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  • Talk's interview with Hillary Rodham Clinton adds to the buzz.

    A Tale of Two New Yorkers

    By Howard Kurtz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, August 2, 1999; Page C1


    "Talk" magazine hopes to reach a hip, well-educated audience across the country. (AP)
    NEW YORK—Tina Brown can barely contain bubbly enthusiasm.

    "I love this piece to death," she says of a story about a Virginia trailer park.

    "This is really a scream," she says of a photo spread of a scantily clad Gwyneth Paltrow in the style of "Barbarella."

    "I love that picture, it's so sexy somehow, the big hands," she says of a photo of President Clinton's fingers embracing Hillary.

    Brown is in a 56th-floor office in the Carnegie Hall Tower, thumbing through the debut issue of Talk, the much-ballyhooed magazine that she is determined to turn into a prime topic of media chatter. Outside her window, beyond the vast expanse of skyscrapers, gleams the Statue of Liberty, where tonight she will hold a glittery launch party for 800 of her closest friends.

    Sixteen blocks away, in Brown's old office at the New Yorker, David Remnick is practicing what might be called the cult of non-celebrity. Remnick is casual, laid-back, cerebral. One of his first edicts upon taking over a year ago was to drop the small photos that ran with brief blurbs on his writers--the very people Brown tried to transform into stars.

    "You were seeing the same mugs over and over again," Remnick says with a shrug.

    It is unfair, of course, to judge Remnick by Brown's flamboyant, controversial tenure at the New Yorker, any more than Talk should be measured by the weighty historical reputation of her last place of employment. Talk is a different animal, owned in part by a Hollywood studio and founded on the 21st-century notion that writers can be brought under one roof for articles, books and film deals.

    But the media have a compulsion for reducing everything to its sound-bite essence. People forget that Brown, the bratty Brit who hung out with the likes of Princess Diana, published serious foreign policy pieces and sharp political commentary in the New Yorker. Instead, her flirtation with the outlandish has become her legacy: the photo spread on Kato Kaelin, the jarring piece on a dominatrix, the issue guest-edited by Roseanne. Remnick, by contrast, is seen as a sober, New York Review of Books type, typecast more for his twin tomes on Russia than his book on Muhammad Ali or his profile of Howard Stern.

    Does any of this matter? Talk has gotten more publicity in the past few weeks than the New Yorker has in a year, mainly because Brown radiates excitement. Remnick's New Yorker remains a stellar, often exceptional publication. But it's harder to convey in a sentence or slogan.

    Brown graciously pronounces Remnick's New Yorker "terrific," while sounding a trifle tired of her glitzy reputation: "I'm kind of resigned to the fact that the press invents a narrative for you and you live inside it for the next 20 years. David gets characterized as this tweedy dullard who doesn't have lunch anywhere interesting. It's totally ridiculous. It's just the blood sport of the times."

    Says Remnick: "In the same way a press bubble will hammer on one editor for buzz, the next editor will get hammered for, I don't know, less buzz or less celebrity. It's just silly after a while. What people want is a great magazine, period."

    Star Power

    Tina Brown has been crashing for weeks.

    "I said to Harry, 'I should just come to work in my pajamas,' " she recalls telling her husband, journalist Harry Evans. When she escaped the office for lunch one day, "I felt like somebody who had been in a cave, like a bat. Just brain-dead."

    For all her showmanship--even in a simple cream dress, bare legs and pink toenails, she looks like a star--grant Brown this: She has created a magazine that looks and feels like an original.

    From its smaller, European size to its creative mix of illustration and photography to a topography ranging from death in Rwanda to the musings of the "resident fat guy," Talk stretches the usual magazine mold. Or, perhaps, revives the musty mold of Life, Look and the Saturday Evening Post: a general-interest magazine in an era of niche publishing.

    "I think we're going to have a pretty good-size success on our hands," boasts Publisher Ron Galotti, who is launching with a 500,000 press run (1 million for the premiere) but sees a target of 750,000, with two-thirds of the total in newsstand sales. He hopes the monthly will turn a profit within three years.

    Talk may surprise some Brown-watchers. Instead of larding the staff with big-name writers, she has hired mainly young, on-the-make types from the New York Press, Washington City Paper, Legal Times and New York Observer.

    The magazine, owned by Hearst and Disney's Miramax Films, is powered in part by corporate synergy. British author Martin Amis, for instance, has signed on to write a screenplay, three books and pieces for Talk. It's surely no accident that Paltrow, who shares cover billing with Hillary Rodham Clinton, starred in Miramax's "Shakespeare in Love."

    Yet Brown, who famously put a naked, pregnant Demi Moore on Vanity Fair's cover, insists that Talk will avoid buffing the images of Hollywood hotshots. "The tyranny of which celebrity you're going to negotiate to have when the movie opens is an incredibly dull tyranny," she says between sips of Diet Coke. "One wants that glamour--attractive, fun, exciting--but by and large the magazine is not that."

