Doing the New York Hustle

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Tina Brown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the Council of Fashion Designer of America Awards, 1989; photograph by Ron Galella

The finest diarists are able to view themselves with the detachment they apply to others. They become, in this sense, their own sharpest biographers, dividing themselves into both observer and observed, audience and performer, hovering eagle-eyed above themselves, ever curious to record, however unfavorably, their own imperfect ways. As Claire Tomalin puts it in her biography of Samuel Pepys: “In writing it down, he detached himself from the self who acted out the scene.”

In her diaries of her years at Vanity Fair, Tina Brown is certainly adept at noting, with her unforgiving eye, the flaws in others. Revulsion brings out the best in her. The Hollywood agent Swifty Lazar is “tiny and bald and hairy in the wrong places. From the back his bald head and ancient baby’s neck look like crinkled foreskin.” Nancy Reagan’s walker Jerry Zipkin possesses a face “like a huge inflated rubber dinghy, balanced on top of a short, Humpty-Dumpty body.” A social columnist at The New York Times is “a bogus grandee…a coiffed asparagus.” Jackie Onassis’s face is “always slightly out of whack with her expression, as if they are two separate entities at work. She has perfected a fascinated stare.”

Brown also has an ear finely tuned to the absurdities of the rich, the spoiled, and the famous. She records them with relish. “You know what?” Donald Trump shouts to her over dinner at Ann Getty’s in 1987. “Went to the opening of the Met last night. Ring Cycle. Plácido Domingo. Five hours. Dinner started at twelve. Beat that. I said to Ivana, what, are you crazy? Never again.” Minutes later, an unnamed Italian art dealer shares his misgivings about the American way of life:

You know,…it is easy in America to take a very tiny sum like five hundred thousand dollars and turn it into three hundred million! So easy! But you know what? I don’t want to. Because eet means raping those poor fuckers the American public even more than they are already. You know what ees the difference between the European peasant and the American peasant? The American peasant eats sheet, wears sheet, watches sheet on TV, looks out of his window at sheet! How can we go on raping them and giving them more sheet to buy!

In moments like these, Tina Brown is the social diarist par excellence, skewering the pampered society grotesques of her time with a gleeful and merciless zest. “To be a good diarist one must have a snouty, sneaky mind,” wrote Harold Nicolson in his 1947 diary, and Brown is clearly in possession of Nicolson’s prerequisite. She snuffles around like a prize truffle hog, unearthing all the whiffiest gobbets of conversation. Her pocket-sized sketches have the cruel…

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