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Boys to Men

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I found this all to be expat-ish and quaint. Indeed, he was in London, he said, because all the best talent in England had been exported to New York, giving him, he figured, a better chance there than here (just at this moment, James Truman, the British journalist, was revamping Details in New York).

Still, I was surprised when, in fact, in 1992, he got the chance to take over British GQ. How did the Brits fall for this? I wondered.

But all of a sudden, there on international newsstands, was something close to one's mind's-eye idea of a men's magazine. It was rude and serious, flip and earnest, left-wing and acquisitive, drunk and sober, of high and low disposition, respectable and kinky, with a rigorous discipline of providing what VerMeulen characterized as "neat shit to buy." He also put all the good writers he knew to work. And it was dirty -- funny dirty, teasy dirty. Sex as an editorial act.

It was, the Brits said admiringly, very American. On the other hand, it was also the Groucho Club -- that very English establishment of journalists and alcohol and, as they say in London, "lovely ladies," where Michael spent a large part of every day -- come to life.

It was high energy. Manic. It was Michael's life.

Almost overnight, it was a success. VerMeulen became an English sensation. He reversed Tina Brown.

Peter Preston theorized in the Guardian that VerMeulen's instinct was to turn on its ear the notion that journalism was "a pseudo-posh, stolidly respectable profession." It was for VerMeulen, says Preston, "very rough trade."

Fat, alcoholic, loud, louche, drug-addicted, a connoisseur of English prostitutes (I declined to accompany him one night), he became the model man for the next generation of men's magazines. He was, with just a little critical interpretation, if you took away the snarkiness and the snobbishness and the anarcho tendencies, if you ignored the fact that he was also a good editor who was fond of good writers, a maximum lad.

Still, no matter his personal idiosyncrasies, what he did worked so well that the scuttlebutt had him returning to America to become the editor of American GQ. Except then, five years ago just the other day, he died.

Imploded.

You can partly blame this on men's magazines. Or on the life needed to inspire a men's magazine.

I was talking about men's magazines last week with Randy Rothenberg, who did a painful stint trying to revive Esquire. Had celebrity journalism, we wondered, and all that fawning, undermined the authority of the men's magazines (we blamed this on the Brits, who used celebs to impose a class pecking order)? Was it the leveling or absorption of urban Jewish culture (so you could no longer have that interesting juxtaposition of Jewish writing and Waspy furnishings) that had taken the edge away from men's magazines (frat boys as well as urban Jewish kids could now feel perfectly comfortable picking up Maxim)? Did it have to do with the dominance of the fashion advertisers and their dictates? Was it the lack of irony or rebelliousness inherent in the entrepreneurialism of the age?

But what seemed most true was a notion Randy had about the Volkswagen Beetle and the effect of unrequited nostalgia. When the original Beetle was discontinued, he recounted, the company went into a terrible decline. Nothing would revive it. Anything the company did that was not the Beetle itself was tainted. Neither the company nor the marketplace could get the idea of the Beetle out of its head. There was no going forward. That wouldn't and couldn't happen until virtually all the people in the company and in the marketplace who remembered the Beetle had died. Only then could VW reinvent it.

Anyway, these are just some thoughts for the new guys at Details. Good luck, and congratulations.


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