What I’m Reading: The Vanity Fair Diaries

It was fitting that I finished Tina Brown’s sensational memoir The Vanity Fair Diaries this week. Last week, she appeared multiple times on CBS This Morning’s coverage of the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. So I was delighted to see and hear her on TV, just so I would have her voice in my head as I finished up the memoir of her years as the editor of my favorite magazine, Vanity Fair.

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In 1983, Tina Brown moved to New York City from London to begin consulting on Vanity Fair, the Conde Nast magazine that had flourished earlier in the century but had struggled to find its voice and its place in the media landscape in recent years. Shortly after, Tina became the magazine’s editor-in-chief and gave it a new design, new writers and a new voice that positioned it as the place to find up-close and personal celebrity interviews alongside important political and social commentary—the mix that makes it my favorite magazine, I might add. Instead of going through the book chronologically, I want to touch on a couple themes and elements that I found particularly intriguing and relatable.

I have to start by talking about the magazine work itself. As someone who adores magazines, with experience working for one, I devoured Tina’s descriptions of the day-to-day goings-on at Vanity Fair, as well as of her interactions with editors and writers. Early on in the book she laid out some of the changes she intended to make to the magazine’s design, some of which, like the flashier and more prominent Table of Contents and the short Spotlight stories nestled into longer pieces, I immediately recognized as features of the magazine I enjoy. She paid homage to the brilliance of writers, but also to the brilliance of the editors who take their work and shape it into the final work that appears on the magazine’s pages. In recent job interviews I have been asked which I like better, writing or editing, which I think is an incredibly difficult question. Sure, as an editor you have a larger stamp on the form of the finished project, but as a writer you have the opportunity to create from the ground up. I’ve tended to answer that I like them both, a viewpoint I think many of us hold—there were multiple moments in the book when Tina, seated at her writing desk in Quogue, yearned for the time and opportunity to toss off the cloak of editorship for a short while and pull on her writer’s hat once again.

As much as I enjoyed the scenes in Vanity Fair’s offices, particularly the fondly recalled days on which Tina and a few of her writers munched pizza and wrote captions late into the night, there weren’t as many of them as I thought there would be at first. That’s because the role of editor-in-chief is not just that of an editor, despite the fact that the magazine’s editorial bent is the ultimate driver of success. She is also a CEO, a negotiator, a host and a hype man. The images Tina paints of the New York media power lunch are unforgettable—we can forget that in the 80s, before cell phones and email and Twitter, if someone was trying to reach you while you were at lunch they had to call the restaurant, and the maitre d would bring a phone to your table for you to receive the call. (Though of course, I can’t imagine this was an option for everyone, it was reserved for A-listers and media and business magnates.) There was a delightful entry early on when Tina recalled Alex Liberman, the brilliant editorial director of Conde Nast at the time, bursting into her office appalled that she had lunched on the second floor at the Four Seasons instead of the first, that just says so much about the importance of appearances and fostering relationships, however superficial they may have been, with the people who could help you get ahead.

In addition to the lunches, there was the endless parade of parties, dinners and galas, which served as a glittering reminder of what we now lovingly refer to as the golden age of magazines. Tina spent a great deal of time recounting who was at these events and who, to use her phrase, her dinner partner was and how they got along. I adored the fact that each person’s introduction came with a title, like the writer, the painter, the socialite, etc. It lent an air of weightiness and glamour to each description that I think has been lost in recent decades. Just reading about these dinners exhausted me; I can’t imagine being in her shoes and having to remain “on” throughout an entire workday and a dinner party, then do it all again the next day.

Which brings me to the next thing I found fascinating, which were the ways Tina was able to balance her work with motherhood. I found her attitude towards it all particularly striking—the entries during her first pregnancy appeared full of joy, excitement and anticipation for her baby’s arrival, while I feel that today a woman in her position may be filled with worry and trepidation about how she would be able to, as we say, do it all. Now I recognize that Tina’s situation wasn’t that of an average woman with a career, but I found her approach so refreshing and inspiring. There was one moment when she mentioned that when she was younger she had laid out the path of career success then babies, but as soon as she was pregnant she realized that plans like these are impossible to keep, and one must simply embrace life as it is gifted to you. I was inspired by and hope to emulate her commitment to escaping to her home on Long Island with her family on the weekends, even if she had to lug a pile of manuscripts with her. Her descriptions of her love for her children, and her husband for that matter, were some of the rawest and truest articulations of pure love I have read. They warmed my heart.

This book would not be as powerful as it is were it not for Tina’s astute powers of observation. She crossed paths with Donald Trump numerous times and it was eerie to read the descriptions of the man she met in the 80s, so disappointingly familiar now. But some of her most powerful observations were regarding the culture of New York City and how people interact and do business, versus the same in London, where she grew up and began her career. She paints New York, quite accurately, as a money-obsessed city of constant posturing and nonstop jockeying for position and power, with a media that takes itself far too seriously. She compares this to London, which despite being a major international city, has more of a small town coziness to it. I’m sure that those who proudly and happily live in New York would honorably wear her observations, while those who can’t quite keep up with the lifestyle would sympathize and breathe a sigh of relief that no, it wasn’t just them.

The last thing I feel I should mention was the way her entries conveyed the pervasiveness of AIDS during this period, and the debilitating effect it had on the creative community in New York. From the brilliant minds and loving hearts who were lost, to those who weren’t even able to reveal their true selves in death, it was a tragically defining marker on the city, the industry and the time.

So as you can see by the many, many words I have written, reading this memoir was truly a delight, perhaps even more so than the last book I read about a great magazine editor, Not Pretty Enough, Gerri Hershey’s biography of Helen Gurley Brown (who made a few appearances in this book, I might add). Tina’s words not only paint a sparkling, vibrant picture of an exciting time in an (in my opinion) exciting industry, but also offer inspiration, encouragement and advice for young women striving to succeed in their careers and also in achieving a life filled with joy, excitement and love.

 

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