James Wolcott knows about envy. He’s spent the past seventeen years holding two of the most sought-after writing gigs in America: Vanity Fair, of course, but also a four-and-a-half-year stint at Tina Brown’s New Yorker. His salary is one of the highest in the business (as high as $400,000, according to Inside.com.). And everyone pretty much agrees that he’s got the most powerful pen in popular culture. He’s a hanging judge who rides a wide circuit. One month he’s demolishing Aaron Spelling’s protégé Darren Star; another he’s making the contrarian case for Doris Day and Rock Hudson. He’s written about Janet Jackson and Truman Capote. The New York Times and the photographer Weegee. For breakfast he dissects self-help books, and for lunch he guts Frank Rich. A piece on Broadway shows with nudity? Done that too.
It doesn’t help matters, at least in the enmity-and-envy department, that Wolcott uses his pulpit – Vanity Fair as well as lengthy pieces in The New Republic and The London Review of Books – to deliver mordant, personal attacks. His columns aren’t just critical reviews or clever commentary, they’re laced with humiliating zingers.
“Today it’s so much about creating a persona to market your work,” he says. “So I feel that I have to write about the persona people create.”
Media heavies are favorite prey. He’s called Steven Brill a “self-made superman” and the “Rudy Giuliani of the print trade”; Rush Limbaugh is “the cuddly master-blaster of conservative diatribe.” Michael Kinsley is “a carbonated version of a policy wonk” who’s so socially ill-at-ease that he “gives the impression he would shoot straight to the ceiling if anyone ever gave him a hug.” Charlie Rose, as Wolcott sees him, gets tangled in a “verbal ball of yarn.”
But for some reason, he’s hardest on fellow writers. Gloria Steinem has “the nun-glow of a strict forehead”; Martin Amis was “the scowl of a new generation” who made writing look “insolently easy”; David Denby is “the boy who cried wolf. Easily excitable and always concerned.” Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis write a “ticker tape of dropped names.” On Richard Ford’s taste for hunting: “Well, now we know who killed Bambi’s mother. It was Richard Ford on one of his death strolls.”
Then again, it’s not like his victims are taking it lying down. Wolcott regularly endures the sort of ad hominem counterattacks you usually only hear in the WWF. McInerney has called him a “righteous Nerd-Avenger,” who can be seen at “Manhattan publishing events, hunched in a corner looking pained and miserable with his self-imported Diet 7-Up.” John Gregory Dunne put him in a novel as a character described as looking like Queen Victoria.
It gets worse. “People were furious about Richard Ford,” Wolcott says, “and I heard that one of his friends was telling people: ‘Wolcott needs to be taken on a walk in the woods.’ And I thought, what does that mean? At the end of the walk I’m shot like someone in Miller’s Crossing?
“Harold Brodkey wrote an absolutely vicious piece about me,” Wolcott says of the late writer’s retaliation. “And when I arrived at The New Yorker, he was telling people, ‘I’m ready, I’ve got a baseball bat.’ I didn’t go up on that floor that day.”
John Irving chose a different weapon. “He was mad at me,” Wolcott recalls, “and he ran into Fran Lebowitz and said, ‘I wish you would work Wolcott over.’ And it was like, Wait a minute, you’re the wrestler! Why do you need Fran Lebowitz to work me over?”
What seems to animate the insular literary world is Wolcott’s invulnerability. Books are generally reviewed by other writers, not free-ranging critics immune to the pressures of logrolling and blurb-mongering – a situation that might explain the tepid nature of most book reviews. Except, next month James Wolcott will publish his first novel, The Catsitters, and he’s finally going to be an easy target.
But it’s not the book anyone was expecting. Not an exploration of his beloved postwar English writers. (“There’s a lot of Anthony Powell and Auberon Waugh in this book,” Wolcott insists.) Not a novel of ideas. (“The very notion makes me want to lay down my sleepy head.”)
“When I was thinking about doing this novel,” Wolcott admits, “people told me, ‘Don’t do it! You’ve got to cover your ass.’ But where’s the fun in that?”
In the summer of 1998, David Hirshey, a former editor at Esquire, was trying to adjust to his new career in book publishing at HarperCollins. One item on his to-do list: Contact James Wolcott about doing a book of nonfiction – maybe a collection of columns. What Hirshey didn’t know was that Wolcott had been working on a novel for years, and that’s what his agent, Elyse Cheney, submitted instead.
“I thought I was going to be reading an evisceration of the chattering classes,” Hirshey says of the manuscript. “And it’s as far away from that world as one could imagine.” Wolcott, he was shocked to discover, had been laboring over a sweet little dating comedy, a male Bridget Jones’s Diary.
Which is not to say that Hirshey didn’t express some substantial six-figure enthusiasm to Cheney; she countered by saying she could get a million dollars somewhere else.
