Tina Brown, past editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker and author of “The Diana Chronicles,” grew up in Little Marlow, England, in Buckinghamshire, on the outskirts of London. In 2005 she became a U.S. citizen, but has lived here for 25 years. That mix of American and British culture, colonial rebelliousness and upper-crust elitism, may in fact be the engine that has propelled Brown to her own brand of stardom.
Maybe it was her coming of age in the 1960s or maybe it had to do with going to three “posh English boarding schools where everything is very conservative,” says Brown in a telephone interview, but something nourished her urge to challenge the status quo from early on. “I was always skeptical of authority,” says Brown, “and that was my major credential as a journalist later.”
Calling herself a rebel who was always getting into trouble, Brown describes two of the stunts that got her ejected from high school. At one she served as leader and chief instigator of a protest against the fact that girls could only wash their underwear three times a week. In another case she wrote a play for the end-of-school festivities that mocked the school instead of celebrating it. “It was supposed to be patriotic and traditional,” she says, “a feel-good production.”
But, says Brown, her parents always rallied to her side, and despite the bother of moving schools, she ended up at Oxford University, where she studied English literature. She had always gotten good grades in her areas of academic strength, even winning an English prize. “What I didn’t have in good behavior marks,” she remembers, “I did make up for in writing and history.”
At Oxford Brown’s questioning stance found her footing among her like-minded peers. “It was exciting to be surrounded by smart, challenging people,” she says of her time at Oxford. “I had gotten in trouble for having a questioning mind, but that is the thing they celebrate and encourage at Oxford — people who asked questions, who liked to challenge and be challenged.”
At Oxford Brown discovered her love of journalism working on “Isis,” a student magazine focused on culture and politics. She also wrote a play, “Under the Bamboo Tree,” which was performed at the Edinburgh Festival, and in 1973 she won a Sunday Times award for young dramatists. In these endeavors she widened her network of friends and acquaintances, particularly among writers and journalists.
She went out for awhile with author Martin Amis, who was writing for the “New Statesman” under the penname Bruno Holbrooke. According to a June 25, 2007, article in the Guardian this was after meeting him at a literary party and telling him that “Bruno” was a writer she was dying to meet.
When she and Amis broke up, Brown moved to the United States for a few months but then returned to England, where she freelanced for the publication Punch and then got a job at the Sunday Times, where she first met her future husband, Harold Evans, who was the magazine’s editor and 26 years her senior. Evans was eventually knighted in 2004 for his services to journalism, having served as editor of the Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981. After moving to the United States he was editor in chief of the Atlantic Monthly Press, editorial director of U.S. News & World Report, founding editor of Conde Nast Traveler, president of Random House, and vice chairman of New York’s Daily News.
Of course Brown did not come to her wide range of acquaintances entirely on her own. “My father was in the movies, and I always knew actor, producers, and directors,” she says. In fact, her father, George Hambley Brown, was married for a short time to the actress Maureen O’Hara, and her mother, Bettina Kohr Brown, was once a press agent for Laurence Olivier.
But much of Brown’s network came from her own involvements. “Having been an editor you’ve accumulated people you covered, had written about, or had done business with,” says Brown. “You’ve accumulated a Rolodex — unless you’ve offended more people than you’ve befriended.”
At 25 Brown was offered the editorship of the British magazine Tatler, and managed to turn it around, giving some oomph, attitude, and style to the 270-year-old magazine that, true to its name, had covered upper-class society. Brown raised circulation 300 percent. About three years into her editorship, Conde Nast purchased Tatler, a magazine that chief executive Si Newhouse loved, says Brown, “and when Vanity Fair went wrong, he thought he would bring in the kid who managed the magazine he liked in London to see if she could fix the ailing magazine.”
Brown started out as an editorial advisor at Vanity Fair in May, 1983, and was named editor-in-chief on January 1, 1984. At Vanity Fair Brown blithely explains, “I remixed, threw out the existing format, redesigned, and hired a new staff and new photographers — a whole makeover.”
But then she admits to also having had a lucky break. Brown had few connections when she came to New York, but she did know Vanity Fair writer Marie Brenner, who invited her to a dinner party. “She sat me next to a movie producer, who I thought was immensely entertaining,” recalls Brown. “He said his daughter had been murdered and he was going to the trial in Los Angeles.” Brown urged the man, Dominick Dunne, to keep a diary, both to help himself get through the trial and maybe, if it was interesting enough, to use in Vanity Fair.
