Photo: Tina Brown
Tina Brown at work in the Vanity Fair offices (Photo: REX)

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Tina Brown: “I just think, Oh my God, when did I sleep”

Bullied by Harvey Weinstein but triumphant at Vanity Fair, Tina Brown juggled work, family and so many Manhattan parties… Lynn Enright meets her

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By Lynn Enright on

Tina Brown, the legendary British magazine editor who conquered New York to head up Vanity Fair magazine aged just 30, is putting together a seating plan for a dinner she’s hosting to promote her new book.

She has dashed to our meeting at her publishers’ headquarters from a stint on the Good Morning Britain couch, where she was interviewed by her friend Piers Morgan, and from here, she’s going on to a podcast. But between the book promotion, she has snatched some time to rearrange Post-Its, putting together a perfect party for the great and the good who will be celebrating the publication of The Vanity Fair Diaries 1983-1992. It seems brilliantly on-brand for the 63-year-old: the multitasking of the host who pulls the puppet strings of the most powerful and glamorous in London and New York.

When she breaks off from her Post-Its chore and saunters over to me – wearing a pink cerise blazer and pristinely white polo neck that call to mind her 1980s heyday – I suddenly find myself nervous. I suppose I’m worried that she’ll be scary. After all, she’s a little bit scary in the diaries, which chronicle her nine years at the helm of the wildly popular, hugely influential and always glamorous glossy.

Her achievements are intimidating, too. This is a woman who arrived in New York still in her twenties, fresh from turning around the fortunes of Tatler magazine in London, and was able to negotiate the power dynamics of Condé Nast to land herself the best job in the city within a few months. This is a woman who can take on Hollywood agents and disgruntled writers and the press team around the Reagans – and come out on top. She is – it’s clear from her diaries – a force of confidence and cunning, and her observations are often stinging, her put-downs brutal.

Boris Johnson, whom Brown encountered when he was an Oxford student in 1986, is an “epic shit”. Jackie Onassis is “crazed … if you cleared the room and left her alone, she’d be in front of a mirror, screaming”. And Arianna Huffington was, on her wedding day, “anorexically slim … she must have lived on nothing but communion wafers for a month”.

You’ve got to try harder, be better, always show that you’re on your game. Because you’re always going to get taken down much harder if you are a woman

As it happens, in real life, she’s not that scary with a small voice and crisp, clear English diction. She’s just as charming as she needs to be, speaking articulately and passionately about subjects she cares about; politely shutting down conversations she’s not interested in having. (When I bring up the row about former British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman not featuring very many women of colour on the cover during her tenure, she says tersely, “I don’t know, everyone is blaming everyone.”)

Brown wrote the diaries at night throughout the 1980s after a day of editing Vanity Fair and an evening of socialising and, perhaps because she doesn’t drink (she’s allergic to alcohol), the details are gloriously, meticulously observed. When she was recently asked to write a memoir, she rooted out the diaries and realised that it was all here already; all she had to do was tidy them up slightly and provide a little context for those of us who weren’t regulars on the Manhattan power dinner party scene in 1983. They offer a thrilling insight into lives of the rich and famous – it’s impossible not to get swept up in her gossipy, exclamation mark-heavy prose (and seek out the audiobook if you want to hear her do impressions) – but also serve as an overview of the 1980s with the heartbreak of the AIDS crisis and the pulsing of Wall Street greed both brilliantly drawn.

So even if celebrity or society gossip is not your thing, there is plenty to get your attention, and working women will find her observations on sexism in the workplace particularly interesting. “At the time, it wasn’t registering as a dissonance. All those men and me. Because, you know, does a fish question water?” she says today, looking back on the boardrooms dominated by men. “But it was about battling the New York power structures because all the big-time media tends to be run by men. All the power was in the hands of men. And I had to prove myself 40 times over, I always used to say you had to be gold in a silver job. You’ve got to try harder, be better, always show that you’re on your game. Because you’re always going to get taken down much harder if you are a woman.”

