FAIRY TALE OF NEW YORK
She’s the Brit who became one of America’s most successful magazine editors. Media queen Tina Brown shares the secrets of her success and urges us all to embrace new challenges
Magazine editor Tina Brown’s success story
Tina Brown is describing her New York apartment. ‘We live in a triplex – it’s a three-floor apartment, which is a bit like being in a house inside an apartment. We have a garden, which is a lovely and unusual thing. Now the children have moved out, we may downsize. I don’t need six bedrooms.’
I’m not a real-estate expert, but it sounds an impressive place to call home. But then I should hardly be surprised. Tina Brown is, after all, the British woman who took Manhattan. She arrived in 1984 to take over the editorship of Vanity Fair. At the time, she was 30 and had already transformed the fortunes of British society magazine Tatler.
Back then, I was a student journalist and fascinated by her glamorous rise. Determined to secure an interview for my university paper, I bombarded her office for weeks. I didn’t get past a very polite PA who constantly told me she was in meetings.
It felt like a snub at the time. But it turns out that Tina had other, more pressing, priorities, as I found out when I read her new book, The Vanity Fair Diaries, based on the journals she kept at the time.
Initially, her greatest challenge was to convince her bosses to keep the title open. ‘It was dying. I was the third editor in 10 months,’ she says. ‘It really was on its last gasp, which is, in some ways, the best way to be because where could it go but up? If I had failed, nobody would have said it was my fault.’
Nobody expected it to succeed – except Tina. She transformed the content into an irresistible mix of celebrity and glamorous, newsy exclusives. She was the first person to write about the breakdown of Princess Diana’s marriage. And who could forget the glorious cover image of a naked, pregnant Demi Moore, taken by Annie Leibovitz? The circulation climbed from 200,000 to 1.2 million while she was editor.
Now 64, she found it a joy to revisit that golden period of her life for the book. ‘When I delved into my old diaries, it really did transport me back. It was fun to be the me of then,’ she says. ‘I was completely driven. I dived into this wildly social black-tie New York in the Reagan era. What stuns me when I look back is how social that period was. It was a black-tie dinner every night. People had dinner parties in their homes in black ties.’
Part of Tina’s success was tied in with her
skills as a networker. She is famous for the parties she throws along with her journalist husband, Sir Harry Evans. ‘I have always loved giving parties and to get everyone in, I hire a moving van, stick the furniture in, and it waits and then comes back when the guests have gone.’
So, 33 years after I first asked for an interview, we finally meet at Cliveden Literary Festival. She speaks with a slight transatlantic twang, a reminder that America has been her home for three decades. In 2005, she became an American citizen.
It’s clear she thrives on the can-do attitude of New York. She grew up in Little Marlow and was expelled from three schools for staging various rebellions, before going on to Oxford University, where she first made a name for herself. Aged 22, she met Harry, then 47 and editor of The
Sunday Times. He was married at the time, but they ended up moving to America together, marrying and having two children.
‘We’re real soulmates,’ she says. ‘We are joined by a passionate love of journalism, ideas, writing.’
She talks proudly of their children. ‘My daughter works at Vice Media [a website]. My son has Asperger’s and he has done very well. He works in a small NGO, lives on his own and goes to work and has a very good life.’
Sir Harry is now 89, but the age difference doesn’t trouble her. ‘He is so vibrant, I still say to Harry to slow down because he is walking so fast ahead of me. We were at a dinner a year or two ago, and in his usual habit, he speeds out, taking four steps at a time. I was trying to catch up with him in my long dress and heels and I went wham, fell over on the way out. I said to him, “It’s because of you – you shoot out so fast!’”
In her book, she writes about not being able to resist a new opportunity, and her career has been remarkable for carving out new challenges. After Vanity Fair, she had further success editing The New Yorker before being lured away to take charge of
Talk magazine. The man who convinced her to take the plunge was the now-disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein.
Tina has terrible memories of working for him. ‘It was disastrously difficult. It was a huge mistake to give up The New Yorker, but I did it for good reasons. I’d been there for seven years and I was frustrated by a desire to turn a magazine into something more than a magazine. I wanted it to be a TV show. Harvey could see that. It was the right idea but he was the wrong partner because of the volcanic temperament.’
But Tina is not one to waste time on regrets, saying it’s important to look for new challenges, and midlife is a good time to embrace change. ‘New acts are refreshing. It is a heady moment where your kids are finally out of the house. Much as I miss my kids, there is a real sense of, “Wow, this is me time.” You can travel, you can decide where you are going to put your resources. Women have a lot of skills at the end of raising families, they have all those executive skills. I think it is important to ask yourself, “What do I get the most genuine satisfaction out of? What are my skills? What can I do?” Then go after something you really want.’
Her energies are focused on Women In The World, live events that highlight the global advancement of women and girls. She launched it in New York in 2010 with Meryl Streep and events have been held all over the world, including in the UK.
Among those who regularly appear at the events is her friend Hillary Clinton, and she gives an insight into the Clinton marriage. ‘She and Bill have an amazing relationship. You only have to see them together to see it is a real love affair. They are soulmates, they talk four times a day. They have so much in common, there is so much to laugh [about] and share, and they do. However, he was a womaniser. That is the thing she has had to make her peace with.
‘I think what you make your peace with in a marriage is entirely your business. But there are many people who will never forgive her for making peace with that.’
Our time is up and Tina is off to prepare for a talk on The Vanity Fair Diaries. She is a busy woman with a packed schedule.
The book has been optioned for TV and scripts are being worked on. So who would she like to play her? ‘I don’t mind, as long as they have a sense of humour. That is what has carried me through.’ But I think it is more about her incredible energy. I like to think of her organising her next cocktail party, and arranging for the van to drive her furniture around Manhattan while she networks and entertains.
◆ The Vanity Fair Diaries by Tina Brown is available now
‘I was completely driven. I dived into this wildly social black-tie New York’
Tina Brown: ‘New acts are refreshing. Go after something you really want’