Media Circus

Esquire blows it / Mia myself and I / EXTRA: God-damned phony


Dwight Garner
February 22, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

first editions of David Leavitt's books will never be as valuable as, say, the Beatles' butcher-block album cover. But they do have a perverse way of becoming collector's items.

Nearly every copy of Leavitt's last novel, "While England Sleeps" (1993), was snatched from bookstores by its publisher immediately after the late English poet Stephen Spender filed suit, alleging that Leavitt had based the homoerotic novel on an episode from Spender's life. (The ruckus was settled out of court, and Leavitt has issued a much-revised edition.)

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Now copies of Leavitt's new book, "Arkansas: Three Novellas" (Houghton-Mifflin), are hitting bookstores, and they contain at least one sentence you're not likely to see in future editions -- a bit of fine print about how one of the book's novellas "originally appeared in Esquire." This didn't happen. In a move that has quickly become literary Manhattan's scandal du jour, Leavitt's excerpt was yanked at the last minute from Esquire's April issue -- a situation that led this week to the precipitous resignation of the magazine's respected long-time literary editor, Will Blythe.

Esquire's decision to pull the novella was first reported last week by the New York Post gossip column Page Six, which hinted that the men's magazine had caved in when an advertiser (Chrysler) objected to the novella's explicit gay sex scenes. (Titled "The Term-Paper Artist," the novella is about a gay writer who agrees to write term papers for straight men in exchange for oral sex.) Not unpredictably, embattled Esquire editor Ed Kosner has furiously denied this charge, claiming that the novella was spiked for editorial reasons. "This was a sexually explicit story with language you could not publish in your newspaper," Kosner told the New York Daily News. "I exercised my prerogative to change my mind." (Apparently Kosner feels that Esquire's March cover story on male vanity, featuring a ruler to measure your dick size, is in much better taste.) Kosner told the newspaper that Blythe would be replaced by Rust Hills, Esquire's fiction editor of 35 years, who reportedly didn't like Leavitt's story either.

Salon was unable to reach Kosner for comment, but Blythe confirmed that he had quit because he felt Esquire had pulled the story in anticipation of a negative response from Chrysler. "There was nearly unanimous enthusiasm for David Leavitt's story when it was first acquired," Blythe said. That enthusiasm soured, according to the Daily News, when Esquire associate publisher Susan Plagemann read the excerpt and objected to it. It is not known whether any advertisers actually read Leavitt's story. But according to industry sources, Esquire and other magazines do sign agreements with large advertisers in which they agree to inform an advertiser, in a general way, about an issue's contents.

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Blythe calls these kind of agreements "chilling." "The next step will be for Chrysler, or any other advertiser, to have its representatives in on editorial meetings," he says. "They have interposed themselves indirectly, but powerfully, in the editorial process. 'Ulysses,' 'Lolita' and large chunks of Henry Miller could not be published in most magazines these days. American corporations are trying to Disney-fy public discourse in this country. They would like to roll magazines back to the days of 'Jack and Jill.'"

Blythe holds no animus toward Chrysler, he says. "I actually own and drive a Chrysler product. I've had it for 10 years, and it has nearly 100,000 miles on it. But I don't like them telling me what I can read." Whether Blythe holds any animus toward his former editor is more difficult to ascertain. "I have great respect for Ed Kosner, and I think he has generally shown great affection for good fiction," he says. "But I feel anyone in his role would be in a difficult position, for which I have great sympathy."

Kosner is indeed in a difficult situation. Although ads for the first quarter have reportedly increased, Esquire's advertising pages and circulation have fallen in the nearly four years Kosner has edited the magazine. (Rumors have circulated for months that Kosner was about to be fired, and that Esquire would be sold by its parent company, Hearst.) Worse, Esquire has lately been perceived as slackly edited and irrelevant, so much so that the New York Times headlined a story last summer about the magazine's troubles by asking, "Has Esquire gone out of style?" Recent attempts to jump-start the magazine, such as Martha Sherrill's fanciful cover story that "invented" a bogus Hollywood starlet, have seemed (to this reader anyway) forced, stagy, and more than a little hypocritical.

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One irony about the ongoing Leavitt incident is that while editorial independence is surely an ideal worth quitting a magazine for, as fiction "The Term-Paper Artist" is indeed a piece of overheated hooey. If the novella is interesting at all, it's because so much of it reads like thinly veiled memoir; it's a topsy-curvy road map of Leavitt's own neuroses in the wake of the Stephen Spender incident.

"The Term-Paper Artist" begins in L.A., where a writer named David Leavitt is hiding out with his parents in the wake of a literary scandal. "I was in trouble," the novella begins. "An English poet (now dead) had sued me over a novel I had written because it was based in part on an episode from his life. Worse, my publishers in the United States and England had capitulated to this poet, pulling the novel out of bookstores and pulping several thousand copies." (Here Leavitt cannot resist getting in a slightly vainglorious dig at his former publisher, Viking: "Why should I have been surprised? My publishers were once Salman Rushdie's publishers too.")

