Bruce Handy offers a peek behind the scenes of Vanity Fair at Aspen Summer Words
ASPEN SUMMER WORDS PUBLIC EVENTS
Monday, June 18
‘How to Start a Writing Project and Make It to the Finish Line’
The Gant Conference Center, 3:30 – 4:30 p.m.
Panelists: Helen Schulman, Anthony Marra, Tina Chang, Bruce Handy
‘Real Life Stories and How to Tell Them’
The Gant, 5:15 – 6:30 p.m.
Panelists: Margot Lee Shetterly, Heather Harpham, Beth Nguyen, Aran Shetterly
Tuesday, June 19
Aspen Words Annual Summer Benefit Dinner
Hotel Jerome, 6-10 p.m.
Featuring Mohsin Hamid in conversation with Dan Porterfield
Wednesday, June 20
‘What Every Writer Should Know about Working with Agents & Editors’
The Gant, 4 – 5 p.m.
Panelists: J. Courtney Sullivan, Brettne Bloom, Ben Loehnen, Barbara Jones, Ayesha Pande
‘The Writer’s Life: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times’
Belly Up, 6 – 7:15 p.m.
Panelists: J. Courtney Sullivan, Margot Lee Shetterly, Peter Ho Davies
Thursday, June 21
‘The Take Away’
The Gant, 4 – 5:15 p.m.
Panelists: Helen Schulman, Tina Chang, Heather Harpham, Peter Ho Davies, Anthony Marra
Tickets and more info: aspenwords.org
Bruce Handy knows what makes Vanity Fair tick. The writer and editor spent nearly 20 years on the magazine’s staff — shepherding into print its idiosyncratic mix of stories and scoops from Washington, Wall Street, Hollywood and beyond.
Handy is pulling back the curtain next week at the Aspen Summer Words readers’ retreat, discussing some of his favorite Vanity Fair stories and how they came to be. The retreat is something of a personal capstone for Handy’s tenure at Vanity Fair. He recently left the staff to become features director at Esquire, though he’ll stay on the masthead as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.
“I picked stories where there would be things to talk about in terms of how they came together, how they were reported, the impact they had once they were published, some of the interesting journalistic questions they raised,” Handy explained. “It’s combination of appreciation and getting into the nuts and bolts, crafty kind of aspects of it. And hopefully we’ll get into some backstage magazine gossip, too.”
Among the stories Handy will be dissecting with the group is “Searching for Robert Johnson,” a 2008 piece by Frank Digiacomo about guitarist Zeke Schein’s quest to authenticate a rare picture of the mythical bluesman Johnson — a story that illuminated a world most readers did not know existed.
“It also became a story about the money-making industry that surrounded Robert Johnson and his heirs, and it dealt with the cult of Robert Johnson,” Handy said. “It’s one of the pieces I edited at Vanity Fair that I was most proud of.”
On the glamour and scandal side of Vanity Fair, Handy picked a 2013 profile by the late Ingrid Sischy of the fashion designer John Galliano. The story marked the disgraced designer’s first interview after a recording of his drunken anti-Semitic rant went viral and shattered his career. What might have been a salacious little tabloidy scoop, in Sischy’s hands, became a challenging and personal exploration of the destruction wrought by substance abuse.
“She tried to understand him and be empathetic, while at the same time not excusing what he had done,” Handy said. “It’s great when a story has different levels of richness or intertwined narratives and themes.”
Vanity Fair, since its reincarnation 35 years ago, has been at times as strange as it has been successful — a publication placing the frivolous beside the momentous, as dedicated to glamorous photo shoots and celebrity revelations as it is to investigative reporting and cultural criticism. It is the monthly glossy that unmasked Deep Throat and unveiled Caitlyn Jenner — a tastemaker for literature and cinema and a kingmaker on Capitol Hill. No matter what it’s covering, Handy said, the magazine’s best stories all have great storytelling and rare access in common.
“It’s taking you someplace you haven’t been and hopefully other journalists haven’t been before,” he said. “Strong narrative, access and hopefully some kind of impact, whether it’s an emotional story or it’s making some news or illuminating a political or business situation — or just funny and entertaining.”
Along with leading the readers’ retreat, Handy will join a panel discussion at Summer Words on Monday titled “How to Start a Writing Project and Make It to the Finish Line.” Handy has some recent experience with big projects: Last year he published his first book, “Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult.” The book is a deep critical dive into children’s classics like “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Goodnight Moon” and “Charlotte’s Web.”
“It came out of the experience of having kids, reading to them, and discovering I was really fascinated — and in some cases moved — by these books I’d read as a child,” Handy said.
It’s almost time to ring in the new year and if your holiday schedule is shaping up to be as packed as mine, I wish you a well-deserved rest in 2024. In the meantime, it’s our chance to party, and party we shall.