She “blazed ahead”, buoyed by her passion for the job, but after she gave birth to her first child Georgie – a little boy born premature and later diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome – exhaustion occasionally found its way into the diaries. She writes movingly about the almost overwhelming love that mothers have for their newborns and you can feel the painful tension of a woman being pulled towards home and work simultaneously. “I was juggling a marriage, a child, trying to turn around a magazine, trying to understand New York. You know I was a newcomer so I didn’t even know who half the people were. So it was exhausting! And I read [the diaries] now and I just think, Oh my God, when did I sleep?”

Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991



Of course, though, this is the account of a privileged woman: she was on a hefty 1980s salary, able to afford a full-time nanny, and later when she had her second child – a girl, Izzy, who now works as a journalist at Vice – and was editor of The New Yorker, her parents moved from England to support her.

“My biggest concern [when I was offered the job at The New Yorker] is: can I be a mum and do this?” she admits. “Can I move to a weekly now I’ve got two kids. And I really couldn’t have done that if my parents hadn’t moved to New York. We rented an apartment across the landing and my mum and dad lived there and they were there when the children came home from school; they could get off the school bus and go to their grandparents’. Which was critical for me. I think the commune thing is just a fabulous thing for women.”

Brown’s husband, Harry Evans (when Brown refers to him, she uses his full name) was also a great support. He had had an immensely successful Fleet Street career and continued to work after the move to America but, perhaps because he was 25 years older, he was happy to occasionally play second fiddle. “I was very lucky to have a  husband who was as dynamic as he was but also welcomed my success,” says Brown, quite clearly still enamoured. “A younger man might have felt much more threatened. But my husband was very secure because he had had such great success himself. And he was always such a loving dad. I’ve been very lucky. I certainly could not have done it without him.”

She recognises that not all women have such support. “It’s tragic actually. Because mothers feel so isolated. And to have a career and be a single mum and not have your parents nearby – it’s brutal, really hard. It’s all very well being told to lean in but you can’t lean in if there is nobody there to pick up your child from school. And then there is this notion that women are somehow at fault if they don’t lean in – it’s absurd. I mean in my book, I’m leaning in all the time. But I’m also leaning on. My mum comes to America, my husband is incredibly supportive, I’m earning enough to have a good babysitter. And if you can’t have that, it’s much harder.”

I wonder if she has ever been tempted to write a book specifically aimed at working women. “I think how women improvise is interesting,” she says, enthused. “Every woman has a different way for making it work. All the way through my career, I asked women, How do you do it? And I was always hoping to get some magic answer. I was hoping that I would meet one woman who would say: Now here’s how you do it!” She bangs her fist on the table, as if to suggest the triumph of a definitive solution.

“But there was never any answer. I remember once I asked a New York publisher the usual question: You have kids, you’re the head of a publishing house, how do you do it?! And she said, ‘I’ve been tired for 20 years.’ And I just thought, OK that’s the way it is.”

Tina Brown was brought up in Buckinghamshire by her movie producer father and glamorous stay-at-home mother, parents she adored and admired. She never rebelled against them but saved her bad behaviour for school. Despite being expelled from boarding school, she was accepted to Oxford to read English. She studied hard, took part in student journalism and was “swept off her feet” by Martin Amis, whom she describes as “Jaggeresque”. After graduating, she made her way to London and began a career writing for The New Statesman. After being introduced to the editor of The Sunday Times, Harold Evans, they began an affair and later married. At 25, she was appointed as editor of Tatler.

After Trump won, I think women just felt this is unbelievable, that somebody who is a proud sexual harasser is sitting there in the oval office

When she took on Vanity Fair, it was an ailing magazine, unsure of itself and performing poorly. She transformed it with a mix of probing hard-news features, buzzy profiles and headlines-generating covers. The moment that perhaps defined her reign at Vanity Fair was the Demi Moore cover, the actress naked and pregnant. As soon as photographer Annie Leibowitz showed her the now iconic nude picture of a pregnant Moore, Brown was sure it was a winner. She writes in her diary: “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!”

