What Does Tina Brown Have to Do to Get Some Attention?

Photo: Lamia Abillama

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!”

Tina Brown, outside Tatler in Covent Garden, London, in 1981.Photo: Courtesy of Tina Brown

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.)

Brown and Harry Evans in 1988.Photo: Ann Cliford/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

More recently, campaigns to secure Brown a big editing gig have fallen flat, like the push for her at Time magazine. Diller and Eisner are still her friends, but reading, writing, and party-going make up most of her days. Her eccentricities are lovable now, like her total lack of a sense of direction—“To get her to walk from point A to point B, you almost have to put her in one of those hoods for hawks,” says a writer—or any form of personal modesty. In her old offices, as she was getting ready to go out in the evening, the area around her desk could be a blur of flying undergarments. (“Her breasts are amazing,” says an ex-assistant. “We used to joke Tina’s rack was one of the seven secrets of Manhattan.”) She also still has a hard time with the generals. “One time, Tina and I met a very, very handsome decorated military man for a foreign-policy symposium we were putting together,” says a close friend, former Nightline producer Kyle Gibson. “He was strikingly handsome, like an actor portraying a military man. Tina got so flustered by his charisma that she reached out to shake his hand and dropped her purse with a splat. Her cheeks burned bright red.”

Frankly, Brown used to not care much about socking away gobs of money, but everyone else seems to care about it, and she’s very competitive, so now she wants more of it. The $2 million she received for the Diana book is good to squirrel away for husband Harry Evans’s old age, which is not that far away (he celebrated his 78th this year). A fortune would have been nice to have, or at least a position like her pal Arianna Huffington, who managed to secure for herself what Brown craves—a role on the political scene, a salon festooned with VIPs to fulfill her ego needs. Instead, with her hubris, she took the entrepreneurial plunge with Harvey Weinstein, a partner so difficult he made her second-guess her psychic connection to hotness. There was also a personal element: Her mother passed away the week before she made the fateful choice to bail out of Condé Nast. “I think my decision was influenced as much by a desire to distract myself from the terrible loss of my dearest and best friend as it was by the go-go dot-com spirit of change,” says Brown.

“Blogging isn’t a particularly good training for writing,” says Brown. “There’s too much voice, in a way.”

But while Talk in certain ways (most notably its title) seemed to anticipate the democratic cacophony of the blogosphere, it was fairly clueless as a media play, with no Internet applications and none of the market power that cushioned Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. And the association with Miramax didn’t produce synergy but, for the most part, its opposite. Still, she is not willing to concede defeat on the matter of Talk. “It was a very good magazine, and it was on the cusp of being totally fine,” she maintains, pursing her lips. Ultimately, for throwing over the editorship of The New Yorker, the best job in American magazines, she received a $1 million settlement of her Talk contract. “I might’ve wanted my fuck-you money, but I got my fuck-off money,” she says, snickering.

Brown means to use the Di brand to remind everyone of the Tina brand—that is, if anyone in this country still cares about Diana, which remains to be seen. Diana has been a kind of doppelgänger for Brown since the beginning of her career. They looked the same, with those puddly blue eyes, fluffy winged bobs, and similar upper-class carriage, at least to the untrained American eye. Brown covered Diana’s wedding and funeral on NBC and wrote lovingly of her personal encounters with Diana, first at the American embassy in London—“She was wearing a pale-blue dress that seemed to have been spun of moonbeams, and her skin had the pink sheen of a cultured pearl”—and at The Four Seasons in New York with Anna Wintour, when Diana auctioned off her wardrobe at Christie’s. “Within a few Perrier minutes, we are just a couple of mates having lunch with a famous girlfriend,” she writes. “She plainly hankers for America—for the optimism, the options, the openness.”

Certainly, Brown was smarter than Diana, a sad bulimic girl in pearls raised on romantic novels who failed her O levels twice and carefully husbanded her hamsters Little Black Muff and Little Black Puff. But they shared the same drive and ambition: Brown is a ruthless schemer, a stone-cold social climber renowned for what Evans once called her “rat-like cunning.” Diana, too, was not above stepping on toes to get her prize: At 16, when the Prince of Wales was dating her older sister, she decided when he came to shoot with her father for a day that she was going to marry him anyway. For her prince, she even managed to keep her virginity intact through the late seventies. “I knew I had to keep myself tidy for what laid ahead,” she explained.

Brown in her office at The New Yorker in May 1998.Photo: Eric Bowman/AP

Although not of the same breeding as the daughter of the eighth Earl of Spencer, Brown grew up privileged in the town of Little Marlow on the Thames, attending boarding schools where she wore a “gray cloak with a Ku Klux Klan hood for Sunday morning walks and learned piano from someone named Mrs. Clotsworthy.” At home, she hung out with actors, including Richard Attenborough and Joan Collins, while her father, a film producer of variable success, tried to seal deals. “‘Who shall we have to dinner to massage the Iranian/Swiss/Belgian money?’ was a catchphrase that signified the start of the school holidays,” she once wrote. “ ‘Everyone,’ my mother would reply, ‘and if he’s anything like the Indian twenty percent it better be a buffet.’ ” By 12, Brown was keeping a journal every night and writing plays. At Oxford, she immediately climbed the rungs of the literary scene, using a school-magazine interview to charm Auberon Waugh, Evelyn’s son, and dating Martin Amis, who was then writing a sex column under the pseudonym Bruno Holbrook (she preferred to call him Bruno).

