I’ve gotten more than a few Instagram DMs lately asking for my thoughts on Tina Brown’s highly anticipated new book, The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor—the Truth and the Turmoil, which comes out Tuesday.
Brown, the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker, is an absolute legend in American publishing. Her 2007 bestselling book, The Diana Chronicles, is among the most-cited accounts of the late princess’s life. The Palace Papers picks up after Diana’s death, according to the publisher’s description, revealing “how the royal family reinvented itself after the traumatic years when Diana’s blazing celebrity ripped through the House of Windsor like a comet.”
What makes this book different from the spate of royal biographies and purported tell-alls published in the last few years? It’s Brown, who is known for her unique combination of exhaustive reporting, authoritative analysis, and salacious, take-a-swipe-at-every-subject writing.
The reviews I’ve seen so far are mixed. The New York Times said it “isn’t juicy, exactly, nor pulpy” but rather “it’s frothy and forthright, a kind of ‘Keeping Up With the Windsors’ with sprinkles of Keats.” The Washington Post called it “high-minded and gossipy, and addictively readable,” while noting — in the headline — that the author’s “royal revelations spare no one, especially Meghan Markle.”
Ahead of the book’s release on Tuesday, I thought it would be helpful to provide some background on Brown, her career, and her previous writing about the royal family. (My requests for an advance copy of the book, as well as an interview with Brown, were declined via her publisher.)
Will you be reading The Palace Papers? Please hit “join the discussion” at the bottom of this email and let me know in the comments of this newsletter.
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Tina Brown, age 68, is an author, journalist, and editor. She served as editor-in-chief of — and notably reinvented — three influential magazines: Tatler, Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker. She founded the short-lived Talk magazine as well as the Daily Beast; she also started the Women in the World Summit, a live event that in 2019 featured Oprah Winfrey and Anna Wintour.
In 2000, Brown was honored by Queen Elizabeth as a commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for “her services to overseas journalism.” She is the author of two best-selling books, The Diana Chronicles (2007) and The Vanity Fair Diaries (2017), as well as the forthcoming The Palace Papers.
“What I love, and what I’ve always loved, is telling stories,” she said in a 2020 interview with the New York Times.
Born in Maidenhead, England, Brown was the second child of Bettina Kohr and George Hambley Brown, a film producer. Her childhood, as she tells it, foreshadowed her career that was to come. “I was very rebellious. I got into lots of trouble and went to lots of schools as a result,” Brown told the Guardian in 2007. She was asked to leave one school after staging a demonstration about knickers and another for referring to the headmistresses’ “bosoms as ‘unidentified flying objects’” in her diary.
Brown enrolled at Oxford at the age of 16 and landed her first job at the Sunday Times when she was 22. There she met her husband, Harold Evans, who was married, 25 years her senior, and the editor of the paper. He divorced his first wife, Enid Parker, and married Brown in 1981. “It was a great coup de foudre on both our parts,” Brown told the Guardian. More from the piece:
Brown and Evans were married for nearly 40 years before his death in 2020 at the age of 92. Together they have two children, George and Isabelle.
At the age of 25, she was offered the chance to edit Tatler. In what would be the first of several magazine makeovers, Brown mussed up the upper-class title, aiming it squarely at a younger audience. From a 1991 story in the Independent:
But she didn’t hang around for long. In 1982, Condé Nast, the powerful publishing house behind titles like Vogue, invited Brown to move to New York and take over at Vanity Fair. It’s crazy now to think that Vanity Fair, a hugely influential magazine at present, was once floundering to the point that Condé Nast would offer a 29-year-old Brit the chance to edit it.
To be fair, she did a lot more than that. But the 1991 Demi moment is one people repeatedly point to as proof of how she overhauled the magazine. The issue sold out on some newsstands and was banned by others, according to the Associated Press. The magazine sold 1.2 million copies, Brown told CNBC, a huge boost from its circulation at the time of 800,000.
