MIGHTY TINA : With Endless Decolletage, Cheeky Gossip, 'Magic Bimbos' and Big Bucks, Crafty Tina Brown Has Made Vanity Fair the Hottest Book in the Business

Bill Thomas, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, is writing a book on the Soviet economy for Dutton. His last stories for this magazine were on CNN and Soviet Georgia.

AT THE HEIGHT OF MORNING RUSH HOUR, a midnight-blue limousine, damp with the mist of a light rain, pulls up to the curb. Look closely and you can see a reflection of Madison Avenue in the shiny hood, and through the back window, a flash of blond hair. The door opens, and a pair of female legs emerges. Showcased in a black dress, the legs belong to Tina Brown, and as she touches down in front of Conde Nast headquarters in New York, she might as well be walking on a red carpet. Heads turn as she moves past the newsstand in the lobby. At the elevator, a small crowd watches her push 4, the floor that houses the offices of Vanity Fair magazine. * Even in her own building, she gets stares. Yes, Tina Brown is famous, but it isn't just her fame that fascinates; it's her relationship to other famous people. Brown not only knows and exposes them, she gleefully holds their fate in her hands. All by herself, it seems, she has turned the fame game into a monthly spectator sport--intelligent, timely and just catty enough to be fun. Suddenly, it's very difficult to imagine anyone who deserves to be on the cover of Vanity Fair more than its own editor. After seven years of hyping other celebrities, Tina Brown, not entirely by accident, has become one herself. * As they say in her trade, the woman is "hot." She laughs at the thought, but does so in a way that says print it. * In a business in which the life expectancy of editors is often measured in months and during a time when magazines are dying like autumn leaves, Brown gives new meaning to the concept of survival of the fittest. Sales of the August issue of Vanity Fair--with its provocative cover of a nude and pregnant Demi Moore--topped the 1-million mark for the first time, while the October issue was so fat with ads--thanks to a 116-page supplement for Calvin Klein jeans--that it could double as a designer doorstop. * The jeans supplement, said to have cost Klein in the neighborhood of $1 million, is filled with photos of sexy young models letting it all hang out before, during and after a rock concert. The layout is wild and kinky and runs slightly counter to Vanity Fair's new moralistic thrust. But Brown, who predicts that the '90s will be a period of penance for the profligacy of the past decade, says she has more surprises up her sleeve. "The culture is changing constantly," she says with a knowing smile, "and we have to change with it."

Barely has she gotten settled in for a day at the office than America's most-talked-about editor is already sounding like one of her famous what's-on-my-mind memos. When Brown took control of Vanity Fair a year after its 1983 rebirth, she promised her boss, Conde Nast Chairman S. I. Newhouse, to make it "frothy, exciting, literate, romantic, funny"--and solvent. "If you don't like my identity," she told a reporter, "you won't like the magazine."

Seven years later, it's almost impossible to tell where Tina Brown ends and Vanity Fair begins, or vice versa, so much have her own celebrityhood and the glossy slickness of her magazine been intermingled. Lately, some have wondered whether success, serious issues and motherhood may have changed the magazine world's general-interest ingenue into a middle-aged moralist. Vanity Fair's August cover seemed to put that suspicion to rest. "There is nothing more glorious than the sight of a woman carrying a child," says Brown, at 37 the mother of two.

Yet in true Brownian style, the Demi Moore cover wasn't just a meditation on the aesthetics of fertility; it was a prenatal pinup, the real aim of which was to startle, to stimulate and to sell magazines, three things Brown has always managed to do with uncanny consistency, no matter what her identity is.

As for those who think the cover was in bad taste, Brown contends that's their problem. "Some people don't find pregnancy attractive. I think the photograph speaks for itself. It breaks the mold of celebrity glamour. . . . What's funny is that (photographer) Annie Leibovitz took it on the second sitting. She's always saying, 'I'd love to do another shoot,' and this time it really paid off. Demi felt beautiful pregnant, and Annie took wonderful advantage of that."

