A new book on Tina Brown and Harry Evans is a down-and-dirty,
bitchy summer read. But don't write off Tina just yet
by Dan Kennedy
If nothing else, a new tell-all book about Talk magazine editor Tina
Brown and her husband, former editor and book-publishing magnate Harry Evans,
offers the perfect get-even opportunity for anyone who was ever hurt,
disrespected, or ignored by the former power duo.
Take, for instance, this recent assessment by Slate's Timothy Noah, who
recounts a passage in the book, Judy Bachrach's Tina and Harry Come to
America: Tina Brown, Harry Evans, and the Uses of Power (Free Press, 370
pages, $27.50). The anecdote concerns the brief, little-known marriage of
Brown's father, a second-rate British film producer named George Brown, to
actress Maureen O'Hara in 1939, just before Britain's entry into World
War II. As soon as the wedding was over, one of the attendees, actor
Charles Laughton, took O'Hara to the United States -- and O'Hara never saw her
new husband again.
"If it weren't for Charles Laughton . . . there would be no
Talk magazine," writes Noah, who ends his piece with this:
"Alternatively, if you want to take a broader historical view, you could blame
it on Adolf Hitler."
Of course, this being the tiny, self-absorbed world of elite media, you can't
really appreciate the viciousness of Noah's remark unless you know why he would
say such a thing. In 1998, Noah was working at U.S. News & World
Report when the owner, Mort Zuckerman, fired the editor, James Fallows, an
idealistic sort much admired by his staff. Harry Evans, who'd recently joined
Zuckerman's publishing empire following his ouster as editor-in-chief of Random
House, was desperately trying to prove his relevance -- and thus was telling
anyone who'd listen that it was he, not Zuckerman, who had fired Fallows. "I
have not been known simply to be a lap-dog," Evans told the Washington
Post, an unfortunate choice of words that Bachrach compares in "its
flailing, hapless denial" to Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook."
Bachrach's entire book -- a trashy, entertaining summer read, crude and unfair
though it may be -- might be seen as an exercise in getting even. As Inside.com
recently noted, Bachrach writes for Vanity Fair, which is owned by S.I.
Newhouse's Condé Nast; Tina Brown used to be the editor of both
Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, another Condé Nast title.
Brown and Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter reportedly loathe each
other. And incidentally, Newhouse also owned Random House during Harry Evans's
stint as the editor-in-chief, in the mid 1990s, when Brown and Evans were at
the height of their power and influence. (Random House is now owned by the
German media conglomerate Bertelsmann.)
In other words, it's hard to imagine a tale more incestuous than this one.
When it comes to dirt, Bachrach delivers the goods. The recurring theme in
Tina and Harry is sex, and neither of the principals comes off looking
good in any way. Brown -- who gets far more ink than Evans does -- is described
as a pudgy, unattractive child who blossomed into a "dish," and who screwed her
way into positions of increasing influence. Among her paramours: actor
Dudley Moore, authors Martin Amis and Auberon Waugh (son of Evelyn), and, of
course, finally -- when she was just 21 -- Evans, then the much-admired editor
of London's Sunday Times.
If Brown is portrayed as something of a skank, Evans looks even worse: an aging
provincial obsessed with sex, who can't look at a jackhammer drilling into
pavement without thinking penile thoughts, and who dumps his wife and leaves
his children in order to take up with the "buxom" (as we are informed
repeatedly) Brown. A young female writer tells Bachrach what it was like to
pitch her book to Evans during his Random House years: "He looked up my skirt!
I was wearing a knee-length skirt, and Harry put his fucking head down to look
up it. Then he made some remark about my looks, how attractive I was." Bachrach
also reports on Sheri de Borchgrave's claim that she and Evans carried on a
sexual relationship. Brown -- who compares herself to Princess Diana and
Hillary Rodham Clinton, both of whom she superficially resembles -- cryptically
acknowledges to associates that her marriage is Clinton-like.
Such titillation is necessary because there's so little that's truly new in
Tina and Harry Come to America. The main story is exceedingly familiar
to anyone who's followed the twists and turns of Brown's career. The years at
Oxford. The young journalist on the rise. The phenom who transforms
Tatler, a centuries-old magazine of British high society, into a
gossipy, celebrity-driven success. The savior of Vanity Fair, who turns
a dying experiment into a gossipy, celebrity-driven success. The revolutionary
who transforms the musty old New Yorker into -- well, a gossipy,
celebrity-driven success. And finally, the increasingly frantic, frazzled woman
who jumps the Condé Nast ship in order to start Talk -- which,
unlike her other projects, is a gossipy, celebrity-driven failure.
Even the anecdotes about Brown are old, and though Bachrach appears to have
obtained admirable access to a host of former insiders, they tell her nothing
we haven't heard before -- the endless rewrites, the killed stories, the
petrified junior editors vomiting in the toilets, the parties, the buzz, the
blurring and even obliteration of the lines that are supposed to separate
journalism, advertising, and public relations.
