Did Tina Brown revolutionize slick magazines? About as much as Newt Gingrich revolutionized Congress — not profoundly, but vividly enough to get horrified onlookers thinking Antichrist. American politics would have grown more irresponsible, and journalism more buzz-happy, if neither had been born. All the same, it’s inevitable that a culture this tizzied by its own merry-go-round would seize on carny barkers who make the mess seem lucid. They give us someone to blame once we throw up.
The nut is this: successful magazines have always stayed that way by flattering their audience. (You’re young and therefore hip, shouts Details; you’re hip and therefore young, wheezes Rolling Stone.) For a decade-plus, first at Vanity Fair and then over Mr. Shawn’s rotating coffin, Brown helped a stratified, post-traditional society’s winners and wannabes avert a potential identity crisis — I’ve got mine, but what’s in it for me? Call her specialty elitism for swingers if you will, but Eustace Tilley’s mag used to hawk depth for the shallow, and all Brown did was recognize that the terms of flattery had changed. William Shawn’s New Yorker could have run nary a word about O.J. and readers would have basked in the implied praise. Tina’s New Yorker ran thousands, mostly smarter than the competition’s, and strove to make its readers feel suave about devouring a case whose every detail Dubuque knew by heart too.
Since magazine editors are supposed to be shrewd, don’t think Shawn’s tact wasn’t as guileful in pushing Tilleyphiles’ buttons then as Brown’s lusts are now. If the old New Yorker was your temple, you’re a sucker for advertising. That churchlike aura was a work of art more impressive than any story the magazine ever printed — even Nabokov’s “Lance.” Like most mystiques, it disguised one kind of interest as another. Harold Ross’s brainchild set out to give the ’20s boom’s bright young things a patina of stylish cheek: more or less what Brown’s revamp does today. The mag’s fabled deep-dish act was a post-1945 afterthought, pushed to the fore because seriousness was in — as a lifestyle trapping, the way cleverness had been. Forget content; think stroking. While they actually don’t need many pointers on how to be twits, making upscale WASPs feel like eggheads — without asking them to think, which would be going too far — will earn you their gratitude for life. As early as the sober-sided ’50s, in a culture grown distressingly motley, for which read Jewish, The New Yorker‘s primary value to many readers was providing reassurance that goyim still ruled the roost.
Considering the nongoy and/or unmoneyed origins of many of its shaping hands over the years, the magazine’s long-running evocation of a chic Anglo-Saxon country club whose values, tastes, and above all intelligence it invented from scratch was an assimilationist hat trick on a par with Louis B. Mayer concocting Andy Hardy. Yet braininess has seldom been in favor with latter-day WASPs — if we’re talking intellectual chow-downs, their job hereabouts was done once William James keeled over. What The New Yorker peddled instead was the genteel substitute: blue-chip, exquisitely rendered middlebrow pap. Not that Evelyn Waugh would have been more suitable, but still — what could be more middlebrow than John Hersey’s Hiroshima, for decades the magazine’s signature piece? (Answer: The Fire Next Time, which compared to the complex acumen of James Baldwin’s best nonfiction is Mother Goose in a bad mood. All the same, Baldwin knew his audience — and given the way the world worked then, that Sammy Davis Jr. side of him came in handy.) Any mag that published Edmund Wilson regularly at the very least showed excellent taste in irrelevance. By the end of Shawn’s tenure, however, its literary lion was ultragoy John Updike, and seldom has such twinkle-toed prose danced so industriously around such complacency; his mind’s a maypole, and the glad sentences unwind.
Brown’s hiring belatedly conceded that profundity was back out of fashion — and so what? Fashionable profundity is inherently absurd. Me, I think slick magazines should be glib; if they can manage it without insulting me, I’m appreciative, but for long views I’ll head to the library. Preferring Tina’s lively gabble to the old New Yorker‘s sonorities doesn’t mean I buy her magazine’s shtick about being on top of things any more than I did the old one’s shtick about getting to the bottom of them. Even if one vaunts making people talk while the other touted making them think, the point is to be among the elect who do one or the other, which means the same old vanity is being massaged.
