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The Talk of The Town | The Legacy

New New Yorker Is 'Absolutely Tina'

As Tina Brown exits the New Yorker, her changes to the influential magazine are under scrutiny once more. Whether media watchers approve or not, they do agree on one thing: She made it. . .

July 10, 1998|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Tina Brown came to the New Yorker--the rather smug, genteelly liberal New Yorker--as editor in 1992, the literati gasped. This brash young Brit in the sacred halls once trod by Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and James Thurber?

This, after all, was the same Tina Brown who'd just turned around the oh-so-celebrity-and-advertiser-friendly Vanity Fair. Brown hadn't hung her hat in her new office before New Yorker devotees began protesting.

Horrors! was the more or less universal response. Was the New Yorker now going to go heavy on glitz and glamour and graphics?

The reality: The jury is out. If circulation and advertising lineage are the criteria, both climbed during her tenure, then dipped in recent years. As for the bottom line, well, the New Yorker, a Conde Nast publication, lost $11 million last year.

But her real legacy may be that Brown, who announced Wednesday that she was resigning to head a new-media venture with Miramax Films--breathed life into a publication that had become somewhat moribund.

The credentials Brown, now 44, brought to the New Yorker included a degree from Oxford and eight years at Vanity Fair. While living in London, she wrote for Punch and the Sunday Telegraph and, from 1979 to 1983, was editor of the Tattler.

The baggage she brought, though, included a reputation for uncontrolled spending. Her salary, a closely guarded secret, was reported to be, with perks, about $1 million.

Author Camille Paglia, in a recent article for the Internet magazine Salon, observed that Brown's "wicked taste for flamboyant photography enraptured admirers of Vanity Fair (like me) but horrified many longtime supporters of the New Yorker . . . ."

Her appointment as editor, Paglia wrote, was "a pivotal moment in American cultural history" and might have signaled nothing less than a journalistic revolution.

"But far from cleaning house at the New Yorker, Brown, perhaps gunshy from the burgeoning hostility, left its embedded petty tyrants in place and was soon regularly publishing their cronies. Astonishingly, the New Yorker, with the rare exceptional piece, has become the most politically correct major magazine in the country. In feminism alone it endlessly recycles retrograde ideas dating from the late 1970s and '80s. And its complicity with the Ivy League professoriat has become a predictable tic."

New Yorker media columnist Ken Auletta, who was first hired at the New Yorker by legendary editor William Shawn in 1977, left in 1985 to write a book and was rehired by Brown in 1992, praised Brown.

"She came to the magazine at a time when it was losing readers, obviously losing money, when the average age of its readership was very high and therefore less attractive to advertisers, and where people increasingly were treating it as a coffee-table magazine.

"She realized that she could not act like a museum curator. She had to change the magazine, and she did. But I think she changed it without traducing its tradition. Does that mean she didn't make mistakes? Of course not. She ran some pieces and some photographs that made people squirm, but she got people to read the magazine, and what they read was a wonderfully serious literary magazine that featured essays and reporting and fiction and criticism that was as good as it gets."

Added Caroline Graham, the New Yorker's West Coast editor, "Her excellence lay in her decisiveness and her ability to always put the magazine first and creatively mix it so that on a weekly basis it was always a surprise."

People were astonished, she says, that Brown was able to segue from Vanity Fair, a monthly publication, to the weekly New Yorker with such amazing aplomb and energy.

"She'd arrive at the office in a beautiful suit, her hair beautifully done, as though she was going to a party," said the British-born Graham, who joined Brown at Vanity Fair in 1984 and came with her to the New Yorker. "And then she'd sit down with her staff at her round table and she was all business."

From supervising a staff of 100 at Vanity Fair, Brown suddenly found herself heading a staff of about 400. Says Graham, "What she became at the New Yorker was very much a woman who could run a corporation--and flawlessly. She kept that magazine on track" while dealing with somewhat hostile editorial holdovers, and "she did that without a revolution."

When Graham talks about Brown, she mentions her generosity--the cocktail parties given for staffers who wrote books, the opportunity she gave to an assistant to develop as a writer. "There isn't anyone who could say of Tina that she hadn't improved their lives." It was "absolutely Tina," Graham observes, that she was able to deal with the death of her mother July 1, then turn around and "put her energy into this decision" to join Miramax.

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