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Jewish World Review June 18, 1999/ 4 Tamuz 5759


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Taki Growls And Prowls --
IT WAS ABOUT AN HOUR into a book party for David Halberstam at Patroon last Tuesday night, a swank event hosted by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, when Taki shooed me away from the luxurious side room where I was chatting with Mrs. M. "Go mingle, Russ," Taki dismissed me with a wave of his hand. "I’d rather spend some time with your lovely wife."

Frankly, although I discount about 50 percent of Taki’s rakish adventures that he tells in rat-a-tat-tat conversation, there’s no denying he has an eye for the ladies. Why, just minutes before, a young woman entered the room and sat by herself to smoke a cigarette. "Are you by yourself?" Taki yelled over to her. When she nodded yes, he replied, laughing heartily, "That’s a pity. You’re much too beautiful to be alone."

So I dutifully followed Mr. Top Drawer’s instructions and waded into the crowd, took a few snapshots and gratefully watched Eric Alterman exit with sidekick George Stephanopoulos, after he’d satiated himself with Tom Brokaw face time. I spoke briefly with Halberstam -- he edited the terrific The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, the publication of which was the reason for the soiree -- and told him I was a fan of The Best and the Brightest, an unoriginal observation to the veteran author. But he was polite and simply nodded, saying, "Well, I’m not sure Mr. McNamara would agree with you."

There were a bunch of writers and publishing celebs there whom I briefly spoke to: Gay Talese, Peter Maas, Ken Auletta and Andrew Wylie. But I spent most of my time with Carter, David Hirshey and Richard Johnson. The Post’s "Page Six" chief, drinking a cosmopolitan, speculated with me on the rumors that Mort Zuckerman might sell or shut down the Daily News this fall As I’ve written before, it’d be no skin off my nose if the News folds; the tab’s a bore and its closing would only fatten the far superior Post. Johnson was more diplomatic, claiming that he craved the competition, even if he agreed the paper stinks. Some say that Conrad Black, the publishing mogul who counts London’s Daily Telegraph and the weekly Spectator in his stable, might take the News off Mort’s hands. I doubt it: Who needs all those union stick-’em-ups?

A far more interesting rumor circulated around the room, the gist of which says that Black is in negotiation to buy The New York Observer from Arthur Carter and morph the weekly into a conservative daily. A mighty tall order, if you ask me, but you can’t argue with Black’s track record.

Still, I have my doubts: After sinking some $50 million into his weekly over the past 12 years, I don’t see the upside for Carter, aside from never again having to explain to his peers why he publishes Joe Conason and Anne Roiphe.

Hirshey spent years at Esquire before moving over to Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins as an executive editor—a career uptick that must’ve been a godsend after editing that monthly’s dubious "Dubious Achievement Awards" for 12 years, "a record that is as unassailable as Cal Ripken’s," Hirshey said. Dave Eggers, the brilliant Manhattan writer who’s working with Hirshey on two books currently, bailed on that chore after just one issue. Hirshey’s a fine gent, and told me about a few upcoming blockbuster projects he’s working on, but asked that I not divulge the contents.

As compensation, the next day he faxed this anecdote about an Esquire piece in the Halberstam book, Richard Ben Cramer’s celebrated ’86 piece "What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?"

Hirshey: "Cramer spent three months stalking Williams and brought back 15,000 words that ‘couldn’t be cut.’ However, given the exigencies of magazines, even back then, we only had room for 13,500. When the managing editor, a slight but combative woman who just cleared five feet in height, informed Cramer that he needed to trim 1,500 words from his piece, he turned the color of a ripe apple and vaulted over me in an attempt to separate her head from her body. I was able to bearhug him away and usher him out of the office but he was not done with us.

"That night I had to attend some black-tie deal with the magazine’s editor Lee Eisenberg, a fact I must have casually mentioned to Cramer earlier in the week. So at 10 p.m. Cramer returned to the Esquire offices at 2 Park Ave. and went to work. His first stop was the copy department where he charmed the culottes off the head copy editor and told her that David and Lee had given him permission to restore the trimmed 1,500 words and that she could call us at home if she liked. She did and, of course, got no answer. Cramer, being a Pulitzer Prize winner and all, had enough journalistic cred to convince her he would take full responsibility for any changes. Next, with the new 15,000 word galleys in hand, he went to the art department and told them they would have to drop a photo of Williams in the opening layout and shrink the type on the jump. When they balked, he told them we had given him permission and they were welcome to check with us. Now came his biggest challenge. In order for us not to see his handiwork the next morning, he would have to convince the production department that the piece would have to ship that night because ‘the printing plant isn’t used to handling pieces of this length and needed the extra day.’

