Tina Brown became the editor of “famous (if fading)” British Tatler magazine at the youthful age of 25 and spent four years revitalising its dwindling circulation and increasing its cheekily-in-the-know coverage of society figures, peaking with coverage of the wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer in July 1981.
Her achievements got her noticed and she was headhunted by glossy American publisher Condé Nast to tackle the problem of its flagship title Vanity Fair, its content floundering and its sales figures rapidly sinking.
After Brown’s eight-year tenure, the title was in rude health. It boasted an enviable crew of writers and photographers and had delivered a series of scoops and splashes.
It covered the meltdown of the Royal marriage, put a glowy, naked, heavily pregnant Demi Moore on the cover and published a takedown of Donald Trump that made the news.
In this rapid-fire gossipy memoir, Brown captures the dissolute 80s and the glitz, glamour and greedy gleam of moneyed Manhattan: “I live in a permanent red-hot present, fascinated, appalled, thrilled, amused, enraged – but never ultimately touched, because in the end I am always a spectator and a foreigner.”
And it is another world, peopled by agents, authors, advertising executives, fashion designers and grandees, one of whom is wickedly described as “a coiffed asparagus, exuding second-rate intellectualism”.
Brown is brilliant at these gleeful little character descriptions.
A colleague is “like a manic, whispery prawn”, Trump, “his pouty Elvis face folded into a frown of self castigation”, is a “sneaky petulant infant”, while she detests Boris Johnson, “a young fogey with a thatch of blond hair and a plummy voice”.
She has the knack of making people instantly interesting, which is handy because you aren’t always sure who she’s writing about.
She may move in a rarefied working world full of drama and backstabbing and competitive undermining, but often the people she’s dealing with are unknown beyond the glossy upper echelons of journalism.
It is nonetheless intriguing to read about bad behaviour and bitchiness at gala evenings, editorial showdowns, tantrums and Donald Trump tipping a glass of wine down the back of a journalist who wrote a less than flattering profile of him (“what a coward”).
The Vanity Fair Diaries, which end when Brown takes a job editing The New Yorker, make for a fast-paced and head-spinningly hectic read.
Despite “the ceaseless clamor [sic] of thirsty egos. The umbrage and dudgeon and fencing and foiling”, she was addicted to the job (“and yet I know that if I left, all I’d want is to get it back”) and her recollections make for an equally addictive, astute and achingly exclusive read.