The world watched in fascination when eight people emerged intact after two years sealed off in Biosphere II. Yet here in Manhattan, it seems perfectly normal that armies of skinny women wearing regulation black survive year upon year sealed off from reality at 350 Madison Ave., the command post of Conde Nast and its 13 magazines.
Inside 350 is the beating heart of sophistication. Like the magazines themselves, the people who work there are chic yet predictable. Theirs is a culture of glamour, infinitely addictive yet often capricious and known for bloodless firings.
Each magazine is like a slice of a giant layer cake and as the elevators ascend a slightly new flavor can be sampled on each floor. Hmmmmmm. . . Vanity Fair on 4, Architectural Digest on 5, Mademoiselle on 7, Vogue on 13, Self on 22. Instead of standard office furniture there are striped banquettes; conference rooms have red couches; hallways are linen white.
The lore of the elevators, of course, is that if you ride them long enough you can tell by the outfit who will get off where.
Listen to a young Mademoiselle talking about how you spot a Bride’s, Vogue or Glamour girl on the elevator:
“Glamour and Bride’s, ugh, are the mass market cash cows and the women look that way,” she fleered in her platform shoes. “They wear straight skirts to mid-calf, white heels with toast colored stockings.”
At Vogue, the women are elegant whether in micro-tights or Chanel suits, real or otherwise. The designer of the moment is A.P.C., obscure and French with a store in SoHo.
That this is a mostly female world--76%--is an important part of the Conde Nast culture. There are women everywhere and they’re not just models.
“It’s a place where women run things,” explains a man who once worked at Self. “They’re editors in chief, ad executives and lowly assistants. And it’s an interesting culture for that alone because not many large institutions in any field have that.”
Yet above them all are three men. The real bosses on the 14th floor.
Alexander Liberman is editorial director of Conde Nast--and after 54 years the eminence grise who can charm and terrorize on any of the 23 floors. Bernard Leser, an Australian with a twinkle, is the president who watches the tabulations to make sure everything adds up.
But if there is one person who sucks the air right out of the elevators, it is S.I. Newhouse Jr., chairman of Conde Nast and sole proprietor of this privately held company. He wears Armani sweat shirts and loafers and makes awkward pauses in the middle of short sentences. He is fanatically secretive about his company, so it is no wonder employees don’t even risk praising their bosses unless it’s off the record.
It is also no accident Newhouse offered to get $500 million out of the cash machine this week to contribute to Barry Diller’s hostile takeover bid of Paramount.
Newhouse has long run his media empire like an old fashion movie studio--he is the mogul; his editors and publishers are stars and producers; the legions of young assistants--those $22,000-a-year debs and Ivy Leaguers--are dewy-eyed drones.
Newhouse treats the stars with a kind of sugar daddy mentality--he giveth and taketh away; he drenches them in luxury one minute and exiles them the next. Stories of his largess are legendary: He always seems to be lending hundreds of thousands to an editor to buy a new apartment or redecorating some executive’s country house in Bellport, Long Island--the Conde Nast summer colony. Every top executive has a car and driver; senior people have free access to a fleet of cars that seem always to be idling on Madison Avenue between 44th and 45th streets, waiting to take some editor shopping or to the shrink.
But even the peons gets perks: lunch is free everyday for all employees if they eat at their desks; if they work late, even assistants get driven home to New Jersey in a Lincoln Town Car.
And after one year at the company, stars and peons alike receive an African violet in a little terra cotta pot. It arrives at their desk with a love note from personnel.
Yet once they stop performing, anybody is disposable. Although the compensation is often generous, the dismissals are sometimes cruel. Editor Robert Gottlieb heard he was through at the New Yorker while vacationing in Japan. After 17 years as editor of Vogue, Grace Mirabella learned she had been replaced from a gossip columnist on television.
And there is constant speculation at 350 about who’s next.
Five years ago the tittle-tattle was that Ruth Whitney, Glamour’s editor since 1967, was out. It took awhile but that rumor died and not only has she not been fired, but she may even have the rare opportunity to retire as a Conde Nast editor.
October’s persistent rumor has been that Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, may not make it. After this landed Thursday morning in Liz Smith’s column, Newhouse called down to the fourth floor offering to take calls from reporters to dispel the rumor.
But ultimately the culture of Conde Nast allows for only winners and if the stars are not winning a little more every month, they’re out.
“Now that it’s all over,” sighs a once-well-paid Mademoiselle editor who was summarily fired in a putsch last year, “I regret spending thousands of dollars on DKNY suits. I now weigh too much to wear them and have nowhere to go.”
But Tom Wallace, planted firmly in his job as editor of Conde Nast Traveler, known for its truth-in-traveling journalism, says there is no security in the magazine business.
“Si is sometimes portrayed as capricious or compulsive,” says Wallace who has been at the magazine for 3 1/2 years. “But I don’t believe it. I am always checking my vital signs. I worry. I analyze. Si is also checking and worrying. But the first thing he’ll do is talk to you, analyze it with you. He’ll give you the benefit of all he knows but then he says, ‘Good luck.’ If you can turn it around, there’s no problem. If you can’t, it’s your problem.”
At 350 there is that kind of hotbed of activity and tension, internal competition and contradiction: people celebrate high standards of journalism and are slavish to advertisers by hawking their goods in editorial copy.
“They give more personal and financial support to get work done than any magazine group in human history,” says a sometime Vanity Fair writer. “If you had to fly to Barcelona to have dinner to make a story great, you did it.”