"I'm a risk taker," Brown says, giving her perfectly coiffed hair a rebellious toss. This is one magazine executive who has never wilted under the glare of her own publicity.

The circulation director didn't want to take the risk, Brown says with a certain note of triumph. But Newhouse loved it. The rest is magazine-cover history, and one more chapter in the Tina Brown story, a bestseller full of ambition, betrayal, fame and uncertainty.

"Any successful magazine is the shadow cast by its editor," says New York magazine media critic Edwin Diamond, no fan of Vanity Fair. "The question is how long people will find Tina Brown's shadow interesting enough to ponder month after month."

IF THE FLY-NOW, PAY-LATER '80S WAS AN ERA of bread--let's make that croissants--and circuses, Vanity Fair's British-born editor, to some at least, was its ringmistress.

Calling Tina Brown the new intellectual force in publishing, as some admirers have, may be stretching it; however, she does seem to grasp the social architecture of the age, particularly in her native London, adopted New York and occasionally rumored next stop, Los Angeles, whose movers and shakers, moved and shaken, she loves to write about, when not sending out party invitations.

In fact, using one of Brown's favorite metaphors, magazines themselves are a lot like parties. Some, like People and Us, are for the general public; others, like Connoisseur and Town & Country, have a more selective admissions policy. Vanity Fair combines a little of both, blending the checkout-line sensationalism of the former with the jet-set snob appeal of the latter. The result is a come-as-you-are open house where anything goes, as long as it's intriguing, smart or naughty.

As an editor, Brown practices a special form of journalistic eclecticism. "There's scarcely anything that couldn't get into this magazine if the treatment is right," she says. However, the best way to understand Brown, according to one theory, is not so much to read her magazine as it is to watch her at one of her parties. Perhaps Brown's most revealing performance was the lavish affair she presided over three years ago in New York to mark Vanity Fair's fifth anniversary. In a marriage of form and content, the guest list featured many of the same big names that subscribers anxiously read about every month, only in this case they were live and all in one place.

The motif for the evening was Trader Vic's in drag. An all-female saxophone band dressed in tuxedos and blond Betty Boop wigs provided the entertainment, as imported palm trees swayed in the sweet smell of excess. Guests included Calvin Klein, Liza Minnelli, Henry Kissinger, Gloria Vanderbilt and almost everyone else you'd expect to see at the end of a limited-access conga line. There was Donald Trump air-kissing Barbara Walters, Bianca Jagger strutting around the hors d'oeuvre table, and Nancy Reagan's faithful walker, Jerry Zipkin, dancing with someone who could have been a man or a woman.

The floor was literally crawling with profile material, and right in the middle of everything was Tina Brown, table-hopping from one odd couple to another like Alice in Wonderland in basic black, basking in the glow of her very own fin de siecle Noah's Ark.

The celebration was "pure Tina," as one guest put it, a night of ironic merriment, highlighted by a collection of people you could never imagine being in the same building at the same time, let alone in the same room. That's part, though not all, of Brown's genius, if genius is the right word to describe seating Norman Mailer next to Jackie Collins just to watch what happens.

Whatever else it was, the anniversary bash was a testimony to Brown's triumph on two levels. Not only did it celebrate her magazine's amazing turnaround--a 100% increase in circulation during her tenure--it also placed her at the epicenter of the celebrity crowd that celebrity journalism is all about.

"Vanity Fair makes you feel glamorous," says Michael Kinsley, former editor of the New Republic and Harper's magazine. "It's vulgar and shallow, but that goes with the territory."

That territory is anywhere celebrities can be found, and Brown has raised finding them and finding out all about them to a new art form. A friend says Brown has "an organic sense" of whose images and exploits sell magazines. But it's the juxtaposition of fame and infamy and the full range of odd behavior in between that makes Vanity Fair stand out.

"There are intellectuals who aren't ashamed to be seen carrying the magazine, and there are people who probably read it to see what Sylvester Stallone is doing," comments British journalist and on-again, off-again Vanity Fair contributor Christopher Hitchens. "The word magazine means variety store. It should have something for everyone, and that's what Vanity Fair has."

