Old dog, new tricks

Tina Brown's first Talk hits the stands.

By Sean Elder
Published August 3, 1999 8:48PM (UTC)
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I wasn't the only one waiting for the debut issue of Tina Brown's Talk Tuesday morning; it was walking out the door of my local Greenwich Village newstand faster than Marion Barry's date when the feds arrived, and small wonder: Local TV news and newspapers, starved for anything more substantial than a subsiding heat wave, were talking about the magazine's launch (and Monday night's launch party) as if the Beatles had reunited, John included. Even as Mediagossip.com ran a story of indentured Talk editors yearning to breathe free, images of Liam Neeson and Demi Moore boarding a boat to Liberty Island were being broadcast round the clock on NY1. "Tina's a friend," Neeson said simply, when asked why he was attending a party 800 people were congratulating themselves for having been invited to. And she didn't make the Irishman travel out there steerage class, either.

For business insiders the story played out a little more simply: What the hell was Miramax thinking, launching a general-interest magazine at a time when the business is in turmoil, and general-interest mags across the board were faltering? Hearst, which is co-publishing and distributing Talk, could use some more prestige publications (now that Esquire is finally withering away) and, contrary to popular belief, you can take buzz to the bank. Why the hell else would Hachette suddenly have a hot (OK, warm) property in the heretofore moribund George?


For dedicated followers of Ms. Brown's career, Talk's first issue offers few surprises. Rather than reinvent a wheel she helped create, Brown relies on the classic high-low split: beautiful pictures of beautiful people broken up by thorough reporting on topics both sensational and dull. The stock is lighter than VF, not because Hearst was cheap, mind you, but because (Tina tells us in her editor's note) she wanted "a portable magazine, designed to be read over coffee or rolled up and stuffed into a gym bag." (By midday Tuesday I indeed spotted a woman on Fifth Avenue with a copy of Talk rolled up, cover out, and stuck into her purse strap: She was literally wearing the title.) The design is, well, evolving, I guess: the '50s Life/Look feel of the cover is belied by the riot of fonts within as well as the lowercase column slugs.

There are plenty of regular departments: The Conversation is one of those front-of-the-book news-and-views sections found in countless magazines, including something called "The Hip List" (don't ask); hard reporting columns are labeled in a straight-ahead fashion (Dispatch, The Reporter, National Dialogue); and in a my-life-upstate column, Michael Korda decries the gentrification of Dutchess County. (There goes the farmers' market, bemoans the author-publisher.) There's an entire section on books and all-too-serious horoscope (it's a pivotal month for me, friends).

Paper weight aside, Talk is closer to look and feel to Vanity Fair than the New Yorker, coasting, as advertised, on Miramax movie connections (Gwyneth Paltrow, Hugh Grant, Drew Barrymore, Harrison Ford) and fueled by longtime editorial associates (David Kuhn, late of the New Yorker, and Gabi Doppelt, whose term as editor of Mademoiselle was briefer than the "Night Porter" outfit Gwyneth appears in in Patrick Demarchelier's photo spread); name-writer firepower (Martin Amis, Christopher Buckley, Tom Stoppard), some sensational reporting (safari leader Mark Ross' depiction of the tourists massacred in Uganda) and at least one downright scoop.


The never-before-published boyhood pix of John Kennedy Jr. are to be forgiven, and you can't fault her for rushing them, either. What made VF a must-read in her day was not the Demi and Roseanne covers as much as the sometimes-scarily timely pieces that ran beneath them. If it meant blowing the book apart at the last minute to rush a story, ruining the social lives of the editors below her, so be it.

No, the real headline news belonged to Lucinda Franks' profile of Hillary Clinton with its "bombshell revelation" that the FLOTUS thought the president was over that infidelity stuff when the Monica story broke, and she believed his repeated denials. Bill's defense for his behavior (a variation on the Officer Krupke I'm-depraved-on-account-of-I-was-deprived line, which I don't advise you try at home) was one she bought. And, presumably, bought again. "He has been working on himself very hard for the last year," she said to Franks, "but he didn't go deep enough or work hard enough." And yes, she's giving the comeback kid another chance.

Fidelity wise, Clinton is now the Darryl Strawberry of husbands, but if the first lady wants to play benevolent Steinbrenner, for public or private reasons, who can fault her? Like her husband she must figure this course of action worked before, after a fashion -- and isn't that what Tina's doing with her recycled VF formula, teaching her old dog some new tricks? The Hollywood connection is really no more base than Time Warner's much-derided "synergy" of years past, and no more insidious. It's called selling magazines, hoping that those who don't care about the first couple or the real George Bush Jr. will want to see Gwyneth in her underwear.


And yes, the White House received a complimentary copy.

Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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