The Powers That Be

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In this city's contentious world of letters, they are known simply as Tina and Harry. Or "Teenanarry," which is how their names sound when they are whispered in awe or horror by the city's literati.

Tina Brown, 43, has been editor of one of the nation's most revered magazines, the New Yorker, since 1992. Her husband, Harry Evans, 68, has been running one of the country's largest publishing houses, Random House, since 1990. Separately, each would command Manhattan's attention. Together, they are something of an obsession.

"There are those who think they call most of the shots these days in what passes for literary Manhattan," Liz Smith, New York's premier gossip, wrote earlier this month. "A lot of people love them. A lot of people don't. They are controversial. They are smart. They make waves."

If wave-making is good business, Teenanarry are in top form. In almost any gathering of discerning readers in New York, the debate rages over whether Brown has revived a dying literary magazine or added too much rouge and rhinestone to one of the grand old dames of American letters. And has Evans simply embraced the sensationalistic traditions of his former competitors on London's Fleet Street or is he hustling controversial bestsellers to underwrite decent literature?

Are they going back to England if the Labor government wins the next election? Are they moving west to Hollywood? Who are they publishing? Who are they rejecting? Who are they having to dinner?

Most of these questions are raised in private. Not only do writers, editors and agents want to avoid offending Brown or Evans, they also fear Teenanarry's patron, S.I. Newhouse, the chairman of Advance Publications Inc., the largest privately held media group in the U.S. Besides the New Yorker, Newhouse publishes a chain of newspapers; 13 other major magazines, including Vanity Fair and Vogue; and owns 13 book publishing houses in addition to Random House, including Alfred A. Knopf and Crown Books.

There are other literary outlets, of course, but most in the publishing world don't see any value in cutting away 14 magazines and 14 publishing houses with a comment on the record, even one meant to flatter.

Still, a few dare to speak openly. Some are competitors like John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper's magazine. "They're good salesmen and they see where publishing is going--to celebrity reporting, to the people of the moment, as opposed to the people and issues that might last for more than 10 minutes," he said recently. "Obviously, it's very depressing."

Michael Kelly, who wrote a book for Random House and worked for Brown before he became editor recently of the New Republic, said: "I think both of them don't get the credit they deserve for trying to find ways to put out good writing in one form or another in an age that isn't particularly rewarding of that.

"One way you do that is you have to advertise the wares and hustle up publicity," he said. "Also, I know one thing. In my whole life, I have never heard any writer complaining about undue publicity being paid to his own work."

In recent days, Evans and Brown (in separate interviews and at separate media events) talked about the storms that rage around them, some generated by their own wind machines.

They do not, they said, sit around the breakfast table sipping coffee while they divide up book and magazine contracts to a galley of slavish writers. They rejected the notion that they are among New York's premier socializers, even though they mingle weekly with movie stars, political bigwigs and New York celebrities. They stay home whenever possible with their two young children, they said, limiting such outings to two starry nights a week. They denied rumors that they are ready to go back to their home in England or desert New York for Hollywood.

And through it all, they trumpeted their successes and lacerated their critics with a chilling ease that serves to remind that these two did not make it to such heights on their talents alone.

At a crowded Italian restaurant near his office, Evans began a luncheon interview by declaring his independence, professionally, from his wife.

"There are people who don't understand, who perhaps will never understand, that it's possible to be in love with a woman, to be married to her, to see her every day, to have her children and yet regard her in the journalistic area as a competitor," he said.

"Or, to put it a different way, if there is one thing in the world that you would not do for your wife, it is something that would damage your career."

Evans' accent still betrays his working-class origins in the north of England, where his father was a railroad engineer and his mother once said, rightly, that her son Harry would never have to wear the wooden clogs of the working poor. Evans eventually became editor of the Sunday Times and later was editor of the Times of London--until he angered Margaret Thatcher, whose supporters included his boss, Rupert Murdoch.

Evans came to America in 1984 to help Mort Zuckerman with his publishing outlets, in particular U.S. News & World Report. He launched Conde Nast Traveler magazine for Newhouse in 1986 before taking over as head of Random House. As a publisher, he is perhaps best known for nonfiction works by Colin Powell, Richard Nixon and, most recently, former Clinton aide Dick Morris, whose $2.5-million book comes out in January.

Morris, who resigned after he was caught spilling White House secrets to a prostitute, has come up with "the most revealing book on politics ever published," Evans said at one point during lunch. Sex, you mean? "As much as you want to know," he said with a laugh. But it also documents how politics works, how Clinton works, Evans proclaimed as he launched into a feverish spiel on this latest book project.

The sales pitch, complete with home shopping hyperbole, is part of the reason one New York publisher anonymously labeled Evans a "cheap hustler." Evans grinned mischievously on being reminded about the remark. "I told friends that he got it wrong. I wanted to be known as an expensive hustler."

