Soul of the buzz machine. Tina Brown moves The New Yorker at a price.
December 5, 1993
By Elizabeth Kolbert.
Soul of the buzz machine. Tina Brown moves The New Yorker at a price.
For all the criticism of her New Yorker, she’s a success d’buzz – and maybe more.
By Elizabeth Kolbert.
Who's afraid of Tina Brown? There is the woman at the library of The Tatler in London who won't let me look at back issues because she is "not sure Tina would like it."
There is the prominent journalist who cancels an interview with me when he hears from Brown that his participation will not be appreciated.
There is the editor who has publicly tangled with several Presidents but demands anonymity before he will I agree even to talk about talking about Brown.
And finally there is The New Yorker writer who whispers to me the secret of Brown's name: Rearranged, it spells 'born to win" - or, more accurately, "born ta win."
Just 40 years old, Tina Brown is unquestionably one of the most powerful editors in the country, and probably the most influential woman working in print journalism. In the 10 years she has been in New York, she has almost singlehandedly rewritten the rules for the magazine world, blurring genres, bidding up salaries and fashioning writers into celebrities. In the process, she herself has become the closest thing the Editor & Publisher crowd has to a break-out star.
Such is Brown's editorial flair that at a time when general-interest magazines are supposed to be dying, she has turned around three. First, at 25, she took over The Tatler and quadrupled its circulation. Then, at 30, she came to New York, took charge of the ailing Vanity Fair and transformed it into the very archetype of a "hot" magazine.
Brown's most recent, and perhaps most impressive, achievement is her redesign of The New Yorker. In many circles, Brown's appointment as editor was greeted with stunned disbelief; here was the woman who brought the world a body-painted Demi Moore being entrusted with the last redoubt of high culture. And yet, over the last year, Brown appears to have triumphed once again, boosting the magazine's readership, its advertising and its profile.
Brown's critics - and they are many, even if most do not want to be identified - like to attribute her success to a canny commercial instinct and to an importation of British standards of journalism, which is to say hardly any at all. Brown began her career as a "girl reporter" for Punch, writing sly, highbrow accounts of assorted lowbrow adventures, among them an attempt to become a nude centerfold, a date with a rented beau and a one-night stint as a go-go dancer named Union Jackie. Her detractors point to Vanity Fair and to the changes she has made at The New Yorker and say that she has continued to exploit much the same formula, packaging titillation for sophisticated tastes.
To explain Brown's achievements in these terms, however, is to miss something essential. Her editorial program is, in fact, far more complicated than a shrewd marketing plan, and it has much more to do with Houdini than P.T. Barnum. What Brown shares with masters of sleight of hand is an ability to control appearances, and she has succeeded in no small part because she has been able to represent herself and her magazines as successful. This is an especially impressive performance because what is least clear about Brown's magazines is whether they have, in a commercial sense, ever really succeeded.
People who have known Tina Brown on both sides of the Atlantic say that her extraordinary rise has not changed her much; she was charming, blond and ambitious when she started out in London, chronicling her adventures at a fat farm, and she is charming, blond and ambitious today. When she was fresh out of Oxford, throwing parties with guests like Kingsley Amis and Tom Stoppard, she seemed older and more sophisticated than her years, and now that she is the editor of The New Yorker, she seems young and even a little nervous, herself.
"I'm nervous all the time," she tells me in what is clearly supposed to be a confessional tone. "It's my M.O." We are sitting at a little white table in Brown's all-white office on West 43d Street; Brown, as is her wont, is drinking a can of Diet Coke out of a straw. The office, with a commanding view over midtown, is austere and immaculate; all signs of work in progress are suppressed, except for a whirring fax machine. Though I had been warned that Brown can be cold, even cutting, I'd also been told that she can be a lot of fun and on this day all three qualities come through. Her voice has a performative edge that makes listening to her a bit like going to a play, and her accent, a mixture of Oxford and New York, has the vowels flattening out in odd and unexpected places.
Brown is intensely aware of the criticisms of her work and even guides the conversation around to them at several points, prodding me to tell her anything negative I have heard. When I comply, she does not so much answer her critics as flatten them. When, for example, I point out that many readers, both professional journalists and ordinary subscribers, have told me they find her New Yorker more readable but less thoughtful and ultimately less memorable, she responds with a breezy putdown: "I think that's a kind of fakery. There is a kind of snobbery about 'Oh, you should have seen the south of France when it was a fishing village.' The 50,000-word piece on zinc - did anyone really read it?"
