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.
And yet creators of magazines create bad magazines. It goes with the territory. The most fabled among them, Jann Wenner, Clay Felker, Hugh Hefner, all made stinkers. They got laughed at but were spared the moral condemnation that Tina has attracted.
Psychoanalyzing the backlash, we’re bound to get to the formulation that it’s not about them; it’s about us.
There was an obvious co-dependence. We were each other’s enablers. It was an age of excess, of overweening ambition, of greed, and phoniness, and sucking up, and the glorification of strange, obnoxious, preening, uninteresting people. And Tina Brown and, by association, Harry Evans have the misfortune of coming to stand for all this (not to mention having made us participate in it).
I wonder, too, if the backlash doesn’t also say something about the general-interest-magazine business. Tina’s New Yorker and Vanity Fair may have been the last gasp of the magazine as social chronicle. By spending huge amounts of money and through constant vainglorious acts of self-promotion, and by creating a subculture of editorial dirty pool (if you could help the magazine, or Tina and Harry, you were stroked; if you couldn’t help or hurt the magazine or them, you were fodder), she supported a dying genre. Everyone in our business cheered her on, hoping out of self-interest that she would succeed, but when she didn’t (and, I might argue, she couldn’t), we all distanced ourselves from her embarrassing and desperate acts.
Likewise, she helped import to New York, and the constricting publishing business, an English sensibility. Because in the publishing world there is so little room to maneuver and there are so few opportunities, it was fertile ground for the development of a class-based, hierarchical structure, which she at Vanity Fair and The New Yorker and Harry at Random House reigned over. In this system, you’re always kissing up to the people above you, but at the least sign of weakness (places in the firmament being so scarce), you rip them apart. The fact that she has run three magazines that compete with each other only increases the strain. Indeed, the author of Tina and Harry is a Vanity Fair writer – the perception, certainly at Talk, is that when Tina goes down, Vanity Fair and its editor, Graydon Carter, go up.
Then there’s the Hollywood thing, which was the magic potion she poured on a magazine (and which fit the spirit of a self-aggrandized era).
Her father, George Brown, was an English movie producer; she came of age when the movies were the hottest part of media (she also had a foreigner’s awe of Hollywood); she transposed British class hierarchies to America by elevating Hollywood celebrities; and, most recently, she’s married herself to a movie company. But now, as the result of various cultural transformations (for instance, technology, which Tina has seemed really dim about), the movies have become peripheral and disposable (certainly Talk magazine often seems to be a cavalcade of celebrities no one could care less about); it’s a bottom-of-the-class business. It isn’t where the heat is; nobody takes movies seriously anymore. Hollywood, which once made Tina look hip and powerful, now makes her look craven and silly – and like a dumbo for not getting that it’s so over with.
Ironically, Tina and Harry turn out to be bad at playing the media game (doubly ironic because they had the game fixed for so long – no one would say anything bad about Harry and Tina because everyone was on their payroll or invite list).
They have, it turns out, no appreciation of the rhythms of thrust and parry. Bad press sticks to some people (and then it increases geometrically), while other people brush it off. The process of brushing it off involves a certain level of self-confidence – you have to be able to not take it seriously. Whereas Tina is always chewing over her bad clips, calling reporters and attempting to recast quotes, having friends call reporters, deploying P.R. agents. And Harry, while in one life a crusading journalist, is, in another, an enthusiastic libel plaintiff.
They wound easily. They’re paranoid. They’re Nixon-like. They’re thin-skinned.
Worse, they set themselves up. You don’t throw the party of the century (her big do at the Statue of Liberty) to launch a fledgling magazine – I mean anybody who knows anything knows about managing expectations.
It is the self-confidence issue, though, that may go to the heart of the matter. To some degree, I wonder if this doesn’t have to do with a structural anomaly of their success. Tina, especially, achieved massive notoriety of the kind associated with the biggest payday (hence engendering the most resentments). She should have been rich. She became an international brand name. But because she was, in reality, just an employee (and at Talk, despite her best efforts to become a mogul, continues to be just an employee) and because her successes, at least from a P&L standpoint, have been mostly illusory, she never made her fuck-you money.
And the money is where the confidence and the respect come from – it redeems you. Not having the money means you’re just a sucker. Which is, in essence, the social rule propounded most forcefully and unforgivingly by Tina Brown.