The Vanity Fair Diaries 1983-1992 by Tina Brown

The Vanity Fair Diaries 1983-1992
by Tina Brown
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, November 2017

Brown’s book, an edited and abridged version of the personal diaries she kept while being editor-in-chief at Vanity Fair, is certainly a treat for readers of the magazine.

Re-launched in the spring of 1983, after having been dormant for almost half a century, the revived magazine wasn’t an immediate success. Two editors gave it a try in early 1983, and they both failed. But after Brown was brought in (or rather, brought over, as she lived in London at the time), the magazine took off, with its circulation increasing from a meager 200,000 at the time of the launch to 1.2 million five years later. Brown was young when she became Vanity Fair’s editor – she turned thirty in 1983 - but she was by no means a newbie to the magazine-business. Before moving to the United States, she had been editor-in-chief at the British Tatler, which she transformed from a nearly defunct 270-year old dinosaur into a successful modern society glossy.

Brown was, however, a newbie to New York, and many of the early diary entries reflect her “fear and insecurity” towards “the enormousness” of the city, “the noise of it, the speed of it, the lonely obliviousness of so many people trying to get ahead.” She loves New York, but still, “America is so wildly foreign.”

But the book is more than a flashy portrait for fans of the famous magazine. Brown’s comments, fueled by her “observation greed” as she calls it, are blunt and often funny, for instance when she describes Walter Mondale as a “decent, intelligent slightly boring fellow who would make an excellent prime minister of Norway” and Ronald Reagan’s “doddering performance” during the presidential debate and his “maddening oldster vagueness.” Or when she recalls how Henry Kissinger was fretting during a dinner party about whether to go on television when the first Gulf War broke out (“Nightline keeps calling. Shall I go on?”)

Like Vanity Fair, the book is a mixture of high and low culture. There is plenty of gossip, of glitz and the glamour, and plenty of name-dropping. From Ronald Reagan and Henry Kissinger to Michael Jackson and Demi Moore (whose naked, very pregnant belly made for an iconic cover shot by Annie Leibowitz), everybody who was anybody in the 1980s makes an appearance. It’s the beginning of modern celebrity culture, and Brown is in the thick of the action. She recounts a never-ending slew of black-tie dinners, benefits, and Four-Seasons lunches –  so many, in fact, that one can’t help but wonder how Brown managed it all. But the diaries also tell us about the serious side of journalism and about the investigative reporting that made Vanity Fair as famous as any cover picture of a dancing presidential couple. In addition, there are illuminating asides on the corporate shenanigans and murky office politics at Condé Nast, which not only owns Vanity Fair but, among other things, Vogue and Random House.  

At the heart of the book, there is the tale of a young woman determined to make it in the testosterone-rich world of the news and publishing business. The diaries show Brown’s relentless drive without being apologetic which is refreshing, especially coming from a woman: “Unless I am working I am agitated,” she writes at one point, “I am hopeless with yoga (…) and my head was always just full of articles I wanted to assign.”

And even though Brown’s book may recount a bygone era, some of its key players are still around today: Boris Johnson, for example – whom Brown calls an “epic shit”  – and, most notably, Donald Trump. In 1987, Brown excerpted Trump’s memoir The Art of the Deal for the magazine because the book had “a crassness” Brown liked:

In the end, the only thing about self-serving books like this is, do they capture the true voice? Like Julian Schnabel’s loudmouthed soliloquy I bought for the August issue, there is something authentic about Trump’s bullshit. Anyway, it feels, when you have finished it, as if you’ve been nose to nose for four hours with an entertaining con man and I suspect the American public will like nothing better.

With her sharp eye and even sharper pen, Brown succeeds in capturing not only the rich and famous but the mood and the texture of an era that has had more impact on the present day than we might want to admit.

Britta Böhler is a German-born author and former law professor. She has published literary fiction and a series of crime novels as well as various nonfiction books about real life criminal cases. Her internationally acclaimed novel about Thomas Mann (English translation: The Decision) has been translated into eight languages. She lives in Amsterdam and Cologne and she writes in German, English and Dutch.
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