Thursday, November 08, 2007


The Atlantic's bad, bad bash

I just returned from The Atlantic Monthly's 150th anniversary bash--surely one of the most dispiriting parties I've ever attended (and that includes the ones I've thrown). Picture this: as you enter the auditorium at NYU's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, the first thing you see is 150 or so people on the stage. They're having a cocktail party. You, the audience, are not. Catering guys and gals in black circulate onstage with trays of food and drink. There's loud, funky music on the sound system--Prince, Annie Lennox, David Bowie--and a Calder-like mobile hanging overhead, emblazoned with the magazine's logo. But again, all the action is on the stage. Everybody else is there to watch.

For about two minutes, this scenario had a certain Pirandellian charm. That quickly evaporated. One celebrity guest, a woman in a black dress with phenomenal back muscles, was dancing at the lip of the stage, doing all sorts of Isadora Duncan moves. Even her fellow celebs seemed a little bemused at this exhibition, snapping pictures of her with their cell phones.

At this point it was clearly time to ratchet up the theater of cruelty. An Atlantic employee came up the aisle with a video camera, interviewing the pathetic audience members. "What do you think is going on here?" he asked me. "I"m assuming that's a cocktail party for the celebrity guests, and the groundlings are sitting down here watching the cocktail party," I told him. No argument from Errol Morris. "And how does that make you feel?" he said. I thought about it. "It makes me feel pretty good," I replied. "Well, you can still say you were at a party with the mayor and Robert De Niro," he told me, moving on up the aisle. I jotted down a few notes with my complimentary Atlantic pen, which kept skipping, and wondered if maybe the magazine needed to hire a new party planner.

I scanned the stage for recognizable faces. The only one I could pick out was Ben Schwarz, the magazine's book editor, plus several bald men with glasses, all of whom I assumed were Moby. The privileged guests kept their backs turned to the audience most of the time, which made it harder to identify them. Finally Justin Smith, the president of Atlantic Consumer Media, welcomed the common folk to "this incredible party." Gee, thanks! Editor-in-chief James Bennet said a few words ("In this business, you're only as good as your next story") and turned the microphone over to Master of Ceremonies P.J. O'Rourke.

To his credit, O'Rourke couldn't help but allude to the petting zoo arrangement. "Us having a party up here, while you watch it from down there, is stupid." He then lost all credit for his defense of what he called "an appropriate kind of stupidity"--something to do with the magazine being very staid, very Old Media, which I assumed O'Rourke had just dreamed up while the waiter refilled his Chardonnay. The theme of the evening, he went on to explain, was the American Idea. He would pursue it with his fellow panelists, all of them standing awkwardly around a pair of little round tables.

First up: Arianna Huffington. She recited four haikus of 17 syllables each (I’m not making this up). Here's the second one, in its entirety:
Our Founding Fathers
Said to pursue happiness.
We pursue the latest vice.
Call me nuts, but that sounds like 20 syllables to me. But who's counting? Having done her bit, Huffington passed the microphone to Mark Bowden, who immediately answered the question on everybody's mind: yes, there is a Black Hawk Down video game. Bowden is a tremendous journalist, but he wasn't going to rise above this mess without some major effort. "The idea of an idea about America is antithetical," he ventured. And "being properly ignorant" ensures that you ask the right questions. Next.

That would be Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran. "America is a constant poetic vision in the making," she announced, slipping into the very same mud puddle of abstraction that had already claimed Bowden. Jeff Goldberg said a few words about Iraq. O'Rourke introduced William Weld, in a greenish suit and bright red tie, as "the Joni Mitchell of American politics. You've observed our political scene from both sides now." As the former governor spoke, the celebrity guests swiveled to stage left, resembling an army of extras from Alexander Nevsky. Weld suggested a "fusion ticket," with a presidential candidate from one party and a vice-presidential candidate from the other.

And finally it was time for Moby, slumping onto the podium in a blue hoodie. Pronouncing himself "feeling very hung over and slow," he lobbied for an easy question. Instead O'Rourke asked him about the future of intellectual property rights. The crowd, already restive, grew more restive still as the sample-happy cue ball groped for an answer. "I apologize for not being able to give a better answer," he concluded. "But don't invest in a company that makes things that can be downloaded."

Christopher Buckley spoke last. He's a very funny man, but I was too irate to listen. Regaining the microphone, Smith now introduced the musical entertainment, starting with "the next Bob Dylan"--meaning Josh Ritter. The onstage audience now swiveled to the right. Ritter was quite charming, playing a jolly version of "The Temptation of Adam," with its persistent missile-silo humor, and offering to take drink orders between songs. He seemed like the only participant so far to be embarrassed by the caste system in the auditorium. Following up with a briskly strummed "Kathleen," he gracefully got off the riser and ushered on Patti Smith. (By the way, her name was misspelled in the program--nice touch.)