That afternoon, as Hirshey was recovering from lunchtime networking at Michael’s, the phone rang. He was expecting another go-round with Cheney. But he heard, to his dismay, the drawl of Knopf’s Gary Fisketjon, editor of Ford, McInerney, and Ellis.
“I hear that some shit-heel over there is offering a million dollars for Wolcott’s book,” Hirshey remembers Fisketjon saying with menace.
“I can vouchsafe that no shit-heel has offered a million dollars,” Hirshey replied.
“You tell that shit-heel,” Fisketjon continued, “that if he buys that book he won’t have any friends left in the business.”
Strong stuff. But by this time, Cheney had begun to make conciliatory gestures. So Hirshey put his social position at risk and jumped at the chance to make it a two-book deal – for $500,000 he would get his collection of columns too.
Read Wolcott – and just about everyone who reads and writes in New York reads him – and you develop a mental image. His columns are debonair and worldly, etched with an economy of expression and employing startling juxtapositions. “I don’t think there’s anyone smarter than Jim reviewing for the last twenty years,” says David Denby. “He can see the contradiction in things in a way that can be quite breathtaking.”
He carries his erudition lightly but swings it for maximum impact. For example, dig out the essay on TV’s political pundits in the February issue of Vanity Fair and look for the dead-on parody of talk-show banter as if it were written by e. e. cummings. “His columns are templates of how to write criticism,” biographer James Atlas says. “They have a muscular strength – and they are laugh-out-loud funny.”
It’s easy to imagine Wolcott as a character in a Noël Coward play, standing in a drawing room dressed for dinner, casually belittling someone’s talent as he absentmindedly lights a cigarette. Walcott’s criticism – the tone-setting and the delivery of blows – is all done in the adjectives: succinct but biting summations that leave no room for consolation. (One writer’s prose was described as “mentholated.”)
“Everyone thinks I’m Addison DeWitt,” Wolcott says of his reputation for coldhearted critical drive-bys. “If they only knew that I’m just a guy sitting alone at his desk playing with his big cat.”
James Wolcott – the person, not the writer – is a cautious man. He likes to be prepared. (“You know, he goes over those columns endlessly, trying out every possible alternative for each word, so when you get his copy, it’s perfect,” says Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter.) Sitting in the back booth at the Odeon, an eighties literary hangout that suits his victims – McInerney and Ellis – more than it does him (he chose it because he likes booths), Wolcott is pinned behind the table by his alarming girth. “I’ll have a Coke and maybe I’ll order some dessert later,” he tells the waitress.
“I think he felt jostled and outclassed at The New Yorker,” says Tina Brown. “At Vanity Fair, there’s no one else to muscle in on his territory.”
The most striking thing about Wolcott is, despite his large size, how small-scale he is. He’s humane and genial, approachable, not confrontational. Wolcott tells funny stories, ducking his head down and jutting his chin out to produce a comic tone as he mimics people, and offers reasoned but unemphatic opinions on writers, movies, and the general state of the culture. When the conversation turns to his background, he is frank and fearless about his modest roots.
Like most good New York stories, Wolcott’s begins somewhere else: in his case, the suburbs of Baltimore. “My father was, in different times of his life, a bartender and a greenskeeper; my grandfather was a barber. We were a classic Kennedy-Catholic-Democratic household, where portraits of JFK and Jesus flanked each other on the living-room wall.”
Not a likely petri dish for high-culture spores. But things really started to cook when he went to Frostburg State College in remote Western Maryland. He joined the student newspaper, and in his sophomore year he wrote an article about Norman Mailer’s appearance with Gore Vidal on the Dick Cavett Show, and sent a copy to the author. Mailer responded, generously offering to write a letter if Wolcott were ever in New York looking for a job. In a daring and confident act, he immediately packed his bags, dropped out of college, and moved to Manhattan. A raucous career at The Village Voice followed.
The Voice was wide-open territory in the seventies, and Wolcott’s potent combination of ferocious style and diffident personality positioned him to exploit the paper’s opportunities. It helped that he arrived just before its legendary editor, Dan Wolf, left. “There were people literally walking the hallways as if they’d lost their mommy and daddy,” he says. “They’d chew on a pencil and you would say their name and it was like they’d wakened from a dream: ‘You’re talking to me?’ My feeling was, Dan Wolf was great but he’s gone. Daddy’s not coming back.”
Wolcott wrote on any subject he could get his hands on: politics, punk rock, television. New York in the seventies also proved an ideal place to school oneself. He moved easily from Lincoln Center, where he first got turned on to Baryshnikov and the ballet, to CBGBs, where he would catch the Talking Heads or the Ramones till three in the morning. During this period, Pauline Kael picked up something he’d written and the two became friends. Wolcott proudly refers to himself as a Paulette, but that hasn’t stopped him from taking an ax to a host of her disciples. (“I’m of the school that to honor your mentors, you must break with your mentors,” he says.)
