Think of how easy it might have been to understand Arianna Huffington's bloggy animus toward Tim Russert if there were a book out chronicling all the sordid details of their decade-and-a-half-long secret feud. (There is.) Every gossip-mongering gadabout should know the full backstory on every spat, falling out, and long-running mutual antagonism in media. Below are the volumes no shelf should be without.
The Gist: A gay Polish-Ukrainian Jew from Borough Park moves to Hollywood and enters the mail room at the William Morris Agency. After forging a letter suggesting he had a college degree when in fact he did not, Geffen rises through the ranks to become an agent, then leaves WMA and founds Asylum Records and produces albums by Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. Asylum is sold to Warner Communications, and Geffen becomes Vice Chairman of Warner film studios. He then retires and un-retires after a minor but erroneous health scare, founds Geffen Records, courts John Lennon and Yoko Ono (see below), produces Cats, Risky Business (see below), co-founds Dreamworks SKG, produces Saving Private Ryan, backs Bill Clinton, gives lots of money to AIDS research, falls out with Bill Clinton over one of the sleazeballs he didn't pardon, and now backs Barack Obama. Along the way Geffen throws many temper tantrums and raises his voice to the point where even Steven Spielberg asks him politely to lower it. He also shows a remarkable ability for betraying the confidences of good friends and business associates in order to charm potential clients he's just met. The night Lennon was shot, Geffen was in bed with a male prostitute and loves to boast about it.
The Pull-Quote: "'What about my music?' [Yoko Ono] asked. ‘Well, I've never heard any of your records.' ‘Really,' Ono said. ‘That doesn't sound like a very good reason for me to make a deal with you.' ‘I'm a big fan of John's, and I have a great deal of respect for the two of you, and we do a very good job. We're a good record company.' ‘What do you mean you're a good record company?' Ono fired back. ‘You haven't put out a record yet!'"
The Takeaway: A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Be enlightened and progressive on your own time, but cunning and ruthless on corporate time. Respect for others' privacy won't make you rich and powerful. Endear yourself to those you want to impress by gossiping about people you know behind their backs. It'll smack of such poor judgment that would-be clients will assume you're either crazy or brilliant, and guess what? You are.
The Gist: Gifted writer Tina Brown makes her fellow students feel small at Oxford, dates a host of famous men (including Auberon Waugh, who washes frantically after sex, Martin Amis, whom she adores, and Dudley Moore, whom she does not), deflects charges of arrivisme, and becomes editor of UK tabloid Tatler at age 25. She meets Harold Evans, then married and famously editing the The Times of London and The Sunday Times, which names her Most Promising Female Journalist. Brown and Evans marry in 1981, then move to New York three years later, whereupon Brown revives the moribund Vanity Fair by turning it into the must-read glossy on celebrity doings and the leisure class. She hires true crime reporter Dominick Dunne, photographer Helmut Newton and inaugurates a new wave of magazine journalism, operating under the assumption that "intellectuals should be read and not seen." Meanwhile, Tina and Harry are now East Coast socialites whose fiercely guarded life together aspires to shape headlines, not become them. (Their best friend is British libel law.) Brown takes over The New Yorker in 1992 and remakes that antiquated smart sheet, too, acquiring Malcolm Gladwell, Anthony Lane and David Remnick, who later replaces her as editor-in-chief. On a manuscript submitted by Yiddish Nobel laureate, Brown writes, "Beef it up, Singer," which more or less encapsulates her style of feared-but-respected-or-hated tenure. She founds Talk magazine in 1999, which folds after just two years, an over-sensationalized failure from which this unauthorized biography derives all of its rise-and-fall schadenfraude. (Bachrach is a contributing editor at the new VF, edited by Brown's archnemesis Graydon Carter.)
The Pull-Quote: "We live in a time when infamy sells.... There is no honor, no reticence, no loyalty." Spoken by Maureen Dowd on Brown's New Yorker reign, and quoted by author to make a clichéd point.
The Takeaway: Develop a nose for future A-listers. Sleep with as many as you can all the while adopting an "amused" air about them. Overpaying the talent means you can bully them into submission, so don't be cowed by easily tossed around phrases like "national institution" or "greatest living writer." Fuck 'em if they can't take a kill-fee. Oh, and marry old men.
