In this month's Elle, Daphne Merkin sits down with her former New Yorker boss, Tina Brown, to discuss Brown's new book The Diana Chronicles. It's a strange article. On the one hand, Merkin calls Brown's book "superbly researched and artfully structured" and "compulsively readable," and says it "largely succeeds in elevating the narrative of 'shy Di' into the nuanced stuff of Shakespearean tragedy rather than the bold-type headlines of tabloid fodder." Well! Sounds lovely! But Merkin also sneaks in asides that made us wonder how she really feels about her former editor.
Perhaps the most famous piece that Merkin wrote for the New Yorker while Brown was in charge was a February 1996 article called "Unlikely Obsession: Confronting a Taboo," in which Merkin wrote: "The fact is that I cannot remember a time when I didn't think about being spanked as a sexually gratifying act, didn't fantasize about being reduced to a craven object of desire by a firm male hand." Now imagine how that article landed among Manhattan's literary set. Like a bomb, that's how. And to Brown's detractors, it seemed to signify everything that was wrong with her incarnation of the magazine. Now, of course, we have David Remnick's macho-intellectual version of the magazine, and who's to say we're better off?
Brown, however, is notoriously hard to work for, especially if you happen to be a woman, and we can only imagine what must have gone down between her and Merkin. In the Elle piece, Merkin discusses Brown's diet ("Tina ordered carefully and picked judiciously at her food"), implies that she doesn't have any natural curiosity ("she is capable of being intrigued by almost any subject if it is presented seductively enough"), and doesn't like women ("while Diana's charms seemed to be directed equally at both sexes, I'd always found Tina's warmth to be beamed primarily at men"). Ouch! Or... just honest?
After all, presumably Elle wouldn't have let Merkin do a hatchet job on Brown, and Brown's reputation as something of a tyrant in heels, especially towards women, is hardly a secret, especially among this city's magazine editors. In any case, it allowed Merkin a chance to put whatever residual antagonisms to paper, and the rest of us a chance to reflect on how Brown's somewhat embarrassing fall from grace after such an early rise to power has been, now, almost completely erased.