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Excerpt: 'Fact Checker's Delight,' from The Reluctant Metrosexual

In a humor essay from his new collection, one writer reflects on his mid-'90s stint as a Vanity Fair fact checker.

By Peter Hyman - July 30, 2004

"Facts are stubborn things."
—John Adams

In terms of the overall amalgamation of feminine beauty, fashion sense, and icy demeanor per square foot, there are very few places in America that rival the headquarters of Conde Nast Publications. A day spent seated in the lobby of the Conde Nast headquarters, in midtown Manhattan, gazing at the young Gucci-shod, pencil-skirt-wearing ladies who populate the editorial and business mastheads of each of these magazines, would be enough to convince even the most committed husband to relax his vows of monogamy.

Until, that is, he tried to strike up an innocent conversation with one of them in an elevator or over a sesame bagel in the third-floor cafeteria, which generated as much visual action as Studio 54 if you timed your morning run correctly. Never has an environment with such favorable ratios (straight men made up, at most, 5 percent of the building's population) been so woefully unforgiving in terms of any actual romantic conversion.

Or maybe it was just me.

* * *

Of the many blunders that mar the report card of my romantic life, trying to date nearly every female editorial assistant at Vanity Fair is a black mark on my permanent record. Not since Decca Records turned down the Beatles in 1962 ("This rock and roll stuff is a fad, mate") has there been an error in judgment so colossal. Starting with the editor in chief's assistant, an intelligent and hardworking Georgetown grad whose genuine friendliness toward me during my first few weeks on the job I mistook as interest in my charm and dashing good looks, I began working my way through the middle part of the masthead (and that was only because the top third was filled with senior editors, who, as it turned out, were mainly male, and gay).

Every out-of-office social gathering became an opportunity to dig the hole deeper. While Rollerblading along the West Side Highway with one young woman, I suggested that she allow me to "rotate her wheels in my home-based workroom." I took her quick skatelike motions away from me as a nonverbal "No thanks." At a roof deck party for the launch of a new bar I made the mistake of asking another who her favorite writer was. "My fiance," she responded coldly. Check, please!

By my six-month mark I was known as "that guy in research who asked me out," or, simply, "the horny fact checker." Thankfully, most of my advances were timid and sweet (owing to my Midwestern upbringing), such that the women who turned me down could do so gently, allowing me to save face (and, I imagine, my job).

Eventually I came to realize the limitations of my strategy: there was an entire building that, with my singular focus, I was ignoring. Plus, apart from Bernice, the gravelly-voiced sixty-something receptionist, there were no other women at Vanity Fair left to turn down my offers. Using the Condé Nast company phone directory (a fool's paradise of access over which male outsiders would go to war) as a road map, I worked diligently, offending the sensibilities of women in a precise, floor-by-floor manner. I was nothing if not organized.

It took another six months for me to recognize that dating women in other office buildings altogether might be more effective. In addition to the relative anonymity this method provided, it allowed me to utilize the mistaken connection these non-Conde Nast types would make when I said the words "vanity" and "fair" together, in close proximity with the word "editorial."

Oh, so you're a writer was the impression I hoped they walked away with (when they did not actually just walk away, before any of that could be uttered). And even if they did not do the math correctly right then and there, surely, with my horn-rimmed glasses and my philosophical nonchalance, I had the look of a man who would soon enough ascend to his rightful place among the lions' den of literary New York.

As it happened, there was no actual writing to be done by fact checkers at Vanity Fair (save for filling out the order forms from Mangia, an expensive boutique eatery from which we brought lunch in daily), despite ours being a department full of smart, talented writers, any number of whom have gone on to become respected staffers at national publications. And, I suspect, one of the reasons these former colleagues are so successful now, relatively speaking, is that they were at home writing back then, while I was battling my close friend over dating rights to an attractive blond who worked as an accessories buyer at Bergdorf Goodman (I lost).

* * *

When I was not garnering rejections from fashionable young editors in training, I did, ostensibly, do work for Vanity Fair. The job of the fact checker is straight-forward enough. He or she is charged with ensuring that every single word of a factual nature in a given article is correct. It seems simple on paper, and I'm sure that it is at any of the various shopping catalogues that pass themselves off as magazines these days, where the most challenging features involve short, numerically driven lists (eight seems a popular stopping point for some reason) that inform readers of new ways to please a lover, improve one's abs, or dress like Kate Hudson (for, one hopes, less than Kate Hudson spends).

