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Si Newhouse’s Dream Factory

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L-R: Deborah Needleman, 2005; Joanne Lipman, 2008.  

Brown concurs. “I brought in the news gene,” she says. “Newhouse came to understand that news was a key to connection to the culture.” But of course, what news mostly meant was buzz. Brown had an instinct, and an unrestrained affection, for power, and she set about glamorizing it, whether in politics, Hollywood, business, or crime. The notion that a magazine could borrow celebrity power to increase its own, such a truism now, was revelatory at the time.

Newhouse’s timing was exceptional. The thrusters under the boom economy were charging, and with them, a new type of reader appeared. Newhouse’s magazines appealed to what would be called aspirational readers.

As Newhouse rebuilt Condé Nast, his organizational inclinations became clear. He ran it as if it were a movie studio of the thirties and forties, the era in which Newhouse, a shy child, fell in love with the glamour of Hollywood. “One editor is like Hal Wallis,” Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, tells me, “another like Busby Berkeley, and there’s a commissary,” the Frank Gehry–designed cafeteria at the Condé Nast Building at 4 Times Square. For Newhouse, it was a wonderful setup. “He created [in Condé Nast] a reality in which he is no longer the bumbling, asocial kid he grew up as,” says one person close to him. In this analogy, Newhouse is in the role of Louis B. Mayer, the notoriously tyrannical MGM head who loved his stars but made them quake. “Si loves being surrounded by divas and egomaniacs,” says one former editor. When one editor called another a “fucking bitch,” Newhouse didn’t mind. “Yes, but she’s our bitch,” he said. He delights in the Darwinian drama that takes place below him. “He believes the best will rise and will not be shivved in the back,” says the former editor.

For Newhouse, studio life offers a further reward. Because of his own psychology, Newhouse can’t really express himself, so he’s created an environment in which all his nerve endings have projections in the world, in people, in departments. “All the major figures in Si’s professional life, the people who interest him, represent some aspect of him,” says a person close to him. “So while Anna or Graydon or David live off him, it’s also true that to some degree he lives vicariously through them. They’re all adjuncts or outbursts of Si, all acting out parts of Si.”

One afternoon, I ask Carter if he is worried about the future of magazines. We are in his office on the 22nd floor of the Condé Nast building. Carter has lately put on a few pounds, and his curved desk of blond wood seems cinched around him like a seat belt. “You try opening a restaurant and not gaining weight,” he says—weeks before, he’d opened the Monkey Bar, and before that the Waverly Inn, and one of his two assistants, visible through a connected sliding-glass window, takes reservations.

“If you’re competing as a daily or a newsweekly, you may have problems with the Internet,” says Carter. “For the monthly magazines, the clouds part a little and the sun comes out. If you tell stories and have great pictures, there’s a great future for you. I do think this company is pretty well suited for the future.” Carter’s view is the official view at Condé Nast, where the future is supposed to look a lot like the past. From the outside, however, Condé Nast can appear to be running scared. The impression flows not merely from the string of magazine closings, or the 5 percent payroll cuts, or the halt in pension contributions (part of what I’m told is a shrewd 20 percent reduction of expenses). In fact, it’s the petty trimming that seems telling, all those small profligacies—multiple receptionists, unlimited travel. Car service was practically part of the Condé Nast brand.

But when I suggest that all the closings might look like panic, Carter rises to the company’s defense. “Si doesn’t do panic,” he says, with exasperation. He insists that Newhouse has seen cycles come and go, heard the end of the publishing world foretold more than once. “It’s still a golden age of magazines,” he insists.

I arrive fifteen minutes early to Anna Wintour’s office, but an assistant still meets me in the downstairs lobby. “That’s what we do,” she says, a lovely swirl of blonde hair on her head and two cell phones in her hands. On four-inch heels, she leads me to Wintour’s communication director, who walks me down a long hall—a runway—to Wintour’s office, which is filled with vases of pastel-colored roses. The attentiveness is flattering, though I’m aware, having worked for Wintour a decade ago, that it’s part of her system of control. I mention to Wintour the forthcoming documentary about her, The September Issue, by R. J. Cutler, which follows the production of the largest issue in Vogue history, the September 2007 one—840 pages, 727 of which were ads. I’ve heard that Wintour didn’t feel the movie had enough glamour and tried to change it, without success. “It’s R. J.’s movie,” she tells me tersely.


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