Tina Brown, who reached the heights of magazine stardom with Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, has tumbled into her first, very public, failure.
Talk magazine, which Brown launched 2 1/2 years ago in a blaze of hyperbole and star-studded promotion, is folding. The abrupt ending yesterday was so chaotic that Internet gossip Matt Drudge got the news hours before the magazine's staffers did.
Both Brown and Publisher Ron Galotti broke into tears when giving the staff the news. "It's really very sad," Brown said by telephone an hour after the 5 p.m. announcement. "Editorially, the magazine has never been stronger. We've got so much harmony, enthusiasm and spirit. To have to do this now seems like a terrible evolution. We finally got it really good and really right. We've really fought a great fight."
Brown blamed the shutdown on the terrorist attacks that exacerbated a recession in the magazine business.
"We could not defeat 9-11," she said. "That was one thing that made it completely impossible. It was one of those things that came out of the blue and that nobody can plan for."
Galotti told the staff it was like the breakup of a family -- more than 100 people are losing their jobs -- but that remembering the World Trade Center tragedy should keep things in perspective.
There was a gasp in the room, participants say, when Hearst Magazines President Cathleen Black said that Talk would not put out its next issue, which was two days from being sent to the printers.
Backed by Miramax movie money, the Hearst publishing empire, Brown's celebrity connections and a Statue of Liberty launch party featuring the likes of Madonna, Paul Newman and Lauren Bacall, Talk was the magazine that Brown and Galotti would conjure up out of thin air and media glitter.
But as editors and reporters quit, pieces were spiked, redesigns were ordered and the gossip turned negative, no one was quite sure just what Talk was. Contributors such as George Stephanopoulos and Tucker Carlson came and went.
"One of the mysteries in New York publishing and magazine publishing everywhere is what happened to Talk," said Ken Auletta, media writer for the New Yorker, who worked for Brown when she ran that magazine. "As someone who admires her, she hasn't gotten a distinctive voice at Talk. It is not that Tina Brown is overrated or was not talented. But people strike out. Even good editors strike out."
One New York media executive was harsher: "There was no reason for that magazine. There was not a memorable piece in the history of that magazine."
Asked about such assessments, Brown said: "I think they're wrong. In the last eight months it had gotten stronger and stronger. I just got back from L.A. and every single person I met liked the magazine, knew it. They had really read it."
Brown had always reigned as the Queen of Buzz, but the buzz on her latest venture was never good, and many people in Manhattan's backbiting media world almost seemed rooting for her to fail.
Peter Kaplan, editor of the New York Observer, praised Brown as "an astonishing editor with an incredible sense of show biz." At the Conde Nast properties of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, "she was able to create news simply based on the fact she was stating it in the magazine. The combination of access, Conde Nast power and her connections meant that one plus one equaled three.
"At Talk, it was one plus one equals two. Miramax was either not the right kind of empire or a big enough empire to compel a magazine into existence."
Talk failed despite a circulation of 670,000, which was up 20 percent from last year. Talk Media Books, the one successful part of the venture, will continue.
Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein, who was at the Sundance Film Festival yesterday, has been a strong supporter of Talk. But when Hearst decided to pull out, the magazine was unable to find another investor to share the financial load.
Talk's first issue in 1999 created a political sensation with an interview in which Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested that her husband's philandering might have been influenced by a troubled childhood. In August, the Bush White House banned further contact with Talk after a parody photo spread depicted President Bush's daughters, who had been charged with underage alcohol possession, as jailbirds. In November, a first-person essay by Chelsea Clinton about her experience on Sept. 11 garnered considerable attention.
At other times, though, Talk seemed more interested in promoting such Miramax stars as Gwyneth Paltrow than in politics. The magazine seemed to lurch from one obsession to another while editors slipped through an endlessly spinning revolving door.
The British-born Brown took America by storm after making her name at a London magazine called Tatler. When owner Si Newhouse handed her Vanity Fair in 1984, she transformed the magazine into a cultural phenomenon through big parties, big salaries for writers and big, eye-catching covers (one featuring a naked and pregnant Demi Moore). Brown and her husband Harold Evans, former editor of the Sunday Times of London, became one of New York's hottest power couples.
Brown's 1992 move to the New Yorker horrified some traditionalists, but despite a hefty dose of celebrity coverage and occasionally tabloid topics, she is widely credited with modernizing a magazine that some viewed as a dusty museum piece.
Talk, by contrast, struggled from the start. When the New York Times reported last month that Hearst was likely to pull out of Talk, Brown and Galotti fired off a statement calling the piece "misleading and damaging." But it turned out to be all too accurate.
"We've always been beleaguered," Brown said. "We always felt like a guerrilla force here. We were fighting the big boys, defeating the odds."
Finally pausing for breath, Brown said she felt "very emotional" and was heading out for a drink.