Books of The Times: Tina Brown’s ‘Vanity Fair Diaries’ Recall a Glossier Time

Most unexpected may be Brown’s many entries about the hazards and psychological challenges of editing while female. Media reporters and male competitors routinely trivialize her accomplishments. Never once during her tenure does she work up the nerve to ask for a proper raise, even after Vanity Fair becomes profitable and Harper’s Bazaar starts to court her. (She eventually enlists the help of a superagent.) Even she suffers from a self-esteem gap.

When Brown was first offered the job to rescue the recently revived (and incompetently revived) Vanity Fair, in 1983, she was just 29 years old. The magazine was an outpost of confusion in those days, and Condé Nast was a castle of paranoia, its towers filled with schemers hoping to avoid defenestration.

It took a while for Brown to master the politics of this byzantine kingdom, and it took a while for her to arrive at the formula that would ultimately be responsible for the magazine’s success: A mix of celebrity chronicles, foreign reportage, true-crime stories, profiles of power brokers and extravagant photo spreads — all sitting side by side in the back of the same limo.


Credit Patricia Wall/The New York Times

If these diaries have a theme, it’s status anxiety. There was no finer moment than the ’80s to explore status anxiety. The book teems with gossip from that bygone era, with the Kissingers, Reagans and a thousand high-haired socialites in starring roles. (Along with our current president. “It feels, when you have finished it, as if you’ve been nose to nose for four hours with an entertaining con man, and I suspect the American public will like nothing better,” Brown writes in 1987, having just decided to excerpt “The Art of the Deal.”)

There’s swing in Brown’s voice and vinegar in her pen. Walter Mondale is “a decent, intelligent, slightly boring fellow who would make an excellent prime minister of Norway.” Michael Huffington, the ex-husband of Arianna, is “a tall glass of water with a weak smile.” Almost everything she shares about the Kissingers is perfect. The best, perhaps: when a friend cattily asks, “Have you noticed their dining room is an exact replica of the State Department’s?”

For legacy-media freaks, “The Vanity Fair Diaries” is a bound volume of crack. Tina Brown’s moment wasn’t just predicated on the excesses of Wall Street. It was predicated on the excesses of the magazine business, of a time when editors still had time and money to burn. A crisis in Brown’s world was being seated at the wrong table at the Four Seasons, or being forced to coordinate coverage of Andy Warhol’s death by speakerphone because the person best suited to do it was off in Gstaad.

Yet after reading these diaries, I still wonder how much of an audience exists for them. Pages upon pages are filled with stories about dinners with doyennes who, even in their day, were only a big deal in one or two ZIP codes. Many of its barons are long forgotten, dead or disgraced. The dish about Condé Nast’s kings and queens regnant will be tasty to those who know them, but will anyone beyond their own (dwindling) clan even care?

Tolstoy can ask you to remember hundreds of characters. I don’t think Tina Brown can.

Brown also never satisfactorily reconciles why she wanted to insert herself into the endless cocktail surf of the ’80s. She professes to be an introvert, and she repeatedly laments New York’s materialism, posturing and social churn. Yet she often writes these plaintive entries from her beach house in the Hamptons. “Why do I keep seeking out the very things I deride?” she asks.

Her reply — “perhaps because I was born to chronicle them” — suggests that large parts of her desires remain unexamined. She lived and celebrated these values as much as she chronicled them. “Vanity Fair’s fifth anniversary party!” she writes on March 1, 1988. “Maybe the best party in Manhattan since Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball.”

To me, Brown’s truest and most heartfelt confessions are about her maternal guilt and ambivalence. She’s beset by fears that her jet-engine work drive will never be compatible with a sane family life. “The weekend was hard, with G” — her toddler son, George — “being very difficult and Harry chained to his computer as bloody always,” she writes in 1989. “Two workaholics don’t make a rightaholic, particularly when it comes to raising kids.”

Knowing that her son has Asperger’s syndrome — Brown has written about it in recent years — makes certain entries especially painful. Gradually, we see her realize that her son is perseverating, mixing uneasily with other kids, missing crucial developmental milestones. Before he’s properly diagnosed, a neurologist chalks up his differences and delays to his premature birth. “Was it my fault for working too hard and long?” Brown asks herself. Your heart dissolves. It’s so hard to imagine a high-powered father asking himself this same question.

Brown may have been a complicated feminist figure. But she was also a trailblazer, willing to take risks and get battered and bruised in the arena. In 1992, she took over The New Yorker and had the temerity to transform it. She even dared to add photographs. I hope she also kept a diary during those years. It was quite a scandale.

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