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So What Do You Do, Tina Brown?

The former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker and first-time author talks about her career trajectory and newly-minted bestseller, The Diana Chronicles

- July 11, 2007
tina_brown_071107.jpg Leave it to Tina Brown to prove F. Scott Fitzgerald wrong. Forget second acts. The British-born Queen of New York is on to her third. Having presided over Manhattan's media elite throughout the '90s, she's come roaring back with a vengeance. Her first book, The Diana Chronicles, an exhaustive take on the life of Princess Diana, hit No. 1 on the New York Times' nonfiction list this week. Virtually overnight, the highly public failure of Talk and her short-lived cable television series Topic A with Tina Brown -- both gleefully reported at the time by her detractors as the decline and fall of the once untouchable editor -- have been reduced to mere footnotes.

Looking back at Brown's career, one could argue she was fated to have what might prove to be her greatest individual success due to her unique and enduring connection to the late princess. At 25, Brown became the editor of the musty, centuries-old British magazine Tatler, fortuitously tying her fortunes and those of the previously irrelevant glossy to a certain other quintessentially British girl who, over time, would prove just as brilliant for her ability to tap into the zeitgeist. Brown once remarked that Diana's wedding did for Tatler's newsstand sales "what the O.J. Simpson chase did for the ratings at CNN." In 1985, just as S.I. Newhouse considered shuttering Vanity Fair because it wasn't generating enough buzz, Brown -- who'd been tapped to be its editor-in-chief less than two years before -- penned a cover story on Diana, famously dubbed "The Mouse That Roared." The issue's runaway newsstand success helped buy Brown more time to create what evolved into the holy grail of celebrity reporting. It's worth nothing that one of Brown's most memorable pieces written during her tenure as editor of The New Yorker focused on -- who else? -- Diana, in which Brown recounted her last lunch at the Four Seasons with Vogue's Anna Wintour and the princess just weeks before that fateful night in Paris.

Name: Tina Brown
Position: First-time author
Resumé: Editor of Tatler 1979-1983; editor-in-chief Vanity Fair 1984-1992 until moving to The New Yorker; founded Talk Media (including Talk Miramax Books) with Bob and Harvey Weinstein; helmed the book imprint and the namesake magazine until it folded in 2002; host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown from April 2003-May 2005; former columnist for the Washington Post
Birthdate: November 21, 1953
Hometown: Maidenhead, England
Education: M.A from Oxford at St. Anne's College
Marital status: Married to Sir Harold Evans, president of Random House and former editor of the Sunday Times of London; two children: George and Isabel
First section of the Sunday New York Times: "The op-ed pages because I'm always hungry to have my mind changed. To be honest, I usually find it more stimulating at times to read the Wall Street Journal because I usually disagree and that makes me more engaged."
Must read British papers: "The thing about England is that there are so many papers I prefer to sample all of them every morning, so I get them all. I like the Times, the Telegraph, The Guardian, The Daily Mail -- which is the great glorious daily rag you have to read and has a lot of human interest stuff that is irresistible."
Favorite television show: "I still like Charlie Rose a lot. He does a great job. 24 has jumped the shark -- it used to be my favorite show. The Sopranos -- I don't know how the hell I'm going to replace it. I think Army Wives is pretty interesting. I could become addicted to that."
Guilty pleasure: "Yellow tabs -- National Enquirer, Star. Gotta have it. The cover stories about Bush and Laura on the brink of divorce -- it's wonderful fantasyland. It really is fun to read sometimes."
Last book read: David Talbot's Brothers: "Terrific and gripping. I haven't read all the Kennedy books because being English, I didn't read them as they came out. I am a kind of case-closed believer but I loved having David pick apart some of my views."

With so many books having been written about Diana what made you want to enter the fray?
I felt it was important to look at Diana in the context of her era and the culture of England and the media culture at the time. Those three aspects of the world that Diana was moving in seemed, to me, as important, in a way, as the story of Diana herself. That was what attracted me -- her story itself is riveting -- but she's also an emblematic life. Through her, I was able to talk about class, media, and celebrity culture.

Any surprises along the way?
I found writing about her early life the most fascinating part of all. It's like Bush's lost years in the National Guard [laughs]. There was a moment -- just a little tiny moment -- when Diana Spencer wasn't famous. The Spencers were a very complicated family. I think they were far more jaggedly at odds with each other than I had realized. I thought simply that her mother had left and it was a sad thing, but when I went deeply into it, I could see that this family had been plagued with ill feelings.

When did you start writing the book? How much time went into that and the reporting?
It was two years, start to finish, from the moment I got the advance to the moment I delivered it. I did a year of reporting and a year of writing, but during the writing I was continuing to report. I would then be reporting a lot on the telephone, going back for second and third interviews. Basically, I had to spend the first year doing that first round of interviews. Frequently, when you get to the place in the book when that whole story occurs, you know a lot more by the time you get there and you know more things you want to ask, so it's great having made the personal contacts that you can go back for second and third interviews. That was what I was really doing that second year.

