Tina Brown: How to Photograph the President of the United States
From the Diaries of a Legendary Magazine Editor
Thursday, January 10, 1985
A new year, new determined goals. I am discontented with the next issue. British whimsy like Michael’s fashion feature on the rise of the “Urban Turban” is fun, but it’s feeling all dessert, no entrée. AND I WILL SOLVE THIS.
I have a platonic ideal of what the mix in VF should be—that sweet spot between aspiration and news hunger—but achieving it is a crapshoot. To add beef I assigned a macho literary essay on the anniversary of the fall of Saigon to Pete Hamill, but it somehow feels like a refugee from an old Esquire.
My lodestar for a great mag is big, tall Nova (the British monthly glossy of the seventies edited by the excitable Yorkshireman Dennis Hackett). Its clean, fierce graphic design and its confrontational covers were masterpieces of editorial point of view, with “talking headlines” splashed over images that grabbed you as you passed the newsstand. I still remember the one of a gurgling baby centered under the logo with harsh black lettering beneath: “The Perfect Baby or the Biggest Threat Since the Atom Bomb?”
Hackett once said to me that you have to be able to throw a magazine on the floor opened to any page and instantly know what magazine you’re looking at and who the reader is. That’s already true of VF. It has quickly found a strong, vital identity in voice and in visuals. The house style (a blending of me and Miles and Schiff and Wolcott) is very much there. But not the consistent, essential element of a satiating story, the one that tells you, the reader, who you are or who you want to be.
Friday, March 8, 1985
Boom! Si bought the New Yorker! He paid $142 million, a sum that gives me a stomachache. The staff there are all fretting and fussing and crying into their lace handkerchiefs. They should be so lucky. I know firsthand how much Si worships that magazine and reads every word. Apparently someone there took our current Annie cover of naked Jerry Hall in tumbled sheets and replaced her head with an image of the New Yorker’s mascot, Eustace Tilley. There are rumblings Si may remove William Shawn as editor and install Bob Gottlieb from Knopf, but again I can’t believe it. Si reveres Mr. Shawn, as he always calls him, as a kind of literary shaman, a divine force who conjures imperishable words out of writers, words that often end up as Random House books, which I guess is part of his full-circle vision of his publishing empire. What does it mean for us? Si has a new love is what it means, which is unsettling.
Wednesday, March 20, 1985
My industrious hire from The Sunday Times in London, James Danziger, showed his worth as features ed of Vanity Fair by getting us a shoot with the Reagans at the White House through his and their Hollywood friend Doug Wick. We needed this scoop so bad, there was no chance we could fuck it up. So I recruited Harry Benson, the excitable Scottish photographer with toilet-brush hair who talks so much and works so fast that he has managed to get six presidents to give up human moments. “I’m better with Republicans,” he told me. “Democrats are always a wee bit tricky.” Also got Chris Buckley to write the piece to go with it about their marriage, which should be delicious.
My heart was beating so fast that I hardly noticed the august surroundings as we were ushered into a visitor’s waiting room at the White House. I was terrified there would be a last-minute cancellation. The press aide informed us that the president and Mrs. Reagan were due at a state banquet they were hosting for Argentine president Raúl Alfonsín but would pause for a swift formal portrait in the Map Room. As soon as the aide had departed, Benson produced a boom box from his bag and unscrolled a white background to create a portable studio. I thought the idea sounded really hokey when he told me, but he clearly knew what he was doing.
At 6:45 we heard the familiar mellow burr of the approaching commander in chief accompanied by the light social laughter of Nancy Reagan. They entered the Map Room dressed in their elegant best for the black-tie function: Nancy in a slinky jet-beaded Galanos gown, Ronnie in a Fred Astaire–fit tux, with patent crenellated hair and cordial, twinkly blue eyes. Benson immediately hit the switch of the boom box and flooded the room with the old Sinatra classic “Nancy (With the Laughing Face).” Reagan paused for a moment, looking first at us and then at Nancy with one raised eyebrow, Clark Gable style.
“I love this song, honey,” she said. “Let’s dance.” The president replied with a line that might have been written for any number of vintage B movies: “We can’t keep the president of Argentina waiting, Nancy.”
“Oh, Ronnie,” she teased, grabbing him by his broad shoulders, “let him wait!” She kicked back her leg (click-whirr click-whirr click-whirr, went Harry Benson’s camera), and, perhaps in a paradigm of their easy marriage, the president stopped resisting and took his wife in his arms. For the next fifeen minutes they fox-trotted blithely around the Map Room to more Sinatra oldies on Benson’s cassette player, exchanging the gossip of the day with each other as if no one else were there. I watched in silence, I could hardly breathe.
“A kiss!” shouted a now-ecstatic Benson, juggling three cameras. “Mr. President, give your wife a kiss!”
They moved closer. Their eyes closed. Their lips came together for the iconic moment that my happy heart knows is going to be flashed on TV screens over and over when it comes out. And then the Secret Service moved in and they were spirited away.
Now the pictures are spread on the VF light box in the office. I feel they are gold dust. The gaiety of this cover will be not just the Reagan kiss, but the kiss of life for Vanity Fair. The mood of the pictures is pure optimism. I’ve never much liked Reagan, but when I look at these pictures I have to admit he has the gift of instinctive collusion between imagery and national mood. And Nancy is critical to it. She is his joy gene. Coming out of the Carter recession, America needs this simple exuberance. Did they discuss it first? Benson never said he was bringing a boom box, so it must have been spontaneous. Their duality never fails to pick up the rhythm of what the public needs.
Tuesday, March 26, 1985
In LA for Swifty Lazar’s famous annual Oscar party at Spago. Hand it to Swifty, he does know how to rope in the celebrities and, more impressive, when he’s the host they actually behave. He domesticates the menagerie and they attend under his terms or not at all.
He loves every bit of it. Especially the great theatrical moment when the valet parking rises to a crescendo and the paparazzi bulbs start flashing as the stars start pouring into Spago from the award ceremony. He had so many famous faces there in the gyrating room. Andy Warhol with a tiny camera taking pictures, Michael Caine, Raquel Welch, Dennis Hopper, Linda Evans, Sally Field, who made a comically emotional Oscar acceptance speech about how we LIKE her, we really LIKE her, and Jackie Bisset, with Alexander Godunov swirling around air-kissing. Barry Diller was crammed up against the bar. “It’s important to stay till just past midnight,” he told me. “That’s when the bullshit all somehow metastasizes and you see Oscar night at its best.” I read this morning that Shirley MacLaine cut me, but I didn’t notice. The producer Ray Stark told me Swifty’s germ phobia apparently means he has to spray with disinfectant everyone who enters his house. He said that Mary Lazar is the only woman Swifty could find to marry who was exactly room temperature.
From The Vanity Fair Diaries, by Tina Brown. Courtesy Henry Holt and Co., copyright 2017, Tina Brown.