Tina Brown is the female version of a big swinging dick. I used to want to be just like her.
But I just read her memoir, the Vanity Fair Diaries, an edited version of diaries she kept in the 1980s and 1990s when she was editor of the glossy magazine Vanity Fair, and now I am deeply grateful I am nothing like her and never will be.
This is not just because I developed a vicarious case of social PTSD just reading about her frantic life, a marathon of frigid lunches at the Four Seasons with nasty men and dreary dinners, making small talk with dug-ups and pooh-bahs. Although her obsession with celebrities and rich people did make me feel queasy. So many mean, ghastly, snobby people.
At a few decades' remove, her relentless drive to create a world that is perfect, hot and sexy seems less like glamorous fun and more like doing the bidding of a ruthless chore-issuing tyrant whom you can never escape — because the despot is inside you.
Brown was close to Harvey Weinstein and later started the magazine, Talk, with him as her partner. That she gets through the book without mentioning him (at least by my reckoning) seems to make her seem more complicit, not less. Her memoir rather confirms the theory, espoused by scholar Lee Smith, that Weinstein, whose abuse was an open secret for years, could only be brought down now, not earlier, because the media industry that once protected him had collapsed.
Magazines like Vanity Fair that used to publish the stories the film industry optioned are broke because Facebook and Google have swallowed all the digital advertising and there are hardly any journalists left; only bloggers scrounging for the crumbs from Silicon Valley. Who's going to make a movie out of any of this? What does anyone in today's media ecosystem owe Harvey Weinstein? Nothing. Let's get him!
In this context, Tina Brown comes across as a tragic Norma Desmond has-been, writing about people no one remembers, desperate to wring some level of history-making significance out of mostly silly stories about forgotten starlets who are now probably running sandwich shops in Idaho.
Brown's dismissive attitude to other women doesn't help. A former staffer at the New Yorker recalls an editorial meeting when Brown "made all the men laugh" by quipping about a senior editor. "Oh you mean the fat, homely, girl with glasses?" Oh boy.
On another occasion Brown recalls: "A reporter asked me which famous woman was my role model, a question that always leaves me stumped. I know it's the wrong feminist answer, but most of my role models have been men." She can't think of a single woman to admire, although she does recall Donald Trump has a "crassness I like." It is fair to say, she doesn't give many "right feminist answers" in this book.
And without role models, it's not surprising Brown struggles when she has two children while trying to keep her career at full-bore. She might be a woman who has Rupert Murdoch on speed dial, but when it comes to motherhood, she hasn't a clue.
I found myself shouting at the book: "He's got autism!" for pages and pages while she berates her son's nannies for failing to teach him to "reach his milestones". Just for the record, you can't make a baby crawl in the style you prefer. I tried to feel for her, mother to mother, but it was hard, given her alarming lack of self-awareness. "Nanny keeps him too inert. Instead of moving and exercising his limbs. He is behind on his motor skills and still isn't crawling." (It wasn't Juanita's fault.)
I know how hard it is to leave your children but I can't imagine haring off to the other side of the world because the fuchsia-uplights at your upcoming party might not be flattering enough. Or treating his nanny like this: "I had to fire Juanita tonight. Things got very irritable because she gave G a cold, even though I told her not to come in sick." (The nanny says Brown gave him the cold, and really, who could know?)
I guess what I wonder is: was it all worth it?
In the end Tina Brown's son was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum (although she describes him as having Asperger syndrome, which does not exist any longer). I wonder how comforting her old Editor of the Year awards are now? And, really, what was it all for? Even Brown admitted that when she paused to take a breath she related to the Phillip Larkin quote: "All the running is leading every day to a lesser life."
Tina Brown, you were one of the role models I admired. But no more. In a lot of ways, what an awful existence. I guess if as women we are going to sacrifice our attachment to our children to have a career, that trade-off is easier to live with if you choose to give up time with them to pursue something that later you can say is true, beautiful and good. Rather than, say, taking pictures of Gwyneth Paltrow in S&M gear to please Harvey Weinstein.