King James : At 36, James Truman rules the Conde Nast magazine empire. Will he first turn his eye to Vanity Fair? Vogue? Architectural Digest? He’s plotting, but he’s not talking.
The elevator floats upward, carrying the young dauphin of Conde Nast to the 14th floor. A too-tanned woman cosseted in Chanel enters on a lower floor and upon engaging those silent blue eyes gushes an invitation to lunch.
Soon? she swoons.
Soon, he replies graciously, continuing his ascent.
A modification of Ross Perot’s great sucking sound seems to follow James Truman everywhere these days. It is the sound of sycophancy, sidling up to him in the foyer--even penetrating the gray of his temporary office where, strewn about and remarkably obvious to straining eyes, are several notes from Conde Nast editors. “Happy First Day,” writes Mademoiselle Editor Elizabeth Crow.
Last month, Truman, former editor of Details magazine, succeeded 81-year-old Alexander Liberman as editorial director of S.I. Newhouse Jr.'s magazine empire. Over the past three decades, Liberman had masterminded a vision for the 13 magazines by using a remarkable artist’s eye and perfecting the art of intimidation.
Painter, sculptor, pragmatist, the Russian-born Liberman was the job.
Writer, wit and Brit, now Truman is the job.
“Well, the job is going to be what I make it,” Truman says. “I mean the job is, as much as it has a job description, to oversee the Conde Nast magazines editorially and, in particular, to assist those that are in trouble. And so in part it’s to be kind of like a magazine doctor, but in the broader sense, you know, Alex made it more than that and I would like to make it more than that.”
The incestuous world of magazines demands more.
Which magazine will he doctor first? (He won’t say.) What new technology should Newhouse experiment with first? (He won’t say.) Which editor will he burden with his attention first? (“That’s not my style” is all he’ll say.)
But before all that, why Truman in the first place? Why, of all the members of Newhouse’s senior class, did he pick this fair-haired boy of 36 to be his ears and eyes and oracle of good taste?
Clearly, Newhouse prefers people he knows, and Truman’s appointment was not exactly the result of an international dragnet. There were half a dozen editors he might have selected and not everyone in the lunchroom wanted the job. Rumors are that Newhouse was turned down by Tina Brown of the New Yorker and her husband, Harry Evans of Random House.
Yet Truman may be a logical choice.
His friends insist that he is a pop culture divining rod who can package a sensibility. So perhaps he’ll help Newhouse storm the youth market and escort Conde Nast into the information age, where it has yet to aggressively venture.
And, Truman is immensely charming in a kind of self-effacing, watery way that is suspect at first, yet convincing after awhile and then suspect again. Friends and Details’ underlings slavishly praise him, and even if they are sometimes confused by his opaque style, they are impressed by how nimbly he moves between uptown and downtown, grit and glamour.
And Truman succeeds--although not as effortlessly as he charms.
Within a three-year span, he became a star in the Conde Nast galaxy by transforming Details from painfully hip to incredibly hot, ballooning circulation from 100,000 to 450,000. Truman locked into the generation raised on MTV and Super Nintendo, captivating it with humor, sex and its own “I-don’t-give-a-damn” attitude.
But he insists that he wasn’t brought uptown to paint all of Conde Nast with some Generation X gloss.
“You know, everyone has made a great fuss about my age but, you know, I mean, frankly I’m too old to be twentysomething . . . I mean, I’m not worried about being 36.”
Older editors--and they’re all older--couldn’t help but balk. Paige Rense, the 60ish editor of Architectural Digest, was quoted as saying that if Truman bossed her around, she’d have to “spank him and send him to bed without his supper.” But such rumblings were quieted by Newhouse, and shortly after, Rense and Truman were seen having a very public lunch.
“All the editors are very excited about working with him,” chirps Vogue Editor Anna Wintour, who brought Truman to Conde Nast. Wintour further explains why she won’t find it awkward working for someone who once worked for her.
“It makes it easier,” she says cheerily. “It’s much easier for us to have someone here who we know, like and respect.”