If Evans exudes a kind of naughty boy energy, Brown, at her New Yorker offices a few blocks away, leaves a nervous wake as she darts through the famous, linoleum-floored corridors. Her own off-white office is spare--a couch, a tower of books, an orderly array of urgent-looking papers. Two orchids curve gracefully on a windowsill, and a portable paper shredder lurks over the trash can a few feet away.

"This is what I find funny, this idea of collusion," Brown was saying as she sipped coffee and stared unblinkingly at her guest. "People just don't get it. They don't understand what a big fight it is most of the time."

One example, she said, is a review in the New Yorker that week (the Dec. 16 issue) of a Random House book by John Richardson. Evans, she said, was "not going to like it," and she was also scheduled to co-host a dinner for Richardson. She grimaced and wondered aloud whether she should try to be disinvited as hostess.

Or take the case of Joe Klein, the former Newsweek columnist who angered many of his colleagues by denying that he was the anonymous author of Random House's best-selling campaign novel this year, "Primary Colors." After he finally confessed, CBS canceled his contract as a commentator (he had reportedly lied to Dan Rather) and Newsweek demoted him (he had misled fellow Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter). Brown, however, decided that Klein would make a perfect political analyst for the New Yorker.

"You know, Joe Klein has a deadline and a big deal from Random House to write another book, and what Random House would have loved was for him to stay at Newsweek and write pieces, three columns a month, which are head pieces, which would have taken him very little time and he could write full blast on his novel," Brown said.

"The fact that he's going to come to the New Yorker and write a much more demanding kind of piece--which takes up much more space and takes up much more head room and a lot of application--means that Random House will not get the attention they would like."

Brown continued, barely drawing a breath.

"So, that's not synergy. That's conflict of interest. We have two totally different agendas here. Every time Joe Klein wants to go off to write his novel, I'm going to give him another piece to write and hope he writes it. Harry, meantime, will be bearing down on Joe to get his damn novel in. May the best man win, I say."

Outsiders sometimes see the Evans-Brown relationship a little differently. Why fight over one name when this city has writers by the subway carload? And if there is no collusion, then why is it that of the 26 books that appeared in whole or in part in the New Yorker this year, more than half were from Random House Inc. Nine other publishers shared the remains, most with one book each.

*

The courtship of Tina and Harry began in London when he was editor of the Sunday Times, winning awards for disclosures on thalidomide, and she was editor of the Tatler, a stilted upper-class publication that she had converted into a gossipy monthly. She once told a reporter in England: "My God, I was in love immediately. He was the sexy editor of all time . . . the Nijinsky of newsprint." They were married in 1981--his second marriage, her first.

Brown and Evans were planning to move to America in 1984 so that he could teach at Duke University. Newhouse, knowing their plans, called Brown and offered her the editorship of Vanity Fair. Over the next eight years, Brown specialized in glamorous culture shock, including the Vanity Fair cover showing Roseanne and Tom Arnold mud-wrestling in 1990 and a nude, pregnant Demi Moore in 1991. Thus, when it was announced that she would take over the New Yorker in 1992, Manhattan reeled.

As one of her New Yorker writers puts it now: "The headline on the New York Times article might just as well have read: 'Flaubert Opens Crack Factory' or 'Tolstoy Molests Child.' "

Brown hired younger, faster writers, paid them well and pushed them hard to produce the kinds of news-driven stories she wanted. Some of the best-known Brown acquisitions are David Remnick, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and James Stewart.

But she also ousted many of the old writers, and these refugees have not always been kind.

At one point, novelist Jamaica Kincaid suggested that Brown operated like "Joseph Stalin in high heels." Others have complained that Brown has shorn the magazine of its old elegance, replacing it with graphic sex, violence and celebrities. Circulation, however, has been climbing steadily from a sleepy 628,000 when Brown started to about 869,000 at the latest count. By 1995, the magazine had received the National Magazine Award for General Excellence, and writers and authors were scrambling to work for her.

Despite the success in circulation, however, advertising has been static, and other magazine publishers routinely estimate that the New Yorker has been losing at least $10 million a year. But New Yorker President Thomas A. Florio predicts that the magazine is only months away from turning a profit, and Newhouse reportedly remains a big supporter, paying the bills not only for publishing the magazine, but also for the parties feting such stars as Ralph Fiennes, Kenneth Branagh and Norman Mailer.

For many in the business, including a large colony of people at the New York Times, one moment crystallized the feeling that Brown and Evans were "vulgarizing" their literary establishments, as Blair Clark, former editor of the Nation, put it recently. It was their lunch with Dick Morris and his wife, Eileen McGann, shortly after the news broke about Morris' antics with a Washington prostitute. Evans had already signed his secret book deal with Morris, and Brown invited Morris to talk to New Yorker advertisers a few days later.

Here's what Maureen Dowd of the New York Times wrote about the event:

"Mr. Morris and Ms. McGann found a felicitous match in Mr. Evans and his wife, Tina Brown. . . . The couples sealed the book deal over lunch at the Evans-Brown East Side apartment. Ms. Brown bestowed literary legitimacy--or whatever literary legitimacy the New Yorker has left to bestow--on Mr. Morris by inviting him to be the honored guest, with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., at a New Yorker breakfast for advertisers."

