Long before he stormed the barricades of American media, Sir Harry Evans already was something of a legend. In 1968, the then-40-year-old editor of The Sunday Times led a landmark investigation into thalidomide, a drug that had left thousands of infants throughout the world suffering from severe deformities. Taking on some of the most powerful interests in the country, he helped overturn some of Britain’s restrictive libel laws and launched a new era of investigative journalism that became the model for newspapers worldwide. When The Boston Globe launched its Spotlight division in 1970 — which inspired the 2016 Oscar-winning movie — one of the paper’s editors was sent to spend the summer in London, just to observe Evans and his crew.
The editor’s epic battle against thalidomide recently was chronicled in Attacking the Devil, distributed by The Weinstein Co. and directed by venerable British documentarian Jacqui Morris. Buoyed by the success of Spotlight and encouraged by the documentary’s rapturous reception in London, the Weinsteins are set to release Devil stateside this year, with high hopes for its Oscar potential. (British film company See-Saw also is at work on a feature adaptation of the story, with Hugh Grant said to be among the contenders vying for the lead.)
Now 87, the preternaturally energetic Evans spends much of his time writing a series of best-selling books about American history published by Knopf and other presses and visiting with family and friends. (Evans has five children, three with former wife Enid and two with current wife, Tina Brown, 62.)
In 1982, Evans’s 14-year tenure at The Sunday Times came to an untimely end shortly after Rupert Murdoch purchased the paper. Despite an early detente, their ongoing battles over the paper’s editorial direction eventually grew too poisonous for either of them to bear. In 1978, he had left his longtime wife for Brown, an ambitious writer (and occasional Times freelancer) several decades his junior, earning some unwelcome mentions in the London gossip columns. They were married two years later in a quiet ceremony at Grey Gardens, the storied summer home of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and his wife, Sally Quinn.
Soon after, Evans left England for the United States, where he would occupy a series of impressive positions at Random House, Conde Nast Traveler, The Week and the New York Daily News, among others. By then, Brown had her own high-profile job as the precocious editor of Vanity Fair. In the decades since, as Brown assumed a string of posts at The New Yorker, Talk, Newsweek and The Daily Beast, she and Evans became a subject of intense media fascination and occasional controversy. (I worked for Brown as editorial director of Talk and as editor at her latest venture, Women in the World, among other places.)
Even when they’ve suffered professional setbacks, the couple has continued to be counted among the city’s most prominent social arbiters. Their packed parties inside their 57th Street apartment — a five-bedroom triplex now up for sale for $9.75 million — regularly draw a hodgepodge of high-octane grandees, from John Kerry and Meryl Streep to Tony Blair and Roger Ailes. A few months ago, they threw a bash there for Uber founder Travis Kalanick.
Evans comes full circle with his latest tome, set to be published early next year, Do I Make Myself Clear? — On Use and Abuse of English, a punchy follow-up to an earlier journalistic primer that’s still a standard at many British universities.
In March, nursing a few cups of tea outside his kitchen, we discussed Hollywood’s rekindled infatuation with reporters, his complicated feelings about Murdoch and why he and Brown have their furniture loaded into a moving truck every time they throw a party.
I read that you resolved to become a journalist when you were 11. It’s an odd career choice for a working-class kid.
Well, I had read a lot of romantic stories about the legends of Fleet Street. My parents weren’t rich, but they saved up enough to give me a year at a college, where I learned shorthand and typing. Then, in the ‘40s, I entered the army and I edited my first magazine, the Empire Flying School Review! Our first issue featured bombers holding their gun turrets. It was a f—ing flop. So I turned it into a racier magazine. My biggest coup was persuading a local film star named Diana Fluck to pose for our cover.
Diana Fluck? Really?
Yes! She later changed her name to Diana Dors because Fluck got misinterpreted on the marquee! (Laughs.) We ran a picture of her half naked, sitting on a fence. It sold out like crazy.
From left: Evans, Murdoch and ‘Times’ editor William Rees-Mogg at a 1981 news conference. Evans gained detractors on the Times’ staff after backing Murdoch in his fight against unions, but he ultimately clashed with the mogul over editorial and budgetary concerns.
You’re about to enjoy your own marquee moment. The documentary about your fight against thalidomide has been widely praised, and there may be a feature-film version on the way. Why are people so interested in that story after so many years?
The success of Spotlight raised lots of new interest in investigative journalism, and the crusade against thalidomide was the model for that kind of reporting. This was an epic tragedy. The thalidomide children were foully abused, their mothers were given drugs that the government approved, and they came out horribly deformed. This was a drug invented in Germany by Nazis. It was prescribed by the National Health Service for morning sickness and sleeplessness. It was a euphoric — as soon as you took it, you felt good. But thalidomide turned out to be a terrorist’s eugenic, as deadly as a sniper’s rifle. If you took it in the 23rd week of your pregnancy, your child would go blind. If you took it in the 32nd week, your child would lose an organ or several limbs. But at the time, drug companies were protected by a peculiar [U.K.] law called the law of contempt. It decreed that if parents sued for compensation from these large and powerful commercial companies, they could not make any public comment. So British law suppressed all public debate for a decade while these massively deformed children were being born. Can you imagine what it’s like to bring up an armless, limbless kid without any compensation? And then try to fight this mighty corporation?
