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In September of 1981, I was reporting The Art of Being Alex, a profile of Alexander Liberman. The title was a pun, for Alex had a double life. Weekdays, he was the all-powerful Editorial Director of Conde Nast. On weekends, he was a sculptor and painter of some note.
Of the two identities, only one offered the possibility of immortality, so Alex wanted me to see him at work. On a lovely fall weekend, my then-girlfriend and I drove with Alex and his wife to their home in Warren, Connecticut, where Alex had a studio big enough to contain sculpture that could measure 50’ x 100’ x 50’. I got on with Tatiana, which endeared me to Alex. And my girlfriend was the heiress to one of the largest fortunes in America, which endeared her to Alex.
By Saturday afternoon, Alex had decided something. “Dear friend,” he said, “would you like to edit GQ?”
At New York Magazine, I was making the princely salary of $35,000 a year. But I didn’t have to think about that offer. If I were going to trade writing for editing, I wanted the best possible job — editing Conde Nast’s revival of Vanity Fair, set to launch in 1983.
“I’d prefer to edit Vanity Fair.”
“The editor will be Richard Locke.”
“Not for long.”
I said this because Locke was at the New York Times Book Review; he was not likely to shine on slick paper. Which was just what happened. Locke, a disaster, was succeeded by Leo Lerman, a professional snob who dabbled in high culture at Conde Nast. And then, with the young magazine on life support, Si Newhouse and Alex Liberman annointed Tina Brown, the practically teenaged editor of London’s Tatler, “the magazine that bites the hand that reads you.” And Tina set about saving Vanity Fair.
In 1987, Andy Warhol did me the favor of dying on a Sunday morning. By Wednesday, I had written 7,500 freshly reported words. On Monday, my Warhol piece appeared on the cover of New York. The following week, Tina Brown took me to lunch and showed me a Helmut Newton photograph of Faye Dunaway. “Your first cover,” she said. Would I come to Vanity Fair for $70,000 a year? My new wife, a writer, her two young children and I lived, high above our means, on Central Park West. At that restaurant it was a career effort not to hug Tina.
I was a Vanity Fair contributing editor from 1987 to 1993. As a writer who could deliver a late-breaking cover story against a ridiculous deadline, I was the happy recipient of Tina’s attention. Thrilled to share a masthead with the magazine equivalent of the 1927 Yankees, I returned it. I also saw Tina’s few but surprising weaknesses. Like: limited peripheral vision. Literally: she didn’t have much awareness of someone behind her or to the side. And metaphorically: her relentless focus on the magazine and her hellacious workload sometimes blinded her to her writers’ feelings. Once, on a car phone, she killed months of my work. (That gnawed on her; a decade later, she apologized.) And she had the unfortunate tendency, not unique to her, to be disproportionately influenced by the last person she talked to; at VF, office politics was a blood sport. (Someone posted a sign in the office: “On the side we put out a magazine.”) And she tolerated and maybe enabled an epidemic of Terminal Fabulousness — like, in a morning meeting of a dozen VF heavies in a windowless inner office of a Hollywood soundstage, I was the only one not wearing sunglasses.
I offer these criticisms so I don’t come off as a fanboy. The fact is, Tina Brown was a once-in-a-lifetime creative force in a business that generally rewarded dull competence. She set the bar high (“Always do the impossible thing first”), urged writers to have a big life (“Go out, go out, and bring something back, even if it’s only a cold”), and took her greatest pleasure in marking copy with a red pencil (“It’ll cut like butter.”) These days, when New York media folk tell me how hard they work, I just smile. And think, “Not compared to Tina Brown.”
Her diaries are a record of her creativity, decisiveness and pluck. For those who didn’t discover her crisp prose in The Diana Chronicles, the diaries also reveal that she is a wickedly good writer. (To read an excerpt from the diaries, click here.) And conversationalist…
This book is not for everyone. If you missed the ‘80s in New York or are thrilled they’re gone, you won’t love sustained coverage of big egos and big money. If the inner workings of a media machine and the name Conde Nast mean nothing to you, take a hard pass. On the other hand, she’s intimate to a degree you won’t expect on the subject of motherhood and her concern for her son, whose Asperger’s syndrome was undiagnosed for years. Her inability to be acknowledged for what she was achieving at VF — for her first four years, she was so scandalously underpaid that Hearst very nearly poached her — will remind you that economic inequity of woman extends right to the top. And you will encounter unexpected affection; as articles editor Jane Sarkin told me, “She loved us.” (To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.)
Candid? Interesting? Consider…
Walter Mondale “would make an excellent prime minister of Norway.”
Betsy Bloomingdale “has the wind-tunnel look of a recent face-lift.”
New York Times society reporter Charlotte Curtis: “a coiffed asparagus, exuding second-rate intellectualism.”
Arianna’s husband Michael Huffington: “a tall glass of water with a weak smile.”
Amanda Burden: “a charming sparrow-faced blonde who clearly longs to be looked after.”
Swifty Lazar: “tiny and bald and hairy in the wrong places.”
Mica Ertegun “seems to have made a career out of the enigma of her marriage.”
Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, “who I find are always a struggle.”
She’s at her aspish best on Conde Nast management. Alex Liberman is “like a spider in the center of a web. Spinning and spinning and reeling you in on silken thread.” His wife Tatiana is “a barking dinosaur.” S.I. Newhouse and his brood are “a family of gerbils.”
At the end of this book, she decamps to The New Yorker, which she transforms into a success that David Remnick will build on. Her beloved mother dies and she launches Talk, unwisely seduced by Harvey Weinstein’s promise of equity. Massive spending and an advertising desert after 9/11 doom that magazine. She launches The Daily Beast, another budget-buster, on the Web. And now she’s found a home in the women’s conference zone.
Back at Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter, standing on her shoulders, staged a holding action for 25 years, freezing the magazine’s DNA while making a 7-figure salary, plus perks, and building his personal brand as a restaurateur and film producer. With his departure, that ends. Conde Nast told his potential replacements that they’ll have a vastly lower salary and that “they’d like them to reimagine the magazine, its digital properties and its conference business — but that the title’s budget would be shrinking.” The brave new editor, Radhika Jones, comes from the books department of the Times, which has been brutally slashing budgets for years. Translation: Conde Nast is preparing this tired title to be a smaller, less successful brand.
Sic transit Gloria? Well, magazines, like all organisms, have a life cycle. Tina Brown? “Unless I’m working, I am agitated,” she writes. Does Act 3 lie ahead (or is it Act 4) for her? Never say never.