Truman’s Zen Retreat

There is no conflict, James Truman said. He was referring to his recent month-long retreat in Woodstock with a pair of Tibetan Buddhist teachers, and whether or not it clashed with his role as editorial director of Condé Nast.

“You want to find a contradiction between my post-retreat self and the magazines that I oversee,” Mr. Truman wrote in an e-mail, “but none really exists.”

Mr. Truman is not the first New Yorker to seek balance and deeper meaning after living in a city that rarely encourages either. But some of his colleagues think that Mr. Truman has chosen a strange environment to embark upon such a quest. Balance and deeper meaning? This was the guy who helped launch Lucky .

Mr. Truman disagreed. Substance was in the eye of the beholder, even at a place like Condé Nast.

“I find equal substance in an Irving Penn photograph in Vogue as a John Updike essay in The New Yorker ,” Mr. Truman wrote, noting two of Condé Nast’s signature publications. As for Lucky , “If I want to buy a table lamp, I will find more substance in Lucky than I would in a Noam Chomsky essay about shopping.”

Inside and outside of Condé Nast, however, there is concern that 44-year-old Mr. Truman’s newfound awareness may eventually clash with the magazines he oversees. “My experience at Condé Nast was that the more earthy types didn’t last,” said a former Condé Nast editor who has stayed in touch with Mr. Truman. When it came to superficial subjects like glamour and style, the editor said, “You have to be willing to believe it-or you didn’t last very long.”

Another Condé Nast insider raised the possibility that Mr. Truman may simply be going through a mid-life crisis. “Can’t he get a red car like everyone else?” the insider carped.

But others at Condé Nast believe Mr. Truman has made a positive change, one that will help the company’s magazines. “I found him well-composed,” said Dominique Browning, the editor of House & Garden . “He seemed very at peace; he seemed serene. This seems to be a very constructive trip for him.”

Allure editor Linda Wells, who Mr. Truman has worked with closely during his eight years as editorial director, noticed something different about her boss immediately after his return from Woodstock.

“I saw him the day before he left, and I saw him the morning he came back,” Ms. Wells said. “What’s really different is the perspective the [Buddhist] experience gave him in relation to the work I do with him …. He came back and had a very clear perspective about what I should do with Allure .”

Mr. Truman’s post-Woodstock advice, Ms. Wells said, was to ease back on the pacing of Allure and create “contemplative moments” amid the “relentlessness of information” in the pages of the magazine.

Ms. Wells said she agreed wholeheartedly. “When magazines that deal with glamour and style fail is when they believe that it’s the most important thing of all and try to impose a judgment on the reader-really condescend to the reader,” she said. “That’s the negative part of what we do-being so wrapped up in style and fashion.”

In his e-mail, Mr. Truman acknowledged that he had spoken to Ms. Wells “about varying the pacing in the well of Allure , to provide some calmer moments.” But Mr. Truman noted that this advice was specific to Allure .

“My work is about helping each magazine express its identity, not imposing one identity on all of them,” he wrote. He added that he had told Cindi Leive, editor of Glamour , to make part of her magazine denser.

Some close to Mr. Truman said his time off in Woodstock was unsurprising.Jane Pratt, editor of Jane , who has been friends with Mr. Truman for more than a decade, said that both she and Mr.Truman”have been going through a mid-life crisis since we were 20.” She added: “He always wants to try new things. He’s my professional idol in that way.”

Mr. Truman, who is paid around $1 million a year, has one of the best jobs in magazines. Anointed by Si Newhouse, the owner of Condé Nast, as the editorial director in 1994 when he was just 36, Mr. Truman does not have any fixed responsibilities for the magazine publisher. On some magazines, Mr. Truman has more input than others, such as Lucky , Allure , House & Garden -which he helped relaunch in 1995-and Glamour . But the star editors at Condé Nast are said to have a wider berth, including Vanity Fair ‘s Graydon Carter, Vogue ‘s Anna Wintour and GQ ‘s Art Cooper.

And Mr. Truman has been known, on occasion, to make energetic use of his non-work time, taking salsa-dancing lessons, scuba diving and, last fall, learning how to drive a race car. Kim France, editor of Lucky , said that Buddhism “has been something that has been in his life for several years.”

Mr. Truman came to this charmed life after editing Details in its downtown-hipster incarnation for several years after it was purchased by Condé Nast. In March 2000, Details was the first of three Condé Nast magazines to be folded under Mr. Truman’s watch. (The others were Women’s Sports and Fitness and Mademoiselle .) And there have been other tumults during his stint as editorial director. Early on, Mr. Truman clashed with editors who weren’t interested in the advice of the young upstart, such as Paige Rense, the editor of Architectural Digest , who told The Wall Street Journal in 1994 that she would “spank him and send him to bed without his supper” if he tried to change her magazine.

Mr. Truman’s relationship with Steve Florio, the chief executive of Condé Nast, has also been marked with tension.

“They’re both very different personalities,” said a Condé Nast editor. “James is flighty-doesn’t get into the office very early, is out late at night. Steve is solid, Jupiter-like-and they’re both competing for Si’s favors.”

Though Mr. Newhouse is said to be content with Mr. Truman, some at Condé Nast wonder if the owner is really willing to see his glossies injected with some down-to-earth values.

“For a trade that’s based on status and glamour, I would imagine it could be rather alarming. I don’t think Si wants that to be the culture of the company,” said one former Condé Nast editor of Mr. Truman’s recent views. “For one thing, there’s not a lot of advertising in it.”

Through a corporate spokesperson, Mr. Newhouse and Mr. Florio declined comment.

If people around him are privately worrying, Mr. Truman seemsunalarmed. Still, he had previously taken one stab at clarifying his Buddhist retreat, saying in the April 29 New York that the media-fashion world offered a “seductive invitation to get lost in the distractions of glamour and status and nonstopwork”from which he wanted to temporarily extract himself.

“I imagine a dean of philosophy might speak similarly about feeling caught up in the life of the mind,” Mr. Truman wrote to The Observer . “A restauranteur would say the same about the invitation to overindulge in eating and drinking.”

Now, Mr. Truman wrote, he was back, re-energized and ready to … write.

“While away I decided I wanted to do some magazine writing again, so I’ll be getting to that,” Mr. Truman wrote. He added he’d be writing for Condé Nast, but wouldn’t say what kind of pieces or for which titles.

Meanwhile, Condé Nast prepares for a new era of enlightened stewardship. House & Garden’s Ms. Browning thought Mr. Truman might be on to something.

“His job is not to follow the Condé Nast culture-his job is to lead the Condé Nast culture,” she said. “Maybe he’s ahead of the curve on where we all should be.