12 Days of Reading Recommendations, Day 11: Excommunicating the Aesthetic Elect
Like a lot of people this year, I've availed myself of a few different excellent library systems and gotten a lot of reading done. I thought for an end-of-year treat, I'd share the books I'd recommend and what makes them worth reading. And wouldn't you know it, my reading just happens to sort of self-sift into twelve different subject areas, so it's twelve days of reading! Each day's recommendations newsletter will clock in at 600 words or less, so you can gulp this quick bite when you need a minute to yourself. Enjoy giving your Libby app a vigorous workout or making some independent bookseller very happy.
EXCOMMUNICATING THE AESTHETIC ELECT
I spent Black Friday rereading the apogee of Judith Krantz's shopping-and-****king oeuvre -- Scruples, Scruples 2 and Lovers .
These books felt as if they had just been released from the Giorgio-scented air of a middle school time capsule. One of the more remarkable relics unearthed on this reread was Krantz's belief in the ability of glossy magazines to crown or depose tastemakers. In her world, magazine editors were a sort of aesthetic elect. It took me a minute in the 21st century to remember that yes, once upon a time, these gatekeepers existed in the 20th.
So it's fitting to segue into the two books that I'm most ambivalent about, Ruth Reichl's Save Me the Plums and Andre Leon Talley's The Chiffon Trenches.
Reichl's memoir is about her tenure as the editor in chief of Gourmet at the turn of the century, right as several forces -- the rise of an adult cohort that went to the World Wide Web before going to a newsstand, the cresting wave of the Food Network as cultural juggernaut and the inauguration of food as the new rock and roll -- conspired to doom that august publication.
The corporate excesses Reichl details are unimaginable if one has worked in journalism in the 21st century. Still, it's fun to read about someone else's good time, and sobering to see how a company that thrived off telling people how to live throughout the 20th century was too arrogant to pay attention to what people wanted in the 21st.
Talley's second memoir is best understood as a tragic sequel to A.L.T. His first book was a paean to the minor arts, as Cecil Beaton put it -- his writing about his grandmother's ironed sheets and her biscuits gave one extraordinary insight into Talley's ability to identify and appreciate excellence along any aesthetic or sensual axis. Talley's second book lays bare his belief that a steadfast commitment to beautiful things will lead to steadfast commitment from beautiful people, yet illustrates that is exactly what did not happen.
An interesting testament to how to live beautifully, in multiple senses of the word, comes from Talley's former colleague at Vogue, Julia Reed. In her memoir of post-Katrina life, The House on First Street, she wrote:
I remembered watching Diana’s funeral in my big iron bed. It was four o’clock in the morning, and I was on the phone during the whole event with Andre Leon Talley, Vogue’s editor-at-large and my very dear friend, who kept up a running — shrieking — commentary that lightened up the proceedings considerably: “What IS THAT on Fergie’s head? Would you LOOK at how many earrings Elton is wearing.” Toward the end, a very frantic Vicki Woods cut in. She was our friend in London who had a coveted seat in St. Paul’s, where her view had been entirely obliterated by one of Sir Christopher Wren’s vast pillars. She had a half hour to write exactly the sort of stuff we’d been saying to each other for a special edition of The Telegraph, so we basically dictated the whole story, and I recalled the episode often as an oddly happy morning.
Reed departed Vogue in 2008 -- "I could read the tea leaves that the 'fun' era of magazines was about to end," she said. Her body of work over the 20 years she was there was deservedly lauded as "singlehandedly putting Vogue's political coverage on the map," and her lifestyle writing was equally rigorous. And then Reed departed this life in August 2020. Her Newsweek editor Jon Meacham eulogized her for Garden & Gun thusly: "Whether her subject was Scotch whiskey, the opossum, or the mad politics, mournful music, and out-of-the-way cafes and bars of the South, Julia unerringly found the universal in the particular."
Losing Reed's voice this year felt like a real farewell to the tasteful, exclusive sparkle that Krantz associated with the lifestyle media in the 1980s. And in that context, reading Reichl and Talley's memoirs provides a fascinating look at the difference between being able to read the writing on the wall and choosing instead to devote oneself to exalting the calligraphy in which those truths have been written.
BOOKS MENTIONED IN THIS NEWSLETTER:
The House on First Street, Julia Reed
Save Me the Plums, Ruth Reichl
A.L.T.: A Memoir, Andre Leon Talley
The Chiffon Trenches, Andre Leon Talley
BONUS INTERNET FUN:
Tally Abecassis and Kim France's podcast "Everything Is Fine" featured an episode with Stacy London, who had been at Mademoiselle in the late 1990s, and there's about five minutes of Glossy Magazine Alumni Talk where France and London reminiscence about what it was like to work at women's magazines in the 1990s. It's a nice little addition to the books above.