‘As a study in hubris, this knows no equal’

Sunday Herald Life - - NEWS - Re­view by Alan Tay­lor

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.

Pho­to­graph: Brigitte La­combe

Tina Brown ar­rived in New York in 1983 to turn around the for­tunes of Van­ity Fair

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