Dana Brown Has Written an Engaging Memoir of His Magazine Life and the Inner Workings of Vanity Fair

From a Wall Street Journal review by Moira Hodgson of Dana Brown’s book titled “Dilettante: True Tales of Excess, Triumph, and Disaster”:

Dana Brown, a 21-year-old college dropout, was stocking bottles behind the bar in a Midtown New York restaurant when he met Graydon Carter. This chance encounter in 1994 with the powerful editor of Vanity Fair changed the course of his life. One day, on a whim, Mr. Carter hired him as his assistant. Now, 28 years later, Mr. Brown has come out with “Dilettante,” an engaging memoir of his life and the inner workings of the magazine. His book, a paean to Mr. Carter, is ironic and smart, a social history and coming-of-age story.

“It was the age of the glossy magazine and the celebrity editor—they were the arbiters of taste, the translators of culture and style to the culture-and-style-hungry masses,” he writes. And Condé Nast, which published Vanity Fair, was the epicenter.

The restaurant where the men first met was named 44, after its Manhattan street. It was a publishing and fashion hangout in the Royalton Hotel, the company cafeteria for Condé́ Nast employees whose offices were then two blocks away. They went there to be seen: Seating was of such importance that when one editor was offered an inferior table, he stormed out never to return. The kowtowing at 44 was intense: Vogue editor Anna Wintour’s lunchtime cappuccinos were timed to be served the instant she sat down. “Some days,” Mr. Brown notes, “as many as ten or more cappuccinos were sacrificed to the gods of fashion.”

Mr. Carter (whose hair Mr. Brown describes as having “a floppy flourish resembling Nike’s swoosh logo or a ski jump”) had joined this illustrious group in 1992. Poached from the New York Observer, a lively, irreverent weekly newspaper he edited for a year, Mr. Carter, then 43, seemed an odd choice for the glitzy, celebrity-driven Vanity Fair. In 1986 he had launched, with Kurt Andersen, the satirical magazine Spy, which had been particularly ruthless about Condé Nast, “skewering its affected culture, especially Tina Brown and Vanity Fair’s slavish and obsequious devotion to the rich and powerful,” writes Mr. Brown. “Graydon had stumbled behind enemy lines.

He had indeed. And Mr. Brown, the handsome young man in black tie who is smoking a cigarette on the cover of “Dilettante,” was a downtown kid in a punk band when he joined him. He was astonished to have been offered the job. He had no “sparkling résumé” or degree in journalism; he could barely spell and his grammar was terrible. “Literary references dropped into conversations would go right over my head.” Nevertheless Mr. Carter saw something in him. He hired him with the admonishment (in more colorful language) not to mess it up. Before long Mr. Brown became Mr. Carter’s trusted confidant, and diligently worked his way into understanding the magazine world.

Condé Nast publisher Si Newhouse had originally offered Mr. Carter the New Yorker. It was a secret but Tina Brown, who was still editing Vanity Fair, found out. She went to Mr. Newhouse where she “made a stink, and threatened to walk unless she got it.” Mr. Carter was offered Vanity Fair instead, “Tina’s sloppy seconds.” Mr. Brown calls her a “tireless self-promoter” whose eyes would scan the room at a cocktail party for someone more important. Mr. Carter was disappointed and angry about Mr. Newhouse’s decision. He didn’t even like Vanity Fair, with its “saturated color, sparkling new money.”

I was on staff at Newhouse’s Vanity Fair under its first two editorial regimes, before Ms. Brown in 1984 “cleaned house.” They had failed in their attempt to create a mass-circulation literary/cultural magazine: Susan Sontag on the cover did not sell copies, even as photographed in stunning black-and-white by Irving Penn. The magazine succeeded, however, under its subsequent editors, who embraced celebrity, especially British royals and Hollywood stars. Vanity Fair rode the updraft of power, status, and make-believe like a “gilded bubble.”…Condé Nast’s perks were legendary: everything was on the house, including cartons of cigarettes from the lobby newsstand. Cars, restaurant lunches, dinners and travel—for some even clothes and apartments—were paid for. Mr. Brown was given a corporate American Express card to use as he saw fit. Nothing was off-limits.

One of his first jobs was working the door at Vanity Fair’s parties. He was told to check in guests at a small dinner for the designer Valentino. On the day of the event, Marla Maples’s publicist asked if she and her then-husband, Donald Trump, could attend. The dinner was over-booked, she was told. Mr. Brown didn’t know at the time that Mr. Carter had enraged Mr. Trump by mocking him as a “short-fingered vulgarian” in the pages of Spy. The Trumps brazenly pulled up for the dinner in a stretch limo, and Donald, “[oozing] confidence, power, masculinity, and really poor tailoring decisions,” subjected the gatekeeping Mr. Brown to a tirade so ferocious that he had an “out-of-body experience.” But he stood his ground.

Mr. Carter’s party mantra was “No empty seats.” If a guest failed to show, Mr. Brown would find himself pulling up a chair next to some disgruntled celebrity. When Mr. Carter realized that he was keen on photography, he gave him a camera and assigned him to cover parties. It wasn’t editing, but it left him able to observe the guests and get to know everyone there in order of their importance, their job title and their net worth—not to mention the names of their yachts and who they were sleeping with.

He became very close to Mr. Carter. “He liked having me around and would summon me into his office to smoke cigarettes, talk about what makes a great magazine piece (characters, conflict, conclusion), give me life advice.” Mr. Carter gave him a first edition of Moss Hart’s autobiography, “Act One,” about Hart’s rise from an impoverished childhood to being one of the most successful playwrights of the 20th century.  “The message was clear,” writes Mr. Brown. “Graydon and I may have been at different points in our careers and stages of reinvention, but we were similar. Like Moss Hart before us, we were both outsiders.” And, as such, determined to do well.

Mr. Brown cites two big successes he says made Vanity Fair “the most influential general-interest magazine of the next two decades.” The first was 1994’s “New Establishment” issue, hailing “the rising moguls of the information age.” The next year premiered the annual “Hollywood Issue,” which redoubled the magazine’s links with movie stars. They would “open up to our writers, pose for our photographers . . . announce weddings and divorces in our pages and show off newborns on our covers.”

Following that trend, Vanity Fair’s Oscar party became the invitation of the year. When Mr. Brown was assigned to interview red-carpet celebrities he staggered his way through the task in a haze of Xanax, marijuana and vodka. It was one more step on the path up the masthead, where he would eventually become Mr. Carter’s deputy.

When Mr. Carter retired in 2017, glossy magazines had begun to slim down, go digital or fold entirely. Mr. Brown calls the financial crisis of 2008, the iPhone, Facebook and Twitter “the four horsemen of the magazine apocalypse.” Vanity Fair’s new editor, Radhika Jones, arrived and like her predecessor “cleaned house.” Mr. Brown was out. He went down to Odeon and had a glass of Sancerre. Then he started to write this book.

Moira Hodgson is the author of “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: My Adventures in Life and Food.”

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