In my dreams of being rich beyond all reckoning, one of the things I do is hire someone whose job it is just to talk to me, to amuse me, most of all to understand me – to know what I want before I want it. This is, obviously, an ignoble thing to desire, much less admit, but perhaps a helpful character flaw when it comes to trying to analyze the dynamic of the relationship between 71-year-old S. I. Newhouse, chairman of Condé Nast, and his editorial director, the 41-year-old James Truman. By all accounts, such a relationship is the younger man’s key advantage within the Condé Nast organization: He is comfortable with the exceedingly awkward billionaire, and, of certainly greater importance, Newhouse is comfortable with him.
“With both of them,” observes an editor who has often been in their company, “birds fly north and birds fly south in the middle of a conversation. They do this halting, tentative, incredibly polite stuttering thing as they try to guess what the other is thinking. It’s like two vacuums facing each other. If you have a problem with awkward silences, you will never have that problem more so than with Si and James.”
In theory, Truman is charged with the editorial oversight of Condé Nast’s seventeen magazines, a role he took over from the legendary Alexander Liberman upon his retirement in 1994. Except that the editors of all but the most poorly performing titles continue to report directly to Newhouse – or to the company’s president, the aggressively territorial Steve Florio. Some observers argue that Truman has recently solidified his standing at Condé Nast with his appointments of three key editors – Mark Golin at Details, Bonnie Fuller at Glamour, and Ruth Reichl at Gourmet – and will extend his influence when The New Yorker moves into the new Condé Nast building nearer (in theory) to James’s thumb. And then there’s the new building itself, which the company starts to move into this week. The tower, which dominates Times Square, and which the company has lavished all its vast taste and style resources upon – a kind of living, ultimate Condé Nast magazine, not to mention a monument to Si Newhouse himself, who, sooner rather than later, will be passing the company to the next Newhouse generation – has been Truman’s preoccupation for the past two years. He’s hand-selected the furniture and worked with Frank Gehry on designing the dining room. While obviously Si wants him to be doing this – it’s a big responsibility at a place like Condé Nast to be trusted with the furniture – being put on that detail has also provoked quite a bit of tittering.
Truman’s problem is not an atypical one in royal courts and large corporations. Without fixed responsibilities and a true power base – a profit-and-loss statement and a staff that owes you its loyalty – you’re pretty much dependent on the whims of your patron, even if your patron is the king. In many respects Truman’s position, or speculation about the nature of his position, provides a way for people to analyze the particularly complex corporate culture at Condé Nast. Is he powerful? Is he not? Is he meaningful? Is he a joke? Is he a viable business model or a sui generis one-off?
While Newhouse intimates speak of Truman with due respect (although constantly weighing his mettle, too: “With the completion of the building, I’ve noticed that Si’s confidence in James has clearly increased,” says one), throughout the rest of the kingdom there is one recurring question, which sums up both the vagaries of his character and the mysteries of Condé Nast:
“What exactly does James do?”
Indeed, everybody seems to turn into a novelist when it comes to trying to describe his role:
“He is Chance the Gardener.”
“He has a studied sexual ambiguity, so he can appeal to women like Anna Wintour and men like Billy Norwich – women and gay men being Condé Nast’s largest power blocks – as well as a class ambiguity. It’s unclear where he’s come from.”
“He is a mysterious, fey, ephemeral figure.”
“He has a weird kind of Zen cryptic authority.”
“He has exquisite, impeccable, faultless taste.”
“It’s all about how he wears his clothes – which he does like no one else.”
How Condé Nast became so central to American journalism and magazines and media – a position meant to be immortalized by the magnificence of its new building – and how James Truman became so central to Condé Nast is not exactly an inevitable tale.
Condé Nast was a carriage-trade publisher fallen on hard times when it was rescued in the fifties by Sam Newhouse, father of Si and of Donald (who runs the larger and more lucrative side of the family business, its newspaper chain and cable stations) and husband of Mitzi (for whom he is said to have bought Condé Nast as a present). Sam Newhouse promptly reinvented Condé Nast as a rag-trade publisher. Its lot was fashion magazines (not to be confused with women’s magazines) at a time when fashion was something for your mother. The company was not – nor did it aspire to be – part of the journalism or cultural world.
Three things changed in the eighties. Sam Newhouse died, and the awkward and unhappy but socially envious Si Newhouse took over. Fashion designers came to occupy a major role in the life of the city. And the bull market ushered in the age of status and acquisitiveness. Around his increasingly important fashion titles, Newhouse added a lineup of affluent lifestyle magazines, including Gourmet, Architectural Digest, and Condé Nast Traveler. He added journalism too: relaunching Vanity Fair, buying The New Yorker, and inflating editorial budgets. Sparing no expense, the company again remade itself, and the New York media world flocked to its doors, attracted by its parties, its courtlike atmosphere (who was in and who was out), its salaries, its perks, its curbside rows of black Town Cars. (It is odd, though, that this normally combative world was so attracted to a company that prized English manners and frowned on the garrulous, or argumentative, or even expressive.)
