Some Times in America by Alexander Chancellor - review by Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

Despite Those Eyelashes, He Blew It

Some Times in America

By

Bloomsbury 288pp £16.99
 

Sometime in the mid-1970s, I went to a party in Tina Brown’s rooms in Bloomsbury, and was introduced to Alexander Chancellor. I was then working for the New Statesman, correctly recollected in this book as ‘the left-wing equivalent of the Spectator and, at that time, a much better and more popular magazine.’

Those words in themselves tell you how long ago this was, but I can remember my first chat with Chancellor as if it took place yesterday. To all appearances a spluttering masterpiece of self-deprecation and Wodehousean disarray, he nonetheless loosed, between spilled cocktails and scattered ashes, some random but unmistakable shafts of shrewd and beady penetration.

It wasn’t long before he had salvaged the hulk of Doughty Street and become the toast of journalistic London. His eclectic politics, his Tuscan tastes and his strange, almost hypnotic power over women may have had something to do with it. At the time, it seemed like an alchemy. The New Statesman soon lost almost all its best talents to his genial yet ruthless stewardship.

Englishmen like this – combining the insouciance of David Niven with the steeliness of Sting – are often a tremendous hit in the United States. Is it the accent? Is it the irony? Americans adore debating the question, usually at seminars where accents are toneless and irony distinctly muted. In this odd book Chancellor has described a sort of knight’s move in the Anglo-American game, whereby a chap with every conceivable advantage was imported into New York and managed – perhaps from an excess of favourable odds – to blow it.

There were those who thought he had blown it long before. Auberon Waugh laid a curse on Chancellor while he was still in the chair at the Speccie, for dithering culpably about whether or not to engage Tina Brown as a staff writer. ‘You’ve lost her, you bloody fool, you’ve lost her!’ Waugh wrote. (By a bizarre chance, Tony Howard remembers getting an identical letter at his office at the New Statesman.) Instead, Brown took a job at Punch, graduated to the Tatler and then … well, you know what happened then. As if to make up for not hiring Brown, Chancellor waited a decade or two and then agreed to be hired by her. It is profitless to speculate what might have happened if anyone had listened to the pleas of Waugh. That it might be better to be Brown’s master than her servant is proved, I tend to think, by the following excerpt from Chancellor’s early acquaintance with his future boss:

She once told me that I had the longest eyelashes of any editor in London, which was a clever compliment for, although she could not have known it, my eyelashes were about the only physical attribute of which I had always been proud.

One has no choice but to admire the placing of the word ‘about’ in that sentence. It suggests modesty and reserve, but also hidden resources, of which one yearns – alas in vain – to be told more.

The original plan for this book was that it would be entitled A Year in New York, and that it would recount what happened when Chancellor was handed the reins at ‘The Talk of the Town’, America’s best-read egghead gossip column. However, some sort of publishers’ conference obviously took place, at which Chancellor balked at too much cashing in on the lust for gossip concerning Tina Brown; some soon-to-be-fired editor proposed making it more of a book ‘about America as a whole’. The result is a bit of a curate’s egg, but I’ll tell you about the Tina stuff first.

Pauline Kael said that Hollywood was the only place in America where you could die of encouragement, but she was wrong. New York can make false promises also, and spend ages not keeping them. Chancellor found that the New Yorker, so often celebrated for its collegial atmosphere, was full of embittered old men – he’s especially good on the overrated Brendan Gill, full of twinkly malice – and brash, philistine young ones. The famous fact-checking department was an ill-maintained machine, designed to insert crass mistakes. (The same week as I began reading this book, the New Yorker review of Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War described Sir Edward Grey as Britain’s Prime Minister in 1914, and twice referred to the late E H Carr as if he had commented on Ferguson’s work this year.) There were in-house jealousies and turf wars, which deprived Chancellor of a comfortable office. The ethereally fragrant Tina presided over the scene, but spent too much time on public relations. It was a clog’s life. Furthermore, people who were afraid to criticise her were unafraid to ridicule Chancellor – his story ideas were too eccentric, his grasp of the Manhattan ethos insecure – and so he ended up as a kick-bag for all ranks and all hands.

His sense of absurdity saw him through, as did the staunch patronage of New York’s social dames. Almost by accident, Chancellor has succeeded in composing a portrait of the waning days of the great hostesses, in Manhattan and in Washington, and of the style with which they exerted power and in which they entertained. Evangeline Bruce, Susan Mary Alsop, Jayne Wrightsman, Brooke Astor … he knew ’em all, and describes their vanishing world of ‘special relationships’ with great acuity. The New York branch of this official widows’ club combined to give him a send-off when his year was up, at which the greatest official widow of them all put in an appearance:

The familiar group of guests was augmented on this occasion by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, of whom I was in such awe that I didn’t dare address a word to her. At the end of dinner… Barbara Walters raised her glass to me and asked the company to share in her regret at my imminent departure and to wish me well. Thus did Jackie Kennedy express her sense of loss over the departure of a person she had never met.

These sections are the best element of a book which, though it contains several vignettes to delight the author’s many fans, is not quite a profile of Anglo-American attitudes nor the unbuttoned exposé of Tina Brown for which some unkind people clearly hoped.

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