Brown is equally quick to defend her work at Vanity Fair. "I find it rather irritating when people don't understand what Vanity Fair was," she says. "I don't blame them. It takes a bit more intellectual rigor to work out what's there, and it's much easier to write, 'Oh, celebrity journalism.'. But the fact is every magazine in the 80's put celebrities on the cover and no one had the growth that Vanity Fair had, and the quality of audience. I mean, you cannot get every senator in Washington to read a magazine that's just entertainment."
Clearly Brown doesn't expect to be entirely convincing - it's hard to picture Daniel Patrick Moynihan leafing happily through a magazine that prominently featured Roseanne Arnold mud-wrestling with her husband, Tom. Still, Brown's dismissal of her critics is so thorough and uttered with such sang-froid that it is easy to understand the fear she inspires in journalistic circles. The implication of her remarks, indeed of her entire "M.O.," is that you can either be for her or against her, you can participate in her success or be left out in the cold.
It is a threat few sensible journalists can afford to ignore. Brown's influence extends well beyond The New Yorker. Her husband, Harold Evans, heads Random House's trade book division, another major source of employment for authors. When they met in 1976, he was in his mid-40's and, as the editor of The Sunday Times, one of Britain's leading journalists; she was an enterprising writer in her early 20's. They wed in 1981, three years after his first marriage was dissolved. Even more significantly, Brown is a favorite of S.I. Newhouse. Enigmatic, taciturn and fabulously wealthy, Newhouse presides over the Condé Nast empire and, along with his brother Donald, owns Advance Publications, perhaps America's largest privately held media conglomerate.
Brown and the artist Art Spiegelman. They were all smiles before she rejected his proposed Christmas cover of an urinating Santa.
In the course of our first long conversation, there is only one moment when Brown seems caught off guard - when I ask her to define the mission of the magazine that is called the "new" New Yorker. Her tone grows distracted, as if she is trying to remember something half-forgotten. "I think what The New Yorker offers with its weekly frequency combined with its space and depth," she says, "is the chance for people to really go into a subject in great depth, to look underneath it, with a sophisticated, intelligent and educated point of view, and really lay it out."
One could expect the editor of The New Yorker to have something more inspired, or at the very least more practiced, to say about her goals, particularly when one rap against her is that she has no overarching vision for the magazine. But it fits her "critics be damned" attitude. Indeed, she confesses, with
only a touch of remorse, that she spent almost a decade in New York not reading the magazine she now edits. And as she begins to talk about the faults of the "old" New Yorker, principally its failure to attract attention, her tone becomes animated again.
'When Si Newhouse offered me this job, I said, 'I want the whole weekend to think about it,' and I took away a whole box of The New Yorkers," she recalls. "And what struck me was how wonderful so much of the material was. I had been in New York for eight and a half years and rarely heard these wonderful pieces discussed. There were pieces that weren't interesting. But there were a tremendous amount that I thought, 'My God, I've never heard of this writer.' I felt kind of guilty. Then I thought, 'I shouldn't feel guilty.' The fact is I was reading other things and I wasn't reading this. And I wished I had been, but it was their fault, I thought, not the readers'."
During the eight and a half years that Brown wasn't reading The New Yorker, she was busy editing Vanity Fair, the glossy monthly that Newhouse revived with much fanfare in 1983. It was Brown's stewardship of this magazine that made her appointment to The New Yorker - another Newhouse publication at once disconcerting and entirely logical.
What Brown did for Newhouse at Vanity Fair was save him from a huge, "Ishtar"-like embarrassment. By the time Brown took over the magazine, a year after its rebirth, it was the laughingstock of the publishing world – a critical flop on the one hand, savaged for its lack of editorial focus; a financial disaster on the other, hemorrhaging money and attracting almost no advertising. One writer who survived the startup compared the experience to jumping into a lifeboat and then being shot at.
Brown took this mess and in short order imposed a clear, and even innovative, plan. Ignoring conventional boundaries, Vanity Fair would mix stories on Gorbachev and Goldie Hawn. It would include long 10,000-word articles like those found in more intellectual journals, but also indulge in the kind of starstruck celebrity profiles found on supermarket checkout lines. It would create a new niche that it alone could occupy, it would be smarter than anything glossier and glossier than anything smarter.
