Sunday, April 29, 2007

Tina Brown: Hail, the Queen of Gloss

Tina Brown: Hail, the Queen of Gloss
The chronicler of celebrity culture turns her waspish wit on the life of its High Princess
By Paul Vallely

When Tina Brown took over that venerable literary institution The New Yorker and attempted to drag it into the late 20th century, a number of its most renowned writers resigned. At the magazine's 70th anniversary party in 1995, its British editor asked an actor to read out the resignation letter of one of the grandest members of staff, which bemoaned the magazine's fascination with the OJ Simpson murder case.

"For you to kiss the ass of celebrity culture at this moment that way," the departing scribe loftily opined, "is like selling your soul to get close to the Hapsburgs in 1913." Brown then had her reply read out by an actress, choosing Debra Winger to play herself in what the New York Post described as "a suitably immaculate English accent".

She wrote: "I am distraught at your defection, but since you never actually write anything, I should say I am notionally distraught."

Here, in a single anecdote, is all you need to know about Tina Brown - funny and elegant, powerful, brittle and ruthless - and the author of what promises to be the most high-profile of the slew of books about Princess Diana to be published in the run-up to the 10th anniversary of her death.

To save you the bother of buying it, here are what are reported to be its key claims: Diana was more in love with the Prince of Wales's title than she was with him; they had sex on the royal train twice before their marriage; Charles was faithful to her until her eating disorders and neurotic behaviour drove him back into the arms of Camilla; Camilla's real love was not Charles but her philandering husband, Andrew, and she only had an affair with Charles in retaliation for Andrew's infidelity; Diana had no intention of marrying Dodi Fayed but had a dalliance with him merely to annoy Charles and the Royal Family. The dead heroine was, in conclusion, a "spiteful, manipulative, media-savvy neurotic".

Not that Brown's husband, Sir Harold Evans, still perhaps Britain's most distinguished living newspaper man, will thank me for saying that. We should all wait to read the whole book to see it all in proper context, he has said. No doubt lots of people will.

Lots of people have taken to everything Ms Brown has done ever since she was a promising young playwright - winning The Sunday Times Drama Award in 1973 - and then a promising young journalist interviewing, and also dating, famous men such as Auberon Waugh, Dudley Moore and Martin Amis. She also dated Harold Evans, then the illustrious editor of The Sunday Times and, the scandalised newsroom noted, 26 years her senior, as well as married to someone else.

All that promise was actualised not as a writer but as an editor. In 1979, at the age of just 25, Brown was offered the editorship of the moribund 270-year-old society magazine The Tatler. In four years she revitalised it to the extent that its circulation trebled. She was then hired as an editorial adviser to Vanity Fair in New York for six weeks, but became editor-in-chief withinmonths. It, too, was an enormous success, based on the formula of what Brown called "high-class trash" - a mix of high-gloss fashion, vacuous celebrity and serious foreign reporting.

It was what her early life had shaped her for. Her father had been a film producer in post-war Britain making movies with stars such as Margaret Rutherford and Richard Attenborough. Her vivacious mother was Laurence Olivier's press agent and, in later years, gossip columnist for an English-language magazine for expatriates in Spain. "Family parties," said one report, "attracted the likes of Sean Connery and Joan Collins, and little Tina became used to perching on famous knees." It gave her the self-confidence to get expelled from three boarding schools - once for describing the headmistress's bosom as "an unidentified flying object". At Oxford, where she was clever but not very clever, she organised her own parties. "You knew you had made it if you were invited", said her Oxford contemporary, Tony Blair, who was not. Parties have been part of her modus operandi ever since. "You don't make friends, you make contacts," she said on her arrival in New York.

Later, at The New Yorker, some long-standing contributors sniffed that she was a vulgarian. She turned the much-lauded but little-read literary institution into "mere journalism" or "a version of People magazine". The snobbery was undiminished when Brown exercised the over-affluent editor's technique - despised by writers - of commissioning more articles than she had room for and binning the ones she liked least. But she made The New Yorker more readable by leading writers of high seriousness to feed at the trough of celebrity culture. It made it more like every other magazine in America, yet she did it with the antennae of what one US contemporary described as "her generation's most adroit zeitgeist surfer". Circulation rose by 30 per cent.

She has not always had the Midas touch. She quit The New Yorker after six years after being invited by Harvey and Bob Weinstein of Miramax Films to run a new multi-media company encompassing a new magazine, a book company and a television show. The magazine Talk, a glossy celebrity-led monthly, flopped, losing millions in the post 9/11 advertising recession. Her column in The Washington Post was criticised by the paper's own ombudsman. And her weekly talk show on CNBC was cancelled after poor ratings.

It was at that point that Brown, by now a US citizen, turned her attention to Diana, negotiating a $2m (£1m) advance from Random House, the publishing company of which her husband was until fairly recently president.

The book begins with an account of the last "girls' lunch" she had with the Princess at the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan in the summer of 1997, not long before Diana died being pursued by paparazzi. Brown has used her extensive contacts book to interview 250 people, including Tony Blair, about the dead woman. It will be published inJune - just a fortnight before the memorial concert to their mother planned by Prince William and Prince Harry.

It tries, Brown has said, to examine the Princess as a cultural archetype of a modern-day Britain that is, as Diana was, "emotional and media-obsessed". High seriousness feeding at the trough of celebrity culture. Very post-modern. Very lucrative. The Tina Brown formula at work once more.

The book is "an affectionate and multi-faceted portrayal of Diana," she says. It is not a hatchet job. "I think it's sympathetic to everyone actually." We shall see. Oh, how we shall see.

No comments: