New York Times
Tina Brown Is Still Hungry for Buzz
By PETER STEVENSON
Published: May 6, 2011
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Around sunset on a recent spring evening in Manhattan, a nervous-looking young woman was clutching a clipboard outside the entrance to the East 57th Street apartment belonging to Tina Brown and Harry Evans. Guests were shown into a large room filled with fresh-cut flowers, caterers bearing trays of hors d’oeuvres and wall-to-wall chatter. The hum was baritone: men in suits outnumbered women in heels two to one. The billionaire chairman of Starbucks, Howard Schultz — whose book, “Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul,” was the reason for the party — stood a head taller than the crowd, watching with a smile as flush-cheeked beefy guys from his scrappy youth in Canarsie, Brooklyn, knocked back the free booze.
Windows opening onto a large garden were shut to keep out the chill. Tina Brown, editor of the newly merged Newsweek and Daily Beast, was wearing a black cocktail dress and holding a wineglass filled with seltzer as she darted between CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo, the former White House budget director Peter Orszag, Willie Geist of “Morning Joe,” the former New York City Police commissioner Bill Bratton and Oprah’s best friend, Gayle King. As is not uncommon in preparation for Brown’s parties, that afternoon the room’s furniture was loaded into a truck, which was waiting, out of sight, for the last guests to leave before unloading its contents back into the apartment. Sir Harold Evans, Brown’s 82-year-old husband, has been known to joke with friends that he’d prefer to be in the truck, where he could circle the block in the comfort of his own home.
It was almost time for Brown to introduce her guest of honor when an earsplitting squawk of feedback erupted from an audio speaker. Brown swiveled, blue eyes narrowing, then dashed to the corner where Evans was crouched down cheerfully trying to get a microphone to work as assistants fluttered. The microphone business sorted out, Brown took the floor and introduced Schultz, who spoke for a few minutes. He handed the microphone back to Brown, who put it down to another molar-rattling blast of feedback.
In the 1980s and ’90s, the Tina Brown show was one of the biggest in town. Her unsentimental blond-ambition tour as editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker was perfectly tuned to the preoccupations of the age. Inhabiting a world of big personalities, Brown inflated her magazines with them. She even colonized an island with them: Liberty Island in New York Harbor, where one hot August night in 1999, 800 guests — including Henry Kissinger, Madonna, Robert De Niro, George Plimpton, Sarah Jessica Parker and Salman Rushdie — toasted Brown’s new magazine, Talk, as they munched on catered picnic dinners from Glorious Foods under 2,000 Japanese lanterns, the Statue of Liberty and a sky filled with fireworks.
In hindsight, the party recalls nothing so much as the upriver U.S.O. show in “Apocalypse Now,” minus the helicopters and Playmates. Talk magazine never reached such manic heights again, as it failed to become part of the New York-Beltway-L.A. conversation. Meanwhile, those big personalities of the ’80s and ’90s started to deflate like Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons. Before she could figure out a way to fit her publication to a changing culture, 9/11 flattened the New York economy, and the magazine was shut down. Any indulgence Brown may have expected from Talk’s owners — Hearst and Miramax — never came. “No big career doesn’t have one flameout in it, and there’s nobody more boring than the undefeated,” she said at the time. But she was stunned and crestfallen.
A decade later, at 57, Tina Brown — the woman who in the words of The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg “has been a celebrity since she was in college” — has a magazine again. While Newsweek is bruised and limping, it can still lay claim to a position on the main playing field of American journalism. But for how long? Last year it lost more than $20 million; its new partner, Brown’s three-year-old Web site, The Daily Beast, lost an estimated $10 million.
As her guests said goodbye, Brown and Evans looked eager to get their furniture back. Suddenly the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy wafted in, dressed in black and trailing a cloud of cologne and his mistress, Daphne Guinness, who was wearing a revealing black cat suit and heelless Alexander McQueen platform shoes. Lévy was fresh from Paris, where, he proceeded to tell Brown and a few stragglers, he had just single-handedly persuaded his old friend President Nicolas Sarkozy to go to war against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya. (A few days later, Steven Erlanger of The New York Times reported that this had, improbably enough, been the case.)