What was the biggest challenge you encountered in doing the book?
The biggest challenge was the amount that had been written about Diana -- so much of it was inaccurate. You just have to keep guarding against stuff that is tabloid legend. At the same time, you're also dealing with a very closed society. They may not like it when you get it wrong, but also don't necessarily want to help you get it right. Fortunately, I got very good sources who could usually verify what I was after. It wasn't any easy thing to get that. One had deploy a lot of persistence at times. There are some people who are just tired of talking about [Diana]. Some people have gotten so badly burned by some tabloid that they feel they don't want to talk to a journalist again. I came to see that there were certain sources that were reliable and others that you decided not to go to at all.

One of the other things about biographies is that sometimes somebody who was there and saw everything still wasn't helpful, because although they want to tell you, they don't have any particular powers of observation or recall. There was one person who was right in the middle of everything in the last days of Diana -- the funeral time at Balmoral -- and I thought, "What a drag. This person doesn't have any eye."

I found myself wondering about this question as I read the book and couldn't come up with an answer: Did you like Diana?
I came to like her more and more, actually, as the book wore on because the more complicated she became and the more of a "piece of work" she could be, the more -- I guess -- I related to her. [Laughs] If she had been a goody-goody, she would not have been as interesting. It was her complexity -- on the one hand she was capable of tremendous acts of compassion and had this extraordinary gift for communication with humble people, people who were sick. It was genuine. It was real. At the same time, what was equally real was her canny workings of the media and her devious and even vindictive behavior, which was sometimes a real surprise. I always liked her because I just feel she was up against something that was very, very hard to deal with. I know enough about the English "establishment" to know what it's like when they close ranks because they are scared. Unlike America, that has many interlocking establishments, England is still dominated by one. Even though it's changed a lot, the "establishment" is still very much around and can make your life difficult and unpleasant, and they did for Diana all the time. She was immensely brave. The way she took on the House of Windsor never fails to astonish me.

What would Diana be doing now if she'd lived?
Aside from having her first facelift? [Laughs]

Would she have really gone for that?
Oh, I think Diana would have always been very much about keeping her looks as best she possibly could, because she did have a fabulous sense of how to look great.

With Diana, her love life would always torpedo her. This is also what makes her interesting and human. When she was on top -- and she was in the last months of her life -- when I met her in July [1997] she was so together, so ready for her second act and so much a woman of the world and yet, at the same time, she winds up in the tunnel in Paris with Dodi because she was always was sabotaged by this needy insecurity -- this desperate need to have a man who loved her -- which she couldn't find. It was all going to be in the end about what happened there.

Why do you think your harshest reviews came out of the U.K.?
That's a much more competitive culture. There are a thousand and one newspapers competing in one tiny market, so the goal is to be different from the guy who wrote last week. It's really about that. Secondly, it's because Diana herself is an industry. Diana herself brings out the lovers and the haters in the English press. She remains very controversial. There are people there with a lasting irritation about Diana, and anyone that writes a book that gives Diana any kind of a due is also up for the knife, as it were.

Lifetime is doing a special based on the book. What's your role?
It's an hour-long special looking at Diana's life, based on my book. They're basically using a lot of material from the book and I'll be the linking perception. I'll be on air.

Speaking of TV, any desire to do another show?
It was fun doing Topic A. It's funny, on the book tour, it's been amazing how many people told me they loved Topic A. I was sort of surprised and delighted actually, because I think we did do a pretty good show. It would be fun to do something based on books and popular culture and current affairs. But I know in this media climate it's not likely that a show of that kind is going to get done. I'm not lobbying for it. I'm more interested in writing and getting on with another book.

You told The Guardian you "missed being a journalist."
I miss editing. I wouldn't want to do another startup magazine just because it's a five-year battle to see if you can get the magazine properly displayed on the newsstand. It's not a good era to start up a magazine. Editing comes in all shapes and sizes. It's not like I'm wedded to only editing in just one form.

What's your take on the growing influence of new media?
I think it is incredibly influential and great voices are coming out of it more and more. Every day the Internet is being used to do interesting new things. I actually think we've seen the great shift between print and online. I get more and more of my news online, although I happen to love -- and always will -- the whole tactile experience of reading print. I very rarely wait, though. The weekly newsmagazines that I enjoy reading -- I read them online. I don't wait to get the magazine.

Which sites do you make a point of looking at?
Newsweek has one of the best Web sites. I like ABC's The Note. That's very good. I like, the Huffington Post, Andrew Sullivan's blog. I read every day. I sometimes check out the fun on TMZ. What would Diana be doing now if she'd lived?
Brown: Aside from having her first facelift?

Celebrities must be terrified by the news TMZ is doing a show, don't you think?
Totally terrified, but at the same time there's almost like this new world of celebrity, which is like a proximate world. I kind of feel it's become so remote from the celebrities themselves -- that more and more there are these strange clones of celebrities that they write about that don't have anything to do with the real person. Whenever you meet a celebrity, they're nothing remotely like their image. If they could only find a way to do themselves in 3-D animation, it would solve all problems. There's just way too many outlets and too few celebrities.

