Brown is deeply implicated in the creation of this world—but now Dr. Frankenstein wants to disavow the monster. “I don’t know where the end to celebrity culture is, really,” says Brown. “I left Vanity Fair because I thought celebrity culture had topped out! I didn’t want to be there for its wake. But it just keeps growing. I’m happy to take the plunge, but I’d like alternatives. The problem is that the alternatives get drowned out as well, so there’s very few places where anybody can actually have an intelligent conversation today. That’s the terrible pity of it.”
“There’s very few places today where one can have an intelligent conversation,” says Brown. “That’s the terrible pity of it.”
At the same time, you can’t make a loud noise, commit an act of bad taste (Claus von Bülow in black leather, a naked, pregnant Demi Moore, for instance), and expect anyone to pay attention. Literary people have become impossible to shock—the most you can do is annoy them, which isn’t half the sport. But while Brown realizes that her high-low games don’t produce the same kind of thrill, she won’t apologize for her sensibility. “I think you can write about anything as long as you’re being intelligent,” she explains. “I don’t want to do the blow-by-blow on Lindsay Lohan, but I’m certainly interested in that moment where she intersects with something else in the Zeitgeist. Britney Spears’s haircut interests me insofar as writing about our ghoulish fascination of watching a woman go completely bonkers in a public sphere. Anna Nicole Smith was massively interesting, I think. In some ways, that story represented everything about America: sex, money, and litigation. The newsmagazines were too lofty to put her on the cover, but I would’ve done it if I’d—you know—” she stammers, “it was an interesting event.”
A couple Mondays ago at Trattoria Dell’Arte, Brown appears early for lunch in her usual uniform, a starched white Ralph Lauren shirt open past her collarbone—“My Bernard-Henri Lévy look, without the garlic,” she says. She eats only skinless chicken, steamed green beans, and a cup of green tea, never flicking her eyes toward the waitress when she asks if everything is all right. Brown has just returned from England, where she gave a speech comparing the American and British media climates to 60 CEOs. “It was a very good time to be there,” she says. “The business about Lord Browne, the chairman of BP who had a homosexual relationship for four years, was breaking. He was probably the best business executive in England, and he perjured himself on the stand—he said that he met a man running in the park, when he’d really met him through an escort service! Rough stuff.” She suppresses a giggle. “Very fun.”
This is the kind of life Brown wants—fizzy, fabulous, full of tabloid scandals and giggles. If she can only get the buzz back, she imagines that she will never become a dinosaur. “One time having lunch at the Royalton, when she was the most powerful magazine person in the world, Tina was talking about the next issue of The New Yorker as if her life depended on it, and I stopped her,” says David Kuhn, a literary agent who worked closely with Brown when he was an editor at Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. “I asked, ‘What do you think it is in your background that makes you the kind of person who’s in the lead running a race, but still looking over your shoulder?’ She paused. Then she said, ‘You know, I never thought about it, but my father used to say, ‘There’s no such thing as a part-time success,’ so maybe it comes from him.” She’s never forgotten that her father had early success as a movie producer, then lost it.
This winter, she lived almost entirely at her beach house at Quogue, working on her book while Evans wrote some chapters for his memoirs. Her youngest child, Izzy, had gone to boarding school, and they were now empty-nesters. They would get up early in the morning and go for a bicycle ride to breakfast, then work all afternoon, until 10 p.m. “It was rather like the life of Darby and Joan,” says Brown. “We would have a great deal of fuss over the video we were going to watch. We saw a complete set of Prime Suspect, The Wire, Scorsese movies, and the boxed set of Simon Schama’s History of Britain. What a feast!”
It was nice to have that quiet time, but now she wants out of the cave. Izzy is coming back from school next week. “I miss her so terribly,” says Brown. She’s scheduled a girls’ trip to Paris for the two of them this summer, to see Marie Antoinette’s Versailles, since Izzy loved the movie, and is preparing a summer beach bag for her full of the books she loves—Colette’s Gigi, This Side of Paradise, Gone With the Wind, Candide, the poems of W.H. Auden. Recently, she had a leather journal from Smythson’s engraved with the words SUMMER READING JOURNAL. She will edit her daughter’s reading list, if no one else’s.