After graduation, she freelanced silly newspaper pieces about the Playboy Club, bathing-beauty contests, and Erica Jong—Jong’s husband, she writes, guessed accurately that “the lady journalist staring beadily at him from the sofa was speculating feverishly about his impeccable genitalia.” Some stories were commissioned by the most respected editor in London: Evans, 25 years her senior and married with three children. Their courtship was a source of mirth in newsrooms, where she was cast as Becky Sharp and he as a latecomer to the swinging sixties, newly hip in dark nipped-in suits and big bright ties. In Philip Norman’s excellent Everyone’s Gone to the Moon, a roman à clef from that period, Brown is Fran Dyson, a breezily confident striver with “centipede eyes” and a dirty flat who is always playing someone for a fool: “I was outside the front entrance last night, trying to get a taxi home in the pouring rain, remember how it was bucketing down?” the book’s fashion editor announces to the newsroom. “And then that bloody pushy little Fran Dyson comes out and steals it from under my very nose! I mean, that was bad enough, but now she’s sent me this creepy little note of apology—and the most mingy little box of Black Magic you can buy! I don’t think it’s even half a pound!”

For Brown, Diana was v. v. hot. “Once any kind of beauty comes near the aura of royalty, they become way too hot to handle,” she says.

In a way, Diana and Brown grew up together, professionally speaking: Diana married Charles two years after Brown was appointed editor of the “Us magazine of Gosford Park,” as she calls the British society magazine Tatler, and died ten months before Brown left The New Yorker. Diana was Brown’s first great story—the joyful global mobs were demanding details about the new Sloaney princess-to-be, and at Tatler she was perfectly positioned to deliver. Soon Brown was courted by the royal circle, like the Parker-Bowleses, who invited her over to Bolehyde Manor for a photo shoot. “Compared with the freshness of the emerging Diana, the legendarily sexually confident Camilla suddenly seemed a knocked-around blonde with too much backstory,” Brown writes in The Diana Chronicles. “Andrew, for his part, spent the whole shoot staring at my chest.”

For Brown, Diana was v. v. hot. “Once any kind of beauty comes near the aura of royalty, they become just way too hot to handle,” she says. “In fact, you could argue that no beautiful commoner should be allowed to come near a royal, because it’s not safe.” She’s inclined to look kindly on Diana’s indiscretions: the secret book with Andrew Morton, the embarrassing Martin Bashir interview, the many phone calls she made to the paparazzi tipping them off to pictures, including, Brown suggests, the fateful snap of Fergie getting her toes sucked by a Texan millionaire in the South of France. Brown has to hand it to Diana: She had the forethought to understand that “the aristocracy of birth was now irrelevant,” she writes. “All that counted now was the aristocracy of exposure.”

For Tina, Diana is a fellow surfer of fame, one who used her gifts for self-aggrandizement and entertainment and pure fun but also for high purpose. The mix, as always, is all-important. “I think she’s greatly missed, in a funny way,” says Brown. “With all the earthquakes and tsunamis, and things like Darfur, she would’ve been all over it. She would have been there! She would’ve raised millions!

Then she changes her tack. “I personally feel she had to die,” Brown says, with a journalist’s heartlessness. “She was like a star that had to burn out.”

The world continued to evolve without Diana, and to a large extent without Brown. Diana’s death irrevocably changed the way the public relates to famous people. The people claimed the body of Diana as their own, and then they wanted to touch more flesh—JFK Jr., Bennifer, Paris, Cruise, leading us to a moment where America’s Sweetheart swans around town in jimmy-jams and a wig losing her mind expressly for the camera, which seems it will soon lose its interest in her (at which point she will doubtlessly cease her antics). The raw meat of celebrity can be gorged on daily—today, employees procrastinate at their desks in an onanistic stupor, eyes rolling in their heads as they listen to the uncut audio tape of Paula Abdul’s bawling phone call on Perez Hilton, watch grainy cell-phone photos of Lindsay Lohan mashed up in YouTube montages, and click through the endless lineup of celebrities nattering on outside nightclubs in TMZ videos about “keeping it real” and “firecrotches.” The public doesn’t want Brown to mediate their experience from behind the curtain. They want the curtain completely drawn up.

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.

“In a way, the book filled up a hole for me,” says Brown, putting down her teacup with the barest clatter. “Now that it’s gone, I’ve got to find something else.” One could not call being the Kitty Kelly of Diana Brown’s grand ambition. She’d like again to be an editor-in-chief, but the prospect seems more distant than ever. So here she is without a job, at the splintering of media culture, with hardly anyone reading except elites, and the Internet on the verge of turning into television. She ticks off the ways that media is circling the drain: Intellectual property is impossible to protect, yet someone has to pay the bills; the better writing is, the harder it is to read on the Internet; the young writers are blogging instead of apprenticing in newsrooms. “Blogging isn’t a particularly good training for writing,” she says. “There’s too much voice, in a way. It’s like Colbert’s truthiness: There’s too much ‘voiciness,’ and not enough fact.”

Brown imagines she could do well now launching something on the Web—“I can’t see quite how to do it, but there must be a way,” she says, her eyes narrowing. “People will read stuff online if it’s linked”—otherwise she might write another book. “In the end, we’re not going to do journalism at all, because who’s going to finance it?” she says. She looks into the distance, then brightens. She’s always been a person for whom anything was possible. “I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m fascinated to know.”

What Does Tina Brown Have to Do to Get Some Attention?