Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair is the mass-market publishing equivalent of a royal wedding. It gets the most dogged writers for its investigative features and the flashiest celebs for its covers. Each issue weighs as much as a newborn; 96 percent of the women featured in it either look like, or are Uma Thurman.

Thus it's almost pointless to analyze any single issue of the mag; there's little I can add to whatever's left of the debate. Nonetheless, we've got 500-odd words to play with and a deadline looming like a twister cloud, so what the hey.

I think Vanity Fair is somewhat overrated, an impression confirmed by a brisk trot through its May issue. This isn't to say that it's not an eminently provocative read, or that it isn't one of the few publications aspiring to something more than celebrity puffery. It's just that for all the mag's hype and name-dropping and self-congratulatory events, you wouldn't expect vast stretches of mindless terrain.

Take "The Good Life Aquatic," a feature on the supposed super-yachting craze. The idea that 25 pages of text and pix would be devoted to tiresome rich people and their skipper hats boggles the mind. But gosh, it sure complements the seven-page Nautica ad spread that precedes it.

Then there's the front-of-the-book "Fanfair" section, which features, in brisk succession, a list of May non-events, press-releasey notes on upcoming books, and an item on a boutique hotel located in the hi-life travel mecca of Mexico City. In the pages that follow, we learn that the new Garbage record "is a well-crafted modern rock album" and that designer Tory Burch sleeps on D. Porthault sheets. Plus my horoscope informs me that in May, I'll be "heading into uncharted territory without a Sherpa to guide [me]." Good thing I'm not planning on summiting Everest anytime soon.

But just when you think Vanity Fair has finally succumbed to the marshmallow-peep lure of lowbrow culture, you reach the heavy hitters in the mag's lineup. James Wolcott attempts to make sense of the pitiful state of standup comedy; Katherine Eban calls attention to the disturbing possibility that middlemen may be watering down the country's supply of prescription drugs; and Nick Tosches offers an incisive history of roaring-'20s terror Arnold Rothstein. Any of the three wildly disparate stories would be the proud centerpiece of just about any other publication's National Magazine Awards submission issue; in Vanity Fair, they appear one after the next.

Incredibly, they pale beside Buzz Bissinger's piece on a visit to a Colorado high school where 35 percent of students have a parent in the active military. As opposed to a blanket rant about the war(s) against terrorism, the story surveys the losses on an individual and community level. As much a psychological exploration as a sociological one, it's a stunning piece of writing and reporting.

Moments of utter boobery still pop up, of course, mostly in gadfly Dominick Dunne's astonishingly vacuous "Diary." Over the course of several pages, he ruminates over the Robert Blake trial, "Law & Order," Dan Rather's beheading, and Vanity Fair's own Oscar-night bash ("the No. 1 stellar event on Hollywood's night of nights" - you tell 'em, Dom!). At this point in his swiftly spiraling career, he's Larry King with a better thesaurus.

You'll notice that I haven't mentioned the cover story on "Desperate Housewives" or the six pages of pix from the aforementioned Oscar-night gala. It's a sneaky strategy, using Teri Hatcher and her similarly frozen-faced costars to get slower-blinking readers in the door. If it means that they stick around for the good stuff, hey, everybody wins. And if not, they can always come back for the next cheesecake cover. Really, all that's left to say is the obvious: Vanity Fair is run by some very, very savvy people.

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