What Tina Brown really thinks about Trump, his wife Melania, Meghan and Weinstein
The young Trump was 'a blast, actually', Weinstein a 'fascinating monster', while Meghan is 'a great force for change'. As you might expect, Tina Brown is not short of opinions or stories. Nick Curtis reports
American celebrities go bonkers in their own way with isolation and adulation," says Tina Brown, and she should know. She's the British super-editor who revamped Vanity Fair in the 1980s and The New Yorker in the 1990s, and who became bigger than her job.
The queen of the Manhattan politics and party scene, part of a media power couple with her husband, Sir Harold Evans, the feted former Sunday Times editor, she had Henry Kissinger on speed dial and got Demi Moore to pose nude and pregnant for a Vanity Fair cover (which got the magazine banned in Walmart). In her 35 years in the US, Brown has brushed up against every big American ego, from Ronald Reagan to Warren Beatty to John Updike.
The bonkers American she is specifically talking about is, of course, Donald Trump. The then-property mogul crops up throughout Brown's compelling, best-selling diaries of her time at Vanity Fair. "When I first met him I thought he was a blast, actually", she says in her surprisingly quiet transatlantic voice, over a decaf black coffee and sparkling water. "A brash, tough-mouthed New York character of the Damon Runyan kind. Now there is no doubt Trump has curdled. After all the bankruptcies, when his business went wrong, is when he went dark."
Of Melania, the third Mrs Trump, Brown says: "I thought she was the smartest of the bunch, playing it close to her chest, biding her time until whatever deal she has struck comes to pass. But the coat incident (Melania recently wore a coat with 'I really don't care' emblazoned on the back to visit a migrant camp of children separated from their parents) is an absolutely baffling exercise in obliviousness. It's all chaos; Trump is the king of chaos."
She doesn't think he is demented, or that he will be impeached. "I think he will be re-elected. America is doing very well. The economy is so strong. People like his tax cuts. North Korea produced good pictures for him - if you don't focus much. The Democrats have to completely cast their (next presidential) candidate against what he's like on the stage. They'll have to be taller than Trump, probably a veteran, certainly male, successful, great with a rebuttal…"
After leaving The New Yorker in 1998, Brown launched Talk magazine with "fascinating monster" Harvey Weinstein. The publication failed in the advertising recession after 9/11, and the experience left her with PTSD.
She took two years off to write a book about her fellow blonde disruptor, Princess Diana, before founding The Daily Beast website with mogul Barry Diller in 2008, which succeeded but eventually wearied her: "I don't want to spend all the time thinking about platforms and clicks." She now runs her own company promoting Women in the World "summits" where Christine Lagarde and Meryl Streep rub shoulders with female Yemeni doctors and Australian rescue pilots. She's as interested in these women's "stories" as she would be on a magazine.
When we meet in an airy, empty Ham Yard hotel bar I find she's trim and acute, with cropped and immaculately frosted hair. She's dressed in a white shirt and black skirt, with no apparent cosmetic work. This is the woman who got the Reagans to dance and kiss for her cameras; who first revealed the disharmony in the marriage of Charles and Diana; and who outraged patrician Manhattan by introducing photographs (yes, really) to The New Yorker. Many of her older rivals and sparring partners from the time have retired now, of course, and some, such as her former boss at Conde Nast, Si Newhouse, are dead. Trump is one of the survivors, as is US Vogue editor Dame Anna Wintour (circled left), a fellow British shark cruising amid the New York barracudas. "It would be wrong to say we were big mates, but I talked to her yesterday and we are on good terms," says Brown. "Anna has been brilliant in the way she has built her iconic status in New York. There will be big shoes to fill when she goes."
In the 1980s she and Wintour were often credited with creating 'buzz' around their respective magazines, a symptom of the ingrained sexism of the time. "It expressed itself to me not in sexual harassment but in condescension and a lack of respect for our achievements as women," she says. "When I got magazine awards, Vanity Fair would be referred to as perky, sparky - no, that's a reference to me, not the magazine, which has really good journalism and top-class writers. I got a lot of that at The New Yorker because it was a very male shop. There was real resentment of me coming in, but I always just barrelled ahead and never let it stop me."
