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Goodbye, Mr. Big

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Galotti passed a grim milestone of sorts when he turned 49—his father having died of a heart attack at the age of 48. “I didn’t dwell on it too much,” he says, “but let’s just say I breathed a sigh of relief.” He was finally ready to come to terms with the other defining trauma of his life and become a father again; the couple decided to adopt, in part because they had difficulty conceiving, but also because Galotti was a carrier of the gene for Down syndrome. The blonde, blue-eyed Abigail, who bears a convincing resemblance to her adoptive mother, recently turned 5—clearly another milestone for Galotti, whose son, Nicholas, died at 4. “If you lose a child,” he says, “it can take a lifetime to get back to where you don’t fear that happening again. You don’t want to put yourself in a position to be hurt again.” From a novelist’s point of view, this might have been the time to have the protagonist chuck his life in the fast lane and move to Vermont. But at that moment his old friend Tina Brown came calling.

Brown, who had become the most famous and controversial magazine editor in America, wanted to start a new magazine with the backing of Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein, and she wanted Galotti to be the publisher and president. The idea of creating something new, and the promise of equity after years of being salaried, was too attractive to resist. “I thought of it like the Olympics,” Lisa says. “I thought this was his big chance. I didn’t want him to leave New York without trying this.”

While Brown struggled to give the magazine an editorial identity, the notoriously hard-charging Galotti ruffled some feathers in the advertising world by demanding multi-issue commitments. As the economy began to slow during Talk’s first year, the Queen of Buzz seemed to be experiencing a backlash engendered by her long reign over the New York media world. The psychological and economic fallout of 9/11 may have been the final blow. Galotti remains characteristically defiant about the noble experiment. “It was a great, valiant effort,” he says. He enjoyed discussing the editorial content with Tina. “She was erudite. She knew that culturally I wasn’t interested in anything. We balanced nicely.” Outspoken on every other subject, he is extremely reticent about the details of Talk’s demise, having signed a nondisclosure agreement. One gets the sense that Mr. Big is somewhat in awe of Mr. Weinstein and his lawyers.

It can’t have been easy, after running away, to go home to Dad. Or in this case, to Si Newhouse. To stretch his wife’s Olympic analogy, the high-profile failure must have been a little like crashing on the final run of the downhill—as the television cameras rolled. Returning to the Condé Nast fold as the publisher of GQ—even at a seven-figure salary—was a comedown for the former president of Talk Media. Galotti says he took the job with the understanding that he would move up when a more attractive job became available. But Steve and Tom Florio, among others, may not have welcomed the idea—something he now realizes. “Prodigal son Ron from the past steps back in. And these guys, Tom, Steve, Richard Beckman, have their own agendas.”

Soon after his arrival at GQ, Galotti collaborated in deposing the editor, Art Cooper, an act that may have come back to haunt him. Cooper died a few weeks later, suffering a massive stroke over lunch at The Four Seasons. “I was saddened,” Galotti says. “Art was a great guy. But you have to separate business and personal. His time had come and gone.”

Galotti had no inkling that his own time was almost up. “When I got the phone call,” he says, “I was in California, on a sales trip. The words you don’t want to hear when you work for Condé Nast are ‘We need you to come back.’ ” Returning to New York, he was fired by his old friend Steve Florio. Within minutes, Galotti left the building carrying only his golf clubs. “I had no idea what this was predicated on. Business was fine. Since I left, they’re way off. There was no way it made sense to me. But what other opinion would I have, since I was the one who got fired? I realize my opinion is jaded.”

A GQ editor suggests that Galotti’s sacking served to expiate a corporate sense of guilt about the late Cooper. The press release portrayed his departure as voluntary, but in the following days, Condé Nast insiders were busy explaining, off the record, that Galotti, the avatar of the old swashbuckling, chair-throwing, take-no-prisoners style of the nineties, was fired because he was unable to adapt to the new realities of the business. In this narrative, The New Yorker’s urbane, mild-mannered David Carey represents the new kinder, gentler, recession-era Condé Nast.

Galotti’s severance package, negotiated by killer music-biz lawyer Alan Grubman, was generous enough to allow him to retire comfortably, to say good-bye to New York. “I’m grateful to Si for that,” he says, although he can’t help reverting to his old form when he speaks about his old friend Florio, who, not long after Galotti’s ouster, was kicked upstairs to become vice-chairman of Advance Communications. “When I got fired, I was at the top of the Post’s ‘Losers’ column. When Steve Florio gets fired or whatever the hell it is they’re doing with him, he doesn’t even make the top of the ‘Losers’ column! I have no idea what happened in my case. Two days later, they spread the rumor that I’m old-style management. That’s their spin. So maybe Steve’s own PR ate him in the end.”

The moral of the Condé Nast plotline is murky. Is Galotti a classic tragic hero, a victim of his own hubris—or of corporate politics? Is he a casualty of changing times? “I was a killer for Si Newhouse,” he says. “He didn’t pay me to be nice. One thing about me, No was not an acceptable answer. If I hadn’t been so aggressive, I would have been president of Condé Nast.”

Last week, I flew up to Lebanon, New Hampshire, where Galotti picked me up in his new Volkswagen Touareg. As we crossed the Connecticut River into Vermont, he lit a cigar and told me that he’d spent the week unpacking and meeting the neighbors. “We’ve been invited to the Pomfret Library dance,” he informed me, suggesting things were moving along nicely. We stopped at Rick and Tina’s Country Store—with its ancient gas pumps out front and a sign on the door advertising WORMS AND NIGHTCRAWLERS. Inside, the stock of groceries looked as if it had been on the shelves for years. Sitting at a tiny counter over a cup of coffee, Galotti talked tractors with Rick, the stubbled, weather-beaten co-proprietor. “I’m thinking about the Kubota,” Ron said. “I was talking with a mechanic who said a lot of the Caterpillar parts are made in China. Or maybe a New Holland.”

“New Holland’s a good tractor,” said Rick. “He’s the one who bought the old McCord place,” he added to Tina, who looked a little like Shirley Booth from Hazel. “You’re from New York?” She talked about the outsiders who had moved to the area, as if to reassure Galotti. “Up in Orford, they got movie stars,” she said. “Charles Bronson and Rosemary Clooney and that guy from Cheers, Woody something.”

“I’ve seen enough movie stars,” Galotti said, “to last me a lifetime.”


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