Last fall, as the writers of HBO’s Sex and the City were debating how to end the show, Ron Galotti, the real-life Mr. Big, was trying to decide what to do with the rest of his life. Galotti, who inspired the character played by Chris Noth, had been ﬁred from his job as the publisher at GQ a scant year and a half after the failure of Talk magazine, the high-proﬁle Miramax-backed venture he’d started with Tina Brown in 1999. This spring, at about the same moment that we watched his ﬁctional counterpart move back to New York from Napa, Galotti announced that he was selling his Central Park West apartment and his summer home in Water Mill and moving to an 89-acre farm in North Pomfret, Vermont. This high-concept, late-second-act plot twist to a life limned on the business pages and the gossip columns may not have quite the poignant glamour of Dick Diver’s downward spiral into the obscurity of successively smaller upstate towns, but it seems to speak directly to the escapist fantasies as well as the 3 a.m. night sweats of Manhattan’s hyperachieving class.
I first met Galotti a decade ago, when he was the publisher of Vogue. The model Janice Dickinson invited me to dinner at Coco Pazzo, Pino Luongo’s then-hot Upper East Side outpost, to check out her new boyfriend, and I was curious to see if the guy could handle the volcanic supermodel, a legendary man-eater.
Galotti initially struck me as unpolished and self-aggrandizing—more Seventh Avenue than Madison Avenue: a tough guy in a Zegna double-breasted suit—an Italian-Jewish version of Donald Trump. (“The thing about being half-Italian and half-Jewish,” he said, “you don’t know whether to steal it or try to get it cheaper.”) He emphasized his points with a big Montecristo. He called Janice “babe”; women who were not present were “broads.” He seemed to bring his Ferrari into the conversation out of nowhere, as in: I heard this interesting thing on the radio the other day when I was driving to the Hamptons in my Ferrari. And he was clearly just as proud of the high-strung Dickinson—who was nothing if not a Ferrari of a girlfriend.
Galotti and Dickinson had met a few weeks previously in Paris, a story he related that night. He was on Vogue business. She was with Sylvester Stallone. “I had my own room in the Ritz ’cause I stayed there so much, Room 405, best room in the hotel. So I was trying to catch a nap, but there’s this racket from the room above, like people are jumping up and down on the floor, so I call the hotel manager, he knows me, and I say, ‘What the fuck, Enrico, what are these fuckers doing?’ So he calls me back, and he says, ‘I’m very sorry, Mr. Galotti, but Mr. Stallone is up there, and I can’t really stop them.’ So that evening, we go to a party, and there’s Sly sitting with this gorgeous model and smoking a cigar, so I sit down next to him and say, ‘Wha’ the fuck, what were you doing at three o’clock when I’m trying to take a fucking nap? I’m the fucking guy in the room below you.’ And I say, ‘Here’s what you’re going to have to do, give me one of those Cuban cigars.’ So he did. So later that night, Anna Wintour and I are hosting a party at Match, and there’s Sly with this model again and she was such a beautiful woman but she and Sly get in this argument and I say to her, ‘Fuck him, come with me,’ and she says, ‘Fine.’ And that started it. She said, ‘Fuck it, I’ll leave him.’ ”
By the end of dinner that night, I found I couldn’t help liking Galotti. Perhaps it was because his insecurity, his disbelief at dating a supermodel who’d recently broken up with a movie star, was so fucking transparent. For all the babe-and-broad talk, he was courtly and chivalrous with Dickinson. Beneath the rough edges, he had an undeniable charm, a sense of humor about himself and an almost childlike desire to please. Galotti didn’t sell all those ad pages in Vogue and Vanity Fair by being off-putting and obnoxious, by throwing chairs across the office (which he is reported to have done at one meeting).
What, exactly, a Condé Nast publisher does to earn Ferrari and modelizing bucks—Galotti was pulling down more than half a million way back then—is, for many of us, a mystery. He recently regaled me with an illustrative anecdote from those days at Vogue: “Okay, we’re having trouble with Giorgio Armani. Anna [Wintour] isn’t featuring enough of his fucking white blouses or something. Si [Newhouse] says would I mind going over to Milan and kissing his ass, ’cause I probably know him as well as anybody. I reach into my pocket and pull out a tube of Chap Stick, and I say, ‘I kiss so much ass I go through two of these a week.’ ” He pauses and winks. “ ‘And the trouble is, I’m starting to like it.’ ” With its curious mix of self-aggrandizement and self-deprecation, this is classic Galotti. I can’t help wishing I could have observed the voluble and flamboyant Mr. Big schmoozing the fastidious and reserved designer, although I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Armani had been charmed.
Not long after, Dickinson moved on, and Galotti met another feisty beauty, writer Candace Bushnell, at a Wolfgang Joop party in ’95. “He was one of those New York guys with a big personality—you just notice him as soon as he walks in the room,” Bushnell says. “I called him Mr. Big because he was like a big man on campus.” They dated for a little over a year, and Bushnell chronicled the relationship in her “Sex and the City” column in the New York Observer, which would eventually give birth to the book and the HBO series. But while Bushnell based the elusive, high-rolling heartthrob on Galotti, she is the first to distinguish man from myth. “Ron is much more of a well-rounded person than you’d think,” she says. “He cooks, he gardens. In some ways, he’d prefer to be at home to going out on the town.”
Among Bushnell’s friends at the time, many of whom hadn’t seen the inside of an office since the principal called them out of class, there was indeed a feeling that, for all his energy and ambition, he was less social or public than the hyperactive Bushnell, who was doing advanced postgraduate work in the subject of going out on the town. I recall a party at a house Galotti was renting in Bridgehampton at which he went to bed long before Candace said good night to her guests. The woman who eventually succeeded Bushnell clearly appealed to the quieter, homier side.
Galotti’s playboy period, reenacted so convincingly by Chris Noth, was in fact ridiculously brief. He’s basically a serial monogamist. His second marriage, to Hearst publisher Donna Kalajian, lasted for twelve years, until she announced one day—the same week he was fired as the publisher of Vanity Fair—that she was having an affair. His first marriage, about which only his closest friends were aware, was shattered by tragedy.