My brother has just launched a new magazine in London called, appropriately, New London Review. (Keen readers will note an entirely accidental similarity to the look of his website.) That reminded me of this book review written for the Irish Times in 2008 that touched upon the story of London’s earlier Modern Review.
About three weeks into my career as a reporter, Vincent Browne asked me to do a story on then-current developments at the Sunday Tribune. Some days later, I handed him a carefully-crafted 1200 word article. He read the first paragraph, scanned the rest of the page, ignored the second page. He stared into the distance, looking tired.
‘You write,’ he said, ‘like one of those feature writers in the British Sunday papers.
‘Your article exudes authority.
‘But I know you know nothing about your subject. It’s just a pose. It’s a style. It’s worthless.’
Cosmo Landesman is a feature writer and movie critic for the Sunday Times, who writes with deft authority. Or so I thought, until I read his 350-odd page memoir, ‘Starstruck’.
Overwritten by about 300 pages, ‘Starstruck’ is Landesman’s account of the lives of his parents; of his own media career and mild notoriety (chiefly due to having been left by his wife, Julie Burchill, for a female intern at their then precociously successful literary magazine, the ‘Modern Review’); and of the nature of “celebrity”.
Landesman’s parents were, in turn, beats, bohemians, hippies, macrobiotic freaks and swingers, in New York, St Louis, and then London. Jay Landesman took his name from the hero of the ‘The Great Gatsby’, and spent his life in constant re-invention, in a paradoxical search for both mainstream fame (as a producer, club owner, writer and more) and a counter-cultural version of the good life. His wife, Fran, was a briefly successful songwriter and performance poet. They achieved their greatest celebrity for going public about their open marriage, leading to appearances in feature articles and television documentaries, and to acute embarrassment for their son. Their eccentricity makes for good copy, but their very peculiarity defeats their son’s attempt to draw insights from their lives into the generic phenomenon of modern-day celebrity. And as with Jay Landesman’s three volumes of self-published memoir, less would have been more.
Cosmo Landesman’s own career also makes for some good anecdotes. As a young mother and emergent media superstar, Julie Burchill would write in the evenings, after putting their son to bed. She would first do some tidying up and a little dusting, then open a bottle of champagne and do a line of coke. Then she would sit down to type, with one finger. As she picked up speed, she would cry out to her husband, “Baby, put a line out for me”, while remaining “hunched over the keyboard, one crazy demonic finger hopping up and down.” She would be drunk and completely coked by the time she finished, and her copy would be perfect. (What a pro.) “Just bash the fucker out!” was her maxim, shouted at her husband whenever he struggled to meet his own deadlines.
As indicated in the book’s subtitle, “fame” and “failure” are the themes used to knit together the book’s diverse elements of parental biography, confessional memoir and sociological study. But if these are knitted together, it is in big, sloppy loops of second-hand wool. Landesman’s lengthy digressions on the evolution of modern celebrity have the panache of a Wikipedia entry and the erudition of ‘Hello!’ He has nothing of novelty or particular insight to say about where “celebrity” has come from or what it means, other than to confess – with humour, admittedly – that he craves it even while he loathes it.
Between those comic confessional moments, and select anecdotes from the careers of himself and his parents, Landesman could conceivably have written a decent long review article on fame and failure. Perhaps he took Burchill’s advice too much to heart. ‘Starstruck’ is a book that has been bashed out: mired by contradictions, repetition and typos, it reads like it was written in one quick draft. Burchill could do that, and a half dozen lines of coke meanwhile. But that takes real authority.
Starstruck. Fame, Failure, My Family and Me