The Essays of a Beloved Bon Vivant

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The author’s travel writing, like much travel writing, is most enjoyable when she gets into scrapes and is forced to reckon with income inequality on the ground. One account of a visit to Cuba (“Our Girl in Havana,” 1994) goes from stream of consciousness to pure fever dream after Reed’s handbag, containing passport, plane ticket and thousands of dollars in cash, is stolen. A jaunt to Europe to get cosmetic treatments sampled by Noël Coward, Somerset Maugham and other celebrities (“Fountain of Youth,” 1992) takes a dark turn in Romania, with spiders, howling dogs and beggars, and Reed eventually concluding that Margaret Thatcher’s glow was owed not to injections, but to power: “The secret of youth lies in being elected prime minister — and staying there.” Reed’s “whirlwind safari” to Africa, in 1994, during which she chose the antelope as her spirit animal and thought of Ernest Hemingway, feels more cringey-colonialist. (“It gets you, doesn’t it?” one American friend, “an old Africa hand,” asks Reed of an entire continent’s effect upon a visitor, when she returns.)

The collection includes some excellent profiles — of Sister Helen Prejean, Madeleine Albright and André Leon Talley, Reed’s longtime colleague and friend at Vogue. (On the other side of the ledger, a meditation about James Taylor oddly meanders into an anecdote about a feather.) You will not find out where these pieces first appeared without Googling, and maybe there’s the rub, the barbecue rub, of these “dispatches.” Many of them were composed for glossy magazines — some of which are now defunct, others seriously diminished — and without the ads for lipstick and face creams and Ralph Lauren outfits around them, they lack a certain raison d’être.

Reed’s vaunted article for Newsweek about the murder of the celebrity doctor Herman Tarnower — a scoop she got at 19 in 1980 because the killer, Jean Harris, was headmistress of her boarding school — is pasted in like a scrapbook entry, ending abruptly without subsequent context. Wry asides about fashion being safer than Prozac and fur sales going up simply haven’t dated well, now that an entire generation has come of age in N95s and leisure wear. A chapter on catfish, the food, written in 2019, uncharacteristically neglects to mention the modern meaning of the term.

As for Reed’s food writing: Dropping recipes into an anthology, when she has published some great books specifically on cooking and entertaining, feels like a category error. Are you really going to dig out this book when you’re ready to make catfish bouillon?

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