    The chief celebrity, of course, is Brown, 45, who touts the magazine in a rap-like video appearing on some Miramax films. She reaped millions of dollars' worth of publicity by letting it be known that her first cover subject would be the first lady, prompting New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to brand Talk's launch party "political" and boot Brown from the city-owned Brooklyn Navy Yard. The press went wild, and Brown simply moved the bash--Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Seinfeld and Madonna are on the A-list--to Liberty Island.

    Why the grand gala? "You have to create a big window of interest," she says. "And hope you've delivered a good magazine, or people won't come back."

    Some see a certain coziness toward the Clintons. The Hillary profile was done by Lucinda Franks, the wife of a Democratic prosecutor in Manhattan. Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein is a Hillary fund-raiser. Brown has hired former Clintonite George Stephanopoulos as a contributor. And Brown herself once gushed over the president in the New Yorker after a state dinner ("his height, his sleekness, his newly cropped, iron-filing hair, and the intensity of his blue eyes").

    Franks, who first met Clinton socially on Martha's Vineyard, said there was "definitely no connection" between the interviews and her husband, Robert Morgenthau, who also met Clinton during those vacations. After five months, Franks says, "I guess I finally wore her down."

    Besides, says Brown, any editor in America would love to have the "very intimate piece about Hillary Clinton. She's not talked until now about her feelings about her marriage."

    Brown cares deeply about design, saying the "only clear passion" in her original concept was old-fashioned rotogravure printing, "big, strong photographs" that are "allowed to breathe," and a marriage of short, newsy items with evocative features. There's a "Talk of the Town"-style section ("The Conversation"), tiny "Pocket Fashion" tips (dig those $745 suede boots), offbeat columns like "The Brainiac" and "Image Rehab," all designed to provide "instant gratification" in the first few pages. Bringing up the rear: a horoscope. ("Sorry, I'm a horoscope junkie. I'm sure you disapprove.")

    In between are a Tom Stoppard memoir about growing up Jewish; a first-person account by Richard Butler, the former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq; a last-minute Peter Beard photo spread on JFK Jr. as a child; and a piece on stay-at-home wife Lorna Wendt, who won a $20-million divorce settlement from her corporate executive husband. "It's the 'First Wives Club,' " says Brown. "These no-responsibility divorces have been great for guys. And women," she says, wiping her hands, "are just dumped."

    The writing features such leads as: "My new neighbor is naked except for shorts and a four-foot-long python around his thick, hairy neck." Brown says she's looking for "fresh and intimate" voices. When one editor, Jonathan Mahler, brought in a doctor, Brown asked if he kept a diary. He said yes, which led to his first-person account of emergency room life (which, with its perfect dialogue, reads as if it's been operated on by a script doctor).

    Some recruits have marquee value. Stephanopoulos says Brown sold him on the idea of interviewing major figures during breakfast at Manhattan's Brooklyn Diner. "She wanted to do something new, a combination of a bunch of different magazines, serious talk and fun stuff," Stephanopoulos says. "It sounded appealing."

    One high-profile Talk defector is Walter Kirn, who recently dropped his contract. "I kept receiving celebrity profile assignments, which I felt didn't play to my strengths as a writer," Kirn told the New York Daily News.

    But the Weekly Standard's Tucker Carlson, who just profiled George W. Bush, couldn't be more upbeat. "Tina Brown just called me and said let's have breakfast," he says. "I was completely taken with her. She was straightforward and charming. There was nothing flighty or dippy about her. She rattled off about 20 stories that I thought would be interesting."

    Brown has kept an unusually low profile until the past week, adding to the venture's mystique. "High expectations scare me very much," she says. "That's why I didn't do the interviews. I didn't want hype. I think hype's dangerous."

    Light Under a Barrel?

    When David Remnick was heading to the wedding of Bill Keller, the New York Times managing editor, friends suggested that he use the car service always available to a man in his lofty position. Remnick was mortified by the idea and insisted on taking a cab--only to run into a sea of limousines at the reception.

    "Don't be Jimmy Carter," editor Susan Morrison once told Remnick, who now takes the car service to work.

    If Tina Brown is the Queen of Buzz, Remnick has positioned himself as the Sultan of Substance. He has expanded the New Yorker's pages of cultural criticism, at a cost of $3 million a year. He has hired such accomplished authors as Pete Hamill and Nicholas Lemann, and raided the Times for foreign correspondent Michael Specter and local political writer Elizabeth Kolbert.

    Remnick, 40, has published plenty of serious works--Richard Preston on the growing smallpox threat, Philip Gourevitch on Rwanda, Joan Didion on Hemingway's unpublished novel, Seymour Hersh on Saddam Hussein's search for nuclear weapons. But he's also dealt with the lighter side of life--David Halberstam on Michael Jordan, John Lahr on Bob Hope, Mimi Swartz on "Rugrats"-- while expanding "Talk of the Town" and adding a back-page cartoon.

