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S.I. Newhouse Jr., the low-profile billionaire media mogul who ran the parent company of some of the nation’s most prestigious magazines, died Sunday. He was 89.
Newhouse’s death was confirmed by his family, who said he died at his New York home.
The chairman of Conde Nast since 1975, Newhouse bought and remade The New Yorker and Details magazines and revived Vanity Fair. Other magazines in the Conde Nast stable included Vogue, Wired, Glamour, W, GQ and Self.
Before selling the Random House book publishing empire, Newhouse spotted a magazine profile about a rising young real estate mogul and was inspired to commission the first book of a future president, Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal.
Newhouse brought in buzz-obsessed Britons Anna Wintour and Tina Brown as editors, who became celebrities in their own right, while abruptly firing staffers who fell from his graces. Grace Mirabella learned she was being axed as editor-in-chief of Vogue in June 1988 when her husband saw it on TV.
“Si Newhouse was the most extraordinary leader,” said Anna Wintour, Condé Nast artistic director and Vogue editor in chief in a report on Vogue‘s website. “Wherever he led, I followed, unquestioningly, simply because he put as much faith in me as I had in him. Si never looked at data or statistics, but went with his instincts and expected his editors to do the same. He urged us to take risks and was effusive in his praise when they paid off.”
Added Wintour: “Every time I’d preview the latest issue of Vogue with him, he’d encourage me to go for the less expected cover, the more compelling image. Yet there was nothing showy about the way Si led. This humble, thoughtful, highly idiosyncratic man, quite possibly the least judgmental person I’ve ever known, preferred family, friends, art, movies and his beloved pugs over the flashiness of the New York media world. His personality shaped the entire company. It might have been a huge global media entity, yet Si, who arrived at 4 a.m. every day in an unchanging uniform, ran it like his own personal and very benevolent fiefdom. We’d regularly have lunch — lunches which were scheduled by him six months in advance — and he’d arrive with a yellow legal pad, with maybe three words written on it. So few words, yet somehow, they encapsulated so many lessons, lessons which I still strive to put into practice every day I come to work.”
Conde Nast under Newhouse was famously extravagant, paying editors huge salaries, throwing lavish parties and rarely sticking to budgets — if budgets existed at all. Its expense accounts were legendary, with dresses flown from Paris to New York on the Concorde and elephants brought in to menace models at fashion shoots.
“There’s no place on Earth like this,” Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter told New York magazine in 2009. “There’s no place where you’re given the resources you need to do what you want to do and also given complete freedom to do it.”
Conde Nast focused on glossy titles that helped set the nation’s tastes, reached millions of aspirational readers and appealed to upscale advertisers.
“Our magazines represent a certain tone and audience,” Newhouse told The New York Times in a rare interview in 1988.
He said the company that his father bought in 1959 for $5 million was following in the tradition of its founder, Conde Montrose Nast.
“It was that initial orientation of Conde Nast,” Newhouse said. “He invented the form of the specialized magazine. He didn’t want a large audience. He wanted one in which everyone counted.”
But the company has struggled in recent years with the advertising meltdown. Since 2007, it has closed Gourmet, Cookie, Modern Bride, Elegant Bride, House & Garden, Jane, Men’s Vogue, Portfolio, Domino and Golf for Women. The ambitious business magazine Portfolio shuttered in April 2009 just two years after its launch, burning through an estimated $100 million.
Forbes said in March 2009 that the downturn had sliced Newhouse’s fortune in half, but his estimated net worth of $4 billion still left him the world’s 132nd richest man. Newhouse and his brother, Donald, owned Staten Island-based Advance Publications Inc., the owner of Conde Nast, daily newspapers in about 20 cities and a cable television company. Donald ran the less-glamorous newspaper business and Newhouse cousin Robert Miron ran the cable television assets.
