To open up Tina Brown’s The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983 – 1992 and peruse any of its 416 pages is like having a passport to a bygone era in another country. It is surreal. It is also captivating, literate, enlivening, galling, intriguing, and endlessly observant about the works and days of a trailblazing editor, who made a legend of herself as she put her stamp on a succession of high-profile major magazines. This was at a time when such magazines were newsstand icons and subscription must-haves.
Englishwoman Tina Brown is a bold, intelligent, savvy, and visionary person whose unique career trajectory led her to the editor-in-chief positions of London’s Tatler and then America’s Vanity Fair. (And later, The New Yorker.)
She turned 30 in 1983, after arriving in America and leaving behind her Oxford-and-Fleet Street past. Mission impossible was to try to rescue what was then a flopping attempt by publishing conglomerate Conde Nast to revive Vanity Fair as a cutting-edge, contemporary magazine.
After decades in mothballs, Vanity Fair magazine had been brought back in 1983 with prodigious effort and little to show for it. The top editors who preceded Tina Brown had crafted what the masses decided was dull, cerebral, and predictable.
Big money was at stake. Reputations were on the line – especially that of mega-rich publisher Si Newhouse. In one of her Vanity Fair Diaries earliest entries, he is sized up by Tina Brown in her educated-but-pugnacious style: “Conde Nast is like ancient Rome with all the politics and secrets, everything revolving around Si as Emperor Augustus.” It was soon thereafter that Brown stepped in as the new editor-in-chief.
She had already proved back in England with Tatler that she could reconfigure a sagging magazine and revitalize it with new blood, new ideas, and most of all a new sense of buzzy and eye-catching elements. Newhouse needed just that or the talk on the street was that his newly reincarnated Vanity Fair would be dead by year’s end.
Throughout this entire book—which truly is a Time Capsule of an epoch that now is mysteriously remote, although not that long ago—Tina Brown captures again and again the energies and initiatives that caused a turnaround she commandeered, resulting in Vanity Fair becoming the ultimate chronicler of the gaudy 1980s.
As such, we have in these Vanity Fair Diaries an insider’s up-close-and-personal recapitulation of the Reagan Era; the last pre-Internet age of print-based and paper-oriented reading habits; and most of all the creation of America’s celebrity ethos.
Again, it’s really not that long ago in calendar time – most readers of the book or this review will likely have memories of the cheesy 1980s. And yet, in a sad, eerie way, this volume may as well be recapping the 1880s. Today’s utterly text-crazed, Internet-centered, Instagram-glutted, Linked-In world of Pinterest-and-Snapchat addicts make a magazine like Vanity Fair—past or present—seem strangely outmoded.
Nonetheless, as a chronicle of one magazine’s resuscitation at a time when no one had yet heard of Facebook, and MTV was still considered the new kid on the block, this book matters. Its best feature is Tina Brown’s smart, insightful writing ability.
To say the least, her honesty is a tonic – here are two brief, telling quotations:
“I am here in NYC at last, brimming with fear and insecurity . . .”
“As soon as I woke up I rushed to the newsstand on the corner to look for the April issue of Vanity Fair. The second edition is even more baffling than the first one I saw in London in February. The cover is some incomprehensible tin-man graphic with no cover lines that will surely tank on the newsstand.”
Ponder that. Those lines were written on Sunday, April 10, 1983. Only 34 years ago.
But there’s not even a hint of waking to check an iPhone, iPad, or a laptop. Was there a computer in her hotel room? Or in the hotel lobby? Not at all. Rushing to a public newsstand was the one immediate way to scoop the latest issue of a monthly magazine. Holding that periodical manually was status quo. Palpable. Tactile. That’s the way it was. Desktops were infiltrating offices, not lives – yet.
But even then, she found the pace of American life to be frantic: “Everyone comes at you with such velocity here,” she noted. Still, those years seem bucolic and relaxed, compared to the manic tempo of 2017’s relentless 24/7 news blasts and chronic updates every other second. Thus, sinking into this book is akin to time-traveling.
