The Gilded Age of Magazines

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The Gilded Age of Magazines

The labor of magazine-making has never been less glamorous, less stable, or less profitable. Prestige, as the union organizers at Condé Nast have said, doesn’t pay the bills. With the churn of digital publishing pushing magazines into the financial and cultural doldrums, the luster of the legacy media job has only gotten duller. Yet there is still a magic in print magazines that does not seem to exist in newspapers or book publishing. Be it a weekly, a biweekly, or a monthly, a magazine can give us a snapshot of cultural mores, a printed record of the present, and a forecast of the future. “The more fragmented we become as a culture,” Tina Brown once observed, “the more the media holds us together.”

There are, of course, many different kinds of magazines that help hold us together: Little magazines like n+1 and trade magazines like Variety, smutty magazines like Penthouse and general-interest magazines like The New Yorker, left-wing magazines like Dissent and right-wing magazines like National Review. Each obviously serves a different master and aspires to win over a different audience, but as revenue declines and subscription numbers shrink, each shares a common fate—and the glossy magazines, which once ruled the newsstand, most tellingly of all.

While Vanity Fair, Vogue, Elle, and the like still carry some cachet, they are no longer ubiquitous. Instead, they are relics of a vanished era of prosperity when their pages were bloated with ads and their editors in chief served as the feudal lords of competing fiefs. Today, when someone narrates the story of this heyday, it is hard not to feel like you’re reading an obituary. Legends of elephantine expense accounts, personal drivers, boozy lunches, palace intrigue, and incessant starfucking: These are supposedly what made the gilded age of celebrity editors and their glossies great.

Condé Nast was at the center of this lucre. Those who worked at its old offices in 4 Times Square, as well as those who observed its goings-on from the outside, have a habit of talking about this era in tones of world-historical seriousness, even if what they are talking about is really just the loss of all those late nights and hangovers, chance meetings with B-listers, and the occasional anecdote about an A-lister. Dana Brown, who rose from editorial assistant to deputy editor of Vanity Fair under the tutelage of its editor Graydon Carter is no exception. As he implies at the start of his new memoir, Dilettante, his book is not unlike The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but for editors with corporate credit cards:

This is a book about the rise and fall of a great civilization. A universal account of change. And my own personal journey through this fertile tableau and morass. Part memoir, part social history, part journalistic exploration and cultural criticism. A lament, celebration, and elegy. The biography, obituary, and capstone of an era.

Brown is only half-kidding about his memoir’s ambitions, but what follows is closer to a Horatio Alger story about a bootstrapping outsider’s rise to consummate insider. A college dropout and mediocre rock musician, Brown was not plucked from the usual stock of assistants who’d edited their college newspaper or been blessed with a sterling family name that opened doors. (He is unrelated, he notes, to Tina.) Unlike his peers, he was discovered as a cater waiter working a dinner at Carter’s apartment. But from there, Brown’s life takes a fateful turn: He lands a job as Carter’s assistant and climbs the ranks, going from answering phone calls to editing cover stories, working (really hobnobbing and binge-drinking) with literary luminaries such as Christopher Hitchens and smoking pot with Seth Rogen at red-carpet events.

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