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The Powers That Be

The publishing world nervously whispers about New Yorker Editor Tina Brown and her husband, Random House chief Harry Evans, but the two brush off talk of collusion. While they're partners in life, they say, they're fierce competitors in business.

December 30, 1996|ELEANOR RANDOLPH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — In this city's contentious world of letters, they are known simply as Tina and Harry. Or "Teenanarry," which is how their names sound when they are whispered in awe or horror by the city's literati.

Tina Brown, 43, has been editor of one of the nation's most revered magazines, the New Yorker, since 1992. Her husband, Harry Evans, 68, has been running one of the country's largest publishing houses, Random House, since 1990. Separately, each would command Manhattan's attention. Together, they are something of an obsession.

"There are those who think they call most of the shots these days in what passes for literary Manhattan," Liz Smith, New York's premier gossip, wrote earlier this month. "A lot of people love them. A lot of people don't. They are controversial. They are smart. They make waves."

If wave-making is good business, Teenanarry are in top form. In almost any gathering of discerning readers in New York, the debate rages over whether Brown has revived a dying literary magazine or added too much rouge and rhinestone to one of the grand old dames of American letters. And has Evans simply embraced the sensationalistic traditions of his former competitors on London's Fleet Street or is he hustling controversial bestsellers to underwrite decent literature?

Are they going back to England if the Labor government wins the next election? Are they moving west to Hollywood? Who are they publishing? Who are they rejecting? Who are they having to dinner?

Most of these questions are raised in private. Not only do writers, editors and agents want to avoid offending Brown or Evans, they also fear Teenanarry's patron, S.I. Newhouse, the chairman of Advance Publications Inc., the largest privately held media group in the U.S. Besides the New Yorker, Newhouse publishes a chain of newspapers; 13 other major magazines, including Vanity Fair and Vogue; and owns 13 book publishing houses in addition to Random House, including Alfred A. Knopf and Crown Books.

There are other literary outlets, of course, but most in the publishing world don't see any value in cutting away 14 magazines and 14 publishing houses with a comment on the record, even one meant to flatter.

Still, a few dare to speak openly. Some are competitors like John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper's magazine. "They're good salesmen and they see where publishing is going--to celebrity reporting, to the people of the moment, as opposed to the people and issues that might last for more than 10 minutes," he said recently. "Obviously, it's very depressing."

Michael Kelly, who wrote a book for Random House and worked for Brown before he became editor recently of the New Republic, said: "I think both of them don't get the credit they deserve for trying to find ways to put out good writing in one form or another in an age that isn't particularly rewarding of that.

"One way you do that is you have to advertise the wares and hustle up publicity," he said. "Also, I know one thing. In my whole life, I have never heard any writer complaining about undue publicity being paid to his own work."

In recent days, Evans and Brown (in separate interviews and at separate media events) talked about the storms that rage around them, some generated by their own wind machines.

They do not, they said, sit around the breakfast table sipping coffee while they divide up book and magazine contracts to a galley of slavish writers. They rejected the notion that they are among New York's premier socializers, even though they mingle weekly with movie stars, political bigwigs and New York celebrities. They stay home whenever possible with their two young children, they said, limiting such outings to two starry nights a week. They denied rumors that they are ready to go back to their home in England or desert New York for Hollywood.

And through it all, they trumpeted their successes and lacerated their critics with a chilling ease that serves to remind that these two did not make it to such heights on their talents alone.

At a crowded Italian restaurant near his office, Evans began a luncheon interview by declaring his independence, professionally, from his wife.

"There are people who don't understand, who perhaps will never understand, that it's possible to be in love with a woman, to be married to her, to see her every day, to have her children and yet regard her in the journalistic area as a competitor," he said.

"Or, to put it a different way, if there is one thing in the world that you would not do for your wife, it is something that would damage your career."

Evans' accent still betrays his working-class origins in the north of England, where his father was a railroad engineer and his mother once said, rightly, that her son Harry would never have to wear the wooden clogs of the working poor. Evans eventually became editor of the Sunday Times and later was editor of the Times of London--until he angered Margaret Thatcher, whose supporters included his boss, Rupert Murdoch.

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