OBITUARY : Michael VerMeulen

"I've just had lunch with Dennis the Menace," I told my wife after staggering home from the first of many uproarious meals with Michael VerMeulen. The year was 1989, and VerMeulen - a native Chicagoan who had been living in London for the previous few years - had invited me out to discuss writing something for a new magazine called GQ, where he had just been appointed deputy editor.

"You drink martinis?" were his first words to me. When I nodded, he said, "Great - maybe I'll be your friend. Waiter! Two very dry martinis, straight up, heavy on the olives. So, you gonna write for the magazine? You want to know what GQ is all about? It's a real simple formula. A men's magazine with an IQ. In other words, great journalism in between neat shit to buy."

It was love at first sight. Here was a fellow expatriate who didn't try to Anglicise his vowels, who talked with tommy-gun rapidity (as befits a son of Al Capone's city), who was larger than life, and who - with his shock of red hair and freckled face - really did look like a big overgrown kid with a penchant for mischief.

VerMeulen was a true original - a first-rate editor who, before "switching to the other side of the desk" (as he called it) had been an astonishingly successful young freelance writer in New York (where he wrote celebrity profiles and cultural essays for periodicals such as Vanity Fair, the Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and American GQ).

It was American GQ which brought him to Britain (he was their first London correspondent). And within a very short time, just about everyone in the small internecine village called Media London had a favourite Michael VerMeulen story to tell. "You know what I call a three-martini lunch?" he once told a friend. "Dinner". And then there was his post-coital remark to one of the many women who shared his bed over the years. When she noted that their lovemaking had been more than satisfactory, he shot back: "Don't tell me - tell your friends."

But perhaps one anecdote best sums up the complex underside of his personality that he rarely allowed people to see. After he was appointed editor of GQ, in 1992, he eschewed the offers of a sleek company car and continued to knock around London in the most battered 2CV imaginable. And he delighted in telling how, while driving somewhere with Martin Amis, the Great Writer suddenly said: "What's the editor of GQ doing in a piece of junk like this?" Then, raising his eyebrows with sly delight, he noted: "Amis never gets the joke, does he?"

The fact is, most people never "got the joke" about Michael VerMeulen - the joke being that, though he enjoyed playing the loud, brash Yank in public, he was anything but loud or brash in private. More tellingly - and this is something that everyone who ever worked or played with him will confirm - he was a man without malice. Never did he engage in the backstabbing and malevolent gamesmanship that so characterises media life. Never did I hear him utter a word of malignant gossip - and the only time he ever spoke disparagingly of anyone was if they had let him down or hurt a friend.

"Oh, her," he said recently when a journalist's name came up in conversation. "She calls me up anytime she's looking to write something for easy money. But since I'm not in the I'm gonna give you easy money game, I tell her: 'To hell with the commission, let's have a drink.' "

Given his lack of rancour, it is not at all surprising that GQ was one of the happiest media offices in London. Or that his staff were intensely loyal to him. Or that his publishers - Conde Nast - hugely admired his brilliant eye; his ability to mix gloss with substance and turn out a superbly slick, yet brainy magazine month after month. And if sales figures are anything to go by, he certainly was doing something right; GQ was a phenomenal commercial success under his stewardship, its circulation rising by over 40 per cent since his appointment three years ago (and always maintaining its first-place standing in the now ultra- competitive marketplace of men's magazines).

But while many will probably remember Michael VerMeulen as an ebullient showman - propping up a stool at the Groucho Club, always full of bonhomie - the private man was more difficult to know. There had been a failed early marriage, there had been an engagement that had been called off, there had been a "sort of" girlfriend over the years - but, at heart, VerMeulen was a curious loner. Though he was the most loyal and compassionate of friends - a man who navigated so many of us through assorted personal crises - he found it difficult to turn to his friends when he found himself grappling with his own demons.

Indeed, I often felt that VerMeulen erected a cordon sanitaire around that dark room we all have within ourselves, wherein lie our vulnerabilities, our doubts. But instead of trying to reach a concord with those doubts, he indulged his enormous appetites. His weight skyrocketed, he had a cigarette permanently embedded between his teeth, he could drink just about everyone under the table. And though he knew he was pushing back the frontiers of epicureanism, he kept on indulging.

I think he would be generally surprised (and touched) by the genuine grief on both sides of the Atlantic that has accompanied his death.

Douglas Kennedy

Michael VerMeulen, journalist: born Lake Forest, Illinois 10 December 1956; deputy editor, GQ 1989-92, editor 1992-95; married 1976 Susan Kennedy (marriage dissolved 1978); died London 28 August 1995.

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