The Aesthete

I, Spy

Novelist and creator of the consummately New York magazine talks about paying his dues, Nebraska and getting lucky

by Rebecca Carroll Photography Mike Vorrasi

When I tell Kurt Andersen that not all of his answers during our interview will make it into the final article, he responds, deadpan, “Really? I want every word. I want every fucking word I say in this piece.” It’s a fittingly droll response from the co-founder of Spy magazine, the iconic, satirical monthly that offered readers some of the most bitingly original humor and celebrity mockery of the late ’80s and ’90s. It was a publication that felt like a product of New York, even if Andersen himself is not.

Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, Andersen recalls that his “whole self-definition from ages 10 to 15 was: 'This is not where I’m going to be living or any place like it.'” He didn’t know that the place would be New York City until he saw the Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson shows, both then taped in New York, and he realized, “Whoa, that’s the place.” Later, with a high school friend, he hitchhiked across the country to look at potential colleges. Landing finally in New York, they stayed with the gay uncle of a friend who was a copy editor at the New York Times who hosted a dinner party during their stay with guests that included Roberta Flack and Susan L. Taylor, the former editor-in-chief of Essence magazine. With that, Andersen was smitten: “As though I wasn’t already prepared to think this was the coolest place ever."

"I was willing to pay my dues, whatever they may be,... But not to become a reporter for the New York Daily News."

After graduating from Harvard, where he was an editor at the legendary humorist magazine The Harvard Lampoon, Andersen moved to New York with a girlfriend and took a job as a copyboy at the New York Daily News. He lasted one day. “I was willing to pay my dues, whatever they may have been, but not to become a reporter for the New York Daily News,” Andersen, a rakishly handsome 54, says with his elbows propped casually on the small table we’re sharing at a bar in Chelsea. 

Andersen soon found a research and writing job with Gene Shalit, the film and book critic for NBC’s The Today Show best known for his snazzy bow-ties and very full moustache. Andersen later went on to become an editor at Time and New York. He has written and consulted for a myriad of online, print and news outlets and is also the author of three critically acclaimed novels, the most recent of which is True Believers, released this summer.

“I feel fortunate in many ways,” Andersen says, playful but genuine in his appreciation, “not least of them being that when I started, it was a clearer time. It wasn’t so, ‘Fuck it, is there even gonna be journalism?’ Because of course there was, and you could figure out ways to do it new and interestingly.”

“I don’t want to sound like an old fogey – ‘Everything is about search engine optimization!'” he says jokingly, even though we both know that everything pretty much is about search engine optimization. But while means and methods of media have changed, New York City has not – at least not entirely. “It’s still where the New York Times is,” says Andersen, happily flexing his old guard muscles for a moment.

"Today, it’s hard to get people to pay attention to anything. The barriers of entry are a little low. Everybody can be a writer."

“What’s not true today and was still true, thank God, when we were creating Spy magazine was that there was still the chance that you could make this thing and it would have some kind of impact and people would pay attention,” Andersen says. “Today, it’s hard to get people to pay attention to anything. The barriers of entry are a little low. Everybody can be a writer. Everybody can be a musician. Everybody can be a filmmaker. And it’s some corollary version of Andy Warhol’s 'everybody can be famous for 15 minutes.' But if you’re good and great and insanely lucky…” He trails off as if simultaneously realizing the rarity of that kind of insane luck.

And to this last point, Andersen references the essayist E.B. White. In Here Is New York, White wrote about the people who are born here and the people who choose to move here and how if you’re going to be one of those people who choose to live here, you have to be willing to be lucky, says Andersen, satisfied with the rationale. “Well, exactly. It’s a crazy, paradoxical, Zen thought – but there is this thing about living in New York where you have to be geared to the serendipity of life.”