Perhaps most startling is not just that Tina Brown gradually managed to take Vanity Fair back to the top of the heap but that she did so while also balancing her long-distance marriage and giving birth to two children. Her diaries touch on all that, and the agonies of never being able to find enough time for everyone and everything (editing, office politics, family, fundraising, and more) are duly noted in her pages.
However, the heart of the book remains her professional life. Some 1984 highlights:
“Deadline upon us. Friday evening we put the last-minute headlines and blurbs on before the April issue closes. Tracy and I sat in my office and banged out blurbs on the Vanities section . . .”
“Now am in the nerve-racking limbo between going to press and coming out mid-March and already the crash of the May issue without knowing how the revamp will be received and being able to adjust mistakes. We all wait nervously for reaction.”
“Still waiting for the April issue. America is so enormous it takes a week for the trucks to rumble across the country distributing it. At night I sometimes think of them speeding along ribbons of open highway with all our energy and hopes on the back. I had a great evening with Annie Leibovitz . . . “
“Reagan won reelection. Landslide and no surprise. It’s a TV era and Mondale had zero performance skills. Most of Reagan’s voters would probably be better off under a President Mondale, but that didn’t matter. Social energy even more ramped up by Reagan reelection. The White House calls the shots of what’s in and what’s out . . . We are seeing the invasion of DC by California and Park Avenue, the fusion of Women’s Wear Daily values with Washington Post power watching, a cast of characters who see everything through the lens of Hollywood and Le Cirque. It’s perfect fodder for a magazine called Vanity Fair.”
It was also a perfect recipe for disaster. In retrospect, Tina Brown’s diaries seem clairvoyant as she records, time after time, an event or a person or a social episode and its media coverage that spotlights the merging of America’s capital city with all things Hollywood. As the 1980s transitioned into the early 1990s, everything from campaign speeches to political TV-spots were affected in every way by increasingly shorter attention spans, MTV-style editing, the calculated culture of “spin” and most of all the rise and expansion of cable television. Talk radio was entering the fray.
As her Vanity Fair Diaries conclude with an entry made in December 1991, there is one anecdote more than any other illustrating the shape of things to come. That was the year when Barbra Streisand’s film adaptation of Pat Conroy’s novel The Prince of Tides had its December opening. And on December 10, 1991, Tina Brown wrote:
“Marie Brenner called to tell me an extraordinary incident that took place last night at NYC Parks black-tie gala at Tavern on the Green after the opening of the Streisand movie The Prince of Tides. She was sitting demurely in her black dinner suit . . . when she felt something cold and wet running down her back. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw waiters with trays of wine moving around and assumed one of them had spilled the vino. Unwilling to embarrass the waiter, she didn’t turn around. Until the other guests at the table started pointing and yelping, ‘Oh my God! Look what he just did! ‘ The ‘he’ in question was Donald Trump! [Marie] saw his familiar Elvis coif making off across the Crystal Room. The sneaky, petulant infant was clearly still stewing about her takedown in VF over a year ago and had taken a glass of wine from the tray and emptied it down her back! What a coward! He couldn’t even confront her to her face! Marie was as outraged as she was incredulous, but chose to ignore it. Everyone knows he’s going broke, and he spent most of the evening canoodling with his pouty blow-up doll, Marla Maples.”
Well. Ponder that.
Barney Rosset. Remember the name? As a publisher, he was a maverick and renegade, who battled the status quo of American literature and film by challenging obscenity laws in conservative courts. Rosset widened the consciousness of the straight-laced Puritan culture, moving readers and viewers into the outer realms of sexual expression and cultural mischief.
Those who loved literature and avant-garde film mourned greatly when Rosset died in 2012 after a double-heart-valve replacement. For a writer, I count Barney Rosset and his groundbreaking Grove Press to be a part of my creative foundation, skirting the traditional boundaries of fiction and non-fiction. He made a lasting impression on me.
Two recent books about the outlaw publisher, Rosset, have come on line. His memoir, Rosset: My Life in Publishing and How I Fought Censorship and Michael Rosenthal’s Barney: Grove Press and Barney Rosset – America’s Maverick Publisher and His Battle Against Censorship, provides a multi-faceted view of the man who “was unquestionably the most daring and arguably the most significant American book publishers of the Twentieth Century.”
