Peace Corps Writers
Talking with . . .
Mark Jacobs
 

Maureen Orth’s books are listed in the Bibliography of Peace Corps Writers

An interview by John Coyne
MAUREEN ORTH (Colombia 1964–66) is perhaps the RPCV community’s premier journalist, having written for a number of majorPrinter friendly version publications, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Esquire and Newsweek. Today she is a Special Correspondent to Vanity Fair magazine. Prior to joining Vanity Fair, she was a contributing editor at Vogue and a columnist for New York Woman. And prior to that, she was a senior editor for New York and New West magazines.
     
One of the first women to write for Newsweek, Maureen won a National Magazine Award for group coverage of the arts while at the weekly. It was also while she was at Newsweek that she “discovered” Kinky Friedman (Borneo 1967–69) and wrote about him for the magazine only because, she says, Kinky had been a PCV. During this period, Maureen also took a leave of absence from Newsweek to be Swiss/Italian director Lina Wertmuller’s assistant on the film “Seven Beauties,” but then returned to journalism.
     She began to write for Vanity Fair in 1988, and among the people she has profiled was murder suspect Andrew Cunanan in the September 1997 issue. This was the first in-depth report on the man who killed Gianni Versace and served as the basis for her book, Vulgar Favors, published in 1999. Another of her articles — on Michael and Arianna Huffington — was nominated for a National Magazine Award in reporting.

Read Joe Kovac’s REVIEW of The Importance of Being Famous

     Maureen has a new book out that is a collection of her essays about famous people — including Arianna Huffington, The Importance of Being Famous: Behind the Scenes of the Celebrity-Industial Complex.
     I first met Maureen in the mid-eighties when she wrote an article for my wife, then an editor at Glamour Magazine. During this decade Maureen and I worked together on two major fund raising events for the RPCV community. Maureen had moved to Washington with her husband and young son, and briefly became involved with the National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (now the NPCA). That experience with the NCRPCV even today sends her into mild fits of rage so I saved my questions about the NPCA until the end of this interview.
   
  Maureen, what was your Peace Corps assignment?
    I was in urban community development in Colombia.
   How did you Peace Corps experience help your career?
My Peace Corps experience, particularly learning Spanish, was of great help to me.
     In journalism, you have to have energy and curiosity, and be willing to plunge into whatever environment the story takes you — that is very parallel to the Peace Corps experience. Ditto being able to fit in and be culturally sensitive to your surroundings.
     The Peace Corps teaches empathy — that is essential to winning people’s trust, particularly if you are dealing with people who are deciding whether to TRUST you or not with sensitive information or any information for that matter.
     I have gone all over the world in my assignments, and after two years in the Peace Corps at an early age I believe one is much better suited to deal with everything from impossible bureaucracy to difficult living conditions in pursuit of the goal — which is getting the story.
Of all the people you have profiled, who has impressed you the most?
Some people who have impressed me most are not those I most admire at all. Imagine the Sir Walter Scott rhyme “Oh! what a tangled web we weave When first we practise to deceive!” I am amazed at the lengths some people go to to invent themselves anew or try to gain status and power, so in that regard I have been impressed with the strivers and deceivers: Mohamed Fayed, Arianna Huffington, Andrew Cunanan and the rascal politico who was President of Argentina, Carlos Menem. Others I feel more sympathy for: I found Margaret Thatcher in the moment she fell from power to be a poignant character, although at the time she had become very unpopular. Tina Turner is just a great dame. I had the most fun watching designer Karl Lagerfeld ply his trade — equal amounts of creative and marketing genius. With the ultra famous such as Madonna and Michael Jackson, it is more a question of trying to find the nature of the there there. With Michael Jackson and Woody Allen, both considered geniuses and therefore not accountable to the rules the rest of us have to follow, it is not very pretty.
Much of what makes your articles so good are your great quotes. How do you get them?
Getting great quotes is a function of listening well. When someone says something that strikes me as interesting, I often ask them if they mean such and such and often they repeat my last words as the first words in their answer. I think hearing a good quote, though, is more an instinctive ability — it really cannot be taught: either you can or you can’t. It is probably akin to writing dialog for the fiction writer.
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