First Person

The Devil in Details

February 18, 2020
Dan Peres attends a Details magazine cocktail party in 2015. Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

In case you missed it, the New York Times ran a rubbernecker of a piece last week called “The Chaos at Condé Nast.” It was a look back at the scandalous misbehavior depicted in a new memoir, As Needed For Pain, by former Details magazine editor in chief Dan Peres, about publishing while on painkillers and the corporate environment that enabled it. 

As mentioned in the article, I was the magazine’s executive editor at the start of Peres’s decline, so this was hardly news to me. I was surprised, however, by the flood of incredulous calls, emails, texts, and direct messages I received from friends in the media business who were curious about the Times resurfacing a particularly egregious Details fiasco.

RECENTLY: The dumbwaiter defense

In the summer of 2002, Details published a short humorous essay, bylined Kurt Andersen, called “Dudes Who Dish.” The piece, an idea hatched by Peres to confirm his observation that men actually gossiped far more than women, was not in fact by the novelist and cofounder of Spy Magazine. Even cynics who’d seen it all considered this editorial identify theft beyond the pale. 

Though it’s probably best to let sleeping dogs lie, the purpose of this piece is to set the record straight. Many bizarre things transpired in the glory days of Condé Nast, but this incident involves a very different sort of surreality, one the paper of record didn’t get quite right. So please consider the following recap a cautionary tale for other content companies, especially in the golden age of Fake News.

Some context: it’s worth remembering that the early aughts were a very good time to be in the magazine business, the final days before so much of it went south. We’d emerged from the trauma of 9/11; ad revenue had come roaring back; the iPhone was still half a decade away. At Details, we were trying to differentiate ourselves from more established competition by targeting a demographic known as the “metrosexual,” code for young, affluent, “post-preference” men of the sort who might grow up to be Pete Buttigieg or his straight, suited-and-booted colleagues at McKinsey. One way to do this was by larding our pages with great writers. And, back then, we had the resources to do it. 

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The result was a byline arms war, in which writers not normally associated with glossy men’s magazines were hunted like big game and paid handsomely for the privilege of gracing our publication with their gilded pens. Editors found themselves in direct competition to bag the biggest antlers, with promotions and demotions on the line. 

During my run at Details, we published Jonathan Safran Foer, Rick Moody, Augusten Burroughs, and many, many other award-winning, nearly universally-male writers. (It was that anachronism: a men’s magazine, for those wondering about gender parity.) I recall nearly agreeing to pay Martin Amis ten dollars a word to churn out a thousand words on nostril hair. 

All this prose was shepherded by a killer editorial team, as acknowledged in the Times piece, which included Pete Wells, now the paper’s food critic, and Jessica Lustig, who is now deputy editor of the Times magazine. (For Details/Times trivia fans: we even published the first post-disgrace piece by Howell Raines, the Times’ once-invincible managing editor, who was terminated in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal.) 

At the time, Details also employed a very talented but somewhat unstable editor named Bob Ickes, who was a ball of nervous, if highly productive, energy. I recall, as we discussed who should write the piece on men and gossip that would come to be attributed to Andersen, that Ickes said, “I think we should go after Don DeLillo.”

“Why not go right to Pynchon?” another editor responded, rolling his eyes.

The hunt was on. We dispersed and descended upon our collective Rolodexes. We knew whoever hooked the right writer would be rewarded. If an enormous whale was harpooned, you might even earn the approbation of Si Newhouse, the man in charge of Condé Nast.

A few days later, Bob turned up with some good news about Andersen. “Kurt said yes,” he announced. “He’s going to do it!” Everyone applauded, for such a thing was completely plausible. If Jonathan Safran Foer could write about a ping-pong player and Howell Raines wanted to publish a few words about his son’s indie rock band, why wouldn’t a much-admired writer and media figure—the man who help coin the phrase “short-fingered vulgarian” to describe Donald Trump—want to write about dudes and their talkative tendencies? And besides, Bob and Kurt had worked together before.

A week or so later, the piece showed up on my desk. I recall finding it a nifty piece of magazine writing—pungent, punchy, and less than a page long. In the Times story, Andersen refers to it as “the terrible piece attributed to me,” but I would happily submit his revisionist judgement to a forensic linguist for review, so skilled was the ventriloquism. 

Sure, it was weird when Bob explained that Kurt didn’t have time to deal with our fact checkers, so he would field all queries directly with “Kurt” via email. But writers are eccentric beasts and we believed in their care and feeding. And so all facts in the piece were checked—except, of course, the author’s actual identity. 

I believe Bob probably reached out to Kurt; he might have even reached out to DeLillo and Pynchon. At a certain point, however, it seems to me that rejection crested into desperation, and Bob must have gone rogue.

Shortly after that piece appeared, Ickes disappeared from the office, leaving an empty desk and no contact information. To this day, I’m still not sure if he cracked or simply assumed no one would even notice. Or perhaps he just wanted to burn the house down. 

Ickes and I hadn’t spoken in two decades. But when I reached him recently to ask, he thanked me for letting him know about this piece, and told me exactly what he told the Times: he did not write the piece published under Andersen’s name. 

Publishing eras may change. But the blanket denial never goes out of fashion.

ICYMI: Under Trump, media companies are emboldened against unionizing

Andrew Essex a former executive editor of Details, is the chief executive of Plan A and the former chief executive of Droga5 and the Tribeca Film Festival