What’s It All About, Tina Brown? At Mid-Life, Talk Boss Assesses

Tina Brown did not look like a target as she stood in the vast East Fifth Street loft of Martin Amis’ brother-in-law, Caio Fonseca, June 6.

Elegant in a black slip dress, she moved easily through the comfortably large crowd of literary types who had come to fête the publication of Martin Amis’ memoir Experience for Talk-Miramax Books.

Mr. Amis devoted a few paragraphs of his book to Ms. Brown, the “fringe playwright, journalist, looker, prodigy” with whom he’d had a brief affair in the 70′s, and so the party seemed like a good place to ask what young Tina Brown, the Tina Brown of that decade, a woman who was famous “at a time when no one was famous,” according to Mr. Amis’ book, would make of the Tina Brown of today. How would she assign a piece on herself? Ms. Brown did not linger over an answer. “Oh, as a target. As a moving target,” she said. “As a major takedown.”

The reaction to Ms. Brown has always been bipolar, with the manic ass kissers tending to outweigh the depressive death knellers. But the depressives are gaining ground. Press reports scrutinizing staff changes, the number of Miramax film stars that appear between the covers of the Miramax-owned magazine and the publishing division’s recent cancellation of John Connolly’s book about Kenneth Starr have contributed to a purple haze of doubt hanging over Talk . Talk is a start-up, so give it a break-but damn it, what was that viscous, digitized cover of Russell Crowe doing on the newsstand for weeks?

And in recent weeks the gossip has even taken on personal undertones. Reports of Ms. Brown looking tense and defeated at social functions were passed on as if Talk ‘s future could be divined through her posture. If Vanity Fair was about getting there, and The New Yorker was about being there, then talk about Talk so far has been about not knowing where she was going.

“They’re dying for Tina to fail,” Mr. Amis said at his party after I recounted her “target” statement to him. “It’s like a scent going past the wildebeest. You can feel them stirring at the first drop of rain.” But, Mr. Amis added of his friend as he sipped a margarita: “She won’t.”

Fail, is what he meant. She will succeed. And when the pronoun she was applied to Ms. Brown in the past, it was always said with the sound of the “she” in H. Rider Haggard’s classic She (as in ” she who must be obeyed”). But lately it’s been, Must we still obey She? For, as Talk sits on newsstands and few talk about it, Ms. Brown becomes more and more mortal.

Good news for her; who wants to carry that big, sluggish reputation around New York? This is not the decade for giantesses, that was the last decade, and if Ms. Brown is to survive as not-a-has-been, not a 90′s journalist, she has to become something else. And in fact, Ms. Brown has transmogrified into a much more accessible figure. Last decade, the trio of internationally hunted blonde pageboyed power babes was Ms. Brown, Mrs. Clinton and Princess Diana. Now both Ms. Brown and Mrs. Clinton-who provided Ms. Brown with her one and only journalistic pelt at Talk -are somewhat humbled, sweaty working women with struggling start-ups.

Across the room at Caio Fonseca’s loft, Ms. Brown did not have a hunted or even haunted look in her face at Mr. Amis’ party, even though she had a few reasons to. Elizabeth Hurley, the intended major star power for the party-she’ll apparently tell all about Hugh Grant in the upcoming issue of Talk -never made it to Mr. Amis’ brother-in-law’s loft, supposedly because of the torrential downpour. Neither did Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, which some partygoers perceived as a slight to Mr. Amis, Talk-Miramax’s big star. But a Miramax spokeswoman explained that Mr. Weinstein is on the board of the Robin Hood Foundation, which held its big benefit that same night, that Mr. Weinstein had met with Mr. Amis that morning, and then with Ms. Brown at Elaine’s later that night.

Then there was the matter of the industrial-strength margaritas, which were the only alcoholic drinks available besides beer and wine.

There was a comfortable, almost nostalgic quality to the party as Ms. Brown mingled with a group of writers and editors who made up a pretty good cross-section of literary success in the 1980′s and 90′s: authors Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Richard Price, Emily Prager, Paul Auster, Mark Leyner and editors Morgan Entrekin and George Plimpton. But perhaps because they had all found fame and success around the same time-some of it boosted by coverage in magazines edited by Ms. Brown-camaraderie replaced the kind of strained hard sell that often resides at book parties.

Still it wasn’t all cozy. There was the stone-faced Mr. Amis politely saying that, when it came to the media, he would take on all comers. “You guys, the press, ever more contented with the power that corrupts you,” Mr. Amis said. “You don’t actually realize that it doesn’t really affect a committed writer, a committed person.” And he said: “I intend that as a provocation.”

O.K., Mr. Experience, provoke us. For the British, the press is largely a game anyhow; it’s the Americans who take it more seriously. The British can scream and make up big headlines, and then smile politely, since it is a game. And Ms. Brown has always been a gentleman at playing the game. She’s taken more bullets than most American editors, and knows how to take them. She has a coolness in the face of battle. So Ms. Brown could relax for the moment, even if she was caught in that purgatory between success and failure; that surreal moment when nothing is true and everything is permitted.

