Tina Brown’s new book, The Diana Chronicles, documents not only the life and death of England’s most beloved royal but also the evolution of celebrity culture itself.
August 31st will be the 10th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana. It will be marked, in part, by a slew of new books on Di hitting stores. But the one that has created the most buzz is The Diana Chronicles by Tina Brown (Doubleday, $27.50). The British-born magazine editor ran Tatler before taking over a moribund Vanity Fair, increasing its monthly circulation from an anemic 200,000 to more than one million. (Among other triumphs, Tina was the one who put a naked, seven-months-pregnant Demi Moore on the cover-an iconic image that has been copied dozens of times since, but never as well.) Then, after making Vanity Fair the hot mag of the moment, she took control of the venerable New Yorker. Founded in 1925 and an institution of literary achievement, it nevertheless was foundering by the early 1990s. Tina turned the magazine around, making it readable, lively and timely, and in the process took its circulation from a weekly 175,000 to 1.1 million, the largest increase in magazine history. During her time at Conde Nast, Tina cultivated writers who went on to luminous careers, including Dominick Dunne, Jeffrey Toobin, Lawrence Wright, Connie Bruck, Maureen Orth, Sidney Blumenthal,
Ken Auletta and Adam Gopnik, and also tapped into established authors such as John Updike and Norman Mailer. (David Remnick, one of her early writers at The New Yorker, now runs that magazine.) And Tina also knew how to corral the best photographers, from Annie Leibovitz to
Herb Ritts and Helmut Newton.
In August 1999, with partners Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the owners of Miramax Films, she launched her own magazine, Talk, a general interest monthly. My husband, Gerald, had written for Tina at Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Now he had a broad investigative article on the death of Princess Di for Talk’s premiere issue. And we were both there when the magazine had its opulent launch party – a multimillion-dollar extravaganza for which Tina took over Liberty Island-loaded with celebrities, politicians, business tycoons and literary giants. The fireworks display rivaled New York’s annual Fourth of July spectacle.
When the Weinsteins pulled the plug on Talk after two years of enormous distribution but no profits, Tina went on to host her own CNBC talk show before taking a leave of absence to write The Diana Chronicles, for which she received a seven-figure advance. Ocean Drive is one of a small handful of publications that had an advance peek at the book before it was published last month.
Tina was in South Beach recently, and Gerald and I joined her for dinner. We were surprised to learn the woman-who was awarded CBE (Commander of the British Empire) from the Queen of England and is married to the legendary newspaper and book editor Sir Harold Evans-had never been to Miami. She was in for a weekend visit with her 21-year-old son, George, and staying at the Delano, the hotel that had been owned by her very close friend Ian Schrager. But then it seems everyone is a close Tina friend. When former British Prime Minister Tony Blair visits New York, he stops at Tina and Harry’s East Side home for dinner. Bill Clinton stops by for drinks. Norman Mailer takes the kids out for a play day.
So, between lots of sushi, sake and wine, we had a chance to catch up with what is happening in Tina’s world, aside from the fact that she looked as great as when we saw her a few years ago (she has always been a mix of Princess Di and Diane Sawyer, and with a super brain to go with it). Our wide-ranging conversation covered everything from her book to what was new in her life to our celebrity- obsessed culture. She is never without a strong opinion: Her willful nature got her expelled-”for insubordination,” as she calls it-from three English boarding schools before she finally settled in at Oxford. And we also learned some new personal info.
Her father was a prominent figure in the British film industry, producing the first Agatha Christie mystery films (he had briefly been the first husband of actress Maureen O’Hara). And Tina’s mother was the personal assistant to actor Laurence Olivier before becoming a hugely successful columnist-”she was the Maureen Dowd of her generation,” says Tina.
And while few people think of Tina as anything other than an iconic editor, early in her career she was an award-winning journalist who worked at both The Times of London and the Telegraph, and had a regular column at Punch, the esteemed magazine of humor and satire. Now her career had seemed to come full circle, as she returned to her writing and journalistic skills with her Princess Di book.
“The favorite part of the book for me was reporting, I just love that,” she told us at China Grill. “I always loved it and missed it enormously as an editor. I love going down a rabbit hole and into that tunnel, having it take you somewhere you didn’t expect. Once I got into the real swing of it, and found my voice, then I was excited. It took about three months until I felt it was right.”
Why Diana, I asked her? “Well, I had all this material since I was at Tatler, the 10th anniversary was coming up, and everyone has two or three books they want to do, and it was now or never to do this one. I also liked the idea of exploring London society and how it crossed with celebrities. It’s as much about celebrity culture as it is about Diana herself.”
Was the book more difficult than expected? “I did enjoy some of the writing, and about halfway through, you realize there is a real book there and you just want to finish it. Harry and I stayed in Quogue [their country home on Long Island) and declined every invitation from October to January. You can't even go for a drink. I didn't get dressed for three months."
