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.
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