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These days, it seems every glossy magazine is trying to imitate the top-selling In Style, a Time Inc. mag that gives readers the illusion of proximity to celebrities. In Style creates the illusion in many ways, ranging from photos and fawning profiles to instructions on how to buy celebrity products. But selling glitz is no longer the exclusive purview of supermarket mags The New York Times has apparently decided it can play that game, too.
For proof, one need look no farther than the Times's SundayStyles, the section that features "trend" reporting, profiles of social register types, and engagement announcements. As a rule, subjects of profiles in that section are never roasted on a hot skewer, but rather lavished with the kind of sympathetic treatment known in the trade as a puff piece. In the words of one reader, "The Styles section is about rich people and how they live. It's a view of this world that's romanticized and artificial, and designed to make you feel insecure."
Case in point: a June 20 story on the front page of Styles by Alex Kuczynski, who covers the magazine beat for the Business section. The peg for the story was a Vanity Fair party at the Four Seasons; the story itself was a chronicle of anecdotes about the celebrities who flock there daily, as told by the maitre d', who likes to get mischievous with the seating arrangement. It was a fun read, vintage Kuczynski, capped off by the bawdy tale of four society ladies who got drunk and went skinny-dipping in the Pool Room after lunch.
But some Kuczynski fans felt the story lacked irony and distance. Did she really mean it when she called the Four Seasons a place where "everyone is well known, wealthy, powerful, politically connected, supernaturally beautiful or just lucky to be there"? Or when she likened it to "New York's ultimate grown-up version of the high school cafeteria, except every table is the cool table"?
One Kuczynski fan said, "If [New York Observer writer] George Gurley had written that piece, it would have been funnier and more pathetic. It would have challenged the assumption that we should be impressed with this and would have done a better job of pointing out the absurdity of it all." Another fan said, "She needs a little more Lynn Hirschberg in her," referring to the Times Sunday magazine writer who is famous for her ability to turn the tables at the right moment.
Kuczynski previously worked for The New York Observer, where she mastered that paper's snarky tone. Then a few years ago, she got hired to write for Styles. Since being assigned to the magazine business beat, she has been prolific and ubiquitous, displaying good news instinct and turning out pithy dispatches on short notice. There's no reason why a stylist of her caliber shouldn't branch out; indeed, she has lately completed pieces for the Times book review (on a book by Lewis Lapham) and the Times magazine (on Condé Nast editorial director James Truman, as yet unpublished).
But the Four Seasons story was no throwaway assignment. It was pegged to a huge party hosted by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and Seagram president Edgar Bronfman Jr. captains of industry with so many mutual agendas it boggles the mind. To begin with, the Seagram Company owns the Four Seasons, which caters to the Condé Nast empire, of which Carter is a prince. That much you could glean from the Times piece. What Kuczynski didn't let on is that Seagram's Absolut is a major source of advertising for Vanity Fair, or that V.F. featured Bronfman in a photo spread in 1994 when he was angling to buy Universal Pictures, which he now owns, or that V.F. is publishing a history of the Four Seasons by Mimi Sheraton in its August issue.
That's not to suggest that there's anything wrong with the Carter-Bronfman alliance they are, after all, both Canadian. But the story behind the party would have been more interesting. Times business reporters typically write this kind of piece, pointing out the cozy behind-the-scenes relationships between magazines and the people with whom they do business. And Kuczynski is no stranger to the trope: In a March 15 story about V.F.'s imminent Oscar bash, she described the magazine's habit of hosting parties for advertisers and then running photos of VIPs associated with the product on editorial pages, a practice she called "shameless back- scratching." In a May 31 story, she described a potential conflict of interest between a V.F. writer and her subject.
But this piece seemed to signal a shift from writing about the marketing aspect of the magazine business to becoming part of the marketing process itself. For example, just as In Style informs readers they can buy the same clothes as their favorite movie stars, Kuczynski told readers they can eat lunch next to their favorite publishing nobs. Indeed, she quotes food critic Alan Richman calling the Four Seasons a "democratic" institution where "You'll see S.I. Newhouse sitting next to a tourist from Cleveland."
But that's a fiction, and a convenient one that conceals the hierarchy of the seating arrangement in the restaurant's exclusive Grill Room. As another food critic points out, "They definitely have a Siberia in the Grill Room. It's the balcony." While all the regulars know the balcony is reserved for tourists, Kuczynski called it Edgar Bronfman's "usual aerie."