The Big Party

Big hair, big egos, big dreams. All the ambition and over-the-top stylings of Manhattan in the 1980s -- a time when the Reagans ruled the White House and Donald Trump was a mere local developer -- appeared on display at the annual Condé Nast Christmas party. 
From a distance, this gathering looked like one of those Old Hollywood studio luncheons where newsreel cameras panned each glittering actor, movie director and famous face. Only this private event for the Condé Nast media empire was far more exclusive, with its “stars” compared to a then-popular television show called “Dynasty”.
S. I. Newhouse Jr., a small reclusive man known as “Si”, reigned supreme over this dazzling affair, along with his debonair long-time editorial director Alexander Liberman. For decades, these two men controlled an array of glossy magazines  -- stuffed with perfume-scented pages full of beautiful models, clothes and accoutrements – which dictated how women should look, dress, and feel.
At tables near Newhouse, each editor was seated in proximity to their perceived favor with the boss. Closest to Si were his most celebrated stars, Anna Wintour of Vogueand Tina Brown of Vanity Fairand eventually The New Yorker.
While these two female editors traded polite smiles and bon mots, the press portrayed their relationship as nothing less than a duel. An air of contention pervaded the room like perfume or the aroma of a fine wine. From the moment that Wintour walked through the door as a Condé Nast editor, Timemagazine reported, “rumors of a Dynasty-style cat fight with Brown began to circulate.” 
Both pooh-poohed talk of any rivalry, and under different circumstances, the two young British women might have been friends. But in the intense world of Condé Nast -- where Newhouse presided over a “managed competition” among his editors -- a tug-of-war for power and influence was only natural.
This tension seemed reflected even in the group photo taken at these holiday conclaves held at the Four Seasons restaurant, an elegant mid-Manhattan eatery known for its “power lunches”. Usually in these photos, Si could found in the middle, with Anna standing to his right, and Tina on the opposite left.  
Virtually everyone in America’s media took note of the Condé Nast fireworks, just as Newhouse intended. No longer would the Newhouse name be weighed solely by the chain of dull grey newspapers started by his father in out-of-the-way places. 
Anna Wintour and Tina Brown have become twin symbols of the new Condé Nast, where glamour and celebrity are the coin of the realm, editors are stars, and Britannia rules the waves,” enthused The New York Timesin 1989. “In their glossy journals, they are purveyors of gossip and celebrity, yet they themselves have become celebrities of a sort, fodder for the rumor mills. Their clothes, their homes, their husbands, their rise through the organization, their salaries (said to be very well into the six figures) and perks - all are grist. Wintour and Brown have brought a high-flying style to the company that the gossip columns dote on.”
Though Wintour and Brown, both women in their thirties, came from similar privileged backgrounds in the United Kingdom and married older accomplished men, they were quite different in appearance and editorial style. 
At first glance, Brown seemed the most talented, the better writer, the final arbiter of trends and tastes. But Wintour would prove every bit as capable, perhaps more than Brown realized, in their company’s battle of wits.
Now, a quarter century later, Tina and Anna are part of the cast of colorful characters, titanic struggles, petty jealousies, corrupting influences and lasting impact of the Condé Nast magazine empire, brought to life in a planned six-hour mini-series  “All That Glitters,” produced by Sony Pictures Television.
This drama is based on my 1994 book “Newhouse: All The Glitter, Power and Glory of America’s Richest Media Empire and the Secretive Man Behind It”, a rather serious-minded tome about the larger Newhouse media conglomerate, which won the Frank Luther Mott Award as best researched media book for that year. This new abridged and updated version, focusing mostly on the denizens of Condé Nast, uses the original title of that contemporaneous work, “All That Glitters”, as I always intended it
With the vantage that time and history allows, “All That Glitters” looks back at this media world on the cusp of so many changes, one that would define so much of America’s culture and political life today.  Like some Hollywood sequel, it provided the chance to follow what happened to each main character in the ensuing years and assess the consequences of their actions. 
During the 1980s and 1990s, the Newhouse family, with an estimated $12 billion fortune, were at the height of their power. Si was the king of culture in New York -- his privately-run company controlling America’s top book publisher, trend-setting magazines that were the ‘bibles’ for industries like fashion and emerging technologies or pre-eminent in the literary world, the top Sunday newspaper supplement delivered to millions of homes, and a force in New York’s social scene with one of the world’s great modern art collections. 
The fear and intrigue Si’s name engendered, even among employees, made writing the original book irresistible in 1994, the way chatting compulsively about Caesar must have been for the ancient Romans. Newhouse’s death at age 89 in 2017 made a fuller and more complete consideration of his company’s lasting impact on American life more necessary than ever, especially in the age of Trump, fake news, misogyny and #MeToo movement.
Few editors in the history of American publishing made more of a splash in their debut than Tina Brown in the 1980s. As editor of Vanity Fair,she collected a remarkable ensemble of talent and turned around that magazine’s sagging fortunes. She demonstrated a remarkable flair for the Zeitgeist,for catching the highs and lows of American culture like lighting in a bottle. Tina appeared destined to lead Condé Nast into the future.
Buzz, a word she seemed to invent, came naturally to Brown. As a deft writer in her own pages, she penned a 1985 cover “The Mouse That Roared”, amongthe first to detail the crumbling storybook marriage of unhappy Princess Diana and her wimpy husband Charles, the Prince of Wales. Full of juicy details, Tina displayed both a savagery and empathy for Diana, a sort of blonde look-alike, who seemed imprisoned in the old ways of doing things for women. “The English girl is encouraged to be this restrained and almost repressed figure,” explained Brown about the princess. Of course, Tina herself proved to be quite a different Brit in America.