As a keen observer of cultural trends and a woman who has been in the media for almost four decades, I am curious to know what she thinks of the #MeToo movement. “It’s incredible,” she says. “I think the Me Too movement is enormously clarifying for women. Women have felt angry for a long time about what they’ve had to go through at work. There’s a lot of anger out there. After Trump won, I think women just felt this is unbelievable, that somebody who is a proud sexual harasser is sitting there in the oval office. He didn’t suffer any consequences for that.”

Women have felt stalled for a long time, she says: “They’ve played nice, they’ve had their movements and their Lean In and their this and their that, and it hasn’t actually got them that they want: which is not influence but power, not improvements, but arrival. So there’s this sense, that we’ve played nice, now there’s going to be a revolution. This is a revolution.”

This feminist action feels different to anything I’ve seen in my lifetime, I say. “Very different,” she agrees. “They’re just saying, enough is enough. And I think that’s very good. I mean ultimately there will be collateral damage, there will be some men who are targeted perhaps unfairly, but at the same time perhaps it has to go too far for action to finally take place because you know things like the Harvey Weinstein [allegations] are incredible to read.”

Of course, Brown read those Harvey Weinstein headlines with a degree of insight. She had worked with Weinstein on Talk magazine, the ill-fated venture she founded with support from Weinstein’s Miramax. So didn’t she already know?

“I knew him to be a bully, I knew him to have an explosive temper, I knew him to be extraordinarily humiliating the way he conducted himself in meetings. He was very humiliating to me. But I never saw the sexual stuff, I only saw the extraordinary business behaviour. I had no idea he about the rape allegations, no one did, or very few people did.”

So there was a notion that he was unpleasant and a bully?  “Yes, exactly, and someone who was all over girls, sleazy. But being sleazy and being an alleged rapist is different.”

When Talk folded – a failure after decades of success – Brown took a break from the cutthroat world of Manhattan publishing. Well a break, Tina Brown-style: she used the time to research and write The Diana Chronicles, her biography of Diana, Princess of Wales, a woman she had known, observed and written about since the Tatler days.

She then went on to found The Daily Beast and her latest project is Women In The World, a “live journalism” event featuring interviews with famous and inspirational women, from Malala Yousafzai to Nicole Kidman. She’s proud of it but notes “there’s no easy buck in it”. A new female editor – Radhika Jones – has just been appointed at Vanity Fair. It’s an appointment Brown approves of, and she was, she says, dismayed at the news reports that Condé Nast staff were being disparaging about Jones’s appearance, specifically a pair of tights featuring cartoon foxes. “The fact that some of the staffers criticised her tights, I just felt such a sense of groan,” she exclaims. “I just thought, When are women going to stop stabbing each other in the back and getting in their own way. I mean this is just absurd. The fact that this was noted, it was retro. It was like something out of a bitchy 1980s soap opera.”

The world is different these days: magazines are closing and no longer hold such sway; the digital revolution has changed the way we operate, eating up editors and journalists’ time, eroding budgets.

And all those black-tie dinner parties she used to attend? Well, they just don’t happen anymore. “I’m older now so I don’t want to go to these things, but the era of the three-course dinner party has gone. Because at that time there were women who were hostesses, women who spent their time doing that. Women are now much more engaged in their careers, and with the digital thing, people are much more busy, people are crazed.”

She, like the rest of us, spends her evenings watching The Handmaid’s Tale and The Crown on Netflix and she’s eagerly awaiting the arrival of Howard’s End on the BBC.

“The thing about the 1980s in Manhattan was that it was such a social time,” she says, almost wistfully. “You know I had red nails, all these long formal dresses. I think now I have one long skirt.”

The Vanity Fair Diaries is published by Orion Books 

@lynnenright

Tina Brown at work in the Vanity Fair offices (Photo: REX)
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