On a fine summery night at the Museum of Natural History, Tina Brown is once again queen of the literary world.
As a chair of this year’s black-tie PEN Literary Gala, she sweeps through the museum’s vaulted lobby, greeting dynastic dowagers of publishing, wives of the seaboard Establishment, and burghers of blue-chip literati land, like E.L. Doctorow, Calvin Trillin, and Gay Talese, whose natty tux and fedora make him look like an ancient Lower East Side dandy. Brown moves fast, cobalt-blue eyes flashing, the private-school-boy layers of her blonde hair picking up wind, her long, alabaster legs snapping back and forth under her black ruched skirt. Then she stops, gives a sly look, and motions to looming skeletons, prehistoric predator menacing prehistoric prey. “Do you like the dinosaurs?” she asks, with a girlish peal of laughter. “Usually, the dinosaurs are sitting at the dinner tables!”
In fact, Brown, 53, the fabled editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and the ignominious Talk magazine, is looking very young—trim, fit, un-dinosaur-like—as she giddily anticipates her comeback of sorts this week with the publication of The Diana Chronicles, her comprehensive and shimmery history of Princess Diana’s life and tragedy. Her look is perfect for TV, although she doesn’t do all that well on it, like a know-it-all correspondent with sparsely applied makeup but hair peroxided to the roots. Last week, she lost several pounds of her “book weight” at the southwest’s Golden Door spa, where she endured bone-cracking Thai massages, early-morning hikes, and upper-thigh-reducing exercise classes. “It’s high school for power women and rich wives,” she declares. “I bonded with the V.P. of Saks and Lauren Graham from The Gilmore Girls. At lunch, Lauren used to shout, ‘This is 350 calories? There’s nothing here! I demand a recount!’ ”
Another lap around the room for Brown: There’s Fran Lebowitz in her trademark man-styled tux, and then old friend Salman Rushdie two steps behind his on-again wife Padma Lakshmi, her clingy lime dress topped by a white fur bolero jacket that every so often drips off a shoulder to reveal a bare, muscular back. An Upper East Side boutique owner pops out of the crowd: “I understand you will be speaking about your book at our shop,” she rasps. “Oh, I’m excited,” says Brown, turning away. Historian Simon Schama grabs her arm to whisper in her ear. “No!” she says, listening intently. “My accent is wrong on Paris’s Hôpital Pitié-Salpêtrière in the book. And I’ve misspelled tumbrel—Simon, now I’m haunted!”
There is haunting to come, during dinner. A hush falls over the room as the inaugural PEN/Borders Literary Service award is presented to Gore Vidal, meant to honor his dedication to the freedom of the press—or, more precisely, his commitment to capping on whoever gets caught in his crosshairs, as he devolves in his last days into a kind of hyperintellectual Paul Lynde. “I didn’t know that I was a service yet,” says Vidal, from his wheelchair. “But I’m happy to be one and I’m happy to accept your award for services as yet not entirely defined, and in this marvelous place where I was greeted by two old friends—the dinosaurs couldn’t be more charming, and I reminded them of our wonderful days back at the swamp.” He waves his cane. “I was told before I came here, ‘You don’t have to give a speech!’ I said, ‘Thank God.’ ‘A few remarks’ takes a week to write. I got here and—‘Oh, we’re looking forward to it, the remarks.’ Now, come off it, otherwise I’m going to ask Tina Brown to come back and sit in for me, because she could say everything we need to hear about freedom of the press and how she herself—if I may interject a personal note—was well betrayed by New York publishing, both magazines and books. She was a great editor and under her The New Yorker was a great magazine, and then …” The pause is pregnant. “It’s even greater. Even greater! How do you like that for an apparatchik?”
He smiles widely, baring his teeth.
“Well, it’s never been as good as it was under Tina,” he continues. “Coming out of England, it was fresh, it was new; she knew where the talent was. Not only do I wish her well, but if I had the money I’d put up the money to give her a mag. Let her do it. Some of you here look as if you have the money to do it—well, you do it. She was the best editor that ever hit this funny little island that we’ve got here.”
Brown’s neck muscles contract and her cheeks flush a humid pink—is it true that they think she was betrayed, but also perhaps (gulp) the best? In any case, she is stagily mortified at the rude insult to David Remnick, The New Yorker’s current editor, “one of PEN’s most respected guests, but also the editor and friend I most admire,” she says later. She rushes to the next table to embrace him, then circles the three tables filled with her guests. “Before the speech, I told Gore, ‘Please don’t say anything about the Jews and Israel,’ ” she says, leaning a hand on the back of Leslie Stahl’s chair. “Then he gets up, and I’ve become Israel.” She laughs. “I’m Israel!”