In a dark jacket and tie, and with a long mane of graying hair, Smith looked even more out of place than Ritter, "not bein' much of a party girl." Apparently her last mind meld with the magazine took place in 1963, when her father read her Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail." It was a lesson that stuck with her to this very day. "Sometimes," she said, "we are forced to resort to civil disobedience.... It is not unpatriotic, and it is not a form of terrorism." These sentiments got a big round of applause from the audience, even though they weren't in the form of a haiku. Smith went on to perform "My Blakean Year," with the sort of nasal, incantatory sound that did in fact suggest a new Bob Dylan--or the old one.

She followed with a recitation of "People Have the Power," and although I'm not a huge fan, I was touched by her passionate delivery, and by the neo-Blakean pastoral of song itself. For one brief shining moment, the evening was almost redeemed. But Smith climbed down, and the publisher wrapped up with one last, marvelously tone-deaf touch. "Let's all drink a toast to The Atlantic!" he exclaimed. The people onstage could raise their glasses, he added in a jovial footnote, while the hoi could wave their complimentary magazines in the air. I did not. There was supposed to be some golden opportunity for the audience to mingle with the Brahmins at the edge of the stage. I did not. As far as I could see, most of the audience bolted straight out of the auditorium, putting this festival of rudeness and snotty exclusivity behind them. Am I just projecting? You tell me. But as a longtime admirer of the magazine (and occasional contributor), I wish I had a current subscription, so I could cancel it tomorrow.

NB: For an equally dismal report from onstage, check out this New York Observer dispatch. Strange, I didn't recognize Robin Byrd up there. Oh, wait--maybe she was the one humming "Baby, Let Me Bang Your Box."

Wow. You should have come to us with Hoboken, James! We had a lot of fun and there was even a skirmish with Jerseyites!http
You are not wrong James... your recap captured the evening perfectly. My experience was similar except that I was on stage with my girlfriend drinking the house ocean spray martinis... and I can confirm this was a terrible party. We couldn't hear the speeches well, and after the Haikus were read, no one seemed to care what was being said. The audience looked miserable. The people on stage seemed to be confused. Men with power ties and suits networked. Moby was inaudible. When Josh Ritter came on, i felt a little sorry for him, as it was really awkward... the people on stage didn’t seem to care much... but he was great. Regardless, this should have been an amazing party, but the party planner failed miserably by all measurements possible.
Hey James,

After such a strange night, I searched the net and found your fantastic blog. Thanks so much for that picture perfect account. I went as a guest of a friends and i couldn't believe my eyes when i walked out into the party space to discover i was onstage, drinking a cocktail while the dry mouthed audience looked on. When O'Rourke said his bit at the beginning about it not being fair, I thought, "oh I get it, now everyone will be invited up." How Naive. And as each speaker made his way to the podium, the sound of ice being scooped into another cocktail echoed across the stage. Shame the audience didn't start throwing their pens at us. That would have been ink well spent. Alas, the theatre of cruelty, danced on.
Thanks, everybody, for your comments. Ed, you're right, I should have joined the fun in Hoboken--maybe next time. As for the Anonymous Two, I'm glad you could confirm my take on the evening. Apparently the party was just as crappy onstage as it was for those voyeurs in the cheap seats. We should have thrown our pens.
I did two internships at the Atlantic in the 90s and I find the depiction of this "party" to pretty much say everything there is to say about who those people are: politically liberal, personally fascist. And that's the rub: who you are personally is what you actually are regardless of your politics. Much as I do admire their work, I love that they have unwittingly exposed themselves. Because until you deal with the way you personally seek to denigrate the people around you you cannot contribute to political progress. And that is the single greatest hurdle the "left" faces.

but besides all that they are the most socially inept bunch of people you could ever want to meet, and yet profoundly pretentious. a truly hideous combination that offended me then as an expatriate Southerner, and now as New Yorker.
it was funny when you referred to the many bald men you all assumed were moby. i do that at least several times a day. i work at nj.
Former NJ/Atlantic employee here, veteran of the holiday parties in the District. Those aren't quite as star-studded, even by "famous for DC" standards, and I hope I can snag an invite next month.

But this thing... it's not Atlantic, and it's not even really Bradley. Weird. Me, I'm hoping James Bennet has a pre-written essay slated for the next issue explaining this as a performance experiment, not a real party.

It was a psychology experiment! What else could explain the video they created?

Next time they should put the luminaries in the seats and see if the regular folks onstage turn their backs to them.
I almost burst with growing indignation as I read through this post. Fortunately my laughter at the end acted as a safety valve.

A truly brilliant description of a truly appalling evening. How sad to think that Marie Antoinette died in vain
Wow. When was the last time a blog post made me snort-laugh, I wonder? Great stuff! Maybe it's time to dust off that old CLASH cassette...
James, you're a riot. What a great post. Boy am I glad I wasn't there!
Thanks for the post, and taking your cue, I cancelled my Atlantic subscription in favor of Esquire, which is again publishing fiction every month--more or less.
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