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Little Big Man


In June 1994, the team moved to an all-white, full-floor loft at 100 Sixth Avenue, decorated with heavy bookcases and Mission-style furniture. "At first, we thought we'd start or buy two magazines a year," says Armstrong, adding that Meigher told him he had huge lines of credit -- hundreds of millions of dollars. So it made sense when he talked about buying Fairchild or starting a stateside edition of Hello!

Early on, Meigher passed on Wallpaper* and Fast Company, both of which went on to be hugely successful. "We did prototypes for about a dozen other magazines," says Kalins, including a shelter magazine and a travel-adventure book. But none of them seemed to work.

Saveur, loosely based on the French magazine Saveurs, was intended to be a plusher, more sophisticated answer to how-to food magazines like Bon Appetit and Gourmet. Garden Design was originally the in-house magazine of the American Society of Landscape Architects, relaunched to capitalize on baby-boomers' obsession with their own backyards.

Also in 1994, the company purchased Smart Health, a venture that developed publications and in-house newsletters for hundreds of hospitals. A few years later, Meigher teamed up with Ikea to publish the design store's in-house glossy, Space. And in an attempt to curry favor with Ralph Lauren, Meigher agreed to counsel Lauren's son, David, on Swing, his ill-fated generational monthly.

But nothing consumed Meigher more than Quest, the society magazine he purchased from its founder, Heather Cohane, a combination of social dish, party pics, and real-estate ads that is distributed free in upscale buildings, primarily on Manhattan's East Side.

Snow had no use for Quest. "It just didn't fit," says the company's new owner. "It fit well with Meigher's lifestyle. But my focus is on building a business."

A charmingly eccentric British-born socialite, Cohane ran her magazine on the cheap; presiding over a staff of three, she sold ads and snapped most of the party pictures herself. But Meigher had grander plans for Quest: He wanted to convert the 10021-based magazine into a nationwide must-read for the socially ambitious, an Americanized Tatler.

According to Cohane, though Meigher promised to keep her on as editor, one morning "this guy shows up at the office and says Meigher had appointed him editor. Chris never told me a word. I cried for hours." The guy was Brooks Peters, an art writer and Princeton graduate who lasted at the company for a year.

Cohane, meanwhile, remained at Quest -- often in the company of her four little dogs, says one colleague: "I'd be trying to sell an ad to ABC Carpet & Home, and one of the dogs would be yapping or throwing up. It was a circus." One of the dogs happened to be named Peabody, a source of great amusement to the staff.

Quest, however, was no laughing matter to Meigher, who colleagues say took an obsessive interest in its editorial content, putting his family and friends in its pages and pulling photos and articles he didn't like. "He was a horror show," says one former employee. "He micromanaged Quest in the worst way. He frittered away countless hours rearranging party pictures while important things went undone."

In time, Peters departed and was replaced by former Hamptons editor Kristina Stewart, a teetotaling Mormon with an encyclopedic knowledge of New York's social mores. Stewart spiked Quest's usual quotient of social fluff with more pointed pieces, including an exposé on the city's top private schools, and the magazine gained in both circulation and clout. But sources say the 29-year-old editor came to resent Meigher's meddling and the general loopiness that had descended on Quest's offices. She left this spring to become society editor at Vanity Fair and declined to comment for this article.

By 1998, employees began leaving in droves. Even Cohane recently left Quest for Gotham, a new start-up by Hamptons publisher Jason Binn. But shortly after the sale, she reminisced about her wild ride with Meigher. Seated in the living room of her penthouse on the Upper East Side, she wore a pair of sunglasses, her face swathed in floral scarves to conceal a fresh face-lift. "The funny thing is, I still like Chris," she said, choosing her words. "But he's prone to these extreme extravagances and character changes. For some reason, he seemed incapable of making money."

Making money wasn't Meigher's sole motivation. The magazines, especially Quest, provided him and his wife with the social entrée he seemed to crave -- from a prominent table at Swifty's to seats at benefit dinners, often paid for by the company.

One acquaintance describes the Meighers as the picture-book family, tanned, aristocratic, and rich. Meigher's wife, Grace, is a notable beauty whom Meigher's admiring colleagues at Time Inc. dubbed Grace the Face. His two daughters, social and attractive, went to St. Paul's and followed their father to Dartmouth. In New York, the Meighers live in a second-floor co-op on East 72nd Street, with canoes and oars and animal heads on the walls. In Palm Beach, he owns a Spanish-style mansion close to the ocean that he rented out during his troubles last winter to millionaire David Koch. His family also owns an island compound in the Adirondacks, close to Lake George and Graydon Carter. Still, he seemed dissatisfied with his social standing. His prolific name-dropping is much remarked upon by friends and colleagues. "He was always talking a big game," says one socialite. "It was so unnecessary."

Early on, Meigher had talked about acquiring dozens of magazines, but after Quest, no new deals took place. In fact, in order to pay off a short-term loan, the company sold its most profitable title, Smart Health, in 1997. Another early failure was Meigher Communications' $1 million bet on a Web venture called Europe Online. Founded in 1995, it was to be the America Online of Europe, but the project, overseen by Peabody, got bogged down among the various countries and companies involved. With each failure, tensions between Meigher and Peabody increased; by the end, they had escalated into full warfare. One day, Peabody showed a copy of Meigher's expense report to a colleague: It totaled $300,000 a year. In a company founded on frugality, this kind of extravagance rubbed his employees the wrong way. Some complained that he had a limousine waiting for him all day outside the office. Meigher points out that the "limousine" was actually a chauffeured Mercedes station wagon. "It's ten years old and has 172,000 miles on it. I let the garage guy drive it. He won, I won."

"He would say we were doing Saveur on a shoestring," says one embittered veteran. "Bull. There was no shoestring. There was never any money to do anything. You couldn't take a taxi to midtown. There was a feeling that he didn't share in suffering." Meigher replies that the criticism of his spending and style is "foolish" and "unfair." His partnership agreement, he says, limited his salary to $200,000 a year, much less than CEOs of comparable publishing companies. He claims his expenses added up to "just $3,750 a month." "My lifestyle is secondary to my professional goals," Meigher says. "It's important to be around in the community when you're expanding in these areas."

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