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Cathy's World: Toby Young

By CATHERINE SEIPP   |   April 10, 2002 at 12:36 PM
LOS ANGELES, April 10 (UPI) -- Writing about the differences between the British and American press a couple of weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal's Tunku Varadarajan observed that American journalists think "they belong not to a bruising profession but a priestly class."

"The British school, whatever its failings," he concluded, "is good at giving offense. Americans, by contrast, are good at not giving it. This makes them better people, for sure. But does it make their papers better?"

The answer to this rhetorical question is, of course, no, which is why there will always be room in American journalism for rude British imports. Some, like Varadarajan, adapt and flourish. Others, like Toby Young, don't. But even there lies a tale worth telling.

In a burst of Anglophilia he would soon regret, Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter offered British journalist Toby Young $10,000 to fly to New York and "hang out," as Carter put it, for a month during the summer of 1995.

Young, the co-founder of the witty, bitchy Modern Review in London, had recently lost control of that magazine after a falling out with his ex-friend and business partner Julie Burchill. (This was that summer's Big Event in the world of British media; one London paper reported that stories about the Burchill-Young fight came to 1,705 column inches, second only to Bosnia.)

Carter, who'd co-founded the witty, bitchy Spy in the 1980s, was something of a hero to Young, who'd seen Spy as a lifeline during his stifling year at Harvard as a Fulbright Scholar.

Each man had so many romantic delusions about the other it makes you dizzy. The Ottawa-born Carter, famously Anglophilic in that weirdly intense Canadian way, apparently hoped that Young would bring his British attitude to Vanity Fair in particular and New York in general.

As Young remembers it, "I think Graydon had hoped I'd start something like the Modern Review in New York." For his part, Young had fallen in love with American screwball comedies while at Harvard and was also enchanted by legendary newspaperman Ben Hecht's autobiography "Child of the Century," which describes the real-life Roaring Twenties antics that inspired "The Front Page."

But modern American media is no more like "The Front Page" than contemporary London society is like a Noel Coward drawing room comedy, and Young's Vanity Fair tryout quickly devolved into five years of comic disaster in the absurdly self-important world of New York glossy magazines.

Young amused himself -- but not Asian-American staffers -- at the office by calling up the chic designer boutique Shanghai Tang to order Peking duck with fried rice.

Unaware of earnest American office holidays like Take Our Daughters to Work Day, as a prank he hired a stripper to come to the Vanity Fair office -- the same day Graydon Carter's three-year-old daughter was there being Taken to Work.

At the Vanity Fair Oscars party in Hollywood, Young hogged a pay phone trying to phone in a story and got dressed down by Diana Ross.

Now the whole misadventure is recounted in Young's new book, "How To Lose Friends and Alienate People," a sort of "Innocents Abroad" meets "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" in reverse.

True to form, this screw-up memoir immediately caused yet another screw-up for its author upon publication in the United Kingdom a few months ago.

Young's tale of trying to appease sulky British celebrities during Vanity Fair's 1997 "Cool Britannia" photo shoot by bringing in cocaine to the Groucho Club got him kicked out of the private media and celebrity hangout. "They were shocked, SHOCKED, to discover coke is taken on the premises," Young commented in a mass e-mail to friends.

In London, Young, who studied philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge, was well-connected besides well-educated; his late father, sociologist and life peer Lord Michael Young, coined the word "meritocracy" in the 1950s.

In New York, the barhopping, model-chasing Young thought that getting an American Express card with his formal title -- the Hon. Toby Young -- would be an easy way to impress girls.

Naturally, the plan backfired: the card came imprinted with the name Hon Young. "My glamorous dining companions would assume I'd stolen the card from some poor Korean student," Young writes glumly.

"How to Lose" will be published in North America by Da Capo Press in July but until then can be ordered from the United Kingdom via www.amazon.co.uk for just under $20, including shipping.

It's a bargain for anyone who wants a worm's-eye, outsider's view of what life is like at the top of the preening American media heap.

This is in stark contrast to the proudly hackish world of Fleet Street, where Young recalls that the unofficial slogan is "Everybody Hates Us And We Don't Care."

Here's Young's description of Vanity Fair fashion director Elizabeth Saltzman, for instance, taking a break from perusing the unsolicited luxury freebies piling up outside her office door to get Young three tickets for a movie premiere -- Publicist: Gee Elizabeth, it's kind of tough ... who are they for? Elizabeth: [Incredulous]: Who are they for? What d'you mean, who are they for? ME, MYSELF AND I, OKAY?

Young eventually learns that the Conde Nasties, as he (and others) call them, are "a little like a corrupt priesthood: the fact that they abuse their authority doesn't mean they've lost their faith." But it's a long process.

Carter doesn't take kindly to Young's endless stream of weird story ideas ("Dear Graydon, How hard is it in this day and age to become a social pariah? Why don't I try and find out ...") that treat everyone who matters with pointed irreverence.

Young's story ideas, Carter informs him, are like "dog whistles -- you can hear them but I can't."

The month at Vanity Fair turned into a year-and-a-half at the magazine and five years in the New York media world, and Young figures that by the time an exasperated Carter finally fired him, he'd been paid $85,000 for writing around 3,000 words.

Comfortably settled back in London and recently married, Young is now the theater critic for the Spectator and a regular contributor to the Tatler and British GQ. I spoke to him when he was back in New York for a visit.

There seems to be little bad blood between Young and Conde Nast, all things considered. Jonathan Newhouse, who runs Conde Nast's international stable of magazines, came to the "How To Lose" book party in London and even insisted on paying for a copy. Young tried to give him a freebie, which does seem the least he could do.

Did Young actually think that Conde Nast in the 1990s would be as fun as the Algonquin Round Table in the 1920s?

"I did expect people in New York to be a little more madcap," he says ruefully. "I guess I did exaggerate my naivete just for the purpose of comic effect. I wasn't quite as disillusioned as I pretend to be in the book -- but I still was fairly disillusioned. I thought Vanity Fair would be a little more jolly and irreverent than it turned out to be."

But Young's troubles in the New York had as much to do with himself as with the prevailing stuffiness, as he well knows. He drank so much that even Anthony Haden-Guest, the freeloading, well-marinated journalist who was the model for the feckless British hack in Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities," told him to cut back.

A major element of "How to Lose" is its profile of media titan Graydon Carter, who emerges here as a towering figure of comic pretense. But you can't help feeling sorry for Carter, just as you can't help seeing the Skipper's side of it when Gilligan (yet again) does something really infuriating.

The long-suffering Carter must have wondered what he'd done to deserve this pea beneath his pile of mattresses. As he told Young at one point: "Toby, you have a brown thumb. It's opposite of a green thumb. Everything you touch turns to shit."

On the other hand, "How to Lose" may turn things around for Young. There are talks of a movie version. And the book has mended fences with old friend-turned-enemy Julie Burchill.

She wrote a rave review for The Spectator, describing Young "as the most talented outsider since F. Scott Fitzgerald."

Perhaps she was softened by the pride-of-place Young gave her previous comment for the U.K. edition. Just above the title, on the cover, is this: "'I'll rot in hell before I give that little bastard a quote for his book' -- Julie Burchill."

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