“I admire him, he’s a phenomenal autodidact,” Denby, another Paulette, marvels. “He’s learned from literature and journalism directly rather than from professors, which left him without any sense of false piety – and he developed a very vigorous style that turns the surface of things into metaphor. He can describe a performance or a personality and gather it up into a superb visual caricature.
“But there’s a problem with that,” Denby continues. “He stays on the surface. He doesn’t seem to me to make the next step. There is no cultural value to defend. The only terrible thing for him is to be boring. That’s a pop aesthetic. He’s got nothing to fall back on.”
In the mid-eighties, he landed at the newly revived Vanity Fair. The job had a liberating effect on him. Vanity Fair seemed to give him a James Bond double-O license to kill.
But when Tina Brown took over The New Yorker in 1992, Wolcott went with her. It turned out to be a mistake. “He needed to shoot from the hip,” remembers Knopf editor Deborah Garrison, his editor at The New Yorker. “There’s a decorum there that was chafing.”
“I think he felt jostled at The New Yorker,” Brown says. “He felt outclassed by Anthony Lane, Adam Gopnik, and David Remnick. At Vanity Fair, there’s no one else to muscle in on his territory.”
“It’s a great magazine with a great history,” Wolcott says of his time at The New Yorker. “But I never wanted to be one of those people who hangs on just because that typeface is important to them. I was never one who touched the old walls and thought, Oh, the ghost of Benchley.” Wolcott went back to Vanity Fair in 1996.
About the same time he went to The New Yorker, his personal life blew up. “I was going through a breakup,” he says, and that’s when he decided to try his hand at novel-writing. “I was going to try to do a novel about this suburban community where I grew up; all these forests were cleared and these towns would just spring up. You’re going to have an instant community. What’s that like? I wrote 40 pages before I just stopped. I knew I was overmatched. I thought: Updike could do this one but not me.
“I had a writer friend who said, ‘Why don’t you write about what you’re going through right now?’ ” he says, referring to his tentative dating. “Turn yourself into a test pilot.”
The novel took several years to finish. “All along, it was about an actor and acting and the people he met through his cat,” Wolcott maintains. But the story went through a number of revisions, and in its final form, the book starts with Johnny Downs discovering that his girlfriend is cheating on him when she should be feeding his cats while he’s away on a trip. He turns to his confidante Darlene for advice on women, and she volunteers to guide him through the labyrinth of feminine psychology as he tries to turn himself into “husband material.”
It’s hard not to hear Wolcott’s critical voice echoing behind Darlene’s. “He had to be in the book somewhere, so I thought he was extremely clever to make himself into a sassy southern belle,” Hirshey observes. “Or sassy southern ball-buster.”
But it’s also hard not to see Darlene (she turns out to be less self-assured and self-confident than she pretends to be) as a reflection of Wolcott’s own divided persona: caustic wag on paper and mild-mannered homebody in person.
Which isn’t to say that Darlene’s advice on which party favors to put out at a get-together didn’t work for Wolcott himself. “You thought he was the kind of guy who might never get married because he was such a loner,” says Garrison. “Then you heard he was getting married and you think: Great! he’s open to anything.”
“My wife has a novel coming out where she has a chapter about how she outmaneuvered me,” Wolcott says of fellow Vanity Fair writer Laura Jacobs, who married him nearly seven years ago. “Women are pros; men are amateurs.”
Marriage, however, hasn’t meant Wolcott has traded in the wallflower act. “I don’t have this rich array of social contacts,” he says. “I never see anybody.” He and Jacobs live and work together at home. They don’t socialize much with Manhattan’s literati nor do they weekend in Litchfield County or the Hamptons. “We’ve got three cats,” he says, as if that explained everything. “How could we go away for the weekends?”
Whatever the critical reaction to his novel, don’t expect his former adversaries to pounce. The smart money says the Richard Fords and Kathryn Harrisons (Wolcott once dubbed Harrison and her novelist husband “the Sonny and Cher of dysfunction”) won’t want to seem petty or preoccupied with him by going after The Catsitters in print – a fact borne out by the many demurrals I received when I called writers who had already taken whacks at him or been on the butt end of one of his bruising pistol-whippings.
To be sure, many of his harshest detractors claim not to care anymore. (“He hasn’t featured in my nightmares in quite a long time,” Fisketjon says.) But is the current conspiracy of silence any less retaliatory? After all, what’s the worst thing you can do to a writer? Ignore him.
And now that he’s gotten the novel out of his system, will a kinder, gentler Wolcott emerge? Don’t hold your breath.
“I still feel like I’m in the back of a B-52 bomber, strapped to a machine gun,” Walcott deadpans. “Which is fun.”