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The Unsinkable Tina Brown

Thursday, October 1, 2015
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She talks like a woman in a great hurry. There is a hardly a pause as she rips through her thoughts. If she drops a word now, it’s only to get the well-formed sentences out even faster. When you meet Tina Brown, there is the familiar shock of blond hair, gleaming smile and glowing cheekbones, but then the eyes come into view—piercing blue eyes that survey the company at her table. She seems to be asking, What’s the story here?

Anyone who meets her knows immediately they’ve met a particularly British force of nature. And realizing this answers the first question any New Yorker is likely to have about her: What is the source of her power? How did she become the queen of journalism (if you don’t count Oprah)? How did she persuade the media barons to put so much faith and capital in her ventures?

Well, it’s clear. The air crackles around her. After the warm handshake, the engaging glint in the eye and the little witticism that reveals she has already studied up on you, she is down to cases with an almost military sense of authority. She is and continues to prove that she is a great leader.

Tina Brown is presently in the midst of her umpteenth regeneration (the word “reinvention” seems so lacking here) as boss leader of Tina Brown Live Media. The brightest production in this enterprise is Women in the World, a series of stage events that presents women of heroic achievement, both celebrated and unknown. It has grown to the point of packing Lincoln Center, all 2,500 seats, with people who want to share the energy of these risk takers. And, of course, to also share Ms. Brown’s toboggan-ride energy.

Seizing the storyline, she warns you right off that these are not “conferences,” which she characterizes as “two men and a glass of water” or “ankles across the stage.” She is after a different sort of presentation. “Theatrical journalism,” she calls it.

She greets you in the courtyard of a ground-level duplex on East 57th Street and invites you in for a lunch of kale salad. There are libraries aplenty here, which is what happens when one editor marries another, i.e., famed newspaper and book editor Sir Harold Evans. (In the guest bathroom is a framed newspaper spread covering their wedding party with the blaring headline VANITY FAIR.) Her morning has been filled with the usual sort of hectic, slam-bang scheduling that makes up the days of her life.

Incredible. Amazing. Extraordinary. These three superlatives fall like a fireworks display throughout her conversation. She rescued a failing Vanity Fair. From there to Condé Nast’s New Yorker for another overhaul with her guiding mantra: Show it off, get it talked about. Then Talk magazine with Harvey Weinstein, which, like its principals, was both combustible and noteworthy. “Tina Brown has a pathological level of high energy,” says Holly Peterson who worked as the editor-at-large at Talk magazine. “It’s like combining the Tasmanian Devil with Albert Einstein. She really taught me how not to be pedestrian.”

Talk fell victim, Brown explains, of the business downturn that followed 9/11. She recovered by hosting a weekly talk show on CNBC called Topic A with Tina Brown; it was not well positioned for good ratings. She wrote a book about another British media star in The Diana Chronicles.

The book refers to the late princess having a “talent for recruitment,” i.e., she could win the staff over to her side (to Charles’ chagrin), but the phrase echoes Tina’s own obsessive drive to find talented people—and backers. Her next big venture proved to be a storm-tossed sea. Allied with media mogul Barry Diller, she oversaw the launch of an intriguing news and feature website, The Daily Beast, in 2008. But things went very wrong two years later when it was merged with the faltering, money-losing Newsweek magazine and came up a very costly cropper. While the website continues, she departed in 2013 with intentions of writing her own biography, called Media Beast, perhaps to hit the stands next year.

Diller never said a word against her, letting her have control of one of his IAC ventures, Women in the World.

She started out with the idea of being a playwright. And why not? Her father, George Brown, was a film producer, and her mother, Bettina, worked as an assistant to Laurence Olivier. The family house in the little town of Little Marlow, in the country just west of London, entertained a riotous mix of guests, where comedian Benny Hill would be crashing into Dame Rebecca West.

“Our house was a lot of fun. My father was enormously gregarious. It’s probably where I got some of my enjoyment of entertaining. My mother loved it, too. And they would just throw in all these people. Their attitude was, ‘Have ’em in all over, have a giant buffet by the French windows and let all hell break loose.’ And it’s kind of stayed with me to this day. It’s how I do things.”

