The Vanity Fair Diaries

Tina Brown, The Vanity Fair Dairie1983-1992 (Wiedenfeld and Nicholson 2017)

In 1983, Tina Brown was a young magazine editor on the rise. Smart and socially-promiscuous, the 29-year-old Oxford graduate was also blessed, in her own words, with “chocolate box looks” (nearly identical to those of her contemporary, Diana Windsor). This milky façade bellied a fierce will. Following a stint in the late-1970s as editor of Tatler, in which she revived the flagging London society sheet, executives at the secretive luxury magazine publisher Condé Nast tapped Brown for a move to New York. Her mission: to perform triage on Vanity Fair. The glamour title of the 1920s had recently been relaunched to great hype, yet its new incarnation had quickly proven editorially flat and culturally irrelevant.

As Brown tells it in her collection of journal entries from these thrilling, tumultuous years, The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992 (2017), her move across the Atlantic seemed less a physical journey than an act of time travel. The diaries open to Brown’s palpable exhilaration and anxiety at escaping the stuffy world of literary London for Manhattan, pulsating heart of global commerce and media in the raucous pre-crash eighties. “I suddenly feel the enormousness of New York”, she writes in the frenetic first pages, “the noise of it, the speed of it, the lonely obliviousness of so many people trying to get ahead”. For a minute, Brown sounds like another in a long line of ingenues seeking self-actualisation in the metropolis.

This impression wears off quickly. When it comes to realising her ambitions, Brown is anything but clueless.  Almost immediately after arriving in Manhattan for an initial stint as an editorial ‘consultant’ helping to enliven the flailing magazine, Brown makes her presence felt at Vanity Fair. In a game of cat and mouse, she deftly outmaneuvers struggling interim editor—and personal adversary—former Vogue stalwart Leo Lerman, winning the confidence of Condé Nast’s urbane editorial director Alex Liberman and it’s shy, intellectually insecure owner, Si Newhouse, to be installed in the top job. Over the next months, Brown clears house, firing everyone loyal to Lerman and his equally short-lived predecessor, the wonky Richard Locke, while assembling her own hand-picked team, many of them transplants from Tatler.

While Brown’s management style is brash and at times brutal, her drive, abundant visual and literary flair and eye for talent are undeniable. In addition to the aforementioned-coterie of flaks, stylists, and sub-editors, once ensconced as editor of Vanity Fair, Brown convenes a stellar roster of writers. The voices she brings to the magazine range from Hollywood hanger-on turned brilliant crime reporter Dominick Dunne to the scintillating young critics James Wolcott and Stephen Schiff and news-breakers Marie Brenner and Gail Sheehy. Within a year, Brown has alchemized a signature mix of high society gloss and serious reporting that will transform Vanity Fair into the toast of the publishing industry and New York society. As the decade wears on, the magazine’s circulation numbers and advertising revenue continue to climb, making Vanity Fair not only a succes d’estime but a cash cow for Condé Nast and Brown a media power player.

As a first-hand account of one woman’s break-neck cultural and commercial ascendance and its spoils, The Vanity Fair Diaries is thrilling and satisfying. By the late 80s, Brown truly seems to have it all. Thanks to a shrewd contract renegotiation, she is earning more than 600,000 a year, plus a host of enviable fringe benefits. She and her husband, the much older but endlessly supportive British newspaper editor Harry Evans, have a beautiful beach house at Quoge on the Long Island shore as well as a slick Upper East Side apartment. She is feted by Manhattan society and even courted by Hollywood. Not everything is perfect—her son, while intelligent and adored, suffers developmental difficulties stemming from a premature birth, about which Brown is refreshingly frank.

More affecting than the diaries’ narrative of extreme success in motion, however, is the intimate account that Brown’s entries provide of her love affair with print journalism and Vanity Fair. Particularly in the magazine’s early, inchoate years, the passion and exuberance with which she throws herself into the role of a high-powered editor—recruiting new writers, courting authors for extracts, planting story ideas, poring over page spreads, clashing with publicists and navigating venal Condé Nast politics, is uplifting and inspiring.  Brown is an editor with genuine taste and vision, an uncompromising, fearless critic of aesthetics, ideas arguments and people that don’t meet her exacting standards.

Gripping as it often is, the diaries don’t merely chronicle the sturm and drang of Brown’s professional advancement. Some of their most pleasurable and poignant passages describe the many and spectacularly varied social engagements  Brown attends, sometimes with Evans in tow, it seems almost nightly. Indeed, in Brown’s circles, the personal and the professional realms are near inextricable—many of Vanity Fair’s most incisive stories and revelatory contributors coming from conservations at parties or charity galas. A cast of famous names (some very dated, some depressingly au courant) recur throughout the socially-oriented pages, often too many to keep up with. A few of the most memorable include Arianna Stassinopoulos (soon Huffington), Anna Wintour, Donald Trump, Henry Kissinger—in addition to lesser-known but equally colorful Manhattan characters like nouveau riche society queen Gayfrd Steinberg and nightclub impresario Steve Rubell.

While these descriptions of Brown’s endless social whirl are lush and intriguing (if a little repetitive), some of the most striking disclosures in her diaries relate to the yawning chasm left in creative communities by the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s. Death, Brown observes in her diary with growing alarm, appears to be stalking the sophisticated, brilliant and often flamboyant gay men who populate the art departments and photo shoots of the publishing and fashion worlds, as well as the downtown art and social scenes. Read three decades later, Brown’s extemporary outpourings of personal sorrow for the sudden deterioration and disappearance of friends and collaborators in the prime of their lives have acquired the weight of a primary source on the pain, fear, and confusion that accompanied living through a modern-day plague.

Another acute observation that Brown makes of her milieu is the predominance of Jewish refugee origins amongst those individuals—predominantly men—who had clawed their way to the pinnacle of the fashion, media and publishing worlds by the early 1980s—most notably her sometime ally Liberman and vanquished rival Lerman. The dark realities of their pasts as victims of European Anti-Semitism and émigrés, she finds, is cloaked in layers of dissemination and performance. Ever the hungry journalist, Brown tries repeatedly to draw them out, but they are interested only in the present, the constant reinvention of New York society and the fashion world.

The diaries are juicy and often historically insightful, but are they of literary value? Brown is a natural prose stylist, tossing off bon mots and elegant, often withering, descriptions of characters she meets. In one hilarious encounter when she is reporting a story at Oxford in the 80s, unctuous then-student politician Boris Johnson appears as ‘a young fogey with a plummy voice’, while his future wife, Allegra Mostyn-Owen, “exuded the usual low energy blankness of upper-class youth”. Recalling a run-in with sometime-foe Oscar De La Renta, Brown observes that ‘his amber eyes seemed to slant with cruelty as he deliberately withheld the favor.” Princess Diana is “both brilliantly instinctive and dispiritingly dim”. Sometimes, particularly when describing non-famous underlings, Brown’s gimlet eye slides into snobbish cruelty. One secretary is referred to as “an industrious mouse with a completely round face and round glasses, like something out of Little Women“.  It is important, however, to remember that these are Brown’s unfiltered, ostensibly private impressions and her targets usually the wealthy and arrogant.

All considered, The Vanity Fair Diaries is never dull and often illuminating. While largely concerned with the machinations of the wealthy and the beautiful, the diaries and Brown herself are far from shallow.  A great deal is revealed in their pages about the 1980s, the evolution of magazine journalism and the personal qualities involved in achieving success at the highest levels of the culture industry.

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