Taking the Lead, Again


“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.” What Ecclesiastes said is still true when it comes to writing leads. Just as the women’s magazines recycle the same tips about beauty, style, and relationships year after year, feature writers rely on a standard bag of tricks to draw readers into their stories. (Press Clips recycles, too. Every Labor Day this column is devoted to leads.)

On the surface, leads vary greatly. But stare at them long enough and the patterns begin to emerge. Raconteurs always look for a crisp anecdote that reveals the character or predicament of their subject, at the very least a scene that shows Boswell bonding with his Johnson. Clever scribes try to fake out the reader, muckrakers offer observed details, and hacks announce exactly what they are selling. But everyone’s goal is to grab the reader’s attention, which must explain why Details editors are so fond of the word underwear.

The first sign of titillation shows up in a cover line for Details‘ September issue: “Mark Wahlberg Wants You to Forget About His Underwear.” Never mind that the story is about the hunk’s evolution as an actor, with only the briefest mention of his days as an underwear model. Inside the same issue, a literary crotch shot kicks off a sports profile.

“In his plush corner office, with its baronial picture-window view of the practice fields at Redskins Park in suburban Virginia, Daniel Snyder, the fabulously wealthy boy-owner of the Washington Redskins, has spontaneously stripped down to his underpants.”

Writer Chris Smith explains that Snyder is getting ready to apply heat packs before playing racquetball. But as it turns out, this “endearing” moment is not so revealing after all—according to one of Smith’s sources, Snyder is an “arrogant little fuck.”

A telling anecdote appears in the lead of John J. Miller’s cover story for the September 2 National Review.

” ‘Do you want to hear my favorite CD?’ asks Gov. Bill Owens of Colorado, sitting in the passenger seat of his navy-blue Suburban. . . . The old Soviet national anthem comes blaring through the speakers. The governor doesn’t speak Russian, but he mouths the words to the song anyway. ‘Nobody else likes this music apparently,’ he says, after zipping through a series of Communist marching hymns. ‘What’s fun is to think that we beat these bastards.’ ”

I think I know this guy pretty well. I also have a good take on Beck after reading the first paragraph of Rachel Resnick’s cover story in the fall Black Book, a quarterly of “progressive culture.”

“Like Alice B. Toklas, Beck prefers to sit with his back to a good view. After introducing himself and putting on a Mingus record, he sits in an acid-orange chaise longue with matching footrest. The two arched floor-to-ceiling windows behind him provide a spectacular panoramic vista of the placid Silverlake Reservoir. The air conditioning is the right temperature for a meat cooler.”

I am willing to bet Beck has never dropped trou during an interview. But Jim Thornton showed no such coyness when asked to write about becoming a sperm donor for the September issue of GQ.

“We’re lying alone in our underwear on a motel bed in Washington, D.C., two states away from our young sons. Outside, the morning sun also rises.

” ‘I’ve got a mistress.’ I suddenly say.

“My lovely wife arches her eyebrows over her spectacles.

” ‘Her name is Science.’ ”

Ba-dum bump. Thornton’s hint of adultery is a tease, like Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown. But the double take can be used to good ends, as Vicki Woods demonstrates in her Kate Hudson cover story for the September Vogue.

“Kate Hudson is standing on Manhattan Bridge at eight o’clock on a sunny Saturday morning, talking urgently to Matthew McConaughey, who is talking urgently back. I can’t hear what they’re saying because of the traffic noise.” When Woods finds out that the traffic is merely an illusion created by extras, she has new insight into Hudson, who grew up in the show business factory and glides angelically through it.

There is nothing cheesier than sacrificing the art of storytelling just to make sure the reader doesn’t miss the peg. For example, consider the first line of the cover story in the September 5 issue of Rolling Stone: “Italian actress Asia Argento, 26, agreed to tell us a little bit about herself the other day—if you don’t know, she is co-starring with the newly estimable Vin Diesel in the action-packed thriller XXX . . . ”

Or the first line of a Black Book profile: ” ‘People expect me to be drunk all the time,’ says Tracey Emin . . . who is returning to New York this fall with a show of new work at the Lehmann Maupin gallery in Chelsea.”

Writers inspire more trust when they build their stories on raw, observed details. Consider the beginning of Gershom Gorenberg’s feature on Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the occupied territories in the September-October issue of Mother Jones: “Exactly at noon, the half-dozen young men arrive at a shaded square on Jerusalem’s west side and, with military precision, set up a table under the branches of an olive tree.”

Or this, from C.J. Chivers’s chilling account of covering ground zero, in the September issue of Esquire: “There was no place clean to sit. The men stumbled in from the darkness by the dozen and wandered through the food line, dropping to eat among the rotting garbage near the rubble’s edge. The site had become a blur . . . ”

Sometimes leads obsess too much about their subject’s appearance. Thus, in a profile for the September issue of Details, Michael Cieply rhapsodizes over cute Katie Holmes before giving us the news that director Stephen Gaghan “is a bit of a mess. . . . He’s been working all night. His eyes look tired.” And in a cover story for the August 23-August 30 Entertainment Weekly, Chris Nashawaty leads with a psychological snapshot of Martin Scorsese in 1977 (when he must have felt like “the prettiest girl at the prom”) before announcing that 25 years later, Scorsese is “padding around . . . in a pair of black slippers. His face is unshaven and heavy with gray stubble. His eyes seem tired.”

No one would dare tell Lew Wasserman he looks tired. The late studio head is being buried in hype, as Kim Masters writes in the opening of her September Esquire column.

“It was hardly surprising that Lew Wasserman died this summer. The man was eighty-nine years old, he had suffered a stroke, and the family was so prepared for this event that, in accordance with his wishes, he was buried within hours, on the very day he died. Which is just as well, because when people for whom he had scant regard—such as Disney chairman Michael Eisner—issued statements memorializing him, he had a grave in which to spin.”

Spin on, Lew, spin on.