Less than eighteen months before I was due to graduate from college, I still had next to no idea what I wanted to do for a living. I’d majored in English literature and was pretty sure that I wanted to be a writer, but not the sort of writer who spends all of her time working on something that might not ever be published, or read by more than a few hundred people if it was. I couldn’t see the point of that. If “bestselling novelist” had been the kind of job that you could apply for, I almost certainly would have. But I wasn’t, so I put the idea out of my head.
My cousin Jen had been on staff at Elle for a couple of years by then, but it didn’t occur to me to wonder whether she could help me snag a summer internship at the magazine until one of my roommates was offered an internship at French Vogue. Jealous, I called New York. Yes, my cousin confirmed, she could connect me to the assistant who was in charge of choosing interns. She couldn’t guarantee that I’d be picked—she wasn’t this woman’s boss—but Jen found it distinctly unlikely that the assistant would refuse to hire me, a fellow employee in good standing’s reasonably qualified relative.
Nevertheless, having suddenly decided not quite at random that I wanted to work at a magazine, I figured I’d better cover my bases. I reached out to my mother’s best friend from high school, a journalist, and she agreed to put me in touch with the intern coordinator at her main outlet, Rolling Stone. Her level of pull wasn’t quite equal to Jen’s—even though she was more established in the industry, she was a freelancer—but it was enough. By the time summer rolled around, I’d made plans to spend Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays at Elle, and Thursdays and Fridays at Rolling Stone.
I’m sure it goes without saying that both of these positions were unpaid, unless you count the stacks of unopened CDs that one or another of the music magazine’s many twenty-something male editors sometimes gave me to sell at a used record store downtown. (You shouldn’t.) I’d saved up a bit of cash from my Charlottesville waitressing job, but mostly, for those ten weeks, I sponged off my parents, just as I did during the school year. They paid my rent—an outrageous $750 a month to share a tiny two-bedroom suite in the NYU dorms with three total strangers (the most memorable of which used to sit in our cramped, windowless common area plucking her leg hairs out with a pair of tweezers)—and gave me enough money to ensure that I didn’t starve to death, which in Manhattan, even back then, was kind of a lot.
Prior to that summer, I’d spent just a few days in New York, not counting my infancy. (My family had lived in an allegedly cockroach-infested apartment off Washington Square the year I was born, while my father attended tax school.) And those days, the days immediately following my graduation from boarding school, had been spent wandering the city with almost a dozen other wide-eyed teenagers; nights, we slept side-by-side on the floor of my friend Blaine’s mother’s Upper East Side co-op. In retrospect, the apartment was beautiful, and rather sizeable for New York City. But at the time, even I—an extroverted middle child who required very little personal space—found it, and the city in general, to be a bit claustrophobic.
Upon my return, though, New York started to grow on me, mostly because I liked my jobs. Not that the work was especially exciting: The main thing I remember doing at Elle that summer was organizing and reorganizing the research library, which was actually more of a closet. (We also answered phones, wrote “letters to the editor”—they weren’t fake, exactly, because they reflected our true feelings about, say, E. Jean’s advice to a woman wondering whether she should enlist a matchmaker to help her find a wealthy husband—corresponded with publicists, and, as my friend and fellow intern Alyssa recently reminded me, occasionally typed stories into the computers that had been filed by fax.) At Rolling Stone, I did even less of substance; the magazine celebrated a version of summer Fridays that included free beer being distributed to the entire staff at around 3 PM.
Even so, I was taken in. At both magazines, I found it thrilling to see pages in process, prior to their publication and then again, in print, a few weeks later. At Rolling Stone, I loved visiting the gallery-like hallway on the opposite side of the floor that showcased poster-sized prints of every single cover, going all the way back to the magazine’s start in the late 1960s. And on my second or third Friday there, just before quitting time, an excited buzz went around the office: The celebrity photographer Mark Seliger was hosting a big party that night at his new west West Village studio, and everyone was invited, “even the interns.”
I called my college friend Sarah, who was working in Manhattan that summer but living with her brother and sister-in-law in Hoboken, and told her to get back on the bus. Rightly so: The guests included everyone from Vince Vaughn, still very “money” less than a year after the release of Swingers, to Jerry Seinfeld, who’d recently broken up with a girl more or less our age. But, starstruck though we were by them, we really only had eyes for Brad Pitt, who was there with a bodyguard and who for some reason permitted a group of us to babble at him for the better part of ten minutes. (At one point, Brad put a cigarette in his mouth and Sarah literally grabbed a Bic out of another guy’s hand in order to light it.) Giddy beyond reason, we interns stayed until the end of the party, long after almost everyone else had left. We’d probably still be there if our host hadn’t kicked us out.
No wonder, then, that by the end of the summer I was sure that I wanted to work in magazines, and, therefore, to live in New York. No wonder I became a culture writer, with an early focus on music, and a celebrity profiler. And no wonder that, even though I’m technically still a magazine writer, I somehow sort of miss it.
Note: I wrote pretty much all of the above before a Refinery29 piece that details the spending life of a (wealthy) summer intern went viral; nevertheless, because it’s 2018, I suppose I should explicitly acknowledge the captial-P privilege that allowed me to get my start in magazines. Which: That’s why I included those details! To be clear, my parents weren’t giving me anywhere near $4000 a month, and nobody I knew had a house in the Hamptons, with their own private chef. But I still couldn’t have held those jobs without significant financial support, and I very likely couldn’t have got them without the family connections that led to my rather thin resume landing at the tops of those piles. Clearly, this is not an ideal way to run things.
And, speaking of working for free: I have added a paid option to this newsletter. It’s early days so I’m not sure exactly what paying subscribers will get that freeloaders (meant affectionately!) won’t. But if you are dying to support my work, please do sign up.