Consider the July issue, in which Patti Davis revealed that she and her mom are sexual rivals and then confessed that she's into autoeroticism; Mickey Rourke painfully recalled being "hit on" by guys while he worked as a bouncer in a transvestite nightclub, and Priscilla Presley admitted that she had a "fling" with Julio Iglesias "but never consummated it."

The blueprint rarely varies. Besides a show-business cover story, a political expose and a criminal verite murder piece, another thing Brown absolutely insists on every month is something she calls "the magic bimbo," usually a Hollywood starlet photographed in a pose that's somewhere between a soft R-rating and the casting couch.

"Vanity Fair sells illicit pleasure," Brown said in a "60 Minutes" interview. "My job is one of seduction. I'm about entrapping the reader."

But Brown didn't get to where she is today by working only one side of the street. Along with the celebrity chitchat, Vanity Fair runs hard reporting on every imaginable subject. There have been articles on corporate corruption, African dictators and clinical depression; interviews with Manuel Noriega, Claus von Bulow, Moammar Kadafi. Vanity Fair, Brown insists, shouldn't be judged by its cover.

"Part of the magazine's identity is the electric, modern, alive feeling that a celebrity cover gives it. It's a great wraparound," Brown says. "but inside you're going to get something completely different. . . ."

Somehow it all works, although not always without complications. When Brown bumped movie star Ellen Barkin off a 1990 cover in favor of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Barkin threatened to sue. "It seemed like the right thing to do when we did it," Brown says of her decision to go with Gorbachev, adding that Barkin's suit, which never materialized, would have been a bad career move for the actress.

It's hard to blame Barkin for being upset. There aren't many movie stars who wouldn't kill for a Vanity Fair cover shot. Features editor Jane Sarkin gets 50 letters a day from publicity agents promoting their clients. But Sarkin isn't impressed. "We know what we're looking for," she says. "The hottest of the hot." Every now and then, though, a Farrah Fawcett or a Jessica Lange cover seems to challenge that rule.

Still, there are those occasional personalities who require special persuading. A case in point involved Hollywood superagent Michael Ovitz, president of the hugely successful Creative Artists Agency, whom Brown herself tried to land for an in-depth profile in 1988. Her letter to Ovitz turned up verbatim in Spy magazine last year. In it, she praised his "gifted sense of . . . timing and taste," compared his "extraordinary business acumen" to that of the sainted movie legend Irving Thalberg and even promised to assign a writer to the story "well disposed toward CAA" if Ovitz agreed to cooperate.

He declined, but, as Spy pointed out, the letter more than paid off. Seven CAA clients were on Vanity Fair covers the following year. In turn, Ovitz raised Brown's Hollywood profile by hosting a series of intimate dinners in her honor and by stocking Vanity Fair's Los Angeles benefit last year for Phoenix House with many important movie stars.

Tina doesn't really have friends in Hollywood, says one intimate. "There are people she calls, like Barry Diller (president of Fox) and Michael Ovitz, to find out what's going on. But I wouldn't say she's really close to anyone in the movie business."

"She goes to L.A. because it's her job," says another insider, "not because she likes it."

VANITY FAIR'S OFFICES ARE bright, busy and, like everything else connected with the magazine, "totally Tina." There isn't a dress code, but there does seem to be a concerted effort on the part of women staffers to be as chicly attired as Brown, the measure of all things at Vanity Fair, from story length to skirt length.

Brown's inner sanctum in the Conde Nast building looks more like a before ad for a maid service than a high-concept command center. Papers and books are scattered everywhere. One wall and part of another are decorated with Vanity Fair covers, beginning with Brown's first in May, 1984, with Daryl Hannah holding two Oscars. The attention-getting headline, "Blonde Ambition," could easily be applied to Brown herself. Dressed in a smartly tailored suit and wearing a string of pearls the size of seedless grapes, the petite-ish Brown is the picture of a woman at the top of her game, and presumably her game plan, a favorite subject for gossip in New York and Los Angeles. For instance, there are persistent rumors that several Hollywood studios have approached Brown with executive job offers, but so far she's reportedly turned them all down.

