The dramatic decline and return of a publishing powerhouse
It seemed that Tina Brown could do no wrong after taking the helm at Vanity Fair aged 30 but, as Liadan Hynes writes, questionable decisions and a huge failure rocked the editor to the core
It was the launch party to eclipse all others, for a magazine that was intended to reinvent the genre and in the process become a bible for US opinion-formers on both coasts. Clad in Donna Karan, editor Tina Brown, her blonde, cropped hair perfectly tousled as always, hosted a $500,000 launch party, simply referred to as 'The Party', on Ellis Island in August 1999 for her new monthly glossy, Talk.
The almost 1,000-strong guest list included the great and the good from the worlds of New York high society, Hollywood, fashion, business and media. Ferried over from Manhattan, guests lounged on pillows and blankets under Chinese lanterns and a fireworks display, eating, drinking and listening to Macy Gray perform in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.
Henry Kissinger, Natasha Richardson, Liam Neeson, Elizabeth Hurley, Hugh Grant, Julianne Moore, Pierce Brosnan, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon, Lauren Bacall, Salman Rushdie, Kate Moss, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Christopher Reeve and Robert De Niro; the guest list was testament to Brown's unmatched networking skills. Rupert Everett attended with Madonna and declared it the most glamorous event of his life.
"Now you're not exactly the tired masses, the huddled masses, but then again, I'm an immigrant who toiled here on the Concorde," Brown joked as she addressed the guests.
A mere two and a half years - and an estimated €50m - later, Talk magazine had bombed. More than just a literal fin de siecle, Talk, instead of heralding a great new era for print magazines, was in fact teetering on the brink; the era of the internet was about to undercut everything. "We gave an insanely huge launch party that really subscribed to the great David Brown theory of show business, which is never give a party that's better than the movie," Brown herself later reflected.
Brown had arrived in New York in 1983, riding high on a wave of success, having turned British Tatler from a dull, failing monthly to a hugely successful fashion bible. She had attended Oxford, despite being expelled from three boarding schools, and on coming to London, where she dated Martin Amis for a time, she had managed to pull off the ultimate balancing act; infiltrating the British upper classes whilst using them as fodder for her magazine. It was the first example of Brown's signature editorial style - what has been termed a high-low approach; quality writing and content, mixed with celebrity glitz and glamour. "You don't make friends, you make contacts," she is alleged to have said.
Thirty years old, she came to New York first as a consultant and then to edit and save Vanity Fair - some accounts have it that monthly sales went from 100,000 to more than one million. It wasn't long before she was the toast of Manhattan, enjoying all the perks of a Conde Nast editor; an interest-free loan with which to buy her Midtown apartment, town cars to take her wherever she desired.
In the early Nineties, Si Newhouse, the doyen of Conde Nast, put her in charge of The New Yorker. After almost a decade at the helm of the revered magazine, a dissatisfied Brown, with illusions of media mogulhood, ditched long-time mentor Si in favour of Harvey Weinstein - a man she recently spoke out against.
The idea was to dispense with the traditional notion of magazines, to reinvent the medium. Brown would commission stories which could then be optioned by Weinstein. In return, she would provide ample coverage for actresses starring in his movies. A racier-than-usual Gwyneth Paltrow appeared on the cover of the first issue, alongside an interview with Hillary Clinton. Brown harboured plans to expand into books, TV, and radio. The whole thing was dressed up in the dot.com speak of the time; synergy this, cross-pollination that.
Many saw it as a shocking move. Why leave the comfortable confines of Conde Nast, where Brown's excessive spending habits (she was known for tearing up expensive stories at the last minute) and relentless work pace (faxes would arrive to staff's homes in the middle of the night) were tolerated, for the unknown territory of Weinstein?
Brown later reflected that her mother's death had unbalanced her and possibly contributed to the decision.
Less than three years later, Weinstein, unwilling to sustain further losses, closed Talk down. Brown was awarded a $1m pay off she termed "f***-off money".
At the time, she told The Telegraph: "I don't feel in any way down. No big career doesn't have one flame-out in it, and there's nobody more boring than the undefeated." A later interview with Vogue, given when she was again an editor and, perhaps, feeling more confident, was more honest: "When Talk closed, obviously, as someone who loves the news, I felt as if I had an amputated leg," she said. "In the sense that the news would happen and I didn't have a platform to respond for the first time since I was 25."
The experience also affected her confidence. "She realised that her fate had taken a bad turn, was wary of what people thought of her, who said what, where was she seated in the restaurant," her agent revealed. "Tina is used to challenges and relishes them, but Talk ended in a car crash that she just hadn't anticipated. I think she had the media equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder. She was like a war veteran coming back from battle, really jumpy about everything."