Lévy drained a glass of red wine and took off into the night with Guinness. Brown looked happy for the first time all evening.
“Talk was a very good magazine, it really was,” Brown said a few weeks before the party, sitting in The Daily Beast’s offices in the Frank Gehry-designed IAC building, that modernist melting-ice sculpture in Chelsea. “And I only realized how really good it was when I was preparing for Newsweek.” Brown says her original concept for Talk — a combination of The New Yorker, The Economist and Stern — was the right one. “It was just the wrong setup. Miramax wasn’t a publishing company, and Hearst was the wrong publisher. Actually I think it would have worked better as a weekly. And now I have a weekly.”
Soon Brown and her staff would be temporarily shoehorned into Newsweek’s offices downtown at 7 Hanover Square, while The Daily Beast’s offices were torn up and remade as a giant newsroom, with an in-house digital TV studio, to accommodate the merged Beast and Newsweek staffs in July.
“What I love about Newsweek, it’s truly a global magazine,” Brown continued. “People keep showing up — we discovered we have a Japanese correspondent! That’s kind of thrilling — there is a Japanese Newsweek, and there’s a very good Polish Newsweek, all these global editions, we have a great Moscow bureau chief. It’s thrilling to feel the global reach of Newsweek, because there are very few brands left that have that kind of traction. There’s the BBC, CNN, The New York Times, the Times of London, Time and Newsweek.”
Brown drives her staff at warp speed. “I’m up from 5 a.m., going online and sending BlackBerry messages out from then until I go to bed,” she said. “People get used to that. I like to have a structure of things that are in place, and then I constantly disrupt it with a new thing, an idea that’s just in the air.
“I’m not very good with people who aren’t committed,” she continued. “Kathy O’Hearn from CNN has come over to develop our Web TV. Kathy says, ‘Don’t come here unless you’re balls to the wall!’ So now we call it ‘B to the W!’ We say, ‘Is he B to the W?’ Because otherwise someone comes in and says, ‘Well, two days a week I have to teach at N.Y.U. . . .’ And we say, ‘Not B to the W!’ ”
Brown’s post-Talk decade in the wilderness was neither idyll nor idle: a floundering CNBC talk show, “Topic (A) With Tina Brown,” between 2003 and 2005; a reported $2 million advance for a biography of Lady Diana, published in 2007, which spent 10 weeks on the Times best-seller list; a bid to become editor of Time magazine; and the launch of The Daily Beast, in partnership with her friend the IAC chairman Barry Diller, in 2008.
While The Beast, as Brown calls it, is a long way from profitability, it’s an impressive achievement whose relatively few visitors (just under four million uniques per month) belie its cultural influence.
The “NewsBeast” merger — orchestrated by Barry Diller and Newsweek’s owner, the late audio mogul and philanthropist Sidney Harman — was one of necessity for both men. Newsweek had been rudderless since Harman bought it last August for $1 from the Washington Post Company and assumed $40 million in liabilities. Diller meanwhile was in the same boat as anyone trying to make a stand-alone Web site profitable. Ideally, The Beast would mimic the success of The Huffington Post, the Web site that Brown’s friend Arianna Huffington hawked to AOL for $315 million in February. But HuffPo has what The Beast lacks: a tribal identity, one that draws 31 million monthly visitors. With the Newsweek deal, Diller and Brown tethered The Beast to a print landmass — albeit a fairly scorched one — and avoided having to answer the inevitable question of whether The Beast by itself could ever be a viable business.
Before taking the job, Brown extracted from Harman a hard-won promise that she would have editorial control at Newsweek. Harman’s death on April 12 from acute myeloid leukemia robs Newsweek of an informed and deeply involved owner. “I’d got really fond of him,” Brown said. “He was lovely, feisty and funny.” Harman, for his part, had clearly been charmed by Brown, calling her “my beauty.” Harman’s wife, the former California Democratic congresswoman Jane Harman, has taken his place on the Newsweek Daily Beast Company board and has said the Harman family will continue her husband’s investment.
