A few days after 9/11, I accompanied Tina Brown and Harvey Weinstein to a smoldering Ground Zero. Our purpose was to distribute food, procured from a nearby restaurant co-owned by Weinstein and Robert De Niro. Weinstein carried a stack of paper plates and Brown clutched a bunch of bananas while I struggled behind them with an enormous vat of hot soup. A bit later, while Harvey chewed on a bagel grabbed from the firemen’s table, Tina, in heels, picked her way across the rubble, scribbling furiously in her notepad. It was one of many surreal moments during my year as editorial director of Talk, the ill-fated magazine Brown had started with backing from Weinstein’s Miramax. When she hired me, Tina confided that she had been keeping journals since her school years. So I assigned her to pen a monthly diary for the magazine, a task she undertook with zeal. A few days after our first outing she called to announce that she was back at Ground Zero. She’d convinced a rickshaw driver to cart her there, evading the ban on vehicles and most pedestrians.
She’s now published a chunk of her actual journals in a gossipy, incisive new book, The Vanity Fair Diaries, 1983-1992, which chronicles how the British editor, now 63, transformed the struggling monthly into the most talked-about magazine of its time. Loaded with tart observations about stars, socialites and strivers, her book unsparingly details the era’s frenzied socializing and over-the-top one-upsmanship and the medieval court politics of Conde Nast. After eight years at Conde’s Vanity Fair, the most powerful glossy in pre-internet New York, Brown decamped triumphantly to The New Yorker, then less happily to Talk and later to Newsweek and The Daily Beast. These days, her Tina Brown Live Media puts on Women in the World, a newsy, star-studded annual summit in New York, along with smaller events around the globe.
With her book arriving in the heat of Hollywood’s harassment scandal, she reminisced about her tumultuous tenure with Weinstein, powerful men behaving badly (Trump) and her own slights and triumphs as one of the most powerful women in media.
It was interesting to see how political Conde Nast was. It seemed like you spent half your time at Vanity Fair taking Si Newhouse’s temperature, wondering if he was about to fire you or promote you.
Conde Nast was a very political place — Si reigned over it like a shy Roman emperor. There was a lot of co-opting and managing up. People are often rapped for being too political, but the truth is you need political skills to survive and realize your vision. Si was enormously supportive to me, but he was also very mercurial. You could never get a sense of what he was up to. November was a particularly dangerous month. He’d fly to Vienna for the holidays and think about all the things he was going to do with the company. Everyone went into crouch position waiting for him to return. He’d come back on Jan. 4 and heads of publishing houses were fired and editors were sent packing. You really had to keep your eye on the ball.
You weren’t quite as successful managing Harvey Weinstein at Talk.
Because Harvey was not someone you could gauge or manage. He was completely erratic and insane. You never knew what was going to happen with him.
And yet he managed to lure you from the best job in journalism. How long did it take to realize you’d made a mistake?
It became apparent pretty early on, though Harvey can be enormously charming. In the beginning, he seemed like this enormous, rough diamond. He presents himself as this gravel-voiced Hollywood entrepreneur — a latter-day Louis B. Mayer. But when I went to work for him, I realized how different he was than his public persona. He is very secretive and paranoid, hugely jumpy about his press. The thinnest skin of anyone I’ve worked with. He spent hours doing forensic digs on anyone who gave him a remotely negative quote. It didn’t surprise me that he hired ex-Mossad agents because he was so paranoid. It turned out he had a good reason to be.
You said in a recent interview that it wasn’t your job to know what Harvey was doing in his private life, but surely you heard the rumors?
Not really. I knew he was sleazy, but you don’t report someone to the police because they like going out with starlets or they’re cheating on their wife. I never worked at the Miramax offices. I wasn’t hanging with Harvey in Cannes.
My first day at Talk, I heard Harvey threaten you on the speakerphone from his yacht in Capri. I wondered why you didn’t quit.
Harvey was deeply unpleasant to me. He brought me to tears several times. But I tried to stay focused on my job. I had a passion for what I was doing, I had hired all these brilliant people, and I didn’t want to let them down. I thought we could pull it off.
In your diaries Si comes off as a conditional parent — warm and affectionate one moment, cold and aloof the next. How did he react when you left him for Harvey?
He was very, very unhappy. He didn’t speak to me for a very long time. I loved Si. Let’s be clear about that. I had 17 years with him and although he was mercurial and difficult I had huge affection for him. He gave me the opportunity to come to America. He gave me Vanity Fair, though I wasn’t even 30. When he made me editor of The New Yorker, he got a ton of shit for it. But Si remained incredibly loyal. For all his cheap bravado, Harvey folded when things got tough after 9/11.
All That Glitters, a book on the Newhouse family, repeats a story that has long swirled in New York publishing circles: that Si originally offered the New Yorker job to Graydon Carter, but withdrew his offer after you demanded the position for yourself.
As you can see from the diary, that’s just not true. Si talked to me about editing The New Yorker for a few years before I accepted. I have no idea if he did offer it to Graydon or not. Maybe he was doing a parallel thing. I could have had The New Yorker before I accepted, but I was very ambivalent about it because of my children. I had young children, and I was scared of what it would do to my life. But Si kept coming back. It was very clearly laid out in the diary the way it came to me, and that’s exactly what happened.
