How Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair Showcased and Shivved Celebrity
In the now published diaries that she kept while editing Vanity Fair, Brown serves up a banquet of insider dish even as she skewers the social scene with self-appraising grace.
Early in The Vanity Fair Diaries 1983-1992 Tina Brown describes herself as “a magazine romantic” and that’s what this book is, a magazine romance.
Disclosure: I have written for Brown at VF and her subsequent vehicles, including right here, at The Daily Beast, which she founded. So I approached her chronicles reasonably well prepped, and with such things on my mind as the Celebrity Culture, which VF had enabled before it was transformed by social media, and the Golden Age of Magazines, of which VF was a last bloom before those energies migrated to the internet.
As for the celebs, Brown makes it clear that for her they were just faces that sold magazines. She writes of Jane Sarkin, newly hired as celebrity wrangler, that she “loves the whole ambience of stars and their handlers, who drive me crazy because I have no patience.” Indeed crazy-making situations are referenced frequently, as when Isabelle Adjani stands up Andre Leon Talley, the VF style editor, before a shoot in Paris and, just one page later, when Sarkin explains that a Molly Ringwald cover shot looks “dreary” because the actress had stomach cramps. “Stars are so damn ridiculous,” writes Brown.
But so damn indispensable too. On October 1987, immediately before a VF party in Beverly Hills, Brown notes that if it went well she would make it an annual do, because this was their “power base for covers.” She adds that “Si might not understand what glamor events can do for business but I am convinced they work.” Here we glimpse not just the Vanity Fair Oscar Party glimmering on the horizon but the whole swelling futurama of celebrity branding.
“Si,” of course, being S.I. Newhouse, the overlord of Conde Nast, and when Brown time-tunnels us through hinge chapters in the inner life of the magazine her pages thrum. She had caught the eye of Newhouse as the young editor who had revived Tatler, a venerable but stuffy Brit society mag. Conde Nast snapped it up in 1983. Brown resigned but was brought over to New York as a consultant on a start-up, Vanity Fair.
She had seen the first issue of VF while she was still at Tatler and thought it a “flatulent, pretentious, chaotic catalog of dreary litterateurs in impenetrable typefaces.” They were already onto their second editor, Leo Lerman, longtime features capo of Vogue, but it was still a mess. Brown describes one cover as having been a “suicidal choice of black-and-white Irving Penn nostril shots, which are a death knell to the newsstand.” Alex Liberman, the longtime creative director of the Conde Nast group, let Brown know that she would take over. But when?
Her consultancy was a power dance, a pas de trois, the dancers being herself, a Brit in her late twenties, and two men in their seventies, the elegantly skeletal Liberman and Lerman, who she describes as a “manic whiskery prawn” and who clearly believed she was Liberman’s spy. At one point the two men were arguing about whether or not to cut a story by the Italian writer Italo Calvino. “Then Alex turns around and his veiled black eyes bat opaquely at me, head nodding slightly like a sinister marionette. ‘Let’s ask Tina’s point of view!’” she writes. “Sensing danger, I express ignorance of this particular issue and its contents.”
That evening she went to a dinner given by the writer Marie Brenner. There she met “a sprightly, silver-haired film producer named Dominick (Nick) Dunne, who is the brother-in-law of Joan Didion, and who was working on a novel. Startlingly he revealed that his daughter had been murdered, throttled by her lover, a chef at a modish L.A. restaurant, Ma Maison, and that he was going to L.A. for the trial. Brenner suggested that he keep a diary. “I said if he did it’s something I would love to publish in Vanity Fair,” Brown wrote. “His face lit up as if I had just thrown him a lifeline.”
They discussed it later over lunch at La Goulue. She was impressed. “You can teach people structure and how to write a lead. But you can’t teach them to notice the right things,” she wrote. Walking out into the sunshine they ran into Andy Warhol and Baby Jane Holzer, who hailed Dunne. “Both these legends looked utterly bleached out. Like negatives walking side by side along the street.”
