One morning a few months ago, I finished my run and, following my usual routine, picked up a newspaper in the lobby of the Carlyle Hotel. On my way out, a woman in an outsize raincoat, with a refugee-like scarf around her head, weaved toward me. She seemed confused, or in some distress, or so nearsighted as to make you think immediately of Mr. Magoo. She reached out to steady herself on me and, in an English accent, which made her seem somehow even more befuddled, asked, "Do you know the way to Madison Avenue?"
"You're actually on Madison Avenue," I replied, looking at her closely and realizing, suddenly, that the discombobulated woman was Tina Brown.
This story, which I've been dining out on, and which everyone I've told has enjoyed enormously, is an example of backlash. You could not have told this story a few years ago. People would not have been receptive to it. It would have said more about the teller (that you were envious of or, worse, unknown to Tina). Or it would have been understood in a different way. It might have even seemed charming, humanizing (at the height of her power, people often spoke of her vulnerability).
Whereas, at this moment, everyone understands it as caricature. Belittling. Farcical. Possibly exaggerated (was she really weaving? Really wearing a scarf like that?). It fits the current thinking: Tina Brown is a lost figure who can no longer even find her way to the main thoroughfare of her life and career.
But now, partly because of a new book, Tina and Harry Come to America, I find myself feeling more than a little guilty about telling this story (and not once either -- I've retailed it everywhere; of note, if not necessarily in my defense, the only people I know who haven't participated in the Tina-bashing craze are people directly on her payroll -- and many of them have found it an irresistible diversion, too). The book codifies and collects every aspect and tonal shift of the revisionism directed against Tina Brown and her husband, Harold Evans. Its focus (not unlike my Carlyle story) is the morphing of the couple's fabled acuity, style, and ambition into nearsightedness, frumpiness, and profound lack of direction. It is, although the book's author, Judy Bachrach, may not necessarily realize it, about a perceptual transformation. And while I don't know if their fall from grace is as world-class as the book makes it out to be (on the level of Nixon's and the Clintons', the book suggests -- it even has Hillary bashing Tina), or even how noteworthy it is to people outside the media community, it certainly makes you think that as backlashes go, it's really up there.
Tina is in a terrible trap: We are enamored by her because she was such a success; we are repelled by her because of what it took to be a success.
The book, which details the couple's professional, social, and sexual histories (here is a universal lesson: Whoever you sleep with will someday talk about it -- plan accordingly), is of course itself part and parcel of the backlash. It's published by Simon & Schuster but is in the style of the Regnery Press books about Clinton -- an unrelenting, not-very-nuanced indictment of character flaws, professional conflicts and compromises, and a host of other unkind social acts written for an eager, and bitterly predisposed, audience.
As compelling as all these tidbits are, there is, clearly, no smoking gun here. There's no deed, or event, or betrayal, that provides a clear explanation for why the crowd would want to tear Tina and Harry apart -- why they should have become such a cautionary tale. They really have not behaved differently from most other hyperdedicated careerists in Manhattan (few of whom have been shunned by polite society).
In fact, what the book outlines is a Horatio Alger story of get-up-and-go, shoulder-to-the-wheel, how-to-do-what-you've-got-to-do-to-get-ahead-in-the-media-business savvy. I'd recommend it to anyone who is starting out. It's a fine manual.
Rule No. 1: Don't sleep with just anyone; make your couplings count (Tina's college-age liaisons included Dudley Moore, Auberon Waugh, and Martin Amis and culminate at the age of 21 with Harry Evans, a national monument in British journalism).
Rule No. 2: Learn how to give a party (which is different from learning how to party).
Rule No. 3: Cultivate the press (publicity being the currency of our time) -- best done by throwing parties.
Rule No. 4: Get to know some celebrities (which takes work, but it's easier than you think) and invite them to your parties.
There is the strong suggestion in the book, and on the part of the many people I know who obsessively rehash Tina's and Harry's careers, that there is something shallow, vulgar, and possibly immoral about all this. And yet there is virtually nobody who is a success in the media business (Tina and I are the same age, and I found myself, as I read Tina and Harry Come to America, awed by her precocity -- with just a little more energy and fortitude, I could have, I think now, learned how to throw a party) who hasn't followed some of these precepts. Tina (and it is always Tina, more so than Harry) is in a terrible trap: We are enamored by her because she was such a success; we are repelled by her because of what it took to be a success (there's surely a woman's point to be made here -- a man is respected for his wiles, a woman trashed for hers).
The media class is not usually so ambivalent about success, but success (no matter how much you've had) becomes something else when it's coupled with failure. And Talk, Tina's current magazine, seems stubbornly unable to succeed.
Certainly, it feels like a magazine made by first-timers. It doesn't seem to be able to answer the most basic magazine-craft question (it doesn't seem to have ever even asked it): Who's it for? What's more, it may never be able to surmount what is perhaps a structural flaw: the perception that it is always doing double duty as the house organ for Miramax, which funds it.