ink-stained wretches

Farewell to the Spiky, Bizarre New York Press

The New York Press, which publishes its final print edition this week, was an alternative newspaper as auteurist statement, reflecting the spiky and often bizarre personalities of the people who worked there. The paper was founded in 1988 by Russ Smith.* His advisors included John Strausbaugh, a sinewy guy with a flattop and a rock-and-roll demeanor, and the brilliant Jim Knipfel, who was going blind from retinitis pigmentosa. Knipfel wrote arts reviews, the crime blotter, and a sardonic, often moving weekly column titled “Slackjaw.” He also worked as a receptionist at the New York office. The way he pronounced “Afternoon, New York Press” when he answered the phone always made it sound as though he was trapped under something heavy.

The paper didn’t feel like it was trying to be the Village Voice, Chicago Reader, LA Weekly, or any of the other influential alternative weeklies of that era, all of which strove to be comprehensive, mostly sober-minded looks at their respective cities. New York Press was all over the place. The paper favored illustration over photography, and the fonts and margins had a faintly nineteenth-century feel. The editors put whatever the hell they wanted on the cover, whether it was a political column, a film review, or a short story.

I started as a film critic at the Press after I moved to Manhattan in 1995. I worked with Godfrey Cheshire, who was later named editor of the film section, and Armond White, who joined the paper in 1997. The paper spoiled me for all future film critic jobs because it gave its columnists so much space and freedom. The editors’ only demand was that we not be too “pointy-headed,” as Strausbaugh put it. When we proposed starting our own version of the Voice’s film quarterly, he shot it down and dubbed it “Cahier du Poopheads.”

The rest of the paper was just as freewheeling. During its heyday — 1995 through about 2000, by my reckoning — New York Press was one of the most defiantly noncommercial, unpackaged, personal things I’d ever seen sold in a news box. Russ Smith, who published under the pen name MUGGER, was a right-winger who wrote the longest column in the paper; he spent half of it ranting about politicians and arguing with pundits, and the other half talking about the lavish fun he was having with his family. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, one of his columns was illustrated with a cartoon that showed Bill Clinton buggering Uncle Sam.

Russ didn’t insist that everyone else at the paper follow his lead. At one point the broadsheet simultaneously published MUGGER, the liberal David Corn, and Taki Theodoracopulos, whose opinions sounded like what the little guy with the monocle on the Monopoly box would say if he were a Greek playboy. William Monahan, who would go on to write scripts for Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott, published a column about historical topics. Future novelist and screenwriter Jonathan Ames (HBO’s Bored to Death) wrote a lively column about his personal misadventures. Future New York Magazine contributor Amy Sohn wrote a dating column. J.T.“Terminator” LeRoy, who was later exposed as a fake identity devised by Laura Albert, published regularly there. Dave Eggers, Matt Taibbi, Sam Sifton, Scott McConnell, and David Sedaris all wrote for the Press at one time. For a brief period, they had Claus von Bulow doing theater reviews.

The paper’s parent company said it plans to fold some of the Press’s content into a revived version of weekly newspaper Our Town Downtown, and let the paper continue in some form online. Its best years were already behind it, alas; the paper started to decline sometime in the early aughts, and in the last couple of years there haven’t been too many compelling reasons to pick it up beyond the chance to find out what crusade Armond had embarked on. But I’ll always cherish my memories of the place and be proud to have written for it. In its heyday, you picked up New York Press each week not having the faintest clue what you were in for. What other newspaper can you say that about — not just now, but ever?

*This post has been corrected to remove a reference to Russ Smith being from Baltimore. He was born in Huntington, New York.

Farewell to the Spiky, Bizarre New York Press