Tina Brown kept delicious daily diaries throughout her eight spectacular years as editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair. Today they provide an incendiary portrait of the flash and dash and power brokering of the Excessive Eighties in New York and Hollywood.
The Vanity Fair Diaries is the story of an Englishwoman barely out of her twenties who arrives in New York City with a dream. 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 skepticism, she triumphantly reinvents a failing magazine.
Here are the inside stories of Vanity Fair scoops and covers that sold millions―the Reagan kiss, the meltdown of Princess Diana's marriage to Prince Charles, the sensational Annie Leibovitz cover of a gloriously pregnant, naked Demi Moore. In the diary's cinematic pages, the drama, the comedy, and the struggle of running an "it" magazine come to life. Brown's Vanity Fair Diaries is also a woman's journey, of making a home in a new country and of the deep bonds with her husband, their prematurely born son, and their daughter.
Astute, open-hearted, often riotously funny, Tina Brown's The Vanity Fair Diaries is a compulsively fascinating and intimate chronicle of a woman's life in a glittering era.
The Vanity Fair Diaries 1983-1992 by Tina Brown review – ‘the heart of the zeitgeist, people!’
These reflections by the celebrated editor aren’t really about a magazine but about her, and the name-dropping and hard-glamour sell are relentless
‘I hope I never lose my barometer for good and evil’ … Tina Brown in 1990.
Tuesday 14 November 2017 14.15 GMT Last modified on Saturday 18 November 2017 00.11 GMT
Almost 20 years ago I bought a book in a charity shop purely because of the author: it was Life As a Party, by Tina Brown, published in 1983. I was starting to consider journalism as a career and, of all the high-profile female journalists out there to see as a role model, Brown struck me as a pretty good option. Whereas the similarly impressive Anna Wintour, long-term editor-in-chief of American Vogue, made success look utterly joyless, Brown seemed to have such fun, whizzing back and forth across the Atlantic, dropping names like a chainsmoker discarding cigarette butts. Who wouldn’t want to hang out at Tina Brown’s party?
Except, it turned out, the operative word in “Life As a Party” was the second one: Brown’s world wasn’t an actual party, but a simulation of one. That book was her collected journalism from her time as the editor of Tatler, which she took over in 1979 when she was just 25. There, she wrote enthusiastically about people with names such as Baron Enrico di Portanova, and she championed their milieu gamely. I still have the book, even though it is almost entirely incomprehensible, because it taught me an important lesson: when you work in glossy magazines, there is no such thing as detachment, because you are selling your subject to the reader, even one as banal as the lifestyles of Tory toffs. Brown is, unquestionably, a thrillingly dynamic editor, but the primary reason she has been so successful is she is very good at selling.
The media world was so swimming in wealth that Brown could pay her contributors – in 1986! – $10,000 an article
Brown’s fun and often funny latest book is a sort-of (and far superior) follow-up to Life As a Party. It reveals What Tina Did Next, which was to move to New York, rescue the barely breathing magazine Vanity Fair and become the mega media celebrity she remains today. From Warren Beatty propositioning her over a drink (“Look, any time you want to waste some time … ”) to a then student Boris Johnson (“an epic shit”) apparently passing on stories about her to the Sunday Telegraph, Brown knows how to give her readers what they want, which is gossip about the celebrities and politicians she covered. She builds up a picture of her 1980s that consisted, on the one hand, of a media world so swimming in wealth that Brown could pay her contributors – in 1986! – $10,000 an article (that sound you hear is every 21st-century freelance journalist screaming into their pillow), and, on the other, regularly attending funerals of friends who died from Aids.
As in Vanity Fair itself, the serious stuff seems a little like the token broccoli so you feel less bad about gorging on the biscuits. Brown sells the glamour hard, in her hilariously imitable writing style. She describes her ex-boyfriend, Martin Amis, as “a literary lothario” and her youthful affair with the then-married Harold Evans as “a scandale”, which might win the prize for the most pointless use of French in 2017. Her Oxford college, we are reassured, “was the most intellectually exciting of the women’s colleges” while a trip to the cinema makes Brown crow: “This was the heart of the zeitgeist, people!” Perhaps the most absurd example of her glamour-glossing is when she writes about her contributor Dominick Dunne, whose daughter, Dominique, was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 1982: Brown feels the need to add that the killer was “a chef at LA’s fashionable Ma Maison restaurant”, a writing tic reminiscent of the Daily Mail’s frequent inclusion of how much a victim or perpetrator of a terrible crime once paid for their house.