“It’s one of my proudest things that we did for women, because it really liberated women from maternity clothes,” she told the financial news network in 2018. “And it also liberated women from a sense that pregnancy was something to be sort of covered up.”
Brown’s talent was rethinking what was covered and how it was positioned, making the magazine’s glossy pages an enticing, must-read every month. “Her rule was high-low: high culture joined to low gossip, insisting on the highest standards of accuracy and narration for both,” wrote David Frum in a 2018 Atlantic piece.
So effective was her approach that Brown made herself into a sought-after and buzzed-about subject like those she covered. From a 1991 profile of her in the Los Angeles Times Magazine:
In 1992, Brown was recruited to become the first woman to edit the New Yorker, another revered Conde Nast title — albeit one with a very different bent, known for its serious, lengthy journalism. She was responsible for finding and supporting some of the biggest names in journalism today, including Malcolm Gladwell and David Remnick (who went on to succeed her as editor). Brown also hired Richard Avdeon as the first staff photographer.
“Frankly, I electrified a sleeping beauty that had become self-satisfied and self-admiring and was covered in fake ivy. There were the people who thought of themselves as good because they were at The New Yorker rather than at The New Yorker because they were good,” Brown told the New York Times in 2020.
But her tenure was not without its controversy. Jamaica Kincaid called her “Stalin in high heels,” resigning after Roseanne Barr was invited to guest edit the magazine. Writer George Trow accused Brown of “kissing the ass of celebrity” in his own resignation letter, to which Brown retorted: “I am distraught at your defection but since you never actually write anything I should say I am notionally distraught.”
Brown left the New Yorker in 1998 to launch a new title, Talk, from Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax. It lasted just two years before the now-disgraced filmmaker pulled funding. Asked about whether she knew about the sexual abuse allegations against him, Brown told the New York Times, “At the time, no. I didn’t know that about him. The kind of abuse that I saw was just bullying, rudeness and so on.”
She blamed the downfall of the magazine on the collapse of the advertising market in a post 9/11 media landscape. But the 2007 Guardian piece offered this explanation: “Brown was widely seen to have fallen out of step with the times and produced a magazine that was overstated and overstylised, too glossy and too pleased with itself.”
Brown’s coverage of the royal family goes back to her days at Tatler, where she was at the helm when Lady Diana Spencer married the heir to the throne.
But it was her October 1985 cover story for Vanity Fair about Diana called, “The Mouse that Roared,” that got everyone talking. It was pegged to the Prince and Princess of Wales’ upcoming visit to the United States, when cracks in the fairytale were emerging. Brown had a new angle for the story that was being exhaustively covered by media outlets on both sides of the pond, painting a portrait of a demanding Diana. From the piece’s opening paragraph:
In 2007, just before the tenth anniversary of Princess Diana’s death, Tina published her first book: The Diana Chronicles. It is based on 250 interviews, a staggering number of royal sources but also indicative of the time in which she wrote it. (The harsh truth is that as a reporter it is much easier to get someone to talk about a subject who has passed rather than one who is still alive.)
The book combined Brown’s exhaustive, meticulous reporting with her signature you’ve-got-to-hear-this tone, writing about this storied institution and famous family as if gossiping at a wine-fueled dinner party. What seemed to resonate the most, however, were the small but new details that cast the plight of the troubled princess in a new light. Brown writes of Diana riding her bicycle through the corridors of Buckingham Palace the night before her wedding; it’s a small but telling moment—you can picture it, can’t you?—illustrating Diana’s youth and naivete with her sense of adventure and hint of rebellion.
Not all were enamored with Brown’s take. Entertainment Weekly’s review praised The Diana Chronicles exhaustive research but was less than impressed at the tone with which the material was presented. “It’s curious that a writer as gifted as Brown has chosen to add to this summer’s Diana frenzy with this shrewd, often venomous bio,” Tina Jordan wrote. “For Diana’s sake, one hopes this book is the last of its kind. She’s dead. Let her rest in peace.”
Brown is an integral figure in creating the media landscape that has so dramatically changed how the Firm operates today. It gives her a unique angle from which to cover the dance between the palace and the press.
