Tina Brown's stint as editor of the New Yorker is considered a disaster, or a bizarre accident, or an obvious symptom of a Manhattan-specific lunacy. It's up high on the list of New York trainwrecks just adjacent the Broadway musical of Anna Karenina.
And yet. Fifteen years after she was appointed, nearly nine years after she departed, the majority of the work at the New Yorker is done by the people hired and promoted by Tina Brown.
Much of Tina Brown's career has been spent in or near madness. When she left the New Yorker in 1998 for Talk, the insane and doomed partnership with Harvey Weinstein, New York Observer editor Peter Kaplan told the Times that she'd be the guinea pig for synergy, and she certainly was; it closed shop in two years, and that's largely all that needs to be said about that. And it's the $70 million or so in losses that the New Yorker incurred over her six years, and her first issue with the punk in the Central Park carriage on the cover, and the guest-editorship of Roseanne that are all folks recall when gleefully trashing Tina's New Yorker.
By our best count—and corrections and additions to any of what follows are welcome—eleven contributing writers linger to this day from the ages of the second and first editors, William Shawn and Harold Ross. That's if you count the first go-round for Hendrik Hertzberg and an early (1971) Seymour Hersh freelance piece, and the fact that nowadays Janet Malcolm is referenced in other people's Facts and Comments nearly as often as she publishes. (Of course her husband, the editor Gardner Botsford, who had been fired by Harold Ross and then rehired by him in 1942, finally retiring in 1982, died in 2004—and when she does write nearly all of it is about Toklas and Stein, though all terrific.)
After the Shawn ouster came the editorship of Bob Gottlieb; February, 1987. From his offices at Knopf came and remain Adam ("You don't think, do you, that the staff will think I'm Bob's catamite?"—Renata Adler) Gopnik and poetry editor (as she is still) Alice Quinn. From that era, Connie Bruck, William Finnegan and David Owens all survive, more or less.
Apart from Gopnik and Quinn, Gottlieb's legacy pretty much only survives on the ledgers, as he is, according to former staffers, still collecting his $400,000 a year. (Should he ever die, they say, his widow will receive half of that each year.) Bill McKibben left. Renata Adler—who joined the staff in 1963, the same year as Calvin Trillin and Tony Hiss, and a year before Jane Kramer did, and two years before John McPhee did—published one piece shortly after his arrival, felt it mishandled, and decamped, even if Shawn was editing stories in secret across the street at the Algonquin. Jim Lardner left after a dozen years. And Hilton Als had his first freelance piece published in 1989.
Then in the summer of 1992, Gottleib was set free while in Japan and Tina Brown came in to destroy the "50,000 word piece on zinc," as she put it. By the time she left, all the Times could bring itself to say, in 1999, was that she had "for better or worse pulled The New Yorker into the late 20th century." Bitter!
Tina inherited Pat Crow, an editor who'd signed on in 1967, and John Bennet and Chip McGrath, who'd also been around a while—they'd worked as co-deputy editors since 1984. She nearly immediately gave all three $30K-a-year raises. Smart! Still, McGrath only lasted until November 1994; off to the Times and other disappointments. Crow faded quickly into a lucrative but unsatisfying "consultancy" to the magazine around the same time, then got divorced and went upstate. John Bennet, however, remains as a senior editor.
Tina Brown then did something else new. She cleaned house. (Some of this was the house cleaning itself in shock at her arrival—Veronica Geng, for one, George W. S. Trow for another.) According to the American Journalism Review, 24 writers resigned or retired. Ian Frazier faded for a time, Ved Mehta left, as did, a bit later, Daniel Menaker, a senior editor handling fiction; eventually Tony Hiss left. Henry S.F. Cooper, Jane and Michael Stern (thank God!), Naomi Bliven, Jane Boutwell, William Wertenbaker, Wallace White, Cynthia Zarin, more, all left. Worst of all, the great Andy Logan, hired in 1942, left in 1992. (One person notes that "Andy Logan didn't really leave, she just seemed to stop writing, or was no longer wanted," and that she continued to come to the office most every day through 1998.)
Tina brought with her from Vanity Fair Pamela Maffei McCarthy, who she installed as her managing editor, and Virginia Cannon, a senior editor. (And James Wolcott, who left nearly as quickly.) That was the foundation of the New Yorker we know today. Susan Orlean became a staff writer for Tina in 1992.
