In New York, at Vanity Fair, in the mind of all-powerful editor Graydon Carter, there are seven rooms, each more important than the last. These are metaphorical rooms, designed for those who think they have what it takes to write at Vanity Fair.
Toby Young, a rabble-rousing, hard-drinking, obnoxious thirty-something Brit, was one such writer who never got past the first room, and isn't likely to get past the front desk now that he's hammered Ottawa boy Carter in How to Lose Friends & Alienate People (Little, Brown U.K.)
From 1995 until Carter fired him in the summer of 1997, Young cut a pretty ugly swath through Vanity Fair, and he did it the old-fashioned way: through too much booze and a lot of stupidity, like the time he asked Broadway star Nathan Lane if he was Jewish and next if he was gay, prompting him to storm out of the interview. When Young got back to the office, Carter was waiting:
"'What were you thinking?' asked Graydon, too staggered by my ineptitude to work himself up into a proper rage. 'You can't ask Hollywood celebrities whether they're Jewish or gay. Just assume they're both Jewish and gay, OK?'" But that's not the dumbest thing he did. "No. It was probably hiring a Stripogram on Take Your Daughter to Work Day," he says over the phone from London. "That really kind of destroyed my credibility... After that, I was just the office clown, which is a tough position from which to mount an assault on the editorship."
Despite behaviour to the contrary, Young is no dummy. He went to Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard, and was co-founder of the late, great Modern Review, a journal whose motto was "low culture for highbrows." This, initially at least, endeared him to Carter, who asked him to come to New York to "hang out" at Vanity Fair. Young's first instinct was to ask how much they would pay him:
"Graydon was incredulous.
"'How much money? Who are you, Woodward f-----g Bernstein? Are you telling me you won't come over here for a month unless I pay you a ton of money?'
"'Well ... I don't care what you pay me. In fact ...'
"'Look, I'll pay you $10,000, OK?'
"Now it was my turn to whistle."
Young had visions of Dorothy Parker-like writers; what he got instead were people who thought a fawning Sylvester Stallone profile made for good copy, people who felt an extraordinary sense of entitlement, be it samples from the biggest fashion houses or tickets from the biggest Broadway plays, all of which they didn't have to ask for -- they just showed up.
"I didn't think too carefully about it," he says now, explaining his original misconception about the magazine. "I was just dazzled by its glamour. And in my mind, I thought of it as a publication with some trashy characteristics, but with a kind of literary heart. Under Tina Brown they published the whole of Darkness Visible by Paul Auster (actually, William Styron). It certainly has a very literary pedigree. Even today, some fairly heavyweight writers work for the magazine -- Christopher Hitchens, David Halberstam, James Wolcott. I guess I thought that I would be hanging out with these kind of tough, hard-drinking New York newspapermen."
The thought makes him laugh. In fact, he was almost a pariah, and in the two years there, he wrote a grand total of 3,000 words. He should have heeded what Carter told him on his first day:
"'You think you've arrived, doncha?' he said. 'I hate to break it to you but you're only in the first room.' He paused. 'It's not nothing -- don't get me wrong -- but it's not that great either. Believe me, there are plenty of people in this town who got to the first room and then didn't get any further. After a year or so, maybe longer, you'll discover a secret doorway at the back of the first room that leads to the second room. In time, if you're lucky, you'll discover a doorway in the back of the second room that leads to the third. There are seven rooms in total and you're in the first. Doncha forget it.'" "This, I later discovered, was Graydon's 'seven rooms' speech, a pep talk he gives to all new recruits."
He frequently clashed with Carter, who comes across as slick and arrogant in the book, the most comical, perhaps, being this incident.
"'You British people come to New York, you take our money, you look down your noses at us ... What you don't realize is, we could wipe your country out in 20 minutes! There wouldn't be a chip store left standing! Goddammit, if it wasn't for us, you'd be speaking German!'
"Wait a minute, I thought. Aren't you Canadian? It took an almost superhuman effort not to say, 'Actually, Graydon, if it wasn't for us, you'd be speaking French.'"
It's hard to believe the two still like each other -- Carter turned up at Young's going-away party last year and Young remains grateful for the opportunity he was given -- but they do. So we asked Young if he's heard from the VF editor.
"I heard from a third party that he liked the book and thought it was very funny," he says. "I thought it could have gone either way, but I'm glad that he did like it. I've been accused by some people of having done a hatchet job on Graydon, while others have accused me of pulling my punches ... I think it's a very accurate, warts and all, portrait."
James Macgowan can be reached at email@example.com