The same talk has been floating around the offices of Variety for years, according to one editor, who says she stopped listening to it a long time ago. So, apparently, has Brown. "Who would want to run a movie studio?" she asks, chuckling, denying any desire to work in show business. She's a journalist, she says, who happens to be doing exactly what she likes best. "Why would I give this up?"

Money is mentioned as one possible reason, and Brown laughs again, as if to let you know she can't be tempted.

Newhouse, who also publishes Gentlemen's Quarterly, Vogue and various other upscale monthlies, is said to be eternally grateful to Brown for bringing Vanity Fair back to life. He's also undoubtedly aware of Hollywood's interest and ready to do whatever it takes to keep her in New York working for him. That includes paying Brown an estimated $200,000 to $300,000 a year plus a $25,000 annual clothing allowance and fancy pick-up-and-delivery car service. ("Please don't call it a limo," says a Vanity Fair assistant. "It's a Lincoln Town Car. Tina wouldn't call that a limo.")

As of late, her husband, Harold Evans, who has had a successful editing career of his own, also works for Newhouse. Formerly the editor of Conde Nast Traveler, Evans earlier this year was named president of Random House, the giant trade publisher that's yet another part of the Newhouse empire.

So many celebrity faces adorn Tina Brown's office walls, it's easy to imagine that she's already in Hollywood. Speaking of blondes, an unusually large number of them have shown up on Vanity Fair covers. Princess Diana, Dolly Parton and Joan Collins, wearing a blond wig, have all made it.

Madonna holds the current record, for blondes or anyone else, with three appearances. Jerry Hall, the blond model married to Rolling Stone Mick Jagger, once did a cover, but Brown, sounding rather adamant about it, says never again. "With Mick maybe, but not all by herself."

The kind of people Vanity Fair wants in the back-to-basics 1990s are the doers, not the posers. Fortunately, most of them are just as eager to be in the magazine, and even when they're not, says Brown, "We usually get the ones we want." Brown boasts that she receives more compliments than complaints from profile subjects and has learned to take both in stride, as she gets on with her main task "of chronicling the cutting edge" of current events.

Some profiles, though, are more cutting, or perhaps more cutthroat, than edgy. Playboy actors and Third World politicians tend to be sneered at. So do members of the British royal family, whom Brown seems to take particular delight in wasting. The Queen, Princess Margaret and Prince Charles, whom Brown once described in a story she wrote as "p---y whipped from here to eternity," have all felt the sting of a Vanity Fair critique.

If Vanity Fair people change with the times, Brown's theory on what makes the magazine work as a package has remained constant throughout her seven years at the helm.

"A Vanity Fair story is one that dramatizes an issue," she says, reattaching a fallen earring as she thinks of examples. "Something like the murder of Chico Mendes. I was looking for a way to cover the rain forest in a worthy piece. So when he was murdered, that was exactly the right kind of story for Vanity Fair. Here we had a personality, a story, a drama, . . . an issue." What makes a story a Vanity Fair story isn't what it's about, she explains, but the way it's written. "A writer can make me interested in virtually any subject so long nnas his point of view is fresh and he can really write it."

Prone to creative tirades and last-minute changes that can have her throwing page layouts around the room like Frisbees, Brown acknowledges that she's hard to work for. But considering her power to make or break careers, few employees, past or present, will agree with her harsh self-assessment on the record. One former staffer, however, says Brown can be Murphy Brown's "evil twin sister" when she doesn't get her own way, something Brown herself doesn't exactly deny.

"I'm very impatient when I want something," she says. "And my biggest fault is that I want everything now."

Her workaholic management style translates into long hours in the office fueled by what some refer to as "a manic need to know." She describes herself as an editor who can be "unrealistically demanding" of her writers, though some of her favorites, such as Marie Brenner and Dominick Dunne, earn six-figure incomes. House photographer Annie Leibovitz could surpass them all in earnings. Brown's latest coup was landing the sometimes hard-to-edit Norman Mailer to write regular pieces.

