Tina Brown's Must-Reads: Hidden Lives

Jan 22, 2013
Originally published on January 22, 2013 9:06 am

Tina Brown, editor-in-chief of Newsweek and The Daily Beast, occasionally joins Morning Edition to talk about what she's been reading for a feature we call "Word of Mouth." This month, she recommends a trio of stories on people who've led hidden and often extraordinary lives — a businesswoman and technological giant who started life in Chinese re-education camps, a billionaire investor and education reformer whose personal experiences are too big for a series of ghostwriters, and a CIA agent whose job was to find a story among piles of forgotten documents.

'Through The Cracks, We Shine'

Brown's first pick is tech entrepreneur Ping Fu's memoir, Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds, which tells the story of the Chinese native's rise from a Cultural Revolution re-education camp to the forefront of American digital prowess.

"Her telling what she went through as a young girl whose life was utterly blown apart by the Cultural Revolution, and how she winds up getting here and becoming this enormously successful tech entrepreneur, is absolutely compelling," Brown says.

Ping was raised in Shanghai by her adopted parents, but when Mao Zedong's anti-elitist Cultural Revolution swept the country in early 1966, 8-year-old Ping was removed from her parents and sent to live in a prisonlike camp in Nanjing. "Bitter meals" — composed of dung and dirt — and a gang rape ensue, all part of a considered effort to humiliate and dehumanize her, to demonstrate her worthlessness as an individual.

"For the next 10 years, she's unparented, she's unschooled," says Brown. But "at the end of the Cultural Revolution she goes to university; she writes this incredibly brave thesis about infanticide in China."

Because of that thesis, Ping was forced to leave China, ending up in the United States "with just a few dollars in her pocket."

She enrolled in the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, and eventually became a renowned technological entrepreneur — all because of her own skills and brilliance, Brown says.

"Her philosophical thoughts ... her stoic ability to understand the patient lessons that she learned and apply them to her thoughts about survival and love ... it's very, very moving, indeed," Brown says.

Reflections Of A Third-Generation Ghost

Brown's next pick is The Ghost in the Gulfstream, a profile from the February issue of Vanity Fair that details the tricky social politics of writing someone else's memoir. Author Rich Cohen, who was tapped to write billionaire investor Ted Forstmann's autobiography in 2010, soon finds that the very act of telling Forstmann's life is a story in itself.

"Ted Forstmann wanted someone to tell his story exactly as he, Ted Forstmann, saw it," says Brown, who knew Forstmann socially. "He wanted someone to present himself as the voice in Ted's head."

The process proved difficult, as Cohen soon found out. He learned that other ghostwriters had tried and failed to master the IMG chairman's complicated personal narrative, and the struggle for control in the writer-subject relationship soon proved too erratic to stand.

Cohen gave Forstmann credit for being "this generous, swashbuckling guy," Brown says, but "Ted's view of the story really differed so strongly from the way [others] saw him."

And as Cohen began to distance himself from Forstmann — insisting on telling the story his way — "Ted becomes more and more angry, because Ted really wants to control this ghostwriter. ... [He] won't let him go, so that the writer has to kind of break away, and say 'I have to write this book.' And when he does that, Ted sees it as a great betrayal."

Eventually, it became clear that some of Forstmann's erratic behavior was the result of a brain tumor, which ended up killing him in late 2011. The Vanity Fair profile by his ghostwriter reveals a bit more about who the man really was, Brown says.

"You see the demons, really — there was a fortune in the family that Ted's father lost," Brown says. "Ted had an older brother who he always felt the parents loved more, and was cleverer, and Ted's drive to outperform the brother financially was extremely important to him. But there's also a desire for Ted to see his own gifts as something really extraordinary — but as the writer says, in a sense the gifts were really those of a gambler."

Pushing Papers And Changing The Narrative

Though the life story of Brown's final pick this month may not have involved as much courage or wealth as that of Ping or Forstmann, it would probably still make a great movie, she says.

Her last offering is the New York Times obituary for longtime CIA investigator Jeanne Vertefeuille, who slowly worked her way up through the ranks of the male-dominated spy organization, only to unmask one of the 20th century's most notorious moles — Aldrich Ames — just before her retirement in the early 1990s.

"She was considered a quiet foot solider," Brown says. "She was a quiet, diligent, smart, conscientious woman who tracked one of America's great traitors."

Vertefeuille shows why women make great spies, Brown says. Vertefeuille's ability to piece together the illicit story of the traitor Ames through scattered payments and bills that he left behind reveals how some minds are able to make unexpected connections — thinking laterally as well as vertically. "I think women are particularly good at that, sometimes," Brown says.

"Jeanne was one of the great spies," Brown says. "The fact that she did what she did is remarkable."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Tina Brown is with us once again. She brings us reading recommendations. We call the feature Word of Mouth. Tina Brown is, of course, the editor of The Daily Beast and Newsweek, in addition to being a regular guest here.

Tina, welcome back to the program, Happy New Year.

TINA BROWN: Happy New Year to you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And you have sent us three recommended readings, each of them revealing a hidden life story. And the first is a book called "Bend Not Break." Who's the author?

BROWN: The author is a really fascinating woman named Ping Fu. You know, she's the founder of technology company, Geomagic in North Carolina that develops software that takes the data from 3D scanners, and prints it out with 3D printers. But the interesting part of her story obviously is that she was raised in the Cultural Revolution in China. And her telling what she went through as a young girl whose life was utterly blown apart by the Cultural Revolution and how she winds up getting here, and becoming this enormously successful tech entrepreneur is absolutely compelling.

