Tina Brown Knows The Royals Better Than They Know Themselves
The author of The Palace Papers talks Prince Harry’s Spare, the state of celebrity, and her “cult hit,” The Vanity Fair Diaries.
Every morning, Tina Brown wakes up, reaches for her phone, and pulls up the Daily Mail. Throughout the day, she’ll engage with headier stuff. The New Statesman is “the first magazine subscription I've taken in 15 years,” she says, and she loves the work of Patrick Radden Keefe. But for the woman who mastered “the mix” — a magazine’s perfect and juxtaposing balance of highbrow and lowbrow features — there’s no better way to start the day than with a good, old-fashioned tabloid. “It's that quick scroll through all the entrails of the world,” the former Vanity Fair and New Yorker editor-in-chief tells me. “That's my phone rollover.”
In the 10 years since Brown’s editorship of The Daily Beast, Brown has turned her attention to writing books. First there was The Vanity Fair Diaries, which published in 2017 and had a resurgence on Twitter this past summer; then 2022’s The Palace Papers, now out in paperback. It’s also been a period of immense grief, as Brown’s husband of four decades — the former editor of The Sunday Times, Harold Evans — died in 2020 at 92 years old. “I can't tell you how hard it is to now have to ‘make plans.’ We never had to make plans. We were just in sync. So I was lucky,” she says of the loss.
Yet sitting with the 69-year-old over a cup of peppermint tea at an Upper East Side restaurant, her insatiable, infectious curiosity and ambition are on full display. “[My husband and I] shared an absolute exhilaration with our work and the feeling that it was our number one pleasure, as water skiing or something is for some people,” Brown says between grilling me about Bustle’s own operations. “We loved the wonderful creative interplay between the people, the page, the picture, the story, and the thrill of publishing. Going to press up against the clock and the whole thing. I think there's no fun like it, actually.”
Below, Brown reflects on what else she still finds fun about reporting, from using true crime to “open the door to a world” to interviewing “a member of staff with a very beady eye” about the royals.
The paperback version of The Palace Papers comes out weeks after one of its main subjects, Prince Harry, accused the British press of perpetuating falsehoods about him (via his own memoir, Spare). So I’m curious, as someone who writes about the royals, how do you actually report on them? What is your process like of parsing through all that supposed fabrication?
I think that he's a little too conspiratorial. I mean, politicians are dependent on the Washington press corps. Hollywood stars are dependent on the entertainment press. So it's not particularly sinister, frankly, that the royals understand there is a royal press and they try to manage them as best they can. What are they supposed to do in the palace? Just be clueless about their press?
As for the planting of negative stories, I'm sure they do that. Just as ABC talent does it about each other. I mean, how many people were planting negative stories about T.J. Holmes and Amy Robach? So there is a bit of that. One of the things that I came to feel is that palace is a threadbare movie studio at this point in which the contract players are all vying for [attention]. If one member of the team is getting better press than another, the other one is jealous. Which is true of anybody in politics, anybody in Hollywood. People don't like to be the focus of negative attention and they're only too happy when the negative spotlight moves to somebody else. How much they do to move the spotlight to one another is what [Harry’s] arguing.
Before reading The Palace Papers, I knew fairly little about Kate Middleton’s origin story. I was really fascinated to learn what a smart operator she is, how she essentially spent 10 years playing every card right to secure her place as the future queen. So I can imagine, if you’ve played the long game for a decade, and then a new wife comes in and doesn’t seem as interested in abiding by the rules you’ve been following, that there’s going to be tension.
There's no doubt that Harry and Meghan jostled the Cambridges and were very unsettling to them. I don't know if there is room for both of them. If you are the number one, and you're going to be the king, you don't want the more charismatic brother and his more charismatic wife to be out there eclipsing you. In a strange way, what William went through was sort of what his father went through with Diana. He's like, "I don't want to be upstaged." I don't think that it's such a surprising thing.
So how do you actually report out and vet these stories?
I just interview the hell out of everybody. When I was doing The Diana Chronicles, I used to sometimes say, “God, I've slogged all the way up to Norfolk to see this crusty lady in waiting and all I've got is that one sentence.” But it was always worth it because that one sentence was the detail that you were actually looking for. I interview all kinds of people who are not necessarily in the palace mix. Sometimes they're historians, photographers, artists, people who've got an interesting take, or people I know have had dealings with them from a completely different perspective.
What’s your favorite kind of source?
