Remembering the Epic Parties of Harry Evans and Tina Brown
Remembering the Epic Parties of Harry Evans and Tina Brown
One of Harry Evans’s gifts as a journalist was his understanding of power: who had it, why they got it, and — most significantly — how they misused it.
His career as perhaps the United Kingdom’s most accomplished newspaper editor took off in the ’60s, when, as the editor of Darlington Echo, he helped turn the wrongful conviction of a man hanged for murder into a crusade that culminated in the end of the death penalty. As the editor of The Sunday Times in the ’70s, he forced an international reckoning with Big Pharma, taking on drugmakers who played down the substantial health risks of the tranquilizer thalidomide.
But at the Sutton Place ground-floor duplex apartment he shared with his wife Tina Brown from the fizzy late ’90s till the somewhat more chastened late ’10s, Mr. Evans, who died last Wednesday at the age of 92, became a premier salonist of a generally post-salon era, hosting authors, media personalities, politicians and dignitaries, the more powerful the better.
There was usually a guest of honor and more often than not, the peg (as it’s called in journalism) was a book, like Simon Schama and “The Story of the Jews,” published in 2014. Or a victory, like the Labour candidate Tony Blair’s election to prime minister in 1997.
The morning of a party, Mr. Evans and Ms. Brown would head to the Sutton Cafe, on First Avenue, where they’d eat breakfast, and read about 14 newspapers.
Then, they would come home and Mr. Evans would play Ping-Pong before jumping into the bath, where he’d spend a few hours reading the book being celebrated and prepare his toast. She worked on the seating arrangements.
In the afternoon, a moving truck would arrive and extract the furniture from the common areas of the apartment.
Around 6 p.m., guests were greeted in the lobby by young women with clipboards checking off their names. In the foyer were glasses of champagne. Presuming the weather obliged, the bulk of the guests walked out into the garden. One might see Gayle King mingling with Barry Diller. Or a downtown nightlife fixture flashing a group of Secret Service guys accompanying Al Gore.
Mr. Evans, a 5-foot-7 cannonball of energy whose suits were as dapper as his hair was messy, seemed to float above the crowd, sprinkling buoyancy, and too fast to catch.
The recipients of his mischievous, alliterative toasts were usually on the friends list, but it said something about the power he and Ms. Brown wielded in New York that many of those in attendance were people who had been scorched in publications she presided over (most notably Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and The Daily Beast) or in books he edited at Random House (which he headed from 1990 to 1997).
In 1996, Mr. Evans published “Primary Colors,” the best-selling roman à clef that turned out to be by Joe Klein, about a southern governor running for president, bulldozing everyone in his wake. Yet there was Bill Clinton some years later, standing in the garden with Mr. Evans and Ms. Brown on behalf of their mutual friend Sidney Blumenthal.
And there at another party was Roger Ailes, regaling guests about his accomplishments at Fox News, despite the fact that Mr. Evans in 1983 wrote “Good Times, Bad Times,” an account of being defenestrated at The Times of London after it was taken over by Rupert Murdoch.
In 2004, Mr. Evans was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to journalism. Yet his biggest pet peeve, according to his good friend, the writer Marie Brenner, was the “snobby class society of England. Many of his most hilarious toasts were about that.”
Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, became friendly with Mr. Evans and Ms. Brown in 2017, shortly after he was fired by the Trump administration. Upon the publication of his book, a not-quite-a-memoir called “Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law,” released in 2019, the couple hosted a party for him at the apartment.
The book, Mr. Bharara said in an interview, touched on high-profile cases involving “insider trading and public corruption,” but Mr. Evans chose in his toast to focus on a chapter involving “the least famous case, this woman who’d lost $11,000 and been brutally beaten. It had never been in the newspaper but it was about someone powerless getting their case in court.”
Mr. Evans did not have to be an expert on a subject to monopolize the microphone.
Occasionally, Ms. Brown held a party for someone whose career had nothing to do with Mr. Evans’ main interests.
Their friend Gabé Doppelt, the former magazine editor, said Mr. Evans would suggest that he take his computer into the moving truck and ride around with the drivers, getting his work done.
But he never did. The relationship between him and Ms. Brown was too symbiotic for that. One of her gifts was making the fun stuff serious, turning pop culture into sociology. One of his was making the serious stuff fun.
So at parties for fashion designers and Hollywood actresses, he would manage during the toasts he wasn’t delivering to do what Ms. Doppelt described as a “little heckling.”
It wasn’t meanspirited. In fact, Mr. Evans had an enthusiasm for his wife’s career big enough to rival Martin Ginsburg, the highly successful tax lawyer who, as Linda Greenhouse wrote in a recent obituary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, became his wife’s chief booster, “happily giving up his lucrative New York law practice to move with her to Washington,” and lobbying “vigorously behind the scenes for her appointment to the Supreme Court.”
“He was thrilled for her success and more than that, he got off on her brain,” said the writer Holly Peterson, speaking of Mr. Evans and Ms. Brown. “It was an intellectual mind meld.”
And there were other similarities between the Evans-Browns and the Ginsburgs.
Ms. Ginsburg, according to Ms. Greenhouse, was “reserved” and had a pronounced ability to “unnerve” people, both because she was a powerful woman and because she also could be in spite of this shy and anxious. That is also true of Ms. Brown.
Mr. Ginsburg was an “ebullient raconteur, quick with a joke of which he himself was often the butt.” Likewise, Mr. Evans.
Two years ago, Mr. Evans turned ninety and Ms. Brown threw him a birthday party at Clivedon House in the National Gardens. There, she gave a toast of her own, talking about how, after his pre-party baths, she would find the books “discarded and very damp, with strips of sponge to mark pages.”
The longest bath he ever took, she said, was before moderating a panel with three Proust historians at a monthly literary breakfast he started while at Random House.
“When I asked him through the door the last time he had read Proust he replied, ‘Never,’” Ms. Brown said. “‘But by the time I get out I think I’ll have the gist of it.’”