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Road to the Fair: For Tina Brown, a Decade of Detours

January 30, 1985|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — On a good day, and allowing for traffic, the trip between Hackensack, N.J., and the plush midtown Manhattan offices of Conde Nast Publications takes about 15 minutes.

For Vanity Fair Editor-in-Chief Tina Brown the journey was more like 10 years, a series of British magazines and newspapers, a string of honors and awards, a miracle-worker transformation of Britain's flagging Tatler, two well-received books, a high-profile courtship and marriage and a sequined G-string.

Oxford Graduate

The magazines included Punch and the New Statesman, the newspapers were the Sunday Times and London's Sunday Telegraph, and among the honors for Brown, already a published playwright when she graduated from Oxford University at 20 years of age, was Britain's Young Journalist of the Year for 1978--an award likened by one English journalist to "a Pulitzer Prize for baby reporters."

Friends say Brown stalked her husband, then-Times of London Editor Harold Evans, by lurking around the corridors until he noticed her as well as her writing. They married in Southampton, Long Island, in the rose garden of another celebrity media couple, Washington Post Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee and reporter Sally Quinn.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 31, 1985 Home Edition View Part 5 Page 12 Column 3 View Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
An article about Tina Brown, editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, that appeared in Wednesday's View section did not include the fact that her husband, Harold Evans, former editor of The Times of London, is now editorial director of U.S. News & World Report.

Essays in "Loose Talk" and "Life as a Party" reflected Brown's tart and trenchant tongue: The same arch journalistic voice that once described the Caribbean island of Mustique as "a Club Mediterranee for royalty" branded Princess Caroline's ex-husband Philippe Junot a "blow-dried boulevardier " and captured in the very first interview with American soft-porn movie star Koo Stark her deep and abiding interest in the animal kingdom.

"A lot of people are so concerned with endangered species," the then-girlfriend of Britain's Prince Andrew told Brown. "They seem to forget there are a lot of neurotic cats and dogs around."

As for the G-string, now that she is garbed in silks, couturier suits and shoes that cost more per pair than many young journalists can hope to earn each week, now that she is coolly commanding the slick--very slick--magazine of chic living that Conde Nast chose to resurrect after 47 years in publishing purgatory, now, it seems, that jeweled G-string just won't go away.

Other journalists love to recall how Brown, 20 years old and green out of Oxford, descended on America's shores, full of fire and assignments from the magazine Punch. Bent on documenting just how the colonials live, Brown soon found herself interviewing for the position of go-go dancer with someone named Big Ed at a disco in Hackensack.

Big Ed handed her the garment. "Put this on and move it," he told her.

Brown moved it, eventually landing in the editor's suite of a magazine launched in 1914 as a periodical dedicated to what first Vanity Fair Editor Frank Crowninshield called "the things people talk about at parties--the arts, sports, humor and so forth."

Magazine Long a Target

For 22 years, Vanity Fair reigned as a magazine recognized for its high caliber on both literary and visual arts fronts.

But even then, Vanity Fair was not without its critics. Snobbishness was the most common charge leveled against the magazine, and even as it was merged with Vogue in 1936 it was also termed flippant and frivolous and, yes, out of touch with its time.

Forty-seven years later, when the revitalized Vanity Fair made its debut in March, 1983, a new generation of critics was waiting to issue the same indictments. In the Los Angeles Times, columnist Richard Eder wrote, "A new magazine presumably exists for the sake of discovery and not sanctification, and the first issue of Vanity Fair does tend to celebrate the celebrated." "Amazingly bloated and self-indulgent," said the Wall Street Journal, while the normally staid Christian Science Monitor called the new Vanity Fair "slick and superficial." The Washington Post labeled the new magazine's contents "incoherent gumbo."

It was, as Tina Brown conceded, a less than auspicious way to start a magazine.

"Vanity Fair has been in a media fishbowl since its inception," Brown said. "The sense of anticipation was very, very high, which was really the hard thing to live up to."

Indeed, by the time Brown signed on as Vanity Fair's third editor in less than a year of publication, the critics were cruising the fishbowl like so many undernourished piranhas.

Brown's ongoing rejoinder to the fault-finders is this: "The fact is that those who are condemning this magazine as froth are not reading it.

'No Substance'

"There is no substance to the criticism," Brown insisted. "I don't take any notice of it because it is simply not true."

Instead, Brown likes to describe Vanity Fair as "very much a magazine that provokes comment."

"I mean, for instance," Brown said, "when we did our Gary Hart piece--that was by Gail Sheehy--that was picked up by everyone. That meant Vanity Fair was getting somewhere."

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