S.I. Newhouse Jr., Who Turned Condé Nast Into a Magazine Powerhouse, Dies at 89

But when Mr. Newhouse deemed a magazine’s direction “screwy,” he didn’t hesitate to fire editors, sometimes so maladroitly that they first found out about their dismissals on television or in the gossip columns.

Newhouse magazines were criticized for exalting the rich and famous through articles that gave their personal foibles and professional exploits equal importance. But as circulation and advertising revenues at his periodicals soared, other publishers took up the glitz-and-scandal approach to journalism. By the end of the 20th century, even the most serious newspapers and magazines offered profiles of entertainers, businesspeople, artists and politicians that balanced weighty accomplishment with juicy gossip.

His magazines came to stand for a golden era of publishing, and became an integral part of the culture they were covering.

“With Si’s passing, the big chapters in the history of magazines — as written by men like Si and Henry Luce — will have come to an end,” said Mr. Carter, who last month announced that he would leave Vanity Fair in December after 25 years.

Two Hollywood movies, “The Devil Wears Prada” and “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,” were made based on accounts of life at two of Mr. Newhouse’s flagship publications, Vogue and Vanity Fair. In 2007, Meryl Streep was nominated for an Academy Award for playing a character based on Ms. Wintour at Vogue. After the ceremony Ms. Streep attended the annual Vanity Fair Oscars party.

Mr. Newhouse owned a famed modern art collection that at one time was valued at more than $100 million. He and his second wife, Victoria, gave lavish parties at their Manhattan townhouse. And their dog was feted at an annual birthday bash at which Evian water was served to canine guests while their owners enjoyed caviar.

But he was better known as a workaholic who arrived at his Midtown Manhattan office before dawn and sometimes convened staff meetings at 6 a.m. He claimed to read every one of his magazines — they numbered more than 15 — from cover to cover.

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Mr. Newhouse with Anna Wintour in 1989.

Credit
Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage, via Getty Images

“I was brought up and trained in a very personal business by my father and his brothers, and they were all very personal operators and close to what they were doing,” Mr. Newhouse said in a 1993 article by Mediaweek.

Samuel Irving Newhouse Jr. was born on Nov. 8, 1927. His father, Sam Newhouse, the son of an impoverished Russian-Jewish immigrant, was a lawyer who in 1922 invested his earnings in a failing newspaper, The Staten Island Advance.

Under the name Advance Publications, Sam Newhouse and his brothers slowly built one of the largest newspaper chains in the country, including The Long Island Daily Press, The Star-Ledger, The Cleveland Plain-Dealer and The St. Louis Globe-Democrat, among more than a score of other papers. Though always profitable, Newhouse newspapers were not revered for quality. A respected journalism review, More magazine, once listed three Newhouse publications among the country’s 10 worst dailies.

To please his wife, Mitzi, who loved Vogue, Sam Newhouse, in 1959, bought Condé Nast, the company that published that magazine along with Glamour, House & Garden and Young Brides. Their older son, Si, preferred Condé Nast to the newspaper chain, which was eventually turned over to Donald, two years his junior.

“Si would come to see the magazine acquisitions as his big chance,” wrote Carol Felsenthal, the author of the 1998 biography “Citizen Newhouse.” “He could make his mark apart from his father and brother, while inhaling the glamour and glitz for which he had a growing taste.”

Before joining the magazine division, Si Newhouse, by his own admission, had been at loose ends. He dropped out of Syracuse University and worked halfheartedly at Newhouse headquarters. His first marriage, to Jane Franke, with whom he had three children, Sam, Wynn and Pamela, ended in divorce in 1959 after eight years.

Mr. Newhouse is survived by his wife, Victoria; his brother, Donald; his son Sam and daughter, Pamela Mensch; five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. His son Wynn died in 2010.

At Condé Nast, especially during his early years there, Mr. Newhouse leaned heavily on the guidance of Alexander Liberman, the magazine group’s editorial director and an accomplished painter, photographer and sculptor as well.

“Alex’s greatest characteristic is that he will never leave well enough alone,” Mr. Newhouse told The Times. “He is always probing and pushing.”

A lot of Mr. Liberman’s pushing involved getting his boss to spend money on talent. “No one will ever thank you for saving money at Condé Nast magazines,” Mr. Liberman told one of his editors, according to a 1996 Wall Street Journal article. “They’ll only thank you for making a great magazine.”

On Mr. Liberman’s advice, Mr. Newhouse hired Diana Vreeland, the celebrated fashion editor, to run Vogue in 1962; soon afterward he lured Richard Avedon, the leading fashion photographer, to the magazine. Over the years Mr. Newhouse expanded his stable of magazines by adding Self, Allure, GQ, Gourmet, Condé Nast Traveler, Architectural Digest and Details, among others.