As its operating principle, Brown's Vanity Fair took up the adage "nothing succeeds like success." Brown wanted successful people on the cover of the magazine, so she flew to Los Angeles to court the big Hollywood agents. She wanted successful people to write for the magazine, so she paid regular contributors some of the highest fees in journalism, sometimes $20,000 per piece. She wanted successful people to be part of the crowd that was loosely and usefully - connected with the magazine, so she socialized with all the right people. When Vanity Fair threw a party, it was planned, says one writer, "like the Tet offensive."
"There were two points with Tina," the writer says, describing an ideal Brown soirée. 'Perpetuate the myth and bring more people into the fold."
The flip side of this inclusive strategy was Brown's reliance on a select but ever-changing circle of favorites. To work at Vanity Fair meant to always be a little bit nervous, a little bit unsure about whether Brown was warming or cooling toward one's work. Some staff members were so anxious they would read the seating arrangements at her private dinners, like entrails, for their prophetic significance. 'People want to be smiled on by Tina," one Vanity Fair editor says now. They don't want to be frowned at by Tina. When Tina is cold, she can be very, very cold."
Without ever explicitly enunciating them, Brown laid down clear rules about what stories would go inside her magazine. To get her O.K. a story had to be, in Hollywood parlance, "high concept" - i.e. reduceable to one sentence. Even if a story was about a world leader, it was expected to have a frisson of sex or violence and to contain a few provocative, but easily summarized, ideas.
"The formula for Vanity Fair," one writer remembers, "was you had to have three interesting things in every article that people could talk about at a party."
It didn't hurt if the story - or at least the photographs accompanying it- edged toward the offensive. Among Vanity Fair's most celebrated forays into bad taste were its photo spread of Claus von Bülow showing off in leather as his wife lay in a coma and two Demi Moore covers -one naked and pregnant, one naked and not pregnant.
More than anything else, this appetite for the outrageous marked the difference between Brown's version of celebrity journalism and that of more down-market publications. Though many magazines happily reported on the titillating antics of the stars, few participated so actively in these antics, encouraging Demi to doff her clothes and Claus to rifle through his closet. When von Bülow appeared smiling in a motorcycle jacket, he and the magazine were being cheeky together.
Along with the shot of the Reagans kissing and her own famously unflattering profile of Princess Di, Brown says, the von Bülow and Demi Moore issues were "breakthroughs." All attracted enormous publicity, which was clearly their point. Brown realized that other members of the press would help sell Vanity Fair if she would just give them something to talk about. It was nice to have an exclusive interview with Noriega, but in a pinch a body painted actress would do just as well (or even better). The aim wasn't so much to get compliments as simply to get covered.
Few dispute that Brown is an exacting reader, an inventive editor and a witty writer. But some argue that however substantial her literary talents, her real genius is for publicity. Even her admirers note she spent a lot of hours at Vanity Fair plotting new ways to squeeze into the spotlight "She is a superb marketer," says Jesse Kornbluth, a former writer for Vanity Fair. 'As hard as she worked on the content of the magazine, she worked just as hard on its promotion." At Vanity Fair, Brown never seemed to be off duty, not even when she gave birth to a son in 1986 and then a daughter in 1990.
Though critics continued to slam Vanity Fair - Calvin Trillin, The New Yorker writer, labeled it "the house organ of the Eurotrash" - Brown's magazine eventually began to live up to its own P.R. It became hugely popular with both readers and Madison Avenue; circulation quadrupled, to almost one million, and almost every season it grew fatter with ad pages. For most of Brown's tenure, however, Vanity Fair continued to lose money its high production and editorial costs outstripping its revenues - but that never seemed to spoil the party.
Writers who worked for Brown in the boom years recall it as a heady, if anxious, experience. They saw their names splashed on the covers (Stephen Schiff on John Le Carré! Kevin Sessums on Dolly Parton!) as if they were stars whose bylines sold magazines. Brown got them on television, invited them to dinner with the rich and famous and bought them expensive presents for a job well done - a cashmere scarf here, a Sony Discman there. She created the sense that the whole world was watching.
At the center of the great publicity spiral that was Vanity Fair was Tina Brown herself, her every move chronicled in the gossip columns, her achievements celebrated on "60 Minutes." Brown's fame was a logical outgrowth of her distinctive brand of journalism, in which writers not only cover celebrities but also become them. As a Vanity Fair editor puts it, "Tina almost created the whole idea of being hot at the same time she created the idea that Tina is hot."
When Si Newhouse named Brown to run The New Yorker, her appointment made front-page news. Newhouse maintains that the choice never struck him as the least bit incongruous. "The question didn't take a minute's thought," he says. Brown's stunned staff, however, giggled over the impact she would have on the staid world of Eustace Tilley. The most important person after The New Yorker's editor, they joked, would no longer be John Updike; it would be Brown's publicist, Maurie Perl.
