A chance for reappraisal has now come. “The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992” (Holt) is Brown’s private account of her work at Vanity Fair for nearly a decade, the editorship often seen as her most dazzling feat. When she took over, less than a year after being blown into New York by Dr. Ruth, the magazine was tens of millions of dollars in the red, with a circulation of about two hundred and fifty thousand. By the time she left, it had more than doubled its pages of advertising and gained about a million readers. The diaries are a ledger of the workdays in between.
That time was filled with famous people, endless parties, comic misadventure. But it’s Brown’s reports on editing that offer an illuminating thrill. Brown calls herself “a magazine romantic,” and, reading her diary, you see why: she collects old magazines the way some people collect baseball cards, and her entries flutter with the joy of conquest at a time when glossies were reaching a glamorous peak. Her narrative is juicy in the mold less of a chophouse steak than of a summer peach: a little tart, a little sweet, mostly refreshing. It’s pretty irresistible. Brown is an entertaining writer of what could be called High Magazinese, a prose of front-loaded descriptors and punch-line squibs (from the introduction: “Large, blond, and ebullient in his well-tailored suits, my father filled a room with his commanding height and broken nose”), and, winsomely, she seems to write this way even when writing for herself. She has a novelist’s sense of pacing and a perverse genius for description. One pompous woman is “a coiffed asparagus”; an aging lord’s secretary is “a pretty, silent blonde girl with whom he probably enjoys recreational humiliation.” Walter Mondale “would make an excellent prime minister of Norway,” and Wallace Shawn is “like a small, anxious hippo.” (There are misses along with the hits, and some descriptions—“Bill Buckley did a pale, sexy, contact-lens stare at me”—leave the reader not just cold but chilled.)
This scene reflects the strange malfunction of our urban dream of reclamation. The High Line and its artworks exemplify the middle-class cultural objects that have emerged to obscure the ills of a new Gilded Age. If you’re like me, you love the park. Maybe you visit with your family and friends to see conceptual sculptures and eat little ice cream sandwiches as the sun descends over Frank Gehry's igloo on the old West Side. But maybe you also notice the neighborhood’s grotesque luxury glut. Even as these objects delight us, they also remind us of the public space we’ve lost and the social inequality they’ve yielded.
Translating a poem into another language—its content, its form, its tone, its nuance—is, as almost everyone who has done it knows, a difficult business. But it also has enormous rewards: for the translator, for the reader, for poetry itself.
Some years ago, I was asked to teach a workshop about this impossible process. Among other materials, including essays about translation, I gave the participants two side-by-side English translations of a poem by Pablo Neruda, along with the original Spanish. Those translations proved to be the most valuable resource I offered. Seeing what different translators have done with the same poem immediately eliminates easy assumptions that beginning translators often make: that there is a single way, a most correct way, or a best way to translate a poem.
It’s hard to remember a time before we had the option to curate the playlist of our own minds. We are simply accustomed now to experiencing music in this deeply personal, albeit solitary, way. We disappear into headphones, stream a song via smartphone from the intangible, infinite web, creating a sonic landscape that mirrors our mood. We walk around the grocery store in Beyoncé-land.
But that wasn’t always the case. In her new book Personal Stereo, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow analyzes two major shifts in perspective associated with the 1979 birth of the first solo listening device, the Walkman. First, music becomes a personal experience, and second, music becomes immersive, a means to override — or even negate — the sounds of one’s immediate environment. Listening to music in private was not a new concept, of course, nor was the ability to take music on the road (à la the boom box). However, the idea of making the private experience of music a public phenomenon was groundbreaking. In that sense, the Walkman redefined music: it was a revolutionary tool that offered listeners a new kind of freedom. Music technology today still riffs on the basic concept of the Walkman, only now we have digital access to nearly every recorded song.
Some years ago, Jennet Conant wrote an op-ed entitled “My Grandfather and the Bomb,” in which she revealed that “Los Alamos was the chief morality tale of my childhood.” When she was 10 years old her father, Ted Conant, moved his family to Japan and took his young daughter to visit Hiroshima. She became acutely aware “that I was living in a country my grandfather had once tried to blow to smithereens.” Her father was highly critical of her grandfather, recounting his “transgressions, his complicity in the secret military effort to develop chemical weapons and the atom bomb.” This harsh portrait was at odds with the grandfather she knew, an austere New Englander “made more approachable by age and the twinkle in his eyes.” Young Jennet was caught in the poisonous relationship between her father and grandfather: “the deep rifts in our family never entirely healed.”