'Spy' Magazine's Digital Afterlife

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


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.)

Presented by

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

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