Dunne’s experience at the trial became an article titled “Justice” in the March, 1984, issue of Vanity Fair, the first edited by Brown. Dunne continues to cover celebrity trials to this day. After eight years with the magazine, Brown became restless and decided to accept Si Newhouse’s invitation to “try to fix the other magazine that needed to be remade,” the New Yorker. Her experience there, she says, was amazing and stretched her in ways that other publications had not. “I loved the fact that it was more intellectually driven,” she says. “It is a great literary magazine, and it was a way to reengage with my love of literary things that I missed when I was at Vanity Fair.”
Many worried about the changes she would make to the New Yorker and perhaps feared Brown’s attitude, as captured in Elizabeth Kolbert’s December, 1993, piece in the New York Times Magazine, in which Kolbert attributes the following quote to Brown: “The 50,000-word piece on zinc — did anyone really read it?” But perhaps a truer representation of Brown’s goals at the New Yorker were expressed in an article in the New York Times in July, 1992: “I love esoteric articles,” said Brown, “but I think they shouldn’t appear with four other esoteric pieces. It’s all about mix.”
Brown did bring a bit more popular culture to the magazine, but she also hired 45 new writers and let a similar number go. “All the writers have been great successes,” she says, noting in particular Malcolm Gladwell, David Remnick, Ken Auletta, James Stewart, and Jeffrey Toobin. She also redesigned the magazine and introduced photography and illustration. Brown is still in touch with many at the New Yorker and is close friends with Hendrik Hertzberg and Adam Gopnick.
She decided to leave the New Yorker in 1998, she says, “because I wanted to try something entrepreneurial and (Hollywood producer) Harvey Weinstein came along.” In the proposed Talk magazine, the idea was to create synergies with other Miramax businesses, for example, Miramax might develop a publishing arm to sell books inspired by magazine articles.
Just two years later, however, in 2001, the magazine died. Brown attributes its failure to the pullout of advertisers after September 11. She adds, “I learned how hard it is to start something from scratch.”
But a June 23, 2007 article in the Guardian suggests otherwise: “Brown was widely seen to have fallen out of step with the times and produced a magazine that was overstated and overstylised, too glossy and too pleased with itself.”
Brown’s next effort was the book “The Diana Chronicles,” published in 2007 and suggested to have come with an advance estimated to be between 500,000 and one million pounds. “I knew her when I was at Tatler magazine,” says Brown. “I wanted to write about the era of the 80s. It was a way to write about England, the monarchy, and media — what I observed while I was at Tatler. It was also a great human story, about how she changed from creature of society to one of celebrity culture.”
In early April, 2008, came announcements that Brown is partnering with Barry Diller of InterActiveCorp to launch her own news aggregator website but Brown’s only comment is “It’s just beginning.”
Asked to weigh the impact of newspapers and websites in the Presidential primary campaign, Brown calls herself a newpaper junkie, but notes, “websites are doing really well, and news has broken on many.”
Brown likens the changes in media in recent years to the Industrial Revolution. “It is being regrouped and reshaped, and it will be another five years before it settles down,” says Brown, predicting some combination of paper and electronic media in the future. “I don’t think electronic media is driving out print completely.”
Brown is also planning to write a book about Bill and Hillary Clinton, but she emphasizes that it is not an official biography. “I haven’t asked for their official blessing,” she says. But she is confident that she will get “very original stuff” in any case from the great people she knows among the Clinton entourage.
In Brown’s opinion, the press has not treated Hillary well during the primary campaign. “She has had an immense amount of negative press and is held to a much higher standard,” Brown says, claiming that the media don’t like Hillary and hardly conceal their dislike. As evidence, she notes that on the night when Hillary won Massachusetts, Chris Matthews said, “Hillary has managed not to lose Massachusetts.”
Brown feels that Hillary has always gotten a very negative hearing. “She has been a zeitgeist, a lightening rod for other people’s feelings about women,” observes Brown. “It’s generational. She battled her way up when dealing with the hostility of stay-at-home wives, resentful career women, and people who felt she should have left him.”
Brown says that, as a woman, she herself has also been held to a higher standard and been written about in a different way. “I never found it a problem in terms of doing what I wanted to do,” she says, “but women are in the eye of a storm when they are questioned by the media.”
As hard as it is to understand how this continues in today’s world, where sometimes the most negative stuff comes from other women, Brown has gotten used to it. “I understand it’s going to happen and would be surprised if it were any other way.”
Tina Brown, Monday, April 28, Smart Talk Womens Series, State Theatre, New Brunswick, 15 Livingston Ave, New Brunswick. $42 to $64. www.statetheatrenj.org or 732-246-SHOW.