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The David Leavitt in the story is terrified of "losing the stature I had gained in my early youth." (In real life, Leavitt's recent work hasn't been as well-received as his first two books, "Family Dancing" and "The Lost Language of Cranes," which were published in the mid-1980s.) The Leavitt character also worries that the scandal will "taint my aura" forever. He spends his days in a nearby library, where he is ostensibly researching his next book. In actuality, he spends most of his time cruising the stacks for cute guys or "looking up various literary acquaintances in the periodicals index to see how much more work they had published in the previous year than I had."

"The Term-Paper Artist" runs right off a cliff when the protagonist meets the hunky twentysomething son of one of his parents' friends. Worried about his ability to get into grad school, the student offers to let "David Leavitt" suck him off if he'll agree to write a paper for him. ("I mean, you're really into my dick, aren't you?" the student says. "This is so wild!") Before you know it, "Leavitt" is writing term papers for what seems like half the male UCLA undergraduate student body.

The problem here isn't the story's subject matter, or its explicitness. It's that Leavitt is one of the least interesting writers about sex alive today; he writes scenes that, in a straight novel, would be hooted off the page. They are often a single step away, in terms of intellectual complexity, from being saccharine letters to the editor of Stag. "Oh Eric! I wanted to sing." (The italics are Leavitt's.) "Last night I was happy. I'd forgotten what it was like to be happy." At other moments he longs for a kind of joy that is as "potent as the fruity perfume of a twenty-year-old boy's unwashed sheets." He writes that one student's penis "rested upon a pile of lustrous black pubic hair rather like a sausage on top of a plate of black beans." (To Leavitt's credit, the story's narrator apologizes for this cruddy line.)

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By the end of the story, we're aware that "Leavitt" sees this term-paper writing as a kind of therapy -- it's a cure for writer's block, and a way to get in touch with art's truest impulses. "[T]hose papers, taken together, constituted the best work I'd done in my life. And perhaps this was precisely because they were written to exchange for pleasure, as opposed to those tokens with which one can merely purchase pleasure. Thus the earliest troubadours sang, so that damsels might throw down ropes from virginal balconies." Well, whatever. But Leavitt simply isn't a subtle enough writer to pull this conceit off.

It's too early to tell whether the fuss over the Esquire excerpt will put any zip back into Leavitt's career. (Houghton-Mifflin is giving the book a modest first printing, 35,000 copies.) But it is clear from "Arkansas: Three Novellas" that Leavitt has learned one lesson from the Spender fiasco. The book includes a very prominent author's note indicating exactly what source material it is "indebted to."


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M I A M Y S E L F A N D I

In "What Falls Away," her tastefully flavorless new memoir, Mia Farrow delivers up a New Age sermon on the triumph of the spirit -- and very little of the anger you'd expect from someone who discovered the love of her life schtupping her daughter.


BY STEPHANIE ZACHAREK

Just because we live in a world overrun with Cheez Doodles, backwards baseball caps and "I'm With Stupid" T-shirts doesn't mean there isn't room for one more trashy celebrity tell-all. But don't count on Mia Farrow to give it to us. Her overly precious, refined-as-a-china-teacup and much-hyped new autobiography, "What Falls Away" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 370 pages), would never be so crass as to break a sweat. With puff-pastry layers of patience, fairness and nunlike restraint, Farrow reminisces about her Hollywood childhood, sketches the outlines of her marriages to Frank Sinatra and Andri Previn, explains how she came to adopt 10 children (for a total of 14 -- count 'em -- 14 altogether) and, for nearly half the book, details her ultimately disastrous relationship with Woody Allen.

Dipping into her seemingly bottomless well of insight and personal growth -- "Light and feeling flooded the dormant parts as they struggled to become one" -- Mia reassures us that she's grown from her experiences. "What Falls Away" is a story of spiritual awakenings, a clarion-clear announcement about the triumph of the human spirit and a reassurance that one's life needn't end just because one's longtime partner is sleeping with one's adopted daughter.

Well-written celebrity autobiographies aren't totally unheard of. (I have fond memories of Fred Astaire's "Steps in Time.") But the sheer tastefulness of Farrow's memoir is part of what's so depressing about it: What we want from a celebrity autobiography is a glimpse of the celebrity as a person, but what we get in Farrow's book is a picture of the celebrity as an intellect.

