May 24, 2024

Tina Brown Is Still Hungry for Buzz

Windows opening onto a large garden were shut to keep out the chill. Tina Brown, editor of the newly merged Newsweek and Daily Beast, was wearing a black cocktail dress and holding a wineglass filled with seltzer as she darted between CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo, the former White House budget director Peter Orszag, Willie Geist of “Morning Joe,” the former New York City Police commissioner Bill Bratton and Oprah’s best friend, Gayle King. As is not uncommon in preparation for Brown’s parties, that afternoon the room’s furniture was loaded into a truck, which was waiting, out of sight, for the last guests to leave before unloading its contents back into the apartment. Sir Harold Evans, Brown’s 82-year-old husband, has been known to joke with friends that he’d prefer to be in the truck, where he could circle the block in the comfort of his own home.

It was almost time for Brown to introduce her guest of honor when an earsplitting squawk of feedback erupted from an audio speaker. Brown swiveled, blue eyes narrowing, then dashed to the corner where Evans was crouched down cheerfully trying to get a microphone to work as assistants fluttered. The microphone business sorted out, Brown took the floor and introduced Schultz, who spoke for a few minutes. He handed the microphone back to Brown, who put it down to another molar-rattling blast of feedback.

In the 1980s and ’90s, the Tina Brown show was one of the biggest in town. Her unsentimental blond-ambition tour as editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker was perfectly tuned to the preoccupations of the age. Inhabiting a world of big personalities, Brown inflated her magazines with them. She even colonized an island with them: Liberty Island in New York Harbor, where one hot August night in 1999, 800 guests — including Henry Kissinger, Madonna, Robert De Niro, George Plimpton, Sarah Jessica Parker and Salman Rushdie — toasted Brown’s new magazine, Talk, as they munched on catered picnic dinners from Glorious Foods under 2,000 Japanese lanterns, the Statue of Liberty and a sky filled with fireworks.

In hindsight, the party recalls nothing so much as the upriver U.S.O. show in “Apocalypse Now,” minus the helicopters and Playmates. Talk magazine never reached such manic heights again, as it failed to become part of the New York-Beltway-L.A. conversation. Meanwhile, those big personalities of the ’80s and ’90s started to deflate like Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons. Before she could figure out a way to fit her publication to a changing culture, 9/11 flattened the New York economy, and the magazine was shut down. Any indulgence Brown may have expected from Talk’s owners — Hearst and Miramax — never came. “No big career doesn’t have one flameout in it, and there’s nobody more boring than the undefeated,” she said at the time. But she was stunned and crestfallen.

A decade later, at 57, Tina Brown — the woman who in the words of The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg “has been a celebrity since she was in college” — has a magazine again. While Newsweek is bruised and limping, it can still lay claim to a position on the main playing field of American journalism. But for how long? Last year it lost more than $20 million; its new partner, Brown’s three-year-old Web site, The Daily Beast, lost an estimated $10 million.

As her guests said goodbye, Brown and Evans looked eager to get their furniture back. Suddenly the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy wafted in, dressed in black and trailing a cloud of cologne and his mistress, Daphne Guinness, who was wearing a revealing black cat suit and heelless Alexander McQueen platform shoes. Lévy was fresh from Paris, where, he proceeded to tell Brown and a few stragglers, he had just single-handedly persuaded his old friend President Nicolas Sarkozy to go to war against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya. (A few days later, Steven Erlanger of The New York Times reported that this had, improbably enough, been the case.)

Lévy drained a glass of red wine and took off into the night with Guinness. Brown looked happy for the first time all evening.

“Talk was a very good magazine, it really was,” Brown said a few weeks before the party, sitting in The Daily Beast’s offices in the Frank Gehry-designed IAC building, that modernist melting-ice sculpture in Chelsea. “And I only realized how really good it was when I was preparing for Newsweek.” Brown says her original concept for Talk — a combination of The New Yorker, The Economist and Stern — was the right one. “It was just the wrong setup. Miramax wasn’t a publishing company, and Hearst was the wrong publisher. Actually I think it would have worked better as a weekly. And now I have a weekly.”

Soon Brown and her staff would be temporarily shoehorned into Newsweek’s offices downtown at 7 Hanover Square, while The Daily Beast’s offices were torn up and remade as a giant newsroom, with an in-house digital TV studio, to accommodate the merged Beast and Newsweek staffs in July.

“What I love about Newsweek, it’s truly a global magazine,” Brown continued. “People keep showing up — we discovered we have a Japanese correspondent! That’s kind of thrilling — there is a Japanese Newsweek, and there’s a very good Polish Newsweek, all these global editions, we have a great Moscow bureau chief. It’s thrilling to feel the global reach of Newsweek, because there are very few brands left that have that kind of traction. There’s the BBC, CNN, The New York Times, the Times of London, Time and Newsweek.”

Brown drives her staff at warp speed. “I’m up from 5 a.m., going online and sending BlackBerry messages out from then until I go to bed,” she said. “People get used to that. I like to have a structure of things that are in place, and then I constantly disrupt it with a new thing, an idea that’s just in the air.

Peter Stevenson ( is the former executive editor of The New York Observer. Editor: Dean Robinson (

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