Tina Brown never lacked for success in the American fame-and-money sense of the word. Yet for all the acclaim that has come the way of this legendary magazine editor, Brown has also been persistently underestimated. Brown observes of herself: “The perception of me is flashy, fast, and scandalous.” Now Brown has published a memoir of her spectacular journalistic career, based on the diaries she kept during her tenure as the editor of Vanity Fair from 1984 through 1992. The book has gained praise, yet even the praise often retains the familiar grudging character accorded to Brown’s editorial accomplishments. As a reviewer wrote in The New Yorker (a magazine that owes its existence to Brown’s rescue from a readership collapse under her two predecessors): “Brown’s legacy remains controversial not because her success is in question but because, for some, too much was lost in her kind of success.”
Brown’s new book offers an opportunity to test that querulous judgment. Here not only is her voice and sensibility, but also her searching and candid self-assessment.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, Brown remade first British and then American magazine journalism. Brown reinvented the celebrity profile and celebrity photography. She printed close-up investigations of the murderous misrule of dictators like Haiti’s Duvalier family and the Central African Republic’s Jean-Bedel Bokassa. When a trove of new Picasso drawings was discovered, she hired the painter’s most scholarly biographer to explain them. She published forensic profiles of the Gary Hart sex scandal and of the murder of the primatologist Dian Fossey in Rwanda. Her rule was high-low: high culture joined to low gossip, insisting on the highest standards of accuracy and narration for both. She deployed known writers in unexpected ways, while generously promoting new talent. It was Brown who assigned Adam Gopnik to Paris and who liberated Malcolm Gladwell from newspaper reporting. “An editor’s job is to make people say yes to something they hadn’t thought they could do,” and that role Brown fulfilled to the utmost again and again.
Brown was never a “writer’s editor” and always a “reader’s editor”: “Writers, unless guided and edited and lured out of their comfort zones, can go off-piste into dreary cul-de-sacs of introversion and excess and entirely forget about questions of content and pace.” This is incontrovertibly true, and for that reason utterly unforgivable—by writers, that is.
Read more at The Atlantic.