Diary days move quickly with details of her overlapping lives as journalist, wife, mother and careerist. She starts remaking Vanity Fair with what she calls her high-low mix of journalism and celebrity, which calls to mind both Claude Lévi-Strauss’s “The Raw and the Cooked” and Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp.’” The idea being that the reach between opposites is both amusing and a useful conceptual tool to understand where you stand in the world. At first advertisers don’t understand. Magazines have not been redefined since Clay Felker put shopping and politics together in New York, and “general interest” is thought to be a dying category. What is her Vanity Fair about? Culture? Celebrity? Politics? Movies? Rich people? Crime? Is it supposed to be literary? Splashy? Yes.
Using her magazine ideas and what it takes to execute them as context, she details her joys and anxieties about family and friends. She worries about her parents and opens up about her insecurities as a mother. She writes about her love affair with her husband, Harry, and remembers past colleagues and old boyfriends. Martin Amis is “Jaggeresque”; the death of the war correspondent David Blundy by a sniper in El Salvador recalls him pulling on his jeans and smoking on her Murphy bed in her tiny studio in London.
Her career is always the subtext, and in a telling early entry she visits Robert Gottlieb, the editor in chief of Knopf, and finds him mannered with his own mythology (“Famous for Never Having Lunch”). They eat sandwiches sitting on the floor. Tina writes: “Everything in New York is about personal marketing.”
Her relationship with Newhouse is amplified by her mischievous voice as a diarist. Si “the Chipmunk” morphs into Si “the Hamster,” communicating with his family via “Hamster bush telegraph.” She is always savvy about where she stands: Her progress as an editor becomes the exponential acquisition of powerful and celebrated acquaintances, even as she notes guilelessly that without the Vanity Fair job she would be nowhere.
But she is the editor of Vanity Fair, and is invited everywhere — the Washington Post owner Katharine Graham’s 70th birthday party “groaning with clout,” like “the dancing version of a state funeral.” If that’s the high, the low is the film producer Peter Guber, over breakfast, using a vulgarity to describe what Hollywood “is ruled by.” At times no one she meets seems deserving of the slightest respect or sympathy, and Tina doesn’t care. She doesn’t like them, either. She’s working. Negotiating the cliffs of social mountaineering she studies rich girls. Gayfryd Steinberg, “a social Napoleon,” carpets the Met dining room in white mohair. Betsy Bloomingdale is “sinuous and watchful with her tiny rich eyes and staccato shoulders.” Jayne Wrightsman gives the Kissingers a tractor for Christmas. Their husbands talk “the game of money.” It’s Tina’s “listening tour of the way deals get done.” There are no identity politics yet but these people aren’t Democrats or Republicans, they’re just rich, maybe too rich. Contact with them is “ineffably spoiling,” but when “the uneasy sense of precariousness intrudes” Tina is reporting sidewalks spotted with the homeless and streets full of limos.
Vanity Fair is increasingly healthy but Black Monday is on a short horizon, and boorish high-level firings at Condé Nast suggest to Tina that she maintain some distance from Si and his acts of “pragmatic betrayal.” Her New Year’s resolution: “To beware of Uncle Si as Mammon posing as a hamster.”
When Anna Wintour returns from London to edit House & Garden (in waiting to take over Vogue) the press is hoping for a cat fight. Tina calls out the sexist cliché and says that having Anna in the Condé Nast building “is a bit like suddenly having a sleek-haired race-horse pawing on the other side of the fence.” And Anna, too, “is all business, clip clip clip.” Planning a dinner for their fellow British journalist Nigel Dempster, they arrange 80 place-cards at the air-kissy Louis Licari salon while Tina has her streaks bleached and Anna gets her bob minked — a perfect ”power-woman time economy.” Fodder for “Saturday Night Live” perhaps, but Tina refuses to be patronized and recalls tone-deaf-media highlights like the Ad Age piece anointing her Editor of the Year in 1988 that called Vanity Fair’s journalism “a starlet wanting to play Juliet.” Defining herself as a feminist, Tina refers several times to something she heard from Gloria Steinem: “We must become the men we wanted to marry.” When Hearst’s chief executive, Frank Bennack, comes after her to edit Harper’s Bazaar, Tina is able to leverage his very lucrative interest into an equivalent package at Vanity Fair. When the deal is done she notes: “The day I joined the boys club.”
