The furore erupting around the publication of Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair Diaries, reminds me of the time I interviewed her for my book Women.
A consequence of Anne Smith’s resignation from editing the Literary Review, besides the volcanic fury which her actions had unleashed via her supporters in the media (see below), was my need to appoint a new editor for the magazine. I turned to Gillian Greenwood, who was in charge of Robin Clark Ltd, and offered her the post of editor to the magazine. She had formerly been deputy editor to Books and Bookmen before it folded, so her credentials were excellent. Gillian accepted at once, and the gap she left at Robin Clark was filled by Rebecca Fraser soon afterwards. As soon as Anne heard that Gillian was in line to succeed her in her old editorial chair, she exploded. And what an explosion!
Anne let hardly a moment pass before taking her story to the national press in time to catch their deadlines the same night. The most outrageous calumny against me appeared in The Times, inferring I had ignored my original assurance she would retain editorial independence when she queried the length of an Arab supplement to the magazine.
The press continued hot on the scent of what promised to continue as a major literary scandal. The time came when I could not let the matter rest without putting forward my own account of the facts.
During the last quarter of 1981 I was in touch with my legal advisers over instituting proceedings against The Times for the description of me as an Arab propagandist. An offer to intercede in my complaint against The Times came from an unexpected quarter during a meal at Mark Birley’s Harry’s Bar, when Nigel Dempster and Tina Brown were in the group.
Tina had been close friends at Oxford with Gillian Greenwood, who was now settling in as Literary Review editor, and Sally Emerson, a Quartet author (we have just re-issued 6 of her award-winning novels). Tina was then the editor of Tatler and married to Harold Evans, the editor of The Times. As we talked, Tina asked, ‘Do you want me to talk to Harry? ‘Yes, why not?’ I said. Consequently, both legal threats were withdrawn by mutual agreement and the situation with The Times relaxed on 23 November when it carried the following apology:
‘On September 18 it was reported in the Diary that Dr Anne Smith, the former editor of the Literary Review, had left the magazine because of her refusal to accept Arab propaganda from the proprietor, Mr Naim Attallah. Mr Attallah has asked us to point out – and Dr Smith agrees, as we do – that he is not a propagandist for an Arab or any other political cause and as head of Quartet Books has published a number of works of special Arab interest in the context of world culture. We regret any misunderstanding or embarrassment that may have been caused.’
This heralded the beginning of my friendship with Tina who subsequently agreed to be interviewed for my book which was published in 1987. I now feel it’s time to reproduce the entire interview for the benefit of people who will surely like to hear the young Tina in action.
Here we go:
My mother was the biggest influence because she was at home all the time. She made bringing me up her career. She was a glamorous figure who looked marvellous – like an opera singer, rather like Callas – and everybody always thought she was a model or a movie star. In fact she just brought us up. She was so enormously entertaining that she was quite a hard act to follow and I think a lot of my life has in some ways been trying to equal her lustre. In other ways, though, I wanted to be my father, because my father was a film producer and seemed to be always doing exciting things. He came home with all his outside stories of going on location and film stars. I could see what an enormous effect he had on my mother, and I was so attracted to my mother that, in a funny way, I wanted to be my father so I could attract her admiration. My mother was incredibly protective, too protective. She was obsessed with the idea that any harm should come to me. We lived in the country, so I never did anything particularly. There wasn’t much chance to go out and take drugs and so on, but she was extraordinarily protective while, at the same time, nurturing great ambitions in me. She was a mother who wanted everything for me and encouraged me to get it.
Somehow it was born in me that I must try to go to Oxford or Cambridge. And then I would be a writer or a dramatist or whatever. I was never encouraged just to get married. No one in my household ever thought that that would be a role for me. I was a very timorous child. In many ways, all my career exploits are about going against the grain. I think it’s true that people who achieve quite a lot in their lives are often people who are shy and timid and trying to prove to themselves that they are not. My mother could never leave me at a party. She always had to sit in the car and hope I was all right before she drove away, because I was so anti-social. I was always crying for my mother. I was a tremendously timid little girl, and I have remained quite timid inside. It’s just that I’ve always dared myself to do things, and in that sense I was influenced by my father, because he was the daring one.