Besides, nobody’s ever called Brown dumb. (By all sorts of standards, she may be dumb — but she makes sure nobody ever calls her that.) It’s silly to suggest that she just transferred Vanity Fair‘s successful formula to her new gig unrevised. She knew that the frothier priorities and edgier topics she wanted to get cracking on (no contradiction there: in the ’90s, edginess is froth) would be tolerable to longtime readers, and supply frisson for new ones, only if presented in a recognizably New Yorker-ish style. One of her canniest moves was to rework instead of junk the magazine’s sedate iconography whenever possible, asserting tradition by scoring off it; maybe her debut issue’s famous cover showed a punk slouched in a Central Park hackney cab, but it was drawn by Edward Sorel — who’d done plenty of covers for the old regime. When Brown introduced photographs, look who she hired as figurehead-in-residence: dis her, and you dis Avedon, whose less-than-current legend was only impressive to precisely the old farts the new editrix hoped to cow if not wow.
Of course, the caliber of the writing didn’t stay the same, right? Right. If you ask me, it improved. Brown’s impatience with beloved bylines mostly got rid of deadwood. If nothing else, I’ll always be grateful for her aperçu that a guy as into tundra as John McPhee would appreciate Siberia. But besides being a less punctiliously unctuous crew than the old mainstays, the writers she brought in or pushed forward include some of the best the magazine’s ever had. Adam Gopnik is crackerjack on almost any subject, while legal beagle Jeffrey Toobin has done yeoman work in a niche that, until O.J. and Whitewater, no slick this side of Jury Duty Monthly ever needed to fill. Henry Louis Gates Jr., whose surreal life as white America’s leading black intellectual will make the right biographer rich one day, is fascinating at his splendid best (his Colin Powell profile was Michael Corleone meeting Hyman Roth) and muddled worst (his defense of Hillary was Dorothy meeting Glinda the Good Witch).
Then again, in a place that started featuring strong female voices decades before modern feminism — Janet Flanner, Lillian Ross, Jane Kramer, Pauline Kael, and the list goes on — the absence of women from Tina’s stable is striking. Like a lot of sisters who’ve done it for themselves, sisterly she’s not. On that front, her reign doesn’t have much to parade but the unfortunate Daphne Merkin, rechristened “Spanky” by my pal Dolores in honor of the nervous ode to crimsoned butts that preceded Merkin’s emergence as the dippiest movie reviewer since Arthur Schlesinger went back to his day job. But as Shawn alum Ellen Willis has observed, all those women on his roster didn’t exactly make the magazine a hotbed of advocacy. Brown’s New Yorker, by contrast, happily bangs the drum for woman power even if the version of it Tina digs, as with all topics she covers, is star power. And even Spanky looks like a relatively minor setback to feminism next to the great mistake of Robert Gottlieb’s tenure — springing that yapping nitwit Elizabeth Wurtzel on a blameless world.
Early on, Brown made mistakes — her first Talk of the Town editor filed a stop-the-presses report on the Christmas-tree lighting at Rockefeller Center — and some of her inspirations fizzled. Consider, for instance, the Mystery of the Disappearing Wolcott. I’ve had writer’s block myself, and since it’s no fun I hope that wasn’t Jim’s problem — but shit, the guy’s New Yorker output gave him time to translate Finnegans Wake into Korean. Other inspirations didn’t fizzle fast enough — poor David Denby, nobody but Tina is ever likely to mistake him for a thinker again. And poor Simon Schama, the Ved Mehta of Brown’s day; nobody’s ever likely to mistake him for a star again.
A larger problem Brown never solved was the difference in impact between a monthly like Vanity Fair and a weekly, a homelier package that almost has to be a little dull around the edges to keep readers fond of it. The old New Yorker pursued constancy to a fault, but Tina’s version threw itself at readers with an air of hyperactive starting over every week, like a mad puppy reinventing the wheel. Since she defined excellence as making a splash rather than hewing to a standard, you noticed when the flimsy contents didn’t live up to their hot billing. Rather than figure out how to cope with this, she grew addicted to special issues — and paid more in reader irritation for each fix.
