Books: Butterflies and bees

Geoff Nicholson hears a tale of glittering creatures and media stings in the salons of the 'New Yorker'
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Some Times in America

by Alexander Chancellor

Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99, 288pp

THIS BOOK purports to be about Alexander Chancellor's relationship with America. It isn't, and probably just as well, since he doesn't have much of a relationship with America. Fortunately, he does have a relationship with Tina Brown, and this is what the book, or at least all its good bits, is really about. The relationship has never run smooth. He first meets her in 1975, when editor of the Spectator, and Tina Brown is trying for a job. She flatters and flirts, says she is even prepared to make the tea, but for a variety of reasons - including his own admitted timidity - he doesn't take her on.

This doesn't slow her down much. She starts writing for the Sunday Times, marries Harold Evans, goes to edit Tatler. Evans himself considers giving Chancellor a job but doesn't because, according to a letter sent to Rupert Murdoch, Chancellor "represents part of the effete old tired England". Our hero sets all this down with skilfully feigned evenhandedness.

Fortunately, Tina doesn't share Harold's view, and by the time Chancellor loses the editorship of the Spectator she's in America editing Vanity Fair. She suggests he write her a regular letter from London. This doesn't work out, because he gets drunk and makes an idiot of himself in front of the Queen. Only when Tina takes over at the New Yorker can she offer him a real job, editing the "Talk of the Town" column. He accepts, and this is when his relationship both with America and Tina starts to get serious.

Chancellor, never much of a New Yorker reader, doesn't quite grasp the significance of this column. Most English readers may have the same problem. Brendan Gill, a previous incumbent, says its aim is to present lots of insider information about New York society and yet to give each item "a weight and shape no greater that that of a cloud of blue butterflies". Chancellor is rather restrained in describing this notion as "precious", but you can already see how things are going to work. They aren't.

The knives come out. The New York Observer reports that "Chancellor wouldn't know 57th Street if you pointed it out to him". Worse, Tina often reads his column just before deadline and decides "infuriatingly, to reject a couple of items." That Chancellor finds this surprising suggests not only that he hasn't been living in New York, but that he hasn't been living on planet Earth.

It all ends in terrible, if predictable, tears. He can't give her what she wants so she has to get in surrogates. Less than half-way through his one-year contract, he has decided he doesn't want it renewed.

Chancellor is his own, engagingly comic, creation. See him at a Washington party, hassling Mickey Rooney to persuade him to sing "Just the Way You Are". See him at a party with George Plimpton, "who spent most of the evening talking only to me," and thinking he has made an "important social conquest". Then see his chagrin as Plimpton departs saying, "I hope our paths may cross again one day." (Incidentally, the last time I saw George Plimpton in New York, he was at a party given by the porn magazine Screw, where I don't think anybody made a similar mistake.)

The Tina and Alexander story has its coda three years after Chancellor has left New York. She writes him a letter complaining that whenever she receives her cuttings from England, "there is usually one from you making some genially shitty comment about the New Yorker or about me." She then goes on to say his "Talk of the Town" column had been the object of "pretty much universal" derision, and that she had been his staunch defender.

This book is part of his revenge for that letter. He defends himself against all manner of charges, including that of being genially shitty, but he protests too much. Genially shitty is far and away what he does best.