Though Newhouse built Condé Nast with ruthless commercial motives—when someone asked him about the purpose of his company, his answer was, simply, “To make money”—there are clearly other motives at work. “He loves magazines, meaning the whole and all of it, the variety of things published, the business details, the visions and actions and personalities of his editors, the problems, the problem-solving, the ink and paper … the all of it,” David Remnick said to me.
If Remnick’s remark sounds a bit like a eulogy, it’s because it very well might be. Condé Nast, like all magazine companies, is struggling. The luxury market on which Condé Nast depends is anemic, with no cure in sight. And the Internet, workaday and diffuse and all-too-democratic to an elitist like Newhouse, competes for the dollars that remain. Almost all of his magazines have been hammered by the downturn (as have most magazines, including this one). Wired ’s ad pages are down almost 60 percent in the first three months of this year versus last; The New Yorker’s are down 36, Vogue and Vanity Fair both around 30 percent. Newhouse has long been a modernist, with forward-looking instincts, his timing not too far ahead and never behind, but suddenly he seems to have become a kind of magazine sentimentalist, in love with a world that more and more exists in the past.
One of the stories Si Newhouse tells about his father, Samuel I. Newhouse, known as Sam, is how he came to purchase the Condé Nast company. Just before his 35th wedding anniversary, Sam, a tiny bulldog of a man, departed for work before dawn, as always, and returned later that day with a present for his wife: Vogue magazine, the jewel of Condé Nast’s five titles. “My father bought the company as a gift for my mother,” Newhouse likes to say. It’s told as an affectionate story about a distant, work-obsessed father—“My complaint about time spent on the job is that there is not enough of it,” Sam once wrote—and the even tinier wife he doted on. But it’s also revealing about father and son.
Sam was a newspaperman—Si didn’t see much of him until he was old enough to visit the Staten Island Advance, Sam’s first paper. By Sam’s death, at age 84, he’d amassed a newspaper empire that stretched from Newark, New Jersey, up to Portland, Oregon, larger, by some measures, than that of William Randolph Hearst’s.
Both of Sam’s sons were college dropouts who worked in the business from the age of 21. Sam tapped Donald, his younger son, to run the newspapers. Si was installed at Condé Nast—he finally became chairman in 1975. “Those who knew him well seem to think he trusted the judgment of his younger son, Donald, more than Si,” writes Thomas Maier in his excellent biography Newhouse.
It was clear what Newhouse’s father thought of magazines; they were baubles, suitable for socially ambitious middle-aged ladies. Si, though, would ultimately prove his father wrong about the value of the magazines and about his talents.
Newhouse’s magazine mentor was Alexander Liberman, who’d shined as art director at Vogue in the forties and became editorial director in 1962. A Russian-born, European-raised artist—he had minor renown as a sculptor and painter—Liberman had a gift for wooing the powerful. According to his stepdaughter, ambition was his animalistic outlet. He loved the court politics that developed at Condé Nast, and his Machiavellian tactics were both a way of doing business and a kind of aesthetic value, part of the company’s frisson.
Liberman and Newhouse eventually became an inseparable king and privy counselor, constantly conferring sotto voce. Liberman introduced the awkward heir to art and to artists and instructed him on the nuances of social calibration, like “who was famous and who was important,” different categories entirely, as a former publisher explains.
Liberman was also an original voice who talked in mystical terms about magazine-making, and his sensibility became the sensibility of the whole company. “He was a genius,” says Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue. Liberman prized magazines’ power to transcend the quotidian—“Dear friend, where’s the glamour?” he once woefully asked Harry Evans, the first editor of Condé Nast Traveler.
The two came to share a philosophy, which was, at its simplest, “Magazines are precious things,” as Liberman sometimes told editors. They require pampering and purity and, not incidentally, money. Liberman tore up layouts at the last minute and counseled editors to spend, spend, spend, because spending, too, was part of the aesthetic, almost an end in itself.
Newhouse’s father died in 1979, a year that coincided with a burst of creative and commercial energy that would reshape the magazine landscape. After Self took off, Newhouse relaunched Vanity Fair, a Condé Nast flagship that had failed during the Great Depression, with a bold but vague idea of a popularized, glossier version of The New Yorker. The magazine consumed huge amounts of cash, $75 million in its first few years. With its somber black-and-white covers by Irving Penn (a Liberman discovery) and sometimes effete content, it struggled to find a voice. Within a year, Newhouse had dismissed two editors before hiring Tina Brown, the first of his crushes and the first of Condé Nast’s famous editors. Brown “kick-started” the current incarnation of Condé Nast, says James Truman, Condé Nast’s former editorial director.