She has been there before. In a subsequent phone interview, Ms. Brown recalled that during her first two years at Vanity Fair , “I was pretty much kind of trashed and in fact there were pieces every other day saying it was going to fold and it was a joke and I couldn’t hack it and all this sort of stuff. And then that was a big success.”

Her tenure at The New Yorker from 1992 to 1998 was no less provocative, as Ms. Brown set about doing what she laughingly termed “demographic ethnic cleansing.” Dozens of writers and cartoonists and editors left and dozens came. Tina Brown knew the actual number: “Seventy-nine people left and 48 came,” she said.

And she opined that Talk ‘s upcoming August issue “is the best magazine I’ve done in many years. And it has taken about eight months to get that right. Which isn’t very long in the big picture,” she said.

“You know we’ll look back on this period five years from now and it will seem like we got it right very quickly. It’s just when you live through it, it feels like you know, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or something. But actually, when you come out of that it’s actually minutes. It’s a New York minute.”

The last New Yorker who used that phrase was Dan Rather, who’s also an out-of-towner. And that very phrase brought up this point: For all of the stories she’s published about the insides of the American power structure, and for all of the gossip column items that have been written about her power lunches, dinners and parties with the city’s elite, Ms. Brown is not an insider. She is a British journalist, of pluck and luck. Indeed, Ms. Brown agreed: “I think a journalist always feels an outsider or should feel an outsider,” she said.

“I always see everything as material as far as I’m concerned.”

The outsider’s strength is the ability to look at the insiders with unsentimental clarity; to be able to rank them and rankle them, hire them and fire them without encountering too much guilt along the way. But the thing about being unsentimental is that you often reap what you sow-especially when you are an outsider-and judging from Ms. Brown’s New Yorker tally alone, the number of people who feel ambivalent or worse about her exceeds those who have consistently happy thoughts about her.

That’s not so bad if you’re living behind the velvet barricades of S.I. Newhouse’s Condé Nast. When Ms. Brown left that cosseted universe, in mob terms, she traded in her protection for a piece of the action.

“There were times that I thought I’d left the court of Louis XIV for the Lower East Side of the 19th century,” Ms. Brown said with a laugh and the creamy syntax more reminiscent of Greer Garson, as she-perhaps unconsciously-promoted another new Miramax movie with a Talk cover star, Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York , starring Leonardo DiCaprio. “But that was kind of what I wanted. I loved working with Si, I absolutely adored him for 14 happy years, which is a long time to be with anyone. But I’m afraid that the entrepreneurial gene that seems to have been in the American Zeitgeist entered my bloodstream and I wanted to be somebody with a share in what I was doing.”

Ms. Brown and her partner, Ron Galotti, another Condé Nast renegade, joined Harvey Weinstein to build a new infrastructure that could support Miramax’s maiden voyage in journalism.

“So, it’s a different kind of experience and you’re trashed for different reasons,” Ms. Brown went on. “Before I was trashed for having all of that infrastructure for which I was totally unfit to run. Now, I’m being trashed for the fact that I don’t have the infrastructure. People don’t recognize that when you have something new you have to start everything.” But, she said, “I have a really good staff at this point and in the last two months it’s started to work extremely well.”

Still, the noisy press keeps clattering, distracting as cheap restaurant silverware. The business section of the June 13 edition of the New York Post had a headline that read ” Talk Ripped Apart,” with a lead sentence that read, “Is Talk magazine making a last stand?”

The article reported that Talk was undergoing its second redesign in nine months, which would include a move to perfect bound, or glued to a spine, to better resemble its rival Vanity Fair . It quoted an anonymous publishing executive who said of Ms. Brown: “I think she’s distancing herself from the magazine.”

Ms. Brown said the story left her “gob-smacked,” and denied the story vociferously, saying that it wasn’t a major redesign and that the trim size of the magazine was only being reduced half an inch. “There’s no truth in the notion that I’m distancing myself from the magazine,” she said. She said that the magazine’s business plan had always called for the March and September issues of Talk to be perfect bound to accommodate the flurry of fashion advertising that usually occurs during those months. She said that she and Mr. Galotti “decided that because of the complexities of handling advertising inserts … we might as well be perfect bound for the remaining eight months.”

The remaining eight months. And then what? Back at the party, she had stood, surrounded by her past lover, by the writers she had made, by the swirling vast loft of the community she had entered 16 years before and which had gotten younger and younger around her, as she became Tina Brown , giving writers around town the shakes and thrills, bringing an icy diagnostic power to magazines that was right for that age. Time layered around her, like the slivers in Mr. Amis’ book in which events 20 years apart wrap each other close as onion slices.

Why was she doing this? Did she ever wonder if it was worth it?

She whispered through the crowd noise.

“Certainly, in my next incarnation,” she spoke into my ear, “whatever that may be, in my fifth act, I’m going to be a really irresponsible writing journalist. A totally iconoclastic, absolutely fuck ‘em-you-print-it-because-I say-so-Joe Eszterhas kind of a writer. Some editor’s burden. I won’t give a shit. I will write what the hell I want to write. And let ‘em publish it as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve spent the last 10 years or 15 years deciding whether something is right to run or not and I would think it’s my time to break out of the box.”

The crowd swirled tighter.