I have been meaning to start this blog for some time. Seeing this piece of journalism gave me the impetus I needed to get started. This article encapsulates everything I ever found hate-able about the NYT in the first place. This article made me fall in hate all over again.
“Titans in Party Dresses” is a profile of a Johns Hopkins sophomore named Hadley Nagel, who comes from a rich and socially prominent family. She is a debutante. The worshipful prose devoted to her here makes me long for one of those stupid articles the Times does about freegan squatters living the fixed-gear lifestyle and making artisanal farm tools; at least those people have their own shit going on. The most noteworthy fact to emerge about Nagel is that she has a fascination with James Madison, and has registered as a Capitol Hill lobbyist to win him a national monument. George Gurley’s profile does not explore the reasons for this intellectual enthusiasm, but it does engage in one of the worst habits of bad NYT writing: assuming that banal actions become fascinating when performed by wealthy socialites. See if you can spot any others, though!
Gurley informs us that Nagel is “the most swell” young lady in the land, because she is “a German countess, according to her mother, Susan Nagel, and also a direct descendant, through her father, Jon… of two signers of the Declaration of Independence.” Okay people, let me tell you something about being descended from a signer of the Declaration of Independence. I am also a “direct descendant” of a Declaration of Independence signer (for reasons of personal anonymity, it won’t say which one it is, but that person’s initials are J.B.). No one cares, nor have they ever. I’ve never bothered mentioning it to anyone except my boyfriend, and he forgot about it until I reminded him of it on Gchat just now. It’s unfair, I now realize. Here I am, a potential swell, driving around in a 1996 Honda Civic and buying “manager’s special” items at the grocery store. I have some salsa I bought yesterday that is fermenting and attempting to turn itself into a sort of hard tomato cider. My “debutante ball” was an 8-ball! (of Olde English malt liquor) (not really, but you get the idea.)
“But Miss Nagel, 19, plays down her pedigree. ‘I mean, you still have to pay for your coffee at Starbucks,’ she said recently.” That is what I was just saying about the hard life of a Declaration-of-Independence-signer-descendant. People can’t recognize our blue blood just by gazing on our physiognomy. This quote makes Nagel sound insufferable at best, and possibly like a dangerous lunatic at worst, but I don’t think it’s her fault. Can you imagine the question the reporter must have asked her to elicit such a response?
Nagel’s accomplishments are “dizzying.” Some of them involve published writing, but also, “an expert shooter in trap, skeet and clay, she was a blue-ribbon winner of a small-bore rifle competition.” I wish the winners of small-bore rifle competitions received more press coverage; I bet there are some colorful characters there, possibly even more colorful than Nagel herself. “Miss Nagel had founded Model United Nations and history clubs, a travel Web site for teenagers, playintraffic.com, and another site, americansformadison.org.” “Founding” a website is kinda up there with founding a bank account or erecting a piece of Ikea furniture, but she does have some unique accomplishments.
“According to Susan Nagel [that’s H-Nag’s mom]… many, many, many people have thought Serena van der Woodsen, a character on the CW network show ‘Gossip Girl,’ is based on Miss Nagel, minus the promiscuity and drugs.” Man, that sounds like a losing formula for a show. You’re not supposed to take out the promiscuity and drugs from someone’s life! If anything, you should add in more! Gossip Girl must be a show for Mormons or something. I’m glad I never watched it. This makes me wonder, though, why George Gurley has been wasting all this space talking about high school chess clubs and… wait, what really went on at that “small-bore rifle competition”?
Speaking of which, “Miss Nagel has… dated a cross section of interesting young men in New York and Europe, including a duke with a castle.” That reminds me of a book I once read; I think it was called Portrait of a Honky. Seriously though, do the young people of today still think it’s cool to hang out with titled nobility? I wouldn’t. I see the words “duke with a castle,” I hear “boring dork who’s never heard of the Butthole Surfers.”
“Currently a member of Phi Mu… she asked her distant cousin Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia to design a Phi Mu ring, the proceeds of which will benefit the Children’s Miracle Network.” How hideous do you think that ring is? I have this feeling that anything designed by a “Prince Dimitri” would be way over the top and gaudy. Maybe that’s just a harmful stereotype about Yugoslavian royalty.
The next paragraph shows of Gurley’s eye for detail and provides us with a window into her world. “To unwind, Miss Nagel says she watches ‘crappy’ reality shows on her flat screen in the suite she shares with three roommates. She enjoys listening to the Jay-Z song ‘Empire State of Mind’ when she’s homesick.”
It turns out she likes the song because it evokes the hustle-bustle of NYC life. “Indeed. Miss Nagel doesn’t go to frat parties. Good-looking nerds are her type, she said. Her biggest vice seems to be iced cappuccinos with cinnamon sprinkled on top and two packets of Splenda. ‘She is not blowing up, like a lot of kids in college, because of beer,’ her mother said.” This paragraph has sort of a “word soup” aspect that I enjoy. It’s relaxing. Cappucinos… cinnamon… vices… beer… the horrors of weight gain… something about blowing good-looking nerds… “Shorty let me tell you bout my only vice/ It has to do with blowing lots of hot nerds, and it ain’t nothin’ nice.” That’s a rap I wrote. It is called “Johns Hopkins State of Mind.”
There’s a part about how she believes Napoleon is to blame for the war of 1812, and then: “Wearing a Ralph Lauren blazer, cashmere sweater, jeans and Ferragamo loafers, she was having a lunch of crab chowder and chicken pot pie at a restaurant in Saks Fifth Avenue, with her mother (also in Ralph Lauren blazer). Both women’s nails were painted pink.” I have a feeling George Gurley thinks I’m more ravenous for scraps of information about the Glamorous High Life than I actually am. To be fair though, if I were a shoeless preteen growing up in a Appalachian mining shack in the 1930’s, I would find a paragraph like the above utterly riveting.
The article concludes with Gurley asking his subject the question that has been on the tip of his tongue the whole time: “‘Can you dance?’ ‘I have rhythm, thank you.'” It’s a strange moment, combining fawning obsequious, condescension, and wacky randomness in a manner rarely seen. I kind of feel sorry for Hadley Nagel now.