At the start of the eighties, an eager young Tina Brown moved from London to Manhattan as a woman on a mission: revamp the embattled Vanity Fair, a then-failing publication that’s now widely respected, thanks to Brown’s ingenuity.
Brown was charged with rescuing the magazine at a time of celebrity excess, of glitz and glam and Trumpian triumph. Of course, Vanity Fair was only the beginning — from there she moved on to The New Yorker, hosted a TV series, and launched The Daily Beast.
Brown joined Jim Braude and Margery Eagan on Boston Public Radio to chat about her latest book, "The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992" a tell-all about Brown’s time at Vanity Fair, including dirt on the very rich, the very famous, and a certain president who ruled the decade’s dinner parties.
The following excerpt has been edited for clarity.
MARGERY: Everybody knows Vanity Fair, but not everybody knows Vanity Fair when you took over in the ‘80s. It was not what it became. Tell us what the book is chronicling, and tell us what the magazine was like when you got there.
BROWN: The book is really a story of becoming, of a young woman, age 29, who comes from London. I had been editor of The Tattler, which is a small glossy, I had turned that around, and I then got offered the job at Vanity Fair through various permutations that you read about in the book, and I’m helicoptered into this disaster story, because Vanity Fair, when it was relaunched as this big iconic thing, had two editors in six months, and it was a turkey. Everybody was kissing it off and saying it was about to fold. It was like Mission Impossible in a sense, to kind of come in, I didn’t know anybody in New York, but I had to just get in there and do my best to kind of bring this thing around.
JIM: What were some of the first things you decided you had to do to rescue this thing?
BROWN: First of all, I redesigned it, back to front. Over a long weekend, I went into that office and I just ripped the whole magazine apart, because it was a sort of typographical fiasco. I literally ransacked the art department drawers, saying, there’s got to be better pictures in here, because I had to do this first issue for April of 1984. I found this great cache of pictures that nobody seemed to want to publish by a great photographer called Annie Leibovitz, which was her pictures of comedians. I said, 'Oh my God,' it’s the April issue, we’ll do, you know, April Fools. And these pictures were just absolute classics. We had ten pages of them and one of them was that great picture of Whoopi Goldberg in a bath of milk, which is now so celebrated. I hired Dominick Dunne, who at the time was a failing movie producer who I met at dinner, who I thought had a great way of telling a story, and I said to him, come on board and be my first writer here. And it was literally like that — we just threw it together and it just kind of… it was a process to turn it around.
MARGERY: I always thought of Vanity Fair as the smart man’s People magazine. All the latest stuff, great writers, and it was thick, thick, thick.
BROWN: It became thick. It took about a year and a half at least to persuade the advertisers. In fact, we nearly folded in 1985 because the readers loved it, but the advertisers kept saying, well, is it a fashion magazine, is it a political magazine, is it a crime magazine? And I kept saying, it’s all those things. It’s a great package in which you can feast upon — glamour, gravitas, the high, the low, it was meant to be this kind of seductive juicy thing that satisfied every one of your readerly instincts.
JIM: Who are your faves through the years? Who are the men and women who you just totally fell in love with? And who’s at the other end of the spectrum?
BROWN: Well, my passions are always writers. I loved Norman Mailer — he was one of my dear friends. I absolutely adored that guy. I loved the photographers. Annie Leibovitz is an extraordinary woman. She’s an Amazon; she’s a liberated, fabulous woman. I just adore that woman. I adored Dominick Dunne. I love my writers! I love my photographers, that’s who I love.
JIM: Who did you have contempt for, other than Boris Johnson? We know how you feel about him.
BROWN: I certainly became very disenchanted with Mr. Trump over the years — not at first. At first I thought he was great. I thought he was funny and brash and amusing and witty, et cetera, but then I discovered that there was this other side of him… We fell out big time. Some of the social people made me crazed, there was this big old socialite called Jerry Zipkin, who was the big walker friend of Mrs. Reagan who had a face like a bidet, the guy was just sort of hissing. There were just some of these really ridiculous Park Avenue people who really provide the comic relief in the book.
JIM: What charmed you about Trump, before the flip?
BROWN: At first I thought that he was refreshing. I extracted his book, "The Art of The Deal," because it’s BS but it’s authentic BS. I think the American public will like nothing more, because it has this sort of refreshing voice. And then when I first met him I thought he was a lot of fun, actually. We were at this dinner and our dinner partners were ignoring us, so we sort of bounced it back and forth across the artichoke, and he was like,
“Hey Tina, what do you think of me on the cover of Newsweek this week?”
And I said, “Oh, well, I didn’t see it this week.”
“Oh, well, what’s better, Time or Newsweek?”
“Well, Time, actually.”
“But I could have had Time! I could have had Time!”
And I thought it was funny. I was with this Italian decorator, on the other side he goes, 'Ugh, Mr. Trump, he’s so vulgar.' So I felt, I was on his side. But then as time went by, it’s interesting, he really did change.
To hear the full interview, click on the audio player above.