Kurt Andersen: the Rakish Interview

[From the May 2003 issue of THE RAKE]

Kurt Andersen seems to be a man of moderation in all things–with the possible exceptions of coffee and work. As we sit in an elegant anteroom of the Minneapolis Club, he is brimming with creative energy, seeing and making connections across vast intellectual territory. One Italian loafer bounces jauntily beneath the Georgian coffee table for almost an hour.

Andersen is best known as the founding co-editor (along with Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter) of the celebrated humor magazine Spy. But that was just one chapter in a charmed media life. Andersen got his start writing for film critic Gene Shalit in the 70s. From there, he went to Time magazine, where he met Carter. The two left in 1986 to found Spy. After they sold the magazine in 1991, Andersen became editor of New York magazine. He eventually got the sack for being too tough on Wall Street, then worked in television, and as a staff writer at the New Yorker. By the late 1990s, he finally decided to attempt a novel. The result, Turn of the Century, was a bestseller. For his next act, he founded Inside.com, a respected web-based publication dealing with the media trade. Now, he’s jumped careers again, taking the host’s stool of the popular new PRI radio show Studio 360. The other day, Andersen came to the Twin Cities to defend his life, crediting his successes to “the amateur spirit.”

HANS EISENBEIS: You’d never been an editor before Spy, never a novelist before Turn of the Century, never a radio host before Studio 360, never a new media mogul before Inside.com. How do you distinguish the amateur from the dilettante?

KURT ANDERSEN: At any moment along this zigzag path, it requires being fully invested, fully focused on the things at hand. It only looks like jumping around and only turns out to be jumping around when you look back at what you’ve done. At the moment, you know, it’s I’m doing this thing with all my energy and heart. I believe that, but it’s also a way to self-justify how my life has turned out so far. I have been lucky. Even though I don’t love managing people, particularly, and I’m not managing anybody now, thank God, I think I did it pretty well, in that sense of seeing when someone has the combination of talent and gumption and hunger and all those things, to see this is a good person. The things I ran, I was always pretty careful to hire people that I wanted to hang out with. With Spy magazine and all the entities I’ve been involved in, part of the fun is having a club–a group of like-minded people to hang out with and have fun. If I had any management theories, which I don’t, that would be part of it. Also, in terms of managing people, the thing that drove me crazy always, and I tried to avoid or quash, was people who are at a place and they’re whining and grumbling. Obviously there’s always grousing at the job, but ultimately either be there and be happy, or don’t be there.

So you did a lot of hiring based on chemistry?

Absolutely. And mostly that worked out. And mostly I stay friends with people I’ve worked with, if that’s a measure of anything.

A lot of talent came out of Spy. For example, Susan Morrison was your executive editor at Spy for all those years, and now she’s one of the great pillars at the New Yorker.

When Graydon and I were starting Spy, we’d been in the Time Inc. bubble, where you don’t necessarily meet lots of other writers and editors at other magazines. I met Susan through a friend. She was like 26, she was working at Vanity Fair as an associate editor, and she seemed great, so we hired her. In retrospect, we were able to hire her and other people away from good jobs to do this nutty lark of a thing, it’s kind of amazing. Again, I suppose somewhere in the back of my mind it reinforces my new doctrine of amateurism. The kind of interlocking trails of the media world in New York, Graydon left Spy to become editor of the New York Observer, he left the New York Observer to become editor of Vanity Fair. Susan followed him as editor of the New York Observer, then got fired, then went to Vogue. I was, by that time, at the New Yorker and said to Tina Brown, “You should hire Susan Morrison,” and she did and she became my editor.

The amateur spirit is one thing, but not everybody gets asked to write about their vacation in the NYTimes magazine, or to host a national radio show. Obviously, a person has to earn his stripes first. Would you say you earned your stripes at Time magazine?

I’d say I earned my stripes in three ways. The first job I had writing for Gene Shalit was a great job, dues-paying, daily work. He then very generously got me this book contract for this little book I wrote. And so at 26, I had that kind of young writer hunger to have a book out of my system a little bit. That probably helped me get the job at Time, so yeah–the first ten years of my stripes-earning life, ending with Time, were kind of the proving-myself period. Even if you find yourself at a place that isn’t maybe your favorite magazine, or isn’t in absolute sync with your sensibility–like Time was for me–I had a great time at Time, because they liked what I did, and let me do a lot of things, and I worked with great people. But it was the daily, weekly work of, OK, I will try to make this thing I’m doing this week or this month as good as it can be, and be proud of it, even if Time magazine isn’t where I want to spend my career. And then my lucky stumble into doing Spy was some kind of graduation into personal, orbital velocity or something, I guess.

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