The Vanity Fair Diaries review – Tina Brown’s supreme balancing act

Brown’s record of her years as editor of the magazine in the 80s is both enthralling and terrifying

Tina Brown’s career as a magazine editor – of Tatler, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and lastly of Talk, the product of a brief, dodgy hook-up with Harvey Weinstein – was spent negotiating a tightrope while wearing high heels. Below yawned a gulf the size of the Atlantic; she slipped once or twice, but never fell.

Brown juggled while she teetered on the wire, hurling gravitas and glitz into the air and making them change places as they bounced between her manicured hands. A typical issue of Vanity Fair would have Annie Leibovitz’s portrait of Demi Moore’s naked and strainingly pregnant belly on the cover, while inside there might be William Styron’s dour analysis of his suicidal depression. The “mix”, as Brown called it, proved commercially irresistible, because it appealed both to our itchy erogenous zones and our aspirational or aching heads.

The formula she invented reflects her own mixed motives, as well as the relentless social mixing she did during those gaudy, affluent years in Manhattan. It’s easy to accuse Brown of double standards: she cosied up to the corporate suits in the Condé Nast offices and to the bejewelled crones with ironed-out faces who invited her to dinner on Park Avenue, then scuttled home to skewer them in these diaries, published now that many victims of her icepick epigrams are dead. The truth is more complex. Brown seems duplicitous because, like all who have dual residence in the imaginary land she calls Transatlantica, she is caught between two worlds – embedded in soggy England but anxious for American fame and fortune; homesick for sedate London while she races around New York, itching for efficient New York when becalmed in a London she finds lethargic.

As she alternates between being power-walked by her trainer, having her hair fearsomely frosted, seducing cigarette advertisers, or selecting celebs for a dinner party that she executive-produces without entering the kitchen, Brown is haunted by the censorious whispers of her Oxford “lit-crit writer friends”. Auberon Waugh, oddly cast as a conscience, tells her she has tumbled into a coven of lesbian Jewesses. But she can’t resist the upward scale played by Gershwin’s clarinet in Rhapsody in Blue, a jazzy graph of “ego on the rise” that summoned her to “the big time” in America.

There’s a similar duality in her style. With brilliant finesse, she assigns social contacts to a grisly bestiary. Her boss Si Newhouse is a gerbil or snuffling hamster, Norman Mailer a “macho koala”, the Sotheby’s magnate Al Taubman “a huge, halitotic dolphin”; in addition she dodges some stuffed pelicans, a skunk, and a herd of “ghastly pachyderm people”. Were all those dinners held in the Central Park zoo?

In this mode, Brown writes like Martin Amis’s acidulous twin, deploying or perhaps inventing Latinate adjectives like “halitotic”. But she has another register, slangier and crasser, into which she lapses when she’s told that Laurence Olivier had “really dirty sex” with Joan Plowright, or when she reports that “Perry Ellis’s sportswear line is on fire”. Adjusting the temperature, she announces that Vanity Fair is now “shit hot”. “We needed this scoop so bad,” she says after wrangling the Reagans, “there was no chance we could fuck it up.”

The diaries veer between literature and the slick lingo of Madison Avenue. A metaphor blabs about what matters to her: she likens the eyes of her newborn daughter to satellite dishes – a prophecy, since that infant is today a woman who works for Vice Media, while Brown herself, incorporated as Tina Brown Live Media, has become an orgone box of buzz in human form.

Tina Brown with her husband, Harold Evans, at a Manhattan fundraiser in 1985
Tina Brown with her husband, Harold Evans, at a Manhattan fundraiser in 1985. Photograph: Courtesy of Tina Brown

Skimming through Manhattan in a limo, Brown relishes being “inside the city of hard surfaces”; in LA she is ushered “inside the gated Hollywood few outsiders get to see”. But her eye gets its glinting acuity from her status as an outsider – “a cultural misfit”, an expat both repelled and entranced by hyperbolic America. She even claims to be an introvert who dreads going out, which she’s impelled to do by “observation greed”. At home, the diaries reveal her to be a fond daughter, a steadfast wife, a doting mother and a resolute friend: imagine, if you can, Anna Wintour unfrozen and deprived of her passive-aggressive shades.

Interestingly, Brown says she has a “moralising streak”. Yes, the spitballs of disgust she aims at Rupert Murdoch and Boris Johnson have the force of aphoristic missiles. But she wobbles when confronted by stardom, and mistakes Michael Jackson for Mozart; she even thrills to the “glamour” of Prince Charles while sympathising with his air of “deep spiritual torment”, as if it were possible to be both an entitled toff and a tragic hero.

I’d call her a satirist not a moralist. Swift was an early contributor to Tatler, and Vanity Fair borrowed its name from the scathing novel by Thackeray, who in turn took it from the headquarters of human folly in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

All satirists find themselves in a double bind like Brown’s: they condemn bad behaviour, intending to reform us – but if we did change our ways, they’d be out of a job, and the infuriated glee of their writing hints at a shaming attraction to the vices they castigate. “Why,” Brown plaintively asks, “do I keep seeking out the very things I deride?”

Elsewhere she calls gossip an addiction, “like overeating and drinking”, two weaknesses for which she can’t be blamed. Seeking redemption, she daydreams of repatriation, toying with the idea of “English damehood” and a bookish afterlife as head of an Oxford college – more a coma than a rest cure, I’d say.

The book in which Brown collected her Tatler columns defined life as a party. Life in Manhattan is nearer to an orgy, with obscene expenditure replacing sex. Sometimes, as in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, it resembles a black mass. Her diaries record several encounters with devils: she considers Warhol a fiend, recoils from the “sinister” producer Robert Evans, and describes the agent who engineered her advance from Vanity Fair to the New Yorker as “a genial Lucifer”. Finally, when colleagues begin dying of Aids, galas give way to funerals.

Through the shrill mayhem there are intermittent glimpses of Trump, who in Brown’s first year at Vanity Fair was elected to the magazine’s facetious hall of fame as “a brass act”. Now that the man who embodied the “gilded grossness” of the era is installed in the White House, satire’s jibes seem sadly ineffectual. “Vanitas vanitatum” originated as a biblical curse, and when uttered in Ecclesiastes it predicted the imminent end of the world.

• The Vanity Fair Diaries 1983-1992 by Tina Brown is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£25). To order a copy for £21.25 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

Peter Conrad

The GuardianTramp

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