Christopher Bray

Art and aspiration

At the Stranger’s Gate combines portraits of friends with an exposé of art and ambition in America’s creative capital

When Adam Gopnik arrived in Manhattan in late 1980 he was an art history postgrad so poor that he and his wife-to-be were reduced to sharing a 9’ x 11’ basement with a bunch of cockroaches. But everything was going to be all right because Gopnik had his guitar with him and he ‘knew someone who’d once had dinner with the sister of a close friend of Art Garfunkel’s psychotherapist’. Having sent a tape of his songs over, he settled down to ‘write jokes for comedians. It seemed like a plan for life’.

In a way it was. Though Gopnik has yet to hear back from Garfunkel, his oratorio about Alan Turing played recently at the Barbican. And if he hasn’t actually gagged up any funny man’s act, he’s written with entrancing penetration about the likes of Steve Martin, W.C. Fields, Woody Allen and Groucho Marx in the pages of the New Yorker since 1986. Indeed, Gopnik has written with entrancing penetration on just about everything in the pages of the New Yorker. Michelangelo; Mill; Montaigne; Macron; meditation — these are just a few of the subjects he’s covered this past year alone.

He didn’t, of course, start out on the New Yorker. His first gig holding a pen was on GQ (or Gentlemen’s Quarterly as it still was then). They were looking for a fashion editor, and Gopnik, who couldn’t tell a pinstripe from a chalk stripe and was ‘still effectively dressed by my mother’, somehow got the gig.

Having got it, he proved good at it in the only way that nervous beginners can — by working hard. At times our jeans-and-sneakers-favouring hero would have to smuggle magazine spreads home for his wife (far more attuned to the fancies of fashion than he) to help him come up with headlines and captions.

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