With a brash makeover, Tina Brown has transformed The New Yorker from musty to must-read.
February 28, 1994
By Judith Newman
Photo Editor: Sabine Meyer
Feeding time at the zoo. The bilious green banquettes at Manhattan’s Royalton Hotel are full, save for the third semicircular booth from the front. This one belongs to Tina Brown, editor of The New Yorker and the most talked about woman in magazine publishing. As I wedge myself into the fashionably uncomfortable seat, a worried look flickers across the face of the waiter. I slide over to the other side. He smiles happily. "Tina usually sits there," he explains, pointing to the side I just relinquished.
Soon Brown breezes in. Newly colored and coiffed, she wears a crisp houndstooth suit, pearl earrings and a snowy-white blouse with an oversized wingtipped collar that frames her bright face; she looks simple, chic and lovely. Warmth does not come easily to her, but she is quietly pleased at being named Editor of the Year and has resolved to be gracious. She cannot help but be keenly intelligent and penetrating; when she focuses her attention on you, you can almost see her molecules vibrating.
There is no murmur of the crowd, no subtle shift of barometric pressure worthy of a mise-en-scène penned during her Vanity Fair reign. But her entrance does not go unnoticed. Minutes after we order, a podgy man in a rumpled suit approaches, moving as if on casters. "Michael Fuchs," announces the chairman/ceo of HBO, extending his hand like a pontiff waiting for his ring-kiss. Tina extends hers similarly, and for a moment low culture and high culture are locked in a clammy embrace-just the way Tina likes it.
Apparently, it's the way we like it, too. For it's this distinctive mixture of pop and pedantry that is ensuring The New Yorker is once again read and talked about, and not only among the media beasts who prowl The Royalton. Former editor Robert Gottlieb called himself a "conservator" by nature, and many would argue he did conserve the best of the magazine. But he shared predecessor William Shawn's instincts for public relations and marketing-which is to say, none. Shawn and Gottlieb seemed happy for The New Yorker to be a violet by a mossy stone. Brown wants the whole meadow.
No one, least of all Tina Brown, claims The New Yorker is making money (and just how much it's losing is a subject of gleeful speculation among sour-grapes journalists). But total paid circulation increased 23% last year, advertising was up a welcome $15 million, and subscribers, on average, are as loyal as ever. The mean reader age has dropped and newsstand sales have nearly doubled. "My theory is Tina's got a Sicilian grandmother in that background somewhere," says Steve Florio, who was recently promoted from president of The New Yorker to president of Condé Nast Publications. "She's tough on everyone around her, but the person she's toughest on is herself. She plays to win. Every day. Nothing is good enough, which intimidates the hell out of a lot of people. But she made me play my game better than ever before."
Analyzing The New Yorker is one of those unavoidable conversations in media circles, right up there with 'What's the deal with The New York Times Style section?" and "Have you tried Prozac?" The consensus: Love it or hate it, The New Yorker is almost always thought-provoking, and it's never inert. To the 40-year-old Brown, only the fourth editor in the magazine's 69-year history, there is no wrong subject; there is only the wrong spin.
If Brown is by nature a provocateur, she is certainly not The New Yorker's first. Legendary founding editor Harold Ross courted controversy just as assiduously. Since taking the job in mid-1992, Brown has repeatedly invoked Ross' name when detailing her course for the magazine. And unlike, say, Bill Clinton's invocation of John F. Kennedy at every available opportunity, Brown's claim has the ring of truth.
Brown takes the best writers today and makes them better. Consider Janet Malcolm's whole issue piece on Sylvia Plath, Julian Barnes' scathing chronicle on the downfall of Lloyds of London, and Oliver Sacks' brilliant article on autism. Stories once relegated to the tabloids are now dissected with intellectual rigor-think of Lawrence Wright's extraordinary reporting on satanic cults-while baffling technological issues are made accessible: Jonathan Seabrook's whimsical e-mail profile of Microsoft's Bill Gates came along right when everyone was saying, "Information Highway? Wha'?"