You’re often credited — and blamed — for creating modern celebrity culture. Do you regret that now?
I certainly can’t take full credit. Celebrity culture began the day Ronald Reagan was elected — an actor in the White House. Vanity Fair just expanded the notion of what it meant to be a star. Just being in the magazine made you glamorous, whether you were an intellectual or the head of a think tank or a movie star.
The New York Times story about Harvey opened a flood of revelations that shows no sign of abating. Why now?
Maybe we are seeing such rage in our public life because the women’s movement has seen such diminishing returns. Women have made lots of advances since the ’80s, but they’re still stalled in many ways. They are tired of playing nice. Donald Trump ascended to the White House despite his predation. When the Weinstein thing happened, women just decided enough is enough.
Have you ever experienced any sexual harassment in your own career?
I never experienced the kind of sexual overtures I would class as harassment, though I warded off plenty of advances. But I remembered today a professional incident that upset me very much at the time. When I was editor at The New Yorker in the ’90s, Spy — post-Graydon Carter — did a take-down story with a cover that photoshopped me on someone else’s naked breasts with a cover line like “Tina Brown Unzipped.” I remember looking at it with a deep, hot experience of humiliation. I knew it wasn’t my body, but others might not and I imagined my male colleagues were looking at it and chortling and speculating and I felt rage thinking how no male editor would have had a cover done of them naked without their pants. It was so disrespectful, such a misogynistic and belittling thing to do. But I said nothing about it, pretended to find it amusing. But in general, I can’t say I’ve experienced too much sexist aggression in my career. I’ve led my own team since I was 25. I have not had to depend on many men to get ahead, I was very lucky in that regard. Si was an elegant, impeccable person. It would have never crossed his mind to masturbate in my office. (Laughs.)
Of all the people who have been brought down, who’s been the most shocking?
They all were shocking in their own way. Michael Oreskes at NPR. Did you read the story about Andre Balazs? He stuck his hand up the crotch of Jason Bateman’s wife. As many stories as we hear, I still find myself utterly blown away. I have a bunch of men that I personally like and admire who’ve been caught in this web, and my first incredulous instinct is to defend them. But in the current environment, I’m frozen. Who knows what your friends really are capable of? I have learned in the past few weeks that many people taken down for harassment are abusive in other ways. It’s true of Harvey and Bill O’Reilly. Even if you didn’t know they were perverse, you knew they were bullies in every other way. One of the most valuable things about hearing so many stories from women who have endured harassment, is the vividness of their humiliation.
I know you’re as mystified as I am by this epidemic of public masturbation.
Ejac-o-mania, I call it! (Laughs.) Yesterday, I heard one therapist say it’s all about a desire to shock and humiliate, but I actually think this is all about addiction to online porn and not being able to differentiate between fantasy images and a real woman standing in front of you. Lots of men have objectified and dehumanized women to the point that they don’t care if the person in front of them is real. Online porn is short-circuiting male sexuality. God knows what the advent of AI will do. When Artificial Intelligence serves up perfect, made-to-order sex objects, I have no doubt that many guys will prefer them to flesh-and-blood women. Intimacy takes a lot of work. But digital intimacy is so easy that I think many men will choose hot bots. Maybe if Louis C.K. had a bot, he wouldn’t have to strip naked in a dressing room and start masturbating in front of cowering, stunned women.
Isn’t the power imbalance part of the turn-on for these guys?
Maybe someone can design a bot that seems really cowed. (Laughs.)
Has Harvey tried to contact you since all this went down?
I haven’t spoken to Harvey for a very long time. I don’t know what the hell he’ll do after such an epic fall. The way things look now, he may even end up behind bars. He should write a book titled Monster and deal head-on with the struggle in his own soul and person between the man who had such passion for quality on the screen, the kid who loved French art films and the gross, bullying predator he was as well. How the Beast won so completely over beauty. It would be amazing to read such a book. It may be his only possible crack at a legacy after all the pain he has caused.
When you met your husband, Harry [Evans], you were a 20-something writer at the London Times and he was the paper’s editor, 25 years your senior. I’ve always admired your relationship. But by current standards, wouldn’t your affair be viewed with suspicion?
No, I don’t think we should ever brand consensual sexual relationships and love affairs as harassment. We have to separate those things or we’ll be in real trouble. When Harry and I met, nobody was harassing anybody. Our work life had nothing to do with it. We just fell in love.
Isn’t that kind of nuance lost in the current environment?
It’s certainly true that America is going through an enormous reset. But we need to differentiate between actual hostile harassment and unwanted advances and dumb, clueless guys who say the wrong thing. There are degrees of bad behavior and they shouldn’t be treated the same way.
I didn’t recall, until I read your book, that Vanity Fair excerpted Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal.
I loved The Art of the Deal. It was bullshit, but it was authentic bullshit. It was a real sign of the times. I first met Trump at a party at Ann Getty’s house, where he flirted with me wildly and complained about the opera. He was awful, but he was funny. In London, we call people of Trump’s type “Jack the Lad” — semi-attractive, filthy rich and very dumb. It wasn’t until later I realized how dangerous he could be.