With Mr. Liberman counseling him, Mr. Newhouse also began amassing a major collection of postwar art, including works by Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, David Smith, Anthony Caro, Mark di Suvero, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and James Rosenquist. In 1988, he paid $17 million for a Jasper Johns painting, at the time a record price for the work of a living artist.

A milestone in Mr. Newhouse’s empire-building was the revival of Vanity Fair, a magazine of wit and sophistication that had ceased publication in 1936. Mr. Newhouse resurrected it in 1981, and after quickly dismissing its first two editors, he hired a 35-year-old British journalist, Tina Brown, to run it.

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Samuel I. Newhouse with his sons, S.I. Newhouse Jr., left, and Donald, right.

Credit
Anthony Edgeworth

Ms. Brown began mixing adulatory Hollywood cover stories with articles on subjects that ran the gamut, from the vulgar to the profound, and circulation soared past one million. Among the magazine’s most-discussed covers was a photo of actress Demi Moore, seven months pregnant and nude. But Vanity Fair also ran probing psychological profiles of Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Fidel Castro.

Mr. Newhouse hired Ms. Brown’s husband, Harold Evans, a former chief editor of The Times of London, to introduce Condé Nast Traveler and then to run Random House, the largest American book publisher, which Mr. Newhouse had purchased in 1978.

His buying spree reached its apex in 1985 with his acquisition of The New Yorker, one of the country’s most intellectually rich general-interest magazines. Two years later, he replaced its legendary, septuagenarian editor, William Shawn, causing an outcry among the staff.

Although Mr. Shawn’s successor, Robert Gottlieb, was a highly respected book editor, the move added to Mr. Newhouse’s notoriety for firing even the most pre-eminent editors. 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.

“The way it was handled was graceless — without making a pun,” Mr. Newhouse was quoted as saying by one of his biographers, Thomas Maier, in a 1995 article in The Quill. “The P.R. of it got all bitched up.”

But Mr. Newhouse was not any better at handling the dismissal of Mr. Gottlieb from The New Yorker in 1992. Mr. Gottlieb, who was traveling in Japan, found out he had lost his job when he was awakened in the middle of the night by a call from a reporter asking for comment on his firing. Mr. Gottlieb, like other former Newhouse editors, readily acknowledged that he had received a generous severance package.

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.

Editorial budgets ballooned as Newhouse publications spent without restraint to hire the best-known writers, photographers and editors. “I believe in waste,” said Mr. Liberman, Condé Nast’s editorial director. “Waste is very important in creativity.”

But Mr. Newhouse’s largess eventually created a river of red ink. Because his publications were privately held, he did not disclose their finances. But according to The Wall Street Journal in 1996, Condé Nast lost up to $20 million in 1994 as nine of its 14 publications ran deficits. Unprofitable magazines like Mademoiselle and Gourmet were shut down. Random House was sold to Bertelsmann, the German publishing giant, for $1.4 billion in 1998, two decades after Mr. Newhouse had paid $60 million for it.

Mr. Newhouse’s new concern for the bottom line soon claimed the free-spending Ms. Brown. Despite her success at raising Vanity Fair’s circulation, the publication continued to lose millions of dollars a year. When she moved over to The New Yorker as Mr. Gottlieb’s replacement in 1992, she failed to stem the magazine’s huge losses and stepped down in 1998.

Under a new editor, David Remnick, The New Yorker regained its footing and edged into the black.

Despite the fiscal constraints, Mr. Newhouse pledged $100 million to start Portfolio, an ambitious glossy business magazine edited by Joanne Lipman. It made its debut in 2007, but it never turned a profit, and after only two years it was shut down.

During this period of retrenching Mr. Newhouse sold most of his art collection and moved out of his large townhouse into a smaller apartment. While his publishing ventures were in no danger of foundering, he dedicated himself to making certain that they would prosper after his retirement. “With a third generation coming up, we had to make strategic decisions,” he told Business Week in 1998.

Mr. Newhouse began to step back from the business in the late 2000s, around the time that publishing, buffeted by a global recession and the spread of the web, was becoming a very different proposition. Condé Nast, like all publishing companies, had to tighten its budgets and focus more on the bottom line. But until recently, when the company moved its offices to 1 World Trade Center, Mr. Newhouse could still be seen having lunch in the company cafeteria — a landmark piece of contemporary architecture inside 4 Times Square — that he had designed by Frank Gehry.

Mr. Remnick said Mr. Newhouse gave him the freedom to run The New Yorker as he saw fit. During lunches, he said, “We barely discussed the magazine. We talked about politics. We talked about art. We talked about business.”

Correction: October 1, 2017

An earlier version of this obituary misstated Mr. Newhouse’s given and middle names. He was Samuel Irving Newhouse Jr., not Solomon Isidore. It also misstated his father’s given name. It was Samuel, not Solomon.

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