Road to the Fair: For Tina Brown, a Decade of Detours

Times Staff Writer

On a good day, and allowing for traffic, the trip between Hackensack, N.J., and the plush midtown Manhattan offices of Conde Nast Publications takes about 15 minutes.

For Vanity Fair Editor-in-Chief Tina Brown the journey was more like 10 years, a series of British magazines and newspapers, a string of honors and awards, a miracle-worker transformation of Britain's flagging Tatler, two well-received books, a high-profile courtship and marriage and a sequined G-string.

Oxford Graduate

The magazines included Punch and the New Statesman, the newspapers were the Sunday Times and London's Sunday Telegraph, and among the honors for Brown, already a published playwright when she graduated from Oxford University at 20 years of age, was Britain's Young Journalist of the Year for 1978--an award likened by one English journalist to "a Pulitzer Prize for baby reporters."

Friends say Brown stalked her husband, then-Times of London Editor Harold Evans, by lurking around the corridors until he noticed her as well as her writing. They married in Southampton, Long Island, in the rose garden of another celebrity media couple, Washington Post Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee and reporter Sally Quinn.

Essays in "Loose Talk" and "Life as a Party" reflected Brown's tart and trenchant tongue: The same arch journalistic voice that once described the Caribbean island of Mustique as "a Club Mediterranee for royalty" branded Princess Caroline's ex-husband Philippe Junot a "blow-dried boulevardier " and captured in the very first interview with American soft-porn movie star Koo Stark her deep and abiding interest in the animal kingdom.

"A lot of people are so concerned with endangered species," the then-girlfriend of Britain's Prince Andrew told Brown. "They seem to forget there are a lot of neurotic cats and dogs around."

As for the G-string, now that she is garbed in silks, couturier suits and shoes that cost more per pair than many young journalists can hope to earn each week, now that she is coolly commanding the slick--very slick--magazine of chic living that Conde Nast chose to resurrect after 47 years in publishing purgatory, now, it seems, that jeweled G-string just won't go away.

Other journalists love to recall how Brown, 20 years old and green out of Oxford, descended on America's shores, full of fire and assignments from the magazine Punch. Bent on documenting just how the colonials live, Brown soon found herself interviewing for the position of go-go dancer with someone named Big Ed at a disco in Hackensack.

Big Ed handed her the garment. "Put this on and move it," he told her.

Brown moved it, eventually landing in the editor's suite of a magazine launched in 1914 as a periodical dedicated to what first Vanity Fair Editor Frank Crowninshield called "the things people talk about at parties--the arts, sports, humor and so forth."

Magazine Long a Target

For 22 years, Vanity Fair reigned as a magazine recognized for its high caliber on both literary and visual arts fronts.

But even then, Vanity Fair was not without its critics. Snobbishness was the most common charge leveled against the magazine, and even as it was merged with Vogue in 1936 it was also termed flippant and frivolous and, yes, out of touch with its time.

Forty-seven years later, when the revitalized Vanity Fair made its debut in March, 1983, a new generation of critics was waiting to issue the same indictments. In the Los Angeles Times, columnist Richard Eder wrote, "A new magazine presumably exists for the sake of discovery and not sanctification, and the first issue of Vanity Fair does tend to celebrate the celebrated." "Amazingly bloated and self-indulgent," said the Wall Street Journal, while the normally staid Christian Science Monitor called the new Vanity Fair "slick and superficial." The Washington Post labeled the new magazine's contents "incoherent gumbo."

It was, as Tina Brown conceded, a less than auspicious way to start a magazine.

"Vanity Fair has been in a media fishbowl since its inception," Brown said. "The sense of anticipation was very, very high, which was really the hard thing to live up to."

Indeed, by the time Brown signed on as Vanity Fair's third editor in less than a year of publication, the critics were cruising the fishbowl like so many undernourished piranhas.

Brown's ongoing rejoinder to the fault-finders is this: "The fact is that those who are condemning this magazine as froth are not reading it.

'No Substance'

"There is no substance to the criticism," Brown insisted. "I don't take any notice of it because it is simply not true."

Instead, Brown likes to describe Vanity Fair as "very much a magazine that provokes comment."

"I mean, for instance," Brown said, "when we did our Gary Hart piece--that was by Gail Sheehy--that was picked up by everyone. That meant Vanity Fair was getting somewhere."

Certainly the magazine had a long way to go when Brown, then all of 30 years old, took over last spring. From an initial circulation rate base of 250,000, the magazine had dropped to 220,000 in May, 1984, the month after Editor-in-Chief Brown published her first issue. On the other hand, Brown was called to the rescue of the ailing Vanity Fair in large part on the basis of her success with Britain's Tatler. Just 26 when she was named editor of what purports to be the world's oldest magazine, also owned now by Conde Nast, Brown managed to make the gossipy periodical a fixture on the reading menus of upscale Londoners. More important, as far as the business side of the operation was concerned, working with a staff of three and a budget of just $10,000 per issue, Brown tripled the Tatler's circulation figures within a year.

The formula was pure Tina Brown: "smart, cool and witty," as she told one interviewer when she took over Tatler, and also long on coverage of that segment of any Western populace known broadly as "society." Parties were important, in Brown's view, because "I think parties are absolutely riveting. Jane Austen said that everything happens at parties, and she was right."