When did you change your mind?
I had assigned a writer, Marie Brenner, to do a story on Trump. She dug up a ton of great stuff. A few weeks after the story appeared, Donald and Marie found themselves at a party. Suddenly she felt something wet on her back. It was Donald, pouring his drink down her dress. He was boorish and nasty when he was criticized. As the reality of his business doings became clear, he became kind of toxic.
Your husband spent many years working for Rupert Murdoch. Are you surprised to see how avidly his properties have championed Trump?
I have no doubt that Murdoch thinks Trump is a fool, but he’s a useful fool who can do Murdoch many favors. Rupert is the best strategist I have ever encountered. He always plays the long game. So for the moment he supports Trump and will play him for whatever he needs: deregulation, tax breaks. relaxed oversight of deals and mergers, whatever he has cooking. But once Trump ceases to be useful, Rupert will throw him under the bus. The way Fox handled the O’Reilly payoffs was mind-blowing. In the midst of this treacherously accelerating cultural game change, his kids must be feeling deeply unsettled.
You originally made your name as a writer in England skewering socialites. But at Vanity Fair, you were a part of the society you covered — breathlessly making the round of parties every night. Was it difficult to keep your balance?
My job sometimes caused tricky situations with friends. Sally Quinn had been a good friend of mine. Harry and I got married at Grey Gardens, Ben Bradlee and Sally’s house in Long Island. When I was at Vanity Fair she wrote a novel called Regrets Only. I thought Christopher Buckley would be perfect to review it. Unfortunately for Sally — and me — he wrote this very mischievous piece that made a lot of fun of the book, which he described as “clit-erature.” Ouch! Sally was absolutely livid. She sent me a telegram — that sounds so quaint today — disinviting us from Ben’s birthday party. We didn’t talk for years, but the husbands repaired it.
Your diaries from the Vanity Fair era ran over 350,000 words, which must have been hell to edit. Did you change details or take things out to protect the guilty or the innocent?
I savagely cut anything that wasn’t either vivid, funny or self-revealing. Then I made sure everything was accurate and built up into a coherent story. There were many moments where I had to stop and think, “Does this zinger that will piss someone off really add reader pleasure or illumination?” I usually decided to keep in those candid observations, though they could be pretty sharp at times. It was fun to come across entries like the one I wrote after visiting a bunch of Oxford friends. “This person Boris Johnson is an epic shit and I hope he ends badly!” I still adhere to that view. (Laughs.)
You’ve remarked that powerful women get a much harder time than powerful men, but certain women elicit a more negative reaction than others. Why are you and Hillary and Arianna so often vilified while Oprah and Cheryl Sandberg are left alone?
That’s a fascinating question. I don’t know. But no powerful woman ever gets off scot-free. Sheryl Sandberg suffered vicious attacks after she published Lean In. Mary Barra was dismissed when she took over at GM. Even Oprah has been knocked around for her weight and her choice of men. All public women become targets. You have to try 15 times harder or be 15 times better than any man in the same position. Hillary is the classic example. She was more qualified than anyone who’s ever run, and she lost to a complete ignoramus. The election was a grotesque metaphor for the plight of many women in the workplace.
New York just lost a major women’s voice and a major voice in gossip — Liz Smith.
Liz Smith was always such an upper with that big sunny face that made you feel any party she was at was the only place to be. She was the opposite of the snarky bottom-feeders glued to their screens. She hit the scene and loved the scene and gave back royally to New York with her literacy fundraising. All her friends looked after her at the end.
Bruna Papandrea, the producer of Big Little Lies, recently optioned your book for TV. How involved are you in the project? And who’s going to play you?
When my agent asked me who I would like to read my book I told her, “Whoever produced Big Little Lies!” I loved that show’s sophistication, edge and its understanding of women. Bruna loved the Diaries so much she jumped on the red-eye to get me to say yes. She’s brilliant. I think one of the positive effects of this harassment scandal is that it will enable more women like her to rise. Roy Price, who was recently axed from at Amazon, was a sexual boor who passed on Big Little Lies because he didn’t think it had enough nudity. Instead he greenlighted a massive dud from Woody Allen, of all people! I’m co-executive producer, and we’re hunting for the right writer and the right actress. I have to get used to the idea of inventing a character named Tina who is separate from me.
Conde consulted you in the search for a new editor at Vanity Fair. What do you think of Radhika Jones?
She has a terrific literary background but also understands how to put out magazines and how to host the Time 100. She has intellectual rigor and personal style.
Was editing Vanity Fair the most joyful chapter of your career?
Vanity Fair was a great joy to me. But they each had their own joy. Tatler was a blast, because I was so young and it was like a mischievous school magazine. The New Yorker gave me profound satisfaction because the stakes were so high and it raised my game. The Daily Beast was a throwback to Tatler, a bunch of brilliant kids being irreverent and smart. And despite all the Miramax madness, we had some riotous fun at Talk, didn’t we?
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.