Who out there in the celebrity culture do you find most interesting?
I think the whole thing to staying interesting is by being more aloof. One of the things that's interesting about the enduring old stars is that they always saw a way to dole out something to the public but keeping things private. When you think about Paul Newman, Robert Redford -- even Clint Eastwood -- how much do we really know about them? We really don't know very much about them at all. Amongst the movie-acting hemisphere I can't think of anyone I'd buy a magazine for. [Pauses] Actually, Brad Pitt is a pretty interesting guy. I'm told he's far more interesting than he seems. The thing that's difficult is no one wants to write about someone's actual work at the moment. It's all about the personality.

Steve Martin has written a book that's coming out in November, Born Standing Up. He sent me the galleys. It's absolutely wonderful -- it's his memoir on his life as a stand-up comic. What's fantastic about it is, it's all about process, about how he became a comic, how to structure a joke, what's it's like to be in front of an audience. What's fabulous about it is it's all the stuff that gets left out of celebrity interviews. I saw the interview Larry King did with Al Pacino and it was really good because Al Pacino was able to talk at length about how he got his accent for Scarface, which to me is so much more interesting than hearing about some tired old go-round about affairs and houses and lifestyle. I think we're all so OD'd on lifestyle. I'm more interested in the life.

What do you consider your greatest success?
I do think The New Yorker was a very exciting success. As much as I loved Vanity Fair and still do, I still feel The New Yorker was the harder challenge. The stakes were so high with The New Yorker. I felt all the time I was doing it there wasn't an option to fail. If the magazine's not a viable proposition or set for closure -- and it was really going down so badly when I took it over. It was so important to revitalize this magazine -- the letters, narrative journalism, high standards and the writers that could take three weeks to six months on a story could still be allowed to do that work. What I did realize was that no one again ever was going to start up a magazine that would allow literary journalists to go off for months at a time to study and write and do something, so if we failed it would be a horrible consequence.

What's been your biggest disappointment?
Well, obviously, I was disappointed when Talk folded only because the point at which when Talk folded was the same point at which S.I. Newhouse considered folding Vanity Fair in 1985. I'd been with Vanity Fair for a year and a half when Condé Nast thought it wasn't building fast enough and didn't show any signs of traction. It was a real moment when it was going to be folded until I begged for another six months to show them what I could do. With Talk, we were 17 percent up in advertising in those last three issues. The circulation was climbing. We had a very difficult launch, but it got really good in those last six months. It was a real shame that it wasn't allowed to continue. What's also amazing about Talk was how amazing the staff turned out to be. The people I hired have all gone on to the most amazing jobs. [Senior editor] Sam Sifton is now culture editor at The New York Times, [senior editor] Danielle Mattoon is deputy culture editor, [founding editor] Tom Watson is national editor of Newsweek, [executive assistant] Margaret Aro is a producer at 20/20 for Diane Sawyer. [Editorial director] Maer Roshan is, of course, doing Radar. It was an amazing group of people at Talk. I'm very proud of that.

You must feel some sense of vindication towards your critics who happily reported on Talk's demise and Topic A's cancellation.
[Laughs]. It's exciting as hell to be No. 1. I'm well aware that there's a lot of books out there, and I really didn't expect this. I'm absolutely thrilled. I didn't expect such terrific reviews.

I guess it's called managing expectations. [Laughs] I'd hoped to get a couple of nice ones but I really didn't expect such good ones at so many places. It's selling in the U.K. I'm No. 3 this weekend in England. It's really wonderful.

Will you be doing another nonfiction book?
Probably, yes. They [Doubleday] want me to. What I don't want to do is jump into a book just to do a book. I really have to get another passion going. I went right up to the deadline with my [Diana] book. I was doing stuff right up until March and then went straight into the foreign editions, so I haven't really had a breathing space to get my mojo back. I have to run on empty for a bit. I haven't gotten a galvanizing idea yet, but I'm sure I'll get one.

Any truth to the reports that you're considering doing something on Tony Blair?
That was suggested to me by somebody else. I don't know how that got into the papers. I don't think that's for me. I'd like to do something American. It was very awkward being in England all the time. I prefer to be here. [Laughs] I think it's very difficult to write well about a living person, actually. It's so complicated because you've got their interventions all the time, and their version of it. It's actually better if you can go in and clear the thicket of a life that you can see whole.

Ideally, what would you like to see yourself doing over the next few years?
I feel wonderfully poised for a new phase. I'm not sure yet what that will be. Very likely it will be another book. I'm interested in theatre; I'm interested in producing, in editing. I'm very much just feeling creative, so I could go in any direction. Probably by the fall I'll have more of a sense of what will be fun to do.

Looking back over your career thus far, how would say you've got to where you are?
[Sighs] Oh God ... [Pauses] Workaholism and luck? I don't know.

Do you have a motto?
What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to FishbowlNY and writes the Lunch at Michael's column.

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