Tina's turning point
Tina Brown's book, The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992, chronicles her pivotal time at the iconic magazine
By the late 1980s, Britain-born Brown was reaching the pinnacle of her storied career. In London, she had already rejuvenated the moribund Tatler magazine, and at the age of 31 moved to New York to rescue the struggling Condé Nast title Vanity Fair, which she transformed into a must-buy chronicle of social excess and political depth. A mother of one and with another child on the way (and married to another publishing icon, Harold Evans), Brown was figuring out how to pivot her magazine – and her career – to the next decade.
Monday, July 2, 1990
Have been closing Marie Brenner's terrific piece on Donald and Ivana Trump. We wanted to capture their fascinating repositioning now that they are divorcing and Ivana has been upgraded to superstar victim of a brutish, philandering husband, which she is playing to the hilt. Marie has been able to establish such a pattern of lying and loud-mouthing in Trump that it's incredible he still prospers and gets banks to loan him money. Great quote where his brother says Donald was the kid who threw cake at the birthday party. He's like some monstrous id creation of his father, a cartoon assemblage of all his worst characteristics mixed with the particular excesses of the new media age. The revelation that he has a collection of Hitler's speeches at the office is going to make a lot of news.
I feel more and more pregnant, which has been awkward as 60 Minutes has been filming in the office for a piece about us, a coup for VF. Will be incredible exposure that could drive up circulation exponentially. I am nervous about the footage they have got. I realize I called Sly Stallone's fiancée a bimbo in the art department when they were filming and am praying they don't use it (as I would for sure if I'd been the reporter!).
Wednesday, Aug. 22, 1990
So long between entries. Have had the whole family to stay at Quogue [on Long Island]. Heaven having the cousins here for [Brown's son] George.
When not with the kids have been glued to CNN, watching the developments in the crisis in the Gulf since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. He's such a preposterous figure, with the backward beret and huge chimney-sweep mustache, but clearly much more dangerous than anyone gave him credit for. No one took Hitler seriously either. It seems to be the hallmark of the most dangerous dictators that no one considers them a threat until too late.
The September issue is a news storm with the Trump piece and the Hitler speeches revelation. Happily, Trump trashed us to Barbara Walters on her show, and that spun another column from Liz Smith.
Monday, Sept. 17, 1990
A lot of stuff happening as I wait for baby X, who we now know, to my wild joy, is a girl. G is getting excited, too. I find myself thinking about her all the time. Will we be as close as I have always been to my own mother? I never had rebellious years with Mum. All my rebellion was focused on school. It's a wonderfully soothing feeling, the notion of a best friend coming whom I haven't even met.
VF sales have been punished by Iraq and Desert Storm. There's an ad recession we didn't expect. The war is bad for a magazine with a title like Vanity Fair, just as the thirties were bad for it before. VF suggests glamour and levity and that's not the mood of the times. I am moving the editorial in a more serious direction by choice as much as need, but perception will lag behind the reality of what's now in our pages. The split identity we have evolved of the movie star on the cover and the grit inside has worked well for us until this moment, but it's hard to judge how much to change in the news direction without also alienating the huge audience who love that high-low balance that we do.
Meanwhile Harry's had an amazing offer that couldn't have come at a more difficult moment, just as I am about to give birth and want him more at my side. He was asked to be the editorial boss of Random House, as president/publisher, which is a fantastic opportunity and restores him to the top of the tree, where he belongs. If Harry does Random House, that locks us into NYC for another five years. I will have to stop imagining there could still be an alternate reality in London. The decision was brought into nerve-racking relief when, on his way out to Quogue from the Hunterspoint Avenue train station, a menacing thug in a beanie leapt out of nowhere, pointed a gun at him, and demanded all his money. Took it and fled. It rattled us both. I kept thinking of how he could have become one of those news stories we devour in the Post.
Tuesday, Oct. 16, 1990
Waiting for baby D-day! My cesarean is scheduled for Oct. 22. Dr. Thornton thinks that with the prematurity of G and the miscarriage, I should not risk natural birth. Oddly, I have never felt more energized and focused, ballooning around the office and getting work cleared so I can soon disappear. [Cover of comedian] Roseanne [Barr] will be much reviled, but I think it is a great conversation starter and I love adding comedy and comedians to shake up movie-star blandery.