"Talk of the Town" has recovered from an unsettling period of Vanity Fair like profiles of the terminally fabulous. "If I saw Mort Zuckerman's named mentioned one more time," says a former TOTT writer, "I was going to throw up." Under former Harper's editor Gerald Marzorati, it's being read again. The short media pieces-what Brown terms "the seduction points into the book"-often make competing articles redundant. Richard Avedon, The New Yorker's first staff photographer, may be cannibalizing himself at this point, but his stark yet lyrical images are perfectly suited to the magazine.
True, the "Shouts & Murmurs" page and much of the magazine's criticism are still hit-or-miss. Many of the cartoons are now so topical that if you don't read the magazine one week, you're unlikely to get the joke the next. (Helpful hint to aspiring cartoonists: Tina never needs to see another Bobbitt or Menendez cartoon again, thank you very much.)
And the fiction? These days, it reminds me of that old Jewish joke about the food at a catered reception: "Not very good-and such small portions." Stories are down from two a week to one, and those published are often curiously bloodless. "This is not a great fiction moment," says Brown, and she is probably right.
Even with these flaws, it's hard to resist a magazine that actually causes arguments -arguments- over artwork. Brown has fought hard to move away from illustrations of docked rowboats and toward Wall Street satyrs and armed kindergarteners. "I was at a meeting with Steve Florio the week they were debating whether to run the Art Spiegelman cover of the Hasidic Jew kissing the black woman," says an insider. "She was the only one in the building who thought it wasn't totally inappropriate. At some point in the meeting Steve Florio-not exactly known as a pushover-referred to it as 'the Art Spiegelman cover we probably won't run.' I'll never forget the look Tina gave him. All she had to say was, We'll talk later."
Some may call it controversy for controversy's sake. Tina Brown doesn't care what you call it, as long as you pay attention. 'We keep hearing that people don't read anymore. Well, I don't think that's true," she says. "I just think serious material is often presented in an unappealing way. American media is polarized between the uninviting serious media and the completely trashy. So you have Time and Newsweek ceding their serious ground and putting Tonya Harding on the cover. But my passion is to put, for example, El Salvador on the cover, and still have strong newsstand sales."
Brown is equally unapologetic about what critics perceive as the relentless topicality of the magazine. As one staff writer puts it, "It used to be a weekly run like an academic quarterly. Now it's a weekly run like a high school daily."
"Look, there are two strands going on in the magazine," explains Brown. "One, the relevant and contemporary piece, and two, the timeless piece that could have run anywhere within the year. I think it's important to have both in any given issue, because we are a weekly, and we have to get people to pick us up and read us that week."
For a woman constantly accused of Brit-pack snobbery, Brown has brought a modicum of democracy to the magazine. The letters page and the Steve Brill brouhaha are a case in point. A "Talk of the Town" reporter sitting in on a meeting at Brill's Court TV got some minor facts wrong, and Brill, sniffing a whiff of publicity, wrote a piercing letter demanding an apology, virtually unheard of at The New Yorker. He got it. Immediately the press went into overdrive. Some lamented the demise of The New Yorker's fastidious fact-checking. Others claimed Tina Brown sacrificed her writer and fact-checker because Brill was a friend. Not true, says Brill. "Look, I know her, but if Tina had a party and invited 200 of her closest friends I wouldn't be there-and vice versa."
Fact-checkers who have been at the magazine through the Shawn and Gottlieb years say The New Yorker is making about the same number of mistakes it always did, even given its new frantic pace. Now, however, it has an editor willing to admit them. "I always thought not having a letter page -a place where the magazine could admit to its mistakes- was an arrogant stance," Brown says.
Perhaps the biggest change editorially is one of the least obvious. Under its former editors The New Yorker was writer-driven. Writers came up with all the ideas and followed their own idiosyncratic interests. At times, those interests might result in a four-part series on grain or a childhood in India. "Sometimes you have to save writers from their own ideas," Brown says. "I've never made anyone take an assignment. If I don't see their eyes light up, I don't push it. But I've been able to turn writers on to ideas that then worked well for the magazine."
