My big night out with Madonna and Demi

David Usborne joins Tina Brown and 1,400 of her very closest friends at the lavish New York launch of Talk magazine

"THE PARTY of the century". That was what we were going to, at least according to the PR person riding with me on the ferry to Liberty Island at dusk on Monday. I wasn't sure. I didn't make it to Malcolm Forbes's legendary bash in Morocco, or VE Day outside Buckingham Palace. But I was prepared to go with the hyperbole. Leave the cynicism behind on Manhattan, I thought.

As we disembarked, Liberty loomed above as we were ambushed by paparazzi and TV news reporters. It was fun to play famous.

Getting the invites to all the events that make the tabloid gossip columns is what matters in New York. (I was gratified to see Cindy Adams, the reigning monarch of Manhattan gossip, teetering on to the boat with me.) The premieres, the galas, the fund-raisers, the gallery openings: never mind centuries, this was the party of the season - the launch of Talk, the new Tina Brown magazine.

So maybe the evening was not all that exclusive. I had read somewhere that there were 800 on the guest list, but a park ranger informed me later that there were 1,400 packed on the island. And it was a trifle busy. But as lists go, it was unusually heavy with bona fide celebrities. Christopher Walken was my first sighting, slipping into a bar on the Manhattan side for a quick something before sailing. I didn't seem him again all evening, so perhaps he never made it across.

But so numerous were the celebrities, I must have missed scores of them. Christopher Reeve was there, I know, but I never found him. Nor did I glimpse Demi Moore, Hugh Grant or Henry Kissinger. So star-spotting is not my forte. But even I couldn't miss them when I found myself wedged between two tables as I searched for a place to eat dinner. Sitting at one was Robert De Niro, and at the other, looking about 18 years old, was Madonna, just across from Rupert Everett. Yikes.

All this for a magazine, for heaven's sake. And one with such a mundane little name. Talk. What quantities had been spent on renting Liberty Island for a night, chartering the tourist boats to bring us back and forth, the champagne cocktails and sandwiches before dinner, and dinner itself?

Forbes would have approved. Tree boughs were hung with paper globe lights in funky colours. Where there were no tables, huge Moroccan cushions had been arranged on large blankets, each supplied with a giant picnic hamper bursting with provisions. And that wonder-of-the-world view of Manhattan at night, the only thing Tina got for free.

She - or rather the magazine's co-owners, Hearst and Miramax - had paid for the barge that chugged into view with "TALK" blazing in lights on its deck. A monumental fireworks display was launched from it to a narration from George Plimpton. The first few shells came with comically sincere dedications. "This one is for the advertisers, very important people," Plimpton silkily informed us. "A delicious white magnesium tail made by the Guccis." (It seems they design rockets, too.)

Was this something never seen before? The launch of a magazine - just words and pictures to be perused on the loo or chucked away - staged as if it were a Hollywood movie premiere. It is Tina Brown as George Lucas; Talk is her new Star Wars. (The sequel to her other earlier hits, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.) In America, at least, the hype for the magazine has been nearly as intense as it was for the latest Star Wars. I was told that weekend leaks about the first issue's interview with Hillary Clinton, confiding about her husband's serial infidelities, were inadvertent. Some copies found their way on to a stand at Los Angeles airport three days too early, so the story goes. I don't believe it.

Never mind that when you see the magazine, you are likely to consider it patchy. More than 250 pages on glossy, super-thin paper, it does offer much that is riveting. An article by Richard Butler, the ex-chief of UN inspectors in Iraq, lashing out at his former boss, Kofi Annan. Astonishing dominatrix pictures of the usually demure Gwyneth Paltrow. And the Hillary interview. But there is a messiness about the presentation. And bits of it were cringe-making, like the student-humour faux letters page near the end, apparently confected by author Christopher Buckley.

More worryingly, it looks like a magazine that wants to be high culture and low culture all at once. You might wince at the boxing photo- essay, spread through several pages, with beautiful people wearing fashion garb at a fight. "Saladweight Murphy bows out in olive Prada briefs, tank, and way-high heels", one caption tells us. (Carolyn Murphy is the author.) How many readers can there be out there who will care that Ms Murphy's briefs are from Prada? (Aside from big-time advertiser, Prada.)

But I am being ungrateful. Thanks, Tina. For the food, the live concert with R&B artist Macy Gray - an odd choice, I thought - and your gracious speech. (The bit about advertisers being free to copulate under the trees was interesting. You should have seen the look on the park rangers' faces.) And thank you, above all, for inviting me. I have no house in the Hamptons and I wasn't a personal friend of JFK. But I was at the Talk party.

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