Somebody who notices the right thing. You can teach a writer how to do structure, narrative, or write a good lead. You can't teach them how to remember the right thing. I remember interviewing somebody once who was actually with the queen on the day Diana died. But he was a very dull man who didn't notice the right thing, who didn't register the details. I thought to myself, “This is agony! You were there! You saw it all! You can’t be this generic!” It makes you insane. So it can be very unexpected. Sometimes it's a member of staff with a very beady eye. A chauffeur, they hear everything. Or someone who did a portrait and who was there, but who has got a visual eye or something. It’s sometimes those people who notice the most things.
You were pretty confident Spare would never see the light of day.
Well, for a moment it nearly didn't.
There was a period of about four months when Harry really wanted to pull out and [Penguin Random House] wouldn't let him. [Editor’s Note: Penguin Random House declined to comment.] Between the Jubilee and the death period, he got into a total panic. There was a moment when he could have withdrawn. Here's where the royal family are typically clueless. They are really bad at handling relationships that are turning problematic. They should have stopped that book happening, they should have made a deal 18 months ago. Charles could have said, "Look, if you pull your book, I'll pay the money back. I will pay for your security. It's a lot of money. I'll agree to do it for five years until you get yourself organized." That would've cost him $15 million. He could afford it, it would've been worth it, and [Harry] probably would’ve taken that deal. I thought, Philip's death, that's when it will happen. But as we see in the book, it didn't. It just was another big, horrible row.
Were there any revelations in Spare that genuinely surprised you?
I wrote [in The Palace Papers] that Harry and William’s relationship had very much deteriorated before Meghan. I always said it wasn't she that spoiled the relationship. It was already spoiled. But it was much worse than I perhaps thought, if one is to believe his version.
Personally, I was really struck by that Joan Didion-esque “magical thinking” that clouded Harry’s grief over Diana. This belief that she was really going to come back.
It's very moving. I like Harry. When I reported out his term in the army, they really did have a very high regard for him. It wasn't just about who he was, he had a lot of respect in military circles. It’s a very ironic and unpalatable fact for the royal family that the best communicator, the most charming, and the most empathetic [of them] is Harry. I mean, blows them all away.
The Diana gene. How do you think she would’ve felt about the book?
They are very similar, it's that Spencer emotional impetuosity. I think she would've been 100% on his side about the palace being an untenable culture, but she would've been very distressed about the treatment of William. Not only did she adore William, she really wanted him to be king. She spent a lot of time and focus on training him to be king. She came from an aristocratic family and some of the things that Harry complains about is simply the fact of primogeniture. Primogeniture is a cruel thing. One kid gets everything and the others don't get anything and that leads to a great deal of bitterness. But it is the way that they run things and always have. So I think she would've felt, “William is going to be king. You have to get over that.”
If you were granted a sit-down interview with Meghan and Harry, what would be the number one thing you’d want to ask them?
I'd like to hear them answer whether they made any mistakes. Tell us about what you got wrong. I don't mean saying, “Well, I was too generous or I was too trusting.” Right now, they are really unpopular in the U.K. But I still think that the English public would like to see Harry and William [reconcile]. After the death of the queen, when they appeared together there was this sense of, “Thank God.” There's something very magical about the sight of the two boys together and the British public really want that on a deep, spiritual level. And I think maybe at some point it might.
So you do believe there's a path of reconciliation?
I think it's very, very difficult at the moment. Harry has kept saying, "I'd like to be reconciled." Well, you've just fired all these bombs. Now they've landed and there has been quite a lot of wreckage. So it's a bit hard to expect them to say, "Glad you shot your mouth off. Now come back." But I think Charles would like them [together] at the coronation.
The past few years have brought a lot of change to your life, including the loss of your husband. Did burying yourself in The Palace Papers help you cope?
It was my hiding place. A book is a great refuge, and work is a refuge. My husband always felt that and he was an absolute workaholic. It was about the joy of his work. [...] I really do believe in rigor and how restoring rigor is. How, after a day when you've had to manage people or talk to the advertisers, [when] you sit down with a manuscript and it's like getting into a bath. Because you're thinking, “Thank God it's now me, the writer, and the story.” I can apply my rigor and then attack the manuscript genuinely as a craft.
How are you feeling these days, now that the book is done and that refuge is no longer available to you?
You hope for either good reviews or you hope to sell more. I would've taken either, but it was very nice that both things happened. I didn't expect that. So now I've just got to figure out what I do next. I've always had these two rhythms: my writing in my tunnel thing and then there is my “making it happen” thing. I love both. But it's harder to [have] fun being out there in the world now, because that kind of media has disappeared. So I find other ways to do things.
Have you ever been exhausted by your own ambition?