But start delving into a 12,000-word treatise on the war in the former Yugoslavian Republic (in between articles on the obscenely rich and the formerly royal, Vanity Fair did offer authentic journalism) and you'd soon find yourself buried beneath an avalanche of geopolitical theories that would make Henry Kissinger's oversized head spin. Fact checking under those circumstances is like rooting for the postmillennial Detroit Lions—possible, even admirable, but ultimately a losing battle.

Do your job flawlessly and the writer comes away with a clean, smart-sounding story that, to the rest of the world, is evidence of his brilliance; make a mistake, and the magazine ends up getting a cranky letter from some retired automobile executive now living in Palm Springs who is also, it so happens, a European history buff with nothing better to do than let publications know that the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in October 1908 led to a constitution that divided the electorate into three electoral colleges (and not four, as the magazine incorrectly stated). The blame for that mistake, and its ensuing embarrassment, would fall squarely on the fact checker's shoulders, having been quickly tossed from the writer's lap like an ill-tempered shih tzu.

However, the job was not all doom and gloom. Certainly it allowed me to work with a host of well-known journalistic idols, from whom I learned a great deal about the craft, including James Wolcott, David Halberstam, and Christopher Hitchens, if by "work" one means being on the originating end of uncomfortable phone calls that involved my questioning the most detailed and, often, meaningless aspects of their reporting.

"Um, I don't mean to imply that you have this wrong, Mr. Dunne, but are you certain that Prince Charles's ascot was sky blue?"

Long, awkward silence as Mr. Dunne, one of America's foremost chroniclers of true crime and depravity, pauses to consider the inanity of the question. More pausing, and silence.

"Anyway. It's just that I saw a clip that suggested it might have been closer to a version of periwinkle, which is slightly darker, as you probably know, and we also have Paul McCartney on the record saying it was 'Wedgwood blue,' so as you can see, there is no consensus, and, well..."

Working with the writers was the best part of a job that had very few good aspects, even if, most of the time, we had to play the bad cop, subjecting them to absurd questions and often pointing out that they were dead wrong. While certain writers were famously grouchy and difficult to pin down, most were begrudgingly appreciative of our work, and of the fact that at the end of the day, we shielded them from looking foolish, to say nothing of the odd multimillion-dollar legal judgment.

* * *

But as mundane as bushwhacking through endless forests of details sometimes got, there was something of a Zen rhythm that the practice allowed me to establish during my average workday, chopping down pulpy facts one at a time, as if I were actually felling trees (or some other form of mindless work for which my coworkers and I were also overqualified).

And then there are the thousands of useless bits of trivia that the job, by its very detail-oriented nature, left forever in my battle-scarred mind. The residue of the occupation is my lifetime ability to be the most annoying, smart-assed guy at a dinner party. Frivolous information—fact checking's 401(k) plan.

Want to know who turned down the role of Indiana Jones before Harrison Ford took it? (Tom Selleck, because he did not want to jeopardize his Magnum, P.I. series. Good thinking, Tom.) Curious as to the exact number of umlauts in the name Diane von Furstenberg? (Zero. DVF likes to buck linguistic convention.) Ask a former fact checker, and then prepare to be bored to tears as he endlessly elaborates on each of these points.

On the more serious side, the fact checker is the last line of defense between an angry subject or source and exposure to a lawsuit for defamation. The real pressure is in making certain that everything that appears between (and on) the magazine's covers is legally accurate, and that those who were quoted actually said what was printed. And at a place like Vanity Fair, where allegations of infidelity and embezzlement and other forms of bourgeois criminality were levied against the famous and the infamous at the turn of every page, this was a tricky task. All this, and a base salary of $26,000 per year!

But the slave wages were offset by the fact that on certain rare occasions, we did get to "interview" celebrities (or at the very least, their people) as we rehashed various puff pieces and biographical profiles. My own brushes with fame tended to err on the wonky side—I recall a long conversation with James Wolfensohn, the head of the World Bank, about an outfit he had worn to an art auction, and I did speak regularly to low-level staffers in the Clinton White House. Run-ins with honest-to-goodness AAA-list types were mostly relegated to the dustbin of near misses, but I did hold out the hope that somehow my role as a fact checker was going to elevate me to the greatness I was no doubt entitled to.

Peter Hyman has written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, New York magazine, and various national publications. This is excerpted from The Reluctant Metrosexual: Dispatches from an Almost Hip Life, by Peter Hyman. Copyright © 2004 by Peter Hyman and published by Villard Books, an imprint of Random House Inc. Excerpted with the permission of the author. Hyman will be read from The Reluctant Metrosexual at the Chelsea Barnes & Noble in Manhattan on Wednesday, August 4, at 7:00 p.m., and you can buy the book at Amazon.com.



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