The dra­matic de­cline and re­turn of a pub­lish­ing pow­er­house

It seemed that Tina Brown could do no wrong af­ter tak­ing the helm at Van­ity Fair aged 30 but, as Li­adan Hynes writes, ques­tion­able de­ci­sions and a huge fail­ure rocked the ed­i­tor to the core

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - REPORTAGE -

It was the launch party to eclipse all oth­ers, for a mag­a­zine that was in­tended to rein­vent the genre and in the process be­come a bible for US opinion-for­m­ers on both coasts. Clad in Donna Karan, ed­i­tor Tina Brown, her blonde, cropped hair per­fectly tou­sled as al­ways, hosted a $500,000 launch party, sim­ply re­ferred to as ‘The Party’, on El­lis Is­land in Au­gust 1999 for her new monthly glossy, Talk.

The al­most 1,000-strong guest list in­cluded the great and the good from the worlds of New York high so­ci­ety, Hollywood, fash­ion, busi­ness and me­dia. Fer­ried over from Man­hat­tan, guests lounged on pil­lows and blan­kets un­der Chi­nese lanterns and a fire­works dis­play, eat­ing, drink­ing and lis­ten­ing to Macy Gray per­form in the shadow of the Statue of Lib­erty.

Henry Kissinger, Natasha Richard­son, Liam Nee­son, El­iz­a­beth Hur­ley, Hugh Grant, Ju­lianne Moore, Pierce Bros­nan, Demi Moore, Kevin Ba­con, Lau­ren Ba­call, Sal­man Rushdie, Kate Moss, Sarah Jes­sica Parker, Matthew Brod­er­ick, Christo­pher Reeve and Robert De Niro; the guest list was tes­ta­ment to Brown’s un­matched net­work­ing skills. Ru­pert Everett at­tended with Madonna and de­clared it the most glam­orous event of his life.

“Now you’re not ex­actly the tired masses, the hud­dled masses, but then again, I’m an im­mi­grant who toiled here on the Con­corde,” Brown joked as she ad­dressed the guests.

A mere two and a half years — and an es­ti­mated €50m — later, Talk mag­a­zine had bombed. More than just a lit­eral fin de siecle, Talk, in­stead of herald­ing a great new era for print mag­a­zines, was in fact tee­ter­ing on the brink; the era of the in­ter­net was about to un­der­cut ev­ery­thing. “We gave an in­sanely huge launch party that re­ally sub­scribed to the great David Brown the­ory of show busi­ness, which is never give a party that’s bet­ter than the movie,” Brown her­self later re­flected.

Brown had ar­rived in New York in 1983, rid­ing high on a wave of suc­cess, hav­ing turned Bri­tish Tatler from a dull, fail­ing monthly to a hugely suc­cess­ful fash­ion bible. She had at­tended Ox­ford, de­spite be­ing ex­pelled from three board­ing schools, and on com­ing to Lon­don, where she dated Martin Amis for a time, she had man­aged to pull off the ul­ti­mate balanc­ing act; in­fil­trat­ing the Bri­tish up­per classes whilst us­ing them as fod­der for her mag­a­zine. It was the first ex­am­ple of Brown’s sig­na­ture ed­i­to­rial style — what has been termed a high-low ap­proach; qual­ity writ­ing and con­tent, mixed with celebrity glitz and glam­our. “You don’t make friends, you make con­tacts,” she is al­leged to have said.

Thirty years old, she came to New York first as a con­sul­tant and then to edit and save Van­ity Fair — some ac­counts have it that monthly sales went from 100,000 to more than one mil­lion. It wasn’t long be­fore she was the toast of Man­hat­tan, en­joy­ing all the perks of a Conde Nast ed­i­tor; an in­ter­est-free loan with which to buy her Mid­town apart­ment, town cars to take her wher­ever she de­sired.

In the early Nineties, Si Ne­w­house, the doyen of Conde Nast, put her in charge of The New Yorker. Af­ter al­most a decade at the helm of the revered mag­a­zine, a dis­sat­is­fied Brown, with il­lu­sions of me­dia mogul­hood, ditched long-time men­tor Si in favour of Har­vey We­in­stein — a man she re­cently spoke out against.

The idea was to dis­pense with the tra­di­tional no­tion of mag­a­zines, to rein­vent the medium. Brown would com­mis­sion sto­ries which could then be op­tioned by We­in­stein. In re­turn, she would pro­vide am­ple cov­er­age for ac­tresses star­ring in his movies. A racier-than-usual Gwyneth Pal­trow ap­peared on the cover of the first is­sue, along­side an in­ter­view with Hil­lary Clin­ton. Brown har­boured plans to ex­pand into books, TV, and ra­dio. The whole thing was dressed up in the dot.com speak of the time; syn­ergy this, cross-pol­li­na­tion that.