    "It's fair to say you'll see more popular culture in with the high culture, because I like it," Remnick says, mentioning baseball and rock music. He says he's "heightening the New Yorkness of the magazine." He boasts of a recent piece on a Manhattan junk collector. And while the New Yorker didn't win, he's proud of its unprecedented eight nominations for National Magazine Awards.

    "That ain't chopped liver," Remnick says.

    There have been lapses; even some insiders admit the political coverage has been spotty. In the issues before and after Clinton was impeached, the New Yorker ran a grand total of two "Talk of the Town" items, one of them by Remnick.

    Ask Remnick what he's doing less of and he fumbles a bit. It's quickly apparent that he doesn't want to say anything that could be construed as criticizing Brown, who hired him when he was a Washington Post reporter. They had breakfast a couple of months ago, and she sent a note when his third child was born. And while Brown has picked off four New Yorker staffers, there has been no full-scale raid.

    "In some areas I'll be competing with other magazines, including Tina's," Remnick says, working on a Diet Coke in his West 43rd Street office. "But frankly, I don't see any need for hostile competition."

    He's just come from his weekly Greenwich Village lunch with Si Newhouse, who reads the magazine cover to cover, like a book, but doesn't dictate its content. "He has an art collection and doesn't like television," Remnick says. "I don't have an art collection, and watch TV. I think I'm more typical." As a boss, most staffers agree, Remnick is a prince. He knows the names of all the fact-checkers. He's up late reading manuscripts every night, after his young children have gone to bed, firing off e-mail at 1 a.m.

    While Brown axed 70 people at the New Yorker and brought in 38--including several stars and her publicist from Vanity Fair--Remnick has largely stayed with the existing team. It's "tricky," he concedes, because many of his colleagues are good friends. He's also abandoned Brown's practice of ripping up the magazine at the last moment.

    Writer Ken Auletta, who's been covering the Microsoft antitrust trial, told Remnick he was concerned that he hadn't yet produced anything.

    "Ken, think of me as Mr. Shawn," Remnick replied, referring to legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn. "I want to invest in doing a definitive piece."

    Still, there is a hint of defensiveness when his colleagues talk about Remnick.

    "It isn't all that different from Tina's New Yorker," says political columnist Joe Klein. "I don't think that makes for a bad story line. There are a lot of people who could have screwed it up."

    "Tina's great strength and weakness was that she was a diva, and it was an exciting, tumultuous environment here," says writer Jeffrey Toobin. "David is much more even-keeled."

    Under the cloak of anonymity, frustration bubbles to the surface. Some staffers say Remnick's editorial mix can be "esoteric," "off the news," "an awful lot of earnest seriousness."

    "David is a little weak on the buzz factor," one says. "He has to get over this feeling that to be an intellectual you can't do these other things."

    "The magazine has been quiet from a public relations standpoint," says another. "David has to prove he's smart about this stuff. There's some feeling inside that he has to think more about that and not just run a refined literary magazine."

    Brown ran television ads touting her editorship; the New Yorker's direct-mail pitches don't even mention Remnick.

    Not everyone is enamored of Remnick's style. While he's "frighteningly charming," one staffer says, Remnick "can be quite impatient" with writers reworking their pieces. Others say that Remnick's continued output--he's written 10 pieces and items, including an 11-page opus on the Metropolitan Opera--is "a slap in the face to the staff," as one put it, suggesting that he can run the magazine with one hand.

    Still, most consider themselves lucky to work there. "To me it's the classic New Yorker as we all remember it but not as it really was," says editor Jeffrey Frank. "It's a much more American magazine now, no question about it. The place feels sort of energized."

    Energized or not, the magazine continues to lose more than $10 million a year. Circulation has been flat at 813,000, and advertising for the first half of 1999 dropped nearly 5 percent compared with last year (with one fewer issue). Friends say Remnick worries that he'll be remembered as a smart fellow who just couldn't put his finger in the dike.

    Lately, though, he's shown that Brown isn't the only editor who can generate cover fireworks. Remnick was pleased by a New Yorker cover portraying Hillary Clinton as a Central Park tourist with Rudy Giuliani as a menacing mugger behind her. And he was happy with an earlier Art Spiegelman cover--depicting New York's finest taking target practice at civilian-like figures--that sparked a police protest outside the magazine. Maybe, just maybe, he is learning a bit about the buzz machine.

    "I can't imitate, don't want to imitate Tina," Remnick says. "I am who I am. This is not vis-a-vis Tina, but it's not my thing to entertain like crazy."

    He has, however, flown to Milan to meet with Armani people and other fashion designers--a fact he sheepishly confirmed, though it's perfectly normal behavior for a magazine editor. And instead of Tina-style Oscar parties in L.A., Remnick has hosted gatherings at which he's chatted up Robert Rubin and Mike McCurry, selling the substance with far less sizzle.

    "I think it's foolhardy to dumb it down in any way," Remnick says. "The magazine is an ineffable combination of laughter and insight and description of the world. To squander that would be the ultimate--God, it'd be horrible."


    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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