'Spy' Magazine's Digital Afterlife

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The celebrated satirical publication folded in 1998, but its legacy lives on, thanks to Google Books (and a very persistent film director)

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Spy Magazine


Five or six years ago, at a small cocktail party in Washington, DC, the hostess told an amusing story. Back in the 1980s, she said, while she'd been living in New York, a stocky bearded guy had come up to her on the street, blizzarding her with a litany of lines about how he was a big-time Hollywood director and wanted to do a screen test with her.

He seemed patently unsavory, she said, and she brushed him off. But there was a punch line. The hostess went to her office and came back with a manila folder with containing some creased and battered pages from a magazine. Unfolded and smoothed, they turned out to be a story from Spy, the satirical magazine founded by Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen that went under in 1998.

The piece, from the March 1989 issue, was about a director named James Toback, dubbing him, after the name of one of his films, "The Pickup Artist." Toback had a couple of middling films to his credit—Exposed, with Nastassja Kinski, and The Pick-Up Artist, with Robert Downey Jr., among them—along with the cachet of being a pal of Warren Beatty's. (Toback wrote the screenplay to Beatty's Bugsy.) Later he directed the Downey film Two Girls and a Guy and did a documentary on Mike Tyson.

Anyway, at the time Toback had apparently created an entire social life for himself, so to speak, through his approach—accosting women in the streets of New York, reciting his filmic resume rapid-fire, and proposing that she come back to his apartment for the impromptu screen test.

Spy talked to 13 women who'd had that experience. (My friend had had the same thing happen to her around the same time.) The feature had a fold-out page with a gigantic chart that chronicled each woman's experience and the various recurring elements of Toback's amorous blandishments.

Now, I would like to tell you that, since the Spy magazine archive is being put up, free for the perusing, on Google Books, that you could, with a simple click, see the story for yourself.

But in looking for it I noticed something odd. You can find the issue in question, with Chevy Chase on the cover. The article itself is heralded right next to Chase's visage with a mock movie-poster line: "Director James Toback Is the Pickup Artist." And the story is listed in the table of contents as being on page 82.

You can go to page 79 in the issue on the Google Books site, but then the next ten or so pages of that issue are, somewhat mysteriously, missing.

I emailed Andersen to see if he knew about the omission.

"How interesting and odd," he responded. "I guess it must have happened because the Toback piece was a super-cool multipage gatefold, a great late 20th century golden-age moment in print that the 21st century digital world somehow couldn't accommodate."

There were no legal concerns ever raised about the Toback piece or any other Spy article being put up, Andersen added.

The omission may be a glitch or it could indeed be a technical issue, as Andersen speculated.

But it is also redolent of a very 20th century phenomenon some library researchers will remember—that of paging through an archived library copy of a book or magazine and finding a certain number of pages sliced out of the copy.

James Toback couldn't have done that—could he?

On the other hand, it's interesting to note that Toback's Wikipedia entry doesn't mention the Spy story, though it is of course one of the most notable things about him.

—————

Leaving that aside, you can peruse the Spy catalog here. (Andersen has said the initial chunk uploaded represented about half of the archive, with the rest en route.)

As the Toback feature and so many other Spy features attest, the magazine at its best seemed committed to expending the energy necessary to get a particular story, however unhinged the initial idea may have sounded. Indeed, the amount of work that went into the Toback feature, starting with the reporting (and the attendant fact-checking and legal vetting) and extending to the elaborate design construction, gives one a headache even to think about.

But it was a typical effort for Spy. In an age where folks' minds were supposedly in the process of being dumbed down by MTV and the decline of the press generally, the articles contained reams of information, impossibly clever and insidery jokes (some of them implacably enigmatic to this day), dollops of utter absurdism, and an obvious literary effort descended in various parts from Mencken, Waugh, and Liebling, but also the orotund cleverness of William F. Buckley and the almost indigestible malevolence of the National Lampoon.

And it was all written with a knowing, sometimes sniggering, authority that was, irritatingly enough, a very large percentage of the time correct. (Though of course we'll never know about many things, considering how much of the magazine's snarkiest details were blind items.)

The magazine's design was sometimes obfuscating, with text, sometimes agate-sized, filling odd corners on many pages, often against a colored background that made it doubly hard to decipher. The Google Book editions are screen shots of each page of the physical magazines, making it difficult to read on a typical laptop screen. I ended up using the MacBook's zoom feature (one finger on the control key, as you slide two fingers on the trackpad) to read the thing a lot of the time.

Anyway, here's a few of the gems I remember from that period, fleshed out with a few I solicited from some fellow Spy-loving friends.

Feel free to post your own in the comments section:


—————

As with the archives of other great pop-cultural institutions—like [cough] the early years of Saturday Night Live [cough]—not everything in Spy is brilliant. Some is tedious and on the hunt for prey that was hard to discern then or now. But the best is sparklingly written, crushingly funny and, now and again, timeless.

For example. When the subject of Spy came up recently, a journalistic colleague mentioned something to me his daughter had told him about an encounter with a stranger at the airport. I queried the young woman personally, and here was her reply:

I was at LAX in the summer of 2007 (so I was 20) and he approached me and introduced himself. I had no idea who he was, but he showed me his ID and academy card (or whatever the official name of that is)... which seems to be his typical "routine." He was a bigger guy with a beard I believe. I remember looking him up after it occurred and it was him.

He mentioned a few of the movies he had done... he wrote some of them down so I could look them up. I'm pretty sure I have the magazine sheet that he wrote them down on somewhere (along w/ his phone number) but I think it was "Harvard Man" and "Two Girls and a Guy" that he mentioned... I am not for sure on that but he definitely mentioned some of his previous work along with the project he was doing with Mike Tyson. He explained what he liked to do was get to know an actress and write a role for them... he said he'd fly me out to New York or wherever.

The Pickup Artist lives!

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Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon.com and National Public Radio.

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