Many saw it as a shock­ing move. Why leave the com­fort­able con­fines of Conde Nast, where Brown’s ex­ces­sive spend­ing habits (she was known for tear­ing up ex­pen­sive sto­ries at the last minute) and re­lent­less work pace (faxes would ar­rive to staff ’s homes in the mid­dle of the night) were tol­er­ated, for the un­known ter­ri­tory of We­in­stein?

Brown later re­flected that her mother’s death had un­bal­anced her and pos­si­bly con­trib­uted to the de­ci­sion.

Less than three years later, We­in­stein, un­will­ing to sus­tain fur­ther losses, closed Talk down. Brown was awarded a $1m pay off she termed “f ***-off money”.

At the time, she told The Tele­graph: “I don’t feel in any way down. No big ca­reer doesn’t have one flame-out in it, and there’s no­body more bor­ing than the un­de­feated.” A later in­ter­view with Vogue, given when she was again an ed­i­tor and, per­haps, feel­ing more con­fi­dent, was more hon­est: “When Talk closed, ob­vi­ously, as some­one who loves the news, I felt as if I had an am­pu­tated leg,” she said. “In the sense that the news would hap­pen and I didn’t have a plat­form to re­spond for the first time since I was 25.”

The ex­pe­ri­ence also af­fected her con­fi­dence. “She re­alised that her fate had taken a bad turn, was wary of what peo­ple thought of her, who said what, where was she seated in the restau­rant,” her agent re­vealed. “Tina is used to chal­lenges and rel­ishes them, but Talk ended in a car crash that she just hadn’t an­tic­i­pated. I think she had the me­dia equiv­a­lent of post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der. She was like a war vet­eran com­ing back from bat­tle, re­ally jumpy about ev­ery­thing.”

She and hus­band Harold Evans, him­self an iconic ed­i­tor, headed off to the Mediter­ranean with their two chil­dren to hol­i­day on a friend’s 305-foot yacht. The cou­ple had first met in Lon­don when she was just out of col­lege and he, then in his 40s, was edit­ing The Sun­day Times and al­ready mar­ried. By all re­ports, theirs is a true meet­ing of minds, a lov­ing, sup­port­ive mar­riage. They wed in the East Hampton home of Ben Bradlee, The Wash­ing­ton Post ed­i­tor im­mor­talised in All the Pres­i­dent’s Men.

For most of the Noughties, Brown was rel­a­tively quiet. There was a fash­ion col­umn for The Wash­ing­ton Post, a TV show, but no high-pro­file ed­i­to­rial jobs. She and Harold de­camped to their Long Is­land home, both work­ing on books. Switch­ing off was dif­fi­cult at first, she re­called, but even­tu­ally they en­joyed them­selves thor­oughly.

“On the emo­tional side of it, it was re­ally great,” Tina once re­called in an in­ter­view. “I’ve al­ways been a worka­holic, and hav­ing worked solidly and so hard from the age of 25, I had re­ally never had a pe­riod where I was just in­volved with my per­sonal life and my fam­ily. “I al­ways dropped Izzy at school, but there was some­thing ex­tremely lovely about go­ing to pick her up in the mid­dle of the af­ter­noon — this won­der­ful stolen mother-daugh­ter time — and we’d go and have an ice cream or tea to­gether, chat away and come home and she would do her home­work and I would read a book and we would have din­ner. And it was won­der­ful as well for my re­la­tion­ship with Harry. That’s when we started to go out to break­fast to­gether ev­ery day, which is a habit that’s now stuck.”

There is a 25-year age gap be­tween the cou­ple, but it doesn’t seem to be an is­sue. “The re­la­tion­ship gets bet­ter all the time. There’s ex­cite­ment in the nor­mal. We are so blessed,” Evans told Vogue. “I’m de­voted to her. But it doesn’t mean I’m slav­ish.”

