How to Lose Friends and Alienate People
Da Capo Press. 340 pp. $24...
Da Capo Press. 340 pp. $24
Reviewed by Ben Yagoda
"When The Front Page was first produced in 1926," Young writes, "the New York Times theater critic Walter Kerr described the essence of Burns’s appeal as"–stop there: The sentence already contains two factual errors. The Front Page premiered in 1928, at which time Walter Kerr was 15 years old. In a one-sentence footnote on the same page of his memoir, Young tops himself with three mistakes: "When Harold Ross originally conceived of The New Yorker in 1922 it was going to be subtitled: ‘Not for the little old lady from Dubuque.’" The magazine was planned in 1924; the phrase was a characterization in the prospectus, never a potential subtitle, and its actual wording was "The New Yorker will be the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque."
I break with convention and point out some of Young’s tangential errors at the beginning rather than the end of this review because they seem germane to the argument. In 1995, Young, an Englishman then 32 years old, was hired to come to New York and join the staff of Vanity Fair. The magazine’s editor, Graydon Carter, fired him after about two years, a period in which, Young readily acknowledges, he contributed next to no writing, messed up nearly all the administrative tasks he was assigned, and committed a series of other blunders, including bringing in a stripper on Take Your Daughter to Work Day. He does not seek to absolve himself completely from responsibility for his flameout, but mostly he blames Vanity Fair (in his view, an upscale supermarket tabloid under the thumb of publicists for the celebrities it covers), New York journalists ("pinched and hidebound careerists who never got drunk and were safely tucked up in bed by 10 p.m."), and America itself (in the grips of a politically correct tyranny of the majority, much as Alexis de Tocqueville predicted).
But a reading of the book suggests an alternate view: that Young failed because he turned out to be a lazy and undistinguished magazine writer. True, Vanity Fair prints its share–more than its share–of celebrity nonsense. But the readers, and consequently the ads, pulled in by the fluff have allowed the magazine to be one of the few in the world with a commitment to the long, exhaustively reported narrative. That isn’t Young’s kind of thing–if he couldn’t be bothered to spend 17 seconds on the Internet checking the opening date of The Front Page, how could he be expected to hunt through dusty archives, travel to war zones, or hound stonewalling sources? No, he came to America in order to cover and hang around with celebrities. It’s just that he wanted to do it the right way, which in his mind had something vaguely to do with the Algonquin Round Table, The Front Page, and Jimmy Stewart’s character in The Philadelphia Story. The trouble is, there is no right way to cover celebrities, or rather, to the extent that there is, it has nothing to do with good journalism, good writing, or being able to take a good look at yourself in the mirror.
I don’t want to give the impression that Young is unfailingly self-righteous. His first impulse is always to make himself the butt of the joke, and most of the book consists of entertaining anecdotes about his spectacular and mundane failures in the workplace and elsewhere. (My favorite ends with Diana Ross screaming at him for hogging a pay phone at the Vanity Fair Oscar party.) After much pain and humiliation he eventually acquires a bit of self-knowledge, which he sketches in a deft shift from comedy to something like introspection.
Indeed, Young gets into trouble only when he tries to make a point about something other than himself. So enjoy How To Lose Friends and Alienate People for the comic set pieces, but as soon as you encounter the words Tocqueville or Algonquin, skip to the next chapter.