"Incredibly, they bought it but not before trying to reach us for confirmation. At 2 a.m., his mission accomplished, Cramer went home to sleep the sleep of the triumphant. Seven hours later, I arrived at the office and noticed three bouquets of roses at the receptionists’ desk. They were addressed to the copy, art, and production departments and all three carried the same note: ‘Thanks for your grace under pressure, Richard Cramer.’

"I got no flowers."

Taki and Mrs. M were having an uproarious laugh when I returned to their corner and I insisted that he repeat the story. It seems that back in ’86, Taki, the late Jeffrey Bernard (who wrote the classic "Low Life" column next to Taki’s "High Life" in The Spectator for many years) and Francis Bacon were having several drinks at the then-trendy Langan’s Brasserie in Mayfair. Taki posed the question: "If you could make love to anyone in the world, who would it be?" Not missing a beat, Bacon replied: "Qaddafi." The comment was overheard by some mortified eavesdroppers at the table next to theirs and they berated Bacon, calling him a disreputable communist, among other things. According to Taki, a scene erupted and they had to continue their bender elsewhere, perhaps at Bernard’s beloved Coach and Horses in Soho.

(The story reminded me of when Mrs. M and I went to London together for the first time and unsuccessfully stalked Bernard daily, reporting to Coach and Horses in the early afternoon, drinking a few pints and reading the dailies. Alas, we never did meet the heroic writer, although we saw Peter O’Toole play him in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell.)

Taki then warned us not to send Junior and MUGGER III to British boarding schools (as if we’d even consider letting go of our precious pranksters at their age), indulged in some John Podhoretz-bashing, cracked up at his own jokes again, just like his American soul mate Pat Buchanan, and told us how he once trumped an uptown journalist who was gassing on one night about his 18th-century ancestors. Taki was appalled at the pretentiousness of the windbag and shut up the louse by saying that yes, ancestors are quite fascinating: “My father used to tell me that we had quite a wild bunch back in 300 BC.” Taki speaks at such a clip and in such detail that, like I mentioned last week, if you drift away you’ll miss important segments of the story; sort of like how Kurt Andersen’s Turn of the Century requires intense concentration.

Taki and I then turned to business and he warned me that the fine essayist Jim Holt would have a piece in this issue that took a few jabs at Andersen. He was sorry about it, knowing of my friendship with the best-selling author, but I told him John Strausbaugh and I had no interest in censoring well-written copy, even if it got us in dutch with a buddy.

Taki himself wrote warmly of Andersen in the June 5 Spectator: "I returned to earth in the Bagel, at a wonderful dinner given by Melik Kaylan, the world’s second greatest living Turk, after Ahmet Ertegun, that is. Melik is an old buddy and he threw his bash for Kurt Andersen, author of Turn of the Century, the seminal novel of this and the next decade. Mark my words, what Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities did for the Eighties, Andersen’s mega-novel will do for the millennium. I sat next to Walter Isaacson, editor-in-chief of Time magazine, and as nice a person as I’ve come across in a hell of a long time. What struck me about Isaacson and Andersen was their lack of...shall we say the Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie sophomoric arrogance and insecurity (well deserved). Real people those two, and both extremely successful in this business of ours. Funny how the Brit writers have gone Hollywood and the Yanks have not."

Taki tried to convince us to wander off to Elaine’s for dinner, but we demurred; he vanished in a swirl of laughter, and we spent a few minutes chatting with photographer Patrick McMullan and his friend Margie Beck. Turns out the two of them also hail from Huntington, although, like my Downtown Little League buddy Bob Franchi, they went to my rival high school, Walt Whitman. It’s been years since I’ve seen McMullan, but he’s an amiable fellow who was very kind to this newspaper back when it started in a tiny Spring St. office in 1988. Along with Anita Sarko and Beauregard Houston-Montgomery, Patrick would stop by periodically to chat, wish us luck against the Voice and also contributed some photos for six months or so.

Mrs. M and I then headed over to the bar where Graydon Carter was holding court. He was in rare form, complimenting me on my “natty attire,” and insisting that when we first met in ’87 I was sporting a ponytail. Disgusted, I told him he was dead wrong. When Mrs. M said that she cuts my hair, Carter chortled and simply said, “Well, that’s a chore that must take less time each year.” Ho, ho, ho. I asked if he’d turn around so I could take a party page pic of his dome. We both laughed, I louder than Graydon. On the way home, Mrs. M was feeling her oats, and two martinis, and said to the cabby: “Hey, Igor, what’s your position on smoking? My husband could use a cigarette right now.” I nudged her, and Igor replied: "Are you crazy? In New York City? We’d all get thrown in jail!"

JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and publisher of New York Press. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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©1999, Russ Smith