When Harry Met Willie

Last week's flap at The New Yorker had all the dignity and relevance of a vice presidential debate. It started with a charge from spy novelist John le Carre that editor Tina Brown had savaged a British biographer in order to protect her own husband, Harold Evans. Faxed letters and public statements exchanged charges of toadyism and sexism. And there's nothing bitchier than a literary feud, especially when it's fought at the dicey crossroads where British book publishing intersects with glossy journalism.

All the characters in this story are British, except for one media baron, Australian-born Rupert Murdoch, whose domain stretches from the stuffy Times of London to the trendy world of Fox TV. Three weeks ago, in Brown's second issue, The New Yorker ran a mocking "Talk of the Town" item about a new biography of Murdoch by William Shawcross, the journalist who skewered Henry Kissinger in "Sideshow." The Murdoch book was evenhanded and respectful of the conservative press lord, and many left-wing British literati felt betrayed. The author of the " Talk" item, Francis Wheen, said Shawcross had been "beguiled" by Murdoch. "Some say," he also wrote, "that Shawcross's turnabout is genetically programmed: his father, Sir Hartley Shawcross, was a socialist politician who veered off to the right in the '50s and earned himself the nickname Sir Shortly Floorcross."

What Wheen didn't mention is that the Murdoch biography is a bit rough on Harry Evans, Brown's husband, publisher of the adult trade-book division at Random House. Murdoch fired him as editor of The Times in 1982. Shawcross, who once worked for Evans, wrote that he was a bad manager and a "capricious" editor. He quoted Murdoch as saying: "Harry used to come to me and say"--(he mimicked a fast and mouselike whisper)--"'I'll do anything you like. Just tell me what you'd like'. "

Enter John le Carre, whose real name is David Cornwell. In an angry letter, he protested the "shameful" treatment of his friend Shawcross, insisting that Wheen should have acknowledged the Brown-Evans relationship (page 72). Brown replied that it would be "a pleasure" to publish the letter, provided Cornwell compress it into a single paragraph--standard editing at many magazines. "Can I ask you to make your point in that space?" Brown wrote. "Frankly, from yours and Willie's point of view, it might pack a little more punch than sounding, as a couple of the editors here thought, like a choleric Colonel in Angmering-on-Sea." Cornwell refused to abridge his letter and instead released it to the press.

Brown and Evans were miffed at Cornwell's charge that she had tried to shield him. "The notion that somehow a wife is a mouthpiece for her husband is old-fashioned," Brown told NEWSWEEK. "Perhaps [Cornwell's] marriage is like that-he can go out and rest content that his wife will act for him as a mouthpiece," Evans said separately.

The British "chattering classes," as Brown calls them, are extraordinarily inbred. They edit and publish each other, review each other's books and gossip obsessively about each other. And now some of them are over here, writing and editing at American magazines like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. Cornwell, a relative outsider, complains that British journalistic sleaze is seeping into more high-minded U.S. magazines. "The New Yorker was a kind of shrine," he told NEWSWEEK. "And I don't believe that Tina is capable, on present showing, of honoring that tradition." Auberon Waugh, editor of London's Literary Review, contends it is "no wonder that English editors are being imported. I think something has happened to American journalism that makes it very boring," he says. "It is very ethical and correct, but it is too bland." It isn't clear how far Tina Brown can go in rescuing The New Yorker from blandness. But already she has made it the talk of the literary village.