My Tenuous Connection to Spy Magazine

It takes a certain vintage, I am speaking of human age, not a red wine or long-packaged Twinkie, to recall the magazine called, Spy. It was, to use an expression oft-used, fucking awesome. It ran from 1986 to 1998. Those were formative years for me. Actually, every year has been formative for me. I expect future ones to be equally or even more formative.

The publication was founded by Kurt Andersen and E. Graydon Carter, who served as its first editors. Their pedigrees are well-pedigreed. Andersen graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College, where he edited the Harvard Lampoon. He has been a writer and columnist for New York, The New Yorker, and Time. What an under-achiever. Carter is Canadian (enough said) who served as the editor of Vanity Fair from 1992 until 2017. Such a light-weight.

Before their real accomplishments, they focused on Spy, which bathed in irreverence and was doused in satire. The content loved to skewer the American media and entertainment industries while mocking “high” society (which in America is vacuous celebrity). To say it was ‘ahead of its time’, is an evaluation they would skewer and mock if still in print.

Celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger, John F. Kennedy, Jr., Hillary Clinton, Steven Seagal, and Martha Stewart were hit hard when the magazine exposed hypocrisies, excesses, lack of talent, stupidity, faux paus, and more. Another character who loomed large on the New York landscape at the time, loathed Spy Magazine, though he could never pronounce or spell the word, “loathe”. Donald Trump and then-wife Ivana Trump were rich material even then, even if they were never truly rich. The magazine described the now-president as a, “short-fingered vulgarian.” What is past is prologue, as someone once said.

In 1998, I was 23. It was a period of vacillation between post-secondary education and work. So, I was still living at home, my parent’s home, in my childhood room. Don’t judge. Or judge, your call. It is unclear how I happened across Spy in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. A place that has the unofficial tagline, “What happens in the world, happens two years later in Winnipeg.”

My brother was slightly older so there were copies of National Lampoon hidden in his room. I suspect it was for the intermittent nudity. I never “got” the Lampoon’s editorial, for me, the nudity was the draw. Spy became my National Lampoon (amazing how much influence Kurt Anderson had in our home). Looking back, a great deal of the appeal was the magazine’s design. It was, as the expression says, fucking awesome. Bold, bright, clean and clear. Page spreads leaned towards saucy infographics. The tonality and attitude of the content compelled even more. You felt a bit smarter and whole lot more superior after digesting each word.

The January/February, 1988 issue struck me for its Canadian content. One long piece titled, The Canadians Among Us, was and is great. It covers the stereotypical, unassuming impact of The Great White North, specifically certain prominent Canadians. At the end of the article, it tongue-in-cheek asked, what would be America’s response to a potential invasion by Canada? The scenario was too-fun. The article even includes interviews with military personnel from both countries addressing this very unreal eventuality.

It made me pick up my pen. Well, not a pen. I wrote a letter to Spy in their same satirical approach on a reddish IBM Selectric that was a cast-off from my father’s law office. This is where things get tenuous because I have no evidence of my interaction with Spy. I can tell you that I punched out a pithy response mirroring their style (because I had no style of my own). It played up the idea of Canada taking over the U.S.A.

I put the 8.5×11 sheet of paper into an envelope and mailed it off, as that is what we did back then. I promptly forgot all about it. What must have been weeks later, I returned to my room (still in my parent’s house) and was completely surprised. One act of independence was having my own phone line installed (though I think my dad paid for it). This was the era of message machines (my dad probably paid for that too). Much to my shock and joy, the little brown box read, “01” messages.

Click. Audible rewind. The machine held a tiny cassette. Then a voice. A man introducing himself. To paraphrase, “Hi Jeff. This is XXXXX XXXXX from Spy Magazine. We got your letter to the editor. It would be great to talk more. Contact me at XXX XXX XXXX.” I played that over and over again. Someone outside of Winnipeg acknowledged my existence. That was big stuff.

To this day, I swear it was E. Graydon Carter calling but I know deep-down that it was a junior-ish staffer. It doesn’t matter. I called back following a period of pinching myself. A conversation ensued. The guy on the other end was enthusiastic. Little did I know, he was evaluating me. The stuff I sent on paper totally compelled but he wanted to see if I was quick on my feet. Instead, I was tongue-tied and sounded, even to myself, like a different person than the one reflected on paper.

What resulted was probably for other reasons. Like space in the magazine. Better content. Poor feedback on the original piece. The result was the same. My letter did not appear in Spy. It is crazy, but I can still feel my disappointment when picking up subsequent editions and never seeing my name in print.

So here we are, over 30 years later. Spy is still seen as important, particularly because Donald Trump carries a long-term grudge against the publication. I go farther than that. Everything it did was fucking awesome. From the concept to content, even to the advertisers it attracted and the ads it displayed. Spy was great. As tenuous as my connection remains to the magazine, I give it thanks for subtly influencing my career in marketing and one now shifting to writing. Kurt Andersen and E. Graydon Carter, drinks on me if we ever meet.

Business, Brand & Writing Strategies. Former CMO at Interbrand, Chief Communications Officer at DDB Worldwide, Principal Consultant at Price Waterhouse.

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