She and husband Harold Evans, himself an iconic editor, headed off to the Mediterranean with their two children to holiday on a friend's 305-foot yacht. The couple had first met in London when she was just out of college and he, then in his 40s, was editing The Sunday Times and already married. By all reports, theirs is a true meeting of minds, a loving, supportive marriage. They wed in the East Hampton home of Ben Bradlee, The Washington Post editor immortalised in All the President's Men.
For most of the Noughties, Brown was relatively quiet. There was a fashion column for The Washington Post, a TV show, but no high-profile editorial jobs. She and Harold decamped to their Long Island home, both working on books. Switching off was difficult at first, she recalled, but eventually they enjoyed themselves thoroughly.
"On the emotional side of it, it was really great," Tina once recalled in an interview. "I've always been a workaholic, and having worked solidly and so hard from the age of 25, I had really never had a period where I was just involved with my personal life and my family.
"I always dropped Izzy at school, but there was something extremely lovely about going to pick her up in the middle of the afternoon - this wonderful stolen mother-daughter time - and we'd go and have an ice cream or tea together, chat away and come home and she would do her homework and I would read a book and we would have dinner. And it was wonderful as well for my relationship with Harry. That's when we started to go out to breakfast together every day, which is a habit that's now stuck."
There is a 25-year age gap between the couple, but it doesn't seem to be an issue. "The relationship gets better all the time. There's excitement in the normal. We are so blessed," Evans told Vogue. "I'm devoted to her. But it doesn't mean I'm slavish."
As to the age difference, he admitted: "It's big, but it's funny: We never notice it, honest to God. I can remember thinking, 'She shouldn't be doing this. And I shouldn't'. But we have been married for 30 years, and I don't think there's a single day when we have noticed it. When my knees started cracking up, I began to think, 'It's time for her to show me the exit'. But I had my knees fixed, so I don't think that anymore." The two have two children, Izzy and George, who has Asperger's syndrome, and the family are close. In 2007, her self-imposed exile came to an end with her authorial piece de resistance, The Diana Chronicles. Tina and Diana had had a symbiotic relationship from the outset of their mutual careers, with Brown's Tatler covering the princess at the time of her engagement.
Her coverage was not always favourable, and the book, for which she was rumoured to have received an advance of $1m, opening with a gossipy lunch the pair had shared, was a no-holes-barred explosive retelling of Diana as a savvy media manipulator, but also a deeply neurotic woman. It spent 10 weeks on the bestseller list. "It kind of liberated me," Brown told one journalist. "It was almost like lifting a cloud off my head."
The next year, backed by long-term friend Barry Diller, husband of Diane von Furstenberg, Brown was at the helm when website The Daily Beast launched. She had no online experience, but the idea was to replicate her friend Arianna Huffington's success with the Huffington Post. Gone was the ostentatious spending - this launch party took place in a hamburger restaurant and the food ran out just after eight o'clock.
Still, Brown's lack of internet experience began to show. She had to be moved from a Rolodex to a Blackberry. Daily story schedules were printed off and hand-delivered rather than emailed. Brown, with her love of meaty, narrative-based, properly researched journalism, seemed to fundamentally misunderstand the burgeoning click-bait culture of the internet. Then came the Newsweek collaboration, NewsBeast. Brown's backers took over the failing print publication, with Tina at the helm of the two. The new venture was a disaster. Brown seemed to have lost her touch. There was an ill-judged cover of Diana, put beside a current picture of Kate Middleton and artificially aged. Zombie Diana, staff called it.
"We all knew going in she had this reputation of being obnoxious and difficult to work with, but that she's brilliant like Steve Jobs," recalled one Newsweek editor in a Politico Magazine profile. "What we realised was that she wasn't brilliant. She was actually pretty bad." Money and time were spent on pieces that were then killed. She was obsessive over details - a shoot in which Charlie Sheen was set on fire, costing $20,000, never made it to the cover. "She made The Devil Wears Prada look sane," recalled a colleague.
Tina herself admitted to averaging four hours' sleep a night and taking her Blackberry into the shower with her. The combined publications were now losing approximately £35m a year. Things came to a head on what became known as Bloody Monday, when numerous staff resigned or were fired.
Like any great media personality, Brown is a savvy brand creator, most particularly in the case of her own brand. Since the ignominious failure of this last editorship, she has reinvented herself as a feminist event manager, with her Women in the World summits, now in their eighth year. Guests have included Hillary Clinton, Scarlett Johansson, Diane von Furstenberg and Arianna Huffington.
In keeping with a lifetime's habit of being ahead of the pack in terms of the zeitgeist, Brown was an early adopter of the woman's movement which, while nothing new, in its current incarnation is now having a major moment amongst the kinds of people who would have previously peopled the pages of her magazines, not to mention for women at large in America. It's not a magazine, but she says she approaches its content like she would have one of her publications. It seems Brown, one of the last great print editors, has finally, truly moved on.