Although Truman became Newhouse’s choice, he apparently was handpicked by Liberman. They have spent considerable time together over the past year, presumably with the eminence grise passing on wisdom to the young prince. (They have also shopped together with Truman turning Liberman on to his favorite designer label, Comme des Garcons.)
Gabe Doppel, who was redesigned right out of the editorship of Mademoiselle by Liberman, explains that her buddy Truman has much in common with the older man: “They both observe life from the outskirts; they both are very flirtatious; they both have a childish sense of humor.
“But when I think of James at work at his hideously messy desk--it’s of a boy sitting behind it with his shoes off,” Doppel adds. “Alex was so different. He always had a clean desk with nothing on it except his folded hands.”
It is still winter, February and bruising, before he has quit smoking, before he has started the new job, before James Truman has become the enigma of Conde Nast headquarters on Madison Avenue.
He is still working in Details’ downtown offices, which have that unsettled feel of a college dorm. There is a Pepto-Bismol bottle on his computer, bound copies of his favorite British pop music weekly on the shelf, a kilim rug with autumnal colors on the wooden floor and a nondescript couch. The windows are thrown open to relieve the room of smoke and Truman is trying to entertain J-school questions about the future of American magazines and how they’ll survive CD-ROMS.
“The magazines that have succeeded most recently are those that do not in any way condescend to their readers,” he says. “I think Allure is very good at not condescending, given the subject matter (beauty) of the magazine. I think Details did the same thing. I think Spy, when it was good, did the same thing; I think Vanity Fair, the same. There was that belief when you picked up those magazines that you were being treated not as a media demographic, but as a lively, intelligent, interested person.”
Several Conde Nast magazines may be in dire need of re-creating that or some other belief--and Truman knows it.
In the first three months of this year, eight of the 13 magazines saw their total number of ad pages drop dramatically compared to the same period last year. Only Allure, Self, Details and Conde Nast Traveler increased ad pages, while Vanity Fair, Mademoiselle and others decreased. While that may not be an indication of much more than ad rate increases and does not necessarily explain profitability, conventional wisdom has it that several of the magazines are hurting and Truman is supposed to be part of the solution to renourish them. He is supposed to have fresh ideas; there is supposed to be content beneath all that lambent wit and style.
“Advertising doesn’t come unless you have the magazine that people are reacting to,” he says. “The advertiser has to feel that the magazine is connecting in a real way with its reader, which makes it hot --that terrible word. But you know, hot is really saying this magazine has found its reader and is involved in a very intimate dance with the reader. And I don’t want to bring up a rival magazine, but Harper’s Bazaar is a great example. Its circulation is not doing at all well, but it’s absolutely packed with advertising because advertisers fear it is connected very passionately with a group of women.”
But how do you make those passionate connections?
“I feel that what was lost in the 1980s was that sense of voice, which is why when you read about the new Esquire, they’re trying to take it back to what it was. Everyone is looking back to how magazines were as if this kind of aggressive, hysterical kind of shouting that magazines did for 10 years was just an aberration. I think magazines have to find a way out of that because I think that area is going to be used up by television anyway.”
There isn’t a TV in Truman’s office. There is a Sony mini-component stereo system and piles of CDs and several photographs strewn about, including one of him and Details’ sex columnist Anka Radkovich and another of him and Kate Moss and Sofia Coppola.
Truman looks almost as anemic as Moss in that picture, but it is deceptive. Although reedy and fair, he is sturdy--an athlete, in fact. He is an ardent boxer who trains once a week. He plays tennis, stylistically awkward but aggressively, a friend says.
And everything on Truman’s face curls--his lips, his nose, his hair.
“I look horrible in photos,” he says as he tries to angle to get his favorite photographer to shoot him for this story.
Farther away and longer ago-- before he collected antiques and had a decorator for his roof-garden apartment in the West Village--James Truman really was young and unformed and trying to re-create himself on the sidelines of the world of rock music.