The Gist: Son of highbrow sociologist Michael Young, who coined the term "meritocracy," Toby Young devotes his life to testing how much strain that already weakened concept can take. He writes for the British Times, gets fired from the British Times. He founds celebrated Modern Review, which traffics in "low culture for highbrows," then shuts it down, much to the dismay of everyone else involved. Young moves to New York in the early 90's, gets hired by Graydon Carter as a contributing editor (read: sinecurist) at Vanity Fair, then proceeds overlong tenure as a piece of gum stuck to the bottom of Graydon Carter's shoe (this is G.C.'s description of him, not ours). Young cracks dud jokes to celebrities, refers to doormen who won't let him into parties he'd end up hating anyway as "clipboard Nazis," does blow while on assignment, asks Nathan Lane if he's gay, gets fired from Vanity Fair. Now back in London (this isn't in the book), Young edits The Spectator, a conservative weekly, and boasts of his "negative charisma," probably as a way to boost paperback sales. HTLFAAP, much like Young himself, has been up and down the wicket of sadomasochistic success. A film adaptation is said to be in post-production, starring Simon Pegg and Kirsten Dunst.
The Pull-Quote: "Cool Britannia was a cry of independence, a howl of protest against the all-enveloping cultural hegemony of the United States, yet, paradoxically, it didn't really mean anything-it hadn't really happened-until it was noticed by the American media. That explained the schizophrenic attitude of people like Damien Hirst, Keith Allen and Alex James: they wanted to assert their indifference to the attentions of glossy, New York magazines, and yet they wanted to be photographed striking this insouciant pose in Vanity Fair. Like rebellious schoolchildren, their protest wouldn't have counted unless it was registered by the authorities. Unfortunately, in this scenario I was cast as the toothless substitute teacher."
The Takeaway: The memoir is a good object lesson in what not to do if you want to hang onto a job or a masthead listing, or cast the impression that deep down you really had high expectations for the world of glamour-besotted New York media. Also, it pays to be obnoxious in a way that only you find ironic.
The Gist: In 1986, Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen found the future of piss-taking journalism in the form of Spy magazine. Épater le bourgeoisie never had it so good, or so the editors – now all dressed up and fixtures of the very culture they once lampooned – are the first ones to remind you. Spy pioneers satire as a clever agglomeration of facts, and specializes in the infographic, the listicle (just like this one!) and the blurb cloud. It attempts to decipher just who, exactly, is on the New Yorker's indecipherable masthead. It follows Anthony Haden-Guest into the dank reaches of his own nightlife. It refines hatred of Donald Trump into an art form. Features include the Liz Smith Tote Board, Separated at Birth, and Logrolling in Our Time, without which everything from The Onion to Conan O'Brien's pre-interview fooling would be unimaginable. The self-conscious prose style is a cocktail of H.L. Mencken, A.J. Liebling and Wolcott Gibbs, and its been swigged by every glossy editor in search of a readership ever since. Once G.C. leaves, it all goes to shit. Like Studio 54, the new owners can't make it work, ergo the justified hubris of the book's title.
The Pull-Quote: "How easy is it to steal the sour cream?" – in a chart surveying the various Manhattan cafeteria chains.
The Gist: You need only ask yourself if you read Radar to determine whether there's any pedagogic value to be mined from Spy.
The Gist: Nameless 24 year-old fact-checker for elite New York glossy (a thinly veiled New Yorker) moonlights as an aspiring novelist, or wants us to believe he moonlights as that while he's busy Hoovering coke by the suitcaseful and partying through the vertiginous 80's club scene with a yuppie twat called Tad Allagash. Tad calls the narrator, who writes annoyingly in the second person, "Coach." His mother has recently passed away, so we're shin-kicked into wondering if a life of artifice and glitz is simply an emollient for real pain. Behind the hatred there lies a plundering desire for love. Or something.
The Pull-Quote: "Just now you want to stay at the surface of things, and Tad is a figure skater who never considers the sharks under the ice. You have friends who actually care about you and speak the language of the inner self. You have avoided them of late. Your soul is as disheveled as your apartment, and until you clean up a little you don't want to invite anyone inside."
The Takeaway: Once Tina Brown takes over Coach's magazine, he's fired. Sort your soul out before you move to the metropolis of infinite distractions, otherwise you, too, will wind up a shiftless anonymity with withdrawal symptoms. (Your apartment can still be a mess, however.)
The Gist: Recent Brown graduate Andrea Sacks wants to write for the New Yorker (sigh) and blankets the media world with her resume hoping to get a dues-paying job somewhere that will eventually allow her to become Larissa MacFarquhar. Whoops. She gets hired by fashion bible Runway's bitch supreme Miranda Priestly (Anna Wintour, not even thinly veiled) as her junior personal assistant. Next thing Andrea knows, she's chasing down lattes at Starbucks and sirloins at Smith and Wollensky instead of learning about ledes and nut grafs. Not what she had in mind but she loves the clothes and even develops a knack for being a second-string slave to a subhuman narcissist. Unlike in the film, Andrea doesn't quit – she gets fired for saying "Fuck you, Miranda. Fuck you." Ballsy, sure, but she does get to keep some of the Dolce and even snags an interview for a real writing position at another magazine in the same building. (N.B. Author Weisberger was Wintour's personal assistant, so this novel is a bildungsroman, which is a word Andrea learned at Brown but seldom got to use after graduation.)