Brown forewarns the reader in the introduction: “These were years spent amid the moneyed elite of Manhattan and LA and the Hamptons … Please don’t expect ruminations on the sociological fallout of trickle-down economics.” In other words, the book is merely a reflection of the magazine she was editing. But given that in this same introduction, which she wrote more than 25 years after leaving Vanity Fair, Brown name-drops not just the guests who attended her 1981 wedding (“Nora Ephron, Ben Bradlee, Anthony Holden … ”) but also the caterers (“Loaves & Fishes in Sagaponack”), the question of whether the book reflects Vanity Fair’s viewpoint or Brown’s is, to say the least, debatable.
“Everything in New York,” she writes at one point, “is about personal marketing.” This certainly seems to be true of Brown, because this book isn’t really about a magazine, it’s about her, and my God, the selling is relentless. Her brilliance as an editor and her popularity with the A-list are recounted often. She writes sweetly about the happiness of her marriage to Evans as well as the struggles of being a working mother of a child with special needs (her son has Asperger syndrome). But glimpses of something a little less saintly can be occasionally be spotted between the lines, such as when she breezily mentions that she made her child’s nanny cry in the bathroom for two hours. “I think I need someone less invasive,” is Brown’s not wildly reflective takeaway. She makes frequent mention of how she was treated differently – by the media, colleagues and bosses – because she was a woman. But cries of sexism are a little difficult to take seriously from a woman who delights in entertaining male friends with “whining” imitations of “a north London feminist”. It is also notable that her arrival at Vanity Fair seems to have coincided with the sacking of an awful lot of women and hiring of an awful lot of men.
From her resurrection of Tatler at the beginning of the Thatcher era to founding the Daily Beast at the start of the internet news one, Brown has been skilled at being, as she would say, “at the heart of the zeitgeist”. So it is with uncharacteristically bad timing that her book is coming out as the scandal surrounding Harvey Weinstein grows. The diaries end with her becoming the editor of the New Yorker, which she discusses in her epilogue, entitled “What Happened Later”. What also happened later, which she doesn’t mention, is that she then left the New Yorker in 1998 to found the short-lived Talk magazine with Weinstein. Brown has been hard at work when promoting the book to distance herself from what I guess she would call the “scandale”, saying that working with Weinstein gave her post-traumatic stress disorder and insisting she knew nothing about his alleged sexual assaults. Some have suggested Brown isn’t quite as blameless as she says. Former New Yorker writer Mimi Kramer has delivered a scathing blogpost about what she calls Brown’s “enabling” of Weinstein. She points out that, for her first issue of Talk, Brown put Gwyneth Paltrow, who has said Weinstein harassed her, on the cover, “dressed in S&M garb, crawling painfully toward the camera on her stomach like a submissive – literally grovelling – and so generically made up so as to render her unrecognisable as an individual. What the hell did [Brown] think she was saying?”
It feels a little unfair to blame Brown for Weinstein, who, like Talk, does not feature in The Vanity Fair Diaries. But it is striking how kind she is to other men in it who have since been accused of harassment or worse. US journalist Leon Wieseltier, who last month apologised for his past chronic harassment, is sacked by Brown after he writes a savage column about Ephron, but remains a friend, despite making creepy comments about women’s sex lives. Donald Trump – who stomps through this book as he must about any book set in 1980s Manhattan – has “a crassness I like”, Brown writes. Perhaps this is merely a reflection of how common sexual assault and harassment are, given how often Brown comes up against men later accused of them. But when journalism becomes about selling stuff, you can be too focused on the sale to look properly at the product. “I hope I never lose my barometer for good and evil,” Brown writes. Maybe time to mend the barometer, Tina