Currently starring in the chairman’s office are Tina Brown at The New Yorker, Anna Wintour at Vogue, Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair and James Truman at Details. Around the building, they are Tina, Anna, Graydon and James. Their American underlings have begun to affect the accents of their true-Brit superiors.
Though the New Yorker and Details, a twentysomething men’s fashion glossy, are off-premises, there is endless evidence of rivalries among the stars. Yet it is not unusual to see them lined up on a Monday in the lima bean green banquettes at the Royalton Hotel restaurant, also known as the Conde Nast commissary.
The first four banquettes this Monday bespoke the dynamic of a closed society:
At banquet 1 were Si and Tina, in a proper blue suit; at banquet 2 was Anna, wearing a navy sleeveless swing dress; at banquette 3 was Graydon’s consiglieri , Hamilton South, with another editor. Gabe Doppelt, lame duck Mademoiselle editor, started out at banquet 2 with Anna, her former boss and mentor, but then moved to banquet 4 when her lunch partner Mort Zuckerman arrived. He is also a publishing mogul.
To the uninitiated, this may seem confusing--if not proof that life doesn’t progress beyond the ninth grade, when cheerleaders always sat with football players in the malt shop. But in the Conde Nast culture, this is live theater.
In fact, working in the Conde Nast culture means always being braced for surprise.
Take the week of Sept. 27.
It started out quietly enough. Many employees arrived Monday morning with donations for GQ magazine’s annual clothing drive. The boxes in the lobby revealed that for a poor woman to benefit she must be in mourning (there was a lot of black) and literally starving (there were mostly size 6s.)
By Tuesday, rumors abounded at Mademoiselle.
On Wednesday Doppelt announced she was calling it quits after putting out only nine issues. At 33 she had been hired to renovate the faltering magazine. She threw those girls with cattle-prod smiles off the cover and replaced them with sullen-faced models; she redesigned; she went hip. And she became a New York bold face along with Tina and Anna and Graydon.
But some advertisers weren’t impressed. Apparently they didn’t care for articles about masturbation and how hair dye causes cancer. And circulation dropped. Mademoiselle readers, in the words of one, “don’t want that outre downtown fashion thing. I want to read every month about which under-eye concealer to buy and how to dress to look 10 pounds thinner.”
Doppelt’s young staff was dismayed. One young woman, picking through a slush pile of mascara and perfume on the floor outside the beauty editor’s office lamented, “Si wanted us to make money, I guess.”
By Thursday Doppelt was old news. The red velvet curtains in her office were already down and word was her successor, 47-year-old Elizabeth Crow, would be stopping by.
Meantime, that morning, eight members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had stormed Vogue’s offices slapping stickers all over the walls and crying out “Use your head, fur is dead. Boycott Vogue.” Word is they sneaked past security simply by wearing the uniform: black leggings and platforms.
By Friday lobby security had been revamped causing a touch of pandemonium. Employees were madly searching their Prada bags for rarely used company IDs.
Only at the lobby newsstand was there gorgeous serenity.
Many employees believe this is the real nerve center of Conde Nast and to understand its entrails they need only observe how the displays change month to month. Which magazine is prominently displayed? Which is nowhere to be found?
But to understand you must really be of the culture because to the untrained eye, Conde Nast is like an Italian sausage factory where some come out spicy, some mild and some with basil. Magazine covers have four basic ingredients: sex, food, clothes--and lip gloss. Yes, sludgy mountains of lip gloss, so much that the magazines almost slip out of your arms as you embrace them.
Still, there is something exhilarating about those shiny covers and the sense every month that somewhere in that layer cake somebody is being framed and preened. The fantasy of it all is what defines 350 Madison Ave.
The Big Four
Magazine: The New Yorker
Background: Thoroughly British
Career: Prize-winning British journalist, editor of England’s Tatler at age 26, editor of Vanity Fair .
Specialties: Wears sunglasses indoors in the afternoon, witty, favorite expression “at the end of the day,” take-no-prisoners editor, believes gossip is all the news before it happens. Husband Harry Evans once said of her: “She has a certain rat-like cunning.”
Neighborhood: Upper East Side
Background: Half British, half American.
Career: Brief stint at American Bazaar , fashion editor of New York , editor of British Vogue , editor of House & Garden and immediately renamed it HG .
Specialties: Wears sunglasses indoors in the morning, eats rare hamburgers and mashed potatoes for lunch, great dresser, ultimate clean-desk editor, took fashion onto the streets, shy, seductive, never raises her voice but has a temper.
Neighborhood: Upper East Side
E. Graydon Carter
Magazine: Vanity Fair.
Career: founder of The Canadian Review , staff writer at Time and Life , co-founded Spy , editor of The New York Observer .
Specialties: Sense of humor, fly-fishing father of four, dresses so rumpled-Etonian it looks like he sends his collars out to be frayed, smokes Camels madly, church-going, bourbon-drinking, methodical, writes little notes in fountain pen, aspiring ego-tamer.
Neighborhood: Upper West Side
Career: Worked as music journalist in London, American editor of The Face , an editor at Vogue .
Specialties: Loves boxing, drinks Campari and soda, waifish and mop-top, king of ellipses, wry, ironic, styles himself as inscrutable, getting to the top by pretending he doesn’t care, Peck’s bad boy.
Neighborhood: West Village