When Vanity Fair relaunched in 1983 after half a century spent dormant, Tina Brown was less than impressed with the magazine’s chaotic design and uninspiring content. “Like everybody else, I was really disappointed at what they’d done,” she says.
Still, she knew the revived Vanity Fair had potential. So when she was asked to take over the role of editor-in-chief in January 1984, she didn’t hesitate. “It was the greatest opportunity in magazine journalism,” Brown says. “When it came my way, I leapt.”
Brown had been a diarist since age 10, but her move to New York from Britain — where she was editor of the society magazine Tatler — and the new position she was taking on made her feel it was particularly important to record her life.
“My eyes were completely wide open and my brain was wired, because I’d arrived to this new, unbelievably exciting city,” she says. “I had the desire to confide what I’d seen, to reflect and to unload. In many ways, writing my diary was my way to sort out my response to New York and my response to being a young editor.”
Those diary entries have been compiled into Brown’s new memoir, “The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992” (out Tuesday), which she’ll discuss at Politics and Prose at The Wharf on Wednesday.
When 30-year-old Brown took over the magazine, it had a circulation of 250,000. When she left in 1992, the circulation had grown to 1.1 million. Her stint at Vanity Fair — in the midst of the Reagan era and the excess of the 1980s — came during a rich time for journalism. “It was wonderful fodder for an editor with a skeptical eye and a bunch of great writers,” she says. “It could not have been a juicier, more vivid world to be writing about.”
Brown aimed to capture that feeling by bringing in editors and writers who gave Vanity Fair an of-the-moment voice. She also shepherded some of the magazine’s iconic images, most notably the 1991 cover of a very pregnant and very naked Demi Moore.
“I had just come out of my second pregnancy and I was feeling very rebellious about maternity clothes,” Brown says. “So I said to Annie [Leibovitz], ‘Let’s photograph Demi and show her pregnant instead of doing the usual tricks and disguising it.’ And Annie always goes one better. I went berserk when I saw it. This was a defining cover — a new, unbelievably fabulous sort of feminist statement that liberated women to show the glories of fertility without the modesty of it.”
In 1992, Brown left Vanity Fair to become the editor of The New Yorker for the next six years. She went on to write the bestselling “The Diana Chronicles” and launch The Daily Beast and Tina Brown Live Media. Still, she has a fondness for her time at Vanity Fair.
“It was the combination of the depth and the flash that made Vanity Fair,” she says. “[The magazine] raised my game tremendously. It became a juggernaut and a force in the culture, and it certainly exceeded my dreams.”
Politics and Prose at The Wharf, 70 District Square SW; Wed., 6 p.m., free.