G is finally getting excited about the baby and decided to name her tonight. We had been thinking Daisy, but G was adamant. "Let's call her Isabel," he said. It felt unfamiliar until I said it aloud. Isabel Evans. I love the two together. And suddenly felt I knew who she is, serious and calm and clever and sweet.
Saturday, Dec. 1, 1990
Gail Sheehy came over to talk about a new piece she wants to write about menopause. Two women at opposite ends of the fertility spectrum confronting each other over a cup of tea.
It was nice to talk stories after six weeks of cotton-head. We sat in the living room while I nursed Izzy and she laid the piece out. I love the idea of tackling menopause. Women always feel they have to hide it, or treat it like some secret disease instead of part of a natural cycle. And then when we're through it, we're made to feel discarded and reduced. Gail said, on the contrary, she wants to write about the incredible "postmenopausal rush" when women are at their most confident and productive. Yippee. I can't wait. Must be so liberating to be done with the need to be attractive and focus instead on fulfilment and power. I can't wait to be a grand old trout making influential decisions. I told Gail, absolutely, do it. Let's call it "The Secret Passage," referencing back to her old bestseller, Passages, and amplifying the taboo angle.
Hollywood people are unbelievable. Jeffrey Katzenberg called me up a week ago and asked if I would do a screening for his new movie Green Card with Gérard Depardieu. I told him I just had a baby and was on leave. He totally ignored me and told me I must do this for him because I owed him. (For what?) It's a great movie, he insisted, that's what friends are for, etc. I should have told him to take a hike, then of course succumbed. But I really didn't feel ready for it, like a deep-sea diver as I swam around the faces I didn't want to see, with baby-head making me forgetful and vague. I had forgotten how terrifyingly tough NYC is, what an hourly battering it is to stay on top. I was in such a sensitive mood that I felt I had gone out stark naked.
It was the first time I have faced people since I put Roseanne Barr on the mag's cover, which has, as expected, been universally reviled. Nick Dunne said he has been aggressed about it everywhere he's been, with "Trust me, she's gone too far this time" as the most common response. Still, they are all still reading it. And our Tatler motto of "the magazine that bites the hand that reads you" is still my mantra.
Friday, March 22, 1991
Sonesta Spa, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
I am brooding how I can make a definitive editorial statement that will distance us from the eighties. A new adrenaline shot. Without explicitly saying so we need to make a turn that's decisive or we will be defined by the passé Reagan era of glitz and Park Avenue. The nineties is about divestment. About shedding old social structures and pretences. There's a lust for a reckoning, too, after all the Wall Street malfeasance. We need to get deeper, darker, more expansive while keeping the joy factor. I am looking for a cover that will do that and have talked about it a lot with Annie [Leibovitz].
Harry's Random House job has added a whole lot of turmoil to our domestic lives. (Turmoil he adores, I have to say.) I forgot it would mean there is a book launch every night that he has to go to, even if I refuse. He did finally, after two more meetings, corral Brando's memoir. There was a brief crisis last week when Marlon connected that he was married to me and nearly pulled out. "And now comes a large cloud of black crows," he wheezed down the phone to Harry from L.A. "Your wife, I learn, is Tina Brown." But Harry performed the feat of somehow distancing himself from his wife of 10 years and the deal was signed for a mighty $5-million.
Tuesday, July 23, 1991
When photographer Annie and I first discussed doing a Demi Moore cover for the August issue, I thought how great it would be to show her pregnant instead of doing the normal thing with stars who are over three months gone and cheat the cover with a head shot or some other disguise. But being Annie, she went one better. She did Demi in profile, yes, full body, yes, but also … naked! She unveiled it after first showing me the shots of Demi in brief summer dress, explaining she had just done these others privately. But as soon as I saw that warm, golden image of the utterly naked, enormously pregnant, totally glorious Demi, I knew this was the shot we had to have. I felt retrospectively liberated from a long 1990 trying to hide the expanding Izzy, the vicarious shout of joy of showing Demi's bump to the world. Women need this, dammit! Annie was the persuasive genius who got on the phone and got Demi to agree to make this private picture public. But kudos to Demi too for her bravery and willingness to go out on the edge.
