The Vanity Fair Diaries by Tina Brown

Hot dayum, I’m glad I made it to the Tina Brown-Joanna Coles discussion last night at UES Barnes & Nobles. The WSJ’s review was spot on, Brown is full of “brains and flair” and it was a joy to hear her speak with an equally remarkable woman for an hour. She’s someone who you say “inane” in lieu of “dumb.” Her “observation greed,” as she called it, is contagious and inspiring.

Her latest book The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992 is a keen look into 80s culture. Brown is as shrewd an observer on the page as she is on stage in a tight blue cocktail dress talking about 80’s Trump and America’s images of success. The journals add to a formidable book about a 20-something finding her career in New York and scrutinizing the vast cast of anxious, social-climbing New Yorkers. It’s also a great look into running a magazine, and the quick decisions that promulgated one story over another.

I was surprised how well she documented the AIDS epidemic in New York. Just flipping through the book before the reading (flipping with caution as the cover reminded me of Barbara Walters sentimental memoir Audition) I came across this entry from Sunday, July 2, 1989.

On Monday I went to a memorial service for poor Jonathan Lieberson. He finally, at forty, lost his fight against AIDS. It’s another tragic culling of a man so many thought was special. His memorial reflected it. In front of me was a freshly face-lifted Jackie O in a white schoolgirl shirt and black skirt, along with Duchins, Brook Astor, Richard Avedon, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, the actor Peter Eyre, Diana von Furstenberg, etc. etc. And of course a stricken Bob Silvers of The New York Review of Books, who always saw Jonathan as his successor. It was Bob who choreographed the short tributes by Nobel laureate Torsten Wiesel, Shelley Wanger, Elizabeth Hardwick, Jason Epstein, and Brook Astor. As at all memorial services, the most interesting things were what was unsaid. How beneath the array of speakers’ claim for his talents as philosopher, editor, and critic, “his essay on Wagner that could stand next to Shaw’s,” Jonathan was ultimately a thwarted soul, his verbal brilliance undermined by his incapacitating self-hatred that perhaps came from a distaste for his own homosexuality, which he always kept implacably hidden. It’s tragic that he felt such shame. He never uttered the words ‘AIDS’ to anyone, and the obituary said ‘cardiac arrest.” In the end it’s the bitterest irony that he had a slow, agonizing, and public death that finally proclaimed to everyone what he had kept hidden for so long.”

With great willpower, I plan to save The Vanity Fair Diaries for an Xmas read. Though it will be tempting not to absorb Brown’s playful language sooner, because of phrases like “legal eagles” and this observation of a Times writer: “I found Charlotte Curtis unbearable. What a bogus grandee she is, a coiffed asparagus, exuding a second-rate intellectualism. She didn’t ask me one question about VF or any damn thing. Still, I always love hearing Shirley yak on in her cigar-brown voice. She reminds me of Olive Oyl in Popeye” (67).

I’ve hardly touched this collection but I have high hopes. Toward the end of the reading, Brown listed off a litany of her favorite diarists, from Samuel Pepys and Virginia Woolf to the Duke of Saint-Simon and Katherine Mansfield. Coles said with this diary she was joining their rank, a kind flattery that may not be an exaggeration.

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