Fair Game

The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983 - 1992 BY Tina Brown. Henry Holt and Co.. Hardcover, 448 pages. $32.

The cover of The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983 - 1992

A couple of years into devising the signature magazine of the 1980s, Tina Brown decided she was sick of people writing about her gift for generating “buzz.” That made what she did sound “fake and manufactured,” Brown lamented: “It’s a put-down, a dismissal of impact.” Not unreasonably, she wondered if a male editor in her shoes would get similarly trivializing treatment.

Reading this over thirty years later in The Vanity Fair Diaries, 1983–1992 (Henry Holt, $32), you may wonder if innovative women in other fields went through similar moments of rebelling against the essence of their genius. Did Marie Curie ever moan that she never wanted to hear the word “radium” again as long as she lived? Did Martha Graham have bad nights when choreography just looked like a lot of aimless milling around to her? If Brown isn’t in their iconic league, that may have more to do with the nature of the enterprise involved than with an appreciably less-determined skill set.

With a stint helming the Brit magazine Tatler behind her, the Oxford-educated but also ineffably self-taught Brown, not yet thirty, was brought by Condé Nast head Si Newhouse to New York to help rescue Vanity Fair, whose much-ballyhooed relaunch had turned out to be a costly train wreck. Once she transitioned from an awkward consultant role to the top job, getting a crash course in Condé Nast palace intrigues along the way, the “mix”—a favorite Tina word for her blend of journalistic sourdough and zeitgeist-y yeast—soon began to gel. One signal it had been perfected was the June 1985 cover image of Ronald Reagan (in a tux) and wife Nancy (kicking up a heel in an evening gown) dancing together, combining the ultimate political “get” and airy pop glamour.

Another, just two issues later, was Brown discovery Dominick Dunne’s cover story on alleged high-society wife-killer Claus von Bülow, with photographs by Me Decade kinkmeister turned VF staple Helmut Newton. That October, yet another was Brown’s own feature on Princess Diana, which made the notorious claim that Prince Charles was “pussy-whipped from here to eternity,” startling readers unaware the royal marriage had become a donnybrook. Let’s not fail to note that all this was the same year Brown bemoaned “creating buzz” as a belittling description of her talent.

It wasn’t only that she could make almost anything seem chic. She could make it all apparently partake of the same kind of chic, one unique to Vanity Fair. Transforming seemingly unrelated interests—some tacky, some cultured, some aspirationally troubled about barbaric happenings in interestingly exotic places—into a glamorized intellectual ecosystem is the sort of knack that guarantees reader loyalty in airports from China to Peru as well as on the Upper East Side.

Brown’s diary entries from these heady early years of Vanity Fair’sascent are entertaining reading, not least because the story of a provincial—or, in this case, expat import—making good in the big city is always fun. When she isn’t engrossed in assembling VF’s latest make-a-splash issue, she’s going to dinner parties—lots and lots of dinner parties, in fact, including one whose mix of media bigfeet (Diane Sawyer, Norman Lear) and Wall Street buccaneers reminds her of “a pop-up book of Reagan-era money.” Buying a co-op with her husband, onetime London Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, leads her to reflect, “Everything in this city is about conspiring to keep everyone out except the superrich.”

Our arriviste heroine’s recurring misgivings about the moneyed, tiresomely bombastic Manhattan-and-Hamptons milieu she’s now part of have their comical side, considering that no publication did more than Vanity Fair to enshrine guilt-free excess after all that 1960s revolutionary claptrap turned passé. “I hope I never lose my barometer for good and evil,” she frets in October of 1987, right after getting smitten with a certain New York real-estate tycoon. “There is something authentic about Trump’s bullshit,” she decides, excerpting The Art of the Deal for VF.

A few months later, after the 1987 market crash, she’s fantasizing about the “tumbrels” coming for Trump “and the horrible heavies of Wall Street.” But that doesn’t stop her from attending Trump’s book party, perfectly juxtaposed with a gala aids benefit the same night, whose bungling impresarios send Brown into a rage by keeping her and the “thirty millionaires” on hand waiting too long for their dinner. Is there room for one more in that tumbrel, Donald?

Intelligence without wisdom—the definition of glibness—has always been Brown’s trademark. But when it comes to personalities, she’s an ace at thumbnail portraiture, including the best sketch of Warren Beatty seductively playing hard to get I’ve ever read. (Brown has a peculiar thing for singling out men’s noses as an index of character: Richard Nixon’s schnoz is “felonious,” some otherwise forgettable magnate’s is “humorless,” and Beatty’s is “unserious,” marring his otherwise convincing impersonation of “a disheveled intellectual.”) Best of all, she’s often funny. Sizing up 1984 Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale, Brown decides that he’d make “an excellent prime minister of Norway,” which certainly puts the shortcomings of Mondale’s virtues in a nutshell.

Brown didn’t move on to the challenge of upsetting the New Yorker’s very staid Big Apple cart until 1992. Even so, The Vanity Fair Diaries turns plodding once Wall Street crashes, Iran-Contra dulls the Reagan administration’s sheen, and George H. W. Bush’s vapid reign shambles into view. It’s almost as if Brown recognized instantly that VF’sperfect synchronicity with its era had become the sort of holding action that no self-described “action junkie” could thrive on, but give her credit anyway. For a while there, she was as shrewd a cultural arbiter as somebody fundamentally shallow could be—Condé Nast’s answer to Madonna.

Tom Carson is a freelance critic and the author of the novel Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter (Paycock, 2011).