On the other hand, Brown, no less than Jane Austen, ought to know. With a British film producer for a father, and a mother who not long ago took up society-column writing in Spain, Brown holds the distinction of having been thrown out of four high-class boarding schools before she was 16. Mostly, it was her penchant for writing spicy plays that got her in trouble, but sometimes she also tripped over her own diary, such as the time she reportedly compared one teacher's bust line to an unidentified flying object.

First Play Produced

Before she graduated from Oxford, Brown was already seeing her first play, "Under the Bamboo Tree," produced at the Edinburgh Festival.

Meanwhile, Brown's ambitions were extending well beyond the stage as she set her romantic sights on Harold Evans, editor first of the London Sunday Times and then, until his head-on collision with a semi-trailer truck named Rupert Murdoch, the Times of London. Brown was 22 at the time, and single; Evans was 47 and married. But in a plot that might as easily have been written by Danielle Steele as by Jane Austen, romance blossomed, and soon Brown was firmly affixed to one of Britain's most powerful journalists.

One subject Brown especially loved writing about was royalty, Great Britain's original love-hate object. Dreary aristocrats stood not a chance against Brown's acid pen, until, that is, one Lady Diana Spencer burst forth upon the scene. "She came upon us like a vision," Brown said of the bride of Prince Charles. "She gave us a great image. Before Di, the upper-class English girl was drippy, kilt-wearing, faded, asexual, illiterate, boring. Now, the Princess of Wales is not the brain of Britain, but at least she brought some glamour."

Then again, Brown herself is known to do a killer Princess Di imitation. It must come almost naturally, for Brown was third runner-up in the Miss Holiday Princess Contest in Blackpool, England. Sitting in Brown's big office at Conde Nast, the question is why she didn't place higher, what with her feathered blond hair, large, ice-blue eyes and tweedy office attire sensible enough to be worn by any self-respecting Tudor.

These days, for that matter, Brown's celebrated acerbic wit is equally in check, at least in an office interview, and what emerges is a dead-eye steady magazine editor with an almost monomaniacal mission to vindicate Vanity Fair. Brown's predawn mornings begin when a chauffeur calls for her on Central Park South, whisks her to the hairdresser for a quick comb-out of the Princess Di look-alike locks and then deposits her on Madison Avenue. "I eat, sleep and breathe the magazine," Brown said. "I work 24 hours a day. Sometimes I awake with a shot at 5 in the morning, thinking of something for the next issue."

Taking over an enfant terrible publication when she arrived here last winter, Brown determined immediately that "I had two separate problems to deal with, and I went quite scientifically after them." For one thing, there was Vanity Fair's notorious perception problem. "That was the hardest to lick," Brown said. "The good pieces were buried in a bad format, and we were buried in a bad press." With its initial editorial flimsiness, Vanity Fair, Brown said, "had engendered ill will, and there was a sense of disappointment. It had become fashionable to put the boot in. I felt I had to win the opinion of my peers." Put more bluntly, "I had to seduce the media."

Turned Around

Next, Brown set about resolving her magazine's identity crisis. "That had a lot to do with the look of the magazine," Brown said. "It did not have a cohesive tone." In revamping Vanity Fair, Brown said, "My ambition was to have a magazine that if it fell on the floor, and fell open to any page, it would be unmistakably its own self."

Like a number of their scribe-counterparts, some photographers, Brown admits, took one look at Vanity Fair's disastrous debut and decided maybe they would not line up to work for this new magazine after all. Lately, however, Brown said all that has turned around. "Now we are in a situation where I don't have to sort of bribe people to come write for us," where, Brown asserted, many of the same writers who were panning her magazine are now pleading to write for it. Circulation figures are up, with a rate base between 295,000 and 300,000, up 18%, publisher David O'Brasky said, from its previous level.

But for Brown, the most positive sign of all is that "the audience and the editorial content have moved closer together." Editing for "a sensibility, rather than an age or a sex--highbrow people, that is, who like to play," Brown contends that at last she is reaching her target audience: "the people of Town and Country who are tired of being in the right company, Rolling Stone readers who have grown up, the readers of Interview who are tired of being in the wrong company, and the readers of the New Republic who are tired of being in no company."

Writing in the Jan. 15 Village Voice, media critic Geoffrey Stokes first commended himself for holding off on his criticism of Vanity Fair, then submarined the same January issue that Brown has held up for such praise. "In its present incarnation," Stokes declared, "Vanity Fair is a mess . . . mostly because of its willful stupidity."

Yet Brown remains optimistic. She talks of her eagerness to begin writing "big pieces" for the magazine, explaining, "I hanker to write, and I will," and said that suddenly, things seem to have picked up at Vanity Fair. "I don't have to explain what I'm doing anymore," Brown said. "It's wonderful for me." After a weekend, for example, "I come back full of energy instead of slinking back."

With her husband teaching at Duke University and working on films about the American election, Brown and Evans see each other only on weekends. "We talk like mad people," she said, "and then retire to our separate perches." While both are "engrossed in our own separate projects," Brown said Evans "loves Vanity Fair and feels it was the challenge worth undertaking."

Could it fail?

Brown shrugged.

"There's always the gamble."

But up until now, Brown said, "I've just tried to stay on my high wire and not look down." She pauses. "But I don't feel that way now."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Thursday January 31, 1985 Home Edition View Part 5 Page 12 Column 3 View Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction An article about Tina Brown, editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, that appeared in Wednesday's View section did not include the fact that her husband, Harold Evans, former editor of The Times of London, is now editorial director of U.S. News & World Report.
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