For my money, I trust the words of Rosset in his memoir. But, the publisher started My Life in Publishing in 1987, in the confused lull of two years after the wealthy Ann Getty assumed control of Grove Press. The feisty Getty fired Rosset for being reckless with his editorial choices. In his late 60s, he recorded large sections of the manuscript, writing and re-writing portions of it, hiring staffers to research the facts of his life.
Things took a turn for the worse when Rosset’s agent sold the manuscript to Algonquin Press in 2007 and the new publishing house enlisted celebrated novelist Brad Morrow to whip the project into shape. The former publisher felt his reputation had suffered from the opening of a new documentary, Obscene, released that year, depicting him as a demented pornographer rather than a noble warrior against censorship.
Rosset fell into bad health and died in 2012 before he could get control of his memoir. His estate gave his papers to the rare books and archives at Columbia University. Rosset’s manuscript was snatched from Algonquin and presented to OR books. OR Books retained Christopher O’Brien, a freelance editor, to augment the project with additional information from the Columbia archives.
Needless to say, one of the staffers who worked with Rosset, complained the final OR book did not resemble the book of his illustrious life. “I worked on the book at different times,” he told an interviewer. “For ten years. The book Barney envisioned was nothing like it is.”
If there are problems with the final OR product, then the Arcade book by Michael Rosenthal, the former Campbell Professor in the Humanities at Columbia, where he taught for almost four decades, presents the flawed, larger-than-life man behind the crusader myth.
Of Rosset, Rosenthal writes in the introduction: “A man with a joyous, fully-fleshed sense of his own importance, he believed his mission as a publisher was to serve as “protector and guardian” of the creative spirit, dedicated to opposing anything that might restrict the liberty of writers.”
Born in 1922 in Chicago, Rosset was the only child of his family. His father was a wealthy banker, who lavished attention on him. He attended the progressive Francis Parker School, where his rebellious spirit bloomed. It is said in high school that he published a mimeographed journal, “The Anti-Everything,” showing a streak of ornery behavior already existed. Later, he joined the ranks of the left-wing American Student Union.
With a restless mind, Rosset studied at four colleges, including Swarthmore and UCLA, finally earning a degree at New York’s New School for Social Research in 1952. However, he was a freshman in 1940 when he acquired a banned copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, which American censors saw as taboo and banished it from national bookshelves. Rosset’s copy had been smuggled in from Paris, a book that had been published since 1934.
“The sex didn’t really get me,” Rosset later said. “What really got me was the anti-American feeling that Miller had. He was not happy living in this country, and he was extremely endowed with the ability to say why.”
In the fall of 1942, Rosset joined the ranks of the army infantry, much to the relief of his father. He attempted to be a good soldier but found it difficult to submit to the military discipline. He transferred to the Army Signal Corps as an officer in a company stationed in China.
Following the war, Rosset moved to New York City where he met his first wife, Joan Mitchell, a painter. It was Mitchell who provided him with the entry to the Greenwich Village art scene. In 1951, a friend of Mitchell told Rosset about Grove Press, a small company that published several books, including Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man. He purchased it for $3,000, from businessmen John Bascomb and Robert Phelps. They had exhausted their funds and stopped publishing.
In his first celebrated victories, Rosset fought vigorously to publish an unexpurgated version of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and battled for the right to publish Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in the courts.
In the foreword of Rosset’s book My Life In Publishing, he wrote about the crusade to promote freedom of expression: “Perhaps to the mainstream that’s all there was to D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover – just fuck, fuck, fuck. I saw the publication of Lawrence’s masterwork somewhat differently – as a major victory against ignorance and censorship.”
According to Rosset, the evolution of Grove Press was sluggish at first but gained speed by the hiring in 1959 of Richard Seaver, a former staffer for the publisher George Braziller. In the twelve years on the job, Seaver worked on manuscripts of many major European writers including Alain Robbe-Grillet, Eugene Ionesco, Marguerite Duras, and the Marquis de Sade.
