NEW YORK, United States — “I firmly believe for a company to succeed, the chief executive has to love what the company produces,” outgoing Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter said on Monday night at a memorial commemorating his former employer, the late Samuel Irving "Si" Newhouse, Jr. “The thing about Si was, he loved magazines…. Si appreciated his editors. He had the intellect, curiosity and passion required of a great editor, and I always suspected he could have handily edited the any of the magazines he owned.”
If there was a line running through the evening’s remarks — given in the auditorium at Jazz at Lincoln Center by friends and family, including the editorial triumvirate of Carter, Condé Nast artistic director (and Vogue editor-in-chief) Anna Wintour and the New Yorker’s David Remnick — it was the value of Newhouse’s robust curiosity, which compelled him to develop lifelong interests that included food, film, art and of course, his life’s work: magazines.
(Hollywood producers David Geffen and Joel Silver, architects Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry, River Café owner and chef Ruth Rogers, artist Dorothea Rockburne, editor Robert Gottlieb and several others — including his brother, Donald Newhouse, and longtime family friend and business associate Leonard Lauder — also paid respects.)
These impassioned remembrances indicated that a great deal of Newhouse’s success as a magazine publisher was rooted in his appreciation for the medium. “He was the [New Yorker’s] most ardent reader,” Remnick said. Newhouse purchased the magazine in 1985 — he paid a total $168 million for it, first buying 17 percent for $26 million in January then paying $142 million for the remaining 83 percent in March — transforming it into a venerable business without dismantling its editorial integrity. “He had bought the magazine with the same spirit that he bought works of art," Remnick added. "Because he loved it.”
Newhouse’s father, Samuel Irving Newhouse, Sr., bought Condé Nast in 1959. At the time, its stable included Vogue, Glamour and House & Garden. “Smitten by the allure of magazines,” as his brother Donald framed it, Newhouse “begged” his father to go work at Condé Nast while Donald went on to oversee parent company Advance’s newspaper business.
In the 1980s, Newhouse purchased the New Yorker as well as the long-dormant Vanity Fair, appointing Tina Brown its editor. These were financial gambles that subsequently paid off, but they took time — sometimes decades — to materialise. “He took chances,” Lauder said.
“Si possessed many virtues: intellectual brilliance, courtesy, creativity, a sense of aesthetics, honesty and a lack of pretense among them,” said his first cousin Jonathan Newhouse, chairman and chief executive of Condé Nast International. “But perhaps his greatest is a strength that is overlooked today: patience. The mantra among today’s Silicon Valley entrepreneurs is ‘fail early, fail often.’ Si’s was the opposite: Don’t accept failure and keep going...his willingness to persist in loss and difficulty is the reason the New Yorker thrives today. It is why Vanity Fair became a publishing phenomenon.”
“His curiosity both personal and intellectual was overwhelming,” added Gottlieb, who was the editor-in-chief of book publisher Alfred A. Knopf when Newhouse bought its then-parent company, Random House, in 1980. (He went on to edit the New Yorker.) “You knew he was watching and you wanted to please him because his appreciation was so palpable and so generously expressed. What was so impressive to me was the combination of his passion for the business and passion for what the business was about.”
Newhouse also demonstrated utmost respect for editorial independence. “I received a call from a friend who was desperate to have a story killed,” Lauder remembered. “I called Si and he said, 'If the story is worth keeping, you can’t kill it. If it’s not worth keeping, I won’t kill it anyway.'”
Alongside editorial director Alexander Liberman, who was Newhouse’s creative partner at the company for more than 30 years, he scouted and developed talent in unprecedented fashion. “I edited three magazines for Si, not all of which were a success,” Wintour said. “Yet it speaks volumes that the moment I was at my lowest, Si picked me up, he dusted me off and he gave me Vogue. He believed in editors even when they lost trust in themselves…. He was the least judgmental person I have ever met.”
It was Newhouse’s trust in his editors that ultimately allowed Condé Nast to flourish, and one can't help but wonder what he would have thought the next iteration of Condé Nast should look like. As the company makes way for new editors and properties — from the appointment of Radikha Jones at Vanity Fair to the launch of LGBTQ-focused publication Them — the kingdom that Newhouse built looks vastly different today than it did even two or three years ago.
“He set out to create an immense cultural magnet that would attract the most ambitious writers, artists, even editors, as well as photographers, and then get them to do their best work,” Remnick said. “That took taste— and judgment. He had that. It took thought, and patience— he had that too. And sometimes it took toughness and impatience— and he could have that, too.”