Whither George? And what's up with Tina's Talk?

Hachette wonders what to do with George, post JFK Jr.; the new issue of Tina's mag isn't going to get people talking.


Sean Elder
September 17, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Months before John F. Kennedy Jr. lost his life in a plane crash in July, media analysts were putting a fork in his magazine, George. A punching bag for pundits since its launch, the monthly melange of politics and entertainment had already been losing circulation and ad pages when Hachette Filipacchi CEO David Pecker (Kennedy's champion in the company) left for the National Enquirer. The joint venture between Hachette and JFK's Random Ventures is due to expire at the end of this year and there was talk of taking it to another publisher or folding it all together. Then came the crash and with the death of Kennedy (as well his wife,
Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister Lauren), a new life for George.

First there were blind rumors of unnamed investors contacting Hachette in a buying frenzy. Then came stories of the publisher's search for a "name" editor to carry the mantle. George Stephanopolous and Christopher Buckley were mentioned (though, according to them, not actually called) and some suspected Hachette of trying to truss up a turkey or at least cadge a little free P.R. With more than 200 titles in 34 countries, Hachette is, after all, the world's largest publisher of consumer magazines. It didn't get that size by giving away the store.

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Then early this month Hachette CEO Jack Kliger confirmed he was talking with Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, John's famously reclusive sister, regarding the fate of her brother's magazine. The terms would have to be renegotiated; the old deal was a 50-50 split between Hachette and Kennedy. Press reports say Hachette wants majority ownership in order to take a further financial risk; George needs an estimated $15 million a year for several years before it is profitable. The proposed deal would give the company rights to the magazine's content and name, as well as Kennedy's. Some say John's sister sees George as his most visible legacy and is willing to kick in a share of her considerable wealth to keep it alive.

But will George prove any more popular without its fallen leader? The magazine's candy-and-carbohydrates combo may seem just as unpalatable without the charismatic JFK there to front for it. The September issue is a case in point. Between such substantial fare as Melanie Thernstrom's story of a college professor wrongfully accused of rape and a beyond-boilerplate interview with Janet Reno are features on Rob Lowe and Mary J. Blige. (He describes a chance encounter with Tipper Gore; she advocates prayer in schools.) All that cultural careening gives me whiplash.

The October issue, due out next week, is being billed as a tribute issue, though it also features copy actually assigned and read by Kennedy. Acting editor (and former, and possibly future, executive editor) Richard Blow oversaw its production even as Hachette dangled the sword of Damocles over his head. A combination of Hachette pressure and Kennedy-family omert` is keeping the demoralized staff from talking to reporters, but there was reportedly some grumbling over October's $4.95 price (two bucks more than before). The tribute issue will not feature Kennedy on the cover, or so the magazine's publicist says. The issue has been embargoed until late next week, though some publications will see it before others. (Salon is seemingly among the poor relations.)

All this secrecy can best be explained by a continued desire for buzz; George hasn't had so much ink since Cindy Crawford dressed up as George Washington for issue No. 1, and that kind of press can be addictive. But it's hard to imagine what Hachette could do to make that dog fly; circulation is hanging in the precipitous 600,000 range and the stampede of interested readers might merely be the throng that follows any famous funeral.

Sister Act: Aside from the October issue of George, the last gasp of Kennedy mania can be found in monthly magazines now -- magazines that couldn't get stories turned around in time for September. September coverage fell along fashion lines, with an unsurprising homage in this month's 700-page, blunt-instrument Vogue and two (count 'em) Kennedy tributes in Vanity Fair, which put the babe-a-licious Bessette Kennedy on its cover. (This was, perhaps, to make up for James Wolcott's too-late-to-take-it-back dig at JFK Jr. in his August column on Steven Brill; "trying to get good quotes from him," wrote Wollcott of George's editor, "is like checking a burro for gold teeth.")

Some October issues went the sister route, figuring wisely that the Camelot romance angle would be played out by now. The men's magazines are curiously Kennedy-free; though touted as a "man among men" (like Esquire October cover boy George Clooney), John was best known as a babe magnet. Even so, only a handful of women's books continue to run the flag up the pole this month, hoping their readers will salute it. Bonnie Fuller's new, less filling Glamour runs a pretty innocuous memoir by Karen Duffy, who actually knew the couple and was in a reading group with Kennedy. (William Gibson's "Neuromancer" was his book choice.) Then there are quotes from the cards and letters that folks left on the sidewalk in front of their home. (At least they didn't have to pay those writers.)

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The more staid McCall's and Good Housekeeping, however, go the time-tested family route. Jane Farrell's piece in McCall's ("An Unbreakable Bond") falls prey to the bad-writing curse that follows most celebrity death stories ("From the beginning of his life, John F. Kennedy Jr. seemed the stuff of which legends are made"), though it serves to remind us that his sister Caroline had a writing life of her own. (She co-authored "The Right to Privacy," a compendium of First Amendment pieces, and the subject was doubtless dear to her heart.) Michelle Green's piece in Good Housekeeping ("Caroline Without John") attempts to mine the same vein without resorting to the same secondary-source material everyone else shared by talking to other women who'd lost siblings. (There's even a reference to Lauren's twin sister, Lisa Ann, and the "especially complex" grieving twins feel when bereaved.) It becomes a sister thing instead of a famous sister (or brother) thing, making the Kennedy angle a little less crucial. Timing is everything in this racket.

Talk Balks: Don't talk to Tina Brown about timing. She scooped the competition with her debut issue of Talk (which hit newsstands the beginning of August, a little over two weeks after the crash). That issue featured photos of young John by family friend Peter Beard, including an eerie one of a towheaded Kennedy behind the controls of a helicopter, flying into Skorpios. In her heyday at Vanity Fair she was famous for ripping up an issue at the last minute, keeping the monthly as timely as possible.

Perhaps those instincts have been dulled by the move from the famously indulgent Condi Nast to the cost-conscious publishing dilettantes at Miramax. It's hard to imagine her smiling benignly at the October issue, or maybe (like Albert Brooks' pallid screenwriter in "The Muse") she's just lost her edge. In either case, the overhyped publication seems to be losing altitude already.

Take the eight-page spread the magazine devotes to its own coming-out party. Many magazines plug themselves as shamelessly, especially in the front of the book, but eight pages? What, did they get together and say, "Fuck the Internet; let's kill some trees!"? Then there's Erica Jong talking to her daughter about sex (hey, wake up!), a piece on the new uniforms Amtrak conductors will be wearing and a jeremiad against wealth and its worshipers by that perennial, peripatetic gasbag, James Atlas. (It's almost as though he had a contract to write a book about our materialistic society.)

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You may want to read Paul Theroux on the subject of Elizabeth Taylor (there is some creepy stuff there about her and Michael Jackson), but the tabloid cover, featuring a 1961 photo of Liz, reminds me of that 1980s exercise in nostalgia, Memories magazine. The sly-fox profile of New York Gov. George Pataki will seem awfully familiar to anyone living in the Empire State, and how about that four-page article on Philippe Starck, "superstar designer of hotel interiors, long-legged lemon-juicers and flyswatters with faces on them"? The whole thing makes me feel like I'm stuck in "L'Avventura." Those wondering what fruit the magazine's synergy with Hollywood might bear need look no further than the exclusive photos of Ben Affleck and Charlize Theron from John Frankenheimer's forthcoming "Reindeer Games." Burning question: Was Charlize's pubic hair shaved or airbrushed out? Inquiring minds want to know.


Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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