Staid old gent reels at Tina's glitz blitz

Click to follow
The Independent Online
EVEN BY New York society standards, it was quite a do. Six hundred of America's brightest and most beautiful squashed into a midtown Manhattan theatre to wish a happy birthday, not to a fellow star, but to a magazine. It was a paradoxical affair: both reverential of a history marked by sobriety and quiet intelligence and unashamedly glamorous and glitzy.

Perhaps it was deliberately so. The publication being celebrated was the New Yorker, which this month turns 70. For decades it was famous as the place that accommodated some of the best but also some of the least obviously accessible of American writing. Capote, Cheever, E B White, Nabokov and Thurber were all contributors. Patrician, urbane, even elitist, but essential reading for the literary-minded from SoHo to Hampstead.

That is its heritage and at least a part of the magazine's character still today. Something new has happened to the New Yorker, however, and all of the publishing world is agog over it. It has taken to running stories about O J Simpson and taking advertisements for men's fragrances that spurt noxious fumes at you if you unfold them. In short, it has become more like the other magazines, more colourful and more concerned with current events.

Is it heresy, or a pragmatic, even brilliant, response to commercial realities? The debate rages and may not be resolved for a long while yet. Whatever the answer, the responsibility for the change lies with the host of the Manhattan party and the editor of the magazine since September 1992, Tina Brown.

Ms Brown, who is British and married to the other British icon of New York, former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, is underestimated by nobody. As editor of Vanity Fair - owned, like the New Yorker, by publishing magnate S I Newhouse - she was credited with making that magazine the most exciting around, outscoring Vogue and Esquire. Some argue that without dramatic changes at the New Yorker, it would have faded away or folded.

"For good or ill, she remains the definitive magazine character of the moment", says Eric Etheridge, executive editor of the New York Observer, a weekly broadsheet that holds the pulse of sophisticated New York while simultaneously lampooning it. "She has the heat that no one else has."

The main impact of the Brown reign has been to bring the New Yorker into the mainstream fold, he says. "She has wrenched it out of the special place it had lived in for more than 65 years and torn down the wall that always existed between the New Yorker and everything else. She has yoked the magazine more closely to the stories of the moment."

Where nerves have been touched, if not shredded, has been in Ms Brown's perceived fascination not just with current affairs but with showbiz andHollywood. Says William Greider, National Editor of Rolling Stone and former New Yorker contributor: "She has brilliantly enlivened the magazine, but I feel she is in danger of being swallowed up by her own celebrity obsessions. There is a sort of post-modern urbanity about it now, which I find decadent."

Symbolising that change for many were the stories that ranlast summer about the O J Simpson case. If the New Yorker could not resist the O J obsession - generated almost wholly by television and the popular papers - what American magazine could?

The giant birthday issue now on sale contains a feature by a top-class writer - Martin Amis - but the subject of his treatise is the Hollywood resurrection of John Travolta.

The revolution has caused departures from the magazine, many discreet, others less so. Among the noisier exits were those of Garrison Keillor, creator of Lake Wobegone Days, and George Trow, who is one of few to have dared publicly to voice doubts about Ms Brown's suitability for the position. He said in a recent interview: "My formula for here is that she's a great girl wearing the wrong skirt. I mean this is not a job for her."

Also leaving shortly is Charles McGrath, who more than anyone represents the old school and for years was considered the heir-apparent to long- time editor William Shawn. The current issue contains his swan-song, a tribute to the co-founder and first editor the late Harold Ross. (There have only been four editors in 70 years, including Ms Brown.)

Also in this issue is what seems almost an apologia for what has been wrought by Ms Brown, penned by another veteran contributor, Brendan Gill. "The magazine has grown older, as all things must, but it seeks to remain invincibly young in its response to life and, like Lewis Carroll's Father William, is willing to stand on its head, and even to carry off from time to time, perhaps to the alarm of some readers, an unexpected somersault."

Ultimately, no publication can perform gymnastics without commercial health. Since Ms Brown took over, circulation is up 26 per cent and revenue is said to have risen, too. Yet it is rumoured that all that loud (and smelly) advertising is being sold at a heavy discount. Despite Ms Brown's best efforts, the magazine is estimated to be losing at least $1m a month. The patient's prognosis seems improved, then, but far from brilliant.