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Front CoverLast night while reading Reason, one of the posts had an old Spy magazine cover of Donald Trump from August 1990.

One of the site’s readers helpfully wrote in to say that all of the old issues of Spy are available thanks to Google Books.

Spy, which was in print from 1986 to 1998, billed itself as being

Smart. Funny. Fearless.

Somewhere nestled in the June 1987 issue is this self-promoting but accurate blurb:

It’s pretty safe to say that Spy was the most influential magazine of the 1980s. It might have remade New York’s cultural landscape; it definitely changed the whole tone of magazine journalism

Even looking at it in 2016, I still feel the same excitement and anticipation as I did as a faithful subscriber.

I have added it to my News Sites section in the left-hand column of my site.

Any younger readers who want to know what America was really like during those years — albeit with a New York slant — should definitely read Spy. I guarantee they will learn a lot and come to know what true satire — and good writing — is.

Wikipedia’s entry on the magazine states:

Founded by Kurt Andersen and E. Graydon Carter, who served as its first editors, and Thomas L. Phillips, Jr., its first publisher. After one folding and a rebirth, it ceased publication in 1998. It specialized in intelligent, thoroughly researched, irreverent pieces targeting the American media, entertainment industries and making fun of high society.[3] Many issues often featured brief photographs of nudity relevant to a story. Some of its features attempted to present the darker side of celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, John F. Kennedy, Jr., Steven Seagal,[4] Martha Stewart, and especially, the real-estate tycoon Donald Trump and his then-wife Ivana Trump. Pejorative epithets of celebrities, e.g., “Abe ‘I’m Writing As Bad As I Can’ Rosenthal“, “the short-fingered vulgarian Donald Trump”[5] and “former fat girl Dianne Brill” became a Spy trademark.

I would rate the magazine PG overall. In terms of relevant nudity, there was one ‘photo’ of New Yorker editor Tina Brown in tassels (her head no doubt spliced onto a torso, pre-Photoshop), but all I can remember otherwise was the occasional image of a woman in a swimsuit. I would be surprised if anyone were offended, but perhaps I need to refresh my memory.

Spy readers learned about what was going on socially and politically. Journalists often threw in a bit of American history. The magazine traced the trends from the Reagan administration through to the second Clinton term.

I recall the happiness of seeing Spy waiting for me in that day’s post. The subscription crew were also very good about sending it to the UK in a timely manner.

The advertising, especially graphics, from that era is also something to behold. We have lost much in talent and creative skill since then.

My Spy ritual involved looking at every page start to finish, admiring the magazine’s unusual layout (partially imitated, never fully reproduced elsewhere), enjoying the advertising (for unusual products like Alizé, a French brandy-based drink, and Candolini Grappa Ruta), then going back and reading from cover to cover, savouring the issue over a day or two.

The articles in each issue are a mix of factual, satirical and investigative journalism. Even SpouseMouse — English — looked forward to reading them.

A few brief highights follow.

The June 1987 issue has a rundown of famous Americans — media types, bankers and televangelists — who were brought down from their lofty heights only weeks before (pp 7-8). The amount of information packed into two pages is astounding.

Front CoverThe August 1990 issue with the Donald Trump cover has a part factual-part satirical feature on the real estate mogul (pp 50-57). As you can see from the cover, the writers were not fans. And Donald was shouty, even then. The next article is about the emergence of ‘personal injury journalism’, an investigative piece which revealed an explosion of writing about being three-fingered, suffering from Epstein-Barr syndrome, heart attacks or something else — and being paid for it (pp 60-63). The article points out:

This wasn’t always so. Even the closest reading of Paradise Lost doesn’t reveal Milton’s blindness. Nor did Virgil ever hint at his failing eyesight in The Aeneid.

In September 1993, Spy readers were treated to an issue featuring Britain. A Princess Diana with rotting teeth adorns the cover, which is at the top of the post. It is both funny and informative, one of the few issues I have tucked away in the attic. The contents page has this description of the main feature article (beginning on p. 30):


Once the very model of a modern nation, the U.K. is now, by universal acknowledgement, the most embarrassing country to have English as its official language. In a special SPY autopsy, DANIEL RADOSH and LOUIS THEROUX compile regal briefs from the most recent royal tell-alls. Plus, JOE QUEENAN explores England’s thriving garden-gnome industry and other aspects of everyday life in Britain and asks, Is the unhygienic life worth living?

At the time Chuck and Di were going through their breakup, and Andrew Morton had just written Diana:Her True Story. It was not a good year for the Queen. The main article makes several proposals, among them:





Each proposal is followed by a number of journalistic and insider affirmations or rebuttals. It was the best encapsulated coverage at the time and remains so today.

Another reason to read Spy is that it gives you an opportunity to discover how editor Graydon Carter‘s talent and precision later informed his transformation of Vanity Fair, which he took over in 1992. He must have been a brilliant yet demanding taskmaster because there was never a dud issue. That continued after his departure. The legacy lived on.

We can also read the contributions from Louis Theroux and Joe Queenan which show how they developed into social commentators.

The back issues of Spy provide an amusing, informative chunk of modern nostalgia — and will be an education for those who were not yet born at the time. I shall be rereading them with interest.

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