Unlike other media moguls who seemed obsessed with building a media empire to make money, influence opinion or bask in the spotlight, Newhouse seemed to have no grand plan. He rarely gave interviews, had no discernible political views and imposed few cost controls on his magazines.
Associates said he simply enjoyed the magazine business and rubbing elbows with the cultural elite.
“He loves magazines, meaning the whole and all of it, the variety of things published, the business details, the visions and actions and personalities of his editors, the problems, the problem-solving, the ink and paper … the all of it,” New Yorker editor David Remnick told New York magazine in 2009.
“He likes the buzz, there’s no question,” Wintour told The New York Times in 2008. “If you have lunch with a celebrity or political figure, he’s thrilled to hear about it.” A short, mild-mannered man who usually arrived at his 22nd floor office around 5 a.m. in gray slacks and beat-up loafers, Newhouse was often described as shy and socially awkward.
That notoriously made for messy dismissals. Louis Gropp learned he was being fired as editor of House & Garden in 1987 while vacationing in California. Newhouse called and asked if he’d been reading Women’s Wear Daily while on holiday.
When Gropp said no, Newhouse got to the point.
“There have been a lot of stories in WWD that Anna Wintour is going to become the editor of House & Garden,” his boss told him, according to Carol Felsenthal’s 1998 book, Citizen Newhouse: Portrait of a Media Merchant.
“Well, is that true?” Gropp asked.
“Yes,” Newhouse replied.
Val Weaver was let go as head of Self magazine in 1988 when Newhouse knocked on her door and asked, “Would you mind if we made a change in editors in chief?,” according to a 1995 biography of Newhouse by Thomas Maier. Other editors Newhouse unceremoniously let go included Diana Vreeland from Vogue, Anthea Disney from Self, William Shawn and Robert Gottlief from The New Yorker and Andre Shiffrin from Random House imprint Pantheon.
“There are certain decisions I have to make,” Newhouse told The New York Times in 1989 for a story headlined, “Heads Have a History of Rolling at Newhouse.” ”I don’t think there is any ideal way of handling this very sensitive area.”
Many hands were wrung when Newhouse bought The New Yorker in 1985 and forced Shawn out two years later. In 1992, he brought in Brown from Vanity Fair, who transformed the idiosyncratic literary journal into a more newsy read with shorter stories, a staff photographer and splashier color.
Newhouse lived with his second wife, Victoria, an architectural historian, in a Manhattan apartment near the United Nations and in a house in Bellport, Long Island. Newhouse had two sons and a daughter by his first wife, Jane Franke. During his second marriage, the couple lavished attention on a black pug named Nero, who died in 1997, and Nero’s successor, Cicero.
A former member of the board of the Museum of Modern Art, Newhouse had a major collection of modern art including works by Picasso, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. He was also a major movie buff and enjoyed theater and the opera.
Samuel Irving Newhouse Jr. was born Nov. 8, 1927, in Staten Island, the grandson of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father, Sam Newhouse, bought the Staten Island Advance in 1922 and used its profits to purchase more papers, eventually including The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune, The (Portland) Oregonian and two papers he merged to create The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger.
The elder Newhouse loved to tell how of how he bought Conde Nast for his wife as a 35th anniversary present.
“She asked for a fashion magazine — so I went out and got her Vogue!” he would say. But the purchase was not a whim but a considered business decision, according to Citizen Newhouse and Maier’s biography, Newhouse: All the Glitter, Power and Glory of America’s Richest Media Empire and the Secretive Man Behind It. Newhouse attended the elite Horace Mann high school in the Bronx, where his classmates included Roy Cohn, a lifelong friend. Cohn went on to become a New York powerbroker and aide to Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Newhouse had a tough time at Syracuse University, dropping out his junior year. He then worked at his father’s newspapers for a time but never very seriously. He married, divorced and seemed to enjoy an indulgent playboy lifestyle.
But by the mid-1960s, Newhouse made his way into Conde Nast, the one place in the family business where his father had shown little interest, and found his niche.
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