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Psst! A Spy's in Our Midst and He (or She) Is Scanning L.A.

January 11, 1988|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

As this new day of intrigue, envy, spite, deal-making and power-lunching begins in the movie capital of the Western world, some daring, well-connected, but shadowy adventurer is gearing up for a life of danger in the fast lane.

This secret sharer is Spy magazine's new Hollywood mole.

Starting in its March issue, the irreverent but already influential 13-month-old satire magazine--heretofore mostly concerned with verbally slicing New York's rich and famous into bite-size chunks--will devote a column to the movie business in Los Angeles, according to the magazine's co-editor and co-founder, Kurt Anderson.

Anderson isn't saying who this brave--or foolhardy--soul is because he or she "wishes to remain anonymous." He implies, however, that this insider is placed close enough to Hollywood's power centers to make folks wonder if their phones are tapped.

The column will be patterned after a current feature that reports--with such intimate details as the distance between desks and the shape of an editor's hands--on the inner workings of the New York Times. Somehow Spy has managed to protect the identity of this column's author, whose pseudonym is J. J. Hunsecker.

It is that kind of track record that makes the magazine confident it can pull off the same trick on the West Coast, Anderson said, despite the recent apparent unmasking of Hollywood writer Ben Stein as the disguised author of an unflattering piece about comedian Joan Rivers in GQ magazine.

The launch of "The Studios" column, to be written under the pseudonym "Celia Brady," will mark a year of focusing on Los Angeles for Spy, founded by former staffers at Time Inc. because--in the words of E. Graydon Carter, the other editor and founder--"we just didn't have a magazine that was our favorite magazine in the world."

Jaundiced Looks

Next fall, the magazine will publish an issue devoted exclusively to Southern California under the general heading "Spy Looks at Los Angeles," Anderson said. The two editors plan to spend a total of a month out here between now and then, casting jaundiced looks at the city's institutions and personalities.

Carter believes that because neither he nor Anderson has extensive connections with Los Angeles, the magazine--which this month headlined an article about New York Mayor Edward Koch "Crazy Eddie"--will be even more scathing than it is about its hometown.

"We're not looking for jobs in the movie business and we don't owe anybody anything," said Carter, in what could be taken as a warning.

Perhaps as a trial run for the fall assault, the current issue contains a tongue-in-cheek look at one aspect of life in the movies. Titled "Stars Are Born," the story declares, "The Children of Celebrities--they're everywhere, glutting the tabloids, jamming the talk shows, choking the rivers of American fame."

The premise of the article is that, at least in the entertainment industry, "fame is inherited." To make the case, the piece is illustrated with the family trees of Hollywood families: Martin Sheen and his sons Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen, Kirk Douglas and son Michael, Henry Fonda and children Jane Fonda and Peter Fonda, to name a few.

Word-of-mouth about the article has been pretty good. Spy divulges that its newsstand sales in Los Angeles for the latest issue are about 3,000, up from 2,000 normally. The magazine has about 4,500 subscribers in Los Angeles. Promotion manager Adam Dolgins claims that the magazine probably has many more readers here because many subscribers photocopy their favorite stories and pass them on to friends. (The magazine's circulation is now about 55,000--up from 25,000 at the start--with about 70% of readers in New York City.)

Anderson said the askance look at fame germinated after "having a kind of crazed, hourlong discussion among the editors here" and quickly grew into a project requiring two full-time researchers who labored under deadline pressure for two weeks.

"Stars Are Born" is an example of how serious the magazine is about checking the facts behind its outrageousness, Anderson said, noting that "We tend to edit the magazine with self-preservation in mind." He added, "We react very quickly and very seriously to any complaints" and estimated that the magazine has run half a dozen corrections since its first issue.

Co-editor Carter said he is proud that Spy was launched in defiance of conventional wisdom and with "a pittance" of $3 million in start-up money raised from contributors. "This was the rare magazine that did not start out as a marketing plan," he said, adding that the magazine may make a profit this year, two years ahead of schedule.

A Large Share of Attention

Although it is not fine-tuned to a particular set of demographics, the magazine has managed to capture more than its share of attention. It has been hoisted before a national audience on "The Tonight Show" by comedian Jay Leno and reported on by Time and Newsweek, to name a few.

If there is a model for Spy, it is Esquire magazine as it was in the 1960s, a brash, contrary, iconoclastic periodical that is remembered fondly by Carter and Anderson. Today, Carter complained, Esquire magazine is merely a magazine for those "who want to know about the latest men's scruffing lotion."

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