On Sept. 28, 1992, the New Yorker appeared on newsstands with a traditional seasonal cover. Against a background of red and yellow leaves, Edward Sorel drew a horse-drawn carriage rolling through Central Park. Sprawled in the back seat was a skeletal, menacing punk-rocker; up front sat a decidedly nervous, top-hatted driver.
The suggestive juxtaposition and timing were enough to excite gossip among those following events at the magazine, i.e. every journalist in New York. Were those skinny arms Brown's? Had some insider put Sorel up to taking a sly dig at the new regime?
As it turns out, Sorel's co-conspirator was the new editor herself. One of Brown's first decisions at The New Yorker was to sponsor a competition among six artists for a "statement" about the change in management. She chose the winning image while vacationing at a dude ranch in Wyoming. "I put them all on a bed, and the light was just terrible in this cabin, and I picked up the bed lamp, and there was no contest," she recalls. "Sorel's piece was so witty." The original cover drawing now hangs in the living room of her East 57th Street apartment.
Brown's joke on herself and on her staff points to the considerable self-awareness - and self-assurance - she brought to The New Yorker. Where others saw, perhaps hoped for, a crisis, she saw the stuff of spoof. In the following months, Brown set out to convince New Yorker writers and readers that their vision of her had, in fact, bordered on caricature.
Brown's image-management campaign began as soon as she was appointed in June 1992, three months before she entered the editor's office. Writers at The New Yorker began to receive flattering notes, sometimes via Federal Express. Some were summoned for lunch at the Royalton Hotel and asked for guidance. Brown pumped them with questions about who was good and who was not, which features they considered sacrosanct and which could be changed. Many remained wary of her, but others became instant converts. 'When Tina arrived, we expected a character out of Jackie Collins," observes Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker's art critic. "Instead we got Jane Austen. She persuaded people that her media image was diametrically opposed to what she really is."
It is understandable why many at The New Yorker - and elsewhere - had confused Brown with her media image; she, more than anyone, had helped foster such confusion. "If you don't like my identity, you won't like the magazine," she said when she took over Vanity Fair, and the implication was the reverse was true as well. At the time, the crossover was good for business Brown's identity helped sell magazines and vice versa.
Such is Brown's belief in the power of self-fashioning that she can now look back at Vanity Fair and portray it as essentially just a job. Her current position, she suggests, is a more accurate reflection of her true self. "Had I launched Vanity Fair from scratch," she told me, "I think it would have looked more like The New Yorker."
By this account, Brown's ascension is less a revolution than an orderly succession, a point she emphasizes frequently. As the inspiration for her redesign, she often cites the stylish irreverence of the original New Yorker, founded in 1925 by Harold Ross. And more than once she let me know that before his death last December she had received overtures from William Shawn indicating approval of the changes at the magazine and expressing a desire to have lunch.
Shawn edited The New Yorker for 35 years, an extraordinarily long tenure that explains why Brown is only the fourth editor in the magazine's history. As journalist and would-be dining companion, Shawn was as close as one could imagine to Brown's antithesis; their lunch, had it occurred, would have been an apt subject for a comedy of manners - on one side of the table, the glamorous-in-black Brown, delicately picking at some tuna carpaccio; on the other, Mr. Shawn, as he was known even to his closest associates, eating his famous noontime bowl of Kellogg's Special K.
During his extended regime, Shawn governed The New Yorker with absolute if, many insisted, benign authority, and his vision for the magazine was less an editorial plan than an entire ethical system. Under this system, cardinal sins included indelicacy, self-promotion and anything that smacked of hype. While other magazines lured readers with the promise of an "inside scoop," Shawn's New Yorker prided itself on its "cultivated amateurism," maintaining the myth that its writers had no advantage over its readers except, perhaps, more time to indulge their curiosity. And while competitors beat a path to the rich and powerful, The New Yorker preferred the company of undiscovered characters in out-of-the-way places cowboys, scientists, building superintendents. Often the stories had a wistful tone that seemed self-reflexive, as if The New Yorker were mourning the passing of a world of which it was a part.
