The Lead-Meisters


“Ann Coulter is talking too loud,” goes the first sentence in a profile of the ubiquitous right-wing poster girl, written by John Colapinto for the September Elle. Skillful magazine writers can sometimes tell you everything you need to know about the subject in a single sentence. “Sitting across from me at an outdoor table,” Colapinto continues, “she’s almost shouting, laughing, tossing her long blond hair, flailing her hands, her voice drowning out the other people at the adjacent tables with her staccato one-liners. They gradually fall silent, turn, and stare.” The writing takes you there.

Every year, just before Labor Day, Press Clips reviews the latest magazine leads. It’s a subject that never gets old. The point of writing a good lead (a/k/a lede, or first paragraph) for a feature story is to get the reader’s attention. It’s a difficult craft best learned by reading the masters, not me.

Consider the following first lines from a few other current magazine stories—lines that not only tell you about the subject but about the writer’s sense of the subject.

“It takes Colin Farrell forty-eight seconds to call me a cunt.” That’s the first line from Chris Jones’s cover story on Hollywood actor Farrell, in the new Esquire.

And this, the first line from Sally Singer’s cover story in the new Vogue: ” ‘I’m in love,’ swooned Nicole Kidman as she collapsed into the corner of the elevator.” (Kidman had just emerged from a photo session with Irving Penn. It’s unclear with whom she is in love.)

“You can be forgiven if you didn’t watch Michael Savage tell a caller that he should get AIDS and die.” This is the first line of Jake Tapper’s arms-length profile of right-wing radio head Savage, from the September GQ.

Esquire and GQ have always prided themselves on finding original, non-celebrity stories and telling them well. Current issues feature the latest by Tom Junod and Michael Paterniti, both of whom are past winners of the National Magazine Award (as is Colapinto). They are old hands at the poetic lead.

“In the picture, he departs from this earth like an arrow. Although he has not chosen his fate, he appears to have, in his last instants of life, embraced it. If he were not falling, he might very well be flying.” This is the beginning of Tom Junod’s piece in the September Esquire, “The Falling Man,” about a worker who was photographed jumping to his death on 9-11 but never officially identified. Junod lures the reader into an investigative story about how the photographer got the image and about how the government and media have mostly suppressed the evidence that some 200 people jumped to their death that day. Overnight, the image of “the Falling Man” became an American taboo.

“He is a man without a country, a family and a home. For more than a decade, Merhan Nasseri has been living in Terminal One at Charles de Gaulle Airport, waiting. For what, he doesn’t know anymore.” This is the first line of a story by Michael Paterniti in the September GQ, about yet another soul who has fallen off the grid. The man, who was parted from his ID papers on a trip to London, now thinks of himself as “Sir Alfred,” a martyr who is “stuck between heaven and hell.” Writers with quirky stories like these have an incentive to produce good leads, to make sure you stay with them.

I would walk a mile to read a lead by Ian Frazier, formerly on staff at The New Yorker and now a writer at large for Mother Jones. Here is how the wordsmith begins his piece in the September/October issue of Mother Jones:

“Before shrapnel was shrapnel, it was a man. The murderously efficient exploding projectile of that name entered history in 1804 with its first letter capitalized, a reference to its inventor, British artillery officer Henry Shrapnel. Like Colt, Luger, and Kalashnikov, the name Shrapnel came to mean the weapon rather than the man, and people used the word (and the weapon) with no thought for the man . . . ”

The September Vanity Fair contains no memorable leads. Almost every page of column and feature space is devoted to the stories that make up the “special royals issue,” which would have been interesting if the approach had not been so fawning.

“My father was Greek, my mother French; my grandfather was Danish, my grandmother Russian, and my other grandmother half Spanish. Each of them was a member of the royal family of his or her respective country,” goes the first sentence of the cover story, an essay on the future of monarchy by Prince Michael of Greece. Pages later, the prince introduces an interesting argument, which is that “media coverage represents the greatest danger to the monarchy.” “Kings are not rock stars,” he quips (which would have made a good lead). Perhaps more of them should take up journalism.

It never hurts to include the promise of sex in your lead. This one almost has a Twin Peaks feel to it.

“In one of the last weeks of my senior year at Kenyon College, Emily Murray invited me to her apartment for tea. She had blazing red hair in wide, looping curls and swirls and almost arabesques, and it felt silken, and it smelled faintly of what she’d had for dinner. We drank the tea . . . and at some point in our conversation, I leaned in and kissed her.” So begins Daniel Torday’s gritty, angry report on the murder of a coed he knew, which appears in the September Esquire.

Even better to begin with an outright erotic fantasy. The new Vogue carries an excerpt from Helmut Newton’s forthcoming memoir with the following lead:

“I was three or four years old, lying in my bed in my parents’ apartment in Berlin. It was night, it was always night—a lot of my memories are of night. My nurse, my Kinderfraülein, is getting ready to go out, and she is half naked. She has on a slip, and she is sitting in front of the mirror. . . . I know that this was the first time that I had seen—that I remember seeing—a half-naked young woman.”

Compare the obviously more important, but less enticing first sentence of an excerpt from Madeleine K. Albright’s memoirs in the new V.F.:

“Much of what the Clinton administration attempted in its Korea policy has unraveled since I left office, opening scenarios for the future ranging from the restoration of stability to a nuclear-armed Korea, to war.”

PS: It’s great that magazines are now treating media companies and personalities as fair game for satire. In the fall issue of Black Book, Ron English coins a humorous new slogan for Fox News: “More Jingoism, Less Journalism. Got a problem with that?” And the new Esquire offers “Yoga for Men,” a cartoon by David Jacobson and Mark Matcho in which a bland-faced man performs a series of mock yoga positions.

My favorite: “Badmanagerasana,” or “The Howell Raines Pose.” Check it out.

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