New Yorker pays tribute to its various styles during the past 70 years


When Tina Brown took over the New Yorker 2 1/2 years ago, she did something quite shrewd. Definitely, she was going to turn the place upside down -- but how do you turn upside down a place predicated on tradition without looking like some sort of Chanel-suited vulgarian? You beat the traditionalists at their own game, that's how. Ms. Brown's defense: She was returning the New Yorker to its true tradition, the bounce and flair the magazine knew under its founding editor, Harold Ross.

Well, bounce and flair are subjective things, but that hasn't kept Ms. Brown from continuing to present herself as a Rossian revolutionary. In fact, the magazine's 70th anniversary issue (Feb. 20 and Feb. 27) may be read as a giant valentine -- 272 pages -- to Ross and, by extension, Ms. Brown's revision of his editorial vision. Charles McGrath, who suffered the unhappy fate of being both Ms. Brown's deputy and the magazine's highest-ranking upholder of the old order, offers a keen-eyed tribute to Ross. It carries a particular frisson by serving as Mr. McGrath's unannounced farewell to the magazine; next month he becomes editor of the New York Times Book Review.

To see the revision at work, read Martin Amis' profile of John Travolta. Big name visits overexposed movie star and produces piece in which vertical pronoun proliferates. That said, Mr. Amis does manage to get a priceless quote from Mr. Travolta describing how Quentin Tarantino lectured him while writing the script to "Pulp Fiction": " 'What did you do? Don't you remember what Pauline Kael said about you? What Truffaut said about you? Don't you know what you mean to the American cinema?' " That's hectoring of a very high order.

In between the Ross vision and the Brown revision came William Shawn's New Yorker -- which had its own revision, at the hands of Robert Gottlieb.

The Shawnian New Yorker gets its due in Ian Frazier's quiet, precise and wonderfully observed celebration of where he lives. "Brooklyn, New York, has the undefined, hard-to-remember shape of a stain," Mr. Frazier begins, and the piece gets better from there.

Amid all the Brownian motion and Rossing around, it's nice to see room remains for the Shawn tradition, too, and that the New Yorker's townhouse still has many mansions.

The river runs through it

Trumpeting the presence of a previously unpublished story by William Faulkner, the Yale Review (Winter) goes so far as to place a sticker on its cover proclaiming same. Well, there's a reason the story's never been printed before. Barely five pages long and very slight, it dates from the early '20s and is not all that Faulknerian.

No, the notable item here is William Gass' meditation on the Mississippi River. A Gass essay is always an event; he has no peer as a practitioner of writing as performance, as purveyor of bravura for bravura's sake. Here, however, with a subject he cannot overwhelm, one that moves "as snakily as its sinuous and sibilantly shaped name," his singular prose meets its match. This is literary work of a high order, well worth seeking out.

Sacred or profane?

Lingua franca (February) looks at the Jesus Seminar, a semiannual gathering of biblical scholars who vote on the historical accuracy of the statements and acts attributed to Christ in the Gospels. Charlotte Allen's piece exemplifies what the magazine does so well -- discovering some esoteric outpost of academe and displaying its folkways -- and then suddenly zooms into true weirdness.

Among the three dozen or so scholars there suddenly appears Paul Verhoeven, the director of such Non-Testament works as "Basic Instinct" and "Robocop." It seems Mr. Verhoeven has been doing a script on the life of Jesus for nearly a decade.

And if that doesn't seem a tad peculiar, you missed the story in last Sunday's New York Times Arts & Leisure section on the movie Mr. Verhoeven is currently making, called "Showgirls," about "lap dancers" in Las Vegas.

Beautiful people

Vanity Fair, that desperately luxe publication, has Jessica Lange adorning its March cover. She has the look of a woman about to be asked to audition for the role of Norma Desmond -- only she's not quite sure who Norma Desmond is. Which is both a good thing and a bad thing, one supposes. In the accompanying profile, writer Kevin Sessums actually goes so far as to interrupt his fawning over Ms. Lange to announce, "I can sense you're tempted to have a face-lift, but you're conflicted." (Wouldn't you love to be there when Mr. Sessums confronts Quentin Tarantino -- or vice versa?)

Equally arresting -- if also for mostly the wrong reasons -- is Frank Deford's burbling over former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and his new bride, who besides being a quarter-century his junior is "trim, elegant, and lovely." No face-lift temptations for Mrs. Mitchell.

Best of all, though, is Lloyd Grove's look at Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic. Mr. Wieseltier is not exactly a household name, but there's enough juiciness here to make you think Tina Brown is still editing VF.

In equal parts brilliant and preposterous, Mr. Wieseltier is that rarest of intellectuals, one who is, to quote Diana Trilling, "like a character in a gossip column." He puts a move on Barbra Streisand. He wallows in cocaine (or used to). He sports a cape and enjoys shopping for lingerie.

Like Falstaff, Mr. Wieseltier is not only witty in himself but the cause of wit in others -- however inadvertently. As Katharine Graham declares: "Leon works terribly hard. He's writing some very eggheaded book of some kind." You can almost see her brow furrow as she reaches for that second "some."

Given a choice between brains and money, as any VF reader can tell you, always take money.

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