Saturday, May 27, 2006

Vanity Fair's On a Roll

Recently, I've raved about the New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly. Today it's time to recognize America's third-best magazine (at least in my opinion): Vanity Fair.

Take the current (June) edition, for instance. Even though for some reason it lacks columns by a couple of regulars, Chris Hitchens and James Wolcott, there are plenty of other treats to savor. Just listen to the writing by Nick Tosches in this piece about the Mideast's boomtown, Dubai. Like that sublime New Yorker paragraph I excerpted about folk singer Pete Seeger, this lone paragraph is so good and so descriptive, so packed with interesting detail, that it nearly constitutes a full-blown story:

The Dubai skyline is like no other. Silhouettes of cities come into being over the course of centuries. Here, where a few buildings rose from the dirt 15 years ago, countless stuctures now crowd the land and gasp for what space remains. Here there is no sense of accrued form, no sense of architecural strategy, no sense of past becomes present. Here, there is no sense, period. It changes every day, every night. Looking out one evening, I see Manhattan. The next night, it's a boundless industrial fantasia, a ten-fold Newark-by-the-sea. Then, another night, it is what it is: Dubai, shape-shifting, hammering and grinding madly and somehow silently, toward the sun and the stars. There is no architectural ryhme, no cohesion of design, no defining style. It is the visual equivalent of a bunch of speed freaks babbling incoherently to one another. Las Vegas is a sputtering 20-watt bulb compared with this fire in the desert. Forget about babbling speed freaks. Forget about everything. This is a skyline on crack.

But that's not the only great piece in this issue. Elsewhere, the veteran business writer Bryan Burrough, both a crack investigative reporter and elegant stylist, teams with a writer named John Connolly on the best summation I've yet seen of the Pellicano Hollywood wiretapping case. At the heart of the story is a private detective who was something of a film noir character. He'd become the go-to guy among top Hollywood lawyers and studio powerhouses who needed some dirty work done in order to get a leg up in legal disputes. The writers broke open this story in part because they got Pellicano's ex-wife to talk. It yielded this memorable domestic scene:

For the Pellicano's, a pleasant evening might mean watching the Sopranos or one of the Godfather movies. Mafia rituals fascinated Pellicano, who grew up in Al Capone's hometown, Cicero, Illinois. He was a man who playfully brandished baseball bats, allegedly had a dead fish left on an opponent's windshield, and told clients they were joining his "family"--and no one hurt his family. He named his son after Don Corleone's favored assassin, Luca Brazzi. On occasion, Kat (his wife) felt he took the mafioso schtick a tad too far. "There were times when he would make my children kiss his hand like he was the Godfather," she says. He started to think he was Don Corleone.

Despite all this, the piece notes, he once came home and told his wife that they should convert to Judaism, because the influential Jewish Hollywood attorney Bert Fields thought it would be good for his business. This is all interesting, and well done. But the new piece of information in this piece can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. As has been widely reported, this case first started after L.A. Times (and former New York Times) reporter Anita Busch, who was working on a story about Steven Seagal's possible mob ties, told police that she found a dead fish and a note that said "stop" on her car. The message was later found to be linked to Pellicano, who's now in jail. But she apparently wasn't the only reporter threatened this way.

That same August, Vanity Fair's Ned Zeman, who was investigating one of Pellicano's former clients, actor Steven Seagal, was driving through Laurel Canyon when a dark Mercedes displayed a flashing light in his rearview mirror. When Zeman rolled down his window, the Mercedes pulled up beside him. The passenger rolled down his window and rapped a pistol on the side of his car. Then he pointed it at Zeman. "Stop," he said, and pulled the trigger. The gun wasn't loaded. "Bang," he said.


At 9:34 AM, Blogger Jill said...

Now don't laugh, John, well, you know, only if feels good, but Town and Country is now doing harder news stories! I first saw that magazine twenty years ago when I had to "scan" it for Yale alum while working in their development office (where there's horse owners, there are major donors, you know) and it was like reading Vogue or something. But lately, very very different, not to mention in size and appearance.

At 3:01 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Actually, Jill, you're on to a crucial issue that I plan on continuing to write about in bits & pieces here: how some publications with less than famous titles are doing some of the best work, and others with famous names carved out over decades, even generations (like Esquire, for instance) are completely in the toilet. Others, apparently like Town & Country, are reinventing themselves, often in interesting ways.

The bottom line: it pays to actually read these pubs, with as few preconceptions as you can, and see what you'll find. All it takes is an occasional hour spent at a good library or bookstore. Or, to do it electronically, just spend some time working your way down the links along the left side of the incomporable Arts & Living Daily (, which is basically a guide to the best of what's being written and published in the English language. Graze around and see what you find. I think most people will be surprised at how much interesting stuff is out there.


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