When Toby Young arrived in New York from London, on a ticket paid for by Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair for a trial stint at that magazine, he had every expectation of joining a world of journalism characterized by high status, little adult supervision, sexual opportunity, and free-flowing alcohol – the standard-issue Algonquin Round Table dream of the Manhattan writing life as imagined in many an Ivy League dining hall, and apparently at Oxford, too. The subject of Young’s new book, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People is the story of how he found his place not at the table but under it.
It’s not as if no one has been there before. Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, for instance, tells essentially the same story in a very similar landscape. But while McInerney arrived reasonably early in Manhattan’s party, Young arrived in 1995, by which time it had become harder for anyone, much less a writer, to clear a space in the celebrity scrum. With a well-known father, a spectacular record at Oxford, a finishing year at Harvard, and a successful magazine, The Modern Review, already on his résumé in London, Young thought of himself as the brightest of bright young things, a grinning deliverer of one-liners who could say anything to anyone, surf the social wave, and live to tell the tale.
One of his heroes is Clark Gable’s newspaperman in It Happened One Night. “Here was a man,” writes Young, only half-hyperbolically, “who managed to combine the fierce independence of the British nobility with the openness and informality of a true democrat.” It would be hard to discern these qualities at the kind of social events Toby Young attended, even if he possessed them. Young’s most salient personality trait is what he calls negative charisma, which is the compulsion to offend just about everyone of any significance he comes in contact with.
He works hard at it. His enemies list (Martin Amis on Toby Young: “Go fuck yourself”) could make a career on either side of the Atlantic. Large swaths of the book concern his cat-and-mouse games with doorpeople – clipboard Nazis. Once in, he inevitably makes a beeline for the most famous person in the room. He’s a stalker – not Gable at all but The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin.
Some of his celebrity encounters do actually reach the level of comedy. At one party, he buttonholes Kenneth Branagh, only to fail to correctly identify any of Branagh’s Shakespeare roles. At Vanity Fair’s Oscar Party, after having been aced out of a conversation with Jim Carrey by his schadenfreude doppelgänger Alex de Silva, who’s making his way in L.A. as Young forges ahead in New York, he aims to start a verbal confrontation with Mel Gibson, but Gibson sees him coming and uses celebrity jujitsu – “Hi,” Gibson says with a smile, “I’m Mel Gibson” – to take the fight out of him. And his frat-boy subversions at Condé Nast, like hiring a stripper to torment a colleague on Take Your Daughter to Work Day, are tailor-made for – and in that instance, did appear on – “Page Six.” It’s the equivalent of the Bright Lights hero releasing the ferret.
Elsewhere, however, there are the stereotypical black dresses and haughty junior editors and models in the lobby, fauna that certainly exist but that have been observed many times before. There’s a time-warp quality to certain of his observations. “One of the best kept secrets at Condé Nast is how large the gay readership of GQ is,” is one such. And this: “I was particularly shocked by the extent to which glossy magazine writers have given up their right to free speech in return for access to celebrities.” “Shocked”? The word bored might communicate a more current sensibility. Young seems inordinately proud of his incessant, Benny Hill–ish (well, actually, Maxim-ish might be a more current reference) talk about tits and ass and sex on a stick, as if by talking this way he’s striking a blow against political correctness.
Young’s tactic for winning readers over is his British gift for self-deprecation. But this often feels like a pose, beneath which there’s an irreducible kernel of wounded ego. Everywhere in this book, there’s that claustrophobic sense of thwarted entitlement and superiority and bitterness that’s become so common in the past few years. The son of an eminent British socialist who wrote a cautionary work of fiction called The Rise of the Meritocracy (he coined the term), Young is forever harping on the flaws and hypocrisies of his adopted culture. Turgid, almost academic chapters in the last third of the book hash out his self-justifying views on class. “I witnessed countless examples of just how unmeritocratic New York society is,” he writes. “Britain’s more accurate self-understanding strikes me as overwhelmingly preferable.”
Part of the sport of reading this book is to identify Young’s specific pathology. Alcoholism is definitely indicated. But Young accurately observes that drinking to excess can (the Christopher Hitchens model) enhance a career, though not (the Anthony Haden-Guest model) necessarily. In his great public self-immolation that was the closing of The Modern Review, co-editor Julie Burchill got closer to the truth when she called him a spoiled child. There’s plenty of narcissism triggers in his background – the highly respected, distant father, whose values Young gleefully desecrates even as he treats him with an almost somber respect. And when it’s time to clean up his act, his mother, who died in 1993 appears to help him back on course (this, too, was a crucial plot point in McInerney’s book).
Toward the end of Young’s Vanity Fair tenure, Graydon Carter, whom he’d idolized for having his celebrity cake and eating it too, becomes to Young the ultimate list Nazi, presiding over the hollow – and besides, shockingly unmeritocratic – center of American culture. “Jesus Christ, Toby, I’m not going to tell you again,” Carter says at one point. “Stop bothering the celebrities.” But, like a spurned suitor, Young begins to love the abuse.
Young compiles a laundry list of what he sees as Carter’s faults – thin-skinned, self-invented, hypocritical – , and contemplates the oft-noted paradox of the A-list success of the former Spy editors. But Young hasn’t fallen out of love with Carter. Graydon’s crime is that he doesn’t love him back.
And finally, Young gives up, retreating to Britain with a nice, Sloan-Rangerish girl whose brother is a merchant banker, who loves and understands him, and whose breasts he finds very praiseworthy indeed. Possibly, his departure was an example of the American meritocracy – such as it is – at work.
How to Lose Friends & Alienate People
By Toby Young.
Da Capo Press; 340 pages; $24.