Despite her mania for being in the right place at the right time, and making it the right place by being there, Brown’s New Yorker also lacks the old one’s authority. But the culprit is a scattershot culture she reflects but didn’t create, and anyway, is that sort of authority anything sensible folk should miss? It sustained itself only by leaving a lot of modern life out, and pretending it did so only because those parts were beneath notice. No one makes this complaint about Town & Country because Town & Country doesn’t pretend it’s upholding civilized values — just swank accoutrements. When Brown did the equivalent of Andrew Jackson opening the White House to the rabble by bringing in (hell, bringing up) Roseanne, the few Shawn-era stalwarts still mulling the merits of quislinghood indignantly scampered for the exits, proving that under the skin the old New Yorker‘s ethic had been about swank accoutrements all along. Once “good taste” serves pure snootiness this openly, it’s too transparently a refuge to remain any kind of altar. You know damn well Ian Frazier felt no obligation to turn on Roseanne even once before deciding she insulted everything he stood for — which was what, exactly?
Besides keeping its readers smug, the old New Yorker‘s cultural clout was a narcotic to its writers. In at least one case — Kael’s — clout was intellectually corrupting. After all those years of bashing the critical establishment, who knew she only wanted to join — no, run — the club? I enjoy the way Anthony Lane’s strenuous insouciance makes this very Tina-identified writer a throwback to Ross’s heyday. But I’m also glad he’s in no position to lay down the law to the troupe of film-crit flying monkeys Kael oversaw (“Destroy Clint Eastwood! Bring me his head, my pretties!”) in her Wicked Witch of the West days. While to my knowledge her retirement was unconnected to Brown’s arrival, I’d also advise anyone offended by Tina’s sins of building up favorites and manufacturing excitement to think twice before citing Kael’s work as reproof.
Mind, I won’t argue if you call Tina corrupt too. By her lights, intellectual integrity is a moot concept, and ditto for seemliness. All the same, her surprisingly guileless ostentation about the “synergy” between her mag and power hubby Harold Evans’s Random House annoyed people more than the fact did; back when they were between gentlemen, such gentlemen’s arrangements were more discreet. If we’re being realistic, Harry & Tina weren’t even state-of-the-art. Compared to the slick ways Disney or Time Warner routinely uses one product or venue to boost another, the couple’s penny-ante version (“I’ll scratch Joe Klein’s back if you hold his arms”) was a mom-and-pop stand on the information highway. Sure, I wish Brown didn’t pant so much to be a player. But at a certain point the wish devolves into a simpler one that she had bolder taste in who to suck up to.
To the extent that she is bold, it’s because that’s what she was hired for — a job she does the best she can, just like the Terminator. Even for fun, I’ve never heard anyone wonder what Tina’s really like; no one thinks it matters. I’m not sure I could pick her out of a lineup even after the Times put her face on page one last week, an honor usually reserved for heads of state, recent indictees, and hurricanes. She lives for cleverness, but I can’t recall one good anecdote about her, or a single smart remark she’s made. (“I’ve always believed in lapses of taste,” she sauced off to the Times, but that’s no bon mot; that’s a schoolgirl parroting cheekiness phonetically.) Like a lot of people driven to leave their stamp on the nebulous, she seems to have no interests — only goals, which are both endlessly attainable and never permanent. Her best-kept secret may be that she’s a dullard, and the secret isn’t even that well kept. When Tina made a rare bylined appearance in her own magazine, it was to prattle about Bill Clinton’s charisma.She seemed barely aware that her reaction had something to do with his being president.
If her exit last week made anything clear, it was that The New Yorker‘s mystique had survived her tenure — or at least, how much people wanted it to. The Miramax venture that tempted her away will supposedly formalize the industry swap meet she’s always hoped to run, since if all goes as planned her as-yet-unnamed magazine will be a clearinghouse for projects she can then rework into movies and TV shows. But Brown’s never started one from scratch, and doing so ill suits her new-broom skills. How naughtily can she mess around with something she’s originated? It was telling that, on being offered the solo shot she claimed to crave, her first move was to cajole Vogue bigwig Ron Galotti into joining her, suggesting how much she knows she needs springboards — Harry Evans, Eustace Tilley. Meanwhile, with that mix of fascination and indifference she taught us to enjoy guilt-free, we await the regime of David Remnick, whom we already know we don’t envy. Anti-christs are hard acts to follow. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 21, 1998