The Vanity Fair Diaries: how the dazzling and relentless Tina Brown conquered New York

The magazine mogul is a diamond of a woman – but also an industrial tool, drilling her way up.

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Readers expecting The Vanity Fair Diaries to provide a froth of gossip and parties – a glossier, more upmarket version of Piers Morgan’s The Insider perhaps – may be disappointed. Sure, there are great stories: Tina Brown the prospector pans the dreck of every black-tie dinner and business breakfast for gold. But this book is about work, not fun, although for her the two are much the same.

There are the celebrity set-pieces: Nancy and Ronnie smooching in the White House; Michael Jackson revealing how the hit “Billie Jean” came to him fully formed “as a gift” while driving down Ventura Boulevard; a louche Warren Beatty making a pass; Helmut Newton showing her his private horse porn; Mick Jagger refuting that he only sleeps with bimbos (“I mean Bianca’s quite bright”); and a prescient encounter with a young Boris Johnson, “an epic shit” who briefs his Oxford girlfriend to stitch up Brown in a snarky piece.

Yet it is Tina who intrigues, who I spent 400-odd pages trying to figure out. Here is a diamond of a woman: polished and dazzling, but also an industrial tool, drilling her way relentlessly up. Even by the standards of Eighties New York, Tina has heroic drive.

We join her at 29 – by when she’s already turned around Tatler magazine, and bagged Harry Evans, 25 years older and the most feted newspaper editor of his day – arriving in New York as consultant to Vanity Fair. Daunted, knowing no one, she does not snatch the editorship when Condé Nast first dangles it, then hates herself. She never hesitates again.

What follows is a journalism masterclass. How to build a team (and who to sack); focusing on the big picture while never neglecting the tiniest stuff; figuring out a magazine’s recipe, its tonal balance between high and low and a pace that isn’t so fast as to be trite nor so stately that unread issues stack up by the reader’s bed. And Tina – ruthless, restless, always teetering on boredom – sweats every last semicolon, often aided by Harry, whose approval she seeks as much as outward success. Through sheer graft she lifts VF’s sales from 200,000 to 1.2 million and is enraged by the patronising view that she does so by “creating buzz”.

There are long passages of office politics: stylist diva fits, bullying Hollywood PRs, the scrabbling for a cover when your best shot is Debra Winger looking grumpy in a bathrobe. Brown relishes a crisis, declaring that Jessica Lange must be shot on a white horse: “Call every fucking stable in New York.” Then there are the internal Condé Nast power plays: will Si Newhouse buy the New Yorker, will Anna Wintour get Vogue? Dull in lesser hands, these publishing tales are told with great asperity, their characters drawn with the spareness of pen portraits by Mark Boxer, a friend she mourns in the book. Wintour, she writes, “is all business, clip clip clip” calling to say “How’s Harry? How’s the baby?” then in the very next breath that she’s stealing her staff.

That’s just the day job. To chronicle the New York beau monde first she must conquer it. There are rules to learn: VF’s publisher chides her for taking a lowly table upstairs at the Four Seasons (“bad for your image and the magazine”). There are shimmering stardust parties but mainly it’s a slog: small-talking dreary European aristos or now-forgotten Manhattan doyennes. Even Clint Eastwood is “hard work: long, taciturn silences. A kind of heavy chivalry, calling me ma’am.” There’s her own Hollywood gala where angry couples, who want to be seated together, rip up the placement; the literary stand-off when she invites Norman Mailer and Philip Roth to dinner on the same night. That week she also attends a “dynastic” wedding of the billionaire Steinberg and Tisch families: “We made our escape as soon as it was polite,” she writes, “with money humming in our ears.”

 Only “observation greed”, storing material for her great (as yet unwritten) society novel, keeps her out late. And the diaries are full of barbed observations about the rich. How women remove their earrings over dessert as if to demonstrate the sheer weight of their rocks; how the more decorating done in a Park Avenue mansion the less sex is had by its occupants. Trump appears in both his charisma and cowardice: when VF runs an unflattering piece, he tips wine down the back of the author’s dress and scarpers so she can’t confront him. All the while there is an unending funeral cortege of creative gay men as AIDS rages on.

The diaries catalogue Brown’s changing relationship with the US. At VF she believes, “Only the Brits can think the right level of malignant thoughts… [to] provide an antidote for all the upbeat American gush.” In London, she and Evans felt wealthy on modest salaries; in Manhattan, paid a packet, they feel broke. London seems small and slow, yet “America is too big, too rich, too driven. America needs editing.” She wishes for an in-between place called Transatlantica. Yet her brash, boastful introductory essay suggests she has gone fully native now.

Sometimes the relentless, self-imposed pressure looks like a journalistic remake of The Red Shoes. There are Long Island weekends spent with piles of manuscripts or socialising with useful contacts. “The weekend was hard, with G [her son] being very difficult and Harry chained to his computer as bloody always. Two workaholics don’t make a rightaholic, particularly when it comes to raising kids.”

There is scant mention of Harry’s three children back in England, who he abandoned for Brown. Her first baby, George, is born two months premature and has developmental problems, later diagnosed as Asperger’s. Harry is working in DC: she copes mainly alone. One would not like to be one of Tina’s nannies, crying in the bathroom, judged too intrusive, sacked. Indeed the only lowly people mentioned are staff. Brown has eyes for power, fame or beauty; she is cruel about the ugly, stupid or fat.

What drives her? Fear of wasted potential, of not being equal to Harry, that if she pauses she will lose momentum and fall? This is 30 years ago, when “having it all” was new; her doctor advises she “buy a large house in the country and have a couple of babies”. Yet she cannot, will not, forsake her ambition: “Unless I am working I am agitated… I am hopeless at yoga… my head was always just full of articles I wanted to assign.”

You don’t realise you are in a personal golden age until its over, Brown notes in her epilogue. After VF came more success at the New Yorker, though followed by the calamity of Harvey Weinstein’s magazine Talk. But in these diaries, she has not yet joined the back-room big hitters: she was still, as Bron Waugh put it, “front row at the ringside, occasionally being splattered with blood”. Every journalist’s happy place, where work and fun are one. 

The Vanity Fair Diaries 1983-1992
Tina Brown
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 436pp, £25

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder