BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

A snapshot ...

Another thing that was staring out of the dollar store shelves recently … I'm not proud to say it, but the main reason I picked this up (being that I'm generally quite disinterested in “celebrities” unless there's a compelling story arc in the book) was that I was hoping it would be providing an insider view into one of the more notorious entries on the “Clinton Body Count” … JFK Jr., having tragically died in a “mysterious” plane crash (with his wife and sister-in-law) just before making a run for the New York Senate seat that a certain current Presidential candidate had her eye on back in 1999. Unfortunately, there is nothing in Matt Berman's JFK Jr., George, & Me: A Memoir on this (I was disappointed), but, frankly, there was nothing political in here at all. Of course, I would have worked pretty much all the way through to book to get to the potential Democratic Senatorial primary, so the absence of that did not notably detract from the reading … although, I suppose, part of me was waiting for it to turn up.

So, I sailed into this hoping for juicy political intrigue … and got … well, a breezy look inside the glossy magazine biz. As this is “A Memoir”, it's ultimately more about Matt Berman than it is about JFK Jr., but is (obviously) focused on the part of Berman's life when he was helping to develop Kennedy's George magazine. The author was “a shy, self-deprecating, artistic kid” who grew up in Connecticut (and had a significant trauma in his life a year following the JFK assassination, when two raccoons ripped up his 5-month-old face – permanently scarring him). He was a good enough artist that he attended Carnegie Mellon, and got his degree from the Parsons School of Design … and managed to talk his way into the Art department of the American ELLE Magazine in 1986. The parent company of ELLE, Hachette, was launching the JFK Jr. project George, and his boss thought he'd be a good match with Kennedy … after getting the nod from JFK Jr.'s then-girlfriend (later wife) Carolyn Bessette – who'd been asked to come in to check out the logo that Berman was working on – he got the gig as Creative Director of the magazine.

The book is about 1/3rd dishing about the magazine business (and especially characters around the Hachette New York office), about 1/3rd dishing about the various celebrities who were featured in the magazine (with lots of stories about famous cover shoots), and about 1/3rd talking about himself and John:
We were an unlikely team. John was confident, charismatic, the son of the most beloved president in history. I was self-conscious, self-deprecating, and son of the most beloved restaurant supplier in all of Fairfield County, Connecticut. John loved football in the park on a Saturday; I loved a good Twilight Zone marathon on cable. … When I was blearily hitting the snooze button at seven in the morning, he was plunging into the Hudson River in a kayak. This split-screen idea always made us laugh.

My brothers … always seemed so cool … I felt that way about John, a brother who led an impossibly cool life.
There's lots of “fun” stuff in here about the famous and/or beautiful … including separate sections on “The Shoot” featuring tales of photographing Cindy Crawford, Demi Moore, Barbra Streisand, Drew Barrymore, Kate Moss (who was a last-moment replacement for Pamela Anderson – no, really), Elizabeth Hurley, Barbara Walters, and Ben Stiller (who was doing a feature sending up John). I'm sure that those who enjoy celebrity “stuff” will find these quite appealing.

On a more obscure (for most) plane, there's also a lot of talk of fashion industry photographers, make-up artists, stylists, etc. … plus (on an even more rarefied level) talk about “legends” in the magazine (fashion primarily, and European at that) biz. It's interesting to read Berman's take on these folks, but, without a whole other book to fill in the back story on who these people are and what they've done, and why I should care about it … it seems a bit “niche”.

Having “gone a-googling” a bit, it turns out that Berman (following the changes at George brought on by JFK Jr.'s death) ended up moving to Paris, and working in the fashion magazine field for more than a decade, before returning to the states to work for a while as an executive with a clothing company (where he was when this book happened), and eventually hanging his own shingle out as an advertising design consultant.

Oh, being the cantankerous old geezer that I am (who well remembers the way things were “back then”), I found another subtle sub-theme here endearing … how all this happened in a very primitive technological context … Berman talks about doing manual paste-up, doing photo research by looking at sheets of slides, and notes towards the end of the book:
It's amazing to think that I never received an email from John. We didn't use it yet at George; we used telephones, FedEx, and fax machines. I wonder what John would think about an iPhone or Facebook, and then I realize he didn't even live to see the tsunami in Phuket or the horrors of September 11, only blocks from his home.
It would be easy to say Matt Berman is using the fame of JFK Jr. to “sell” his memoir (and, honestly, would it have seen print without that connection?), but this is a sweet and loving recalling of his boss from those years, providing the over-all arc to a look at the many elements which made up George, from the stars on the cover, to the quirky folks in the office.

JFK Jr., George, & Me is still in print, in a paperback edition. It is somewhat odd that it found its way to the dollar store, as it's only a couple of years old, and the new/used guys don't have it at a deep discount (you can, however, get new copies of the hardcover for about a quarter of what the paperback is going for). While this wasn't the book that I was thinking it might be when I picked it up, it was an engaging read, and an interesting look at a part of the publishing world that I wasn't particularly familiar with. If you're “into” fashion and celebrities, I'm pretty sure you'll enjoy this even more than I did.

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Tags: book review
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