Much to his own surprise, James Truman is back in New York, back in publishing, and back in the West Village loft he didn’t manage to sell after he abruptly quit his job as editorial director of Condé Nast a year ago January. That split, with an industry he’d slyly conquered ever since he moved to the U.S. from London in 1981, seemed admirable, and possibly a little bit embarrassing, if only because it looked like the man who’d always been able to contain the world in an amused sound bite was having a Razor’s Edge–esque crisis of personal meaning. At the time, he said he’d been motivated by a Joseph Campbell poem that he’d installed as his screen saver: “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
Think of this as Truman, 47, an over-achiever in archness who once declared his moneymaking shopazines “a truthful reflection of what was going on in the culture,” experimenting in sincerity. His final project—and what turned out to be his last straw—at Condé Nast was a magazine about “art and culture.” It was so important to him that he wanted to edit it, too. Although an art collector himself, Si Newhouse declined to green-light it.
It turns out the life that was waiting for him came in a call from an utterly earnest self-made millionairess named Louise MacBain, who’d cashed in her give-away-classified-newspapers empire, took up romantically for a time with smooth-talking auctioneer Simon de Pury, and ended up a big contemporary-art collector. She’s started a foundation which, among other things, is producing a version of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale in London, recast to be about the war in Iraq. “Her idea is the healing power of culture in the face of politics,” Truman says over roast chicken and a side of what’s described as “voluptuous cauliflower” on the menu at Inside, a restaurant near his apartment. “So it’s a noble project.”
After her relationship with De Pury ended, MacBain began buying up art publications, including Art + Auction and Modern Painters. She asked Truman to run them just as he was leaving his Condé Nast job, but he demurred. He was on the way to Spain with his girlfriend, artist Leanne Shapton. “The idea was to leave a job and not have a job and live in a place I couldn’t have lived if I had a job,” he says. “And also to live in a country that wasn’t caught up in chic.” (Truman’s laugh here is close to a titter.) “Which meant we couldn’t go to France. And Scandinavia was out of the question.”
They rented a house in Andalucía, where, Truman says, he “became a parody of the New Yorker. I’d wake up at 7 a.m. and say, ‘I’ve got to get to the market quickly before all the good fish are gone.’ ” Meanwhile, he didn’t do as much reading as he’d hoped to. Shapton began work on a book of her drawings and writings about sexual jealousy (titter, again). “I think I was in a stupor for a little while,” he says. “It’s quite interesting and quite difficult not working.” Later they went to Morocco, and then to London, where he finally met with MacBain.
“We hit it off, as you say,” MacBain says, though she originally sold him on the idea that he’d work in the U.K. But it became clear soon enough that it made more sense to move the main office here, where Truman will also launch new magazines (the first one is called Culture & Travel, which will be sent to a targeted readership at no charge) and expand a news and sales-price-history database called Artinfo.com.
“Magazines in this space have often been sort of enthusiast or mom-and-pop operations,” Truman says. “Eventually, the owner gets bored and sells or closes them. The idea was to bring together a group of them and create a kind of dynamic business, cross-sell advertising, and also make a statement that this was worth paying attention to.”
“We’re not interested in the mass market,” says MacBain. “We’re more interested in focused high-end content. Artinfo is for the mass market.” But does she expect to make a profit? “We don’t go in and say we want to make money. You say you try to do it right. And the rewards come in.”
As for the life he was willing to get rid of, he says he’d never exactly planned to have it in the first place. When he was promoted at 35 to be Newhouse’s court tastemaster, his main qualification, according to the book Citizen Newhouse, was that his predecessor, Alex Liberman, “saw something of himself in James … a sort of asexual, charming man.” Editorial director was a job as a series of projects, trying to make the magazines seem urgent (Wired, notably), hiring and firing editors (Bonnie Fuller at Glamour; four different editors of Details), starting a few titles (including Lucky), closing down a couple (Mademoiselle), all while scrapping endlessly with CEO Steve Florio for Newhouse’s affection.
Life as “the prince of Condé Nast,” as his in-house mockers dubbed him, eventually stopped being so much fun. “Magazines were the white-hot center of media,” says Truman. “And then along came the Internet and it made the idea of making something when people weren’t going to buy it look utterly ridiculous.”
The inefficiency of the enterprise was at one point what attracted him to it, especially at a place as gloriously irrational as Condé Nast. But today, “I look at all of those magazines that have a million-plus circulation and all I can see is misery. Or the anticipation of misery. The circulation is unsustainable, and the content that’s in it is unaffordable given that it doesn’t convert to other media—television or the Web.” He thinks that magazines will either become very expensive or free.
“There’s no mystery left in popular culture. It’s not just me becoming an old fogey.”
He’d had lunch with Newhouse the same day we had dinner and hadn’t brought up this misery. “Condé Nast still makes money out of this muddle,” Truman notes. “My last three or four years there, it became a much, much more conventional, business-driven enterprise. There were McKinsey consultants living with us. That would have been unthinkable ten years earlier.”
In MacBain, Truman’s found a less compromised Medici. “I must say I’ve always been attracted to people who, um, approach life without cynicism,” he says. “In some ways, Si was one of the least cynical people I know. And Louise is absolutely uncynical.”
Not inconveniently for his new enterprise, the art market is, at the moment, awash in money (though who knows for how much longer). “But that to me isn’t the point,” he says. “It’s the last sphere that resists—or at least talks about—its own commodification. Whenever you buy something, it’s a commodity, but in art, there’s still that promise of connecting to history and culture and unity and beauty, and these are very real sentiments. And I feel goofy even talking about them. And I like that, the goofiness of this.”
It seems that Truman, who started his career as a Sex Pistols fan, writing for Melody Maker, wants something to believe in again. “There’s no mystery left in popular culture,” he says. That “died around music in my thirties, but I think it died in the culture too. It’s not just me becoming an old fogey. There are no secrets left. There are so many outlets revealing them.” But isn’t much of that stuff just made up? “But that’s the death of the secret, too,” he says. “When everyone is in on the fact that what is being said is crap.”