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10 September 2001

The book you’re not allowed to read

Peter Dunnon Harold Evans and Tina Brown, and the US account of their union that, thanks to our libe

By Peter Dunn

Who said, “There is something to be said for British libel law because it encourages better journalism”? Harold Evans, the one-time campaigning editor of the Sunday Times, according to a remarkable new book, Tina and Harry Come to America, published in the United States by Judy Bachrach, a young investigative journalist.

Three weeks ago, I bought a copy of Bachrach’s steamy saga of Harry’s life with his glamorous and 25-years-younger second wife, Tina Brown, through the online retailer Amazon.com. Last week, a steel curtain dropped. Amazon’s website announced curtly: “Not for sale in the UK.” Blame that British libel law.

Evans’s outburst about the law comes during Bachrach’s account of a spat he had with Toby Young, a journalist writing for Another Magazine. Evans had just left his job running the publishers Random House and taken up a new post with an old friend, Mort Zuckerman, as editorial director of the New York Daily News. Young suggested cheekily that Evans seemed to be running out of friends to turn to. Bachrach then quotes a letter that Young’s magazine received from the law firm Theodore Goddard. “The picture you paint of Mr Evans is of a failure who has reached the end of the road,” it said. It demanded an apology, legal fees, damages and an under- taking that the writer would never again cause either Harry or Tina (Bachrach’s astonished italics) to be “defamed, denigrated or ridiculed”.

Bachrach has spoken to many of Harry’s (and Tina’s) old friends and colleagues in Britain and America to compile this account of an extraordinary, if not bizarre, love affair. She has produced a perceptive account of the giddy days of London broadsheet journalism (which Harry pioneered in the Sixties and Seventies), set against the ghastly chic of the following two decades, when Brown’s star soared in the firmament of America’s glossy magazine publishing. Without doubt, Mr and Mrs Brown (as many call them in America) will detest this book. Little is spared, even Brown’s unshaven legs or Harry’s alleged pillow talk.

I first met Harry long before his glory days on the Sunday Times. My young family had shared a house, divided vertically, with him and his schoolma’am wife, Enid, in Altrincham when I was a young reporter on the Manchester Evening News and he was assistant to its then editor, Tom Henry. Harry, ping-pong champion at Durham University, where he met Enid, was liked and respected for his refreshing bounce. None of us was surprised when he became the first shirtsleeved editor of the Sunday Times.

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Bachrach makes much of Harry as an alleged womaniser (both in London and, later, in New York). In truth, though, there was always a puppish innocence to his games. When Hunter Davies, an old friend, asked him why he had moved to London, Evans wrote on the dust of a parked car “SEX”. He was dazzled by Pat Kavanagh, a beautiful and highly efficient literary agent, later the wife of the novelist Julian Barnes. He gave me a photograph of her, lying languid and leggy on a Welsh sward, explaining that she had been given a bit part in a film production of Under Milk Wood and offering her as a story for an arts column I was editing. When I published a piece saying Kavanagh was causing concern because she didn’t have an Equity card, Harry said nothing – just gave me a reproachful look.

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Yet his devotion to Brown seems genuine, and survives Bachrach’s merciless scrutiny and the jeers she records from the American media about him being “pussy-whipped” by his young wife.

As Bachrach shows, Brown was a brilliant networker since the first day she arrived (rather dumpily) at Oxford. She mesmerised a string of Sixties swingers, including the film producer Tony Palmer, Dudley Moore, Martin Amis and, most of all, Auberon Waugh. Palmer tells Bachrach that Brown “grabbed. There was something assertively lusty about her.” It seems extraordinary that calumny should be heaped on Brown’s head alone for such things. She was young, single, ambitious, impressively cleavaged, not, by her own calculation, startlingly gifted (she once described herself as having a first-rate, second-class brain). Grown men had a choice: roll over or get real and move on out of harm’s way.

Harry could have played his infatuation differently but, in the end, chose not to. In 1974, he introduced Brown to his style editor, Ian Jack, and asked him to give her some work, which Jack did. Later Jack was surprised to learn that Harry had given Brown money to visit America. One of the pieces she filed was about her audition as a go-go dancer in which she reported the club owner as saying she had “a great ass” but needed more “crotch swivel”. Brown was on the verge of a contract when Jack rang her up and told her not to bother to come in. The journalists’ union chapel had stymied the deal because Brown hadn’t served the regulation three years on a local paper.

Evans was furious. He told Jack: “I’m the editor of this bloody paper. You’re to listen to me and no one else.”

The affair proved a defining moment in this most unusual relationship. It seemed actually to strengthen it, even as Brown gathered her old mates around her to edit the Tatler. Evans became increasingly suspicious of trade unions, particularly the printers and their interminable disputes which all but sabotaged the print run on the night of his thalidomide scandal exposure.

The last time I ever spoke to him was at his house after he left the Times. He was writing his book, Good Times, Bad Times. He poured me a glass of wine and said: “I’m a radical again now, you know, Peter.”

When the couple moved to America, Brown’s motto (“Intellectuals should be read and not seen”) served her well at Vanity Fair, where stupendously overpaid writers submitted to being deified or trashed at her whim. She behaved in much the same way at the New Yorker (writing “Beef it up, Singer” on one contributor’s article), but it didn’t work. Harry, one of Britain’s greatest print journalists, got a travel magazine to run. When the staff presented him with a surprise cake on his 60th birthday, he startled them by slapping his hand angrily on its green icing.

There is an excruciating account of the pair cosying up to Tony and Cherie Blair in America after Blair became Prime Minister in 1997. Harry had been secretary and fundraiser for the New York new Labour Party in the run-up to that election, after which there were rumours that Tina might be appointed British ambassador to Washington. Alas, as Bachrach reveals, this was a cruel rumour invented by Toby Young, who envisaged savouring their disappointment when it didn’t happen.

Many will probably see Bachrach’s book as a hatchet job on two English journalists who regarded themselves as “nature’s Americans”. But, in the end, its relentless mean-spiritedness is just as revealing about a certain kind of American journalism, which trapped Brown in its seductive, relentless, rich, loud vulgarity. It seems both a pity and a superb irony that it is unlikely to be read here, thanks to our good old English libel laws.

Tina and Harry Come to America: Tina Brown, Harry Evans and the uses of power is published by Simon and Schuster, New York