Things haven’t changed that much, really. Purdue Pharma originally marketed OxyContin as a nonaddictive painkiller. And it’s caused a devastating drug epidemic in American history.
No, things haven’t really changed. But ultimately, I still believe that there is only one institution that can help. Not the government, not the law. The media is the only salvation. But the press is not living up to its obligations. Why are we just discovering that [Donald] Trump’s college was a fraud? That story should have been written a year ago. And the poisoning of the children of Flint. The only hope for us is the press, but the press is deeply polluted. The media can be a powerful corrective to untruth, but only if it’s morally run. That’s why the ownership of the media is so important.
Can you recall a time as topsy-turvy as this one?
The world has been in crisis before. But I honestly never thought we’d see a candidate like Trump in America. I was at the White House correspondents dinner the night [President] Obama ripped him apart. The next day, Vanity Fair ran a funny piece proclaiming that Trump was finally finished. At the time, I thought that was a fair assessment. Turns out I was wrong.
That was the speech that supposedly inspired Trump to run.
It may have. But in the intervening years, few of us detected the huge undercurrent of bitterness and resentment that was brewing in this country. Nobody noticed the surge of total despair about the elite and about what’s happened to white working people. That’s a failure of journalism. Why we missed it, I don’t know. But we did.
Perhaps it’s because the media is increasingly elitist and insular.
Elitist? I don’t know. I wouldn’t really call the New York Post elitist, would you? Or the Daily News? What’s wrong with elitists anyway? In Robert Hughes’ autobiography, when he’s discussing his approach to art criticism, he says, “Of course I’m a f—in’ elitist! I’m an elitist because I seek higher standards of truth and beauty and grace. And if the mob doesn’t feel the same way, they can go f— themselves!”
Since you arrived in America, you and Tina have become as prominent as some of the people you cover. Was that a strange transition for you?
It’s certainly more pleasant to edit reporters than to be covered by them. And Tina gets the worst of it, I’m afraid.
Why do you think she’s so controversial?
It’s hard to overstate the amount of envy and pettiness that fuels this city. Success always breeds resentment, even more so for women. Tina took over at Tatler at 25 and then went to Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. She made huge successes of them all. And she’s made unpredictable decisions. She probably should have stayed on at The New Yorker, but Harvey Weinstein can be very seductive. The day she decided to leave for Talk, I was upstairs at our home and happened to see the generous contract Conde Nast had offered her. I had a bad feeling. I thought, “Tina, why didn’t you just stay there?” But she’s always looking to do something new. Restless. There was lots of venom after Talk collapsed. And after Newsweek, the knives came out again. Not that any of that stops her. You look now at the enormous success of Women in the World — I couldn’t be prouder of her.
Your marriage has endured a lot of slings and arrows over the years. How have you kept it going for so long?
Well, I’m in love with her, you know. But she’s kept it going, not me, because I am hopeless. I’m this lumbering old man, and she’s so vivacious and funny. We also have a huge amount in common. We read and read and read. We talk constantly. We try to stay engaged with the world.
Has the quality of media declined since you started out?
I love that we have so many new sources now. Slate, Salon, BuzzFeed, The Daily Beast — they do great work. But with all the fragmentation of reporting and opinion, we’ve lost something important. The institutionalized weight of the press used to make a difference. It used to mean something if the Times or The Washington Post weighed in on an issue. Now it doesn’t matter.
You’ve worked for a small army of moguls during your career: S.I. Newhouse, Mort Zuckerman, Rupert Murdoch, Felix Dennis. I’m surely forgetting a few.
You’re forgetting about Roy Thomson, who might be the most important mogul of them all. He started with a little radio station in Canada and became one of the most powerful figures in media. He owned dozens of papers around the world. He owned Reuters, The Globe and Mail, The Sunday Times and numerous papers in Canada and England. He used to carry a card around in his pocket that he would present to anyone who complained to him about his papers. It said, “A newspaper should be edited by a professional editor, and I will have no part in interfering with it.”
Evans and Brown in 1993 at the Plaza in New York City.
Murdoch didn’t come off very well in your book, Good Times, Bad Times, but you seemed reluctant to really go after him.
Rupert’s a complicated man, you know. I have to recognize that he’s a brilliant entrepreneur. OK? I also have to recognize that Rupert broke every single promise he ever made to me. He is an arrogant, self-satisfied man who has great difficulty with the truth.
Isn’t that true of all of these guys?