Brown likes to feature name writers, even if it's their parents' names that make them famous. One example is Angela Janklow, who for a time was Vanity Fair's Los Angeles correspondent. Janklow, whose writing was not memorable, is the daughter of literary agent Morton Janklow, whose megabuck book contracts and client list are. Brown and her husband attended Angela's recent wedding, which included what one guest described as "an hourlong version of 'Wild Horses,' " played by Angela's brother Lucas, whose rock band, The Lost, got a plug in the July issue.

Writers credit Brown with being extremely generous. "She tends to promise more room in the magazine than you end up getting," says Hitchens. "But she makes up for it by always paying you for the number of words she assigned."

Writers who have had their stories spiked, which happens frequently, often walk away with $5,000 kill fees. Although how much individual authors are paid is a closely guarded secret, Vanity Fair is known to offer sums that lead the industry. Fees of $15,000 to $25,000 are not unheard of for big assignments to top writers.

Large editorial meetings are not Brown's style. Instead she likes to conduct ad hoc conferences with specific editors and writers, listening to their advice, then putting her own spin on other people's ideas until all works in progress have been fully Tina-fied. Section editors exist in separate worlds, with some never knowing what will be in other parts of an issue or on the cover until they see it in print. The arrangement keeps intramural meddling to a minimum.

"Tina applies the basic taste test to every article that comes in," says one writer. "Then she gives it to one of her sub-editors to fine-tune. If Tina likes something, it flies. If she doesn't, it doesn't make any difference what anyone else thinks."

No detail escapes Brown's attention, inside--or outside--the office. In 1988, the magazine co-sponsored a touring exhibition of works by the surrealist photographer Man Ray. At the Los Angeles affair, Brown was running around like a field general minutes before guests arrived just to make absolutely sure that every important Hollywood celebrity was paired with one of Vanity Fair's staff members, who are frequently pressed into service as party props.

The same nothing-left-to-chance thoroughness is an essential part of Brown's editorial philosophy. "Often the stories I have in mind can only be written as novels," she complains, meaning there's never enough space for everything she wants. She always has an idea of what should be in every article, she says, but finds it "very exciting when a writer changes my mind."

Almost half the magazine covers current events. It's an advantage, in political editor Elise O'Shaughnessy's opinion, that "Tina's willing to turn on a dime." At Brown's disposal are 32 pages that are kept open for breaking stories as late as a week before subscribers get their copies of the magazine.

"A lot of times what pieces get into the magazine in a given month is a matter of what's available," Brown says. But during the Gulf War, she and her staff had to improvise more than usual to keep the magazine up to date. Brown's normally long workdays extended well into the night, and at times her cutting and slashing of copy reached a frenzied pitch.

One writer, Brenner, labored around the clock, Brown says, to finish a piece on Arab royal families "that had to be in the magazine." The Gulf coverage also included a PLO murder story and a cheesecake cover featuring Dolly Parton and a leering bunch of Desert Storm troopers. Vanity Fair's war stories, are, Brown declares, "among my proudest moments" in journalism.

In the past, grumbling was heard that Brown took too much credit for the work of her 49-person editorial corps. These days, she seems more than willing to share it publicly with others. She calls her staff "the best there is." The trick in finding them, she reveals, wasn't asking other editors for recommendations--"they invariably steer you toward people who aren't as good as they are"--but asking writers.

Gail Sheehy, who's written some of Vanity Fair's most talked-about stories, among them the pieces on Gorbachev, Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson, has nothing but good things to say about Brown. "Tina has dual instincts," Sheehy says. "She's fascinated by mega personalities and the way they influence the world . . . and also by the trashy, gossipy side of all of us. Tina has the courage of her ignorance. If she doesn't know what something means or how it works, she wants to find out. That's what makes a good editor."

Putting it somewhat more graphically, Brown's husband, Harold Evans, proposes that his wife's intellectual curiosity is enhanced by "a rat-like cunning."