One afternoon in late March, Brown backed out of her apartment kitchen carrying a tray loaded with tea and cookies. She put the tray down on a small table in the living room and sat down in a window seat next to an orange cat curled in sleep. Under a black suit, she wore a white shirt unbuttoned enough to display the cleavage that inspired Private Eye to dub her a “buxom hackette” when she was 25. Brown was tired. Two days before, she finished co-hosting the Women in the World Summit at New York’s Hudson Theater — Brown booming out “These are revolutionary days!” to a whooping crowd of 300 women, followed by panels on women’s rights and appearances by Hillary Clinton, Melinda Gates, the World Bank managing director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg.
One highlight of the weekend was Brown interviewing Bill Clinton, whom she described in 1998 in The New Yorker as “a man in a dinner jacket with more heat than any star in the room . . . his height, his sleekness, his newly cropped, iron-filing hair and the intensity of his blue eyes project a kind of avid inclusiveness that encircles every jaded celebrity he passes. He is vividly in the present tense and dares you to join him there.”
In the present tense of the Hudson Theater, the wattage had been dimmed by the years, as the two sat in armchairs on a raised platform and Brown, holding a stack of notes, leaned forward to pepper the former president with questions about Libya as he, a slight croak in his voice, wielded the cordless microphone like a man gesturing with a highball.
As she drank her tea in her apartment, her second issue of Newsweek had just been published, and it included an essay on Charlie Sheen by the novelist Bret Easton Ellis. “It’s rollicking stuff, isn’t it?” she said. “It’s fun to get all these new writers in. I hope we can retain the interest. As you know, the window of interest today slams shut pretty fast.”
Brown’s 20-year-old daughter, Isabel, walked in and asked, laughing, if her mother and guest would like anything more to eat or drink.
“No, thank you, darling,” Brown said. “What have you got there?”
“Oh . . . ,” Isabel said, giggling, and unfurled a magazine. “It’s Elle.”
“Elle!” Brown said, with mock seriousness.
Brown was raised in Little Marlow, a small village on the north bank of the Thames River in Buckinghamshire. “I was very dreamy,” Brown said. “I’d go off into long reveries. But I always had a drive. And I’ve still got the two things going on.”
Her father, George Brown, produced the first Agatha Christie films and had a brief marriage to the actress Maureen O’Hara. Her mother, Bettina, was Laurence Olivier’s press secretary. “She was in that Vivien Leigh moment,” Brown said. “That was sort of my father’s crowd. It was the time of gentleman movie producers, and the English film business then was a glamorous business. On school holidays I would have lunch at Pinewood Studios, and there would be Sir Richard Attenborough and Dirk Bogarde, and they all seemed very sort of upmarket.
“My father was a very warm and generous guy,” Brown continued. “He always thought the best of people and was often disappointed as a result. My mother was much more cynical and rescued him from his excessive optimism. And then the movie business changed, it was all about raising money, which is what he hated to do. He began to have a lot of difficult times — he’d spent an awful lot of his money in just being generous — and he didn’t really have any money in the end, so I had to support him. He hated me having to do that.”
But she was closest to her mother. “We were real bosom buddies. She was a very iconoclastic, funny, original woman.” After her father’s retirement, Brown’s parents lived as ex-pats in Spain, where her mother wrote for an English-language newspaper. In the early 1990s, they moved into an apartment across the landing from Brown and Evans and helped raise their children.
Brown grew up comfortable but not upper class. “I went to posh boarding schools, yet my father was a show-business guy, really,” she said. “I was constantly tossed out, but with those schools, you wear that with a badge of honor. My parents were totally on my side. . . . They would go and say, ‘How terrible you must feel to have failed with this original child!’ and then drive off with me in a huff.”
Sir Harry Evans, Brown’s husband and the father of her two children, bounded in as if he were coming below from the deck of a freighter in high seas, tie askew. He plopped into a chair, helped himself to tea and plunged into a tale about a possible new lead in the unsolved 1977 Cairo murder of his former London Sunday Times foreign correspondent David Holden.