As to the age dif­fer­ence, he ad­mit­ted: “It’s big, but it’s funny: We never no­tice it, hon­est to God. I can re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘She shouldn’t be do­ing this. And I shouldn’t’. But we have been mar­ried for 30 years, and I don’t think there’s a sin­gle day when we have no­ticed it. When my knees started crack­ing up, I be­gan to think, ‘It’s time for her to show me the exit’. But I had my knees fixed, so I don’t think that any­more.” The two have two chil­dren, Izzy and Ge­orge, who has Asperger’s

I don’t feel down. No big ca­reer doesn’t have one flame-out in it

syn­drome, and the fam­ily are close. In 2007, her self-im­posed ex­ile came to an end with her au­tho­rial piece de re­sis­tance, The Diana Chron­i­cles. Tina and Diana had had a sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship from the out­set of their mu­tual ca­reers, with Brown’s Tatler cov­er­ing the princess at the time of her en­gage­ment.

Her cov­er­age was not al­ways favourable, and the book, for which she was ru­moured to have re­ceived an ad­vance of $1m, open­ing with a gos­sipy lunch the pair had shared, was a no-holes-barred ex­plo­sive retelling of Diana as a savvy me­dia ma­nip­u­la­tor, but also a deeply neu­rotic woman. It spent 10 weeks on the best­seller list. “It kind of lib­er­ated me,” Brown told one jour­nal­ist. “It was al­most like lift­ing a cloud off my head.”

The next year, backed by long-term friend Barry Diller, hus­band of Diane von Fursten­berg, Brown was at the helm when web­site The Daily Beast launched. She had no on­line ex­pe­ri­ence, but the idea was to repli­cate her friend Ari­anna Huff­in­g­ton’s suc­cess with the Huff­in­g­ton Post. Gone was the os­ten­ta­tious spend­ing — this launch party took place in a ham­burger restau­rant and the food ran out just af­ter eight o’clock.

Still, Brown’s lack of in­ter­net ex­pe­ri­ence be­gan to show. She had to be moved from a Rolodex to a Black­berry. Daily story sched­ules were printed off and hand-de­liv­ered rather than emailed. Brown, with her love of meaty, nar­ra­tive-based, prop­erly re­searched jour­nal­ism, seemed to fun­da­men­tally mis­un­der­stand the bur­geon­ing click-bait cul­ture of the in­ter­net. Then came the Newsweek col­lab­o­ra­tion, News Beast. Brown’s back­ers took over the fail­ing print pub­li­ca­tion, with Tina at the helm of the two. The new ven­ture was a dis­as­ter. Brown seemed to have lost her touch. There was an ill-judged cover of Diana, put be­side a cur­rent pic­ture of Kate Middleton and ar­ti­fi­cially aged. Zom­bie Diana, staff called it.

“We all knew go­ing in she had this rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing ob­nox­ious and dif­fi­cult to work with, but that she’s bril­liant like Steve Jobs,” re­called one Newsweek ed­i­tor in a Politico Mag­a­zine pro­file. “What we re­alised was that she wasn’t bril­liant. She was ac­tu­ally pretty bad.” Money and time were spent on pieces that were then killed. She was ob­ses­sive over de­tails — a shoot in which Char­lie Sheen was set on fire, cost­ing $20,000, never made it to the cover. “She made The Devil Wears Prada look sane,” re­called a col­league.

Tina her­self ad­mit­ted to av­er­ag­ing four hours’ sleep a night and tak­ing her Black­berry into the shower with her. The com­bined pub­li­ca­tions were now los­ing ap­prox­i­mately £35m a year. Things came to a head on what be­came known as Bloody Mon­day, when nu­mer­ous staff re­signed or were fired.

Like any great me­dia per­son­al­ity, Brown is a savvy brand cre­ator, most par­tic­u­larly in the case of her own brand. Since the ig­no­min­ious fail­ure of this last ed­i­tor­ship, she has rein­vented her­self as a fem­i­nist event man­ager, with her Women in the World sum­mits, now in their eighth year. Guests have in­cluded Hil­lary Clin­ton, Scar­lett Jo­hans­son, Diane von Fursten­berg and Ari­anna Huff­in­g­ton.

In keep­ing with a life­time’s habit of be­ing ahead of the pack in terms of the zeit­geist, Brown was an early adopter of the woman’s move­ment which, while noth­ing new, in its cur­rent in­car­na­tion is now hav­ing a ma­jor mo­ment amongst the kinds of peo­ple who would have pre­vi­ously peo­pled the pages of her mag­a­zines, not to men­tion for women at large in Amer­ica. It’s not a mag­a­zine, but she says she ap­proaches its con­tent like she would have one of her pub­li­ca­tions. It seems Brown, one of the last great print ed­i­tors, has fi­nally, truly moved on.

WRITE STUFF: Cel­e­brated mag­a­zine ed­i­tor Tina Brown and (below) with hus­band Harold Evans af­ter she re­ceived her CBE

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