Former New Republic Editor Andrew Sullivan had his say a few days later in the Times of London: "Every now and again, perhaps, something happens that captures the essence of an emerging cultural moment--and the New Yorker breakfast may well be one of them. The epitome of political amoralism met the heart of media amoralism in a moneymaking publicity stunt. It was very, well, 1996," Sullivan wrote. "No doubt Brown was already planning to run excerpts from the Morris book in her magazine when it came out in a synergy for which this power couple has become famous."

Brown and Evans say the New Yorker has no plans to run excerpts of Morris' book. (Time magazine is interested, Evans said.) And they dismiss the criticism, mostly by dismissing the critics.

"It's a biannual hack fest," said Brown of the media's reaction. "The trivia cops. They have to have a topic. They had Joe Klein for three months. Then they had to have Dick Morris. It's a need that has to be assuaged."

As for Sullivan: "He's mad at me because he's the only writer at the New Republic that I never approached."

Dowd, whose work at the Times was the target of a New Yorker piece last March, can provoke a rare moment of public anger in Evans. "Amazingly, she gives it out in the most offensive manner, but she can't take criticism. What I find particularly offensive is her assault on Mrs. Morris for not leaving her husband," he said of one of Dowd's columns this fall.

"I call it cultural fascism. 'You live life my bloody way or else I'm going to be offended, and I speak on behalf of all bloody women,' " he continued.

Suddenly, Evans stops almost in mid-diatribe. Perhaps he can hear himself sounding too harsh, protesting too much. "Of course, I think it's a very funny column. She did a wonderfully funny column about Gen. Powell and me, and I think she's quite clever."

*

One long day earlier this month gave a glimpse of how Brown and Evans generate the publicity that competitors envy and criticize.

One of Evans' literary breakfasts started the day. A Random House insider called them "gliterary" events because they bring together literature and a few glittering personalities to help sell books. In the past, the breakfasts have drawn people like Bianca Jagger, Erica Jong, Debra Winger, Isabella Rossellini and Pat Kennedy-Lawford to hear discussions on political literature or John O'Hara or Raymond Chandler.

As his listeners nibbled fruit, cottage cheese and muffins in the restaurant at Barney's uptown clothing emporium, Evans prodded his guests to talk about the universality of writer Ralph Ellison. It is a show, of course--for 50 live people, 150 PBS radio stations and the loyal audience of C-SPAN.

"Harry has managed certain elements of showmanship where the pitch is above the middle of the brow," said Christopher Hitchens, who writes for Vanity Fair and has been a panelist at previous breakfasts. "It's a fairly show biz kind of idea, but the level of discussion was reasonably high, and it all had a kind of chic to it."

As for the business matters at hand, these included the publication of a book of Ellison's short stories by Random House. And New Yorker writer Remnick, who was the last reporter to interview Ellison before he died in 1994, appeared as a panelist.

Nine hours later, over cocktails at Sotheby's, Brown co-hosted a benefit auction of letters from famous writers. It was a good cause--wiping out illiteracy--and a glamorous event, even if the audience was perhaps more famous than rich by Sotheby's standards.

Brown's and Evans' social lives are also work, say those who attend the more private dinners that honor Zuckerman or Powell or Newhouse. Brown agreed, acknowledging that at every dinner she gets "six or seven story ideas."

Because of this pressurized schedule in New York, friends of the couple say both talk longingly about life in England. One theory, now widely circulated in London and in New York, is that if Labor wins the next Parliamentary election this spring, Evans might return to head the Arts Council, the British version of our National Endowment for the Arts.

Moreover, with such a job could come a title, and if Labor leader Tony Blair is elected prime minister in the spring--in part with the help of Evans' fund-raising efforts--the publisher could be Lord Harry in a few short years.

Evans scoffed at such talk, saying he already turned down a title from former Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Although there may have been rumors that Evans was up for a title after his newspaper wrote about the thalidomide scandal, a source close to the late prime minister said Evans was never close to getting a knighthood or peerage at the time.

Also, what would his high-powered wife do in London? Editor of Punch magazine, one theorizer suggests. Or, what about a job as Newhouse's queen of European projects?

Brown rejected such theories. "I love my job and have no plans to give it up," she said, adding that she has a three-year contract that began in June. "We love England, but I don't see any reason or have any plans to go home."

The word "home" serves to remind that they are still outsiders in America, still British citizens. And Evans, who also said he wants to stay in America, looked more wistful about the possibility of going back. Although he likes the schools here, he said, he still wants his children to grow up in England.

He also has a book on America coming out next year and a two-year contract that will bring him to age 70 when, perhaps, he could rethink the matter.

"You know, Tina invented a country that was called Trans-Atlantica, and it had all of the virtues and none of the vices of England or America," he mused. "So, ideally, that's what I would like--to live in England and work in New York."

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