I love diaries. Unlike memoirs, which are written long after the fact — with the benefit of hindsight and nearly always in a way that flatters the author — diaries are history in real time, as it was lived. True, the diarist also tends to make himself or herself the centre of events and does not always own up to sins of omission and commission, not to mention acts of downright stupidity. But writing soon after the heat of the moment, the diarist crystallises the reality of the human condition — a reality that historians too often understate — that the future is mostly unknowable.
Unlike the biographer, the diarist does not know which side will win the war, which titan will tumble, which bit player will rise to power. As the great historian of English law Frederic William Maitland observed: “We should always be aware that what now lies in the past once lay in the future.” Reading diaries is the best way to appreciate that.
For this reason, I loved Tina Brown’s The Vanity Fair Diaries, which cover the period between 1983 and 1992 when she edited the glossy magazine Vanity Fair. They tell, in prose that veers from the dazzling to the dutiful — depending on her mood and level of fatigue — several gripping stories.
There is the story of one of the first female editors of a top publication; the story of an immigrant making it big in the Big Apple; and the story of the central trilemma of the feminist era — that it is impossible simultaneously to be successful (and contented) as a professional, a mother and a wife. (In a trilemma, you can have two out of three, but not all three.) All of this kept me turning the pages.
The obvious historical value of Brown’s diaries is that they capture, vividly, the high noon and then the dusk of the Reagan era, as viewed from Manhattan. On Wall Street the 1980s were a time of deal-making and high-rolling, of junk bonds and boorish traders who gloried in the nickname “big swinging dicks”. Yet just a short distance away in bohemian neighbourhoods such as Greenwich Village the HIV/Aids epidemic was decimating the gay community.
Brown was an acute observer of such incongruities. Her account of the wedding of her friend Arianna Stassinopoulos to the Texan millionaire Michael Huffington perfectly captures the spirit of the age, with Henry Kissinger and Mort Zuckerman wisecracking their way through the over-the-top nuptials. (“The service swerved from High Church to Greek Orthodox, with crowns held aloft over the bride and groom. ‘What will the psalms be in? Aztec?’ muttered Henry Kissinger.”)
Nevertheless, the true gold buried in Brown’s diary is her portrait of a “sulky, Elvisy” property developer whom she features in her first Vanity Fair Christmas edition in 1984 simply “because he’s a brass act. And he owns his own football team. And he thinks he should negotiate arms control agreements with the Soviet Union.”
Three years later she decides to publish extracts of his autobiography, “which has a crassness I like . . . there is something authentic about [his] bullshit . . . it feels, when you have finished it, as if you’ve been nose to nose for four hours with an entertaining conman and I suspect the American public will like nothing better”.
The conman in question is of course Donald Trump, who flits through Brown’s diary like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Her first encounter with The Donald is at a dinner on September 25, 1987. “He was all over me,” she writes, “hoping to charm me into favourable presentation in the mag. At dinner [he] started bombarding me with interest. ‘Tina,’ he shouted, ‘what do you think of the Newsweek cover story on me?’
“‘I haven’t read it,’ I told him. ‘You know, Tina, I could have had Time. They wanted me and I saw them, too. But Newsweek scooped them. Who do you think’s better, Tina, Newsweek or Time?’ ‘Time,’ I said mischievously. ‘You really think so, Tina, you really think so?’ His pouty Elvis face folded into a frown of self-castigation. ‘I guess it sells more,’ he said in a tormented tone. ‘I guess it does.’”
It gets better. “‘You know what?’ Trump continued shouting across to me. ‘Went to the opening of the Met last night. Ring Cycle. Placido Domingo. Five hours. Dinner started at twelve. Beat that. I said to Ivana, what, are you crazy? Never again.’”
Brown’s account of the party Trump threw for his book The Art of the Deal is one that future historians will savour. All she gets wrong is to call it “the gaudy postscript to an era’s boom and crash”. For we now know that Trump’s party was the preamble to an even gaudier, boomier, crashier era.
“Trump himself looked sleek and starry as a prosperous young seal in his tux and white evening scarf. ‘Can you believe this party!’ he kept exclaiming. ‘No, seriously, can you believe it? Love your magazine! Beautiful piece on Ivana. Byoodiful!’”
We next encounter Donald and Ivana in the throes of divorce, an event covered in depth by Vanity Fair. The journalist Marie Brenner sides with Ivana, portraying Trump as “a brutish, philandering husband” so addicted to “lying and loud-mouthing . . . that it’s incredible he still prospers and gets banks to loan him money”.
“He’s like some monstrous id creation of his father,” Brown writes, “a cartoon assemblage of all his worst characteristics mixed with the particular excesses of the new media age. The revelation that he has a collection of Hitler’s speeches at the office is going to make a lot of news.”
Trump took his revenge in characteristic fashion. It was December 10, 1991, and the occasion a black-tie gala to mark the opening of Barbra Streisand’s latest film. Brenner was “sitting demurely . . . when she felt something cold and wet running down her back. Unwilling to embarrass the waiter, she didn’t turn around. Until the other guests at the table started pointing and yelping, ‘Oh my God! Look what he just did!’” She was just in time to spot Trump’s “familiar Elvis coif making off across the Crystal Room”. He had poured a glass of wine over her.
For the diarist, this is the last nail in the coffin of Trump’s reputation. “The sneaky, petulant infant,” she scribbles indignantly. “What a coward!” The historian can only doff his cap in gratitude. For here we see, unvarnished and unmistakeable, the man who would be president. And here we also see the fateful inability of the New York elite to foresee his irresistible rise.
It was on September 2, 1987, that Trump took out a full-page newspaper advertisement with the headline: “There’s nothing wrong with America’s foreign defence policy that a little backbone can’t cure.” In it he called on the United States to cease spending money on Middle Eastern peacekeeping that mainly benefited the Saudis and Japanese, to “end our vast deficits by making Japan, and others who can afford it, pay” and to “reduce our taxes, and let America’s economy grow”.
How Vanity Fair laughed derisively at what is now (with China taking the place of Japan) the foreign policy of the 45th president of the United States of America, Donald J Trump: the Elvisy revenge of the 1980s.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford