‘As a study in hubris, this knows no equal’
IN the 1980s, that most meretricious and malodorous of decades, the age of Aids and outrageous consumption, when I visited New York on a regular basis, the gap between the haves and havenots was as chasmic as the city’s vertiginous caverns. Crossing Manhattan in the early morning, on my way to board the Jitney – a luxury coach that conveyed the relatively rich to the tony Hamptons – there were few doorways not claimed by the homeless. Once, I saw an elderly woman who had bedded down for the night in a supermarket trolley, her emaciated body insulated against the Arctic blast with layers of sodden newsprint.
Those who had the wherewithal were fleeing the sprawl that never sleeps, fearful that the poor would eventually act collectively and rise up against them and take terrible revenge for the situation in which they found themselves. A phrase I heard often was “white flight”, the whites being those whose wealth and inherited privilege kept them at a safe distance from their less fortunate fellow human beings. If nothing else, Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel, The Bonfire Of The Vanities, was an accurate portrayal of a culture on the cusp of crumbling, like Rome before it was sacked by the Vandals and Goths.
Tina Brown arrived in New York from London in 1983 “brimming”, as she confessed to her diary, “with fear and insecurity”. She was 30 and basking in the media spotlight after turning the moribund Tatler into a must-read magazine for yahs and wannabe yahs. She was blonde, blandly goodlooking, smart, feisty and adept at making men both young and old turn to goo in her glow (among her admirers were Martin Amis and Auberon Waugh). Now, she was married to Harold Evans, the legendary editor of the Sunday Times, who was old enough to be her grandfather. A self-styled “magazine romantic”, Brown had been bidden to New York to help revive the fortunes of Vanity Fair, which after a relaunch in 1982 was on a downward spiral. Not blessed with a surfeit of modesty, she was eager to show her masters at Conde Nast where they were all going wrong. Initially employed as a consultant, she was really a cuckoo who spent her first months in Midtown undermining the incumbent editor and laying the groundwork for her putsch. Eventually, in 1984, she got what she wanted, control of the venerable glossy.
What she did next is described in self-laudatory detail in The Vanity Fair Diaries. As a study in hubris, it knows no equal, with the possible exception of Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography. Its front cover has a quote from Meryl Streep – “A mile-a-minute memoir ...WOWZA” – while on the back the movie star is joined by Simon Schama and Stephen Fry, who even by their own exacting standards take oleaginousness to a hitherto unreachable level. Inside, Brown, with the breathlessness of a woman whose every hour in the day is spent meeting and greeting, plotting and machinating, spares her readers nothing. It is all rather de trop, one mind-numbing party following another, as the rookie attempts to take Manhattan from its neurotic, narcissistic, parochial elite. For Brown, this may have been the best of times, but for those of us who were not witness to yet another schmoozing and bitching fest it all feels so pathetically irrelevant, avaricious and vacuous. In London, Brown recounts, she and saintly Harry rarely talked about money. In New York, they do nothing but count their shekels like swag, in an effort to buy a summer pad in the Hamptons or an apartment in the city big enough to host dinners which you’d need to be a flea short of a wall to want to attend. Vanity Fair was one of many titles owned by Si Newhouse. Others included Vogue and the New Yorker, which in time Brown would edit and ruin and turn into a newsy, upmarket Vanity Fair. Many of the names mentioned by her will be unfamiliar to readers this side of the pond. Donald Trump, then merely a mouth with a property portfolio, makes a few cameo appearances. “You know what?” he shouted across a table to her. “Went to the Met last night. Ring Cycle. Placido Domingo. Five hours. Dinner started at 12. Beat that, I said to Ivana [his then wife], what, are you crazy? Never again.” Another oaf Brown encountered on the way up was Boris Johnson, “a young fogey with a thatch of blond hair and
a plummy voice”. True to type, Johnson – our very own Trump – stitched her up by revealing details of a private dinner they had had to his girlfriend at The Telegraph, for which she labels him an “epic s***” who she hopes will end “badly”.
On that, I suppose, we can agree. What is less acceptable is Brown’s own sense of superiority and certainty in her own ability. Sure, she turned Vanity Fair around and into profit. She can write well but no better than many acid-veined hacks. But as a diarist she is no Harold Nicholson or Alan Clark, let alone Adrian Mole or Bridget Jones. I suspect her book’s index will be read more than its content. There was a time, not long into her tenure as editor, when Newhouse, an enigmatic cove, might have given her the heave. What saved her bacon was a photo shoot by “the excitable Scottish photographer with toilet brush hair” Harry Benson, who put on a tape of Sinatra and encouraged Ronnie and Nancy Reagan to dance to it. “A kiss!” shouted Benson. “Mr President, give your wife a kiss!” Reagan, ever obliging, did as he was told and Brown had her scoop and, consequently, a hike in sales. What a lucky lady she is.
Tina Brown arrived in New York in 1983 to turn around the fortunes of Vanity Fair