TO SOME, VANITY FAIR, under the editorship of what Sheehy sees as "the two Tinas"--one interested in news, one devoted to glitz--has become a magazine's magazine, a celebration of good writing, photography, wit and design. But to others, the magazine's forays into political scandals, movieland gossip and upper-crust violence are nothing more than a higher form of tabloidism. A former art director, who had a falling out with Brown, calls the magazine "a glorified People."

"Monthlies like Vanity Fair belong in the dentist's office," declares critic Diamond, who says that most issues of Brown's magazine bore him. "I'm not interested in an 8,000-word story on Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. Who cares? What makes Vanity Fair distinctive is not what's in it, but how it's marketed."

"It's not the magazine I would edit," says Kinsley, adding that the way Brown pulls it all together is irresistible. The Columbia Journalism Review, which once criticized Vanity Fair for its "starry-eyed profiles," reversed itself last year, giving it two awards but categorizing it as Best Women's Magazine.

Sixty percent of Vanity Fair's readers are females, a group that Brown regards as the audience of the future, but not in the soft-news way many editors and publishers may think. It's traditional men's magazines that have all gone to fluff, Brown claims. And most publications, since they're written for men, suffer from the same sort of dullness, she says.

"Women are interested in the constructive uses of information, not being informed for the sake of being informed," she told a meeting of the American Newspaper Publishers Assn. in May. "They view information as a catalyst for action. They're turned off by the endless stream of coverage that presents news as unconnected, unassimilable, static bits of information."

Vanity Fair has prospered, she said, by becoming a "female medium," looking at the people "at the heart of the story" and taking less of a "hairy chested . . . follow the pack" approach.

"When you compare the content of the better so-called women's magazines today to the men's magazines, you will find them much more in touch with reality, more willing to take risks than the men's magazines," Brown says. "Vanity Fair did (Warren) Beatty's obsessive interest in politics, following him through his relationship with McGovern and Hart. Esquire did Beatty's obsessive interest in sex in a feature called 'Beds.' "

The numbers speak for themselves. At a time when other magazines are losing readers and advertisers, Vanity Fair is thriving. Its circulation this year is up by 8%. While ads are down 7% compared to last year, ad pages zoomed from 335 in 1984 to 1,487 in 1989, one of the most amazing growth spurts in the industry. The magazine first turned a profit in 1988, and last year, advertising revenues totaled more than $49 million. Vanity Fair estimates that it will finish the year with about 1,430 ad pages, contrasted with 1,459 for 1990, a good performance in the teeth of a recession.

"Does Vanity Fair make money? Yes," says Edward Koller, president of Howard-Sloan-Koller Group, a national recruiting firm for magazines. "Does it make a lot of money? I would think so. Will it continue to make money? Absolutely. Has Newhouse recouped his entire investment? Probably not yet. But he will. And," he adds, "it's perceived as being successful. And that is what is most important."

"Vanity Fair sells the perception of value," says its publisher, Ron Galloti. "That's why it's just as important to control the ad mix as it is to control the kind of stories you have. You can't put a Gail Sheehy profile next to an ad for breast enlargements. In this business, you are the company you keep."

Galloti feels the magazine has cornered the market on influential advertisers and readers, and he whips out the statistics to prove it: Fifty percent of Vanity Fair's readers are 30 to 49 years old; 62% earn more than $35,000 a year; 84% attended college, and 39% went to graduate school.

It's not unusual for the magazine to run multipage ads for Guess fashions and Marlboro cigarettes, and most issues have so many scent strips, pitching high-priced perfume, that they smell like Regine's on a Saturday night. Advertisers don't have to like what's in a magazine to appreciate it, says Richard Morgan, editor at large of Adweek. "What counts is the readers' intense involvement with the editorial product, and Vanity Fair has that."

