The Vanity Fair Diaries: Tina Brown lifts the lid on 1980s New York high society in new memoirs

Princess Diana, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger – the former Vanity Fair editor has seemingly limitless celebrity anecdotes

Tina Brown (Getty, EH)

An intimate dinner with Princess Diana, a party with Jackie O and an angry phone call from Mick Jagger. These are just a few of the celeb-drenched anecdotes from Tina Brown’s diaries recalling her time as Vanity Fair editor in the 1980s.

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The newly published book, which Brown has also recorded for Radio 4’s Book of the Week, is an exhilarating ride through a time when magazines had money to burn and New York’s high society was in full swing.

The diaries are filled with lines like “I found Philip Roth a bit of a disappointment at our dinner last night” and “just back from Henry Kissinger’s surprise 61st birthday party”, and Brown gives such evocative details about the food, the clothes and the conversation that it’s like you’re peeking through the velvet curtains at Manhattan’s literary and social elite.

Born in Maidenhead in 1953 to parents who worked in the film industry (her mother was an assistant to Laurence Olivier), Brown went to Oxford University and then became a reporter for Punch. Her writing caught the eye of Harold Evans, editor of The Sunday Times, who called her into the office to offer her some freelance work. But Brown stopped writing for him after they began an affair; despite the 26-year age gap, they later married. Brown became editor of Tatler at 25 and then, after what she refers to as a “long, agonised slow dance” with Vanity Fair, she became its editor-in-chief and moved to New York in 1984.

Why did she write diaries to begin with? Did she always have an eye on publishing them one day? “I wrote diaries because I’d just arrived from London,” says Brown. “New York was completely new and exciting. I’d come back to my New York apartment from these events and parties and lunches and since I’m a born reporter, I wanted to write down what I’d seen.”

It was the beginning of her “long love affair” with the Big Apple – she still lives there now – and it’s easy to see its appeal, given the glamour of the parties she describes. Yet the sheer amount of socialising in the diaries makes your head spin. “It’s funny because today I honestly do not know when I slept,” laughs Brown. “Ronald Reagan’s 1980s were a very uptown social world in Manhattan, a lot of money was swirling around, and people were entertaining up a storm. Often I didn’t want to go to the event but when I arrived there was always a story to be found; whoever I ended up sitting next to I’d end up delving deep into their lives.”

Tina Brown Meryl Streep (Getty, EH)

Of all the novel-worthy characters Brown spent time with while at Vanity Fair, it was Michael Jackson who most interested her. “He told me how he came to compose Billie Jean – he was driving down a hill and it just came to him; he felt the pulse of that rhythm.”

Of course, Brown’s Vanity Fair years were the glory days of magazine publishing, before the internet ripped up the lucrative business model of publishers such as Condé Nast. Brown knows this all too well after trying her hand at digital journalism. After leaving Vanity Fair in 1992 she spent six years editing The New Yorker; then, in 2008, she became the founding editor of online magazine The Daily Beast, but left in 2013 after revenue plummeted.

What does Brown think about journalism today? “I do think editors need to get out from behind their screen. They need to go to talks and events because even if you just get a business card, you can use it later. I always say, don’t forget that Bob Woodward met Deep Throat in a waiting room, where they got talking and Woodward took his card. At the moment there tends to be a sense with journalists that everything can be found online. Well, that’s just not true. People are now surrounded by a carapace of PR, but you have to develop social contacts. At Vanity Fair we would get stories in very unorthodox ways, like from the hairdresser.”

Brown is clearly no pushover, but it can’t have always been easy as a woman making her way in a male-dominated media world. “Women have to be gold in a silver job,” she says. “You feel you have to bust your gut to get the same kind of respect that comes more easily to men in the same position. It didn’t stop me, but without a doubt women have to really work in overdrive.”

Tina Brown at Tatler in 1979 (Getty, EH)
Tina Brown at Tatler in 1979 

Brown now runs a platform for female speakers called the Women in the World Summit, so how does she feel about the rapid fall from grace of her former business partner Harvey Weinstein, with whom she founded Talk magazine in 1998?

“Harvey is an intimidating and ferocious man,” she wrote in a New York Times column last month. “Crossing him, even now, is scary. But it’s a different era now. Cosby. Ailes. O’Reilly, Weinstein. It’s over, except for one – the serial sexual harasser in the White House.” Does she think this scandal will spell the end of this kind of abuse? “Yes; I think before it meant an outcry and a scandal that went away. But the difference this time is that men are reviewing their own conduct, thinking, ‘I’d better clean up my act.’”

Brown’s time in print might have been thrilling, but it came to an abrupt end. And if there’s one thing we learn from The Vanity Fair Diaries it’s that the magazine world is glossy but brutal. As Brown recalls in a 1983 entry just after she joined Vanity Fair: “I had an abysmal lunch with [Condé Nast managing director] Bernie Leser… he told me my successor at Tatler, Libby Purves, had quit. ‘We accepted Libby’s resignation because we realised she didn’t have your two most important attributes.’ Pause. ‘Your looks and your lifestyle.’” Ouch!

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Book of the Week: The Vanity Fair Diaries is on Monday 20th to Friday 24th November at 1.45pm on Radio 4