Her mother was a character, “a wonderful writer. She was wicked and funny and the center of the house, you know.
We were very close friends. She had great style. And we were the most incongruous mother and daughter.

“When my mother would show up at my school, all the other mothers would be there in there in their pearls and
cashmere twinsets and bouffant hair. There’s my mother with huge, colorful earrings and just very operatic.

“I did a DNA test once as joke and found I had some Iraqi genes. And I wondered if that’s what my mother had, because she looked so unlike everyone else in the family. Here we were all blond and she was this Maria Callas type, very tall. Somebody at some point in her family once had a romantic interest, shall we say, because she didn’t look like anybody else.”

Tina’s rebellious instincts got her thrown out of three posh boarding schools, but she got into Oxford at age 17 and
graduated with a degree in English literature. While she actually got a few of her early plays produced, it was her work
on the college literary magazine, Isis, that kickstarted her fame. If there were money in the plays, she says, she might have continued. But there was income in the journalism.

Her childhood had given her a taste of what might be called privileged access. Journalism’s wide entrée to normally closed situations was a natural fit. “It gives you a license to just walk in and be curious,” she notes with a bright smile. She wrote sizzling profiles, formed alliances, got to be known, and when she was still a bright young thing had bylines in the New Statesman, Punch, and the Sunday Times, the editor of which, Sir Harold Evans, became her husband. They would go on to have two children, who are now in their twenties.

When Tina was 25, she was put in charge of an almost moribund little society sheet called Tatler, but she quickly injected enough semi-naughty scandal that people had to know what would be revealed next. “High-low” journalism, it was called. Circulation shot up, and in a few years would come the invitation to helm Vanity Fair, she built the circulation from 250,000 to 1.2 million.

The Tatler experience taught her that she had a knack for creating a team. “I have always been enormously collaborative. I think the reason I’ve always had good teams is that I cast them like a play. ‘This person is brilliant at developing story ideas, then that person’s partner is the one who could make sure it gets done.”’

She got to put into motion what she observed growing up. “A producer is
always looking for his next story. My father’s question was always, ‘Would that make a good movie?’ He always tended to look at life as material. And I was always keenly aware of the idea of getting it done. It’s one thing to have the taste and the material, but can you get it done? You don’t just admire this book or play, how do you get it on the screen?

“So I’m very obsessively craft- and profession-oriented, actually. I’m very skeptical of people who talk about things and this and that. But it’s all about the details, the follow-up, the perfectionism and the obsession not to take anything that isn’t good.”

It began with the Vital Voices Democracy Initiative, a nonprofit established in 1997 by Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright with the task of teaching skills and entrepreneurship to women around the world. “I would go to these retreats and see incredible women from Egypt do extraordinary things. The women they mentor are emerging as leaders. I thought they ought to be onstage, on TV. That’s how it started. I found a sponsor who was enthused enough. For some reason, I was so energized, he just bought in!” Her life story.

The Women in the World stage productions benefit enormously from having The New York Times as partners, supplying production and promotion expertise, not to mention a glorious portion of office space in midtown Manhattan for her staff of 17. And they’ve gained a raft of sponsorships, which contribute about 90 percent of its funding.

Toyota, one of the key sponsors, backs the Mothers of Invention grant, having nothing to do with Frank Zappa but instead searching out women who have created “something that has a social efficacy out of her own mind and brain. One of my favorites last year was Doniece Sandoval, who decided she wanted to do something about the homeless in San Francisco. She interviewed the homeless on the street and thought they would mention food. But one thing they said over and over and over again was they just wanted to be clean: “I feel so dirty all the time.”

When Sandoval heard that the city was scrapping old buses, she made a deal to get hold of some and covert them into mobile shower stalls called Lava Mae. So, bingo, Toyota is there with a $50,000 Mothers grant and a year’s worth of promotional help.

In the beginning there was a nonprofit side to Woman in the World, but that was abandoned in favor of apportioning funds straight to Vital Voices.

