Books

Talk of the town

Tina and Harry Come to America By Judy Bachrach

JUDITH TIMSON August 13 2001
Books

Talk of the town

Tina and Harry Come to America By Judy Bachrach

JUDITH TIMSON August 13 2001

Talk of the town

JUDITH TIMSON

Tina and Harry Come to America By Judy Bachrach

(Distican, 356pages, $41.95)

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, a cartoon depicts two sophisticates at a cocktail party murmuring about another couple. “We hated them long before anyone else,” the woman says. It could be a coy reference to the travails of two of Britain’s most famous exports, former New Yorker editor Tina Brown, and her husband, former Random House publisher and author Harry Evans.

With the publication of Judy Bachrach’s gossipy Tina and Harry Come to America, it now appears to be open season on the pair.

In an ironic reversal of a Henry James novel in which brash Americans make their dubious mark in Europe,

Brown and Evans brought their unvarnished ambitions to New York City and went on to become the most “feared and powerful couple in America.”

Having recendy fallen upon what only loosely could be viewed as hard times— Brown’s new Hollywood-backed magazine, Talk, is not catching on with readers, and Evans has left his publishing jobs— the interlopers are now being treated to a round of all-American schadenfreude.

The story of Tina Browns rise to fame could be read as a how-to manual. As a student at Oxford, she described herself as having “a first-rate second-class brain.” Her glamourous mother said that all she wanted from Tina was a cable saying “married on his yacht this morning.” Tina may not have been married on anyone’s yacht, but she did snare a prize: the crusading (and, alas, already married) Harry Evans,

Cheap shots abound in the new tell-all about magazine queen Tina Brown

editor of London’s Sunday Times, who was 25 years her senior. But Brown, whom Bachrach slyly describes as having “unmasked ambition allied with sexual fervour,” was no trophy wife. At Oxford, she not only wrote a witty play about adultery, but was brilliant at promoting it. As one admirer said: “Tina was born knowing the value of buzz.” Indeed, buzz—making a splash—became her journalistic raison d’être. Brown parlayed her uncanny ability to know exactly what story would sell into one of the most successful media careers in history, becoming editor of the British social rag Tatler, and then at the age of 30 moving to New York to edit Vanity Fair.

She transformed Vanity Fair so successfully that no one remembers what it was before it became her trademark vehicle, a magazine packed with “the mix”—glossy takedowns of the rich and famous, polit-

ical commentary and the requisite big star, preferably undressed, on the cover. Brown threw lavish parties and paid her writers unprecedented huge salaries, but her approach to real talent was often dismissive. “Beef it up, Singer,” she wrote on a story by Nobel Prize laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer. (Of course, when legendary New Yorker editor Harold Ross wrote “you call self writer?” on one manuscript, he was regarded as a lovable kook, but when Brown did it she was a domineering bitch.)

When Brown left Vanity Fair to edit the august New Yorker, she did exacdy what many feared and some hoped —she put the boots to eccentric, 10,000-word pieces about, for example, a man in Montana raising a 700-lb. bear named Buffy, and made the magazine “hot” in a way that upped both the trivia quotient and the circulation. A bear named Buffy is no competition for a man named O.J.

That Brown, now 47, wasn’t particularly nice is not a revelation. But Bachrach tries too hard to skewer the couple personally. Evans, now 73, is not really a public figure, so the sad description of his groping dalliance with a baroness fact checker for Vanity Fair (only in their strange world—Trans-Atlantica—could there be a baroness fact checker) seems cheap.

The author, a Vanity Fair writer herself, also stoops low when she reveals Brown sometimes forgot to shave her legs, which should endear her to working women everywhere. Often, the book reads like an extended Vanity Fair turn—juicy but shallow, which may be just desserts for Brown. The book’s only dazzling lines come from the protagonists themselves. As the ’90s wound down, Brown confessed she felt she’d been at a party too long, “and suddenly the lights come on and . . . everyone looks terrible.” And her husband rose to the level of a Henry James observation when someone said to him, “I don’t think Tina likes America,” and he replied, “Of course not, she’s never been there.”