The Pull-Quote: "Fuck you, Miranda. Fuck you."
The Takeaway: How many bright young girls have come to New York hoping to fill these Cinderella slippers, only to discover that not only is Wintour not hiring, but she's honed her filter for confessional opportunists more interested in publishing advances than making sure her Apple Fritter is extra flaky. If you want to be a bona fide reporter, save yourself the aggro and dashed hopes and apply for an internship at the New York Sun your junior year. Also, while it's true that some ball-breaking editors respond well to self-assertiveness, telling your boss "Fuck you" isn't the wisest career decision.
The Gist: The story of Dunne and wife Joan Didion's attempt to transform the life of anchorwoman Jessica Savitch, who died in a car wreck after more or less proving on air in 1983, during a broadcast of NBC News Digest, that she was a drug addict. Instead of a sadder version of Network, the screenplay transforms into the Disneyfied Up Close and Personal, which makes absolutely no mention of Savitch and which even Robert Redford doesn't remember filming.
The Pull-Quote: "The purpose of such a meet-and-greet is to allow the executive to size up the supplicant. [Disney studio chairman Jeffrey] Katzenberg had not read Golden Girl, but he was aware of the less savory details of Jessica Savitch's life. He liked the ugly-duckling idea; it was the kind of narrative he wanted, and he was also responsive to the television background against which it would be played. He did have reservations, and here I quote Joan's notes of that first meeting: ‘Wants to know what is going to happen in this picture that will make the audience walk out feeling uplifted, good about something and good about themselves.'"
The Takeaway: Dunne is witty and disarming, especially when he quotes Jack Warner's definition of screenwriters: "schmucks with Underwoods." Interestingly, the "monster" in question is not the industry or any particular studio executive, but rather the money that governs all, including Dunne.
The Gist: Scandal-sponge Jewish producer reveals the vast corruption, drugs and sexual indiscretions that motor the movie industry. Phillips gets fired by Steven Spielberg on the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, accuses Goldie Hawn of body odor, and, on the night she becomes the first woman to win a "Best Picture" Oscar for The Sting, downs three valiums, one upper, one and a half drinks, two joints and a dash of cocaine. The book is a sprayfire indictment of practically everyone Phillips ever met in Hollywood, and it got her banned from Morton's.
The Pull-Quote: "They were really a rogues' gallery of nerds. Marty [Scorsese] was tiny and asthmatic, Steven [Spielberg] had the soft, flabby look of a typical Twinkies kid, and Brian [De Palma] never took his safari jacket off."
The Takeaway: Sour grapes ferment the best, although it's not as if anyone still believes in some West Coast Arcadia where dazzling moving pictures are made. Still, you'll hardly do better for the brutally honest story of a show biz prodigy that had to burn everything before she flamed out.
The Gist: Following up on Burn-Rate (1998), which was about Wolff's bust foray into the world of online startups, this is the nasty-minded sequel by the former New York media writer who wants badly to be the next Murdoch but can't and decides to just insult everybody he ever envied instead—especially Fox News President Roger Ailes. Most of the stuff in here consists of Wolff's recycled columns, but it's all in one place and no true mogul ever wasted his time searching through web archives. Harvey Weinstein is obese and grotesque. The media business is "collapsing" like communism. Some of Wolff's axioms should be true even if they aren't: "The larger and higher-profile the company, the bigger the nutcase who runs it."
The Pull-Quote: "This was the meta thing. Meta gave both irony and gravitas to what we did. The delicious incongruity between our superficiality and our importance. The joie de vivre of self-referentialism. The stupendous, intoxicating power of being able to create the world we lived in."
Bonus Pull-Quote: "So, as I arrived for my speech, I was thinking of my relationship to the absent but always present [Fox News head Roger] Ailes. He was the greatest, but the Antichrist too."
The Takeaway: Still fun. Like Young's book, AOTM is a serviceable monument to failure dressed up as critical thinking. Though most of the wisdom you could just as easily cull by lunching at Michael's. Wolff went on to try and match-make the sale of his old haunt New York (he's now at Vanity Fair) to Mort Zuckerman, who in the event lost out to hedge fund wizard Bruce Wasserstein. That means more meanness is forthcoming in what promises to be the Dance to the Music of Time of inferiority complexes.