Mad about magazines

Mad about magazines

I picked up a copy of Vanity Fair when I was in Books Kinokuniya recently. It was the first time I had done so since more than 10 years ago when I stopped reading the magazine.

I used to be a regular reader. When the magazine was relaunched in February 1983 (it was founded in 1913 and ceased publication in 1936), I was staying over in the upstate New York house of my friend and mentor, the Malacca-born poet and author Shirley Lim. She happened to have a copy of the first issue.

After dinner, I went into the guest room and stayed up reading the magazine from cover to cover. It was a thick edition and very erudite, with long essays by brand-name literary writers and a very long excerpt from the yet-to-be-released Gabriel Garcia Marquez book, Chronicle Of A Death Foretold. The editor was Richard Locke and his deputy was John Leonard, both from The New York Times Book Review.

At the time I was a subscriber to the weekly Book Review. It was - and still is - a free supplement in the Sunday New York Times and a colleague who was attached to the United Nations in New York for a year during that time told me how he would throw away the supplement every Sunday when he got his papers, and here I was paying for it.

In any case, that was how I knew Leonard was its editor and Locke the deputy. With Vanity Fair, their respective positions had been reversed. Leonard used to also write reviews and essays in the Book Review, and I was a fan.

I was a bigger fan of Anatole Boyard, a daily book critic who, in 1984, was moved to the supplement to be an editor and write a weekly column called On Writing. I got to meet him eventually and was to find out later in 1990 after his death that he was a black man who passed himself off as white.

Anyway, I was excited by the new Vanity Fair. Finally, a magazine after my heart, I said to myself.

But it didn't last long. After three issues, Locke and Leonard were replaced by Leo Lerman, the veteran features editor of Vogue. His tenure was short too.

In January 1984, publisher Conde Nast brought in Tina Brown, who had transformed the society magazine Tatler into a modern glossy in London and raised its circulation from 10,000 to 40,000. She would also do a complete makeover of Vanity Fair, making it less high-brow, with much gossip passing off as serious stuff. She also pandered to big advertisers like Calvin Klein. But she made it a success, raising its circulation from 200,000 to 1.2 million.

I stayed with Vanity Fair, among other magazines, from the 1980s to the end of the 1990s. Before The New York Times Book Review, I had subscribed to Time and the satirical British magazine Private Eye. From the 1980s, I picked up magazines such as Esquire and GQ every month at the newsmagazine stall in Holland Village. Later, I would buy my magazines from a delivery man named Sam who came to our office in Kim Seng Road on a regular basis.

I liked Esquire, especially the column by Bob Greene. He was also a daily columnist for the Chicago Tribune and his column was widely syndicated, making him one of the most widely read journalists in the United States. When I was in the US on a Jefferson Fellowship in 1989, I visited the Tribune office and got to meet the man himself. He worked in a small cubicle crammed with papers and there was a secretary outside.

I asked him why he seemed to write only for a babyboomer audience. He was 42 then. He said: "The younger generation has to find its own writers."

He was a family man, so it came as a shock when in 2002, I read that he had been fired from the Tribune because, according to the paper, "he had abused his position by engaging in an inappropriate relationship with a girl he met when she came to interview him for her high school newspaper".

He became an author and has since produced several books.

The other journalist whose career I followed was Art Cooper, who took over as editor-in-chief of GQ magazine and ran it for 20 years until, at age 65, he was asked to retire. The new "laddie" magazines such as FHM and Maxim were winning over his audience. No sooner had he stepped out of GQ than he was felled by a massive stroke during lunch at the Grill Room in the Four Seasons Hotel, his favourite haunt.

GQ under his watch was a literary magazine even if it had to do fashion features and how-to guides for the aspirational reader (I was one of the number). I was told by one of the magazines' board members that blacks formed a significant segment of its readership.

I came to Vogue late, after I had become a section editor and could put the payment on the company tab. Besides its glossy pages of models and celebrities, it had (I don't know if it still has, although the editor Anna Wintour has not left) strong feature articles. I liked particularly the film reviews by John Powers.

It was a demonstration of how small the world was when Powers actually got to meet and then married my colleague Sandi Tan, who was reviewing movies for Life! at the time. The couple had their marriage ceremony here and Powers stayed on for about a year or so before he and Sandi left for the US. I got to meet him and Sandi over drinks at the old Press Club bar a couple of times. He was fretting about the lack of intellectual company here.

I gave up reading magazines when I left Life! to work on a book project. I still read The New York Times Book Review online, as well as magazines like The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books (it was too expensive to subscribe when I wanted to back in the 1980s).

The other night, I read my copy of Vanity Fair, with Scarlett Johannsson on its cover and a special report on Edward Snowden, and enjoyed it. It may be time I go back to reading the magazine regularly again. It's no use reading the online edition; there are too many paywalls. Also, I like the glossy paper and the scents that waft up from the pages.

ricklim@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on May 24, 2014.
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