The result of all this change has been the exit of some wonderful writers that "weren't producing," according to Brown. Holly Brubach, a woman who could write about toast and make it fascinating, was an unfortunate loss (she's now style editor at The New York Times). Other missed talents include Mimi Kramer, Kennedy Fraser and Liz Harris. Critics have ascribed some of these departures to Brown's competitiveness with women, particularly women her own age. She's also reportedly allergic to anything related to feminism; according to some, paragraphs that deal with women's rights are routinely excised from pieces. "Her most successful working relationships are with older men like her husband whom she can charm," says one ex-staffer. "And once she has it in for you-especially if you're a strong woman around her age-that's it."
"Ridiculous," Brown says. "Anyone who knows me knows I have spats with people, and they're forgotten the next week." (Spiegelman, who stalked out when Brown refused to print his infamous urinating Santa cover, is back.) As for the gender issue, Brown has heard it all before. She reels off her appointments: editors Julie Kavanagh in London, Susan Mercandetti in Washington, D.C., Caroline Graham in Los Angeles, senior editor Kim Heron, managing editor Pamela McCarthy. "In fact, when I got to The New Yorker, I was amazed at what a male bastion it was. One editor who'd been there for years told me after I came, with all the women there, it was a bit like the storming of the Bohemian Grove.
"I want people to care about my work, but it doesn't bother me if someone I don't like or respect doesn't like what I'm doing," Brown adds. "The only thing I care about is talent."
Talent-and the power to showcase it. To Tina, courting money and power was, in a sense, her birthright. She describes it herself in Life as a Party ("my juvenalia," she says dismissively), a collection of her viciously funny essays for The Tatler that read like they were written by the evil spawn of P.G. Wodehouse and Nora Ephron:
"Home life was flash-my father was a film producer who managed to preserve his country gentleman air .... .into the era when the art of setting up a film became Deals on Wheels. 'Who shall we have to dinner to massage the Iranian/Swiss/Belgian money?' was a catchphrase that signified the start of the school holidays."
At Oxford, Brown "matured earlier than the rest of us, not only as a person, but in a literary way," says Simon Carr, a boyfriend of Brown's at college who is now a novelist and speechwriter for the Prime Minister of New Zealand. Brown started writing for the London Sunday Times while still an undergraduate. After a few years of award-winning writing-and wooing her husband, Harry Evans, then the editor of The Times and now president of Random House-she was handed the editorship of The Tatler in 1979 at the age of 25. "She was running this magazine on a shoestring, yet she managed to hire all these glam writers," says a former Tatler photographer. "No one could understand how she got them to write for her. And still, she was constantly dissatisfied with them."
It was at The Tatler that Tina first learned the advantages of melding her identity with that of her publication-and making both "flash." "There she was, editing this tinpot magazine, yet spending a fortune on luncheons and limousines," the photographer continues. "In fairness, she couldn't drive. But going around in a limo like that was unheard of in England. She would wait until the driver got out of the car and opened the door for her. Remember, she was practically a child."
Here, too, Brown learned to use her wholesome sensuality to good effect: Many of her Society subjects must have been shocked to discover that someone who looked like Lizzie Bennett wrote like Lizzie Borden. Under the pseudonym Rosie Boot, she wrote a "Guide to London Bachelors" and was not exactly coy in her appraisals. For example, of Simon Oakes, a pretty Hooray Henry, Brown noted: "He is certainly a very personable escort in the wet-smack genre with a sympathetic and insistent chat-up line ... I am here to tell you, however, that his melting approach conceals an astonishing pre-happy hour hominess that has earnt him, among other nicknames, 'Any time Oakes.'"
The Tatler, which had been losing money for years, became profitable just as Brown was leaving in 1983. Condé Nast chairman S.I. Newhouse had taken over the magazine the year before, and by 1984 he had brought his new star to the U.S. to revive the gasping Vanity Fair. The rest, of course, is infotainment history.
The gripe about The New Yorker from editors around town is this: "If I could pay the best people top dollar and not worry about making a profit, I could have a hell of a magazine, too." Or, alternately, "The magazine is so prestigious, SI Newhouse doesn't care if it loses millions."
