Ed Kosner on Tina Brown: She Perfected That Magic Blend of High and Low

Tina Brown was one of the hot magazine editors—maybe the hottest—of recent years, reviving Vanity Fair from 1984 to 1992 and then adding life and visual flair to the New Yorker from 1992 to 1998. Her new book, The Vanity Fair Diaries, was reviewed this week by Edward Kosner in the Wall Street Journal and by Nathan Heller in the New Yorker.

Kosner edited Newsweek, New York, and Esquire and once turned down the Vanity Fair job, saying, “I demurred, knowing that I could never do as good a job as Tina eventually did.” Here are some of his insights into Tina Brown the editor in his review, titled  “Tina Brown’s Me Decade”:

Tina Brown has fashioned a glittery career out of brains and flair, a rarer combination among magazine editors than you might think….She has lost lots of money for most of her mogul backers but rewarded them with ample “buzz,” the prized chatter among the cognoscenti that her efforts invariably produce.

People tend to settle into two camps about Tina Brown. One school hails her brilliance as a pitch-perfect, inventive editor and quicksilver writer, the author notably of a 2007 best seller about Diana, Princess of Wales. The other acknowledges her manifest talents but giggles at her penchant for self-dramatization and relentless self-promotion….

Ms. Brown has a David Levine-like touch for caricaturing her subjects. Si Newhouse, the proprietor of Condé Nast and her patron at Vanity Fair, is “nebbishy” and occasionally a “happy chipmunk”; Henry Kissinger, “a rumbling old Machiavelli”; Tom Wolfe, “tall and thin like a candle in his white suit”; Oscar de la Renta, “a sleek panther”; Gore Vidal, a prancer with “a high-stepped pussycat walk.” But she can be off-key, too. She egregiously misreads Charlotte Curtis, the no-nonsense Midwesterner who revolutionized the New York Times’s social coverage in the late 1960s and ’70s, as “a bogus grandee…a coiffed asparagus, exuding second-rate intellectualism.” At another point, she portrays Clay Felker, the renowned creator of New York magazine, as jealous of her Vanity Fair success—theoretically possible but distinctly unlikely….

At Vanity Fair, Ms. Brown perfected the art of the mix, that magic blend of high and low—Hollywood and high culture, dictator chic, clever fashion, Eurotrash, true crime and literary reminiscence—that can make an upmarket magazine irresistible. She brings the same touch to this memoir….

As it happens, Ms. Brown’s reminiscences appear just as her successor at Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter, is stepping aside after 25 years. VF lost money at the start under Ms. Brown, but Mr. Carter tweaked the formula she’d created and turned the magazine into a dynamo of profit and prestige until it, too, inevitably began to lose oomph. Mr. Carter and the rest of us who love the ephemeral pleasures of magazines owe Tina Brown a debt for, among other things, fine-tuning the insouciant, know-it-all voice that still resounds in the twilight of the glossies.

Tomorrow I’ll post some insights about editors from Nathan Heller’s review, “How Tina Brown Remixed the Magazine,” in the New Yorker.
P.S. from Jack: One of Tina Brown’s strengths was getting great pictures of people into Vanity Fair and the New Yorker—she created a visual flair that is mostly disappearing from magazines as the number of pages shrink. She understood that great photography, especially of interesting people, is the quickest way to stop readers as they graze the pages of a magazine. Seeing good pictures and captions, good headlines and pull quotes, the reader is much more likely to think, “This story looks like it might be good reading.”

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