Vanity Fair readers have come to expect a certain bourgeois haughtiness in its prose, or at least a very proper, often snooty, and distant tone that capitalizes on the fantasies it sells its ideal well-heeled readership and the masses they intrigue. It wouldn’t really work to read about the lost diaries of Marilyn, or Jackie Onassis’s personal photographer, or gritty reportage of murderous Russian billionaires, or the mythical wasteland of Wall Street Tinder fuckers, in a conversational tone. As with Vanity Fair’s sister publication, Vogue, they are in the business of explicating the unattainable with the illusion of an insider’s perspective. Often, they report on tiers of society that many of us would not deign to be a part of even if we could, but relish reading about, as juicy as any gossip blog, but with a much heftier price tag.
There’s a confounding, off-putting quality, though, to their latest paean to Dr. Fredric Brandt, the infamous cosmetic dermatologist who, in April, committed suicide by hanging at home in Miami. Written by Lili Anolik, who most recently composed an equally off-putting profile of Sofia Vergara, we learn that Dr. Brandt was a personal friend of Anolik because, as she puts it, “I’m married to a doctor, Robert Anolik—Rob—and Fred was Rob’s boss.”
This is the kind of insight Vanity Fair offers at its best, its contributors often based on some unknowable formula of writerly merit and elbows rubbed—and quite often, the mix is intriguing and very rarely replicable. But again, even with insight, the author having been socially friendly with Dr. Brandt and possessing some insight into his otherworldly universe, there’s a strange flippancy to the piece that goes beyond provincial clichés like “Glitz galore,” and shit like “Formidable. The Real Deal.” It’s a gas!
It gets weird by paragraph two, in which the author explains that Brandt had wanted her to write about him, she explains that now, she can:
Fred and I were close, but in a funny way because we barely knew each other. The relationship was almost entirely by proxy. I’m married to a doctor, Robert Anolik—Rob—and Fred was Rob’s boss. The official term, I believe, was “associate,” but really, boss. Which was why my writing about Fred was so totally out of the question. That it isn’t anymore is the saddest thing in the world. See, Fred committed suicide, hanged himself in the garage of his Miami home during the early morning hours of Sunday, April 5, Easter Sunday, as it so happened. He was 65 years old, though it feels strange to assign him an age, since not looking his was so much what he was about. In any case, now that he’s dead little niceties like conflict of interest no longer apply or matter.
The first-person perspective, particularly when discussing the “chemistry” between “Fred” and “Rob,” is presented in a voice that one might assume over cocktails, but then again that’s the sort of nonchalance with which I assume this social strata discusses Restylane and other fun things I cannot afford. (“Beaucoup bucks,” writes Anolik.)
And still, nestled in the Fosse-hands, flash-and-bang writing style, there’s a tenderness, and an insight, that has the advantage of its own conflict of interest. No subject can be approached as delicately as one you knew personally, even from a peripheral vantage, so the best parts get at his personality and reason for living, inscrutable to so many of us, and beneath that, the humanity beneath the facade. Like this:
A perfect diet and an hour and a half a day of yoga with a private instructor gave him a body that was as lean and supple as a teenager’s. And he shunned the sun more vigilantly than any bloodsucker, his skin almost phosphorescent in its paleness. Plus, he practiced what he preached, and on himself, over-practiced some might say, injecting Botox and filler into his face until it was unnaturally smooth, without line or crease or pucker or pore. But the unnatural must have been on purpose, since he was so good at making his patients look natural.
Basically, it was as if he were both a person and an object, his own creation—a cross between a science experiment and a work of art, just as he himself was a cross between a mad-genius scientist and a mad-genius artist. Sui generis autogenesis.
And most crucially:
It’s not possible for me—or anyone, probably—to say definitively why he did it. Who can understand the precise motives of another human being? We’re all, at heart, mysterious, never to be fully fathomed or grasped.
God, this piece! It has so many moments of strong perception and it’s like the editors were so jazzed at the thought of a writer getting a little bit colloquial with the voice they turned off “track changes” and let it rock, but the last time they ever heard anyone speak in a colloquial tone was 1972. It’s so bothersome, but you should still read it, particularly if you are interested in and fascinated and captivated by Dr. Fredric Brandt, who was as early-21st Century a mystery and metaphor as any—a perfect story for Vanity Fair.
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