Sunday, August 29, 2021



Among the Sierra Nevada, 1868, Albert Bierstadt, via Wikipedia.

Re comments, I feel compelled to tell the story of my meeting with Malcolm Forbes, although it is completely unimportant.

It's from when I was the editor of a glossy magazine (actually more than one) in Singapore, a moment that was briefly brought up for me this morning when Scott Simon interviewed Jo Hamya, author of a new novel, Three Rooms, whose protagonist is a copy editor at a fancy London magazine, even as the author happens to have been a copy editor at The Tatler, a once-distinguished periodical (early 18th century I think) where she may have had experiences somewhat like those of her heroine:

after a passage where she'd visited her flatmate's parents' house, and there was this face wash in their bathroom that she uses to wash her face with after she's been crying. To her, it's a very sort of aspirational thing to have this home which she owns that she can fill with, you know, things to offer to guests to comfort them and ease them. And so at that point in the book, she skips out on a few days' worth of lunch to buy this face wash, I suppose to remind herself of what it is she's trying to attain rather mistakenly because the blueprint she's working off of is, you know, a kind of England that existed under Tony Blair, a kind of New Labour movement that was very preoccupied with social mobility. And she, of course, is working through a digitized gig economy that has been under conservative rule for a decade. And social mobility is not the byword.

When you're the editor, you get all sorts of swag, including free samples of the mandarin face wash. but you're still he lowest of the low. I spent lots of time with the editor of the Singapore edition of The Tatler too, a funny old big-bellied Brit called Jerry, with a kind of irrepressible Colonel Blimp self-presentation, which was not uncommon. We all had our jobs, basically, because we were white people, which reassured the marketing managers who bought the ads, though they were of course wrong to trust me. But that didn't matter at all because nobody ever read any of the copy. I only ever got into trouble when I used a picture that compromised us; the prose always got a free ride.

Anyway Forbes's yacht, the Capitalist Tool, briefly docked in Singapore, with the actress Elizabeth Taylor on board (his girlfriend or, as was widely supposed even then, the beard behind whom Forbes's relations with a number of motorcycle dudes were concealed), and we in the lifestyle press all flocked out there for lunch, which I unfortunately don't remember at all. Everything of this kind in Singapore was prepared by the graduates of Swiss culinary schools, though, so it's unlikely it stood out. 

I have exactly one memory of the yacht itself, wandering through the corridors gaping at the beautiful and valuable art on the walls, partly because I actually recognized one painter, in a small but plainly important mountainscape by Albert Bierstadt. 

The only other thing was when we approached the head table, with our photographers, and an American Newsweek stringer called Judy, a sweetheart and entirely competent person I should say, better tuned to the news than the lifestyle angle, cried out embarrassingly,"Miss Taylor! What about AIDS?" rendering the room silent. My photographer, Soon Hock, and I had a smarter approach: I shouted, "Miss Taylor! Could you sort of pose?" "You mean like this?" she asked and threw herself into a series of comically dramatic attitudes, which were exactly what we needed. What a trouper, and I'm not being sarcastic. She made our lives better, for a few minutes.

What I remember vividly is one phrase in the copy with which I wrote the event up,  in which I applauded the preservation of Taylor's "Asti Spumante voice", which earned me an actual handwritten note from Forbes himself, thanking me for my "sparklingly witful" description. I incorporated that note among my clips when I was back in New York a bit later, looking for "lifestyle" work that I never got (it may have helped with the wine magazine that really liked me until they realized my degree was from a state school—I remember watching the faces fall).

And I should probably add I'm not sorry I didn't get one of those jobs—it  wouldn't have done anybody any good. But I do want it to be understood that that's something people do, because it's a living, and a lot of free booze.

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