Shawn's vision was defiantly - some said dementedly - out of touch with the rest of popular journalism, and that vision seemed doomed in 1985 when Newhouse bought The New Yorker for almost $170 million. The magazine's readership was aging, its ad pages declining, and, although it remained the nation's pre-eminent weekly, its best years seemed over. The week The New Yorker was sold, Shawn acknowledged its vulnerability by firing off a preemptive editorial. In it, he reasserted the magazine's right to publish "in defiance of commercial pressures." The New Yorker, he proclaimed, had "never published anything in order to sell magazines, to cause a sensation, to be controversial, to be popular or fashionable, to be 'successful."' Twenty months later, Newhouse announced that he would be replacing Shawn with Robert Gottlieb, the editor in chief of Knopf.
In publishing circles, Gottlieb was known as a gifted book editor and a devotee of kitsch. (He owns a world-class collection of plastic purses.) Still, Gottlieb turned out to be the wrong person to gut the old New Yorker. He did make some moves toward jazzing up the magazine, letting in a few dirty words and redesigning the Goings On About Town section. But that was about it. Gottlieb refused to make more substantial changes, saying he was by nature a "conservator," not a “revolutionary."
When the "new" New Yorker had its first birthday two months ago, Tina Brown gave Ed Sorel another rack at the cover. Against another autumnal background, Sorel coupled a zaftig nymph with a satyr who had laid aside his pipes for a copy of The Wall Street Journal.
Like Sorel's curiously contemplative satyr, Brown has shown over the last 15 months an eye for serious writing that few outside her inner circle could have anticipated. Under her direction, The New Yorker has continued to publish many of the long, smart, intensely researched stories that were its trademark and that other magazines either don't want or can't afford to produce. As editor, Brown shares credit for stories like Lawrence Wright's two-part series on Satanic cult hysteria, Alma Guillermo-prieto's article on the spectacular flameout of the Brazilian President, Fernando Collor de Mello, and Mark Singer's profile of the magician Rickey Jay, all of which were carried off in vintage New Yorker style. And to the magazine's stable of talented writers he has made some shrewd additions, among them Wright, a longtime contributor to Texas Monthly, David Remnick, a former Washington Post correspondent, and Hendrik Hertzerg, the former editor of The New Republic whom Brown hired to serve as her executive editor.
Still, no one would say of Brown what Gottlieb said of himself. By nature, she is more a provocateur than a conservator, and the pages of her New Yorker give plenty of play to Pan. Interspersed among the long features on old tires and quirky comic-strip artists are pieces that doubtless would have mortified Mr. Shawn. In recent months, the magazine has run articles on pederastic priests, the sleazy motel murder of a Cravath, Swaine partner and the adventures of Hollywood's most eligible madame, Heidi Fleiss, to name just a few of the more prurient examples.
This new appetite for sex and violence - the leitmotifs of Brown's Vanity Fair - can be traced directly to the editor's office. Brown told me that she'd assigned the piece on Fleiss because the magazine "needed" a piece of the summer's hottest story. Recently she commissioned Gay Talese to chronicle the tale of Lorena Bobbitt, the woman who sliced off her husband's penis. Brown has also given the magazine a more suggestive look. The covers, which once displayed fading beach houses, now show red-nippled corpses and tots toting submachine guns. In the context of this "new" New Yorker, even a three-part meditation on the moral dilemmas of biographers seems less ponderously cerebral and more provocative.
Along with The New Yorker's "faster" sensibility has come a faster pace. Back at Vanity Fair, Brown was notorious for tossing out fully edited stories to make room for pieces more late-breaking - and hence more likely to attract attention. (Behind her back, staff members referred to her as the Terminator.) Indeed, so relentless was her drive that eventually Newhouse agreed to an accelerated - and more expensive - printing and distribution schedule that allowed the monthly to operate almost as a weekly.
At The New Yorker, Brown has introduced a similar sense of urgency, insisting that topical issues be addressed in a topical way. The ouster of the New York City schools chancellor, the suicide of a close aide to President Clinton and the battle for control of Paramount are just a few of the stories that Brown's New Yorker has covered as they were breaking. And even though she now runs a weekly, Brown still routinely changes the story lineup at the last minute. When, for example, she learned that the American Express chairman, James Robinson, was about to be deposed, Brown rushed in a 7,000-word article on the company.
In the old days, New Yorker writers were free to research an article for months or even years; Brown makes it clear she wants her stories sooner rather than later. Those writers who fail to meet Brown's deadlines are apt to get a call from the editor herself, voicing her displeasure in language that can hint darkly at unemployment.
