Commentary: Tina Brown's Talk goes silent

By JUDY BACHRACH  |  Jan. 21, 2002 at 9:23 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 21 (UPI) -- Perhaps the most stunning remark to emerge from the death of Talk, the magazine Tina Brown conceived, shaped and ruined was uttered by the once redoubtable editor herself: "Nine-11 just put the whammy on us," she said.

There are many things for which one can blame Osama bin Laden, but it is hard to fault him for Talk, a magazine that fastidiously courted suicide with almost every issue. Perhaps Tina genuinely believes the Saudi-born terrorist wanted nothing more than to deep-six the career of Gwyneth Paltrow, Talk's favorite cover girl -- clad in scanty leather in the very first issue -- and not coincidentally, the darling of Harvey Weinstein, the co-chairman of Miramax films, which helped bankroll the magazine. However that explanation just won't fly. It was not bin Laden but Weinstein and his itchy corporate partner, Hearst, who pulled the plug on Talk last Friday after two bad years, having lost $55 million on the venture. This, in fact, was "the whammy" in the ICU. From its inception, Talk was little more than a fanzine devoted to the famished ambitions of its editor; its pages larded with praise for anyone whose good will Brown editor wished to secure: potential advertisers, media moguls with money to invest, the wife of a Rothschild, the daughter of a former president.

So on the whole, it can fairly be said that with or without Sept. 11, Talk would have passed away, and someone or another -- not Tina, you may be sure -- would have been blamed for the mess. As far back as December 2000, sources close to Hearst were claiming that the media company was desperate to get out of the deal. "Let's face it," said my source, "Tina has never been known for making money for anyone."

This last is only largely true, however. In 1984, Tina Brown, the timid daughter of a second-rate British movie producer, came to this country at the behest of Si Newhouse, the billionaire head of the Conde Nast empire. Her mission at age 30: to save Vanity Fair, a moribund publication, which was bleeding money -- $63 million in its early years. She was even then, despite her youth and tiny resume (she had edited Tatler, an English society magazine, tripling its circulation) a remarkable woman. She had a delicious sense of fun, good editing skills and an uncanny intuition about which subjects were about to grab headlines. Despite her shyness, she also had a gift for attracting expensive talent, the skill to market it and, more interestingly, herself. In this and other areas she was indefatigable, passionate and quite un-English.

In New York, she threw brilliant parties with spectacular guest lists, which set Newhouse back about $1 million a year, an exercise that made her the social arbiter of her day. Demi Moore, naked and pregnant, graced her covers, as did practically every other star she could think of. Vanity Fair writers -- among them, Norman Mailer, Gail Sheehy and Dominick Dunne -- became the most envied in the business, earning six-figure salaries and entrée into the best circles. Most important, Tina Brown shrewdly engineered what she called "The Mix": Madonna on the cover -- that was the candy -- but inside, slyly worked in, was substance: General Noriega, Claus von Bulow, Baby Doc Duvalier. Vanity Fair was gloss without the dross. That was its precious secret.

Like her husband, Harry Evans, a truly brave British newspaper editor in the '70s, Tina was good at spending other people's money. But unlike Harry, who eventually became the very extravagant president of Random House (where he paid almost $6 million for Marlon Brando's disastrous autobiography), Tina did so in a shrewd and purposeful way. Within two years, her magazine was a hit. Within seven, it was making money.

Alas, the gilded '80s gave way to more sober times. In 1992, when Newhouse picked Tina to lead the revered New Yorker back to prosperity and increased readership, she seemed an unlikely choice. Not because she didn't have the talent, but because she lacked the sensibilities to improve the magazine, while bringing it out of its torpor. Articles on spanking as a sexual practice, on President Clinton as a sex symbol (written by Tina), on dominatrixes -- these were, she honestly thought, her winning cards. Meanwhile the magazine was losing more than $10 million a year.

"Si Newhouse had his threshold and she crossed it," a Conde Nast executive told me.

So it isn't quite true, as everyone keeps saying, that Talk was Tina's single failure. It was simply her most unsalvageable one. Under the generous shade of the Conde Nast corporate umbrella, where millions are spent before prestigious publications turn profitable, she didn't have to watch her pennies. Weinstein, however, possesses a considerably less romantic soul, and the fact that Brown flew unhesitatingly into the arms of a tempestuous skinflint in the summer of 1998 indicated on her part a degree of desperation.

This desperation was what lay behind the frenzied bash thrown for the new magazine's launch on Liberty Island: Pierce Brosnan, Salman Rushdie, Madonna, Natasha Richardson were among the 1,500 ferried to the festivities. Greeting them, in a sparkling white Donna Karan gown was the hostess, outwardly impermeable, but inwardly, an imperiled star who needed instant resuscitation.

To that end everything and everyone was expendable. Gone was the sense of fun and adventure. Talk hoped to turn various articles into film hits for Weinstein -- but this idea, like so much else, never amounted to much: in part because Talk contracts neglected to pay much for such options. Top editors came and went, as did covers, projected articles and loyal staffers. Tina trusted no one and the result was chaos.

"You know how she is: use and abuse," remarked one after his departure. It is significant that Maer Roshan, her last editorial director, had no idea the magazine was about to close -- that last courtesy wasn't evidently extended to him -- until Matt Drudge, the gossip columnist, revealed it online.

Talk was, in the end, not simply a financial or critical failure, but a failure of nerve -- Tina's nerve. Gone was "The Mix." The magazine's most memorable coup -- an interview with Hillary Clinton on her faulty marriage -- was very nearly marred by Tina's insistence on inserting a few paragraphs comparing Hillary Clinton to, of all people, Princess Diana; it was only the loud protestations of the writer that prevented such claptrap. In these last years, Brown dispensed almost entirely with substance. She had lost faith in herself and her public. Her most significant disasters she ungallantly blamed on the press -- specifically on The New York Times. Her husband, Harry Evans, once a staunch champion of free speech, repeatedly threatened writers and publishers -- with unspecified legal actions -- specifically me and my publisher, when my biography of the couple was due to appear.

So if there is a final act in Tina's future, it will not be, I suspect, in an editorial capacity. She has lost that leadership knack, very likely, forever. For the moment, she remains at Talk Miramax Books, but as the triumphs of the division were mostly the work of its editor-in-chief, Jonathan Burnham, Tina is decidedly de trop over there.

Her choices are therefore limited. Hollywood, where rumors always have it that Tina will one day find refuge, does not generally roll out the welcome mat for flops. Britain, a country that stokes and appreciates failure, may for that very reason be an equally unwelcome milieu.

Nonetheless, one good option remains. Since she was 12, Tina has kept a diary. "My old-age insurance," she calls it. She is a fine, brittle chronicler of other people's foibles and it is almost certain that this talent will be put to use in her memoirs. I am told the bidding war has already begun. Tina has memories to mull, acid to churn, scores to settle. She will not resist the temptation.

Judy Bachrach's book on Tina Brown and Harry EVans, "Tina and Harry Come to America: Tina Brown, Harry Evans, and the Uses of Power," was published in July, 2001.

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