- - Sunday, January 21, 2018



Tina Brown is a talented English journalist who has spent most of her celebrated career writing amusing things about grindingly trivial topics. While her professional highpoint was probably being named editor of the iconic New Yorker magazine, her time there was more remarkable for glitz than for substance.

An editorial Peck’s Bad Girl, Tina pushed the envelope of edginess with a bloated budget and, at best, mixed results. It came as no surprise when she and the New Yorker eventually parted company and the magazine, while benefitting from her enlivening touch, jettisoned most of her superfluous glitter, refocusing on being a publication of national interest rather than a Manhattan happening.

Most of her subsequent efforts have either flopped or played to shrinking audiences. Thus, in an advanced blurb on the dust jacket of “The Vanity Fair Diaries,” Meryl Streep gushes about how the Brown “energy and imagination” have now “turned to making the world better [and] galvanized so many of us ” Drop the word “many” and it just might be true. Yet Tina Brown’s editing career, while it lasted, was truly meteoric. Only lately has the meteor been more fizzle than sizzle.

Fortunately, the current volume — which might just as well have been called “Bonbons of the Vanities” — focuses on a time (1983-1992) when Tina was much more in the swim of things than she is today and when she actually lay the groundwork for a lastingly successful publication, the revived Vanity Fair. In November, 1985, at a party honoring Manhattan pianist Bobby Short, a “diamond-studded socialite” told a less-than-amused Tina, “My dear, you have certainly found your audience, and it’s me!”

In her diary entry, Tina half-heartedly agrees but hastily adds that “We give intellectuals movie star treatment and movie stars intellectual sheen and the same is true of the audience. Brainy people in our pages seem more glamorous and movie people seem more substantive.” In reality, all too often Vanity Fair made the brainy people look less brainy and the celebrities more silly.

The further you get into the diaries the more you realize what an inbred, invertedly provincial place Tina Brown’s Manhattan was (and is): the biggest, most pretentious small town in the world. The same people — often vulgar, repulsive and boring — keep turning up at soiree after soiree. Sometimes she captures a memorable moment or delivers a telling caricature.

More often, however, the moments are not memorable and the subjects are self-caricaturing. And there are times when Ms. Brown gets things wrong, at least when it comes to people this reviewer has known. Thus Pat Buckley, the wife of National Review founding editor William F. Buckley Jr., is described as “a great American goddess with big white shoulders, voluminous blonde hair, and dancing diamond earrings.”

The earrings may have danced, but the Pat Buckley I remember was Canadian and a brunette. Ms. Brown is absolutely on target, however, in crediting Pat with “outsized panache.”

A much more serious misread was the author’s initial take on long-time New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, of whose public preening and private unpleasantness it has been said that, “Crocodile tears have nothing on weasel tears.” Our Tina is so impressed by Mr. Wieseltier’s “wild hair and great sardonic delivery,” that she decides he has “the wit, I think, to write a VF [Vanity Fair] column.”

Later she concedes that Mr. Wieseltier’s vitriolic, anonymous “Vox”column, “was a problem. if you’re going to be rude about people, it has to be in your own name.”

In the unlikely event that “The Vanity Fair Diaries” are re-published in 50 years time, they will have to be doubled in length just to accommodate explanatory footnotes about the celebrities and semi-celebrities that clutter their pages, some of them already forgotten. The book itself, however, will remain a useful reminder of just how fleeting fashion and celebrity are and how seldom they go hand in hand with substance and worth.

In a way, Tina Brown is very much her father’s daughter. George H. Brown was a successful British movie producer throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s. Most of his work is forgotten today, although “Guns at Batasi” is a neglected gem of a film that captures both the irony and the poignancy of Britain’s loss of empire.

More familiar to moviegoers would be Ms. Brown’s series of shallow screen adaptations of Agatha Christie works, featuring Margaret Rutherford as a parodized Miss Marple. Like his daughter’s work as an editor and diarist, they are good of their kind, but embarrassingly dated.

Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

• • •


By Tina Brown

Henry Holt, $32, 436 pages

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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