Synergy Goes South

Has Tina Brown Finally Replaced Her Longtime No. 2 With a New Man?

In 1992, shortly before Brown took over at The New Yorker, Kuhn quit his position as senior editor at VF to work for Longview Entertainment, Rosalie Swedlin's production company. But he soon returned to the queen's court, editing a special movie issue of The New Yorker in the spring of 1994. That summer, Brown hired him to edit the Talk of the Town section, and he went on to become features and special issues editor. By the time she tapped him for Talk, he was making a rumored $250,000 a year.

It's easy to explain Brown's effect on Kuhn, which one writer describes as "the same juju she does on most men, that combination of mother and seductress and ice queen." But less obvious is his value to her, which one source calls a combination of sycophancy and the desire to carry out her will. This combo came in especially handy at The New Yorker, where some editors and writers actively resisted Brown, intentionally doing the opposite of what she wanted.

Kuhn is described as "hardworking," "organized," "efficient," "witty," and "charming," as well as one of the few people willing to "put up with Tina's extremes." But making him editorial gatekeeper had a downside. At The New Yorker, he thought like a producer, often rejecting stories that could not be reduced to a high-concept pitch, and exhibiting a Machiavellian worldview. "David will either kiss up to you or devour you, depending on what he perceives as your size," says one writer. In keeping with the Hollywood ethos, he treated all writers as interchangeable, once telling an assistant, "My policy is always to keep the writer in the dark."

At Talk, insiders say Kuhn was given too much control over the assigning process and has been constantly "inserting himself between Tina and the rest of the staff." He is an ace executioner, they say, but hasn't been asking Brown tough questions or trouble-shooting for the staff. And while it may be good insurance to nail down the editing strategy before a story is assigned, this tends to strangle the creative process, sources say. Finally, many question Kuhn's ability to second-guess Brown, saying that he turns down promising stories, like one about a female police officer on the Santeria beat, while assigning profiles of familiar types like Ian Schrager. "If he was controlling the magazine, it would be all celebrity profiles," snipes one observer.

A Talk spokesperson declined to comment on the criticism of Kuhn, calling it "way too harsh." Of course, if Talk fails, the blame falls squarely at Brown's feet. Managing Editor Howard Lalli has been consumed with day-to-day operations, while Kuhn has been pushed into planning future issues, says one insider. That left no one to oversee the current issue, while Brown assumed the role of chairman of Talk Media. Everyone on staff needs to "ease up and be more constructive with each other," says one observer, while Brown needs to "give people the time they need to do things right."

Last month, sources heard that Kuhn was talking about going to Vogue or Martha Stewart Living, where he might be better off. Many Talk editors come from the newspaper world, and one source says it's odd to see someone so dapper surrounded by a "rumpled group of people. It's not his gang at all." Then again, no one can picture Brown and Kuhn breaking up. When apart, they are said to mock each other, but their relationship has thrived for years. "It's a real tango," says one writer, who isn't sure if the current cooling is "an oscillation" or if "something really did change."

Tina's mercurial instincts have always been "hard to decipher," says one insider. Now that Wallace has stepped up to meet that challenge, another Talk source says, Kuhn is actually feeling relieved and plans to stay. "She needs someone who she can trust and who can figure out what she wants and make it happen," says one Brown admirer. "If anyone is enough of a pro to pull it all together, it's Bob Wallace." Hey, Bob: Welcome to the jungle.

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