How odd that Tina Brown’s new book recalling her heady, glitzy, glory days as editor in chief of Vanity Fair should arrive the very week the magazine named a new editor, surprise candidate Radhika Jones of The New York Times, to replace Graydon Carter (Brown’s long-tenured successor).
The media landscape, of course, has shifted seismically since Brown’s reign. The era of the “celebrity editor” has been declared dead, with the “unassuming” (the Times’ term) Jones left to navigate the future of the glossy in a digital age.
If anybody ever was a celebrity editor it was Brown, and what a run she had, at Britain’s Tatler in her 20s, then in New York at Vanity Fair and The New Yorker before less triumphant stints at Talk, with Harvey Weinstein, and Newsweek. (Now 63, Brown, who also founded The Daily Beast, runs the Women in the World Summit.)
But it’s fun to relive her rise to the top at Condé Nast in The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992 (Henry Holt, 419 pp., ★★★ out of four), with glamorous names dropped like gold nuggets throughout these voluminous pages — Donald Trump, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Mick Jagger, Oscar de la Renta, Steve Rubell (of Studio 54), Princess Diana, Michael Ovitz, Barry Diller, Si Newhouse Jr. and so many, many more.
At times Brown’s Diaries reads like a creaky time capsule (Dynasty’s Joan Collins and her sister Jackie having a real catfight), but it’s also fascinating how little has changed. Men have the power. Brown struggles mightily with work-life balance (work always seems to win). Will she ever be paid what she deserves?
Media insiders will gobble up Brown’s real-time descriptions of how she built the controversial but wildly successful “high-low” mix at Vanity Fair and negotiated office politics (regular readers might snooze, or be baffled). Her most intimate observations — about her marriage to fellow Brit editor Harry Evans; her concerns over their premature son, Georgie; the agony of watching talented young men die from AIDS — elevate these Diaries beyond a mere New Gilded Age chronicle.
As a well-educated Englishwoman in New York, Brown shows a novelistic flair in her descriptions of people, especially those she encounters at endless dinner parties, among them Manhattan’s richest Trophy Wives. She could have called her book Bonfire of the Vanity Fair.
But most readers will come for the catty dish, and for patient readers, it does come. The most jaw-dropping anecdote involves none other than our current president, then a fixture in New York City tabloids.
After Marie Brenner wrote a piece for Vanity Fair in 1990 on Donald and Ivana Trump's divorce and revealed that Trump had a collection of Hitler speeches in his office, the real-estate mogul retaliated. More than a year later at a black-tie event at Tavern on the Green, Brenner felt “something cold and wet running down her back.” She turned and saw Trump’s “Elvis coif” making off across the room.
Brown recounts: “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 (waiter's) tray and emptied it down her back! He couldn’t even confront her to her face!...Everyone knows he’s going broke and he spent most of the evening canoodling with his pouty blow-up doll, Marla Maples.”