Meanwhile, James Truman was growing up in Nottingham, England, in a middle-class family. A teenage pop-culture autodidact (in the age of punk), he forswore college, took a training course in journalism, moved to London, and joined a local weekly, the Hampstead & Highgate Express, as a cub reporter. He was the sitcom character: the punk-rocker covering town meetings as he tried to write for London’s cooler rock magazines. After a few years, he told the Hampstead & Highgate Express he was leaving for Hollywood to try his hand at screenwriting. He ended up in New York, where he freelanced for The Face, the coolest of England’s rock magazines, and then got a job at Bob Guccione Jr.’s start-up, Spin. Within a year, he was the executive editor, and he and Guccione were inseparable friends. “We were together every night. Our girlfriends were jealous,” says Guccione, who speaks of Truman through the bittersweet filter of a broken friendship. “I always thought he could have been one of the best writers of his generation. But it seemed to be a miserable existence for him” – late deadlines, agonizing rewrites, paralyzing perfectionism are a part of Truman lore – “and at some point he just decided he didn’t want to do it anymore.” Quarreling over the direction of Spin – “James wanted it to be The Face,” says Guccione – Truman headed back out to Los Angeles to try screenwriting again.
Failing (or not succeeding) at the movies, he arrived back in New York and famously caught the attention of Vogue editor Anna Wintour – the story, perhaps apocryphal, has her captivated by the way he wore a checkered Armani jacket – and shortly joined her staff.
The magazine business in the late eighties and early nineties was deep in recession and identity crisis. Where the eighties had been about upscale titles, there was a recession-born belief that magazines needed to speak to a new, hipper, more jaded generation. “What’s next?” became something of an obsession even for the exceedingly aloof, deeply un-streetwise Newhouse. Indeed, if you were a passionate what-next person and managed to get his ear, you were in the chips. Newhouse’s what-next forays included investing in The Face in London and Wired in San Francisco and buying New York’s downtown fashion magazine, Details, which, in a turnabout, he grafted onto James Truman’s what-next idea for a young men’s Gen-X magazine.
As Details grew and seemed to thrive, Truman became Condé Nast’s what-next prince. In him, rock and roll mixed with fashion sense mixed with Englishness mixed with sexual ambiguity mixed with Chance the Gardener crypticness and added up to a strange, compelling authority that appealed most of all to the equally delphic Alexander Liberman. It was Liberman, at age 81, planning his retirement as editorial director and as tutor and confidant to the company’s chairman, who made the match between Newhouse and Truman. “Liberman saw James as a kindred soul, because James saw court life the way Liberman did – as a circus, as an aesthetic phenomenon,” analyzes a former Condé Nast editor. “Liberman was Machiavellian, and James was amused by Liberman’s Machiavellianism. The twosome of Liberman and Newhouse become a threesome for a while. And while it was necessary that James get along with Si, James was also chosen for the job because Condé Nast had a pop-culture problem – it was out of touch. James Truman was a rock journalist, perhaps the only rock journalist they had ever met, and they believed he was in touch with what they didn’t understand.”
To be the hip pilot fish, the harbinger of things to come, sounds like a better job than it probably is.
Indeed, all the problems of what-next-ness – i.e., that you almost always guess wrong when you’re trying to guess – unfolded at Details. Truman’s vision of the magazine as a modified downtown-nirvana-slacker-what-are-we-going-to-do-and-what-are-we-going-to-wear-when-we-do-it youth-culture magazine was almost immediately eclipsed by bull-market-hip-hop-Internet culture. (Hence, the decision to buy Wired – although in fact, Condé Nast is perhaps the least wired of all major media companies.) After the fading of Generation X, Details became, in a process one editor characterized as the “long, horrific struggle,” a magazine about work and entrepreneurship, then a magazine about Frank Sinatra-Rat Pack-style cool, and now, with the recent decision to hire Maxim editor Mark Golin, a magazine dedicated to beer and boobs.
Truman, uncoupling himself from Details in time to avoid the fate of its next three editors (Truman himself fired them all), managed to get the classic be-careful-what-you-wish-for promotion. His job, in effect, is to be the infinitely hip friend of the truly clueless Newhouse. That is, in such circles as Newhouse moves, a fairly common role for your decorator.
Which is not necessarily to minimize that role. If the Times Square building becomes a symbol of a new, millennial Condé Nast, Truman’s stock rises, too.
Still. As a more or less immutable corporate law, almost anyone who gets stuck with planning the new office is cursed for years to come.