We have wanted so much to do a story that moved Vanity Fair decisively on from the eighties, that made a statement of modernity, progressiveness, freshness, openness, after the heavy Trumpy glitz of that decade. I have been beating my brains out looking for the social commentary that would achieve it. And now, in one simple, dazzling image, Annie has the home run. This is it. This is what a celebrity looks like in the nineties. Not just natural but au naturel! And it's a wonderful feminist statement at the same time.
Now I was afraid I would be stopped from doing it by the circulation department, after Walmart went batshit with the Roseanne Barr cover. So I took the precaution of showing first Alex [legendary Condé Nast editorial director Alexander Liberman], then Si. Alex just looked quizzical and said, "Are you sure, my dear?" and shrugged. And Si [recently deceased S.I. Newhouse Jr., owner of Condé Nast Publications] did his pensive gerbil face and finally said, "Why not?"
This cover has immediately gone into the stratosphere. I expected some buzz, but not what is unfolding – a media orgy that uses the cover on TV eight straight nights in a row – every network news show, Primetime Live, Entertainment Tonight, Good Morning America, plus Annie as Woman of the Week with Peter Jennings on ABC and umpteen references to it by Johnny Carson, Arsenio Hall, David Brinkley, and on and on. The shrink-wrap stunt makes it hotter. It seems we have broken the last visual taboo. And the perfection of it was that it was an unassailable platform for controversy. Who's ever managed to shock with family values before?
Friday, Aug. 16, 1991
We christened Izzy last weekend on one of the nicest days we could have dreamed of, at the Church of the Atonement, Quogue's little clapboard church, as we did for G. It was a glorious day. We had all the friends over for a buffet lunch on the porch and a local band playing at the entrance. Izzy looked so adorable in her frothy little dress, with those huge eyes in her china-doll face. She loved being swooped up and down by all the guests, grabbed the rector's cross from around his neck, and chomped on it happily. She has all Harry's power-packed energy and his equable temperament. Nothing fazes her as she moves from one passionate absorption to the next. How lucky I am.
Tuesday, Sept. 24, 1991
Si hasn't been in the Four Seasons for 10 days. When Si is not in the Four Seasons it means something is up. He's hiring someone big or buying something. But whom or what? And will it affect me? In a moment of paranoia I thought he could be buying Rolling Stone as he has long wanted to do and making Jann Wenner editorial director as part of the package. So what's cooking in the hamster cage?
The reaction to Demi Moore doesn't stop. Letters pour in from ecstatic women every day. We've sold 548,058 copies on the newsstand (an 82 per cent increase on July newsstand sales), giving us a total sale of 1,127,521. It's phenomenal. I feel a moment coming. Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
Someone is going to make a major play. But what is it to be?
Tuesday, Dec. 10, 1991
Marie Brenner called to tell me an extraordinary incident that took place last night at the NYC Parks black-tie gala at Tavern on the Green after the opening of the Streisand movie The Prince of Tides. She was sitting demurely in her black dinner suit at the parks commissioner Betsy Gotbaum's table when she felt something cold and wet running down her back. Out of the corner of her eye she saw waiters with trays of wine moving around and assumed one of them had spilled the vino. Unwilling to embarrass the waiter, she didn't turn around. Until the other guests at the table started pointing and yelping, "Oh my God! Look what he just did!" The "he" in question was Donald Trump! She saw his familiar Elvis coif making off across the Crystal Room. The sneaky, petulant infant was clearly still stewing about her takedown in VF over a year ago and had taken a glass of wine from the tray and emptied it down her back! What a coward! He couldn't even confront her to her face! Marie was as outraged as she was incredulous but chose to ignore it. Everyone knows he's going broke and he spent most of the evening canoodling with his pouty blow-up doll, Marla Maples.
Thursday Jan. 23, 1992
This morning Si called me upstairs and sat me down next to him in the chair near his desk. "How much do you read … The New Yorker?" A long pause. "Not much lately," I said. A longer pause. It felt endless. Had I just disqualified myself? He behaved as if I said the opposite. "How would you go about it?"
Brown became The New Yorker's editor-in-chief, which she ran for six years, and subsequently launched Talk and The Daily Beast. In 2007 she was inducted into the Magazine Editors' Hall of Fame.
Excerpted from The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992 by Tina Brown, published this month by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2017 by Tina Brown. All rights reserved.