Guilty Pleasure

I know it was last week’s cover, but don’t let my tardiness cause you to miss Steve Fishman’s New York story on Conde Nast and its main duomo, Si Newhouse—lots of dish, beautifully written.

Yes, there were some big themes in there about whether and how Conde Nast will survive media’s new age. And, right, there was good detail about the push-me-pull-you that was Portfolio, its short, unhappy life, and abrupt end.

But if you’re into this kind of thing, this was just pure fun, one New York media creature dissecting another with great skill and not forgetting to lay on the gossip, which is really the point.

The Portfolio thing, it turns out, was more or less a fling:

S.I. Newhouse Jr., chairman of Condé Nast, falls in love with his editors. His romance with Joanne Lipman began over lunch at his U.N. Plaza apartment, with its beige carpets—no red wine allowed—and paintings by Warhol, de Kooning, Cézanne. Lipman, 47 years old, who’d spent her entire career at The Wall Street Journal, is a serious journalist with a serious mien, and long legs, which she likes to show off with short-skirted power suits. Lipman is “attractive,” in Newhouse’s vernacular—“He uses the word like others use the word spiritual,” says a former editor. The two brainstormed at a small dining-room table. Newhouse, in his standard worn New Yorker sweatshirt, told her he had an idea for a business magazine. Newhouse didn’t say much more; he rarely does. He asks questions. But Lipman excitedly filled in the details.

Whee! The decision to break it off was Si’s, of course, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have its tragic elements.

“I love Portfolio,” he told Lipman, with obvious feeling.

“I love it too,” Lipman replied.

Sniffle. I love the stuff about the Medici-court aspects of Conde Nast:

Newhouse’s magazine mentor was Alexander Liberman, who’d shined as art director at Vogue in the forties and became editorial director in 1962. A Russian-born, European-raised artist—he had minor renown as a sculptor and painter—Liberman had a gift for wooing the powerful. According to his stepdaughter, ambition was his animalistic outlet. He loved the court politics that developed at Condé Nast, and his Machiavellian tactics were both a way of doing business and a kind of aesthetic value, part of the company’s frisson.

Liberman and Newhouse eventually became an inseparable king and privy counselor, constantly conferring sotto voce. Liberman introduced the awkward heir to art and to artists and instructed him on the nuances of social calibration, like “who was famous and who was important,” different categories entirely, as a former publisher explains.

Bizz, buzz. There’s a funny tweak about Graydon Carter getting fat:

We are in his office on the 22nd floor of the Condé Nast building. Carter has lately put on a few pounds, and his curved desk of blond wood seems cinched around him like a seat belt.

Conde Nast, as the story says, imbues its magazines with a dreamlike quality and also tries to embody it in real life. When a star publisher or editor is fired, as happens often, there’s a coach-turning-to-a-pumpkin feeling to it.

Still, many of the exiled are at a loss, having missed a central fact of Condé Nast: The lifestyle is on loan. “A kept luxury lady” is what Tina Brown told me she felt like.

And there’s Si himself, so unglamorous as to be glamorous.

Si Newhouse is nothing like his magazines. Short, physically unimposing, dressed for the office in khakis and beat-up loafers, he’s the opposite of glamorous. “He’s always had the luxury of being himself,” says a friend. He’s notably inarticulate, speaking softly, with long, excruciating pauses between words. A decision to commit millions of dollars might be communicated with a “very, very quiet whispered yes,” says one of his former editors.

The piece ends with musings on the elegiac atmosphere of this year’s National Magazine Awards, where Conde Nast stars—Tina Brown, Carter, Anna Wintour, etc.—seemed to have been assembled for a last hurrah.

Up onstage it was the golden age of magazines, when one powerful man set legions in motion. And yet, I couldn’t help but notice, the stars were all of a certain age, pushing or past 60. Crack, Avedon: Even the references are from a past era. And yet for a night, the past and Newhouse are in their glory. His dark mood lifted.

The story itself has a dreamlike mood. Nice.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.