Newhouse cares. And Brown is reportedly under tremendous pressure to make the magazine see black. She admits killing about half the stories she had during her first year, but many were old inventory she felt was unusable. Her current kill rate is about 20%-"commensurate with other magazines, I should think." She claims she now pays less for stories than Vanity Fair. "Our budget can't handle it," she says. According to one report, she's set a ceiling of $8,000 on freelance pieces, regardless of length. "She's always been conscientious about costs," says Florio. "I tell you, if it was my money, I'd let Tina manage it."
Brown has successfully courted new advertisers such as Gianni Versace, Ralph Lauren and BMW, and she has lured others, including IBM, Apple and The Gap, back into the magazine. But she is tightfisted about spending the magazine's own money on advertising. "She's much more comfortable promoting through parties, social contacts, at events and publicity than through paid advertising," says Jeff Goodby, co-chairman of former New Yorker agency Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein, San Francisco. "Who's to say she's wrong? It's working, right?"
Perhaps it's Brown's policy of reaching out to advertisers that has created her image of a high-living party animal and professional publicity hound. At the mention of her inclination for personal promotion, Brown looks at me archly, one eyebrow raised. "When was the last time you saw me on Charlie Rose?" she asks. "I'm not, because I'm the one who doesn't want to make the speech, who doesn't want to appear on television. People who know me know I am about the work." Because she has two young children-George, 7, and Isabel, 3- Brown limits her party-going to once a week.
"If it wasn't for Tina, Harry would be out every night of the week," says a colleague of Evans' at Random House. "But she'll go to a party with him, and as soon as her business is over-and believe me, for her it's business-she'll be glancing at her watch and barking, 'Harry! The children are waiting!"
Motherhood has shaped more of Brown's decisions than most people would guess. In addition to simply loving print journalism, much of the reason Brown didn't go to Hollywood when offered two substantial studio jobs was that "it's very hard to be a good mother when you're doing movies.". Motherhood, Brown says, is "the hardest part of my life. Very often your head is completely wrapped up in something else, and yet your children need you." Brown has bought her parents an apartment across the hall from her, which helps relieve some of the guilt about the time spent away from her children. "I'd like to have another two, actually, but I don't see how I can live my life and have them," she says. "My husband's daughter just had a little girl and I have to say I felt rather ... moody when I saw her."
If Brown is disdainful of the idea that she wants personal celebrity, she certainly doesn't deny she is to interested in having her writers on Charlie Rose-although she stops short of saying she makes them celebrities. “Writers make themselves stars. But I think I know how to market talent," she adds. What she may not see is that treating writers like stars has in some ways made her own job more difficult. "Tina wrote into various people's contracts that they'd have to write for 'Talk of the Town,' but it didn't work," says former TOTT editor Alexander Chancellor, who has moved back to London to write for The Telegraph. "The writers tended to be a bit grand-they weren't the kind of people happy to churn out an anonymous paragraph at a moment's notice. For all the sins of British journalism, there is nevertheless a spirit of gaiety about it-which is perhaps missing in the USA."
Brown would agree. "There's quite a pompous media culture in America," she says, not perceiving her role in creating it. "I miss the irony, mostly, the ability not to take life as seriously as we do here."
Some things about England irritate her, particularly the British penchant for seeing any kind of aspiration as "pushy." "People have to conceal their ambition in a cloak of gentility," she says, "which is a dishonest way of dealing with life." But Brown deeply misses her native country. "I would love to go back to London-in the right moment," she says.
Brown heads back to the office, leaving me with that little squeeze-and-retreat that passes for a handshake among Brits. Before she goes, she rather excitedly mentions an upcoming issue of the magazine, which will be devoted entirely to movies. Of course, New Yorker loyalists will mourn about the vulgarity of the premier magazine of its day turning itself into a fanzine for feathery piles of film company dollars. Everyone will talk about the issue, many will hate it, and it will probably contain some of the most incisive pieces on film and the entertainment industry we've read in a long time.
Somehow, I think Harold Ross would approve.
Judith Newman has written about several past winners of Adweek's Editor of the Year honor.