Brown's starting salary when she took over Vanity Fair in 1984 was $120,000 (£90,000) and she was given regular bonuses and enhancements (including a $100,000 boost in 1988) as circulation climbed from 200,000 to over 1 million. Yet even in her imperial pomp, she discovered she was paid less by Conde Nast than the male editor of the less successful GQ. A (male) lawyer brokered her a better deal, and enabled her to bargain harder in subsequent job moves. So much so she can now afford to do things that interest her, rather than pay big. "I did very well in my publishing career and invested it with decent acumen," she says. "I am in fine shape. I have enough that I want, put it that way. I have never lusted after boats and planes." She and Evans recently exchanged their three storey Manhattan townhouse for a book-lined, single level apartment near the East River.
But women are still paid and respected less than men: "Look at the Fortune 500: the number of female CEOs has gone down. I personally think women have to start their own things and create their own cultures, because trying to disrupt those intransigent patriarchal structures is beating your head against a wall." For those who don't have the moxie or the money to start their own international summits, she thinks the #MeToo movement is driving change. What about accusations that it's promoting mob rule, that men are being found guilty until proven innocent? "Revolutions are messy and this is a revolution," she says.
Brown remains a compulsive networker, news junkie and party-giver. "I sold my Vanity Fair diaries to Bruna Papandrea, who did Big Little Lies, so that's going to be developed as a TV series," she says. The night of our interview she's having dinner with the editor of Toronto's The Globe and Mail and someone from the Council on Foreign Relations, among others. Two days after our interview, she's hosting a 90th birthday bash for her husband at Cliveden.
Their New York parties in the old house would be so full of everyone - from Kissingers to a**-kissers - they'd clear out all their furniture, which would be driven around Manhattan in a truck for 24 hours. "I think Harry would rather have been in the truck with the furniture," Brown says.
"But I love this phase for us, now the kids are off our hands," she continues. Their son George (32) works for a non-profit in Manhattan and their daughter Isabel (28) is a news producer for Vice. "We get up, we go out for breakfast, then back to our computers all day, and regroup at night. We've become obsessed with an evening diet of Netflix and Amazon."
She is proud that she didn't give either child a leg up, and favours positive discrimination for women, ethnic minorities and the less wealthy, but says politics and media are no more meritocratic now than they were 30 years ago.
Not that Brown herself is exactly salt of the earth: she was born in Maidenhead, her father a gentleman film producer, her mother a former PA to Laurence Olivier. Her older brother Christopher is a film and TV producer in Sydney. Expelled from various private schools for insurrection, Brown still made it to St Anne's College, Oxford, where she wrote and performed in award-winning plays and arguably got her first taste of networking. Martin Amis became her lover and Auberon Waugh, the journalist son of Evelyn Waugh, a Mentor.Members of her undergraduate circle would go on to edit The Times, run the BBC and dominate the publishing world.
While still at university, Brown wrote for the New Statesman, and in 1974 started working for The Sunday Times, before being appointed editor of the ailing society bible Tatler at the age of 25 and turning its fortunes around. Her first meeting with Harold Evans was a coup de foudre: he divorced his first wife in 1978 and married Brown in 1981 at the Hamptons home of Washington Post executive Ben Bradlee.
Although her passion for her husband seems as strong as ever, I sense some things Brown used to love in New York have gone sour. In the 1980s, celebrity culture was "all new and it all seemed amusing, but now with Melania Trump wearing that jacket and Kim Kardashian becoming a social campaigner, it all seems out of control. I am not a big nostalgia person, but it would be nice if some equilibrium of dignity could be returned to the public forum. Now everything is so bestial and self-driven". She was disgusted by Robert De Niro's 'F*** Trump' statement at the Tony Awards ("utterly juvenile and crass") but thinks it's good that restaurants are turning away Trumpists, and urges Londoners to protest against the president on his visit here.
Brown says she has never been more sorely tempted to return to England than in the past two years, a feeling exacerbated when she came to cover Prince Harry's wedding to Meghan Markle for CBS. "It was so wonderful to be away from Trumpistan, to be staying opposite Windsor Castle, listening to the choir practice during the day," she says. "And I think Meghan is a great force for change."
She misses "London theatre, London newspapers - the variety and voraciousness of them. There is still a literary culture in England and there really isn't now in America." But she also thinks that the exciting internationalism that characterised Britain as recently as 2012 is now slipping back into the kind of narrow-mindedness that initially drove her abroad, thanks to Brexit. "In the diaries, I was always testing England against America and wondering where I belong," she sighs, "but I suppose after 30 or so years in America I have answered that question. I suppose I really am an American."
The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992 by Tina Brown is published in paperback by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £9.99
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