It was the late 1970s, a time when post-punk music was exploding and Britain was again becoming the major music capital of the world. Truman was a writer for Melody Maker, an influential British pop weekly, and living in London. Crumpled over his typewriter, he would imprison himself for days in a corrugated hut constructed within Melody Maker’s run-down offices because of what friends gently refer to as his “deadline difficulties.”
“The most effective way to help James get his deadline met was to bring him an endless supply of doughnuts and orange juice,” says Ian Birch, then his editor at Melody Maker. “James didn’t so much as write stories as sculpt them. But he never took a cliched route. He was always a lateral thinker.”
Perhaps his most memorable pieces--and most labored over--were on Bryan Ferry and his group, Roxy Music.
The son of a coal miner, Ferry dressed in white dinner jackets onstage and made an ironic statement out of everything about being a pop star. At a time when music was jagged, discordant and punk, Ferry presented an elegant, manicured sound--the smooth music that accompanied models down runways or that filled restaurants in the 1980s.
Truman admits to being attracted to Ferry’s way of bending the world toward his own eccentric vision of it. Truman also says he probably wrote “far too many stories” about the rocker--although they are now close friends who shoot pool together in Greenwich Village.
“Pop stars become role models for young writers because they obviously ring bells in their character,” says Birch, publisher of British Elle. “But James was too intelligent for that and it would be too simplistic to say he was writing about himself when he wrote about Ferry.”
Yet Truman emerged from a Bryan Ferry-like existence, rebelling against his class--although in a far less dramatic way.
While Ferry came from working-class Newcastle, Truman was raised “middle class” in Nottingham, where his father, Derek, owned various businesses. The Trumans weren’t landed gentry but they had money.
As Ferry achingly rendered Bob Dylan as a soloist, Truman lost himself in Jack Kerouac, who cruised America and wrote about its dark side. Yet as much as Truman was fascinated by Kerouac, he did not ignore his countrymen, such as Evelyn Waugh.
In a phone interview from the family’s Caribbean winter home, Valerie Truman says her son owned everything Waugh ever wrote.
“A lot of those books are still in his room,” she says.
Truman’s room in Nottingham also reflects an earlier art. As a teen-ager, he was an avid painter; when the family traveled throughout Europe in summers, he would spend his time sketching and painting, his mother says. A huge black-and-white mural of three Chinese men smoking hookah pipes still covers the wall of his study. He studied French at the Sorbonne and Spanish in Seville.
His art also was expressed in the form of outlandish clothes, his mother adds. “He didn’t like the old tweed sport jacket and trousers. But he was always quite interested in fashion, the outlandish and weird, like silver jackets or black plastic trousers.”
He attended the Oundle Boarding School, an aspirational although not first-rate school. He decided against attending a university and worked briefly in his father’s businesses, including an engineering and aircraft firms.
“James tried, but he was much more artistic and creative and not into the kind of things his father was,” Valerie Truman says.
Instead, he spent a year at journalism school and then found jobs in London, mostly at music weeklies.
The British weeklies--with their seemingly endless amounts of space--were the perfect proving ground for young writers exercising their voice. But if London was the place for them to ramble on and be celebrated as their generation’s Oscar Wilde, New York was the place to tone it down and make some money.
In 1981, Truman came to work in New York for the Face, a monthly music and lifestyle magazine, and his dispatches brought him recognition. Like many British expatriates, Truman came to America because he was more dedicated and ambitious than the polite world he was raised in would allow.
“I hated the class system there,” he says. “I hated the fact that if you showed enthusiasm for things there, you were thought to be vulgar in some way.”
His attitude toward America, however, was also jaundiced. In one long, amusing article in the Face, Truman suggested that the growing telephone sex business was a perfect metaphor for modern America and its actions in Vietnam.
“Isolated, nearly invulnerable, its enemies largely self-created, America had become the lonely turret gunner, seeing the world only at a distance, lost in private, morbid fantasy,” he wrote, adding that America’s “death-bed image could only be that of a man lying in a dimly lit room, trousers round his ankles, quietly wanking to the sound of a paid stranger’s voice.”
