In September 1983, a 29-year-old Tina Brown waits to find out whether she will be made editor of Vanity Fair and the suspense is getting to her. She goes to her doctor wanting sleeping pills. "I told him about all my mixed-up longings," she writes in her book, just out, The Vanity Fair Diaries.
"Here's my diagnosis," the doctor replies: "Buy a large house in the country, have a couple of babies and just accept you are complicated."
She takes the prescription, but not the advice. Brown, now considered an editor of legendary status, responsible for among many things, impressively growing readerships while at the head of Vanity Fair (1983-1992) and The New Yorker (1992-1998), says she would never have been happy had she taken the doctor's advice.
Remember Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair in the early 90s wearing zip, exposing her very pregnant belly? That was Brown's doing.
She says, on the phone from New York, that it was one of many achievements at the magazine she is proud of. "That was a huge liberation for women who were pregnant, to be able to show their pregnant selves with jubilance and with a great deal of pride. It's a wonderful thing I think we did with that cover."
seems to follow the formula of fronting its issues with sexy people. Think Joan Collins at her most glamorous on the front cover in 1984 with the headline SHE RHYMES WITH RICH. That was Brown's doing. Think Daryl Hannah on the cover in 1983 wearing a black mask, a tight red dress, holding two Oscars and the headline BLONDE AMBITION. That was Brown's first cover as editor.
Sex sells and a mag like Vanity Fair has played a hand in endorsing celebrity culture despite being a smart person's read inside. It's an interesting paradox that Brown admits to openly in her book: "We turn intellectuals into movie stars and movie stars into intellectuals and the same is true of the audience. Brainy people in our pages seem more glamorous and movie people seem more substantive."
It's a different game today, she says. She still believes long-form journalism has a place, saying people are always going to want stories, but it now comes to us in various forms. "The more fragmented life is, the more people want to knit themselves together with narrative. I think there is a reason why TV drama is so popular, the 10-part series is a narrative that knits together all the fragments of the brain, podcasts too are just long-form discussion, I think long-form narrative is a refuge."
Gone are the days of the movie stars that in her day reliably posed on the cover, guaranteeing sales. Back then, she says, there was a small pool of actors who got really famous and often these days, Oscar-nominated films will feature actors whose names we do not recognise. She doesn't think she would put a Kardashian on the cover if she were editor today, but she sees a story there in their impact on American culture and the family as a business entity. That's what she's good at, seeing the stories.
Though the book outlines shoulder rubbings with pretty much every single who's-who of that time, Brown loathed the endless lunches and black-tie events. Her strength was not schmoozing, but "knowing how to motivate people, how to pick people, I have always been confident that I know talent," she says, recalling the brilliant long-form essay on depression by the writer William Styron (Sophie's Choice), commissioned after she heard him speak at a dinner in 1989. She says the piece, Darkness Visible, "had tremendous impact. It opened up a whole national debate about depression and people talking about depression in ways they hadn't before because they felt ashamed".
Profiles written by Alex Shoumatoff on the gorilla expert Dian Fossey who was murdered in Rwanda and the murder of the activist Chico Mendes, generated interest in what was going on in the Amazon rainforest.
A self-described workaholic, Brown gave birth to her two children during those years at Vanity Fair and writes frequently of the juggle between motherhood and her staggeringly demanding job. "All the way through my motherhood I used to ask people how do you do it, expecting there would be some magical bullet answer," she says when asked to give advice to working mothers.
"This is the way you do it: you just make it up as you go along, every woman has to do her own improvising. Maternity care differs from place to place and ultimately there is no easy way, you're still dead meat if your babysitter comes down with flu. Every working mother has great guilt but at the same time, I feel in the end I was able to do both. It was hard, I had a lot of help, but even so, it was difficult."
For what appears to be a career full of excellent decisions, Brown hit a low in 1998, leaving The New Yorker to partner up with Harvey Weinstein and start a magazine called Talk. "It was not a happy partnership," she says. "He was such a bully, and he was extremely undermining to one's confidence because he was such a bully. When he's angry as he always is, it's scary, so it was not a happy time for me."
Now 64, Brown says she probably has another book in her. In 2007, she wrote The Diana Chronicles, she writes columns, appears on talk shows. She recently celebrated Thanksgiving at home with her husband of 36 years, Harold Evans, also a journalist ("share a passionate interest and share a sense of humour," she says of the secret to a long marriage), and her son and daughter.
Isabel, 27, loves the book, says Brown. Her son, George, 31, who has Asperger's, has yet to read it. "My son said, do you mind if I read Hillary Clinton's book first?" She says she laughed and told him he was allowed.