Pure New York, but Brown’s consultancy was approaching its end, along with her time there. She let both Newhouse and Liberman know that she was not interested in renewing it, nor in any other such interim position. It was the editorship or nothing.
At the beginning of January 1984 Tina Brown was back in New York as Vanity Fair’s editor in chief, putting together an editorial team and bringing aboard such contributors as the photographer Annie Leibovitz. Also she was evolving what she calls her “VF formula,” which consisted of the celeb cover to lift the mag off the newsstand, a narrative news story, a chunk of classy literature, some strong pictures, a deeply reported political profile, and fashion. “If we nail each of these per issue, it’s gonna work,” she writes.
Brown has already noted what had become of Clay Felker, formerly of New York magazine, who she describes as “an editor of genius” and one who, like her husband, Harold Evans, former editor of Britain’s Sunday Times, was deprived of a job by Rupert Murdoch. ”Now the best editor in America doesn’t have a magazine,” she writes. “I could sense his unhappy restlessness. How much he yearned to have his vehicle back to tell stories.” Felker did then create a vehicle, the East Side Express, but it didn’t take off quickly enough for his backer. The plug was pulled while Brown was still working on her first VF deadline and on Feb. 2, 1984 the buzz in Manhattan was “Clay’s toast.”
Newhouse was known to be very quick to terminate under-performing magazines. “VF has a miserable twenty ad pages for April,” she wrote. “Will I also soon be toast?”
She had decided that the recently re-elected Ronald Reagan should go on the next cover and brought in Harry Benson, an “excitable Scottish photographer with toilet-brush hair,” who had photographed six presidents. It was to be a brief shoot while the Reagans were en route to a formal dinner for the president of Argentina.
Brown and Benson set up in a room in the White House. Benson hit a switch on a boom box as the Reagans walked in. Frank Sinatra’s “Nancy (With the Laughing Face)” pumped through the room, delighting Nancy Reagan, who talked her husband into a dance with her. They had their cover.
A few days later Brown reports that the “ads are still not coming, though the readers are” and she records her anxieties that Newhouse might be switching his attention to a fresh target, The New Yorker. Then the June issue with the Reagan cover came out and was soon “flying off the newsstands.” What she calls VF’s “near death experience” would shortly be over.
What follows is choc-a-bloc with parties and gossip which the over-sixties are likely to find it riveting. But even those who find themselves awash in somewhat familiar or wholly unfamiliar names will find it crammed with nuggets.
When describing the famous, the powerful, or the merely ultra-rich, Brown has a sharp eye and a sharper writing instrument. She wasn’t at the party given for Princess Di at the White House in November 1985 but observes that “Every face-lift from Park Avenue to Bel Air was on the guest list.” And when she was present she doesn’t pull her punches. Norman Podhoretz, the prominent Neo-Con, glimpsed at Henry Kissinger’s surprise 61st birthday party at the River House, has a “hard, pitiless nose and humorless skunk’s eyes.” At another birthday party, that of Kay Graham, doyenne of The Washington Post, Brown says of Rupert Murdoch, seen dancing, that his “face has degenerated to the melting rubber mask of a cartoon character, like Nixon’s.” On a visit to London, “Everyone seems older and from a different period, with noses like white strawberries and tufts of hair in ears and nostrils.”
Much detail seems durable. Of one candlelit wedding, she writes that “the flower bill alone at the reception afterwards at the Met came to a million dollars.” And her social observations can be telling. “The irony that the trophy wives miss is that the husbands much prefer them as mistresses pure and simple, not the taste baronesses they become,” she writes. “I want to read (or write) an essay called ‘Sex and Decorating.’ The more decorating in a Park Avenue apartment, the less sex between the occupants.”