Advantages and disadvantages:
I am absolutely shocked at how passive and unencouraged English women are. They have very low aspirations. They never think of themselves as running anything. They always imagine that they will be playing a role doing little ‘jobs’ somewhere. At the time I was at Oxford, there were eight men to one woman. The women were so, so grateful to be at Oxford that they didn’t really bother to shine much, except for a handful who then did go on to do wonderful things afterwards. For me it was the most fantastic opportunity, which I exploited. I never felt it was a handicap to be a woman, because I was so ambitious in the sense that I wanted to live life to the full. I don’t mean that I was sitting there thinking desperately about my next career move, because I’ve never thought like that. But I did have to think big. I wanted to get a good degree and be a great writer and go to America and travel.
I was always very attracted to America, I think because I felt it was a land of great freedom. I’ve always found England a very constricted place in a funny way. There are pros and cons, and when you live in both places, you are obsessed with whichever one you are not in. But, I must say, what amazes me about living here in the States is that the women are so much more ambitious for themselves. They imagine themselves as running the Met., being the big power at the Museum of Modern Art, or the big wheel at Carnegie Hall; the women expect to have these positions of power, and they go after them and get them. But you can’t imagine a female head of the British Museum. You can’t imagine a woman running the Tate. Whereas here the women are formidable in a way that I don’t think is bad. Many of them have had wonderful educations because they have gone to Harvard and Yale and all these places, and they are really involved with the moving and the shaking. American women have much more confidence, and the confidence is born out of their expectations. They have not been told from the year dot that, even if they do go to Oxford, they’ll still dribble on into some very low-paid job somewhere and be grateful to have it, and then, when they get married, they’ll slip from view. Here I think women regard their lives in a much more positive way; they really want to make something of them. And they don’t regard what they do as a little job to tide them over.
I don’t think women have to become aggressive and horrible, I really don’t. I think that for them to have higher aspirations is just healthier, that’s all. Recently I went to Cleveland to talk to 120 women in a luncheon club, and I imagined that these women would be blue-rinsed ladies who didn’t know very much. I couldn’t have been more wrong. They were the wives of the Cleveland establishment, and even though they weren’t doing glamorous things like Gloria Steinem, they were women who were organizing their community in a very high-powered way. They had got together and organized a big Dali exhibition to go to the museum; they were fundraising; they were making sure that the head of the Met was coming to talk to them next week. The same sort of women, a group of housewives in Henley-on-Thames say, what do they ever do? Nothing. I know. I grew up in that environment. They never did anything like that. They just sat around and had coffee mornings and talked about their children and didn’t do a damn thing. It’s true in England still: if you go to Gloucestershire nobody’s particularly got any intellectual curiosity or cultural interest. They just do their country pursuits. I don’t knock country pursuits; it’s all very nice, but I don’t see why you have to be in such an intellectual vacuum. I prefer the atmosphere here.
The great downside of the American women’s achievement is the problem they have with men. There’s no doubt it’s much sexier to be in a relationship where the man is stronger; so what, of course, women want here is men who are so strong that they dominate these very strong women. They are looking for such a high-powered man to counter-balance their own quite high-poweredness that they don’t find anybody and turn them all into homosexuals. The men are so utterly stricken by the necessity to be so dynamic that they just decide, I can’t cope with this, I’m opting out, and become gay. I am sure that the women have made the men gay. And it’s sad. A lot of men are terrified, threatened, by these bright, committed women who come along. I don’t think the answer is to slip back into women trying to pretend they are not like that. Strong women have been unhappy and desperate in situations where they didn’t have an arena or scope. I don’t quite know what the answer is. I think things will evolve, and I think perhaps women will realize they have to give something up.
