On the other hand, Brown was thrilled to be able to generate some buzz, even among the dinosaurs. She’s the ditzy genius who captured the imagination of the media and literary world for almost two decades, the queenly presence who raised her scepter to decree the hot (and v. hot) from her perch at the country’s best magazines. But it wasn’t only celebrities. She could even see small boys in Africa beating drums on street corners and immediately commission spreads on Ghanaian tribal dances, could feel waves gathering in the farthest reaches of the ocean and grab her surfboard to paddle in. In person, she intimidated those she deemed unworthy with her blonde British dazzle, and warmed the hearts of those she wanted to cultivate—writers, celebrities, and CEOs—with her comic-strip energy and Ab Fab zingers. On 9/11, when she was at Talk magazine, staffers recall her in particularly fine form, gaping at the burning towers and asking, “My God, why do they hate us so?” Afterward, she snuck below 14th Street to tour ground zero in a rickshaw, then called editors to a “war room” to discuss which writer should infiltrate the Taliban. Soon she was attending summits on the war religiously and was magnetized by the generals she met. “It’s all about the generals,” she would say. “The generals are fabulous!”
These days, Brown operates her exiled royal government from her maisonette on Sutton Place, with its ground-floor gardens and upstairs offices, her computer shoved into a room that doubles as her dressing area and is always stuffed with dry-cleaner bags. She stays in touch with many of her old employees and in the past few years has often courted their counsel, either to provide nibblets for her weekly Washington Post column or to haul out to Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, as guests on her ill-fated CNBC show, Topic A With Tina Brown. She’s still close to Adam Gopnik, Stephen Schiff, The Manny author Holly Peterson, and Radar’s Maer Roshan—Schama has dubbed her merry band of eternal courtiers “Tina Inc.” “It’s a great ongoing conversation, even though it’s now a private one,” says Brown. Sometimes, she has cocktails in honor of visiting luminaries in her garden, most recently Helen Mirren, Ian McEwan, and Anthony Holden, and buzzes around town to political fund-raisers, Michael’s restaurant, and meetings of the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s the most interesting club in town,” declares Brown. “Women who are widowed should realize that’s the place to go meet guys. They can sit there and talk about the problems in Iraq while getting their next husband lined up.”
It’s not entirely clear if Brown is kidding when she says things like this—she’s got a dramatist’s ear for the hilarious one-liner, and can’t resist even when it might be more appropriate to keep such thoughts to herself. With no interest in home décor, clothes shopping, fine wine, cooking, or food in general—she will eat absolute garbage, provided it is portion-controlled for her birdlike diet—Brown seems not so much a mature middle-aged woman as a clever college girl snickering in the back of class, with an appetite only for the amusing, the contrarian, the shockingly new and different. As a young editor, Brown, then 30, took an almost sadistic pleasure in ripping apart Leo Lerman’s turgid Vanity Fair, then nuked The New Yorker at 38. She didn’t grow up with the holy church officiated by Mr. Shawn, and couldn’t accept a magazine where Norman Mailer was considered unpublishable and the word home too casual. In her magazines, low culture had as much place as high did. In life, she defined people as either winners or losers, not higher or lower.
Magazines, to Brown, were a power game, a forum in which to strive, struggle, and triumph over prim intellectuals, who could not fully ape the spring in her step. Using Si Newhouse’s wallet, she vacuumed the literary talent away from other publications and found writers in odd corners of society, like the sidelines of Hollywood. “She made me rich and famous again when I thought it was all over,” says Dominick Dunne, a failed producer before Vanity Fair. “You know, I almost love Tina Brown.” At The New Yorker, she fired 79 people and brought in 50, including Malcolm Gladwell, Anthony Lane, Jane Mayer, Jeffrey Toobin, and Remnick himself. Her legacy there is secure, as the magazine’s Establishment is inclined to view her stewardship amicably. “Almost no one questions that interpretation now,” says Gladwell. “We realize that the old way wasn’t working and you need to have a revolutionary to come in and reinvent things. A lesser personality than Tina could not have achieved all that.” (To compare Brown and Remnick, he says, is unfair: Brown’s showmanship was necessary to recreate The New Yorker in a crowded media marketplace, whereas Remnick is defining his relevancy through the magazine’s response to 9/11.)