There I was in midtown on Monday afternoon, surrounded by 100 of the most powerful women in New York and feeling a little like Euripides. In 411 B.C., Aristophanes wrote Thesmophoriazusae, a play about Athenian women gathering, as they did every year, at the Temple of Demeter to “ponder the mighty mysteries of the great goddesses” and to battle misogyny in ancient society. Euripides wants to infiltrate but fails; the women, meanwhile, conclude “that men are greatly our inferior.”
That still seems to be true 2,341 years later — at least as far as this room is concerned. We’re not in the Temple of Demeter but Michael’s, the West 55th Street temple to expense accounts and the media machers who still have them for the seventh annual Power 100 lunch. I’m the only man invited, and I’m definitely the inferior life-form. The place is teeming with the city’s top female editors, news anchors, and bankers. The only other males in the room — the photographer, bartenders, and Michael himself — are here to serve.
Joanna Coles, the former chief content officer of Hearst’s magazine empire, is the hostess, along with Teresa Carlson, president of the software company Splunk. Coles has thrown these annual holiday lunches for New York power brokers to get to know one another for seven years, although the pandemic cancelled the last two. They let me crash for drinks — red, white, rosé, or Champagne. I’ve got about a half hour before the lunch begins and then I have to scram. (Hey, it’s more than Euripides got.) In the meantime, the powerful women in the room easily outmaneuver my annoying questions.
These days, Coles, who once worked here at New York Magazine before moving on and up at Hearst, is out of the print game and is involved with SPAC deals (the onetime editor in chief of Cosmopolitan and star of the reality show So Cosmo is now the CEO and chairwoman of something called Northern Star Acquisition Companies). What does she make of the dodgy one going down that very day with BuzzFeed and Complex Networks? “I like Jonah [Peretti], and I wish him only the best,” she says. “And someone has to do the roll-up of the digital companies, and he’s the first out the gate.” Does she miss working in magazines? She pauses for a moment and, in effect, says, Not really. I wonder if she read Katie Robertson’s story in the New York Times about that other troubled print dynasty, Condé Nast. “I think magazine brands are brilliant, but I think a magazine itself is an icon of the past,” says Coles.
I tell Coles, who is wearing a silvery blazer, that I want to ask whom it is by, but I just read that op-ed in the Times by the female senators who chided the paper for writing about their colleague’s fashion. She assures me it’s okay to ask and that it’s by Alexander McQueen. So when I sidle over to Nina García, the editor of Elle, I feel like I’m allowed to ask about her great getup. She tells me that her black dress is Schiaparelli and the boots are Saint Laurent. “This is the ultimate power women’s luncheon,” García assures me, and she’s dressed for it.
I’m feeling a little basic by comparison and definitely put on the spot. Some of the guests inquire as to why I was there at all. I want to be on my best behavior. “Smile and don’t mansplain,” advises Democratic congresswoman Sara Jacobs. Coles wonders aloud, “Do you think there’s womansplaining? There might be some womansplaining going on,” she says.
Sally Buzbee, who this year became the first female editor of the Washington Post in its 143-year history, has just arrived. Does newspapering still feel like an old boys’ club? “There’s still a long way to go,” she says, “but there are just a lot of really exciting women doing a lot of fascinating things right now, including at the Post.” Over the weekend, her paper ran a story that took a critical look at Vice-President Kamala Harris’s leadership. Some felt it smacked of sexism, I tell her, hoping that I wasn’t unintentionally edging into the mansplaining zone just bringing it up. “I think it’s a legitimate story, and that story was very carefully and thoroughly reported,” says Buzbee. I change topics. What’s it like to have Jeff Bezos as your boss? “He’s very hands-off,” she says. I move on.
I was curious to hear what everyone thought about Chris Cuomo’s downfall — his former colleague Brooke Baldwin said over the weekend that Cuomo’s coveted nightly slot ought to be given to a woman; CNN is a bit of a boys club and some insiders see Jake Tapper landing it — but I didn’t get very far with that. I ask MSNBC president Rashida Jones what she would do if she were in Jeff Zucker’s shoes. She doesn’t want to talk about it. Neither does Katy Tur. Neither does Stephanie Ruhle. Katie Couric thinks about it for a moment, but she demurs, too. Not so long ago, her dishy book was the talk of the town. She pissed off a bunch of people and then was savaged for weeks by the tabloids. Did the harsh reception from some quarters shake her up at all? “The people who really matter loved the book,” she says, convincingly unbothered.
Across the bar, the screenwriter Nell Scovell tells me she spent the pandemic working on her novel, which she will call “Hollywood Vicious.” It’s about a Harvey Weinstein manqué. I point out to her that the Times’ Me Too reporter Jodi Kantor is here, in case she needs any more material. “Oh, I’ve lived it,” Scovell says, laughing, a little ruefully.
I slip by the D.C. doyenne Tammy Haddad, CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, and the Bank of America boss Anne Finucane. I see that the young scientist Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, who helped design the COVID vaccine, is sipping Champagne just a few feet from Candace Bushnell. She’s got a packed calendar, what with the premiere of her one-woman stage show tomorrow, then later in the week the HBO premiere of And Just Like That … Any advice for today’s single gal? “Keep going,” she says. “Enjoy it.”
Which might have felt like a canned response. But just try to get something unscripted-sounding out of Nancy Dubuc, the executive who de-bro-ified Vice media. “I came into a culture that wanted help growing up,” she says, calling it a “privilege” to work alongside journalists “who wanted to do work and not spend all of their time, day in and day out, talking about a broken culture but instead talk about putting out great work.” Vice tried to SPAC this year but abandoned that plan in August. Given the tepid performance of BuzzFeed, I wonder if she feels grateful Vice’s own deal blew up. “I think we just made what the right choice was for us,” she says. “We saw where the market was going early summer, and we were fortunate enough to have the ability to make the decision to not do it.”
Former Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards was on hand, just as the Supreme Court seemed about to do exactly what the Republican Party has been promising to change the court to do for decades now. “I was thinking about it this morning,” she says. “It feels like the message from the Republican Party and the Supreme Court is ‘Okay, women, you were beginning to get equity, and so we’re going to have to just roll it back now. You’ve really kind of gotten a little too big for your britches.’” She says she thinks that “this is going to be a real wake-up for women in this country — that if we aren’t involved in politics, if we don’t vote, we can’t take anything for granted.”
And now it’s time for me to go. On my way out, I bump into Susan Mercandetti, long a member of the court of Tina Brown and a book-publishing force in her own right. “We were just saying we don’t know half the people here,” she says, “because they’re young, and they’re the new generation, and there are all these hot-shit women who are just totally kicking ass everywhere.”