While this writing style brought him admirers, Truman’s personal style brought friends and patrons.
Truman met Anna Wintour at a dinner party at her home. Wintour, working as a fashion editor at New York magazine, was bowled over by his charm but was blinded by what he was wearing.
“It was a tight black-and-white houndstooth-check Armani,” she recalls, laughing.
“I went on Anna’s list,” he says.
Not long after, she became editor of British Vogue and asked him to write a piece about how he dressed. A few years later when she was editor of American Vogue, she hired him as features editor.
It was 1988 and Truman took the job gladly. He had just returned from a year in Hollywood trying to write a screenplay with former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. Their collaboration didn’t work and Truman says he found Los Angeles’ “inertia impossible to deal with.”
By 1990, Newhouse had plucked Truman from Vogue to be editor of Details, which Conde Nast had bought two years earlier. A black-and-white guide to downtown club life, Details was to be Conde Nast’s vehicle to younger men and it was up to Truman to transform it somehow, someway.
It took a year--and from Truman’s vantage, it was a long, painful year. Perhaps the most reviled was his first issue, in which he and his art director and close friend Derek Unglass featured a graphic photograph of a man in the electric chair in Florida. Among the staff the photo was referred to as “Roasted Head of Cop Killer.” Funny as this was in the office, it didn’t go over well with advertisers, and for the next several editions Truman’s critics carped that he simply was getting everything wrong.
But Truman eventually found relief the old-fashioned way: He put movie star Keanu Reeves on the cover and thousands of teen-age girls snapped it up. He also had to fire Unglass, who did not want to give up on their original edgy concept of the magazine.
“Derek and James created this deconstructed, wild, very assaultive product, and Derek became a scapegoat for that,” a former Details staffer says.
But Truman’s Details found readers--the kind of guys who graduate from college and move back into their parents’ basements and spend all their spare nights listening to music.
Steve Fishman, a frequent Details contributor, says Truman had a unique but effective editing style. In one instance, he recalls Truman advising him to revise a story by “running it through the postmodern blender.” He then got up and rooted around his office as if he had such an cooking utensil.
“My editor and I walked out of the office thoroughly enthused with these high-octane bits, but then we looked at each other and said: ‘Do you have any idea what he was talking about?’ But then we figured out how to put into action James’ extremely engaging conversation.”
Joe Conason, now the executive editor of the New York Observer, worked for Truman during Details’ first years. Conason’s job was to assign serious journalistic efforts, which he hoped would get Details’ young readers “interested in the world beyond the radio station and mall.” They ran an interview with a Polish journalist, a story on the sale of Soviet weapons in Germany, a profile of Cuban youth. But as the magazine veered toward celebrities, sex and music, Conason left.
“The worse insult James would make when he was killing one of my story ideas was ‘Joe, that’s such a worthy idea.’ And then he’d laugh. And I had to laugh, too. The message was ‘Don’t weigh me down with this story.’ ”
But Conason left with high regard for Truman: “The irony of it is that James actually likes good writing, really cares about that. I’m just not sure Generation X cares a whole helluva lot.”
It was Truman’s idea to hire a sex columnist, and when he came across young, attractive free-lance writer Anka Radkovich, he gave her free rein, she says.
“James takes chances,” says Radkovich, explaining that their idea for the column was freewheeling and raw. “We didn’t want it to be a sex column like Mademoiselle or Glamour has. Those are service-type columns. We wanted to go beyond.”
And so she has--with graphic descriptions of her dates and instructive columns on how to put on condoms.
In fact, unlike dowdier men’s magazines, Details seems comfortable covering sexual lifestyles from heterosexual to gay to in-your-face androgyny. At the same time, the magazine seems to project old-fashioned advice to young men, such as how to get a girl into bed. It also deals with AIDS, gay politics and highly confessional stories of relationships.
“There’s a high foreplay factor in Details,” says a staffer who asked to remain anonymous, “and that’s because James is interested in sex, the other editors are interested in it, and judging from the letters to the editor and faxes around the place, so are the readers.”
