Opening in theaters today, the movie How to Lose Friends & Alienate People is based on Toby Young's lively memoir about a British journalist's cringingly disastrous stint at Vanity Fair. In a recent look back at the 2001 book, we noticed some passages that were strikingly similar to a June 16, 1996, New York Times story by John Tierney. In the story, called "Masochism Central," Tierney colorfully described the habits of the bitchy females and emasculated males at Condé Nast. Here are some comparisons:
Tierney: "350 Madison ... has been called, among other things, the Palace of Pulchritude; the two men's stores flanking the entrance, Brooks Brothers and Paul Stuart, have been compared to sentinels at the Temple of Aphrodite."
Young: "There were so many beautiful girls at 350 it was sometimes named the 'Palace of Pulchritude.' I'd even heard the two men's clothing shops that flanked the building on either side — Brooks Brothers and Paul Stewart [sic] — referred to as 'sentinels at the Temple of Aphrodite.'"
Tierney: "Condé Nasties, as they call themselves, have several techniques for fostering intramural insecurities. The standard punishment for a fashion blunder is a cold stare in the elevator. Critics sometimes affect affability by nodding at the perpetrator's clothes and muttering, 'Very brave,' or the slightly more maddening, 'Aggressive choice.' ... Once a woman has stepped off the elevator, the verdicts might range from 'Awfully matchy, don't you think?' to 'That's over.'"
Young: "As they rode up the lifts every morning, they sized each other up with the cold-blooded hostility of professional athletes ... Disapproving comments ranged from the fairly mild — 'Aggressive choice!' — to the outright rude …." A few pages later: "[The female stripper Young was bringing to the office] caused a sensation in the lift. The two women we happened to be sharing with made no attempt to conceal their disdain. 'That's brave!' said one. The other agreed: 'It's kinda matchy, doncha think?'"
Upon being shown the evidence, Tierney, who had never read the book, concluded it was plagiarism. More bemused than angry, he remarked, "It's at the very least unattributed lifting … It would have been nice to have been credited." Graydon Carter, the editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair who hired and fired Young, agreed: "Certainly looks like plagiarism to me."
Tierney had evidence that at least one of the book's phrases must have originated in his article. He explained, "A bachelor friend of mine had told me that Condé Nast was called the 'Pussy Palace,' but I couldn't call it that in the paper, so some friends and I agreed to call it the 'Palace of Pulchritude.'" Tierney also noted something telling in Young's word choice. "It's funny that he says the same thing, 'awfully matchy,' about a stripper."
When confronted with these similarities, Young forthrightly admitted that Tierney's article was the source for the passages, but he denied that this was "a breach of the code." "I don't think you can call that plagiarism," he said. "I'm not claiming to have coined those phrases myself." (It's worth noting what Young said in 2006 about the Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism scandal: "The thing that amazes me about cases like hers is why the authors don't bother to put what they've lifted from other sources in their own words. I mean, even when I copied out large chunks from text books in my school essays I knew enough to do that.")
In his defense, Young emphasized that in a footnote on a nearby page he had quoted and cited Tierney's article by name. "I don't think it's a sort of mealy-mouthed or weasely defense to say that the standard that British journalists are expected to hold themselves to are not as high as the standards that some American journalists hold," he explained. "We're a little less precious about this kind of thing." Asked if that double standard also applied to book publishing, he said it did, "absolutely."
When told of Young's invocation of less-than-sterling British standards, Tierney laughed. "Well, that's an interesting defense of plagiarism," he said. "To quote the Condé Nasties: Very brave."