Condé Nast was never the largest media player in New York, not by a longshot. But the Newhouse family’s privately held magazine kingdom was always the most fabulous, the most glamorous, and certainly the most decadent—the rows of towncars outside 350 Madison and then 4 Times Square; the extravagant office flowers flown in from Amsterdam for the biggest events; the privately financed apartment-or-townhouse deals for top creative and financial executives who had to embody the lives they portrayed; the corporate retreats in Milan, taking over Hotel Cipriani in Venice; those leaked Four Seasons holiday luncheon seating charts, where an editor’s proximity to Si Newhouse projected their status; well… those were the days.
Back then, of course, Condé’s operations were inextricably entangled with the company’s unique confection of court politics and creative intrigue. Si, after all, was minutely involved with the various fiefdoms inside his business. He routinely presided over the “print order” meetings in which each title’s editor-in-chief and publisher would present the “book”—then an analog album of manually-inserted advertising and editorial pages—to an assembly of executives. And despite his enormous fortune and vast media holdings, he lunched monthly in the cafeteria (where garlic, to which he had a material distaste, was verboten) with his top editors at the booth behind the checkout station.
In those days, the company made billions off of the creative genius of its top editors and their rapacious publishers, much of which was reinvested into the product. Expenses were rarely spared: covers in exotic locations would be reshot if Annie Leibovitz couldn’t accomplish her best work; writers flew business and were holed up in expensive hotels on deadline. (Multiple memoirs have portrayed this culture.) Page Six and Women’s Wear Daily often feasted on Condé Nast for the obvious reasons: it was a creative company run by creative people, administered by Si, himself a true patron of the craft, who seemingly loved his magazines as much as the priceless art that he collected. And it was also a sharp-elbowed place where editors jostled with their peers at other publications even though all the checks came from the same place. Assistants and junior editors were politely told never to talk business in the elevators since that’s where their competitors were, too.