A HIGH-FLYING EDITOR TALKS ABOUT TAKING CHARGE IN 1995.
Byline: Merle Ginsberg, October 1995
After high-profile editorial successes at Tatler and Vanity Fair, one would think Tina Brown, now in the driver’s seat at The New Yorker, would feel she was in control.
“You’re not good unless you’re always fearing that you’re going to lose it,” she says. “It’s what keeps you going. Without that, you slide immediately. You make your worst mistakes and you do your worst work.”
She likens herself to Richard Avedon, who “worries about every photograph as if it was his first.”
“He always feels it’s his last good picture and that he’ll just be yesterday’s lunch,” she says. “I know that Calvin Klein is like that too. Every great actor is like that. I admire that and identify with it.”
The controversial editor in chief says that, rather than control, it’s the creative chaos of her current environment she most relishes.
“Every decision you make at The New Yorker is enormously chewed over,” she admits, perched in her corner office on West 43rd Street here. “There is endless discussion about ‘Is this the right thing for The New Yorker?’ Nothing’s done in an offhand or reckless way. I have some instincts about what I do, and I do them, no matter what anybody says. But I’m always asking, if I’m going to push the envelope, is this the right way to push it?”
One particularly heated discussion Brown recalls was over the publication of Annie Leibovitz’s photo essay of the O.J. Simpson trial.
“There was a lot of anxiety inside the magazine from some of the other editors. ‘Should we even be covering the O.J. Simpson trial?’ I have zero regrets on that score. I think it was the right thing at that moment to push the envelope visually.”
“I always relish these discussions: I’m surrounded by very intelligent people. I don’t like working with ‘yes people’; I ask opinions a lot. Editors like Hendrik Hertzberg, Roger Angell, Adam Gopnick, David Remnick, Henry Finder — they function as an inner counsel to what’s happening editorially.
“We have an ongoing workshop; it’s a very stimulating atmosphere. It’s a very sort of — incendiary — place to work. People like Anthony Lane, Art Spiegelman — they’re highly talented and very demanding. You never quite know what these people will walk in with. It’s very electric and, sometimes, anxiety-producing. Very often, it’s quite stressful. But it’s worth the trouble.”
In the middle of her third year at the magazine, Brown says she’s pleased with the changes she’s instilled and The New Yorker’s progress, even if sometimes the traditionalists — types The New Yorker has historically inspired — aren’t always thrilled.
And despite all the guys in the inner council, Brown seems proud of leading a virtual coup of an Old Boy network at the magazine.
“The New Yorker used to be a very male culture, and now it’s run by women. We still have some guys. When I got here, it was difficult for that reason. Vanity Fair was a much more mixed group. This was a male shop. I found I couldn’t get what I needed from an all-male fraternity.
“The magazine’s made a huge quantum leap in the last eight or nine months,” she says briskly.
“The first year, I thought, was very strong. The second year was less strong — because, in a funny way, I’d spent so much time organizing the inside that the content hadn’t had as much attention as the structure.
“This third year, the changes have really kicked in. The work of new editors Bill Buford, Dorothy Wickenden, David Kuhn is really starting to show. Interestingly, 75 percent of the old subscribers have renewed, and what we have is 250,000 new readers. We lost some old readers — I mean, ‘old’ in years. But we added many young readers.”
Brown thinks the grousing about how much “showbiz content” she’s brought to The New Yorker is drivel.
“There isn’t as much showbiz in the magazine as everybody thinks. It’s just that when it appears, it has a big impact. When John Lahr wrote about Roseanne, it was the only showbiz piece in a five or six-month period.
Brown says she’s a fan of the post-Tina Vanity Fair, and praises its editor, Graydon Carter. Still, she’s aware of competition all around her.
“We compete in different areas with everybody: intellectually with the New York Review and the New Republic and Harper’s Magazine; visually, with the glossies. And we compete with nobody; The New Yorker is an only. It’s the magazine people feel validated by being in. Even Steven Spielberg said he felt like that.”
Brown is still trying to refute the rumors that what she really wants is to run off to Hollywood and be the next Mike Ovitz.
“I don’t know why I wouldn’t have done that by now. I had my many opportunities to do that, and I haven’t. I enjoy Hollywood, I have many friends there. But I’m a writer and editor and my work is here. The New Yorker is intensely creative, and there’s always somewhere else to go with it.”
One of the ways she tries to keep The New Yorker lively — for herself, her staff and the readers — is by dropping the occasional bomb, in the form of special issues. The Fashion Issue that will hit the stands Oct. 30, the start of Fashion Week, takes a different tack from last year’s cover-to-cover fashion opus.
“That issue was a real turning point, and it was very exciting for us to do. The issue that’s coming out with Richard Avedon’s return to fashion photography is very, very exciting as well. “Originally, Dick was going to do 12 pages. I’ve never known Dick in his ‘Funny Face’ mode. I didn’t realize this was going to be a full-blown Fellini movie.”
Brown is also planning a special fiction issue at Christmas, an African-American issue in April and, of course, that women’s issue in February that Roseanne is only a consulting editor on — not a guest editor, as was originally reported.
“I don’t know why people have been so judgmental about that issue,” Brown sniffs. “Roseanne is a kind of lightning rod of people’s feelings, which makes me believe I did the right thing by bringing her in.”
As for all those who find too much profanity in the new New Yorker, or too much that’s downscale, Brown finds those critics impossibly uptight and not very modern. “I think that kind of bourgeois and very protective attitude to be very uncreative,” she says crisply.
“I don’t understand why working with Roseanne is any different from working with Woody Allen, who used to be a contributor to the magazine and hopefully might be one again. Roseanne is not Hollywood — she’s the antithesis of Hollywood.
“I like working with highly creative people. The important thing is, I can adapt what these people have to offer to our pages. Ultimately, I’m the editor. Roseanne is a guest on our show. If I were a guest on her show, I’m not going to start telling her how to make her show work.”