Brown explains the new emphasis on topicality as part of an effort to make the magazine live up to its social responsibilities. During the Shawn-Gottlieb era, "the magazine had gone from being detached to being aloof, which is different," she says. "In the 80's, The New Yorker didn't do Milken, didn't do Boesky; it kind of ignored the incredible world of the 80's that was there to be written about and where it could have done something to help puncture some of those balloons. Writers were pursuing their own arcane interest to the point where it was really kind of arrogant."
Her continuing obsession with speed has strained the magazine's famously meticulous editing and fact-checking system, producing grumbles, but Brown seems not to mind. In contrast with her predecessors, she does not involve herself in the minutiae of word substitutions or punctuation changes, leaving that to her subordinates. She herself functions at terrifically high speed; with awe, several New Yorker writers recount instances of sending her stories of 20,000 words one day and getting them back from her the next, complete with insightful suggestions.
Brown's changes have altered the rhythms for readers of the magazine as well. While the old New Yorker read from cover to cover like a long walk in the country, the new magazine moves to a snappier and more irregular beat. At the center of the book are the slower, weightier "fact" pieces, but at either end Brown has introduced briefer, breezier features: foreshortened reports and cultural profiles at the front and the quick-take humor of "Shouts and Murmurs" at the back. Nearly all the nonfiction stories have been condensed and fiction occasionally disappears altogether - an absence that would have struck Brown's predecessors as heretical. "Mixed pace and news," she says. "That's what makes people read magazines."
Shawn's New Yorker was driven almost exclusively by text; it was a magazine as logo-centric as its editor. Brown, on the other hand, cares almost as much about images as words. Her magazine, increasingly propelled by visuals, now includes frequent full-page illustrations, artists' "notebooks" and photo spreads by The New Yorker's first staff photographer, Richard Avedon. The magazine's layout has been remodeled and re-remodeled over the last year to produce a New Yorker far less cramped and less forbidding
In the magazine world, Brown's redesign has been much studied - and generally much admired and some of her ideas about what makes people read magazines have clearly been taken to heart by other publications. And yet, as one might expect and even Brown acknowledges, there have been problems. Most obvious has been the new Talk of the Town section. Early on, Brown decided that the section needed to be overhauled, its first-person-plural persona updated and made less precious. She was dissatisfied with the first remake attempt, carried out under Alexander Chancellor, a highly regarded British editor who unfortunately had only a cursory knowledge of New York. (One of Chancellor's first contributions was a gee-whiz piece on the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center; it was killed by an editor more familiar with the evergreens of New York journalism.) The section is now on its second editor and its second new look, but still seems adrift somewhere between whimsy and self-parody.
Brown complains that in the many profiles written about her, she is rarely given credit for the enormous amount of hard and relatively unglamorous work that goes into her job. Instead, stories have portrayed her as a party-girl editor sporting designer suits and blood-red nails. (These days the suits are the same, but the nail polish is clear.) She says that if she were writing about herself -Brown is the author of many devastatingly convincing profiles - she would focus on the workaday details of editing. "I know what I would be interested in," she told me, "which is how we make a magazine and what makes a good magazine and how she responds."
How Brown responds how she decides which stories or illustrations to assign and which to run is endlessly brooded about by the members of her staff. All of them have been affected, sometimes traumatically so, by her praise or disapproval and all have theories about what guides her decisions. I myself, however, never get the chance to see "how she responds." This is because Brown repeatedly turns down my requests to sit in on a session when editorial decisions are being made. Even when she allows a flash-wielding photographer to follow her around the office, she continues to maintain that my presence with a notebook would be disruptive.
Instead, she invites me to a party.
It is a bright day in late spring and Tina Brown has packed Sardi's with all the glitter Broadway can still muster. Half-hidden in a corner, Carol Chanfling is chatting up Al Hirschfeld. Estelle Parsons, Martin Short and Michael York are milling among the flower arrangements. And everywhere you look, there is Isabella Rossellini, turning heads.
Ostensibly, the purpose of the party is to celebrate The New Yorker's recent "Broadway jubilee" issue, a something-old, something-new collection of articles on the theater. But so much star power rarely gathers in one room just for the sake of the written word.
After lunch, a visibly nervous Brown gets up and, reading from her notes, delivers a short encomium to the luminescence of the crowd. Next up is John Lahr, The New Yorker's new theater critic, who praises Brown for appreciating the importance of theater as well as "the importance of making a proper spectacle of yourself, which includes, thank God, having fun." Finally, when he is through, the playwright John Guare rises from the crowd to toast Lahr. And with that, the perfect circle of mutual admiration is closed. As soon as Guare's toast concludes, the waiters wheel out cakes that have been frosted to look exactly like the "Broadway Jubilee" cover.