Thus she can concentrate on the high-powered shows. “What I’m doing now is what I did on the page—from the page to the stage, if you like. The pacing, the intensity of it, the mix of it is more like a show or a magazine than it is about a conference. It’s about narrative and about intensity and about mix. So, for instance, you would go from like opening night last year we had the incredibly powerful narrative of a woman whose daughter had gone to jihad in Syria. Incredibly moving Somali woman. From there we went to an Indian movie star, Aamir Khan, whom we asked to do it because his TV show in India has 500 million viewers and really champions women and breaks taboos, and I really wanted to show a man who does that. Then we went to an incredibly moving dialogue between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian woman whose boys had each been killed by snipers, and they bonded over the peace process. Then we ended with Meryl Streep and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and interviewed by Jon Stewart about the power of film.”

All of this is presented with lightning-round speed. Solemn introductions have been replaced by high-energy, four-minute videos on the next speaker.

“The audience is thinking, ‘Well, I came here to see Helen Mirren talk about the queen and then there’s this thing on Iraqi refugees, I’ll make my calls then.’ So Helen Mirren is marvelous, fabulous, funny, and as soon as she’s finished, boom, you’re into a video of this powerful scene of an Iraqi MP dressing down the parliamentary body: ‘Why have you forsaken us?!’
It’s incredibly powerful stuff. And you’re thinking, ‘Omigod, I better see this.’ So we keep them there.

“It’s like classic TV programming, I suppose. We have got it down, I think.”

What about the speaking fees for people like Angelina Jolie and Condoleezza Rice?

“No fees. They come because they want to. And they want to because it’s
journalistic. Meryl Streep has come every year for six years. She does very little like that, but she understands. It’s very much a journalistic process of genuine inquiry. Jon Stewart has been twice now. The first time he ran a fantastic conversation with all these fiery women from the Arab Spring.”

Brown’s ability to engage other powerful women is not surprising to Peterson. “What’s not known is that she’s a real girl’s girl. She has a whole posse of women friends. She loves to laugh and loves to have girl’s night. And she’ll buy you the most amazing pair of shoes for your baby shower, because she knows that’s all you really want anyway. She really knows how to be a girl.” 

The shows will go round the world. They had a nerve-wracking experience in São Paulo, but London and New Delhi went off well. Mexico will likely be part of the rota.

She wants to provide the public, she says, with role models. In doing so, she has come, she knows, full circle, back to the stage. She calls the events journalism, but these are of course theatrical events, where proximity to amazing humans gives one a shivering frisson of life’s possibilities.

As her stage efforts gain speed, she will be repeating in January a forum she produced in 2014 called the American Justice Summit, which she produced in partnership with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “I’ve always been fascinated by criminal justice,” she says, acknowledging her prescience now that the entire nation is riveted by the aftermath of Ferguson, Missouri.

“On one panel was a woman whose mother had been murdered, a formerly incarcerated robber who’d been in prison for seven years, and a judge—a hard-ass judge who has certainly sent people to death row. It was fantastic. You cast the panel and say, ‘I hope they argue.’ And they really did!”

The first summit fetched an overflow crowd of 600. She sees expanding hugely. And now with a crack team of producers, newspeople and talent wranglers shepherding these events, she will probably be finding events to fill Yankee Stadium someday.

“What she’s doing with the conferences is the height of her abilities and genius. Anyone can get a sponsor and put on a conference, but the truth is that most of the time those panels are boring,” says Peterson. “The way Tina produces a conference is that she’s trying to change the world. What she’s done behind the scenes to help women and girls, and connect people, and put leaders with opinion makers, policy wonks with money people, and with NGO people on the ground, it’s just extraordinary. She’s combining her convening power with her editorial genius to really affect policy.”

All this gives her one more lively chapter in her life as “chronicler of the zeitgeist.” The word “zeitgeist” shows up so often in stories about her, it’s worth wondering if the word will one day appear on her tombstone.

She laughs at the mordant thought and fires back, “‘Former queen of buzz,’ something like that. I see the word ‘buzz’ a lot, as if ‘buzz’ were somehow adjacent to ‘disreputable,’ right? Buzz is just people talking about what you’ve published. That’s what you want, isn’t it? Nobody wants to publish into silence.”

Silence and Tina Brown? The concept just doesn’t compute.

photographed by Ryan E. Plett
styled by Christine Hahn
hair by Olivier Lardat 
makeup by Gary Greco for garygrecomakeup.com 
fashion assistance by Steven Spriggs


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