Brown gave him a look. “Oh, I thought this was a social call!” Evans said, taking his cue from his wife and his tea with him into the next room. Evans, who achieved renown as editor of The Sunday Times of London, has served as editor of various U.S. magazines, publisher of Random House and author (“My Paper Chase”). He and Brown adore each other. “We’re both journalists, and we’re both outsiders,” is how Brown sums it up, and for all of their social capital, there is a disheveled British battiness about the couple.
Their two children, George and Isabel, are in their 20s, no longer at home. “Harry and I have breakfast together every morning,” Brown said. “We go to that crummy Sutton diner around the corner. It’s become our special time. When the kids are little, the morning is never a ‘time,’ you know? . . . So then it finally subsides, and you’re suddenly looking at the person you’re married to. And we have a fantastic time. The best thing for us is if we’re at a dinner party and there’s a kind of California seating arrangement where the husband is put next to the wife. We’re both like, ‘I got you!’ ”
She took a sip of tea.
In the early 1970s, it seemed that all of England’s bright young minds were writing for The New Statesman: Auberon Waugh, Christopher Hitchens, James Fenton, Claire Tomalin, Martin Amis. “I lived for The New Statesman every Thursday in the newsstand at the corner of my road,” said Brown, who was by then at Oxford and writing for its literary magazine, The Isis. “I was obsessed with ‘Bron’ Waugh, he had a very iconoclastic political column. One day I wandered into the Isis office, and there was this guy lurking around called Stephen Glover. He said he was going off to interview Auberon Waugh, and I just glommed on to him.”
Glover, now a columnist for The Independent, says: “Bron was surprised to see Tina there. He was completely struck by her, and ignored me completely.”
Brown went on: “After we’d met, Bron invited me — which he did with all the young girls he fancied — to the Private Eye lunch, which was every other Wednesday at the Coach and Horses Inn. I was there as a sort of eye-batting blonde — they thought. The lunch was off the record, but I just ignored all those rules and wrote the whole thing up for Isis. . . . When I look back, it was sort of monstrous behavior really, except that they completely deserved it, because that’s what they did to everybody all the time.”
While she resisted Waugh’s advances, she didn’t even try with Martin Amis. “At that point I’d gotten a literary agent, Pat Kavanagh, who was sort of the fashionable agent,” Brown said. At one of Kavanagh’s agency’s parties, “Martin’s there, of course being absolutely divine. We were talking about writers we admired, and I said my favorite writer of all is this guy who writes for The New Statesman, Bruno Holbrook. And there was this sort of pause, and then Martin, with his long eyelashes, you know, said, ‘I am Bruno Holbrook.’ It was like Cupid’s dart. Whereupon we went off for a great meal, and then, you know, two days later. . . .” She laughed, describing them as narcissistic — “always going into photo booths and thinking we looked just alike.”
At the time, Amis says, he was feeling unattractive and insecure, “a kind of Larkin self-gloom. It’s very self-fulfilling and gets worse very quickly. It’s a vicious circle inside oneself. And Tina brought me out of it.”
When she was 25, Brown became editor of Tatler, a stuffy London society magazine on the verge of extinction. She turned her pen on her own readers. “She had a natural satiric outlook,” Glover says, “and not being of that class herself, she was prepared and eager to send them up. She was quite interested in writing about decadent aristocrats as their world was disappearing, people who are sort of vanished now.”
Brown continued: “I discovered the great secret was photographers. As editor of Tatler, I would say, ‘I want to send Norman Parkinson or Derry Moore to take pictures of your stately home.’ And then I would show up. I was really a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde, because I was being the editor of the Tatler while a kind of fiendish reporter at the same time.” Brown gave an example: “I wrote about a dinner with Bobby Corbett that was totally off the record. He wrote me a postcard — I’ve still got it. He wrote, ‘This is the worst act of social betrayal since the massacre at Glencoe.’ Which it was, but it was fun. The truth is, as a young girl, you can get a lot done.”
At Tatler she penned a salty “guide to London bachelors,” calling herself Rosie Boot. “I am here to tell you,” she wrote of one Simon Oakes, “that his melting approach conceals an astonishing pre-happy-hour horniness that has earnt him, among other nicknames, ‘Any time Oakes.’ ”
Americans soon got their first look at Tina Brown in the NBC broadcast booth as a royalty expert, next to Tom Brokaw and Jane Pauley, for the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981. “There was a brief rattling rumor that our rival Barbara Walters had got the queen mother on ABC,” Brown wrote in Tatler shortly thereafter, “but this was soon replaced by more pleasing news. A technical fault had plunged Walters into headphones like earmuffs for 20 minutes of her show.”
