In The Magazine

AVENUE: 1980s

Friday, October 30, 2015

Of all the parties I attended in my AVENUE yearsstore opening parties, new perfume line parties, parties for dogs and cats, fancy dinner parties hosted by people whose names I never knewone of the few I remember was the first.

It was a cocktail party at the Museum of Modern Art hosted by the publisher of AVENUE and presided over by the magazine’s first editor in chief, the droll and soigné David Breul, who held his cigarettes at an angle and practiced the art of saying almost nothing at all. The year was 1979.

As a 24-year-old junior writer for Time, I was hugely envious. Not only was David, at 32, the editor of a sleek monthly magazine in Manhattanthe editor!but he stood surrounded by extremely attractive women. I had freelanced an article or two for him, and though pay was appalling$200I liked appearing in the magazine’s impossibly glossy pages. I like being at the party, too.

AVENUE in the first incarnation was a bit different from the magazine you hold now. Its owner and publisher, an effusive and somewhat theatrical woman in oversized glasses who introduced herself to me at the party as Juuuuudy, had started it five years before with a vision. AVENUE, she declared breathily, was a pictorial New Yorker. It was a crashing oxymoronin that long-ago, pre–Tina Brown time, The New Yorker had no pictures, and anyway, how could one compare pictures of any king to The New Yorker’s peerless prose. Yet David Breul had done a remarkable job of realizing that vision in his own way.

The articles were nearly all profiles accompanied by full-page, black-and-white portraits taken by some of the city’s top photographers. Judy Price deserved a lot of credit for this monthly portrait gallery, too. She’d realized that a lot of top photographers had time on their hands, and that fulsome flattery, perhaps bestowed over a handsome, tax-deductible lunch at Le Cirque, did much to soften the sting of what she paid them for their work. Besides, the subjects were interesting: CEOs, society dames, art patrons and aging stars, old rich and nouveau riche, all the notables of the Upper East Side world Judy called AVENUEland.

Some months later, I picked up the phone in my cubicle at Time and heard a memorably breathy voice say, “Michael? Juuuuuudy. Can you meet me downstairs for coffee?”

Judy had worked as a reporter-researcher for Timeit was where she’d met her future husband, a well-heeled and debonair business-side guy at Life named Peter Priceand had aspired to be a writer herself, lying in wait outside the men’s room for managing editor Henry Grunwald so she could pepper him with story ideas when he emerged. She started AVENUE instead, but retained a fascination with Time writers, and often corralled them into writing for her. As I sat down with her at a basement coffee shop in the Time-Life building, I girded myself for more flattery in return for the next $200 story. But I was so wrong. “How would you like to be the editor of AVENUE?” Judy asked, batting her eyes behind those big glasses.

David Breul, it seemed, had tired of the job and was about to leave, never to be heard of again. Judy had called one of her favorite Time writers, Michael Demarest, and asked him if he could recommend a young colleague as her new editor. Demarest had just taken me to lunch at a little French restaurant in the West 40s, and declared, as I woozily picked up the tab, that I was a fine fellow. (Sadly, Demarest died of a heart attack not long after.) Remembering me from the MoMA party as polite and not unattractive, Judy offered me the job.

I acquired a staff of about three, in a tiny warren of the black-lacquer-painted offices at 30 East 60th Street. (The black lacquer was Judy’s idea.) I have no idea how I put a first issue together, but I do still have a copy, dated September 1980. Let’s see: a profile of Walter Hoving, the patriarch of Tiffany’s who’d just published Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers; a profile of jazz pianist George Shearing, a staple at that time of the Café Carlyle; and a triptych profile of restaurateurs Sirio Maccioni (Le Cirque), Paul Kovi and Tom Margittai (The Four Seasons), and Jean-Jacques Rachou (La Côte Basque). That issue also included a spread of grainy old photographs of Sutton Place, with wonderfully authoritative text by the incomparable Christopher Gray, whose architectural history column had been well established on David Breul’s watch, and was thenas it remained for more than 25 yearsmost readers’ favorite feature.

We got a lot wrong in our choice of profiles, given that Judy granted me complete editorial freedom and I was a novice in this strange new world, but occasionally we hit it right. Our books editor, Gary Fisketjonmoonlighting from his job as a rising editor at Knopfput us on to his friend Jay McInerney, whose debut novel Gary had just edited. The day that our story on Jay came outthe first story on the about-to-be published Bright Lights Big Cityhe came over to get a copy, tickled by the brand-new kick of media attention. We were the first, too, to take note of the red-hot new Surf Club, magnet to the uptown pearls-and-angora set.

Thanks to the hard driving of Judy and her sales staff, AVENUE grew rapidly in the five years I was there. Our staff grew from 3 to something more than 30. For me, though, the real gratification of AVENUE wasn’t its business success, or the parties, which soon grew tiresome, but the fun of cultivating talented writers and photographers. Our best business writer was a brooding fellow named Bill Shepherd, who agonized over his prose to such an extent that Judy, on at least one occasion, rented a hotel room for him and stood guard outside the closed door. As Bill finished each page, he slipped it under the door to her. Both Kurt Andersen and Graydon Cartersoon to cofound Spy together before going on to edit, respectively, New York and Vanity Fairwrote stories for us. So did Bruce Feirstein, who’d contributed to The Official Preppy Handbook and went on to cowrite James Bond movies. For no good reason, I sent Bruce, a very funny, neurotic New York Jew. to cover a foxhunt in Greenwich, Connecticut. He came back utterly baffled, but wrote a hilarious piece.

After five years it was time to leavemore than time, perhaps. Business was the big story, and a new magazine, Manhattan, Inc., had made business sexy: It was time for a new editor at AVENUE to recast the magazine to meet that challenge. Besides, I was burned out. But if I left exhausted, I left gratified by the chance I’d had to observe New York’s wealthy and fabulous up close in the early 1980s—before AIDS, before the fall of Michael Milken, before the Christian Right and the culture wars and the polarization of America, when fabulousness seemed to carry no cost at all.

Michael Shnayerson, Vanity Fair contributing editor

AVENUE editor in chief from 1980 to 1985


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