Because of the nature of the magazine and Truman’s elusive manner, his own sexuality has been the subject of speculation. He’s had a few enduring romances, friends say. A highly social woman he recently dated reportedly said he dumped her, explaining that he was too busy with work to have time for black-tie parties. (By the way, he was one of two people out of 1,000 at the annual PEN gala who didn’t wear black-tie. Instead, he wore his uniform of black suit and collarless white shirt.)
Asked if he had anything interesting to reveal about his personal life Truman declares emphatically:
“I am heterosexual, I am single and I am not about to get married.” After a contemplative pause he adds, “You know, I always felt it would be difficult to be married and to be the editor of Details, because I think Details is very much a magazine for single people. But I think in my new job, I could get married.”
In the same week in late March, there were two parties celebrating Truman’s appointment as new head of the principality: one for the grown-ups and one for the kids.
Si Newhouse threw the very adult, very subdued event for New York’s media and fashion aristocracy, including Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Naomi Campbell and Fran Lebowitz.
The Details staff threw the other bash--a long night that began at a downtown Japanese restaurant and ended at a tragically chic bar.
The evening was rowdy and slightly sloppy. Small disposable cameras were placed at each table and the youthful editors, writers, assistants and hangers-on traipsed between tables posing for each other. When dessert--fresh fruit--was served, the managing editor had to confiscate the grapes because they were ending up in the oddest places. “Hour-glass” Anka, as she is sometimes called, planted herself on Truman’s knee.
For the presentations, one editor stood up with a cassette player and warbled “To Sir With Love,” an ode of respect for the teacher. There were several rounds of sarcasm and Truman was presented a group picture taken at an elementary school with the entire Details staff dressed in uniforms and seated behind desks with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cartons of milk.
Truman gave a brief speech and, although he was neither weepy nor rendering his garments, he was sentimental, say witnesses, most of whom were too drunk to remember his exact words. Apparently he reminisced about Details by referring to various covers that hang in the lobby of its offices and how they reminded him of what was going on in his personal and professional life at the time.
“He was alternately self-aggrandizing and self-effacing,” one writer said affectionately. “He was soooooooo James.”
Yet during most of the high jinks, Truman remained seated in the middle of it all in his postmodern pose, watching, listening, coolly appraising and dispatching clever one-liners.
One of Truman’s young admirers described him as almost having a “Warholesque quality. He has that passive quality that you read Warhol had that makes people feel free to perform or frolic.”
Another noted: “I think he was mysterious to begin with, but now it’s a tactic. He loves to throw something out and see how it resonates.” There is that James Truman, whom people relentlessly label “elliptical,” and then there is the other private, emphatically warm Truman described by intimate friends.
Henry Edwards, screenwriter and devoted friend, recalls an occasion when he joked about being broke and Truman immediately pushed a handful of cash at him. Ian Birch recalls a trip to New York during which, jet lagged and slightly ill, he had to be put in a cab and sent home by Truman. “He was very generous, very concerned, very caring.”
Although Gabe Doppel doesn’t appreciate Truman’s choice of gifts--he once gave her fish kettle--she says that when she was going through her worse times at Mademoiselle, she would call Truman “15 times a day and he would take my call every time.”
But even close friends say there is always a part of him that remains in the shadows.
“He doesn’t want to people to pick away at the mystery of his mystery,” Edwards says.
Roger Trilling, yet another “best friend,” says that after a decade of knowing Truman, “I still don’t know him, but I know enough. We talk about life, we talk about girls, we talk about getting older.”
And when Truman wrote his final message to the thousands of Details readers who helped launch this latest career climb, he showed that when facing the possibility of emotion, it is always safe to be cool--and to talk about sex.
“I hate goodbys but let me try this,” he wrote in the April editor’s note. “I thank you beyond words for making this magazine a success and in the process making the last four years the greatest adventure of my life. It has felt like struggle and it has felt like love. I’m sorry we never got to sleep together.”