Like many writers, I fell in love with the image of a writer before anything else. Would I have aspired instead to the law, or gardening, or, I don’t know, witchcraft, if Graham Greene and Lawrence Durrell and Paul Bowles had written novels about glamorously dissolute lawyers and greenthumbs and wiccans? Sort of moot now. The writers I loved all wrote about writers—often failed artists, hacking away at some form of journalism or another to make rent, disheveled drunkards, many of them, but with a kind of seductive world view, a seen-it-all wisdom that naif-ish little me believed to be the highest ideal: if what I felt most pressingly was my own ignorance, in the mysterious workings of the world, and the dark arts of human behavior, the extreme knowingness of these fictional protagonists seemed to me the ultimate corrective.
Maybe the worst culprit in my eventual corruption unto print was La Dolce Vita. Beneath all the customary cynicism and world-weariness of the journalist type, Fellini gave us an impossibly elegant Marcello Mastroianni shrugging through ‘50s Rome in his dark suits and droopy Persols to project ourselves onto, and I projected. Never mind that he was miserable, that the point of the movie is that his work as a celebrity journalist was soul-crushing, and that even his milieu of jet-set scenesters found their lives to be worthless—look how cool he looked! Sure, his friends were driven to murder-suicide by ennui, but in between cruising the chic night clubs and writing about celebrities, Marcello was also sleeping with his famous subjects. Sold.
Granted, I may have been a bit more susceptible to the “charms,” illusory or otherwise, of Marcello’s lifestyle because of my dad. For more than 20 years he worked as a celebrity journalist, and, even if he wasn’t going to bed with Victoria Principal or Mel Gibson or whomever it was that he was writing-slash-gossiping about—man, did he have some good stories. While reporting the February 4th, 1985 cover story on Mel Gibson for People magazine from the Alice Springs set of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, my dad to helped create the cover line “Sexiest Man Alive,” launching what has been a franchise for the magazine ever since. But I was of course more interested in the sordid stories that would come out after he’d had a few drinks, about the star, whom he loathed, spouting non-stop bigotry and antisemitism throughout the shoot, when he wasn’t drinking and hitting on every woman in sight.
When, a short while later, I accompanied my dad on an assignment to profile Tab Hunter in Santa Fe during the filming of the John Waters-esque Western parody Lust in the Dust, I thought pops cut quite a romantic figure, tromping around in the ankle-length Driza Bone oilskin duster that he’d picked up on Thunderdome. Like Fellini’s Marcello, my dad too made the life look somewhat glamorous. And, even if he could never afford much in the way of, well, anything ever, at least he seemed to have a lot of free time to loaf and have opinions on cultural things that seemed important to me as a kid. Stupid kid.
When, perhaps inevitably, I eventually waded into the world of celebrity journalism myself, the lone piece of advice my dad chose to give me, delivered as I was en route to the Chateau Marmont to interview a then-20-year-old Lindsay Lohan for my first ever cover story, was, “Remember, celebrities are not your friends.” Not bad, as far as sayings go—it even has a nice, Fitzgeraldian ring to it; not that I paid it any mind then while getting hammered with an under-aged Linds—especially when the ironic, “celebrities, they’re just like us,” is more familiar in our hopelessly Warholian present.
But I always wondered what my dad’s mentor and longtime employer, Liz Smith would have thought of his advice. Smith, who would go on to become the most famous celebrity journalist of all time, with a syndicated column read by nearly 50 million people every day, got her big break when her friends Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton invited her to accompany them on their travels, and, yes, perhaps, write the odd bit about it for Cosmopolitan. (A few years ago, I finally did get to ask Smith about my dad’s warning, and she just sort of smiled and said, “I’ve made a lot of friends during interviews,” and went on to tell me about introducing Lohan to Barbara Walters.)
Along with the friends, Smith also managed to make enemies—a deliciously atavistic concept—which I imagine can only really happen when there are stakes, when something substantial is on the line. In those days, when Smith was at her peak, a household name herself, even, earning somewhere around a million dollars a year, celebrity journalism was very definitely a thing. No more. In a recent Times profile, on her “Rise and Fall,” Smith says she can no longer give a column away, as in, for free.
Indeed, what would a celebrity news or gossip column even look like anymore? If, for years and years, the agreed upon premise of celebrity journalism was that I would write about your upcoming cultural contribution or your ongoing star-selfhood in exchange for some tantalizingly revelatory tidbit, now… Now Kylie can just Snap a perfectly scripted and rehearsed soundbite from the comfort of her Hidden Hills pool, and, done. Why should anyone submit to questioning, no matter how softball in tone, at a time when everyone, everyone, especially public figures, is their own broadcast service, their own channel, when everyone can construct and then disseminate their message with letter-perfection, their perfectly primped image with their favorite filters? To put it the other way around, when the all-too-explicit content of a celebrity profile is just lifestyle branding, or positioning for current and potential campaigns, what does that make those of us responsible for its creation?
These coinciding questions have been of some concern for me over the past few years, in my role as Executive Editor at Interview magazine—a title founded by Warhol nearly 50 years ago to present, with the express consent of those involved, the intimate thoughts and conversations of celebrities. But in the year of our lord 2017, when the Celebrity Apprentice President brags about eschewing traditional media by tweeting directly to his base, what purpose does Interview or any pop culture magazine serve? What role do we have in the presentation of people, ideas, points of view—of subcultures even? If magazines were once the way people discovered others of like minds, if they were there to make oddballs feel a little less isolated, in touch with a community, then, well, there is literally an app for that.
Indeed, if we can take for granted that the incalculably valuable real reporting, done by actual journalists is taking place elsewhere, in weeklies and newspapers, and with all the various services available to tell you what’s good, what’s cool, what to buy, where to go, what to eat, why do you need a glossy mag at all. Well, for criticism, frankly. Commentary, notes in the margins of culture. Subtlety, nuance, and clarity in describing the sensations of existence, the responses to our culture. For context.
All of which were largely missing from my work at Interview, which is why, in the middle of editing our September cover story on Kim and North Kardashian West, I quit. To write some of the aforementioned criticism, perhaps, or at least watch movies about those who do.
For years, I watched La Dolce Vita the way one would listen to a lullaby, to fall asleep to, to dream along with, focused on the haunting chime in the weird interlude at the center of the film when Marcello’s father drops in on him and wants to party, wants to play with the beautiful and damned, wants to be young again, and ends up in the hospital for his troubles. But, as with everything, it is the end that counts, the conclusion which now holds my attention.
While suffering some sort of existential breakdown, Marcello and a gang of merry revelers break into the house of an acquaintance to stage a grim debauch every bit as festive as a Michael Haneke movie. “Say, weren’t you a writer once, a man of letters,” someone asks Marcello, who answers, drunkenly, “I announce that I left literature and journalism. I’m a publicity agent,” he says, “and with great satisfaction.” When morning comes and still the party cannot reach whatever rock bottom they seek, the survivors march out on to the beach, stumbling upon a hulking sea creature slowly dying on the sand where it has washed up, still staring intently at the world. From across a little inlet, the young little angel-waitress of Fellini’s and Marcello’s fantasies calls to Marcello, inviting him back to the land of the living, or something, back to her restaurant, perhaps, where he’d been happy once, while writing a novel. Instead, Marcello goes full shruggie, goes back to the group, goes back to his life, and goes on to pivot to video, we imagine.