Anthony Haden-Guest: When Magazines Were Young and Radical

A fixture of London and New York society for decades, the writer and late-blooming cartoonist reflects on his arrival into our strange new meme-driven visual media moment

87-year-old magazine writer, socialite, and cartoonist Anthony Haden-Guest recalls cultivating an insatiable appetite for newspapers while growing up in London. “I read the serious papers like The Times, The Guardian, and The Express,” he told The Fine Print. Though his family was “highly literate,” in terms of this news addiction, he was the odd one out. “I don’t recall them being glued to the newspapers, but I read everything,” he said. “I read probably more than they did.” His appetites have shifted with the zeitgeist. “I read the London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books. I mean, what magazines are there? Briefly, the Voice was republishing. I don’t know if it still is,” he said. “I grew up in a words culture. It’s now a culture of pictures.”

Though Haden-Guest was a leading print chronicler of the rise of that picture culture — crowning tax-ducking gallerist Mary Boone “Queen of the Art Scene” with a 1982 New York cover and writing Vanity Fair’s 1988 obituary of painter Jean-Michel Basquiat — he no longer looks for his art news in print. “I get most of my information online now,” he said. And his allegiance as a reader isn’t to any particular art publication or website (whether Penske-owned or not), but to search terms. “Basically, I google and see what’s where and then go to it,” he said. “I mean, if I want to find out what the weather is in New York, I google it. And YouTube is also very good for keeping up with the political news.” He doesn’t follow any particular channels there either. He just enters search terms and sees what comes up.

Perhaps seeing what arises with a leisurely scroll is natural for someone who came of age just as it became impossible for a flâneur to ignore the proliferation of English magazines. “There was a big explosion of magazines way back in the ’60s and ’70s,” Haden-Guest said. “It began rather curiously. There was a fashion magazine called Queen, which was acquired [in 1957] by a young man called Jocelyn Stevens and he made it very radical. Not politically radical, but he did things like he devoted a whole issue to Cartier-Bresson photographs from China, for instance. And shortly after that, all the weekend color supplements in the major newspapers budded.”

Though Stevens and the major papers had plenty of money behind them, there were more scrappy upstarts on the scene, too. “With the ’60s, there was the counterculture, the underground press. There were a lot of voices and it was exciting,” Haden-Guest said, gesturing first to International Times, which launched in 1966 with a rave featuring Pink Floyd. “One of the best was called Oz. It was run by some Australian friends of mine. They had a wonderful art editor called Martin Sharp and an editor called Richard Neville. It was a very lively magazine,” he recalled. “Germaine Greer was my next-door neighbor. Germaine started a pretty hardcore magazine called Suck. I went over to a festival in Amsterdam called the Wet Dream Festival, which was put together by Suck. So there was a strong and active women’s voice, shall we say?”

Haden-Guest was slow to get in on the magazine boom. “I was a rather late developer as a writer. As a youth, I wanted to be an archaeologist,” he said. “I knew I wanted to write, but I thought that was rather a high ambition. And I almost lucked into it, because my mother had a famous little restaurant [called The Bistro], and one of the people who went there was an American who’d been editor of Stars and Stripes and who was then editor of a magazine called Lilliput in London. I got started writing for them and then, from there, I got onto The Telegraph. I was a junior columnist on the Mandrake column on The Sunday Telegraph.”

His permanent move to New York came courtesy of New York’s founding editor Clay Felker. Haden-Guest had written for a New York-style magazine in London. “It began being called Man About Town, then it was called About Town, and it ended up being called Town,” he said. “The format was more like an old-fashioned Vogue, stiff paper and everything. But in terms of the material, it was very like the kind of thing New York magazine would be doing.” He’d also done a few short pieces for Felker’s magazine while it was still the New York Herald Tribune’s Sunday supplement on a short stint in New York before heading back to a bohemian life in England. “I had a studio on a block of studios on the King’s Road called The Pheasantry, where Martin Sharp had a studio, [Eric] Clapton owned a studio. I was extremely happy there, but it’s rather an American story. A speculator bought in — moved in, bought out the building, and threw us all out,” he recalled. “I went to a little party and ran into Clay Felker. He said, ‘Where are you? I’ve been looking for you.’ I said, ‘Well, Clay, I’m kind of sleeping around.’ And he gave me a ticket and a contract. That’s why I came to New York.”

The city wasn’t completely unfamiliar territory. “I had many American connections. My godmother was American,” Haden-Guest said. “My father was here. He was at the UN with a new family,” which included his half-brother Christopher Guest, the future comedy director and inheritor of the family’s aristocratic title of the 5th Baron Haden-Guest. (Though older than Christopher, Anthony is ineligible for the title because he was born before his parents married.) Soon enough, he knew everyone. “Gay Talese and Hunter Thompson, Michael Daly, Gail Sheehy,” he reels off.

“Some writers had a more aggressive personality than others. Pete Hamill was very much all there in front of you. So was Jimmy Breslin. There was a lot of competition, but it wasn’t ugly competition. Tom Wolfe was wonderful. He was just astonishing and had an astonishing instinct. The white suit was remarkable. If I wore a white suit, it’d be unwearable after two days. I was friendly with a lot of Voice writers. Alex Cockburn was a great friend.” Dig as an interviewer might for stories about any of them, it was a long time ago, and they’re hard to come by. “There were a lot of wonderful gossip stories about Pete Hamill. I think Pete’s gone, so I can say this. Pete was known for putting back a few, as I was, as a matter of fact,” he recalled. “He had an accident where somebody ran over one of his feet. Somebody said, ‘I hope it wasn’t his writing foot.’”

In recent years, as well as contributing to Whitehot Magazine, Haden-Guest has poured his energy into puckish cartoons. He’s been interested in comics since his youth — writing about Marvel for Rolling Stone in 1969. “I don’t remember often going into stores that only sold comics,” he said. “There’d be sidewalk places where you saw a pile of Marvel comics or DC comics.” But it’s magazine cartoonists who he cites as formative. “The New Yorker used to be the gold standard — Peter Arno, James Thurber, and Saul Steinberg — but that’s long ago,” he said. “I think all those people are now making memes online. That culture’s totally shrunk.” Does he keep up with memes? “I don’t follow memes whatsoever.”

Still, Haden-Guest said, “I think that cartoons are going to have a glorious future like they had a glorious past. They’re perfect for our times and our technology. You can see that books are almost a vanishing species. Magazines also. We’re moving into a very different culture, and rather quickly. I don’t think it’s a particularly good thing. A social glue has almost disappeared. In my building, if you say good morning to somebody, they think you’re speaking Chinese.” He leavens that dour outlook slightly. “I don’t want to sound unduly down on the whole thing. It’s natural. I regret certain things are gone and are going. Maybe people are going to be perfectly happy with what’s happening,” he said. “But history’s changing very quickly in front of our eyes.”

“If I’ve made really stupid remarks, I wouldn’t change them,” he added at the end of our conversation. “I’d just put exclamation points next to them!”