Exciting, expensive and eminently clubby, the Broadway party is a typical Brown affair. Brown may not be particularly fond of parties - friends insist that her idea of fun is an evening at home with Harry and the kids, George, 7, and Isabel, 3 - but she throws them all the time. Indeed, she and Evans are the reigning hosts of the New York publishing crowd. They give frequent book parties for their writers and elegant private dinner parties for the cultural elite. Parties also feature prominently in Brown's cosmology. She titled her second book of collected articles "Life as a Party," and she often compares putting together a successful magazine to staging a successful party with all the most interesting people.
At the old New Yorker, there weren't many parties -only a stiff, lackluster affair for the magazine's anniversary in February. Socializing wasn't part of the job; writers might go months, even years, without talking to the person in the next office. Some considered it a breach of decorum to ask a fellow staff member what he was working on.
In the new order, everything is conceived as a social process, even reading. The goal of every story published is not merely to be read, but to be argued over and passed around like a gazette in an 18th-century coffeehouse. "The important thing," Brown says, explaining her editorial program, "is that all by itself the magazine makes news and people are talking about it. And that's about having pieces there which are a surprise, throwing in suddenly a Dick Avedon picture that makes people discuss it or a piece that really takes such a contrary view that everyone's mentioning it." The Art Spiegelman cover illustration of a Hasidic man kissing a black woman, the summer double issue given over to Janet Malcolm's reflections on Sylvia Plath and Seymour Hersh's recent article questioning the Clinton Administration's motives for bombing Baghdad all were published with this goal in mind. Upcoming attention-grabbers include a special "The New Yorker Goes to the Movies" issue, scheduled for Oscar time. (Brown did, however, recently sacrifice a guaranteed conversation piece when she turned down a Christmas cover by Spiegelman of a urinating Santa.)
Brown's tireless efforts to make the magazine part of daily discourse extend far beyond editorial decisions. She has spent a great deal of time and money setting up an apparatus to put the magazine into the hands of the people whose talk makes talk. Some staff members refer to this as Brown's "buzz machinery."
The machine has several interlocking parts. On Sunday, the day before the magazine hits the stands, issues arrive, hand-delivered, at the homes of a few hundred select opinion leaders. Included on this "hot list" are Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings. At the same time, additional copies are directed toward the cloak rooms of the United States Senate and House of Representatives, to be deposited the next morning for the convenience of the members. Advance copies of The New Yorker, which Shawn considered unseemly, now also arrive at most major newspapers, and reporters are actively alerted to any pieces that might be deemed newsworthy. When Harold Brodkey revealed in the pages of The New Yorker that he had AIDS, reporters received frantic phone calls from the magazine's public relations office. Shortly before Malcolm's Plath opus appeared, more
phone calls were made urging comparisons with John Hersey's "Hiroshima."
So far, the conversion from Shawn's "cult of anonymity" to Brown's school of buzz has not produced the mass staff disaffection that some had predicted. Perhaps this should not be surprising. Brown has managed the transition with considerable skill, going to great lengths to appease the old guard and honor its traditions. Besides, it's rather nice to know that you can always get a reservation for lunch at the Royalton - in the real dining room and not out in the foyer, where the couches are so uncomfortable. There used to be one kind of reward for working at The New Yorker and now there is another. "Bob treated you like an artist," one writer says of Gottlieb. "He had no interest in making you a star. Tina has no interest in your artistic side. She wants to make you a star."
There are still some at the magazine, to be sure, who mutter despairingly about Circe and claim to find all the changes Brown has made despicable. But they are a minority. More numerous are those who speak about the magazine's metamorphosis gratefully, like the relieved members of the Samsa family heading to the suburbs by tram. "It's a sign of being alive, not dead," Brendan Gill, the longtime New Yorker writer, says of the transition. "And that's exhilarating."
In the end, of course, there is only one person whose opinion of Tina Brown's work really matters and that is S.I. Newhouse.
Newhouse, whose vast media holdings include a newspaper chain, Random House and Knopf and the magazines Glamour, Vogue and GQ, as well as The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, is a man of mysterious opinions and sudden decisions. He has been known to dismiss editors so abruptly that they first get the word from the 5 o'clock news. To Brown, however, Newhouse has shown nothing but devotion.
When discussing the "new" New Yorker, the notoriously laconic Newhouse becomes practically voluble in his praise. "There are editors and editors," he says in an interview in his Madison Avenue office. "I think Tina has something remarkable. I wish I knew what it was. It's indefinable. What makes a great film director a great film director?"