David Remnick and Ken Auletta were immediately hired on; Tina had taken Remnick out to lunch long before the position was announced. Jeffrey Frank, an old friend of Remnick's, and today a senior editor, was hired on by Tina. January, 1993 brought Anthony Lane and Jeffrey Toobin; David Denby, unfortunately, first freelanced that year, as did current classical music critic Alex Ross; Seymour Hersh went on staff. All remain.
Henry Finder came to the New Yorker in April, 1994, as a non-fiction editor. Now he serves as editorial director and books editor.
In March of 1995, Tina hired Dorothy Wickenden as managing editor. Today she is the executive editor. That year the rock star reporter Jane Mayer, now one of the linchpins of Remnick's more newsroomey New Yorker, became a contributor. In April, she hired Bill Buford as fiction editor, with a ridiculous compensation package. His former deputy, Deborah Treisman, is the current fiction editor; but even then there was no ouster, as Buford still writes for the magazine.
Not everyone stuck around, fortunately; she did bring on David Kuhn to edit, and that didn't last long.
Hilton Als went on staff, as did Alex Ross, in 1996. Jacob Lewis was the assistant to the deputy editor that year; in 2003, under Remnick's regime, he became the managing editor. Steve Martin appeared and (damnation) Bruce McCall began contributing more frequently. (His cartoon in this week's issue, by the way, introducing the books section, is one of the worst things ever published in the New Yorker, and even apparently includes a typo.)
In 1997, Susan Morrison came aboard; in 1998 she was articles editor and last year, she also became the fashion editor. (Fashion editor! Does that not smell of Tina?) Current contributors Paul Goldberger, Rebecca Mead, Louis Menand and Philip Gourevich all came on staff in 1997.
And one day in mid-1998, Tina Brown entered two days of contract negotiations with Harvey Weinstein and left abruptly.
An insanely good account of what followed was reported in the New York Times on July 10, 1998, by David Firestone. Recounting the 15-minute New Yorker announcement meeting the day previous: "'We have a slight editorial problem,' [ S.I. Newhouse, Jr.] jokingly acknowledged to about 75 employees, as Ms. Brown chuckled nearby, having stunned Mr. Newhouse with her resignation exactly 26 1/2 hours earlier." Mr. Newhouse said no candidates were out of consideration for the editorship; Susan Orlean, joking, then suggested she might be considered for editor.
The race to succeed Ms. Brown took on an almost comic aspect yesterday, with people in and out of the magazine handicapping long lists of candidates based on their perceived closeness to Mr. Newhouse. Some people mentioned friends' names, as a favor; others tried desperately to avoid being mentioned. Those leading the various lists included [Kurt] Andersen; the writer David Remnick; Peter Kaplan, editor of The New York Observer; Michael Kinsley, editor of the on-line magazine Slate; Katrina Heron, editor of Wired, which was recently purchased by Conde Nast; and Dominique Browning, editor of Conde Nast's House & Garden.
Remnick took over the magazine and its $35 million annual budget nearly immediately. He had no Knopf or Vanity Fair cronies to bring in. His former Washington Post co-worker Malcolm Gladwell had already been hired by Tina in June of 1996. Tina said at least once in public that she had recommended him to Newhouse. In 1999, she would tell Alex Kuczynski at the Times that Remnick "has taken my template."
Remnick's first issue devoted the entirety of Talk of the Town to a celebration of Tina Brown.
In an interview published recently in the Independent, Remnick said, "[T]here was already in place, and I thank Tina Brown enormously for this, a set of editors at the top of the magazine who are here to this day for good reason and are remarkable. Dorothy Wickenden, Pam McCarthy, Susan Morrison."
Remnick put her terrible critic David Denby on staff; he hired the tiresome Nicholas Lemann, and later, the absurd Caitlin Flanagan, although just for a year, and Larissa MacFarquhar. Editor Deborah Garrison left. Joe Klein left, though, and Ian Frazier returned in full. Remnick also made some fantastic hires: Jim Surowiecki in 2000, Katherine Boo, at last, in 2003; Sasha Frere-Jones in 2004. Some young editors came on, and all have stayed; Nick Paumgarten, Amy Davidson, one-time fact-checker Emily Eakin. (And, a friend writes, "the brilliant young editor Daniel Zalewski.)
Tina Brown always errs on the side of ridiculousness. But after all the right and righteous fuss about color and photographs and celebrities in the New Yorker, she built a magazine that she inherited from a man who could not run a magazine and she made it function. David Remnick's New Yorker is Tina Brown's New Yorker, just with the shrillness and the PR turned down two notches. If the New Yorker is good now, a large part of the credit is due to her. Or should you find the magazine dull, or dead, or worse, then you'll be thrilled to know you still have her to blame.