No, no, no. S.I. Newhouse is a very shy, introspective, quiet guy. He loves a little gossip, but that’s it. But Murdoch is a forceful, inventive person. I’ll never forget: I was editing The Times, and Murdoch and I sat in a car to go to a dinner. It was 1982. He told me he really wanted to buy a movie studio but he couldn’t afford it at the time. He had his eye on Fox. He told me, “Harry, one day satellites in the stars will beam stuff down on everyone’s TV.” He was 40 years ahead! He completely predicted the advent of satellite television. Later, he started Sky TV and outran all competitors. He even beat me. (Laughs.) I was trying to buy The Sunday Times from under him, and I had a fantastic proposal. At the time, Rupert owned two other papers, and he shouldn’t have been able to buy the Times — too much of a monopoly. But he beat me because he made a secret deal with Margaret Thatcher, who helped adjust the rules. He denies it to this day, but it’s definitely true.
Do you see him much these days?
Oh, we occasionally cross paths. We’re civil. There’s no point in arguing anymore.
I suppose you didn’t score an invite to the Jerry Hall nuptials.
(Laughs.) No, alas. But he looks very happy, don’t you think?
You’ve always been a fierce advocate for your reporters, but back in the day, you received a lot of flak for supporting Murdoch’s union-busting measures.
The unions got what they deserved. When I was editing The Times, there were constant strikes against the paper. The newspaper union was led by a bunch of gangsters. They invented fake names to draw full-time salaries. Mickey Mouse drew a wage from us. So did Donald Duck. Murdoch’s greatest contribution was freeing the British press from the unions. Whatever my arguments with him, he deserves credit for that.
You were knighted in 2004 for your service to journalism. How did that come about?
I had to bribe lots of people! (Laughs.) It’s this Byzantine process. Once you’re nominated, you’re reviewed by a committee that makes sure you’re not crazy and have committed no crimes. The prime minister and the queen have to weigh in. The prime minister can stop a knighthood if he wants to. Happily, he didn’t stop mine.
Does life seem grander when you’re a sir?
Not at all, not really! But I can’t deny the lure of vanity. Every day I look in the mirror, and who looks back at me but Sir Harry! (Laughs.) That’s not the world I grew up in.
Evans as seen in The Weinstein Co. documentary ‘Attacking the Devil.’
You once said that you think of yourself as more American than British. Is that still true?
Oh, I don’t know. I’m torn. I’m sort of a biped, really. Bifocal, bisexual, whatever! I’m completely bi on everything! (Laughs.) I love England, I love its traditions, I love English literature, I love the quality of the writing in the British magazines and the press. But I also love the freewheeling exuberance of America.
Is it true that you and Tina hire a U-Haul to cart around all your furniture in circles around 57th Street until dawn every time you throw a party?
(Laughs.) Yes, I’m afraid. We prefer entertaining at home because it’s quieter. We cram 50, 60 people in this place, but the furniture has to go.
I’m always amazed by the odd mix of people who turn up for your parties here.
Tina and I know a lot of people. We cast a wide net. We want to meet interesting people who are shaking things up in some way. The guest list thing can sometimes require a great deal of energy. Tina’s abiding obsession at the moment is criminal injustice, particularly at Rikers Island, so we’re seeing lots of law-and-order types now. Tina likes to mix things up, as you know, seat a sitcom star next to the deputy secretary of defense. She’s a big fan of the high-low thing, which was once an original concept. No longer. Everybody does it now.
After living here for decades, you’ve now put the place up for sale. Why now? It feels like the end of an era.
Well, once the kids were out of the house, it felt a bit lonely here. We realized we no longer needed a third floor. So we’re moving to Beekman Place, to a lovely apartment close to the British consulate. We’re not going underground. We recently had Helen Mirren and the CEO of Microsoft over. Tina is now in Miami, scouting for a place for winter weekends. The party will go on!
Of all the media jobs you’ve held, which one was your favorite?
The Sunday Times was probably most satisfying. But Conde Nast Traveler was fun as well. They’ve changed it now, but the original idea for the magazine was “truth in travel.” Early on, we published a big story about air pollution in Mexico City. After it ran, a huge agency pulled all their ads. I printed their letter and wrote an editorial backing our story. All the ad people were panicked. But instead of pulling out, advertisers all rushed in.
Because they realized that truth in travel was an idea whose time had come. It was one of the most successful launches Conde Nast ever had. At the time, an activist in the Amazon was murdered by the lumber companies he was resisting. I told my editors, let’s assign a story about this man’s murder and see if we can bring the government to action. So we did. Ten days later, I was at home, and the housekeeper picked up the phone and said it’s someone calling from the Amazon. I rushed to the phone, but Tina said, “No, that call is for me.” And it was. She’d sent somebody to the bloody Amazon for Vanity Fair a day before I did. (Laughs.) I was very annoyed.
Have you often found yourselves competing for the same story?
Occasionally. She’ll say, “Back off, that’s my story!” And I’ll say, “Oh, OK. You win.” Tina’s big on winning. (Laughs.)
Yes, but look at you now. Hugh Grant isn’t angling to play her in a big movie.
No, that’s true. We’ll see how that turns out. I’m a huge fan of Hugh Grant’s, but I think I may hold out for Brad Pitt to play me. He’s a better likeness, don’t you think?
This story first appeared in the May 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.