Of special interest, one book, The Autography of Malcolm X, was the effort of Harry Braverman, another Grove Press editor. It was a major book coup published by the publisher in 1965. “We heard Malcolm was shot over the radio,” Rosset remembered, thinking about how much pleasure he’d got from reading Richard Wright. “The next day we learned that Doubleday had his autobiography under contract, but didn’t want to publish it. Doubleday said he was afraid for his employees.”
Rosset convinced the agent to offer the book, then signed it up, and got Alex Haley to put the final seasonings on the manuscript. The book was a bestseller upon publication. When asked by a young black teen about whether Malcolm’s book was the most important book ever published, Rosset replied, “You’re asking me to choose between my children. I can’t.”
Not only did Rosset publish Malcolm X’s memoirs, he published Frantz Fanon, a native of Martinique, a psychiatrist who fought in the Free French Army and later wrote two books proposing an end to colonialism, The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks. Rosset also introduced readers to groundbreaking works by Samuel Beckett, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Chester Himes, Tom Stoppard, Kenzaburo Oe, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Jean Genet. Censors howled at Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in 1961 but were disappointed at his publishing Victorian porn, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, John Rechy’s City of Night, and Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. Legal battles accompanied several of his books.
Rosset was a rabble-rouser. His publication of Che Guevara’s works and endorsement of Fidel Castro’s regime compelled a plot by nine Cuban anti-Castro reserve officers to fire a rocket-propelled grenade into the second-floor window of Grove Press. The publisher took it in stride.
Constantly sued, Rosset got death threats. He was proud of the furor caused by his books and his legal push to distribute the sexually-frank Swedish film, “I Am Curious (Yellow). He paid no attention to the 1969 Life Magazine article about him, “The Old Smut Peddler,” and a Saturday Evening Post ran a cover of him climbing out of a sewer.
In 1957, Rosset started a literary journal, Evergreen Review, which featured many of the heroes of the counterculture such as the Beats, Ginsberg, Beckett, Mailer, Burroughs, Kenneth Tynan, Nat Hentoff, June Jordan, Bobby Seale, Charles Bukowski, and Pauline Reage. The publication, originally a quarterly, soon became a monthly but ceased publishing in 1973.
With bad debt, mediocre investments, and staff upheaval, Rosset sold Grove Press in 1985 to Ann Getty, the oil heiress, and George Weidenfeld, a British publisher. He convinced them to a deal that would let him still call the shots. But the owners fired him a year later, citing his recklessness. He sued but the matter was settled out of court.
Following his departure to Grove, Rosset published Evergreen Review online and launched a line of suppressed 19th Century erotic book and newer titles. The backlist of Grove Press was purchased by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1993. The imprint is currently Grove/Atlantic.
Included in Rosset’s book are excerpts from the files of FBI, who kept a close surveillance on the publisher, who printed books and writings from the resistance to the Vietnam War, Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, U.S. involvement in South American politics, Kim Philby, and the CIA. In fact, he sued the CIA for release of all information involving Rosset and the Grove Press.
There is some debate as to who wrote Rosset’s book and that his true story has not been served in these pages. Still, there is enough of Rosset in his so-called memoir to qualify as a first down payment in solving the mystery of the man who created Grove Press.
With the second book, Rosenthal dishes on Rosset’s erratic work habits, his sexual escapades in wedlock and out, his business miscues, his cultural and political campaign as moral warrior. His anecdotes are plentiful and sometimes damning. Hopefully, this will not be the only book focusing on the complex, complicated life of Barney Rosset.
The world didn’t ignore Rosset’s achievements. He was awarded the French title, Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1999. In 2008, he received the lifetime achievement Literarian Award from the National Book Foundation.
Let Barney Rosset have the last say about Grove Press. “Was Grove controversial? The word is too pale for the tempests at Grove, whether lawsuits, death-threats, grenade attacks by Cubans or occupation of the premises by enraged feminists. Say rather that it was a valve for pressurized cultural energies, a breach in the dam of American Puritanism – a whiplashing live cable of Zeitgeist.”
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