But the love letters Vanity Fair sends to certain advertisers in the form of favorable mentions and full-blown cover stories have some critics wondering if Brown hasn't turned courting their business into a marriage. In one issue alone--March, 1989--fashion designers previously profiled in editorial pages brought in more than 20 pages of ads, including five from Calvin Klein and two from Ralph Lauren. Brown maintains that the Klein and Lauren articles were free of any commercial motive and says that attacks on her magazine's integrity were "totally unfair."

"Those were stories that deserved to be done," she says, a bit less genially. "And in the case of the Ralph Lauren piece, very hard for us to get."

BROWN CALLS HER HOME LIFE an "island of tranquillity" in the midst of an otherwise hectic schedule. She and Evans were married 10 years ago and have two children, George, 5, and Isabelle, 1. They live at a fashionable Sutton Place address, and after some rumored difficulties caused by transatlantic commuting, the marriage is said to have settled into domestic serenity. "Their Manhattan house," according to friend Sally Emerson, "is English without being stuffy, just like Tina." The couple entertains friends occasionally at home in New York but prefers inviting guests to their Long Island home.

Many ascribe Brown's fascination with star quality to the fact that she grew up in a movie family. Her father, George Hambley Brown, produced the original Agatha Christie mystery films. His first wife was Hollywood actress Maureen O'Hara. Brown's mother, Bettina Kohr, was Laurence Olivier's press agent at Pinewood Film Studio in England, where her parents met. Her brother, Christopher, is also a movie producer, with "Absolute Beginners" and "Mona Lisa" to his credit.

The Brown house on the outskirts of London was a regular gathering place for members of the British movie colony, and, one of her friends told the London Times, "you would always find (Tina) sitting on the lap of the most important man in the room."

"She was absorbed in listening, nothing escaped her," recalled her father for the Times. "There was never any doubt she would become a writer. She was an incredible mimic (who) took off on everyone who came to our house, from Peter Ustinov to Norman Wisdom. When they'd left, this saintly looking child would suddenly reproduce a sharply accurate picture of their eccentricities. Then she'd reach for a pencil."

By the time she was 16, Brown's tendency to challenge authority led to her being expelled from three boarding schools. Once, she got in trouble for encouraging other girls to run away, another time for organizing protests because, as she explains, "we weren't allowed to change our underpants." Safely enrolled at Oxford's St. Anne's College, Brown distinguished herself as a writer for the university magazine, showing a particular flair for reporting dialogue. "She was so pretty," remembers an editor, "so funny, young and feminine, that the men she got to talk to never dreamed that she would remember what they said, let alone use it against them in print."

"She was the belle of the campus," says Kinsley, a Rhodes scholar at the time. Writer Martin Amis, the son of novelist Kingsley Amis, was a close friend. Brown, the author of three plays, one of which was produced before she was 20, was good at literary networking. But one of her ex-flames told the London Times that she tended to be uncharacteristically shy when it came to romance. "She always kept her eyes closed," he said.

In 1974, she landed a choice assignment from the London Times to do a series of stories from America on the women's movement. During her trip, she also wrote several articles for Punch, the British satirical magazine. One recounted her date with an L.A. cop; the funniest, her brief stint as a go-go girl in New Jersey.

Harold Evans, then editor of the Times, took more than a mentor's interest in Brown's progress. Twice her age, Evans, then pushing 50, was smitten. By 1978, his long marriage had ended, and shortly afterward, he and Brown set up housekeeping in London. They married in 1981.

Her first job running a magazine was at Tatler, a society monthly with a history that dated to the early 18th Century. Under Brown, Tatler made the British aristocracy a subject of high-brow humor, mingling wry asides with straight reporting and treating inflated egos like beach balls.

Her success didn't go unnoticed in New York, where Conde Nast was drawing up plans to re-create its own upscale glossy, Vanity Fair, which had gone out of business in 1936. Newhouse was impressed enough with Tatler to buy it in 1982 and to hire Brown as an adviser to Vanity Fair. The launch of the new magazine under editor Richard Locke in 1983 was a disaster. By the end of its first year, Conde Nast's resident guru, Alexander Leiberman, was brought in to administer interim life support, then Brown was summoned from London to take over. She was 30.

