Friday, December 15, 2017

The Vanity Fair Diaries, by Tina Brown

I took up Tina Brown's The Vanity Fair Diaries (2017) in hopes of snarky literary anecdotes, celebrity gossip, some inside information about editing and the resurrection of the magazine under her leadership.  There is some of that, but in the first half there is too much self-aggrandizing narrative about her and her husband's ambitions to own or rent ever-larger apartments in New York City and in the Hamptons that they really cannot or at least should not afford.  She crows a lot about her success as an editor, about the brilliant writers she recruits, about the failings of colleagues or competitors. She seems more interested (throughout the book) in talented writing as a means to making the magazine successful rather than as an end in itself (this may well be a key to her success as an editor). I found this aspect of the book irritating but by midpoint had devoted enough time to the diaries that I felt obliged to finish reading them.  An early anecdote is one of the best: Brown describes a Hollywood party she attends at which the elderly British novelist Dame Rebecca West is introduced to the British comedian Benny Hill--the book is almost worth it for that one image of West staring down wordlessly at Hill after she's been introduced. Brown’s assessment of Andy Warhol seems to me right on target: that he was, after all the hype, a kind of monster who exploited more than he created.
The book’s second half significantly improves. Brown perhaps comes to feel more comfortable in New York City, more confident in her work as a leading editor, more justified by the accolades she receives. She certainly had achieved by the mid-1980s a better understanding of the American scene. Her accounts of dinner parties and of individuals whom she comes to know are better developed and more penetrating. She seems at moments to be impressed by, even in thrall to, some of the company she keeps, but at others to hold them at a cold and perceptive distance.
One does wonder at some of that company: Henry Kissinger, for instance, and Donald Trump, who appears increasingly often through the 1980s and into the 1990s.  Brown may be fascinated in a way by Trump, but in no way is she deceived: she regards him as the worst of the New York City world, the worst of America.  I’d be interested to know the extent to which she revised her diaries as she prepared them for publication, whether she made efforts to foreground Trump in light of his ascendance to the presidency. I could not fault her for doing so. (A number of individuals who played a role in Harry Hurt III’s biography of Trump, The Lost Tycoon, are mentioned in Brown’s diaries.)
The diaries end with Brown’s decision to take on the editorship of The New Yorker.  An epilogue brings readers up to date on later events in her career.

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