I am just wildly responsive to the world. So my drawback is I can get too easily galvanized. I can suddenly go, "We should do blah, blah, blah." Next thing I'm chasing that hare and it's like, "Wait a minute, why am I doing this? It's a completely onerous task." I'm very project related. I like having a deadline, a goal. I'm not good at what I call “project cruising,” doing four things at once. If I'm writing a book, I am writing a book. If I'm doing a live event or something, that's what I'm focused on. I like to have serial obsessions.
The Vanity Fair Diaries came out in 2017, but everyone seemed to be reading it this summer — myself included. How aware are you of the second life it’s taken on?
It has become something of a cult hit. I think maybe people are a bit nostalgic for the era. The whole excitement of the magazine world has vanished. Also just the experience of having hub places where everybody was has completely vanished with the virtual working space.
So much of your career has taken place at the top of a masthead. Now, you’re operating on your own, as an author, and there’s still an immense amount of enthusiasm for the work that you’re doing. Does that feel satisfying in a different way?
It has been, I have to say. It’s pleasing to be able to transfer one’s skillset. My obsession has always been culture, society, politics, and the intersection of those [topics] and I haven't lost my appetite for it. Three times a day I see a story I would like to do. And frequently they don't happen. Sometimes they do, but a lot of the times I wish I had a place to put it. But I also don't wish to be back in magazines because I don't think that's the cultural format [right now].
If you were to be back at say, Vanity Fair, what would you be covering? Who would you put on the cover?
Hilaria Baldwin. Obviously, she was the person [Alec Baldwin] was talking to on the set of Rust. I mean, he's completely colonized by Hilaria Baldwin. Keeps having children. It's the same question I asked Angelina Jolie when I interviewed her, “What happens on field day at each of these schools?” Field day's traumatic enough if you have two. Imagine having seven!
I can’t. Do you divide and conquer watching all the relay races with the nannies?
No, because today you have to be a perfect parent. There's complicated levels of brand building that has to happen these days, which is just completely exhausting to think about.
When you left Vanity Fair, you said that you felt celebrity culture had peaked…
My God, I could never even imagine that it would become so insane. In fact, there isn’t any other culture. Celebrity culture has eaten the world. There’s just no other kind.
Magazines used to have the power, compared to celebrities! Now it’s totally reversed.
Isn't it just the worst thing? I mean, journalism used to be so good because there was access. I had to do an interview with Gail Sheehy before she died, and I reread her profile of Hillary Clinton [for Vanity Fair]. She was given the access that you wouldn't believe. She was riding around with Hillary while she was campaigning with Bill. You remember the whole Gennifer Flowers explosion, [when Bill Clinton's affair was first revealed]? I mean, [Hillary’s] sitting there talking to Gail and saying things like “that b*tch” about Gennifer Flowers. Gail is standing next to her on the payphone while she's yelling at Bill!
The problem is it really has meant that we don't know anybody anymore. Of course that’s what went wrong with George Santos — the fact that nobody reported on George Santos. I keep reading pieces in the Times saying, "What was the failure of opposition research on George Santos?" No. What was the failure of journalism that nobody said, “Let's examine this candidate and see what he stands for”?
Would you put George Santos on a cover?
He would be a big, big story. Because I would do it from that point of view: How did we arrive at this person who is an absolute fabulist to the most extraordinary degree?
It's the big grift.
That was another thing that was fascinating to me about The Diaries. Between Anna Delvey and Elizabeth Holmes, much has been made about us living at the height of grift culture. But those types of stories were the bread and butter of your Vanity Fair in the ‘80s.
It really was. But the best kind of true crime reporting, whether it's Truman Capote or whoever, is when the crime allows you to open the door to a world. It was never about “the crime,” as in the Dateline version. It is really about what does this allow me to learn about that society? Or a high society? Or the world of George Santos? You want to be able to use that as an excuse to open the door and interview all of these people and get this picture of this amazing world. That's what Dominick Dunne was so good at.
If there are three stories you’d like to run with per day, how do you force yourself to slow down and submit to the much more glacial pace of book publishing?
There is nothing more satisfying than coming to the end of a chapter and thinking, “How am I going to leave people with the suspense?” My husband taught me that. He was very good at narrative writing and he showed me how to do a chapter that would make you want to read the next one. And the royals are a great device for me because they're a way to drape my insights into society, class, or the way the English are. They’re an endlessly giving story.
I have some final, rapid-fire questions for you. Looking back on your career, do you have any regrets?
Going to work for Harvey Weinstein. That was my big regret.
Was there a moment where you felt like you really made it?
First time I was paid a million dollars.
Is there something you wish you could tell your younger self?
I would say count to 25 before you say yes.
If The Vanity Fair Diaries was to be made into a miniseries, who would you like to be played by?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photographer: Gillian Laub