The problem is that Bachrach bills this as a tale of hubris -- a peculiarly
American tale about two immigrants who take over New York, inspiring fear,
respect, and admiration, and who are laid low by their own overweening egos.
Yet even by Bachrach's telling, Evans had a fine, honorable career as an author
and editor; by the time Zuckerman finally eases him out, he's in his 70s and
showing his age. Surely there's no sin in that.
As for Brown, it's simply too early to rule her out. Yes, she may be imperious
and cold and ruthless and demanding beyond all reason. But she did save
Vanity Fair, and, despite her profligate ways, brought it to
profitability toward the end of her tenure. And if her years at the New
Yorker were defined by such excesses as Roseanne's stint as a guest editor,
stories on dominatrixes, and the like, the fact is that she reinvented a dying,
utterly irrelevant publication, turning it -- as others have observed -- into a
sort of newsmagazine for the cultural elite. Her successor as editor, David
Remnick, a more traditional journalist, has made it better still; but she's the
one who hired him, and the template he's following is largely hers.
As for the monthly Talk, now two years old, it may be too soon to tell.
Yes, it got off to an awful start. If Bachrach's reporting is accurate, it's no
wonder. The Brown of that time comes across as a woman out of control: working
around the clock, frazzled, and paranoid.
Judging by the current (August) issue, though, Talk's not doing all that
badly. No, it's not a "combination of Slate and the New York Times
Magazine," as Brown once ludicrously asserted, but neither is it as bad as
its reputation. Talk is often derided as a publicity vehicle for
Miramax, the Disney-owned movie division that is the magazine's half-owner. But
Planet of the Apes, whose star Estella Warren is shown on the cover
giving a baby bottle to a chimp, was made by 20th Century Fox, a Rupert Murdoch
company; and Jurassic Park III, which gets major play inside, is
from Universal Studios, part of the French media conglomerate Vivendi
Universal. The issue also contains a lengthy excerpt from David Brock's
forthcoming Blinded by the Right, which is published not by
Talk's book division (Talk Miramax), but by Crown -- part of Random
The magazine also contains an eclectic mix of stories, such as a profile of
Andrew Cuomo, a feature on Princess Caroline (why?), a spread on Fidel Castro,
Gerald Posner on Puffy Combs (why? why?), and a book review by Norman Mailer.
In other words, a lot of not-great stuff, some okay stuff, and, overall,
something for everyone. It may not be wildly successful, but apparently it's
working, at least modestly. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, its
paid circulation is 619,259 -- well below Vanity Fair's 1,050,684, but
not far behind Esquire's 679,052.
This may sound strange, given that Brown is, or maybe was, the most public of
women, but maybe what she really needed was to get out of the spotlight and
just put out a damn magazine. Talk has given her the vehicle to do
And even if it doesn't work, well, what of it? New York magazine
media critic Michael Wolff last week wrote a piece in which -- after he got a
nasty little Tina anecdote out of the way -- he perceptively analyzed the
unrealistic expectations and pressures that have been put on Brown, almost
certainly, in part, because she's a woman. Wolff wrote that "creators of
magazines create bad magazines. It goes with the territory. The most fabled
among them, Jann Wenner, Clay Felker, Hugh Hefner, all made stinkers. They got
laughed at but were spared the moral condemnation that Tina has attracted."
Tina and Harry has created a bit of a sensation in New York media
circles, partly because Harry Evans has been sending threatening letters to
Bachrach's publisher. After New York Times reporter Alex Kuczynski
looked into Bachrach's claims that Evans used his position at the
Zuckerman-owned Daily News to promote Talk and found them to be
well founded, Evans even wrote a letter of complaint to Times executive
editor Joe Lelyveld. Indeed, Bachrach portrays Evans as a staunch believer in
freedom of the press who has nevertheless frequently threatened to sue his
tormentors over the years.
But if there has been a backlash against Tina Brown and Harry Evans, the
publication of Tina and Harry may start a counter-backlash. Friends of
the couple (to read the book you wouldn't think they had any) have been
complaining to the New York Post about Bachrach's alleged preconceived
notions and unprofessional behavior (a charge she's denied).
The New York Observer -- whose editor, Peter Kaplan, was rumored as a
replacement for Brown when she left the New Yorker -- ripped Tina and
Harry as "overcooked, unwanted." Media columnist Sridhar Pappu wrote that
the book "could have the ironic impact of becoming Tina and Harry's Behind
the Music moment: a lurid, somewhat embarrassing warts-and-all treatment
that, rather than ruining them, makes people perk up and start paying attention
again." He observed: "It worked for Mötley Crüe. Maybe it could work
"Whatever happened to Tina Brown? She was quite the up-and-coming figure,"
Bachrach quotes a London journalist making small talk at a party. "And we've
never heard of her since."
That was just before Brown became editor of Tatler.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.