It’s The Great Boring, Tina Brown!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

It’s been nearly 20 years since Tina Brown ran a successful magazine. The “doomy, self-destructive, even hopeless, but at the same time soaringly ambitious” moment to which Tatler, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker were so attuned seems to fall further and further into the past, taking with it the breezily lacerating voice that Brown perfected.

But it’s no exaggeration to say that Brown was once one of the two or three most important people in American media. Her magazines dominated industry awards presentations, and she was named editor of the year by countless different authorities. As the magazine industry enters an uncertain, potentially cataclysmic period, it seems as good a time as any to revisit those years. Brown kept diaries all through her time at Vanity Fair; reading them now, it stands to reason, might provide a way forward for a moribund industry, or at least a nostalgic look at a vanished world. And now, thanks to the publication of The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983–1992, Brown’s unvarnished thoughts are open to all.

The diaries begin in 1983, as Brown arrives in New York for her first meeting with Condé Nast editorial director Alexander Liberman (the editorship itself doesn’t come until January of 1984), and end in 1992, when S.I. Newhouse asks her to take over the struggling New Yorker. The entries between are an impressionistic look not just at Brown’s tenure at the magazine, but at the whole of the 1980s. As she writes in her introduction, “When, in 2015, I started to look into the diaries again, my intention was to use them as a refresher for a book I was thinking of about the Crazy Eighties. But the more I read the more I realized I had already written one.”

She’s wrong about that. While the diaries features accounts of some of the era’s defining moments—the Challenger explosion, the stock market crash, Saul Steinberg’s 50th birthday party—more often than not, they’re wedged between long disquisitions on finding a nanny and on dinner parties whose guests have all since died.

There are, to be fair, some bright spots. Even Brown’s harshest critics will acknowledge that she was a talented, often brilliant editor, and watching her develop Vanity Fair’s era-defining sensibility is fascinating. Comments like “a contents page has to immediately establish a magazine’s voice and attitude and mix, but so often it’s just treated as a humdrum info list rather than the reader’s first experience of the tone,” are genuinely exciting knowing how influential that tone would become.

But observations like this aren’t frequent enough, and inertia sets in within a year or two. A few stories and issues—the famous 1985 photo of the Reagans kissing; the Demi Moore naked pregnancy cover; the media hall of fame that closed out the eighties—get special attention, but the contents of the magazine are mostly mentioned in passing. And some things get skipped entirely. A 1984 cover photo of Brooke Shields that Brown was particularly displeased by, for instance, isn’t even mentioned until 1988.

Instead, Brown’s diaries focus on editorial minutiae, personal anecdotes and dinner parties—none of which are particularly interesting thirty years later. The tensest moment here is the initial drama over whether Brown will get the VF editorship, but, well, read the title. The whole diary format itself is a narrative bust, forcing readers to obsess with Brown over irrelevant nickel-and-dime crises for days on end.  Will the first issue succeed? (It will.) Will Brown and husband Harry Evans close on the Quogue beach house of their dreams? (Yes, in an episode that gets more coverage than the magazine’s entire 1991 run.) Will Iris Love accept Brown’s edits on her Nile cruise story? (Yes, but who cares?) Will the other Sutton Place mothers invite Brown and her son to join them in the park? (Never resolved—perhaps we’ll find out in the paperback edition.) H.L. Mencken called his memoir My Life as An Author and Editor; Brown’s memoir might well be retitled Everything Else in My Life While I Was An Editor

And then there are the dinner parties. Brown attends a different function every night—along with guests like Sidney Lumet, Liz Smith, Ken Auletta and the literary agent Binky Urban—but what unites them all is that everybody else present is dead, retired or irrelevant. Brown, who notes in her introduction that an allergy to alcohol made her a particularly adept nightlife chronicler, uses her evenings as fodder for her scathing commentary. Often, when applied to (semi-)public figures, it works. Carolyne Roehm “never gets to collapse in her designer jeans in Connecticut and recuperate from her week competing”; Rupert Murdoch’s face “has degenerated to the melting rubber mask of a cartoon character, like Nixon’s.”

But the choice to leave in so many savage put-downs of now-forgotten bigwigs from the 1980s publishing world seems cruel. Commentary on bona-fide luminaries like Alexander Liberman and S.I. Newhouse are one thing, but the decision to let the world know that Dick Snyder from Simon & Schuster is “very short, with tiny legs, a flushed, scowly face, and a mouth that appears to be on a rubber band” is an odd one. Leo Lerman, the longtime Condé Nast fixture (and Brown’s immediate predecessor at VF), gets it worse than anyone, attacked as a “culture queen” and “frail old man” with poor taste, resentful of Brown’s superiority. These moments aren’t just examples of Brown assuming that the minor particulars of her life are interesting to the general public, but deeply weird attacks on retired and dead figures who can’t or won’t defend themselves. 

This is more than just a book; it’s a piece of the historical record, a source text on the last great magazine boom. Brown was a great editor in part because she could look to industry vets from the halcyon ‘30s and ’40s for inspiration and guidance. (Liberman is the most obvious in point of reference here, but Brown also talks about reading bound editions of Harold Ross’s New Yorker, and even Clare Booth Luce makes a dinner party appearance.) Which is why it’s such a disappointment that The Vanity Fair Diaries hold so little relevance to anybody not of its world. Future readers might very well want to know what it was like to work at Vanity Fair in the ’80s, and about how a magazine of that era was structured. But they probably won’t care about the Quogue Country Club, or about what Carl Icahn said to Aileen Mehle at Alice Mason’s in 1985.


All photos courtesy of Tina Brown’s Private Collection.


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