What The Vanity Fair Diaries Tell Us About 1980s New York City

My first read this March has been The Vanity Fair Diaries by prolific editor Tina Brown, former editor of Vanity Fair and then The New Yorker. Seeing as these are my two favorite magazines, I was so excited to read.

Brown kept regular diaries from 1983–1992. During this time, she moved from the Tatler in London to a hustling and bustling New York City, determined to revive Vanity Fair.

If you follow the entertainment industry as closely as I do, you know how that turned out. In this book, you can see how the decadence of anniversary parties, birthday bashes and seemingly daily formal dinners eventually turned into the post-Oscars bash we all love.

Brown more than doubled Vanity Fair’s circulation and took it from deep in the red to profitable in less than a decade. The parts of this book that stand out are truly editorial — how stories and famed covers were landed, Annie Leibovitz’s rise to Hollywood’s most prolific photographer, the behind the scenes of an extraordinary publishing company.

Who knew how soon issues had to be prepared to go to print before the digital age? (Almost two months!)

Reading Brown’s diaries from 30–40 years ago, I was struck by how many things were still topical in today’s society. Without spoilers, here are 5 that stood out:

“Particle People”

Towards the end of the book, Brown discusses the switch that companies need to make in the 90s. Separating themselves from the 80s decade, Brown wanted a cover that rocketed them into the 90s and defined what the new decade would look like. That turned into the infamous, nude, pregnant Demi Moore cover.

But that’s not all the 90s were about. Years before the Y2K fear, and years before even I was born, concerns about how new technology would impact humanity were rampant. In a Vanity Fair essay, one of Brown’s top writers wrote about the concern of what he called “Particle People.”

Knowing how the digital age turned out, I find the following quote quite entertaining:

“…Particle People, which we’re all becoming — splintered apart by the inequity of wealth, by the seventies counterculture before it, the youth boom, the changing demographics, isolated by our camcorders and fax machines and home computer modems on the desk.” [Page 363]

That quote sounds like the simple times to me! I’m sure my parents would love to go back to having whatever “home computer modems” are strictly limited to being on a desk.

Donald Trump has always been Donald Trump.

Surprising absolutely no one, the above statement is true. Having both been in the same circles throughout the 80s, Brown had many run-ins with Trump, making it clear that she is just as appalled by his presidency as many of us.

In fact, given the timeline, the diaries cover his relationships with Ivana and Marla Maples, and how the New York scene perceived both.

I do have to say that continuous mentions of Trump were one of the more disappointing parts of the books. Considering the diaries were published in 2017, shortly after Trump’s election, one does have to wonder if entries containing his name were brought up more than they were originally going to be mentioned. I truly don’t know if passages were cut or if this is a collection of every entry Brown wrote, but Trump’s influence in NYC in the 80s is not underscored.

While I laughed — mostly in horror — at many of the Trump stories, I particularly liked this one:

“Marie [Brenner] has been able to establish such a pattern of lying and loudmouthing in Trump that it’s incredible he still prospers and gets banks to loan him money. Great quote where his brother says Donald was the kid who threw cake at the birthday party… The revelation that he has a collection of Hitler’s speeches at the office is going to make a lot of news.”

That was written in July of 1990. 30 years later… is anyone surprised?

Maternity Leave

Brown was only in her early 20s when she revived Tatler in London, so it’s not surprising that as a married woman, she was hoping to have children during her years at Vanity Fair, when she was mid-20s to mid-30s.

But how would an up and coming magazine in the midst of a full makeover and revival manage with a female, pregnant editor?

Brown wound up having two children during her editorship, but it’s the way her boss, Si Newhouse, reacts to her first pregnancy that really blew me away. He teared up!

Everyone was so thrilled for her. And while she took a short maternity leave and still continued to work as she could, the entire office’s joy at her pregnancy was something I wished were automatic some 30 odd years later!

Anna Wintour

The Vanity Fair Diaries also cover Anna Wintour’s rise to fame within the magazine industry. Second in charge at Vogue, then moving to London, then becoming editor of Home and Garden (HG) before taking the helm at Vogue, Wintour’s character is almost more fully developed in these diaries than we know her in modern day!

There is talk in the diaries about how the publishing world often pitted the two against each other, but they were actually great friends. It’s admirable to see how two women who were reviving two competitive magazines under the same masthead, Conde Nast, were friends and not foes.

Although Wintour has clearly become more of a prolific character than Brown, it’s fun to see the bond they shared. Brown was an ardent supporter of Wintour, and one of my favorite anecdotes of the two of them is when they co-hosted a dinner, found out they had hair appointments prior to the dinner at the same salon, and spent the appointments putting the finishing touches on the evening.

And, even back then, the bob was still iconic!

The AIDs crisis, live

Perhaps the saddest aspect of the book is the prevalence of the AIDs crisis. In many ways, it played out live throughout the diaries.

Especially starting in the mid-80s, it seemed that every few months there was another peer of Brown’s who passed away due to the disease. Her concern over many of her friends and colleagues was apparent, as was her heartbreak at many of these losses.

When planning the famous Vanity Fair fifth-anniversary bash, Brown became close with both her fashion designer for the evening, and the party planner. A few years later, both passed away from the disease. It was not unexpected as a reader, but nonetheless devastating.

It’s hard to become attached to characters in a book as long as this, and then to have them die — knowing they were real people is even worse than a novel.

Another aspect to this is how many gay men were in the publishing industry, and how it was an open secret. They were still loved, adored even, by their colleagues. Yet many of their funerals and obituaries never mentioned the disease. It was always a side effect of AIDs that killed them, never the disease itself.

It made me even more grateful for the modern day acceptance of homosexuality, but cognizant of the fact that we have a long way to go.

Whether interested in Hollywood, publishing, 1980s life, or badass female bosses who try and struggle to have/balance it all, The Vanity Fair Diaries is a book that will resonate with young and old readers.

4 out of 5 stars.

Red Hot Reads | © 2023 by Scarlet Marie

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