If there was ever a time to revive Spy magazine—a creation of the status-obsessed 1980s that lasted a dozen years by taking the piss out of the powerful, rich, and famous, but ceased publication in 1998—that time is now, when Donald Trump is, astonishingly enough, the Republican nominee for president of the United States.
That, anyway, is the entirely reasonable calculation of the folks at Hearst Magazines who on Tuesday launched a “digital re-imagining” of the Manhattan-centric mag that eternally stamped Trump as “The Short-Fingered Vulgarian” and captured the zeitgeist with a brand of satirical journalism that was at once viciously hilarious and deeply reported.
The new Spy is planned as an online pop-up publication that is expected to exist for the next four weeks, from now until Election Day, and then abruptly die.
“Poor man, this is probably just the last straw for The Donald,” Joanna Coles, Hearst’s chief content officer, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday, as the website of Hearst’s Esquire mag unveiled the resurrected Spy with a disturbingly true-to-life illustration of a near-naked Trump, a gym towel around his neck and his bloated belly surging over a jock strap, astride the headline “IT CAME FROM THE LOCKER ROOM!”
“Now he was probably riding along, looking at the polls and thinking, ‘At least it’s not as bad as the days when I had Spy on my case,’” Coles added, punctuating her comments with frequent laughter. “And just when he thinks it can’t get any worse, Spy is back. Nothing’s changed.”
Novelist, journalist, and NPR host Kurt Andersen, who co-founded Spy 30 years ago with now-Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, said: “We were onto the Donald Trump phenomenon from our first issue, and Spy magazine was lucky to have started before there was an internet to speak of, and we had the satirical playing field almost entirely to ourselves.”
Spy distinguished itself by attaching epithets to its targets that they found nearly impossible to escape: not only “Short-Fingered Vulgarian” for Trump, but also “Socialite War Criminal” for Henry Kissinger, “Abe ‘I’m Writing as Bad as I Can’ Rosenthal” for the legendary New York Times editor-turned-Op Ed columnist, and “Bosomy Dirty Book Writer” for Rosenthal’s wife, romance novelist Shirley Lord.
Andersen—who like Carter has given the new Spy his blessing but doesn’t expect to be actively involved—pointed out that it “faces the challenge of hundreds of people in every platform able to be funny about the news of public figures in real time—so there’s that whole world to compete with.”
Andersen said he was a tad surprised when Coles quickly followed up on a wine-soaked dinner in mid-August at the home of mutual friends’ in Sharon, Connecticut, where both keep nearby weekend houses. They reminisced about Spy’s heyday, lamented the dearth of political satire in print and other media, and mused about the fanciful notion of bringing Spy back from the dead.
Coles phoned Andersen that Monday morning, declared she wanted to go forward with the idea, and in short order received the support of Andersen, Carter, and Jo Colman, the proprietor of Psychology Today magazine who also owns the moribund Spy title.
After consulting with Hearst Magazines President David Carey, Coles chose Esquire as the optimal platform for the resuscitated Spy.
“It was time for Esquire to rediscover its sense of humor,” said Esquire editor in chief Jay Fielden, who became a fan of Spy in the early 1990s as an undergraduate at Boston University—and, as of Esquire’s November issue, is rebooting the mag’s beloved “Dubious Achievements” feature that his predecessor, David Granger, discontinued in 2008.
Serendipitously perhaps, the “Dubious Achievements,” along with National Lampoon and Britain’s Private Eye, served as an inspiration for Spy’s approach to humor and commentary.
A pop-up Spy, Fielden added, “seemed a perfect way to exercise that muscle and to remind people how funny Esquire can be and will be, especially in this absurd political age… We want to make America laugh again.”
The best-case scenario, of course, would be one in which the would-be commander-in-chief rises to the bait, maybe even unleashing a pre-dawn Twitter counterattack on the latest version of a publication that, in its heyday as a glossy magazine, Trump called “a piece of garbage.”
Graydon Carter, however, predicted in an email: “The way things are going for him right now, a revival of Spy by Esquire, although welcomed by all of us, probably won’t grab his attention… Still, a 3 in the morning tweet would not surprise me.”
He added that he doesn’t begrudge Esquire, where his son Ash Carter is a senior editor, the chance to capitalize on a brand he helped create. “No regrets whatsoever,” he emailed. “And I wish them well in this endeavor.
Tuesday’s inaugural issue is predictably Trump-heavy, and includes:
• “Is Donald Trump Genetically Defective?,” an interview with Harvard Medical School endocrinology professor Robert Neer, who speculates that the candidate is suffering from a rare disease called “Albright’s hereditary osteodystrophy” that causes the metacarpal bones in his hands to be truncated.
• “A Visit to the Trump Family Gravesite Took a Very Trumpian Turn,” in which veteran Spy writer Nell Scovell enjoys several fractious encounters with the owner of the Lutheran All Faiths Cemetery in Queens, during a thwarted search for the Trump family plot.
• “Is Donald Trump the World’s Greatest Pickup Artist?” in which the author discovers eerie similarities between the candidate’s electorate-wooing techniques and the dating tricks outlined in The Game, bald-pated nebbish Neil Strauss’s best-selling handbook on how otherwise repellent men can get beautiful women to have sex with them.
• “TV Writers Know How to Make Hillary More Likable,” in which various sitcom and drama creators prescribe “crying while eating ice cream,” “glasses—the larger, the better,” and showrunner Rod Lurie suggests: “A dog might help. A golden retriever perhaps.”
• Spy’s revival edition also includes the “Separated at Birth” feature that the magazine invented (Mike Huckabee and Gomer Pyle, Ann Coulter and Tom Petty, and so on), and features a fake advertisement for a pharmaceutical called “Vulgicene” (“Get a grip on Albright’s hereditary osteopathy. Stop living with small hands…”).
While the Democratic nominee was an occasional target of Spy in the 1990s, notably with a cover image of the then-first lady as a leather-clad dominatrix under the headline “WHAT HILLARY PROBLEM?,” Trump was lampooned in the very first issue as one of the “Ten Most Embarrassing New Yorkers” with the cover line “JERKS.”
Spy eviscerated Trump—and contributed, of course, to his mushrooming fame—for “his noxious tactics with tenants he wishes to evict”; “the sheer cheesiness of Trump Tower, Trump Plaza and his casinos”; his “hustler-on-his-best-behavior manner”; and “the stupid things he says.”
One of Spy’s examples of the latter—Trump’s musings on how he’d negotiate nuclear non-proliferation—will strike today’s political cognoscenti as remarkably familiar: “It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles… I think I know most of it anyway.”
“We know that The Donald read his coverage in Spy obsessively,” Joanna Coles said, adding, “Before now, he could think, ‘At least Spy is not around and to taunt me.’ I’m sure every morning he’s going to wake up to see that now we’re doing it… It’s perfect. And no one has more right to do this than Spy.”