Bonfire of the Vanity Fair

Dana Brown’s memoir about Vanity Fair’s heyday brings back the glamour–and the fall

I’ll give you a minute. Take two. Who’s the current editor of Vanity Fair magazine? My guess: You don’t have a clue.  I didn’t. Anyway, for about a quarter of a century, starting in the early 90s, VF’s EIC, Graydon Carter, was somewhat of a household name. Back then, VF was often thick as phone book, full of expensive ads and photos of shiny, famous people. Their Hollywood issue was an enormous seller. VF might hold a record for the number of times they put Tom Hanks on the cover. Graydon, no last name necessary, was a king–and a kingmaker. A mere mention in VF could make someone’s career.

Vanity Fair meant power.

Enter Dana Brown, an unknown, directionless young man. Brown was laboring as a barback at 44, a stylish midtown restaurant, when he caught Graydon’s eye. Brown had something. Graydon eventually hired Brown-and Vanity Fair became Brown’s career. Now, Brown has written about his 20-plus years at VF, in Dilettante, providing a window into the rarefied VF’s universe of celebrities, billionaires and literary luminaries. Brown writes in a fun conversational style, providing plenty of laughs along the way. For one, Brown describes the breakfast ritual of one Conde Nastie. It involves ice and a strip of sausage- and, well, that’s it.

Vanity Fair
Dilettante, by Dana Brown (Penguin/Random House).

Things didn’t start off funny for Brown. As a kid, he did the Holden Caulfield thing at The Putney School in Vermont, once running away from “the progressive” boarding school. He tried college-for a few weeks before joining the workforce. He was barely in his 20s, but he looked about 12. At 44, which served as Conde Nast’s unofficial cafeteria, he met his fate. Despite the fact that he miserably failed Conde Nast’s typing test, and that he had no experience whatsoever, Graydon hired him as his assistant. He learned on the job, running errands for Graydon and eavesdropping on the masters of the magazine industry. Eventually, Brown acknowledged that his rock band sucked, and he committed to VF fulltime-for life really. And VF gave him life: direction, purpose, and value.

Gradually, Brown rose up the VF masthead, eventually making it to senior editor. He worked with a who’s who of writers, including Christopher Hitchens, A.A. Gill and Buzz Bissinger. Brown edited one of the best reads in VF’s long history: “Pat Dollard’s War on Hollywood” by Evan Wright. He also worked on Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out cover. Brown recounts a fun story about Kim Kardashian crashing the Caitlyn photo shoot. Indeed, some of the anecdotes in Dilettante are very good , but Brown’s tone of I stepped in sh—and look what happened to me is even better.

But it wasn’t all work and no play in the VF playground, quite the opposite. A crew of VF staffers, including Brown, would fly off to the Cannes Film Festival for a week and get hammered with movie stars. Sometimes, the way Brown recounts it, it seemed as VF had access to Air Force One. At VF, lunch was work-on the company’s dime.  Conde’s expense accounts were limitless, not to mention bottomless.

Brown was living a fantasy.

And then everything crashed. The world changed. 9/11. The stock market crash of 2008. Social Media. Repeat: social media. Reality TV. The Kardashians. Magazines were no longer what they were. Newsstand sales were dismal. No, wait, newsstands? Most of those had vanished too.  If a star wanted to deliver a message, they’d hit a few buttons and post something on Instagram, no in with VF’s Hollywood issue required. Eventually, Graydon stepped down. Brown had the cajones to throw his hat in the ring for Graydon’s position. Indeed, Brown had come a long way from his days as a directionless delinquent.

With Dilettante, Brown answers the bell with a fun, often funny ride–and he does so without burning bridges. Dilettante is not a hit piece ala The Devil Wears Prada, which was authored by Vogue editor Anna Wintour’s former assistant. My only gripe is that Dilettante wasn’t longer. I’m looking forward to Dana Brown’s next act.

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Jon Hart

Jon Hart is the author of Man versus Ball: One Ordinary Guy and His Extraordinary Sports Adventures. He holds the Citi Field record for hawking the most pretzels during a single game.

One thought on “Bonfire of the Vanity Fair

  • April 9, 2022 at 9:33 am
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    This def makes me want to check out the book. I always love reading
    Jon Hart’s reviews. Salute

    Reply

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