In 1986 she attends the birthday party of Malcolm Forbes, owner of Forbes magazine, and describes floating down the Hudson in the Forbes yacht, The Highlander, capturing her fellow partygoers with a deft flicker of words, such as Architectural Digest editor Paige Rense, “squat and intractable, stalking rich people’s houses,” and Mick Jagger, “singing ‘Happy Birthday, Dear Malcolm’ in that insanely famous creak. Being photographed so much, I am convinced, changes your actual face.”
Brown goes on to observe that she realizes that she has been making what was actually an extremely good party sound rather an ordeal. “Not sure where I get my deeply moralizing instinct from or whether I should trust it,” she writes.
Just a couple of weeks later, she feels even crankier before a wedding party. “Lately I have found the competitive dressing and the rich gossip too much,” she writes. “I am sick of them all.”
Ralph Lauren advises her to shun parties, just as he does. “Cut it out. It will kill you,” he tells her.
Her next sentence reads “But I never will.”
Brown is given to such stabs of self-analysis, as when she remarks on her “deeply moralizing instinct,” and they are for real. “It’s funny how I always dread going out and then get so much out of it when I do,” she writes. “Social life is the trigger for all the best stories I have ever got.”
There are other leitmotifs running through The Vanity Fair Diaries. Her husband, Harold Evans, had already been offered a gig as visiting professor at Duke University, and so accompanied her to the U.S., and is a constant diary presence. So too is her son, George, born soon after her arrival in New York, and often mentioned, sometimes with a note of anxiety, as when she calls him “my fragile darling boy.” So when Brown learns at the end of the book that he has been diagnosed as having Asperger’s Syndrome, the emotional charge is very real.
Other leitmotifs are professional. One is Brown’s perpetual uncertainty about S.I. Newhouse, the “hamster,” “his ability to flip,” the frequency of corporate executions. Another is the anger of heavy hitters who felt maltreated by VF. As when Sally Quinn disinvited her from an East Hampton birthday party for her husband, Ben Bradlee, of The Washington Post, because Christopher Buckley had described a novel of Quinn’s as “cliterature.” Brown’s response could be characterized as a shrug. “It behooves me to bite the balls of the establishment from time to time and sabotage excess coziness,” she wrote after learning that both Ray Stark, the movie producer, and the financier Herbert Allen were simmering over published material.
AIDS is another recurrent, somber leitmotif. And Brown is also always ready to express herself when she feels that she is being dissed because she’s a woman. “I am so over being patronized by know-all guys,” she vents at one such snub. “I feel men handle these pay discussions so much better,” she writes when in lengthy negotiations with Newhouse about the upping of her pay package. “But it pisses me off that they get away with it.”
Then there was Annie Leibovitz’s cover of the pregnant Demi Moore, a private picture that Leibovitz had persuaded Moore to let her take public. “I knew this was the shot we had to have,” Brown says. She ran it by Liberman and Newhouse. Liberman just said, “Are you sure, my dear?” She was sure. She writes that “Si did his pensive gerbil face and finally said “Why not?” She also wrote “Women need this, dammit!”
Moralizing is only occasional though. As when she loathed a fashion show in the Michael Todd Room of the Palladium and as when she enlisted two of Warhol’s former lieutenants, Bob Colacello and Fred Hughes, to handle VF coverage after the death of Andy Warhol, and brought in John Richardson as a writer. Richardson told her that he intended to depict Warhol as “a kind of a saint, living a spinsterish existence, attending morning mass inside the whirlpool of weirdness around him.”
But Tina Brown wasn’t buying that. She writes that she saw Warhol as wholly amoral, “the manipulative void, the dead star.” Nonetheless her project was satisfactorily underway, and photographs of Warhol’s hitherto unseen house were set to be taken when Brown was aghast to learn that the story had been snatched away by another Conde Nast mag, House & Garden.
So she moved ultra-swiftly and snatched it back again. That diary entry ends exultantly: A scoop is a scoop. The story. That was what mattered for Tina Brown.