INSKEEP: She was born in China in a time of great turmoil in that country.

BROWN: Great turmoil, Mao decides that he's going to start the Cultural Revolution and send anyone who is an academic or a, you know, a person of middle-class values, or any kind of aspiration into the rural lands of China. And poor Ping Fu is a young girl. And when she's eight, the door bursts open. The Red Guards arrive and they take this child, the wrench her out, stick her on a train to Nanking. They get there and she's taken to this, you know, community of Red Guard (unintelligible) really, like a, sort of, house arrest really, where she's put with her four-year-old sister.

For the next 10 years, she raises her little sister in this kind of cell-room, constantly humiliated. They make her do things like eat, they call, bitter meals, which is made out of dung and dirt, to tell you that your person of absolute nothing; that you're a person who, you know, must forfeit any kind of sense of self-respect.

And for the next 10 years, she's un-parented, she's unschooled. And this is the woman who eventually, however, manages to, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, she goes to university. She writes an incredibly brave thesis about infanticide in China. And as a result, she's told that she has to leave. She's deported to America, arrives here with, you know, a few dollars in her pocket. Attends a university in New Mexico and winds up becoming this tech entrepreneur out of her own brilliant, you know, intellectual skills which had been completely unschooled.

I mean this is a woman who's really a remarkable figure.

INSKEEP: Unbelievable story just that reminds you of human resilience, you take away everything from somebody and still they rise. They come back.

BROWN: And still they rise. And, you know, she has - what's wonderful about the book is really her sort of philosophical thoughts about that very fact. And it's very, very moving, indeed. You know, when she talks about how we have to bend but not break. She says: We put ourselves back together and we find that we're no longer perfectly straight, but rather bent and cracked. Yet it is through these cracks that our authenticity shines.

INSKEEP: You've also sent us a hidden life story from Vanity Fair, a magazine you used to edit. The headline is "The Ghost in the Gulfstream." Who was that ghost?

BROWN: Well, this is a very entertaining piece by a writer called Rich Cohen, who describes what it's like to be hired as the ghost of a billionaire.

INSKEEP: The ghostwriter, right.

BROWN: Yeah, the ghostwriter was Rich Cohen who writes for Vanity Fair. But Ted Forstmann, who is the subject of his piece, was a pioneer of private equity and a legend in the buyout trade; one of America's richest men. I knew him actually very well, so this piece is particularly amusing to me because he gets him so completely right.

And he talks about how Ted Forstmann wanted someone to tell his story exactly as he, Ted Forstmann, saw it. So he was looking for a writer who could present himself as the voice that's in Ted Forstmann's head. And this piece is about the relationship between the ghost and the billionaire, traveling around on Ted Forstmann's private plane, as Ted Forstmann gives his version of Ted Forstmann's life; and the writer developing a greater and greater sense of how he really sees Ted Forstmann.

He sees him as a generous and swashbuckling guy. But, at the same time, as he sort of separates from Ted to actually write the piece, Ted becomes more and more angry because Ted really wants to control this ghostwriter. He wants to feel that he's there as his, kind of, psychic other and won't let him go. So that the writer has to kind of break away and say, I have to write this book. And when he does that, Ted sees this as a great betrayal.

And the writer feels that this has been a kind of ongoing part in Forstmann's life, where he feels when people seek their own separate identity, really, Ted sort of rejects them and feels that he cannot - that this person is no longer this creature.

INSKEEP: You have also sent us a newspaper obituary. It's from The New York Times where some of the best newspaper writing takes place in the obituary section. The woman's name is Jean Vertefueille. She died at age 80. I'd never heard of her. What she?

BROWN: She has a fascinator. When I read this piece I was so intrigued by it and thought what a, you know, wonderful movie it would make, actually. It's the story of, you know, she joined the CIA in 1954. And she was considered a kind of a quiet foot soldier, you know, in the CIA.

At that time in the CIA women were not particularly regarded. She was absolutely brilliant in tracking and finding people's stories. And it was she that broke the case on the spy Aldrich Ames, who sold out America to the Soviets for $4.2 million.


BROWN: And he was a mole inside the CIA and it was Vertefeuille who began to figure out that it was this man in their own agency who was selling out their spies. And she came to the age of retirement and she was still upset that she did not manage to nail the spy. And she asked if she could spend her last few months on the job tracking him. And she had a breakthrough where she found that the payments hitting Ames's account actually coincided with these meetings with Soviet. And at that point she understood, put the two things together, and they arrested Aldrich Ames, who unbelievably served her up and said, you know, I'm not the spy, you know, she's the spy in the agency which, of course, you know, was absurd, and he was arrested and he's in prison now.

But it's a wonderful story of how a woman - a quiet, diligent, smart, conscientious woman trapped one of America's great traitors. And I think particularly an interesting story at a time where we're seeing a lot about female spies at the moment, you know, the hit TV show "Homeland."


BROWN: The new movie "Zero Dark Thirty" about the tracking of Osama bin Laden. Now many of the CIA targeters, the people who track and put together and neatly build stories are, in fact, women because they seem to have these really great stories of conscientious detail work. And Jeanne Vertefeuille was absolutely one of the great, great analyst, spies and trackers that we have seen.

INSKEEP: Well, Tina Brown, thanks for making observations and drawing the connections between these articles and this book that you've sent us. Thanks very much.

BROWN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: The feature is "Word of Mouth." Tina Brown is editor of "The Daily Beast" and "Newsweek." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.