The salary is $600,000 a year on a three-year contract, a $1 million bonus, and the $300,000 loan to buy the 57th Street co-op is forgiven. Her candor with numbers is commendable throughout: low-ball starting salary ($130,000); what she and Harry paid for their 57th Street co-op ($917,000 in 1986); and the oceanfront house in Quogue, N.Y. ($125,000 plus a 24-year-and-up lease on the land with the mortgage guaranteed by Harry’s then-employer Mort Zuckerman). It’s the kind of specific reporting that made Tina’s Vanity Fair so juicy.
By late 1989 Si is shaking up the top of Condé Nast again. Tina writes: “Each firing seems to lead to another, like a serial killing. The truth is, in the five years I have worked for him he has gone from Caesar Augustus to Caligula.” Vanity Fair is riding very high and she recalls being “blown away by the sheer number of dinners, galas and cocktail parties.”So were we, and by we I mean any number of financially strapped editors with their own high-low mixes, courting writers at Odeon while Tina was reported in the columns to be hanging out with socialites twice her age shrieking insincerities at Mortimer’s, and playing a beta version of “Game of Thrones” at Condé Nast. She should have gotten more credit than that.
Going out on the high-life circuit was work, part of the job. Tina cultivated sources, picked up story ideas. It was exhausting but occasionally profound. At a charity benefit for suicide prevention, she hears William Styron speak about the night he tried to kill himself, and rushes to his table as soon as he sits back down to suggest he turn his speech into a piece for Vanity Fair. It runs at 20,000 words with a headline Tina pulls from Milton’s “Paradise Lost”: “Darkness Visible.”
Such opportunism makes her a great editor. So does her differentiating mix and voice and her insistence that display copy needs to be written and rewritten and rewritten again. Si tells her she is in line for Alex Liberman’s creative director job, but she has been thinking about The New Yorker, which is losing $19 million a year. Bob Gottlieb, now the editor, is “not grasping the nettle! … He seems totally unresponsive to the pulse of the news.” When Gottlieb tells her that as an English person she could never understand The New Yorker, we know exactly where she’s headed.
At about the same time, Donald Trump, who has already made a number of banal appearances, pours a glass of wine down Marie Brenner’s back at a charity event at Tavern on the Green in revenge for her Vanity Fair piece that reported he kept a book of Hitler’s speeches in his bedroom. In her epilogue, Tina calls him “the ultimate personification of the gilded grossness of the 1980s,” but with the bright side that his fake news and war on the press is reviving journalism. Yes and no. She remembers “the 1980s Valhalla of well-funded editorial confidence, when you could pursue excellence as well as profit.” But now it is not agreed that magazines have anything but a past.
Earlier this fall when Tina’s successor at Vanity Fair, the brilliant Graydon Carter, announced he was quitting after 25 years of compounding the success of Vanity Fair for Condé Nast, it was reported as the end of the era of celebrity editors, and in fact it may be. Within weeks , three particularly audacious and gifted editors — Cindi Leive at Glamour, Roberta Myers at Elle and Nancy Gibbs at Time — all announced that they were stepping away. It is suddenly uncomfortably easy to suggest that the innovative editing that built the richest, most respected magazine companies in the world is being replaced by the much less expensive digital idea that editorial quality can be engineered — which it cannot.
“The Vanity Fair Diaries” is corroborating evidence. Journalists will feast on it, but so too will anyone interested in media — especially magazines and how they came and went. If you liked Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair in the ’80s, her diary pages will sweep you back and even if you could get a little fed up with Tina back then, you will miss her now.