There comes a time when women can feel very left on the shelf, very useless to society. Their looks have gone and their children have fled the nest, and what is there in life for them? I’ve seen it happen, and I think these women are very, very unhappy. One of the nicest things about being a career woman is that, as I get older, it’s not going to matter half as much. I’ll be an older woman who is doing a job like this, and it won’t matter so hugely.
I wouldn’t be a man for anything. I think, particularly now, it’s a woman’s period. I think this is the time to be a woman, particularly in America. Even in England, it’s better than being a man.
I think we do exaggerate the importance of sex. The old cliché is true: sex isn’t important until you are in a relationship where it is going wrong. I underestimate its importance perhaps, because I am actually very happy. Long periods of chastity are perfectly OK, particularly when you are working hard. I think that gay men are better off in the closet, actually, most of the time. It’s fine to have the occasional relationships, but this pressure to be promiscuous, as a homosexual, has turned out to be medically very unwise. I also think a promiscuous woman is very unlikely to be a happy woman. She is usually a woman who is desperately looking for something. Women, of course, are much more aware of their sexuality now and can enjoy being single and having flings and get a lot out of it. But rabid promiscuity in a woman usually means she is desperate about something.
Being a mother does change you enormously, and the whole nurturing side comes out. It’s a wonderful, softening thing. It’s the ideal thing to introduce into a successful woman’s life, to restore that balance, because everything becomes nicer and you also become a more loving wife, because it softens you, in a way. And there’s no doubt that, in a funny way, having a child hasn’t changed me in a sense, because I always knew I’d be like that if I had a child. I will just cancel anything for the baby, you know. And I do all the time. But it’s a constant pull now, and a constant conflict. I now have to get up at six o’clock in the morning, and I spend between six and eight with the baby always, and then I try to get out of the office at five, and not later, so that I can spend until bedtime with the baby. But if anything upsets that, then I’ve lost out on the baby for the day. Your life becomes very complicated with a child, and you think, well, maybe I’d better give up my job because I feel so terrible about walking out and leaving him during the day with the nanny. I always imagined I would give up my job when I had children, but now I understand myself better and know I can’t be at home all day with the child because I do have a great driving flair and I’m a very good editor. I find it exhilarating to be an achiever in this world of competition. It does make me feel good about myself. I have to keep proving myself. For instance, when I was between Tatler and Vanity Fair, I was just a nothing. I wasn’t happy just to bask in what I had done at Tatler, as it were, I was a big nothing, just a nobody. I went right back to zilch, which is my particular hang-up in life. But one has one’s hang-ups, and they are what drive you on. That’s my particular neurosis, so I may as well fulfil it doing what I am doing. Every weekend, I have the nanny go away and I spend weekends completely with the baby. And I turn down everything. I don’t care what it is. Even if it’s Barbara Walters’s wedding party, it’s too bad. The weekends are for the baby, and I am ruthless about that. I’ve offended a lot of people this year by saying I can’t leave the baby. But I don’t care.
The more I worked in New York with women who had decided against motherhood because they liked their careers so much, the more I realized I didn’t want to be like those particular women. The clichés are true: they are harder, narrower, tougher, more self-absorbed. Obviously some women have tragedies and can’t have children, but that’s rather a different person from the person who has made a choice because they want to have more freedom to travel and all those things. And they usually regret it, I am sure; nine times out of ten they do regret it.
