Jumping onto journalism's fast track in 1974, British-born Tina Brown (Christina Hambly Brown, born 1953) transformed the English magazine Tatler, then the U.S. magazines Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, using controversial topics and challenging images. Her editorial rabbit punches knocked all three magazines into top-seller realm by boosting circulation, ad revenues, and reader interest.
Assuming the post of editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair magazine in 1984, Tina Brown, formerly with Britain's Tatler, delighted both skeptics and devotees. Vanity Fair, an art and literary magazine popular before World War II, had been reintroduced in 1983 by publisher S.I. Newhouse, Jr., but suffered from weak editorial focus and limp enthusiasm among media critics. As editor, Brown employed a saucy cleverness to both tighten that focus and rouse apathetic critics.
Born in Maidenhead, England, on November 21, 1953, Christina Hambly Brown and her brother, Christopher, were raised by George Hambly Brown and Bettina (Kohr) Brown in Little Marlow, Buckinghamshire. Her film-producer father and her mother (once a press agent for Sir Laurence Olivier) gave Tina not only a loving, comfortable, upper-middle-class home, but the inevitable excitement deriving from close association with the film community. Brown later enjoyed the full range of experience provided by a boarding school education. Attractive, articulate, and intelligent, she was also a known cut-up and quite mischievous on occasion.
While yet in college, Brown won the 1973 drama award given by the (London) Sunday Times for her play Under the Bamboo Tree. In 1974 she graduated from St. Anne's, Oxford, and soon thereafter landed various assignments with the Times, Punch, the Sunday Telegraph, and the New Statesman on numerous topics focusing on the United States. Brown's sharp, witty prose garnered her the Young Journalist of the Year Award given in 1978 by Punch, where she was for several years a columnist. In 1978 Brown became the housemate of Times editor Harold Evans, whom she subsequently married on August 20, 1981. They had two children, a son born in 1986 and a daughter born in 1990.
In 1979 Brown took the reins of the Tatler, a venerable British publication founded in 1709. Her choice as editor was a gamble on the part of Gary Bogard, the moribund magazine's new owner. Interjecting new life into Tatler was a challenge to which Brown was more than equal; as she noted at the time, one of her goals was to achieve "irreverence" in treating certain topics, including the British monarchy, formerly sacred among readers. That this was just the approach needed to expand Tatler's readership was only a hunch, but one that paid off handsomely.
Brown's adroit blend of elegant sass, tongue-in-cheek primness, and cutting-edge intelligence saw Tatler quadruple its circulation in four years. More important, it ensured the magazine's appeal. Millionaire publisher S.I. Newhouse, Jr., decided to buy the wildly successful Tatler in 1982. The following year Brown left as editor, but returned to Newhouse several months later as an editorial adviser to the faltering Vanity Fair.
Asked to enhance the flavor of a magazine others had failed to make palatable, Brown served forth a publication that not only bespoke good taste, but whetted the reader's appetite for more. As a result, in January 1984 Brown was named Vanity Fair's editor-in-chief, replacing Leo Lerman. It took over a year for her influence to take effect, but money eventually poured in from advertisers and subscribers alike. In 1986 the magazine was cited as "hottest" by the trade journal Adweek; in 1988 Brown was named Editor of the Year by Advertising Age.
Thanks to Brown, Vanity Fair threw off its stodgy image by covering, courting, and occasionally excoriating celebrities, in much the same way that Tatler had done earlier. Some decisions, such as the 1991 cover choice of nude and pregnant actress Demi Moore, were predictably controversial. But it was Brown's use of the unexpected and the titillating that boosted Vanity Fair's readership to one million, reversed drooping ad sales, and promoted Brown to virtual celebrity stardom.
Precisely because of their profitability, her strategies were destined to leave Vanity Fair; another Newhouse publication, The New Yorker, was ailing and needed assistance. Despite the editorial expertise of Robert Gottlieb, whom S.I. Newhouse had put in charge in 1987, The New Yorker was in trouble. To salvage a $147 million investment, Newhouse switched editors again. In an outrageous gamble, in July 1992 he announced Gottlieb's resignation and named Tina Brown as The New Yorker editor. He later shifted Graydon Carter (founder of Spy, another Newhouse publication) into place as head of Vanity Fair.
These announcements scandalized and angered The New Yorker faithful. Although Brown won admiration for reviving flagging sales of once-healthy magazines, few believed she had the skills to succeed as The New Yorker editor, and many felt her previous triumphs were due to lack of discrimination among Tatler and Vanity Fair readers.
The transition from Vanity Fair to The New Yorker was not an easy one for Brown, which was evident in her emotional good-bye to Vanity Fair staff. Also, some said she worried about being unwelcome at The New Yorker. Commenting with scrupulous care about editorial changes, Brown used such terms as "irreverent" and "more timely" to signal her intentions. She denied, though, any desire to promulgate a wholesale transformation of what remained (despite the previously unheard-of use of color on editorial pages) America's most exalted, highly respected literary magazine.
The New Yorker continues to draw attention, mainly due to Brown's pannache for drawing it. In 1995 Brown shocked the writing world by inviting Roseanne, the controversial television star, to contribute to the issue on American women.
Various articles and interviews detail Tina Brown's meteoric rise as magazine editor par excellence. These articles can be found in The American Spectator (December 1992); Newsweek (October 26 and July 13, 1992; September 18, 1995); TIME (July 13, 1992); New York (July 20, 1992); and Newsweek (May 1, 1989). □