote us on that,” his wife added.

It seemed almost like a Harry Shearer prank, but clearly could not be, since Shearer, a SPY mainstay, had already written his own sidebar to the “Let’s Go to the Videotape! (Uh... What Videotape?),” Jay Harris George’s exposé of the Museum of Broadcasting, whose very subject-matter should have primed us for the nonsurprise of the Museum’s tawdriness, hucksterism, mismanagement, and destruction of its own collection.

No, the sidebar “Yes, But Just How Many Times Can You Watch a Tape of Curt Gowdy Staring at a Broken Microphone?” – though unbylined – came off too redolent of truth to fit within the Shearer whimsy formula. The piece details how a parodic Premiere article mentions “Please Stand By, an alleged newsletter or collectors of technical difficulties.” Credulous Harper’s interns (not like New Yorker factota, shurely?!) took the story seriously, forcing an unindicted coconspirator named Ian Michaels to concoct an actual newsletter on that topic.

Chronicle of Crank Conspiracy-Theorist Web Sites Foretold? As with a jarringly prescient advertisement, the sidebar almost predicts the manic specificity and obsessiveness of individual Websites, where any deranged and extraneous topic, from hirsute athletes to French teen infotainment programming to entrail examinations of homosexualist sports meets, can find a loving home, like so many orphans of Vietnamese boat people or verminous mongrel kittens rescued from drowning.

More on the advertising front: Surely the collectible of this or any epoch is Spy Notes, a Coles<slash>Cliff’s Notes parody that offers digestible summaries of landmarks of ’80s fiction, viz. Bright Lights, Big City, Slaves of New York, and of course Less Than Zero.

What might be the Aughties analogue? Spy Notes... for Dummies, surely a terrifying and incestuous union?

“Slaves of the New Yorker” by some writer saddled with the space-age neologist name of Jennet Conant harrowingly depicts the depredations suffered by over 300 “Vedettes,” latter-day indentured servants who “assist” former New Yorker Ved Mehta. (Jennet Conant is the wife and spousal equivalent of Steve Kroft.)

This man is blind and requires assistants, as all blind Important People do. But other blind Important People do not demand 24-hour-a-day assistance or enquire as to whether one is having her period that day, putatively detected by smell alone. Of all the Indians in the world that the New Yorker could have employed, indeed, of all the Indians named Mehta in publishing in the world, why select this bullying and quite interchangeable jumped-up guttersnipe?

(It’s not as though pretentious Indians aren’t interchangeable already. There are so damn many of them anyway. Is any individual Indian really equally as important as, say, any individual Icelander? Tell me honestly: If you live in a country with a majority white population, do you really see Indians and Chinese as having the same degree of individuality as blacks or whites? Can you really tell them apart, and do you actually believe they are as individualistic as, say, you and any white or black person polled on the street?)

At any rate, we may add this recollection to the body of urban legends concerning New Yorker verificationists and verificationistrixen, joining, it must be noted, Bright Lights, Big City in unexpurgated or Spy Notes form:

“Whenever the fact checkers would call NASA and explain that they were working on one of [Henry S.F. Cooper]’s pieces, the experts there would groan and say, ‘Hold on, I’m going to get some coffee. This is going to take a long time,’ ” recalls a former employee of the magazine. In one case, she remembers, “barely a sentence ran the way Cooper wrote it. But then the same kind of thing was true of a number of New Yorker writers. There’s a bevy of Seven Sisters girls here helping these guys out.”

Testify, escaped Vedette! I spent six hours on the phone with Michael Erard, author of the Atlantic Monthly profile of me, and exchanged quite a few snatchmails. I was nonetheless forced to spend nearly three hours on the telephone with the verificationistrix fixing his vast range of basic mistakes, some of which I had to correct twice because they survived the first correction session with the verificationistrix. The finished article retained minor errors, including one I had indeed corrected twice.

In my own defense, nothing like that ever actually happened to me, save for one article on an Internet broadband technology. I interviewed a host of recognized experts, checked many of my stated points over with said experts, and still managed to get the story entirely and catastrophically wrong.

But, I mean, that only ever happened once. Out of 390 articles.

I marvel at SPY’s audacity. This issue includes an entire board game, including a double-tabloid “board” printed on heavy stock and a full set of perforated playing cards. If it weren’t for the recherché, cost-no-object production values of Nest, I would aver that no magazine today would dare include its own origami set. A CD complete with jewel case epoxied to the cover, yes. A scarf in a crinkly cellophane bag, of course. But nothing that made an editorial point.

What is the board game about? That is the problem. The topic is surpassingly boring and passé: The New York mayoralty “race.”

There is an allied problem: For the first time in this decade’s reëvaluation of SPY issues, I spot an actual typographic error, as distinct from an error of typography, which is all but inconceivable here:

TV media buy.
Purchase up to three turns.
(at $100,000 apiece).

An underdiscussed strength of the SPY graphical œuvre is its back-of-the-book illustrations, assembled this month, as with many months, by Geof Kern. They’re defocused, vaguely manrayesque or Constructivist photo-collages, and they would function editorially in any era from the late 1940s to the Rapture.

In Celia Brady’s “Industry”:

[Jerry] Weintraub, who looks rather like a three-day-old corpse left in the sun, has been known to “chase” girls as well, but he doesn’t go around talking about his forays – his wife, Jane Morgan, does it for him. A bighearted blond[e] in the tradition of the great old-fashioned Hollywood broads, Jane is fond of wearing enormous jewels. When a new stone makes its debut, she will wave it around, explaining with a throaty chuckle, “Jerry gave me this the last time he stayed out all night.”

Well, paint me yellow and call me a cab. First the typographic error, then an actual error of fact. “Party Poop”:

[A]t the Center for Communication’s luncheon at the Plaza, Washington Post chairperson Katharine Graham is unable to compose her facial features as the preternaturally-well-preserved former journalist Barbara Walters squeezes her hands in a viselike grip.

But it’s not Baba Wawa. It’s Barbara Bush! Unsurprisingly, Bush grande-mère was alive and wizened even back then.

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

Updated: 2001.10.06

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