So what about Diana herself? Tina had once said that when she initially met Di for lunch she thought the Princess was a little too tall and a tad too blonde. Although she was far too kind to say so, those of us who knew Tina gained the distinct impression that she thought Di clever and calculating, but not the brightest bulb on the chandelier.
"Actually, I've finished this book liking her a lot more than I expected to," Tina told me. "She was a deeply flawed individual, but what she was up against was so much more formidable, and she got an extremely bad deal from the royal family. But she would not back off. I really came to admire her very much. She refused to go under and decided instead to fight. At times, she could be melodramatic or immature and she fought with whatever weapons she had, and those were her image and the media. She became a really quite important figure in the end."
Diana came from an aristocratic family and knew the rules of the game, even though she was only 20 when she married the British heir to the throne, Prince Charles.
"The royals completely underestimated her, in part because she had an academic transcript the size of a postage stamp," said Tina. "But she had a tremendous media savvy, and street smarts. She learned so fast how to make the media work for her."
Many of us related to Princess Di precisely because she wasn't perfect. She complained about her loveless marriage in a BBC television interview, an airing of royal dirt that was considered scandalous at the time. She had affairs with everyone from an army officer to an Indian doctor. She suffered from bulimia. Diana might have been set to become the next Queen of England, but she was battling her own demons. Still, at the same time, she was the first royal to hold an AIDS baby, she went to Africa to help fight leprosy, and she made the removal of land mines her own personal campaign. That sense of compassion made her far more than a stick figure in a diamond tiara.
"She had a unique gift for connection," Tina told me. "On a global screen it was magnified. It was like the Pope's. But she was also in many ways a girl who was always going to be a fragile thoroughbred. If she had not married into the royal family, she would have had a house in the country, a flat in London, two kids, a life just like her sisters."
It seemed to me that much of the problem in the Di and Charles marriage was that they had not married for love, but rather because Di could pass the elitist society standards set by the royals and also be a virgin capable of producing an heir to the throne.
"No, Trisha, I don't actually think that is right," Tina said. 'They shouldn't marry for love. The best thing someone like Prince William can do is to marry a simple plain duchess. If you are pretty, you are like Di, and that is the problem that came up with Kate Middleton [William's last girlfriend]. She was a pinup royal. It is the pressure of our celebrity culture. She couldn’t take it, it was frightening for her. This type of pressure can make you go off the wall-look at what happened to Lindsay Lohan.”
From Tina’s research, it was only near the end of Di’s life that she realized how much Charles actually meant to her. “She would have gone back to Charles in a heartbeat,” said Tina, “if he had wanted her. She finally came to understand her role. If he had met her at 30, she might have even been able to deal with the Camilla thing.” And Charles thought Di was a wonderful mother, even though they had little in common. She had zero interest in pheasant hunting or his organic gardening, and he hated the limelight and the paparazzi-packed openings that she relished.
“She did not want to blow up the monarchy,” Tina said. “She did not want a republic, and she very much wanted William-who is as traditional as his father-to one day be king. She would not have been happy that William and Harry are out boozing every night. I mean, that’s how they lived during Henry VIII. She would have put a stop to that. In the end, William is his father’s son: He is a Windsor, and not a Spencer.”
So The Diana Chronicles is on its way to being a major best seller (note: when it was published it spent several months on the New York Times bestseller list). What is next for the iconic editor and writer? Another book?
“I would want to start up a national magazine,” she said, ” but it takes five years, a tremendously hazardous business unless you have enormous big- company backing. The media is so relentless about profits and making them fast. I am a great believer in magazines, but there is no magazine I want to edit right now. I would if there was one, but not one I see.”
Tina’s obviously an ambitious woman, but her family is as central to her life as her career. “I cannot imagine a better husband than Harry,” she told me. She met him while free-lancing for the London Times’ style section when he was the paper’s editor.
“Not every man wants a woman so strong,” she said, “but he doesn’t feel any threat. He loves strong women, and he is not worried about his ego being challenged. I can completely focus because Harry is always there, and he is a huge mentor, a great critic-and he was fantastic on my book. He gives me tremendous confidence. My two children also play a great role, huge, a great thread. My daughter and I are best friends.”
Tina stared away for a moment. Normally she is rapid-fire with her answers. “I’m thinking about what you asked,” she said, “about what’s next. My skill sets don’t have to be print. I would just like one crack at running something that would bring me together with all the great talent that I have access to-so many things I want to do and say. Another venture could be TV or movies, or producing good plays.”
Run a Hollywood studio? “Sure, I’d be open to anything creative.”
Then, just as fast as she touched on her dream careers, she was back to The Diana Chronicles. “It is more than just a book about Diana; it’s also a book about England in the ’80s and ’90s. Celebrity culture has only gotten bigger. Electronic convergence creates a perfect storm-it makes fast careers, people going up very quickly and then down very fast. This is the story of all of it.”