The constant reader of celebrity biographies probably begins each new book the same way: by flipping back to the index where the names flow like so many guests to a party. Although the just published autobiography of Harper’s Bazaar editor Liz Tilberis is heavy with names-big names like Diana, Princess of Wales, Hillary Clinton, Karl Lagerfeld and John Major, among others-readers will not find them listed in any handy guide. Instead of an index, No Time to Die (Little Brown & Company) finishes with a section called “Resources,” addresses and phone numbers of organizations Ms. Tilberis says are helpful for women with cancer.
“I never wanted to be a poster girl for cancer. But cancer has become part of who I am, along with my big feet and my English accent,” Ms. Tilberis writes. “I have greenish eyes, I was born on Sept. 7 (the same day as Queen Elizabeth), and I have ovarian cancer. So do almost 175,000 other women in the United States.”
Ms. Tilberis was diagnosed with ovarian cancer days before Christmas 1993. Just the year before, she had succeeded Anthony Mazzola as the editor of Harper’s Bazaar , moving with her husband, Andrew Tilberis, and their two adopted sons to New York from London, where Ms. Tilberis was editor of British Vogue , having succeeded Anna Wintour, now editor of American Vogue . Until going to work for the Hearst Corporation in New York, which publishes Harper’s Bazaar , Ms. Tilberis was a devoted British Voguette, beginning 22 years earlier as an unpaid intern during London’s swinging 1970′s.
In New York, Ms. Tilberis’ job was to reinvent the Hearst flagship glossy. That mission was accomplished, judging from the surface of things, at least, almost instantly with Ms. Tilberis’ relaunch issue in September 1992. The new Bazaar , art directed by Fabien Baron, was sleek and inviting. The cover showed supermodel Linda Evangelista, post-grunge and glamorous. “Enter the Era of Elegance” the September cover line read. The media cognoscenti heralded the chic new Bazaar with awards and publicity. As if shot out of a cannon, Ms. Tilberis’ life underwent a 180-degree change. From director Mike Nichols, the Tilberises rented a town house in the East 80′s. Her sons were enrolled at private schools. And she was coached by Dorothy Sarnoff, the speech and image consultant. Susan Magrino, publicist to Martha Stewart and now Harper’s Bazaar , hit Ms. Tilberis with a crash course in how to become more American.
“Never let me hear you say the word ‘jolly’ again,” Ms. Tilberis reports Ms. Magrino chided. “What do you mean you’re going to the country with Mummy and Daddy?” Ms. Magrino screamed when Ms. Tilberis said she was taking a few days off to spend time with her family before the publication of her all-important Bazaar debut issue. “How am I going to reach you? Do you have a phone? A fax? An answering machine? Call waiting? What do I use, a post office box?”
That Christmas, when the Tilberises received Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Leonard and Evelyn Lauder, Blaine and Robert Trump, Barbara Walters, Linda Evangelista and Kyle Maclachlan and Jann Wenner among their “250 guests for the sort of soigné party I used to read about in urbane novels and the society pages,” it should have been the best night of their lives. Even when Jerome Zipkin whispered in her ear: “There are some people in this room who should not be here,” Ms. Tilberis should have felt terrific, but no.
Liz Tilberis was scheduled for surgery the next day, the first of many horrific procedures. From descriptions of wretched nurses to bone marrow transplants, catheters worn under evening dresses-”no spaghetti straps or bustiers,” she jokes-to awakening at night because of the painful regrowth of fingernails that had fallen out from chemotherapy, there are some not-so-pretty moments in No Time to Die . On the other hand, there is nary a complaint or much melodrama. Just bravery. Honesty. Inspiration. And advice.
There are people in the fashion world who would feel more comfortable if Liz Tilberis did not remind them of the C-word, let alone write a book about cancer. Illness? Not this season. Fashion is the denial of death in a satin slip dress. Surgeons are entertained only for cosmetic benefit. As Ms. Tilberis’ cancer was “outed” by the media early on, silence wasn’t an option. So she came forward about her illness, first on the Editor’s Letter page of Bazaar and now in the book.
“My mind is full of pictures, not words,” she writes. No Time to Die unfolds in a series of reported scenes, uncluttered by author interpretation. Just her story and matters of fact. The first surgery. The treatments. The return of more cancer. Her background. The posh upbringing in England. Teenage rebellion in the 1960′s. An abortion. Meeting Andrew Tilberis. Her early days at Vogue and rising in the ranks there. Her great friendship with Grace Coddington, now creative director at American Vogue . Her complicated relationship with Anna Wintour. A series of torturous fertility treatments with drugs that may well have contributed, years later, to her ovarian cancer. Adopting her sons. Leaving Condé Nast. Coming to New York.
Some American readers, unacquainted with the British, might not get some of Ms. Tilberis’ jokes. They might be shocked that she arrived hung over for her first surgery. They might not understand the essential Britishness when Ms. Tilberis, days after bone marrow treatment, recalls “leaning on Andrew,” the other hero of the book. “I’d go down to the narrow strip of beach at the back of our [country] house each morning and sit on my favorite rock with a cup of tea, often so weak that he’d have to carry me back. In what was the real family tragedy, Sophie, one of our Labradors, had recently died …”
Friendship with the Princess of Wales is mentioned often. The fairy princess with a modern touch became a channel of hope for Ms. Tilberis. Being, like Diana, a “very British girl,” as Diana’s brother Earl Spencer said of his sister at her funeral, Ms. Tilberis identified with the Princess with almost unwitting intensity. Catching Prince William’s eye at Diana’s funeral, “I felt the anguish of a mother’s unfinished business-real and final for Diana, implied and feared for a cancer survivor like me.”
Liz Tilberis came to the rescue of Harper’s Bazaar like Mary Poppins. Unfortunately, for too many seasons, she’s been handed an umbrella of clay. No Time to Die , her story of how she and her family weathers their storm, is full-tilt inspiring. Despite plenty of gossip and insight into the fashion world, this book isn’t a history of contemporary fashion or fashion magazines. It is Ms. Tilberis’ personal story, told in her very British way: cheery, the glass always half filled.
1. Allen B. Schwartz is:
a. the creator of the updated Gilligan’s Island headed for ABC and starring Pamela Anderson Lee and Fiona Apple.
b. the fashion guy who knocks off Oscar night’s best dresses and gets them into stores in a hurry.
c. the creative director of Dutch , the trendy European fashion magazine.
2. Who is dressing actor Jason Patric in the film I, Me, Mine ?
a. Raymond Dragon.
b. Cynthia Rowley.
c. Calvin Klein.
3. Which anniversary is Yves Saint Laurent celebrating this year?
a. His 35th.
b. His 40th.
c. His 45th.
Answers: (1) b; (2) c; (3) b.