While Brown was brassy and felicitous with words, Anna Wintour was a woman of image and supreme visual style. She seemed born and bred to run Vogue, an ambition she harbored not so secretly for years while watching her father edit newspapers in London. Her signature look -- big dark sunglasses that she wore like “armour”, her auburn hair cut in a trademark bob with sharp bangs, and an endless runway of haute couturedresses  -- oozed with cool, almost unobtainable, elegance. 
But arguably Wintour’s greatest skill was in climbing Condé Nast’s hierarchy, flattering and cultivating the bosses, placing and securing allies in strategic places, and ultimately conducting a long inexorable march to the top. She withstood whispers and jealousies in and out of the company. A hit 2006 movie, “The Devil Wears Prada”,was inspired by her chilly example. Even when she achieved an acknowledged position as one of the top editors of her generation, she suffered the effrontery of older men like “60 Minutes” correspondent Morley Safer who asked in 2009 if she was, as rumored, a bitch.
“I am very driven by what I do. I’m certainly very competitive. … A bitch? I hope I’m not,” Wintour replied. “I try not to be. But I like people who represent the best of what they do. If that turns you into a perfectionist, then maybe I am.”
In the mid-1980s, these two young women entered a media world dominated by men -- particularly Newhouse and Liberman -- accustomed to treating women as pleasant subordinates. In turning this world upside down, Wintour and Brown challenged the old rules, reflecting the seismic rumbles throughout society. 
Both Wintour and Brown were Baby Boomers, the post-World War II generation who came of age in the 1970s with the emerging Women’s Liberation movement that redefined the American workplace. No longer were there just a few “girl reporters” in America’s newsrooms, places once consumed by cigarette smoke, musky testosterone and a bottle of booze in the desk drawer. A veritable army of college-educated young women descended from academia, intent on grabbing power, money and fame as much as any red-blooded male. 
By the late 1980s, women in their thirties like Wintour and Brown were looking to break the “glass ceiling” of male corporate power and weren’t going to take no for an answer. 
In retrospect, this story about Condé Nast -- what happened between its assemblage of famed writers, editors, photographers and hypemeisters -- now seems secondary to the larger fin-de-siècletale about America’s transforming media, culture and politics at the end of the 20th Century taking place right under their nose. 
In the 1980s, print was still pre-eminent, the time-honored method for Newhouse and his family to build a multibillion-dollar fortune. Si and his highly paid minions -- with their A-list parties, perks and celebrity-filled galas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and after Hollywood’s Oscars -- seemed oblivious to the fundamental class, race and economic divisions within the country. 
Outside their door, the Internet -- with its huge threat to Newhouse’s finances -- loomed like a storm in the night, an earthquake causing a seismic shift in the media’s tectonic plates. Everyone seemed to be laughing and tittering about the Clinton sex scandal until the thunderous shock of September 11, 2001, when advertising dried up and so many walls came tumbling down. These changes, though, would be about more than just money and technology. 
As a troubling sign of things to come, this book examines the blend of hype and political favor-trading between the Newhouse empire and powerful figures like the Reagans in the 1980s. In this celebrity roundabout, gossip was no longer light and fluffy amusement, but rather a potent political weapon.
We’re reminded these murky tabloid waters spawned a young Donald Trump, perhaps the greatest beneficiary of our celebrity culture. In the 1980s, Trump relied on Newhouse and his best friend Roy Cohn, a crooked right-wing lawyer and counselor to New York’s top mobster, to help burnish his image and to create his “brand”. Long after he was gone, Cohn’s malevolent influence continued to be felt. 
As this book details, Si proposed and published  “Trump: The Art of the Deal”, the 1987 best-seller that made “The Donald” famous and eventually put him on the road to the presidency. Newhouse’s Conde Nast editors, like Tina Brown and Anna Wintour, celebrated The Donald and his various wives and latest ventures in their pages.
Both Wintour and Brown were also major media enablers of another bête noire of our age, Harvey Weinstein, the flesh-grabbing Hollywood movie producer who accosted various models, starlets and a host of other women. Both Anna and Tina eagerly promoted Weinstein (Brown even became business partners with him) until Harvey’s personal horrors -- kept from public view for years -- were finally exposed by other media outlets. 
Both top editors claimed not to know anything of the rampant rumors of Harvey’s behavior that swirled around them. Such are the many ironies in the story of Wintour and Brown -- the two most prominent standard-bearers of the Conde Nast media empire during its heyday. Their aspirations, their remarkable talent, their treatment by men like Newhouse and Liberman above them was very representative of the struggle by women to achieve the top rungs of power in traditionally male-dominated companies. What happened to them, with their up and downs, is illustrative of so many female subordinates who dream of one day running things.
In this sense, “All That Glitters” is a parable about the subtle pressures within American media, where power, fame and sexism are sprinkled with easy compromises and ethical corruption. Today, these issues are very much alive as they were in the 1980s. And journalistic trust, accountability and public service are still something many are willingly to forego as long as they have a seat at the Big Party.  
So back we go, in this updated version, to a fabulous, contentious, mystifying modern Byzantium as I observed it a quarter century ago…