What was Brown in it for? In the introduction, lest we get the wrong idea, she apologizes for the number of rich people in her book. That, she writes, was the eighties! The note feels gratuitous, partly because Brown’s relationship to the swells is plainly vexed, and partly because the odd thing isn’t her diary’s glamour but its aperture. Major world events receive only a passing mention. Her entry for October 27, 1987, begins, “The stock market has crashed!,” and then drifts into talk of portentous conversations she has heard at parties. AIDS gets ink, because it felled some of her friends and colleagues, but other spectres creep up on her. (“Return to New York and suddenly feel the stark difference between rich and poor,” one entry begins, in 1987.) Throughout her career, Brown has been described as a newshound or as a trader in buzzy ideas, but the diaries suggest something else. Brown is a people hound, registering change when it crosses her near field of vision. Her gift is to feel the big story emerging in the small, human detail.
That instinct fuelled her rescue of Vanity Fair. In 1985, when its sustainability is still unclear and Newhouse comes within a hairsbreadth of pulling the plug, she scores a photo shoot with the Reagans, in the White House. As the First Couple breezes through, wearing black tie, her photographer starts playing a recording of Sinatra’s “Nancy (with the Laughing Face)” on a boom box. The Reagans are taken aback. Then they begin to dance. The First Lady kicks up a heel. Snap, snap. They kiss. Snap. This, Brown decides, is the image of the eighties.
How many of the thousands of reporters keeping vigil on the White House recognized what Brown saw—that the cornerstone of the Administration’s success and resonance was not the policies or the polish but the public mystery of the Reagans’ marriage? The kicked-up heel lands on Vanity Fair’s cover. The kiss is printed big inside, cropped close across the fold, with sixteen hundred words of perfumed prose on love and power. The spread changes the magazine’s fortunes. Newsstand sales leap, and subscriptions nearly double from a year before. Headlines about Vanity Fair, long doom-saying, now marvel at its turnaround. “What you’ve done is nothing short of a miracle,” Newhouse tells Brown. In 1987, in the wake of the collapsing market, the November issue breaches into the black.
The rhythm of Brown’s social life hastens. Evans, who has been editing at U.S. News World Report in Washington, D.C., comes back to New York to launch Condé Nast Traveler. They throw a joint party, and Helmut Newton shows off a boudoir mag he’s founded. It contains a couple of photos of fellatio and what Brown calls “typical Newton, Cabaret-esque decadence with sinister animal sex thrown in.” It is a waggish vision of the editorial road untaken: “ ‘Fuck it!’ he exploded. ‘I’m sixty-seven on Halloween. What am I waiting for? To print cock-sucking when I am dead? To hell with it! I am paying for this myself.’ To which there is no answer really.” More parties follow. Brown’s patience for this landscape varies. “I love New York City, period,” she writes one day. Then, some weeks later: “The thought of the city gives me herpes of the brain.”
By now, though, her ambivalence has a protective edge. In 1985, in the midst of rescuing her publication, she discovered she was pregnant. Her son was born two months early, at a stressful time. The complications spooked her (“So you think you’re going to romp through motherhood, too, huh? . . . Remember pain and grief and failure?”), but she grew absorbed in her role. “It’s so damn tough to make the power woman-to-mommy switch,” she writes. She worries about the life she leaves behind each morning; she fires a nanny who she gathers is competing for her son’s affection. “I want to be home with my baby! Our house is too turbulent,” she writes. “Knowing this makes me guilty.” It seems to strike her for the first time that the way she’s living is, in fact, her life.
Brown’s all-in moment comes in 1989. Vanity Fair has won a big award. Its numbers are still climbing. The C.E.O. of Hearst courts her, offering Harper’s Bazaar and the moon. Sensing her opportunity, Brown sends a shark agent to Newhouse and ends up with what she calls a “megadeal”: forgiveness for a three-hundred-thousand-dollar loan, a salary increase to six hundred thousand, and a million-dollar bonus at the end of a three-year contract. What’s more, Newhouse offers to pay her parents’ health bills and to move them back to London from Spain, where they’re at the end of their savings. “This is the day I will never forget as long as I live, the day I made my quantum leap,” she exclaims. In her eyes, it is when she finally masters New York. Of course, it’s also when the city finally masters her.
Or is it? Even after consecrating herself to the megadeal, Brown is fickle: “A few weeks without my trainer dragging me out of bed at six, a few forgotten visits to Louis Licari”—her very busy hairdresser—“in two months I would be a big girl in thick glasses with a bushy ponytail. How lovely that sounds.” Another child is on the way. Her “stubborn dream,” she confides to the diary, is to be an Oxford college master. When Evans is appointed head of Random House, her happiness comes with a sting of dread. “That locks us into NYC for another five years,” she writes. “I will have to stop imagining there could still be an alternate reality in London.”
She never stops looking behind her, at what was or, at least, could have been. But, for all her doubleness of vision, her escape path is now overgrown. The only option is to stay and continue mixing issues, showing up at dinner parties, getting three hundred blowouts a year. The only option, really, is to keep becoming Tina Brown. ♦