What’s more, as the New York Times review of The Diana Chronicles noted in 2007, Brown “knows this world much better than many who inhabit it.” She is unafraid of offering up her own insights and conclusions on the characters she covers. For example, in The Diana Chronicles, Brown drills down into why the attention Diana received in her earliest years was so devastating to Charles:
The book is said to pick up on her royal reporting after Diana’s death. Which does not narrow it down much! The last 25 years have been tumultuous and transformative for the royal family; I’m very curious to see where the author chose to focus her time and reporting.
The excerpts that have been released so far seem to cover quite a range of people and eras, including dipping back into Diana’s biggest dramas. If you’d like an early look, have a read:
Brown gave a long interview to the Telegraph ahead of her book’s publication offering up her thoughts on current royal affairs. Quote after quotable quote have resulted in clickbait headlines — she knows how to build buzz, that’s for sure. Here are some highlights:
On what the royal family will look like after the Queen: “I do think the country is going to have the most enormous national nervous breakdown when the Queen dies…but I am actually more of a Charles optimist than many. Everybody said that it couldn’t work after Victoria died. In the event, there were nine years of Edward VII, who became a rollicking sorbet course between Victoria and George V.”
On Charles as king: “I think Charles could become the grandfather of the nation… And I think Camilla has a chance to be a sort of instant queen mother. She’s got a lot of charm and naturalness and they have this incredible bond as a couple.”
On people calling for William to be king: “Obviously, William and Kate would generate more excitement, but they also have to then reinvent the monarchy which, funnily enough, is more difficult for them to do. It’s much easier if Charles has taken some of the heat for the changes. Following a mighty leader like Elizabeth II, it’s often better if you have a period of transition before another charismatic leader comes in. He’d better not stick around too long though!”
On Camilla becoming Queen Consort: “Diana would have loathed the idea of Queen Camilla, there's no question about it but we're 25 years on. The Queen’s always been a pragmatist and she knows Charles wants Camilla to be queen. So what the Queen wants to do now is tidy up and do what she can to help Charles take on the role. It was a very shrewd bit of estate planning to make that declaration.”
A warning: Brown’s harshest comments to the Telegraph were about the Sussexes. I would expect The Palace Papers reflects these sentiments. (The Guardian review said she interviewed Meghan’s dad, “who adds Brown to the long list of journalists to whom he has trashed his daughter. Brown duly rewards him by defending his indefensible behaviour.”)
On Harry and Meghan stepping down as senior working royals: “Frankly, I think they should have found a way to work it out. The problem was that the way Harry did it was so catastrophically rude that it got everyone genuinely angry and feeling that he just had to go…And now, unfortunately, he’s paying the price for it and so is England actually. Because Harry and Meghan would have been an amazing asset for the Commonwealth. They didn’t understand the Queen was giving them this platform for soft power which could have been tremendous if they’d done it in a patient, strategic way.”
On Meghan’s frustrations within the family: “Even as Meghan became bigger on the global stage, like Alice in Wonderland she had to shrink into the voiceless requirements of service to the Crown. She just couldn’t comprehend that. For an actress, star power is leverage. If you don’t get what you want as an actress, it's, “Call my agent!” But if you're in the Palace and you’re married to the sixth in line, however big your star power, you are not that important to the Palace. I do understand how extremely frustrating that was.”
On Harry’s forthcoming memoir: “Harry’s not going to go after the Queen, she’s sacrosanct. And he probably won’t go after Kate, whom he’s very fond of. But he will go after Charles and Camilla and maybe William. And that’s so unhelpful to them all at this particular moment; for William that’s the big cloud in their relationship right now.”
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But mostly: With a healthy sense of skepticism, I will start to read The Palace Papers when it is published next week—and decide from there whether I will read the book in its entirety. Will you be reading The Palace Papers? Please hit “Join the discussion” and let me know in the comments of the newsletter.
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Have a wonderful weekend, friends. I’ll see you back in your inboxes on Tuesday.
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