S.I. Newhouse, head of Condé Nast, died over the weekend. While not a household celebrity name outside of the media business, he was the money man who empowered some of the most famous and influential magazine editors in the business, hiring Tina Brown at Vanity Fair and both Diana Vreeland and Anna Wintour at Vogue—an incredible trifecta.
Basically, for decades, he was the person who decided who shaped culture, especially when it came to fashion and celebrity.
Newhouse’s father Sam was the founder of Advance Publications, a media business built up from his 1922 purchase of the Staten Island Advance. Eventually Newhouse’s older brother Donald took over the newspaper side of the business, while S.I. took over Condé Nast, home to the magazines. From his perch, Newhouse revived Vanity Fair with Tina Brown, then Graydon Carter; he installed Vreeland, Grace Mirabella, and Wintour at Vogue; he bought the New Yorker and installed Robert Gottlieb, Brown (controversially), and finally the current editor, David Remnick. We could be here all day listing his various moves; here are a few more, from Esquire:
The chairman of Condé Nast since 1975, Si Newhouse acquired GQ, Gourmet, The New Yorker and Details magazines as well as book publisher Random House; he introduced Self, bought Diner Club’s travel magazine, Signature, and turned it into Condé Nast Traveler, started the glossy business publication Portfolio, and revived Vanity Fair, which had stopped publishing in 1936.
Of course, when he stopped supporting an editor, it could be abrupt, as the New York Times notes: “In 1971, he dismissed Ms. Vreeland as editor of Vogue. Her replacement, Grace Mirabella, was informed of her own firing in 1988 when the gossip columnist Liz Smith announced it on a New York television newscast.” But when times were good, though, they were very, very good:
While job stability was not a hallmark at Newhouse publications, his employees could count on perks that were unusual in the industry. Even junior editorial assistants grew accustomed to catered lunches and use of a car service. Senior editors received clothing allowances that ran into the tens of thousands of dollars, first-class airfares, virtually unlimited entertainment expenses, and million-dollar loans at subsidized interest rates to buy condominiums and country houses.
Longtime Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter wrote in his own remembrance of his boss of many years:
Once, in a negotiation I was involved in with a photographer, it came down to a $250,000 difference between what the photographer’s agent wanted and what we were willing to pay. “Oh give it,” he told me, finally. “I don’t want to nickel-and-dime them.”
It wouldn’t be quite right to say that Newhouse’s death is the end of an era; really the era ended more than a decade ago, as the internet began its slow but steady process of consuming the culture. So much of the great magazines’ mass-market power has shifted to vast, unnerving tech platforms. But nevertheless, even if diminished, the great Condé Nast fleet remains proudly afloat, and personally I would always hesitate before betting against Anna Wintour.