With boldness, flair, a great deal of publicity, and no little calculation, Conde Nast Publications Inc. is reviving the magazine Vanity Fair. But the premiere issue, now available on newsstands, makes me question whether the exciting potential will be realized.
Elegant but snobbish, witty but frivolous, America's original Vanity Fair came to symbolize the '20s and, like other symbolic names, it has never quite left our cultural memory.
Although the new Vanity Fair will also address society's upper crust, the publisher claims it will be a very different publication - ''more journalistic, more literary and intellectual, more liberal and liberated - a magazine for the more complex and contradictory times we live in.''
Of course, it would be unfair to judge Vanity Fair slick and superficial on the basis of one issue. But it may be that slickness and superficiality are not coincidental in this magazine but are the inherent dangers of ''class'' publishing.
In part, an audience defined by and sought for its wealth may impose limitations on a magazine's content. Do the rich want to read about ''burning issues''? Some class publishers think not. Knapp Communications, for example, believes Geo turned off its affluent audience by presenting controversial and disturbing material.
Innovative from the first, the bygone Vanity Fair introduced the American public to then unknown cultural figures who would later become famous: writers such as Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Millay; artists such as Picasso and Matisse; and photographers such as Edward Steichen and Cecil Beaton.
But in a sense the original Vanity Fair was devoted less to culture than to society - high society, that is, the milieu in which its editor Frank Crowninshield flourished. Filled with swanky ads, photographs of ''beautiful people,'' and articles with such titles as ''Swing Low! Several Elementary Considerations of the Art of Kissing a Lady's Hand,'' Vanity Fair focused playfully on topics which were, or would soon be, ''in.'' Like an endless party, it was a place for writers, artists, and intellectuals to put in an appearance, to be seen - not to engage in deep discussions or raise unpleasant issues that might ruffle the cool white decor of its pages.
The new monthly is lavish and beautiful, as befits its heritage and the $10 million to $15 million Conde Nast has reputedly invested in it. Close to 300 pages in length, strewn with color and luxurious ads, the issue boasts among its illustrators Annie Leibovitz, David Levine, and Andy Warhol. Articles include humorous pieces by Calvin Trillin and Nora Ephron; a ''Progress Report'' by John Leonard; ''Our Man in Mongolia'' by Gore Vidal; and art criticism by Clement Greenberg and Peter Schjeldahl. Kai Erikson, Stephen Jay Gould, and Moira Hodgson (one of the few women) are among the issue's other authors. And capping it all is a complete novella by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, recipient last year of the Nobel Prize for literature.
This is an impressive array. Why then my disappointment? For one thing, there seems nothing compelling about the magazine - no burning issues explored, no bold opinions expressed. None of the writers gives the impression he is writing about something he feels intensely we should know about and for which, no matter what, he will find an outlet.
A second source of disappointment is the absence of new voices. Almost all the writers in this issue are stars, with access to other major publications where they have been heard many times before. Not that we don't want to hear them again. But surely one of the most exciting aspects of a new magazine is new talent, the discovery of unexpected opinions.
A third problem for me is the slickness of the entire package. It is as if the old glittering party has indeed resumed and $3, the cover price of an issue, yields entry to the observation gallery, where one can watch the stars and listen in on their stylish chatter.
The old magazine's ''apolitical and debonair posture proved to be Vanity Fair's Achilles' heel,'' according to Joseph E. Corr Jr., publisher of the new Vanity Fair. Confronted with the depression, the political and social climate of the '30s, the chic and precious magazine lacked credibility and, ultimately, staying power. ''The mid-'30s,'' notes Corr, ''were not terribly precious.''
The early '80s, besieged by recession, are not terribly precious either, and one might question the wisdom of reintroducing a magazine for the rich at just this moment. But in fact, magazines for the rich are currently thriving, and Conde Nast's timing may prove right on target.
The ''class'' publication, a concept actually developed by the founder and namesake of Conde Nast, has recently come of age. Nast - a magazine entrepreneur vividly depicted in Caroline Seebohm's recent biography ''The Man Who Was Vogue'' - realized long before other publishers that a magazine doesn't need a large circulation, provided it has a wealthy one, comprising readers whom advertisers want to reach and for whom they will pay handsomely. The concept of class, as opposed to mass, publishing underlay Nast's own magazine empire, which included Vogue, House and Garden, and Vanity Fair. Today, such magazines as Architectural Digest, Bon Appetit, and The New Yorker, all aimed at a small but wealthy audience, are flourishing, and Conde Nast Publications sees Vanity Fair fitting nicely into this upscale niche.
The issue for Vanity Fair is how to combine serious writing in politics and the arts with its goal of writing for the rich - and whether it wants to do so.