Certainly, there is much for Newhouse to celebrate. Since Brown's arrival, all of The New Yorker's publicly reported figures are up. Circulation, which stood at roughly 630,000 when she took over, rose by more than 20 percent in the first six months of 1993, to 760,000. Advertising pages have climbed by 14 percent at a time when most magazines have posted only modest gains. Brown has clearly proved, once again, that she can edit a magazine people will buy.
What she hasn't proved, however, is that she can edit a magazine that will actually support itself. Because Newhouse, with an estimated net worth of $5 billion, is one of the richest men in America and his magazines are all privately held, their financial performance cannot be documented by outsiders or gauged from external appearances. And in the Byzantine and increasingly straitened world of magazine publishing, growth is no sure sign of profit. Indeed, growth can be very expensive; the tactics that attract new readers - cut-rate subscriptions, direct-mail campaigns, television ads - may well end up costing more than they return. What all commercially successful magazines must work out is the formula that will make them profitable; bigger isn't necessarily better.
Ironically, The New Yorker under Shawn, which "never published anything in order to sell magazines," had arrived at just such a formula. In the mid-1960's, The New Yorker was so flush that it could afford to - and on occasion did - turn away potential advertisers. It remained profitable into the 1980's; in 1984, the year before Newhouse bought it, the magazine posted after-tax earnings of more than $5 million.
Today it is widely acknowledged, even by the magazine's president, Steven Florio, that The New Yorker no longer makes money. Indeed, it probably hasn't been in the black for several years. A much-reported figure puts recent losses at almost $10 million a year. Though Florio insists that this number is exaggerated, neither he nor anyone else at The New Yorker will talk about the magazine's finances in detail.
In the meantime, Brown has been spending conspicuously. Even before officially taking command, she was buying up writers - as an associate puts it, like a corporate raider on a "mergers and acquisition spree." So far, she has fired relatively few people and has hired lots more - at much higher salaries. Unlike her predecessors, who preferred to pluck writers out of obscurity, Brown has tended to go after journalists who have big names - and draw big paychecks, in some cases $150,000 a year. She has also increased the use of color as well as the weight of the paper and cover stock, all at significant expense.
Both Brown and Florio are rather prickly on the question of profitability. (When I pressed the subject with him, Florio, a big burly man with a blustery manner, suggested that The New York Times management had it in for him.) They insist that they are competing by the same rules as other commercial magazines and that they are serious about making money. Brown predicts the magazine will be running in the black in five years; Florio, depending on the day, offers various time frames, sometimes one year, sometimes four.
Among her competitors, and even among some of her colleagues, there is a good deal of resentment that Brown has been hailed as the savior of the general-interest magazine when there is so little evidence that her magazines have in a financial sense, ever truly been saved. Commenting on her legacy at Vanity Fair, one competitor of Brown's tells me, "If somebody was willing to lose $75 million, you or I could make Popular Mechanics into a 'hot' magazine." While no one outside Newhouse's small circle knows exactly how much he has lost on Vanity Fair over the last decade - estimates run from $50 to $100 million - it seems unlikely he will recoup his investment any time in the foreseeable future. This can be said even if, as top Newhouse officials maintain, the magazine did begin to turn a yearly profit sometime toward the end of Brown's reign.
Newhouse himself is quick to defend Brown against the charge that she is a big spender. "Certainly the idea that she is a spendthrift, that she has bought success through dollars rather than through ability and intellect is something that has floated around, and I think it totally misrepresents the reality of the situation and totally misrepresents Tina," he says. "People spend hundreds of millions of dollars on things and they get nothing."
For his money, Newhouse has clearly gotten something of value. Regardless of whether Vanity Fair and the new New Yorker are financially successful, Brown has fashioned them into splendid simulacra of success. For a billionaire like Newhouse, this glittering appearance may well be worth more than a genuine but unsung profit.
And even if Brown hasn't actually "saved" the general-interest magazine, she has certainly gilded its declining years. Thanks in large part to her, magazines once again seem glamorous. They are again making news. Indeed, so dazzling has been the scope of Brown's achievement that other writers, other editors and other magazines increasingly find themselves measuring their work by her standards. The questions journalists once asked themselves on the eve of publication were: Is this smart enough? New enough? Important enough? Now they are just as likely to ask: Will there be a buzz?
Elizabeth Kolbert reports on the media for The New York Times.