- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 20, 2004

BANDBOX

By Thomas Mallon

Pantheon, $24.95, 306 pages

REVIEWED BY LORNA WILLIAMS

The place is New York City in that heady, desperate decade of jazz, prohibition, shockingly short skirts, gangland murders and the newest new thing — talking movies; the decade that ended with the stock-market crash. The year is 1928 and something is rotten in Gotham’s magazine world. “Bandbox” isn’t Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop,” but it’s lots of fun.

Five years before the novel opens, Jehoshaphat “Joe” Harris took on the editorship of Bandbox, reviving it at death’s door from “an overpriced rag for overaged pansies” to the best men’s magazine in the country.

Success breeds competition, however, and now Conde Nast has lured away Jimmy Gordon, Harris’ best senior editor, and made him editor of a rival men’s mag, Cutaway.

So the stage is set for a battle of titans, or a tempest in a teapot between high-end magazines pushing high-priced products (depending on your point of view). As Thomas Mallon, the author of this delicious farrago, writes: “… [T]he war between the two men and magazines was still a matter of novelty jousting with novelty — in a time when novelty itself had lost its newness.”

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because it is. Mr. Mallon, who has been literary editor and books columnist at GQ and has written for other major magazines, modeled Joe Harris on the late Art Cooper, the high-living, high-paying editor in chief of GQ for 20 years, and a man of massive ego.

Magazine groupies and readers of New York media columns will find all sorts of gossipy parallels, knowing that Cooper too was deserted by his right-hand man, who joined GQ’s archrival Esquire as editor in chief.

Mr. Mallon has written several works of historical fiction — among them “Henry and Clara” (1994) and “Dewey Defeats Truman” (1997). However, “Bandbox” does not develop tangentially from a single historical event — for example, Lincoln’s assassination and the 1948 election in the novels mentioned above.

In fictionalizing a recent publishing spat (of temporary interest, but hardly earthshaking) Mr. Mallon has seized the opportunity to indulge in a lighter genre, one my British mother affectionately called “hysterical friction.” The main event is the spirit of an era: New York in the roaring Twenties. And what a time and place that was.

Change was its essence. Harris, a crusty curmudgeon of 60 (albeit with a soft center) has kept current “with all the flat chests and blues singers and tennis champions driving this frantic new age into which he’d outlived himself.”

But he sometimes longs for a quieter life, perhaps editing an upmarket food magazine where “All he’d have to do for each month’s cover was find a good-looking pork chop or strawberry cake, neither of which, unlike Waldo Lindstrom [Bandbox’s favorite cover model], would have a cocaine habit.”

Harris made Bandbox a success by sheer force of will and a knack for hiring good writers, but the defection of his star begins a downward spiral for the magazine. A rigged fiction contest tarnishes its reputation and the NYPD is after Harris.

Most threatening of all, Jimmy Gordon plans to plaster New York’s double-decker buses with a damning poster: a photo featuring condemned real-life murderers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in prison, their arms round each other, smiling at the latest issue of Bandbox as they hold it open “like a box of candy they were sharing on a back-porch swing.”

So confident is Gordon that his plan will finish Bandbox for good, he sends Harris a copy of the photo with a cheeky note on the back: “Would make a great ad.”

Mr. Mallon again combines real historical figures — President Calvin Coolidge; Arnold Rothstein, a founder of America’s organized crime syndicates; the infamous Leopold and Loeb; Jimmy Walker, then mayor of New York; publisher Conde Nast; makeup czarina Helena Rubinstein and others — with his own imaginary creations, fast-living, fast-talking guys and molls of the New York publishing world.

Some are more memorable than others, among them Cuddles Houlihan, vaudeville reviewer for Bandbox at a time when vaudeville is dying (ergo he’s frequently found sleeping at his desk); garter-snapping, foul-mouthed movie star Rosemary La Roche, who keeps a secret supply of hooch in a small silver flask tucked in that garter; Countess Daisy Di Donna, a winsome widow past her prime but still kicking, whose motto is “Always be faithful, but always be looking.”

Then there’s Giovanni Roma, an Italian restaurateur who runs the kind of celebrity-haunted bad-food eatery paralleled in Washington by the defunct Duke Ziebert’s. Born and brought up in Connecticut, Roma, through “an occupational affectation,” now speaks worse English with a thicker Italian accent than his immigrant parents.

In the era of prohibition, his customers in the know ask for “the special olive oil. The golden-brown kind,” a code for scotch, which comes to the table in a glass cruet.

Mr. Mallon’s narrative is filled with architectural, political, and musical references to New York in the Twenties, and the dialogue is peppered with the argot of the period.

His characters are given to expressions like “atta-girl” and “absotively posilutely,” or expletives like “Jeepers!” (short for “Jeepers Creepers,” a euphemism for Jesus Christ). They say “toodle-oo” instead of goodbye, “am-scray” when they mean scram and “moxie” for courage. “Tootsies” back then were young women of doubtful reputation, not babies’ toes.

There are so many threads in the complicated plot, which bounces all over the place from London to Hollywood, to a mysterious dude ranch out west and Washington, D.C., it’s hard keeping track. But in the last chapters loose ends are neatly tied. Star-crossed lovers find their way, lascivious LaRoche, the movie star with an ego as big as the Ritz, gets her comeuppance, and the down-and-dirty struggle for circulation supremacy is satisfyingly resolved.

Since there’s much ado throughout the novel about Bandbox cover stories and cover photo shoots, it’s fitting that “Bandbox”-the-book has stunning cover art: a dapper, dinner-jacketed fellow squinting sidelong through his monocle at a seated flapper with acres of naked garter-embellished thigh, frilly scanties (blend of “scant” and “panties,” 1929) and flattened breasts on view.

Absotively posilutely on target.

Lorna Williams is a Washington writer.

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