When Farrow forgets herself, her book is enormously entertaining, but too often she feels compelled to spell out the details of her tedious journey to self-awareness. Farrow takes great pains to make it clear she isn't your typical, shallow Hollywood type: She lets it drop that Brendan Behan bought her her first drink, and that in New York in the mid-'60s, she received charming, odd little presents (like a painted jar containing a live rat eating a lizard) from her close personal friend Salvador Dali. Later, she makes it a point to list all the pointy-head books she devoured at the time of her second divorce: "I read works by Kierkegaard, Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche, and I reread Kafka and Camus. A first encounter with Sartre sent me scurrying back to Plato, and when I looked up, it was spring."

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Mostly, Farrow just wants to set the record straight, and it's easy to see why. After the Woody-and-Mia blowup of 1992 -- especially after the press reported that Mia had sent Woody a valentine pierced with nasty-looking metal skewers -- the world thought that maybe, just maybe, Mia had a few screws loose. (It didn't help that Allen was doing his darnedest to paint her as an unfit mother.)

But throughout "What Falls Away," Mia's tone is so cool and measured, she sounds almost too sane. Even when she writes about grilling her daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, about her affair with Allen, her prose gets dragged down by a curious passivity: "Unbearable details emerged. I pounced on her. I hit her on the side of her face and shoulders. I went into the kitchen, crying."

Unlike most of the celebrities and nonentities hawking memoirs nowadays, Farrow has lived a pretty interesting life. In the most engaging part of the book, Farrow -- the daughter of actress Maureen O'Sullivan and writer-director John Farrow -- describes her privileged Hollywood childhood in the 1950s: "That time shines now like a beautiful, far-off, golden dream: gentle sunshine, dappled shade, butterflies in February, and barefoot summers, the nurseries of Beverly Hills, where children were tended by British nannies in crisp, white uniforms, and feted with clowns, ponies, magicians, castles for cakes, and personal soda fountains."

In passages like that, Farrow's twinkling-dormouse style works well enough. And the section on Sinatra is touching: Farrow speaks fondly of him, writing with great charm about listening to him perform and realizing that he was singing these great love songs to her. But when she starts droning on about the lessons she's learned, "What Falls Away" turns deadly, like a chicken-soup-for-the-soul version of the stuff she picked up in the '60s from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India. "Today I stand, with washed eyes, gazing clearly into an unknown future. I will travel lightly there, carrying only the essentials, trusting that a new life will create itself," she writes to an old friend after discovering the infamous nude Polaroids of Soon-Yi. Farrow's belabored observations are all the more frustrating in light of the gems of understatement she occasionally tosses off like firecrackers: "The Sinatras also gave me their support. Frank even offered to break Woody's legs."

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There's no denying that Allen betrayed Farrow in one of the most painful ways imaginable, and although the court could find no evidence that Allen actually molested the couple's adopted daughter, Dylan, when she was a toddler, the evidence that his relationship with her was obsessive and abnormal is pretty solid (even the judge said so). But even though you can't blame Farrow for wanting to make her case once and for all, the shining self-righteousness of "What Falls Away" is just plain annoying. It doesn't help that Farrow, promoting the book via an interview with Barbara Walters on "20/20," listed her grievances against Allen with quiet dignity while glowing from within like a porcelain Madonna night light. Her beaming composure, on "20/20" and throughout the book, suggests a rigid self-control that's almost creepy. And "What Falls Away" is getting press that's about as glowing as Farrow's luminous cheekbones: Time called it "a juicy book and a good one."

Actually, juice is precisely what's lacking here. As poor Mia searches her soul for an explanation of why this horrible thing happened to her -- "What rage did he feel against me, against women, against mothers, against sisters, against daughters, against an entire family?" -- the rest of us, like the audience members on Sally Jesse Raphael or Ricki Lake who jump up eagerly to tell the show's guests they're full of baloney, know exactly what happened.

In the end, the story is as old as the hills: The only thing Woody felt was, well, a woody. In the old days, you'd call him a self-absorbed crumb and move on. Now he's got to be treated like a cobblestone on the glittering path to enlightenment. Sure, lessons learned and insights imparted are grand, but after a while, all that courage, self-control and inner strength reads like so much Maharishi hoo-hah. Maybe breaking Woody's legs would have been going a little too far -- but wasn't it sweet of Frank to offer?

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E X T R A !


God-damned phony

Atheist troublemaker Madalyn Murray O'Hair wasn't called the most hated woman in America for nothing. Not only did she rouse the ire of the people she called "Christers" with her extravagantly aggressive anti-God talk, but she also managed over the course of several decades in and out of the limelight to alienate a good portion of her atheistic comrades. So when the 77-year-old guru behind American Atheists Inc. vanished in 1995, it was hard for anyone to much care. Her son Bill filed a missing person report mainly to satisfy the press. In the March issue of Vanity Fair, Mimi Swartz examines the mystery surrounding O'Hair's disappearance, suggesting (with some appearance of plausibility) that O'Hair may have simply looted her organization's treasury and fled to New Zealand to start a new life, leaving behind a pack of lawsuits, a small army of curious IRS investigators and a horde of bitter enemies.


Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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