By the time she turned 30, Brown had acquired a new boss — the Condé Nast chairman Si Newhouse, who after buying Tatler hired her in 1984 to reinvent Vanity Fair — and a husband, Evans, who’d gotten to know Brown when she wrote some articles for his Sunday Times and subsequently divorced his wife.
Brown imported her fascination with celebrity and her mixing of high and low culture to Vanity Fair, where she recruited a roster of all-star writers — by doubling the going rate of $1 per word — and boosted circulation to 1.2 million from 250,000, earning a reputation as a fearsome editor who assigned articles on a whim and then, when they came in, tossed them aside like bad poker hands. Her instincts as an editor were driven as much by fomenting “buzz” as by creating a legacy.
“Tina has Fleet Street blood in her veins,” says her friend Hertzberg. “She’s from a journalistic culture that is newsstand-oriented, intensely focused on getting the audience to buy that day’s issue, not just the brand.” When Brown persuaded William Styron to write his depression essay, “Darkness Visible,” and publish it in Vanity Fair in 1989, it was difficult to tell whether she truly cared about depression or whether she had simply talked a great novelist into spilling his guts for her magazine.
Brown’s free-spending ways at Condé Nast became part of her queasy mystique. “Money was thrown around in an astonishing way,” says one of her former colleagues from The New Yorker, “partly because she was always changing her mind and so much was done at the last minute.”
“I always had a budget at Vanity Fair and The New Yorker,” Brown said. “People tend to think I had some kind of free checkbook. There was a reason I was given The New Yorker after Vanity Fair, and it wasn’t because I’d gone and put Vanity Fair into the red.”
When Newhouse appointed her editor of his much-loved New Yorker in 1992, the resulting uproar fed Brown’s excitement. “Tina’s sensibility has worked wonders when it plays off an existing stodgy institution, like Thelonious Monk playing a Rodgers and Hammerstein standard,” Hertzberg says.
Others weren’t dancing: Jamaica Kincaid called Brown “a vulgarian” and left the magazine. Garrison Keillor, a staff writer, also quit, saying: “Tina Brown hasn’t changed The New Yorker, she has obliterated it. . . . Once, The New Yorker was meant to be read; now it is only meant to be talked about.” When Brown published The New Yorker’s first-ever fashion issue, Newsweek mocked it as “a 248-page wet kiss to designer royalty.”
Brown’s willingness to publish glitzy, less-than-stellar articles galled traditionalists, all the more so because she was clearly doing it knowingly, to goose ad pages and circulation at the money-losing magazine. As one former colleague put it, “She was trying to solve a business problem journalistically.” Her detractors could have forgiven her bad taste; what they couldn’t forgive was cynicism.
“Tina was very eager to have superb journalism in the magazine,” says Lillian Ross, who joined The New Yorker staff in 1945 and had a 40-year affair as the former New Yorker editor William Shawn’s “other wife.” “And she had the kind of will to do what she thought was called for, no matter what anybody said about what was supposed to be sacred territory. She got rid of the villains she could get rid of. I loved working for her.”
Brown said that the “best of the writers” got what she was doing. “People like John Updike, Brendan Gill, Roger Angell — those guys utterly got it, they were totally onboard, they felt revived.”
“Tina was a force of nature, and something like her probably needed to happen to The New Yorker at that point,” says Charles McGrath, who was The New Yorker’s deputy editor when Brown arrived and is now a writer at large for The Times. “And, as an editor, she had an uncanny sense for what was going to be the next big thing. It was weird, it wasn’t like she listened to the radio or watched TV or went to movies apart from screenings, but she always knew.” Under Brown, circulation rose to 800,000 from 650,000. (Its current circulation is just over one million.)
Brown’s decision to leave The New Yorker — where she remained in Newhouse’s good graces despite spending an enormous amount of his money — in 1998 and start Talk with the mercurial movie producer Harvey Weinstein left colleagues and competitors scratching their heads.
