In April 2000, I went to work at a yet-to-be-launched magazine called Lucky, which occupied the old Details offices at 4 Times Square. Details had gone through four editors in the previous six years, and Condé Nast had decided to shutter the thing and move the title to Fairchild (which Advance, Condé’s parent, had acquired the previous year), the way you might send an unruly teen to live with a more patient relative. One of my first tasks was to empty a closet full of back issues of Details (we needed the space to store handbags). I threw them in the garbage.
Maybe two decades marks the distance between recent history and actual past, that nebulous line that distinguishes the passé from the retro. Maybe it’s time to look back; as Katie Rosman reported in The New York Times this week, a bunch of former Condé Nast characters are doing just that. Among them is Dan Peres, in a new memoir, As Needed for Pain, a story of his drug addiction that also functions as a guide to the late-empire days when Condé Nast editors lived and acted like royalty.
My first weeks at Lucky, Peres, recently appointed editor of Details, was living in the Morgans Hotel and interviewing potential staffers. He’d just returned from Paris, where he’d been posted as the bureau chief for W. “I was beginning to feel the anxieties of the new job and the responsibilities that came with the business card,” he writes. “Who knew that working full days would be so stressful?” Peres means to be ironic but also sort of means it. He loves fancy hotels and nice clothes (he’s definitely not gay, don’t worry); he loves freebies and special treatment. “I was hungry for validation. I had a long-simmering desire to be both noticed and invisible at the same time. This was my struggle—the bizarre by-product of a crippling insecurity and an inflated ego.”
This will be a difficult read for those of us who once aspired to work at glossy magazines. You know who’s hungry for validation? Everyone! In Condé’s bizarro world, ambition, work ethic, and intellectual engagement had no bearing on success, and Peres admits as much. “What did I know about running a magazine?” he asks. Maybe he can’t believe his own good luck—and maybe that’s just the way of the world to most of us. It must be absolutely extraordinary to be a handsome-enough heterosexual white man! Peres spent more than two years in France and didn’t even learn French. “I’d love to say I tried to master the language, but I never really did,” he writes. “I was a seeker of instant gratification, and the thought of intensive classes at Berlitz wasn’t appealing.”
It’s hard to tell if Peres liked his job. He drops names (remember dining at Ducasse with Éric Ripert? Reading this, I lost my appetite), rhapsodizes about the luxury of the material universe he inhabits (a nightstand bought at Clignancourt; I lost my appetite all over again), but disdains the whole enterprise, too.
I was just arrogant enough to turn up to a meeting with the CEO of a luxury goods company wearing faded jeans, sneakers, and a V-neck sweater with holes at the elbows. I liked the idea of the fashion community thinking I didn’t care—that I was cool and confident enough to pull off wearing tattered Chuck Taylors to a gala dinner or a well-worn Patagonia fleece pullover in the front row at the Versace runway show in Milan.
When I used to roam the halls of Condé HQ in the designer crap I could afford at Century 21, people thought I was the messenger come bearing an interoffice envelope, but what can you do? And I wonder what today’s media cubicle-dwellers will make of this:
Car service drivers see and hear everything. Condé Nast was famous for having a fleet of black Town Cars and SUVs on hand for its senior management. They lined the street in front of the company’s New York headquarters like an idling funeral procession. There was even a guy, Red, whose only job, as far as I could ever tell, was to wait outside the building and direct us to whichever car was ours when we came through the revolving door, like an air traffic controller for aimless executives.
This is such a telling moment, but not in that it seems to indict corporate waste. It’s in the way Peres sneers at Red. Yes, the guy’s job was dealing with the cars. Guess what? We need air traffic controllers! Anyway, Peres is right: The car service drivers see and hear everything, as do the assistants like me who relied on Red to get their precious idiot charges into the right car.
Eventually, my boss would be so valued by the company she was given a steady driver, but in those early days, I would ring up the VIP car service and be given a two-digit confirmation number, which I’d write on a Post-it, which I would affix to the exterior of her Filofax and leave beside her Blackberry on the ledge of my desk. She invariably lost this paper between my desk and the lobby, or would be unable or unwilling to read it, and would phone me to ask which car was hers.
I was going to say one of those assistants should write a memoir, but of course they already have, the ur-text being the novel The Devil Wears Prada. Peres’s book—The Dude Wears Patagonia?—can’t hold a candle to it. Peres doesn’t have a lot of dirt on Condé. Maybe it’s the good manners of discretion, maybe it’s because he was out of his mind on drugs, which is ostensibly the main story in what is otherwise a media memoir.
When he was still a reporter covering nightlife for Women’s Wear Daily, Peres pulled a dumb stunt (turning a cartwheel, which is bad enough, but to impress some ladies, which makes it even worse) and wrecked his back. The orthopedist he saw thereafter helped to wreck his life. Painkillers afford an escape, and Peres needed one. It may sound counterintuitive, but his job chatting up the glitterati was a balm.
Movie stars and fashion designers didn’t know that I went to college a virgin or that I got so homesick at camp that I had to go to the nurse. They had no clue that I was the last picked for a game of basketball or that I refused to take my shirt off when it was decided that my team would be “skins.” My team was always “skins.”
I lost count of the number of times Peres mentions his fear of going shirtless; he even cops to the worry that his penis isn’t big enough. It’s almost sweet, and ultimately revealing, that he thinks this is all unique instead of the masculine condition. He’s just a magician-loving (really) dork from an unremarkable upper-middle-class suburb. “Getting people to talk about themselves was always far more interesting to me than talking about myself,” he notes, early in this book.
You can’t say he didn’t warn us. This is an odd book, its author neither especially contrite about his addiction-motivated bad behavior nor perversely proud of his hijinks. It’s like Peres is talking about someone he met once and didn’t especially like, but that person is himself.
Peres is honest. Or maybe he’s just kind of mean, noting a staffer’s lisp, a stranger’s birthmark. Maybe he fears taking his shirt off in public because he knows that he himself is at heart the kind of man to make fun of a shirtless dude with a less-than-perfect physique. Shirtless guys were Details’ stock-in-trade! I’m happy Peres survived to tell his tale, but I wish the tale were juicier, and it seems kind of damning that it’s not better written. Still, it will delight readers of a certain age who worked in the media and perplex readers of another age who still work in the media.
My former colleagues and I have, over the years, burnished our anecdotes into gems, though maybe meteorites is the better metaphor, evidence of a place so distant it might as well be in outer space. The man who worked at the lobby’s Hudson News used to let me charge Parliaments to my boss’s account! A co-worker sent her dirty laundry home to be washed via corporate FedEx!
Editors were seers: They deemed cool certain fragrances or clothes or places or books. The company monetized this ineffable quality to sell readers whatever advertisers had on offer. I used to answer the emails from our subscribers, and few could distinguish between the ads and the editorial. Such magazines were beloved, but maybe people read them just because they existed. They’re mostly gone now, and subway commuters listen to podcasts or play Candy Crush, and the people who really lament the death of the editor as arbiter are mostly people (yours truly) who once aspired to that life.
I spent a lot of time as a journeyman hack with a not-too-shabby day rate in Condé’s old HQ (I will forever think of it as 4X2, as we called it). I even worked for Peres, briefly, in 2014, covering a maternity leave or something, I can’t remember the specifics. (If you think that makes my reviewing his book ethically suspect, I have terrible news for you about the ethics of glossy fashion magazines.) I’m sure Peres won’t remember me, though I wonder how many Asian dudes worked at Details before Condé finally euthanized it in 2015. Anyway, I remember when he ambled over to say hello and shake my hand. I remember it because we all want validation.