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Little Big Man

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All of this has made Chris Meigher, now 53, one of the most controversial publishing figures in New York, praised by some as a visionary and denounced by others as a slick huckster. An immaculately groomed, perpetually tanned man who favors Saville Row suits and spit-shined elevator shoes, he is prone to Napoleonic bouts of grandiosity. "I don't know what his blood pressure is, but it looks high," says his friend Graydon Carter. "He's a very type-A personality." But even his detractors concede that he is a skilled salesman and canny fighter whose skills have earned him a succession of high-profile magazine jobs. In the early eighties, he was even in line to become CEO of Time Inc. but was exiled from the company after a bruising power struggle. "He's like this character out of Greek mythology," says a former colleague. "Every time he comes close to succeeding, his arrogance and hubris do him in. Ultimately, Chris is his own worst enemy.''

Meigher is aware, of course, that more than a few people blame him for the demise of his company -- and their dreams. Now ensconced at Quest, whose offices are a few floors above his old one, Meigher pushes back from his L-shaped desk, an ankle crossed over the other knee. Surrounded by bookcases, boat models, and stacks of the antique leather briefcases he collects, he has little room to move.

"I'm mad, too!" he counters. "I think in a lot of ways we were all betrayed." He blames, among others, his investors for cutting off the cash, his partner for losing faith, and his former publishing director for not producing enough revenue. And he argues that his magazines "got caught in a time warp of a changing industry."

But even as Meigher presses on with his new project, he's still cleaning up after the old one. He frets openly that the publicity over Meigher Communications' downfall might prompt the "doctors and dentists" who invested in the company to sue him for malfeasance. Quest's founder claims that Meigher still owes her money. Meigher mutters darkly that it will all become clear in court.

For most of his life, Stephen Christopher Meigher III led a charmed existence. His father was a wealthy surgeon at New York Hospital who moved the family upstate when Christopher was young. Chris was sent to Albany Academy, a military school, where he was quarterback and lettered in football, swimming, and baseball before following his father to Dartmouth.

He joined Time Inc. fresh out of college in 1968. "His was a meteoric career," remembers a colleague. "He carried himself with this incredible high-Wasp confidence." Starting as direct-mail manager for Time in 1968, he became circulation director of Fortune, then Sports Illustrated, then Time, then all of Time Inc. In 1982, he was appointed publisher of People. "He was part of that last generation that rose in the company because of their social polish, the clubs they belong to," says a colleague. When he ran the corporate circulation department, he stocked it so full of Ivy Leaguers that other employees nicknamed it the Yacht Club. "He always seemed like someone who didn't need to work," remembers one editor.

But it was Time Publishing Ventures, which he took over in 1988, that solidified Meigher's reputation as an entrepreneur. During his tenure, he bankrolled Parenting, Cooking Light, and Emerge, and acquired Sunset, a successful West Coast lifestyle magazine. But his biggest score was Martha Stewart Living. When Stewart approached Time, Meigher says, she had already been turned down by Condé Nast and was "little more than a Westport caterer who'd written a successful cookbook." Within two years, her magazine was selling 725,000 copies and had spawned its own multimedia empire. By the late eighties, Meigher was mentioned as a possible contender to take over the job of Time Inc. CEO Reg Brack. Meigher heard the rumors, too. "It wasn't just in the back of my head," he says today. "People whisper things to you."

Not everyone at the company was whispering nice things. "Chris embodied the best and the worst of Time Inc. culture," says one of his former colleagues. "He had the right background and breeding. He was very smart. But he was the most political animal at Time Inc., which was a very political organization." Meigher's ambition for the top job put him in competition with two other executives at the company. Like Meigher, Bob Miller and Don Elliman were ambitious young men with impeccable résumés, and their ill-concealed rivalry transfixed the company.

But as time went on, there was a consensus that Meigher had taken it too far. "Chris spent 95 percent of his energy managing upwards," says another executive. "Anyone who came into contact with him knew he'd do anything to attain that end."

In time, Brack became tired of the infighting and fretted that Meigher was trying to destabilize him. In June 1992, knowledgeable sources say, he called the shocked 45-year-old into his office and fired him. Meigher insists he left of his own volition, but on the day Meigher announced his resignation "to pursue other opportunities," Brack gave the president's job to an uncontroversial dark-horse contender named Don Logan, who had headed up the company's Southern Progress division in Birmingham, Alabama.

Meigher took his multi-million-dollar settlement and set out in search of new opportunities. His role model, says one associate, was Michael Bloomberg, who used his $20 million severance package from Salomon Brothers in 1981 to build his own media conglomerate. "Chris was sure he would show them up someday," says one longtime associate. "He wanted his new venture to be a big fuck-you to all his old colleagues."

When Meigher started his new venture in 1992, he envisioned an entrepreneurial kind of magazine company, one that would somehow encompass the synergistic innovations he'd learned from Martha Stewart. He partnered with a venture capitalist, Doug Peabody, whom he'd become close to while they both served on the board of America Online. Meigher invested $1.5 million; Peabody put up $1.2 million, and Meigher Communications was born.

At first, the two men seemed like ideal partners. While Peabody was the back-office man, the gregarious Meigher was the company's public face. "Chris is a dazzling salesman," says a colleague. "I never cease to be amazed by the way he works a room; it's like he's on fire. He looks in people's faces and gets off on their energy. By the end, he has people eating out of his hand."

Among his first hires was Dorothy Kalins, a well-regarded editor who had previously headed up Apartment Life and Metropolitan Home. When Meigher first approached her, Kalins was on maternity leave and trying to develop a new kind of food magazine -- an unpretentious glossy she wanted to call Real Food.

Installed at his usual table at The Four Seasons, Meigher wooed the editor furiously. Like Kalins, he believed that magazines were in a slump partly because readers had become disaffected. And if you could make magazines that were powerful, well-executed editorial products, people would pay a premium for them. Kalins signed on as Meigher's editorial director.

Meigher next approached Michael Grossman, the talented design director of Entertainment Weekly, who became creative director. Joe Armstrong, an impeccably connected Texan and a former publisher of Rolling Stone and New York, was tapped as Meigher's publishing director. Working for reduced salaries, the three channeled their own savings into the new company, with the promise of an IPO down the line. "We thought we were building a better world down there," says Armstrong. "We took his promises and combined them with our hopes."


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