"I have a mandate to edit the magazine I think will work," she said at the time. "I think I'm going to have to hold my irony in check a bit. Everyone is telling me . . . that Americans are not ironic. They're very literal, I'm told. So I want to produce something that is salty and fun without going too far the other way and making people nervous."

At Tatler, Brown had perfected a method of flattering celebrities one minute and frosting them the next, and in the process she hit on a nearly foolproof trick for making sure they always came back for more: She never forgot to invite them to her parties.

But that didn't mean she always got invited to theirs. Brown and Evans were married at the Long Island estate of former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and his wife, writer Sally Quinn, another May-December couple. The Bradlee house in Georgetown had been Evans' home away from home when he came to Washington in the early 1980s to become editorial director of U.S. News & World Report and Brown stayed in London. (Evans had been fired as editor of the London Times when it was purchased by Rupert Murdoch in 1981.) So it's easy to understand Quinn's shock when Vanity Fair panned her novel "Regrets Only" in 1986. Reviewer Christopher Buckley called the book "cliterature." But it wasn't the bad review that angered Quinn so much as the fact that Brown never warned her in advance.

In retaliation, Quinn hastily cabled the Evanses, disinviting them to Bradlee's 65th birthday party. "Tina's young and desperate for success," Quinn said a few months later. "Nothing matters to her except her magazine."

Today, Brown says that she never dreamed that Quinn would get so upset. She still thinks calling the novel "cliterature" was "funny." In any case, the two made up and are back to being friends again. As proof, Quinn appears in a magic bimbo-esque photo in the current issue plugging her latest novel, appropriately titled "Happy Endings."

Although Brown's version of Vanity Fair was clearly an improvement over previous efforts, she feared the remake wouldn't earn money fast enough to satisfy Newhouse. Ad pages had fallen from 168 in the first issue to a mere 14 after three months under Brown's direction. It wasn't until 1985 that it began to show signs of improvement. The June issue featured Ronald and Nancy Reagan dancing cheek-to-cheek on the cover and a story on the Reagans' romance by William F. Buckley Jr. In August, there were Helmut Newton photographs of Claus von Bulow, mugging for the camera in a black leather jacket. And in October, Brown herself wrote a cover story on Prince Charles and Princess Diana, "The Mouse That Roared," about how the royal marriage had transformed the two.

Despite an annual loss of $7 million, Vanity Fair saw its 1985 circulation rise by 50% and ad pages increased by 29%. The following year, Adweek named Vanity Fair the "hottest" magazine in the business.

Ever since, Brown has been regarded as the magazine goddess of the East Side Literary Corridor, a semi-closed world of writers, editors and media types, who live, work and play together. When Brown's son was christened in 1986 at hers and Evans' weekend retreat on Long Island, the godparents were book agent Ed Victor, former New York Daily News president and publisher James Hoge, "20/20" producer Shirley Clurman and former Vanity Fair assistant editor Miles Chapman. Gail Sheehy and Brown are virtual next-door neighbors in New York, and, according to Sheehy, "I'll drop by and play with her baby daughter's feet while Tina and I talk about politics. She always has a fresh take."

Which makes some people wonder how long she'll be satisfied with editing a monthly magazine year after year.

"Tina Brown's headed for much bigger things than Vanity Fair," predicts Edwin Diamond. "I guarantee you she'll dump Si Newhouse before he dumps her."

That may be true, but right now, Brown has her hands full just dealing with all the refuse the 1980s have left in their wake.

"We're out there covering retribution," Brown states, citing a story on Donald Trump's financial collapse as evidence of her theory that it's time to pay the piper. "Everything that goes around comes around."

Will Vanity Fair be this decade's version of revenge on the rich and famous? Not exactly, says Brown confidently. "But it will continue to push the edge of the envelope. That's our role. I think the Demi Moore cover proves that risk pays off. I think too many times editors are cowed by the conservatism of the industry. My philosophy is when in doubt take the risk. At least you'll never be boring."

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