Frank confessions of legendary magazine editor
Memoir: The Vanity Fair Diaries 1983-1992, Tina Brown, W&N, hardback, 448 pages, €30.40
Tina Brown turned around an ailing 'Vanity Fair' and pricked a few society egos along the way. Her acerbic memoir chronicles a superficial era on course for disaster.
In 1997, as Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love was about to have its premiere, the New Yorker writer Anthony Lane approached his editor with an idea for a piece about the play's subject, AE Housman. Tina Brown fixed the nervous critic with her piercing blue eyes and asked: "Is Housman hot?"
Lane was nonplussed. Housman, a formidable classicist and poet, was not only painfully shy and crabbed, the guy had been dead for 60 years. In a very real sense, he was not "hot". Yet Brown commissioned the article anyway, and gave it a generous amount of space. Lane later said: "If anyone could make Housman hot, it was Tina."
Brown is the greatest magazine editor of her generation, but her deafening successes, which should have silenced her critics, only made them shout louder. When she took over at the venerable New Yorker in 1992, it was as if Katie Price had been made Archbishop of Canterbury. What did it matter if the vulgarian Brit knew how to stop the decline of print media when she axed all those terribly important 20,000-word pieces on tomato growing?
The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992, scribbled by Brown in blue school exercise books, give us a chance to reappraise her achievements: to shed some light on the heat. Incredibly, she was still only 29 as she stepped off a plane at JFK in 1983 "brimming with fear and insecurity" to advise Condé Nast on how to save its newly relaunched but already ailing title Vanity Fair. Brown had already, when not long out of Oxford, used CPR (culture, publicity, ruthless rigour) to resuscitate Tatler, that ageing dowager of a society mag. This was in a different league.
America at the time was enjoying "an era of blockbuster confidence". Greed was good, in the words of Wall Street's Gordon Gekko. Condé Nast, where Brown swiftly cultivated chairman SI Newhouse and his elegant consigliere Alexander Liberman, was as paranoid and poisonous as ancient Rome. To get to grips with this rabidly status-conscious new world, Brown attends parties, where the English rosebud manages to prick a few egos. "What do you do?" she asks Shirley MacLaine.
She is dismayed by the "overblown and humourless" new issue of Vanity Fair, and is convinced that she can do better. Brown admits she is a lousy cook, but once she is appointed Vanity Fair editor-in-chief, she sets about preparing the print equivalent of a perfect dinner party.
There are amuse-bouches to tickle the reader's palate (a blindfold newcomer, Daryl Hannah, on the cover of her first issue), followed by some serious meat (Dominick Dunne's true-crime stories; superb foreign reportage) and always a delicious dessert (celebrity gems; gorgeous photography). It takes a while to get the recipe right, but by the time a pregnant and naked Demi Moore appeared on a justly famous cover, Brown had more than doubled Vanity Fair's advertising, and added about a million readers.
Was she born to do it? The daughter of George H Brown, a gentleman film producer, Tina grew up in "idyllic" Buckinghamshire in the English countryside, a household always in search of "a cracking good yarn". Her parents threw wildly eclectic parties. Young Tina once watched her mother introduce Dame Rebecca West to comedian Benny Hill. "The great lady of letters bent down and examined him as if he were a vivisected newt."
Right there. That's what makes Brown such a fabulous diarist. It's not just that she's a wonderful writer (although she is: fluent, funny, fierce). It's more that, even after taking her seat at America's top table, she never stops noticing. Amid the narcotic stupefaction of great wealth, Brown is invariably alert and on the money. One society columnist is "a coiffed asparagus, exuding second-rate intellectualism". The actor Wallace Shawn is "a small anxious hippo", full of quotable insights like "America has no memory". At the Diamonstein-Spielvogels' Park Avenue apartment, "poised over Manhattan like an airborne Versailles", the silver placemats are so shiny you can see your own reflection. "Every time I looked down I stared forlornly up my own nostrils," deadpans Brown.
Vividly, she describes how soon she and her husband, Harold Evans - a legendary former editor of The Sunday Times - succumb to the "New York disease" of feeling they never have quite enough. A strain of homesickness runs through the book like an underground stream. On a trip back to the UK, Tina is upset to find reporters ticking her off for a "frosty professional patina" - the very buttoned-up image she had to cultivate to survive in the US.
Exploding that chilly image are Brown's self-lacerating confessions about the strains of being a working mother. After a day spent doing battle with Tom Cruise's PR, she rushes home to deal with George, a cranky toddler who has the same noisome neediness as a Hollywood megastar. "The weekend was hard, with G being very difficult, and Harry chained to his computer as bloody always," she says. "Two workaholics don't make a rightaholic, particularly when it comes to raising kids." She writes heartbreakingly about her love for George. Born premature, he is diagnosed with developmental difficulties (eventually Asperger's). "Was it my fault for working too hard and long?" asks Brown.
But that's who she is. She can be no other. If readers occasionally get sick of all the media barons and society queens strutting their stuff in these pages, then they're not alone. "Why do I keep seeking out the very things I deride?" Brown asks. "Perhaps because I was born to chronicle them."
That feels about right. The Vanity Fair Diaries can stand alongside Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities and Oliver Stone's Wall Street as a brilliant evocation of a time and place sick with excess and on course for disaster. Brown has everything it takes to be a terrific novelist and I hope that, one day, she finds the time to write one. Meanwhile, here is her rebuke to Gordon Gekko. Greed is good, but intelligence, wit and a great magazine are so much better.