Summer Reads: The Vanity Fair Diaries

Tina Brown’s dishy & diligent takedown of New York’s celebrity-soaked magazine world of the ‘80s.

Continuing our Summer Reads 2020 review series: Tina Brown’s deliciously vain memoir: The Vanity Fair Diaries, 1983-1992.

“I just had a drink with Warren Beatty at the Ritz-Carlton”

This whirlwind of a book is gossipy, glib, showy, and loads of fun. It’s like stepping into the excesses of the ’80s for the first time—or, if you were there, all over again. The editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair from 1984-92, Tina Brown (a.k.a. Lady Evans) turned this fading New York magazine into a glitzy game-changer and readers are along for the ride.

As a cocky young Brit, graduate of Oxford, and celebrated editor of London’s Tatler, Brown breezed into New York’s haughty magazine society and turned it on its end. She used glittery cover stars (Darryl Hannah, Demi Moore, Goldie Hawn), stylish photographers (Annie Leibowitz), wit-smart writers (Kevin Sessums, Nancy Collins), and tell-alls by the high-society set (Dominick “Nick” Dunne) to catch your eye at the newsstand and up circulation for the darling of Condé Nast.

“Her sharp, cutting, OMG! diary entries were written right then, at the end of the night, making readers feel as though they, too, have just stumbled out of the best party in New York in 1986.”

Brown’s diaries describe endless rounds of boozy lunches, black-tie dinners, and sparkly cocktail parties among stylish superstars such as Bianca Jagger, Nancy Regan, Calvin Kline, and, yes (groan) Donald Trump. Also in the mix: literary geniuses and political power brokers, plus royalty (more Princess Di), fashionistas (Diane von Furstenberg), and Wall Street kingpins with houses in the Hamptons, murders in their family histories, and mounting debt. Her sharp, cutting, OMG! diary entries were written right then, at the end of the night, making readers feel as though they, too, have just stumbled out of the best party in New York in 1986.

For Instance:

♦ “Just back from Henry Kissinger’s surprise sixty-first birthday party at the River House,” Brown breathlessly quips, “billed as knockout-knockwurst, which turned out to be bulbous Germanic sausages and sauerkraut.”

♦ “To get to this size,” she says of Arianna Huffington, “she must have lived on nothing but common wafers for a month”

♦ “What of the poor Princess of Wales?” the author asks of the icon she later wrote about in The Diana Chronicles, and grew to respect. “What Charles can’t stand is Diana’s total absence of intellectual curiosity and her obsession with clothes.”

And:

♦ “Boris Johnson is an epic shit and I hope he ends badly.”

But it’s Brown’s deft handling of Vanity Fair the magazine that’s most interesting. She took its helm just before it sank. With energy to burn, a sharp mind, and the tenacity of a tiger who hasn’t eaten for months, Brown not only steered Vanity Fair out of danger, she helped right the entire Condé Nast ship. As a lesson in how-to-run-a-magazine, Brown’s diaries are better than a MasterClass, or even Journalism 101.

Tina Brown‘s voice is bold, badass, vain, and sometimes grating—yes! (MuskokaStyle listened to the audio version, narrated by Brown herself). But she’s unapologetic, focused, razor-edge smart, and she never pulls a punch. The Vanity Fair Diaries, 1983-1992 is an engrossing, speedy summer read for anyone who loved (or loved to hate) the ’80s—power pumps and wide shoulder pads firmly in place.

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