The joke has followed Harry Evans wherever he goes, so there must be something to it: The only time you can pin him down for a chat is in the men's room. "That makes it hard on the ladies," quips a former Random House editor. "But it's a fact of life. To bring out the very best in Harry, you have to contain the chaos around him."
He may not be a paragon of efficiency, and his schedule can be overbooked to the point of absurdity, but Evans' competitive drive usually makes up for those shortcomings. "I'm large, and I drink quite a lot, and I used to play squash quite often with Harry, who is a rather short fellow," says Godfrey Hodgson, a colleague from Evans' newspaper days in England. "If I beat him once or twice, he'd keep playing, relentlessly, until he beat me three out of five, or four out of seven. He simply wouldn't quit. Sometimes, it all got quite silly."
Harry Evans has been in a hurry ever since he broke into tabloid journalism at 15, covering local news in Ashton-under Lyne, a northern industrial town in England. He rose quickly, editing local papers and taking the reins of the weekly Sunday Times of London in 1967. He worked there until 1981 and was widely considered the premier British editor of his era. Evans introduced a crack "Insight" team that exposed new Thalidomide frauds, espionage cover-ups and other scandals, years before Watergate.
"He was at the very top," says Ben Bradlee, former editor of the Washington Post. "He made an important contribution to journalism and had a great talent for imparting his own personality to the paper."
Was there an undertone of envy in his crusades against the rich and powerful? Some friends say Evans keenly felt the difference between his working-class roots and degree from Durham and the Cambridge-Oxford pedigrees of the London world. To this day, they suggest, he prides himself on his blue-collar origins while running with tonier crowds.
As Evans' professional fortunes changed, so did his personal life. His first wife, Enid, shared his early years in the north, and the couple raised three children. But the marriage unraveled after they moved to London, ending in a 1978 divorce. Meanwhile, Evans had met Tina Brown, a reporter for the Sunday Times who was 25 years his junior. They were instantly drawn to each other.
"It was very much a midlife crisis when Tina came along," says Anthony Holden, who is godfather to the couple's daughter. "Harry was quite absorbed. His first marriage was one of those that don't translate south."
Brown and Evans were married in 1981, the same year he became editor of the daily London Times. Almost immediately, he clashed with new owner Rupert Murdoch, who fired him 12 months later over business and editorial differences. Evans' fabled career in British journalism was over.
Most men would have sulked after such a debacle, waiting for someone to make them a superstar again, Brown says, but Harry was different. "'When you topple from the very top, there aren't that many holes to fill," she suggests. Some fallen stars believe they'll get another plum job, Brown adds, "but if Harry had done that, he'd be a retired consultant today."
Instead, the former editor reinvented himself in America. He began with an executive job at U.S. News & World Report and also took over Atlantic Monthly Press. Finally, Conde Nast brought him in to launch Conde Nast Traveler, which became an instant success and boosted his stock with Newhouse. Evans got the Random House post in 1990 after his predecessor, Joni Evans (no relation), moved on to run her own imprint within the company.
In the rumor-ridden publishing world, few thought Evans would last long. The buzz was that Newhouse wanted to keep Evans' wife--then editor of Vanity Fair--from taking a lucrative Hollywood job. It was a bone to Tina, went the story, and Harry was her poodle. Four years later, Evans is still best known in New York as Tina's Husband, the lesser half of a power couple, and there are continuing jokes about "Mr. Brown." It's an irony to those who know them both.
"Tina is superbly talented, no question, but what Harry did in England was infinitely more important as a legacy than the New Yorker or Vanity Fair," says Hodgson. "Harry was a newspaper legend, and one shouldn't get that balance wrong."
As the clock inches toward 5 on a Friday afternoon, Evans is visibly drained. "I thought the book world worked at a more leisurely pace," he says. "I didn't realize it was more like being on the rack in the Spanish Inquisition, with one blade coming up after another to whack you."
Brown says she routinely tells her husband to turn down book parties and receptions, so he can spend more time with their two children, George, 9, and Isabel, 4. If Harry has a fault, she adds, it's thinking he can attend three literary events between 7 and 9 on Wednesday and still be home by 7:30. "I don't get enough time to play with my kids," he admits, "but who does? It's really a curse, these two jobs we have. With my wife editing a bloody weekly magazine, there's a fax in the bedroom. Can you believe that?"
"We adore each other," says Brown, "yet we feel very frayed. We keep promising that we're going to take each other to Venice for a week. Then we just say the hell with it and go out to dinner."
As he hustles downstairs to catch a limo home on Friday, Evans offers hurried goodbys to his staff and gathers an armful of weekend reading. Hotfooting it to the street, he kids a visitor for lagging two steps behind.
"Gotta keep moving!" Evans says with a grin. "Hup, hup, hup!"