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Goodbye, Mr. Big

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By the account of most friends and associates, business became the most important thing in his life over the next 25 years. His career in publishing began at Home Sewing News, which was owned by a friend of his mother’s. “I was selling ads to the piece-goods guys, the shmattes on Seventh Avenue.” He eventually moved on to Fawcett Publishing, which put out titles like Woman’s Day, True, and Mechanics Illustrated. “I was hired away by Hearst. This guy George Allen took a liking to me—he made me the youngest manager. He asked me if I would start a magazine called Country Living.” (If this were a novel, this detail would be called foreshadowing.) “In five years, we made it the third-largest profit center.”

At the end of ’82, Galotti got a call from Si Newhouse, the absolute ruler of the Condé Nast empire. “Si offers me more money than I had ever heard of. I go to work as a publisher of Mademoiselle, which were the biggest years it ever had in its life.” His next assignment was to start Condé Nast Traveler in partnership with Harry Evans, the legendary London Times editor who had come to New York when his wife, Tina Brown, was hired by Newhouse to salvage the sickly revival of Vanity Fair.

Traveler was a big success. After five years, Si asked me to run Vanity Fair.” (Galotti’s life seems to divide neatly into five-year segments in his head.) “It was failing fast. Si was going to shut it down. I had a relationship with Tina through Harry. She adored me. She thought I would be a savior. And I was. Vanity Fair went on the map. You understand that first and foremost these things have to be business successes.”

Everyone pretty much agrees that Galotti sold pages and turbocharged revenues at Traveler as well as at Vanity Fair. Hardly anyone, however, has ever accused him of being a politician. Galotti made no secret of his disdain for Bernard Leser, the president of Condé Nast during his Vanity Fair tenure, whom he describes as “the worst CEO I ever worked with.”

“One day,” he recalls, “they came to my office to shoot a corporate film—this is a film to promote the company, you understand. And they ask me what I want to see for the company’s future. I said, ‘I want to see Bernie Leser walk out of the building and get hit by a bus. I don’t want him killed, just hurt so he has to go back to Australia or New Zealand or wherever the hell he came from.’ ”

This kind of behavior seems to have led to Galotti’s first banishment from the Newhouse kingdom. He was fired a few months later. “Si was incredibly generous,” he says. “But he was given bad counsel. So you want to talk about a bad week? I’ve just been fired, and at the same time, wife No. 2 explains to me that’s she’s having an affair and wants to leave me.”

By his own admission, Galotti is not normally a deeply introspective guy—unlike most New Yorkers with apartments on Central Park West and houses in the Hamptons, he’s never been in analysis—but he couldn’t help looking inward at this point. “It ends up scraping away all the identity you ascribe to yourself. Publisher, husband—it’s all on loan.” He says he accepted his own role in the demise of his marriage—his workaholic habits and his fear of becoming a father again. That was about as far as he got, though. At 43, he wasn’t ready to reinvent himself or revise his value system, although, he says, “I had more than enough money to go away forever.”

For seven months, he drifted, hung out, watched TV. “Then one day,” he says, “I’m watching Oprah, when I feel this warm feeling.” I brace myself for some banal TV-inspired version of satori. “I’m in my white apartment with my white furniture, and the sun’s pouring in the window. It’s three in the afternoon. I feel this subtle sense of warmth. I have now poured a glass of red wine in my lap. And I say to myself—‘Self, you gotta get a job.’ ”

Not quite Saint Paul falling from his horse, perhaps—the spilt-wine epiphany led Galotti to D. Claeys Bahrenburg, then the president of Hearst magazines, who proposed putting Galotti in charge of a new men’s title. But the moment he set foot in the Hearst offices, word reached the Condé Nast executive suites, where Galotti’s friend, former New Yorker publisher Steve Florio, had recently taken over from Leser as president of Condé Nast. All was forgiven. Florio offered Vogue to Galotti, who spent the next five years pumping up ads and becoming the model for Mr. Big, even as he seemed to be laying the groundwork for a different kind of life. “When I took over Vogue, Elle and Vogue were equal,” he says. “When I finished, Vogue had 500 more pages.”

Galotti had his old identity back and then some. Room 405 at the Ritz was available. And the emasculation of his marital debacle was presumably salved by the attentions of a supermodel and a sexy writer who eventually immortalized him as a stud. Condé Nast, once a boutique stable of barely profitable titles subsidized by the Newhouse newspaper chain, was becoming a major media empire. It was 1995. The economy, like Galotti’s Testarossa, was firing on all twelve cylinders, making the eighties seem, by comparison, rather like that decade’s Porsche 924, the so-called ladies’ Porsche.

The pace was grueling, but the perks of being a Condé Nast publisher were sweet. “You have a car and driver. You have your country club. Since you spend all your time doing business, everything is paid for.” You have a full-time housekeeper. You spend $50,000 a year on cigars. You lunch at The Four Seasons. You also fly first-class, sometimes Concorde, and you stay at the Four Seasons in Milan. Your friend Luca di Montezemolo, the president of Ferrari, sends a Falcon 10 to pick you up in Paris and flies you to Bologna, where a helicopter is waiting to drop you at the Ferrari test track in Marinello, where you get to test-drive the latest road rockets.

In the meantime, Galotti courted and privately wed his mountain girl. Lisa Galotti hardly fit the mold of the Manhattan corporate wife: Galotti likes to say that moving her to New York was “like putting an eagle in a cage.” In the early days of their marriage, she enjoyed the novelty of A-list parties on the arm of Mr. Big, but she found Condé Nast politics “like high school” and Manhattan social life alien. Galotti explained to her that what mattered in New York were “jing and drag”— money and power. Perhaps Galotti was, as he says, even then contemplating his escape. He seems to have compartmentalized his life. Certainly he must have been more aware, this second time around, of the fleeting nature of Condé Nast power and glory.


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