“It mystified me why you’d exchange the editorship of one of the world’s greatest magazines for Talk,” Glover says. “I have to assume it’s because she wanted more money, to be her own boss, to be a proprietor rather than an editor. That’s where she is still.”
“I was getting restless,” Brown said. “I felt that The New Yorker should be more than a magazine, and I wanted to expand laterally. And I’d been talking a lot about that with Si, and I didn’t feel that he got that. And then Harvey came along and offered me what seemed almost exactly that: a magazine, books, other things. It was that dot-com time. I was feeling very entrepreneurial. And at the time my mother was dying, and that unsettled me tremendously, and I think I was trying to distract myself from how I felt.”
“Tina’s a revolutionary leader,” Hertzberg says by way of explaining why she left The New Yorker. “Revolutionary leaders go wrong when they stay too long. George Washington went back to the farm; Fidel Castro didn’t.”
With an undisclosed equity position in the Newsweek Daily Beast Company, Brown has her wish of being an owner. Since her first issue of Newsweek on March 14, newsstand sales are up 57 percent over the dismal 2010 numbers; ad pages are up 14 percent, with new advertisers like Credit Suisse, Progressive Insurance, Charles Schwab, Omega watches and Poland Spring coming aboard.
Brown’s early issues show signs of blood starting to pump through the veins again. A section called News Gallery showcases emotionally powerful photojournalism. “You can do a lot with photographs in telling a story, because it means that you’re in the news but you’re not pretending you can be profound about it,” Brown said.
At the same time, Brown’s early issues have been strewn with standbys from her Rolodex: Hillary Clinton, Harvey Weinstein, Judith Regan, James Carville, Arnold Schwarzenegger. A new section called Omnivore: Want has featured $2,100 Chanel shoes, a $6,500 Audi bicycle and a $10,000 Burberry “Python” trench, items that would not be within reach of your average newsmagazine reader but that would feel right at home in, say, Vanity Fair.
“There’s a great kind of high-low, newsy, sexy thing that the European newsmagazines have,” Brown said. “They have this great sort of slightly freewheeling pagination, where they go from a great sexy picture of an expensive watch to Libya or something. So I’d like to have more of that feeling in Newsweek. I think that’s a great thing for a magazine, because that’s where we all sort of are now, we’re all multiplatformed, everything’s messed up with everything else.”
Brown can’t spend the way she used to, but she has made significant hires, like persuading Andrew Sullivan to airlift his wildly popular blog from The Atlantic into The Daily Beast. “Tina has a total straightforwardness, no pomposity or pretension, which I find a refreshing change from many people in American journalism,” says Sullivan, who brought three employees with him. “And she has prodigious energy — I’ve been e-mailing her for a few months, and it’s never been more than five minutes before I’ve gotten something back.”
Other new NewsBeasties — everyone Brown hires will work for both Newsweek and The Daily Beast — include the British financial historian Niall Ferguson, The Washington Post’s Pulitzer-winning fashion critic Robin Givhan and the longtime New Yorker writer Peter Boyer.
“On subjects she might know nothing about, Tina is capable of this almost-childlike enthusiasm that is very endearing,” Boyer says.
The cover of Newsweek’s May 2 issue featured the Olsen twins — a sign that Brown hasn’t lost her understanding of the nexus of celebrity, fashion and business. But what keeps her going? Isn’t she weary and sated of celebrity — her own and others’ — by now? Early on April 29, Brown would be in the “Good Morning America” broadcast booth in London for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. She planned to fly back the next morning to host the Newsweek Daily Beast table at the White House Correspondents Dinner.
“The joy of my life with Harry,” Brown said, laughing, “is coming home from a fancy dinner with Harry — and Harry always hates the dinner, whatever it is — and him making himself a marmalade on toast standing in the kitchen and him ranting, ‘How the hell could it have gone on as long as it did?’ ”
He should probably not put away the marmalade. For Tina Brown, the long party’s not over.
Peter Stevenson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former executive editor of The New York Observer. Editor: Dean Robinson (d.robinson-MagGroup@nytimes.com).