I never thought terribly hard about abortion until my baby was in an incubator in York Hospital; he was born at seven months, weighing 4 lb 8 oz, but there were many babies in there that had been born at four months’ gestation who were 3 lb and 2 lb, and even 1 lb, and they were being nurtured back to life in an incubator with mothers weeping while they waited to see whether the child could make it or not. I felt, then, I could never have an abortion. If a three or four months’ baby can live and grow into an adult, and at four months people are having abortions, then the fact is, it is a kid of murder. Of course, I understand there are tragic personal circumstances, and I wouldn’t like to be forbidden to have an abortion if something terrible happened. If I was raped, or if I was unwell and was told it was dangerous to have another child, I would want to have an abortion. But to use abortion as another kind of birth control is criminal. I can’t understand intelligent women who say they had an accident. They are taking the pill, what’s the matter with them? Why did they have an accident? It’s pathetic to say you had an accident if you’ve got a brain in your head. A middle-class woman, who has got a job, who has an accident, is criminal if she then has an abortion. It’s madness. I know it happens, and I know lots of women, lots of my friends at home, who’ve had abortions. I personally couldn’t because I find it too agonizing. The idea that my baby George could have been aborted is, to me, fearful.
The fact is, it’s not sexy to be with a man who is weaker than you are. In fact, it’s very horrible. You can be as much women’s lib. as you like and say these things don’t matter, but the dynamics of bed are the same as they have always been. This is why the women are so unhappy, particularly in New York. We have got these wonderful, fulfilled, terrific, stylish women, but they can’t find anybody to satisfy them sexually, not because they are ravening beasts, but because the dynamics of domination aren’t there. So they become gay themselves, or they just forgo sex, or they have a wimpy husband. Very few have got husbands who dominate them sexually and make them feel really great. Of course, there are people who have that sort of marriage, and they are very happy marriages. Some women find, in the end, it’s so important to have that that they are prepared to forgo their careers, but then they are not very happy either because they have lost something else that matters very much. The modern dilemma for a woman is very difficult.
I am more comfortable with women. I love having women around me, and most of my staff are women. I’ve got great belief in women, and I love my little guerrilla force of women. They work very, very hard, they are terribly committed, they love their jobs. And that exhilaration is very catching.
I am attracted to men who have great warmth and energy, and a great sense of humour. I suppose I like highly sexed men, full of instant energy. I quite like men who are extremely ugly, actually, but who, I think, are secretly very sexy. They turn out to be the best lovers of all. I like to have some sensitivity, tenderness there. If you are involved in the cut and thrust of competitive life, you really want the flowers and the candlelight.
There was a pernicious cult, which perhaps Gloria Steinem had something to do with, of making women feel they could have it all. And what no one really explained to women, as they went out on their feminist forays, was that they were giving up something. What is tragic to behold are women like Germaine Greer, who suddenly do a volte face at fifty and say, why didn’t I have children? They become almost pathetic, because they are fifty, they are past the biological age for children, nor are they likely to marry anybody. I hate the sight of this pitiable regret for what they’ve missed. And I think the regret comes because they wanted everything. Sometimes you can have a combination for a time, then the combination changes, but you can’t expect to have everything at once. That was the whole pernicious thing of the Cosmopolitan magazine philosophy, which made young women feel they could have these torrid sex lives and great dazzling jobs and motherhood, and feel all these things at once. What’s happened, particularly in America, is that people are too hasty to get divorced. Someone in my office, one minute she is married, then the next minute divorcing. I think she is insane. Why can’t they just work it out? Many people who get divorced don’t find anything better and really wish they hadn’t. They could have rubbed along, they could have lowered their expectations perhaps, or introduced something else into the relationship. I’m not suggesting everybody compromises and takes third best, but I think this whole thing of racing off to get divorced at the first snag you hit seems pathetic.
I don’t think the sexes are the same at all. I think women are instinctively much more nurturing. It’s for the woman to think imaginatively about the emotional life in a relationship. I play that role, even though my husband and I are really quite equal in terms of what we both do. It’s for me to think we really must try and spend three weeks away together, and it’s me who thinks about when, and me who gets the diary out and insists we make time. But I’ve noticed this with women across the board: it’s always they who say we really must think about Christmas now. Women think in that much more caring, strategic way.