Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair

‘As soon as I woke up I rushed to the newsstand on the corner to look for the April issue of Vanity Fair. The second edition is even more baffling than the first one I saw in London in February. The cover is some incomprehensible multicolored tin-man graphic with no cover lines that will surely tank on the newsstand.’ This is from the opening diary entry in Tina Brown’s The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992 just published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. She would go on to ‘triumphantly reinvent’ the US magazine, just as she had done with Tatler in London. The diaries have received widespread publicity, and some extracts can be found online, in reviews and at Googlebooks.

Christina (Tina) Hambley Brown was born in Maidenhead, England, in 1953, but was brought up in Little Marlow, Buckinghamshire, with an elder brother. Her father was a film producer, working on early Agatha Christie films, among others, and her mother was an assistant to Laurence Olivier. Tina was a precocious but subversive school child, being expelled from three boarding schools, and entering St. Anne’s College, Oxford, aged only 17, to study English literature. Even before graduating, she had begun writing for the New Statesman and had won a National Student Drama Award for a play (Under the Bamboo Tree).

In 1973, Brown met Harold Evans, editor of the The Sunday Times, and she was soon being given freelance assignments for the newspaper. After starting a relationship with Evans (25 years older than her), she moved to work for The Sunday Telegraph. In 1979, she became editor of 
Tatler, then a publication with a fast diminishing circulation, and transformed it into glossy popular magazine featuring famous photographers and writers. In 1981, she married Evans, and they would have two children, George and Isabel. The following year, when Condé Nast bought Tatler, Brown resigned, but she was then enticed back by the company’s owner S. I. Newhouse Jr., to advise on resurrecting Vanity Fair in New York City. In 1984, she was named editor-in-chief. Vanity Fair’s circulation rose dramatically. In 1992, she was invited to take over as editor of The New Yorker, only the fourth editor in its history, and remained in that position until 1998. Brown then went to work for Harvey Weinstein and Bob Weinstein’s Miramax Films venture, editing Talk magazine, until it folded in 2002.

In 2007, Brown published her biography of Diana, Princess of Wales, which was a critical and popular success, and the year after that she worked with Barry Diller to launch The Daily Beast, an online news magazine which went on to win various awards. In 2010, The Daily Beast and Newsweek announced a merger of their operations, The Newsweek Daily Beast Company with Tina Brown as editor-in-chief. Newsweek ceased publishing in December 2012, and Brown resigned her position in 2013. She now runs Tina Brown Media. For more biographical information see Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, or The Guardian.

Most recently, however, Brown has been working on a new book, The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992, which was published by W&N a couple of weeks ago (14 November 2017). Here is the publisher’s blurb (even though it declined to provide me with a review copy): ‘The Vanity Fair Diaries is the story of an Englishwoman barely out of her twenties who arrives in Manhattan on a mission. Summoned from London in hopes that she can save Condé Nast's troubled new flagship Vanity Fair, Tina Brown is immediately plunged into the maelstrom of the competitive New York media world and the backstabbing rivalries at the court of the planet's slickest, most glamour-focused magazine company. She survives the politics, the intrigue and the attempts to derail her by a simple stratagem: succeeding. In the face of rampant scepticism, she triumphantly reinvents a failing magazine.’

Some pages of Brown’s diaries can be read at Amazon and Googlebooks, while extracts can be read at Vogue, MSNBC and The Globe and Mail. Otherwise, reviews of the book can be found at New Statesman, Financial Times, The New York Times and The New Yorker. And here are a few extracts cribbed from those sources.

10 April 1983
‘I am here in NYC at last, brimming with fear and insecurity. Getting in late last night on British Airways, I suddenly felt the enormousness of New York City, the noise of it, the speed of it, the lonely obliviousness of so many people trying to get ahead. My London bravado began to evaporate. I wished I was with Harry, who I knew would be sitting at his computer in front of his study window, in Kent, furiously pounding away about Rupert Murdoch.

I am staying at the Royalton Hotel on West Forty-Fourth Street, opposite the Algonquin Hotel. It’s a bit of a fleapit but in walking distance to the Conde Nast HQ at 350 Madison Avenue. The man at the desk seemed half-asleep when I checked in and there was no one around to haul my bag to the elevator. All the way in from JFK in the taxi, a phone-in show was blaring a woman with a rasping German accent talking in excruciating detail about blow jobs. The instructions crackling from the radio to “tek it in the mouth und move it slowly, slowly up und down” got so oppressive I asked the cabdriver what the hell he was listening to. He said it was a sex therapist called Dr. Ruth who apparently gives advice on the radio and has an enormous following.

As soon as I woke up I rushed to the newsstand on the corner to look for the April issue of Vanity Fair. The second edition is even more baffling than the first one I saw in London in February. The cover is some incomprehensible multicolored tin-man graphic with no cover lines that will surely tank on the newsstand. Some stunning photographs - they can afford Irving Penn and Reinhart Wolf, which made me pine with envy, and they don’t disappoint - but the display copy is nonexistent, so it’s not clear why they are there. There’s a brainy but boring Helen Vendler essay next to an Amy Clampitt poem, a piece headed (seriously) “What’s Wrong with Modern Conducting?” and a gassy run of pages from V. S. Naipaul’s autobiography. All this would be fine in the Times Literary Supplement, but when it’s on glossy paper with exploding, illegible graphics, it’s a migraine mag for God knows whom. Plus I learned today the Naipaul extract cost them seventy thousand dollars! That’s nearly a whole year’s budget at Tatler!

The question is, how long can Richard Locke survive as VF’s editor?

Leo Lerman, the old features legend at Vogue, heard I was in town and called me at the Royalton early this morning. He twittered on about last night’s screening, then asked me to think of a piece to write for Vogue, so that’s a relief. It means that leaving Tatler in the UK so abruptly hasn’t alienated the US Condé Nast powers as I feared.’

10 September 1983
‘The suspense about VF is now making me a basket case. I went to see wonderful Dr. Tom Stuttaford for sleeping pills and he was at his tweedy best. I told him about all my mixed-up longings. “Hmm,” he said. “I never did understand your infatuation with America. I tried it once and wouldn’t dream of making it a habit.” He removed his fountain pen and wrote a new prescription with an inky flourish. “Here’s my diagnosis, Tina. Buy a large house in the country, have a couple of babies, and just accept you are complicated.” In other words, just go off and be a wife.’

22 August 1990
‘So long between entries. Have had the whole family to stay at Quogue. Heaven having the cousins here for George.

When not with the kids have been glued to CNN, watching the developments in the crisis in the Gulf since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. He's such a preposterous figure, with the backward beret and huge chimney-sweep mustache, but clearly much more dangerous than anyone gave him credit for. No one took Hitler seriously either. It seems to be the hallmark of the most dangerous dictators that no one considers them a threat until too late.

The September issue is a news storm with the Trump piece and the Hitler speeches revelation. Happily, Trump trashed us to Barbara Walters on her show, and that spun another column from Liz Smith.’

16 August 1991
‘We christened Izzy last weekend on one of the nicest days we could have dreamed of, at the Church of the Atonement, Quogue’s little clapboard church, as we did for G. It was a glorious day. We had all the friends over for a buffet lunch on the porch and a local band playing at the entrance. Izzy looked so adorable in her frothy little dress, with those huge eyes in her china-doll face. She loved being swooped up and down by all the guests, grabbed the rector’s cross from around his neck, and chomped on it happily. She has all Harry’s power-packed energy and his equable temperament. Nothing fazes her as she moves from one passionate absorption to the next. How lucky I am.’

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