December 3, 2016
VANITY FAIR’S WRITERS ON WRITERS
Edited by Graydon Carter
424 pp. Penguin Books. Paper, $20.
A good working assumption, if you are a struggling young writer, dreaming of laurels but subsisting on lentils, is that those successful writers you envy are all off somewhere together, Champagne-drunk at a party to which your invitation has mysteriously not arrived.
“Vanity Fair’s Writers on Writers,” a collection of pieces from the magazine’s modern incarnation, offers little to disprove this theory. It is not only that the characters you will meet over the course of 400-some pages and 43 articles were no strangers to the cocktails-at-7 circuit (and many of them on close personal terms with the cocktails themselves). They also drank, fought, fawned and flirted with and among one another. The writer’s life is, in part, a vigilant prowl for characters. (“This being the state capital, we had all the state institutions in Jackson — blind, deaf and dumb, insane,” Eudora Welty said in praise of her Mississippi hometown in a 1999 profile by Willie Morris. “Made for good characters.”) As it happens, many of those writers turn out also to be good material themselves.
Accordingly, this anthology reads less like a worshipful or sententious exploration of the art of writing, and more like a highbrow scandal sheet — which, in the best way, Vanity Fair is. (It is an institution in and of itself, and while blindness, deafness and mutism are not often in evidence, insanity is.) It is no slight to say that the gang’s all here — and so, tantalizingly enough, is the gossip. For Toni Morrison’s account of Gabriel García Márquez’s thoughts on Viagra, turn to Page 169.
There are enough gems of this trivially miscellaneous kind to recommend “Vanity Fair’s Writers on Writers” on this front alone, at least to any reader invested in the foibles of the great and infamous. And there are worse ways to read it than by skipping from leavening detail to leavening detail, the “bits” that any magazine writer knows must lard a finished piece. Vanity Fair has called upon some of the most gimlet-eyed to supply them over the course of its history: Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, James Wolcott, Patricia Bosworth and Michael Lewis for starters, all of whom are represented in this volume. (In its original incarnation, published in the United States between 1913 and 1936, the magazine famously employed Dorothy Parker and Clare Boothe Luce, both of whom receive tributes here. Luce, then Clare Boothe Brokaw, apparently had an ermine toilet-seat cover.)
Telling such tales can be dangerous — so learns Truman Capote, whose fall from grace when his short story “La Côte Basque, 1965” aired the secrets of his “swans” and patronesses is retold here by Sam Kashner — but it’s also fun. To know that Jacqueline Susann, best-selling author of “Valley of the Dolls,” upholstered her office walls in pink patent leather, commissioned a portrait of her poodle for the side of her Cadillac Eldorado and fervently believed she would win the Nobel Prize is nothing short of life-affirming, especially when followed by Arthur Miller’s grim diagnosis of the durability of anti-Semitism or William Styron’s cleareyed evocation of his own, nearly suicidal depression. (His essay, which ran in Vanity Fair in 1989, eventually became the book “Darkness Visible.”)
The selection was edited by Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair’s editor since 1992, and most of the choices were published during his tenure at the magazine — though a handful date from 1983, when the magazine was relaunched by Condé Nast, and through the ’80s. (A separate volume, “Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers, and Swells,” also edited by Carter and published in 2014, rounds up writing from the magazine’s earlier iteration.) The mix leans heavily on the biggest names (subject, author or both) and not always to its advantage. Many of the pieces included here feel inescapably occasional, their momentary relevance faded by the passage of time. Some are the brief tributes that fill out the mix of magazines but stand uneasily alone; a few are no longer than a paragraph.
But there are several appreciations worth the price of admission, including those of writers whose due is not always freely given. (Of these: Michael Callahan on the “Peyton Place” author Grace Metalious, and Todd S. Purdum on the best-selling juggernaut James Patterson, as much a C.E.O. of a doorstop-thriller factory as a writer conventionally defined.)
Then there is Elizabeth Bishop’s sensitive biographical sketch of her friend the poet Marianne Moore (and her ever-present mother), which was found among her papers at her death and edited for publication by her longtime editor, Robert Giroux. It includes, by way of plot, an account of a larcenous elephant haircut (for the repair of an elephant-hair bracelet) and the rescue, by sailors, of Miss Moore’s flyaway hairpins on a roller coaster; but more important, it includes some lovely examples of Bishop’s natural (and naturalist) acuity. “Somehow, under all the subaqueous pressure” of her environment, Bishop wrote, “Marianne rose triumphant, or rather her voice did, in a lively, unceasing jet of shining bubbles.”
Dip rather than dive, and such wellsprings can be found throughout “Writers on Writers,” which, ever the graceful host, offers up its own scattered jets of shining bubbles. More Champagne?