Magazine Honchos Remember Steve Florio

otr steveflorio1h Magazine Honchos Remember Steve FlorioRon Galotti, the old Vogue, GQ and Vanity Fair publisher, was speaking on the phone from his home in the woods of eastern Vermont.

“I have the most spectacular candles sitting on my fireplace right now. We put them out every Christmas and they are just magnificent. I’m going to holler at my wife right now and ask her what they’re called. What are those big candlesticks that Steve got us called? What? Aah, hurricane lamps. They are these crystal hurricane lamps that he bought for me: a pair of candleholders.”

Mr. Galotti—the inspiration for Sex and the City’s Mr. Big—was talking about his old colleague and boss, the former Condé Nast president and CEO Steve Florio, who died on Dec. 27 at the age of 58, of complications from a heart attack he suffered in November.

“At the beginning of time, before ethnicity and equality were on an even foot, Steve Florio made a decision that he was an Italian guy who always wanted to be a white guy,” Mr. Galotti continued. “He wanted to join Seawanhaka Yacht Club. I don’t know if you’ve ever been out there, but it’s one of the oldest yacht clubs in the country, in the Oyster Bay area [of Long Island]. It has a lot of history and prestige, a really small and refined club. Anyway, he was very proud that they let this ethnic into this WASP-y yacht club. He invited us out—the Florio clan. It was me, Tommy [Mr. Florio’s brother, the current publisher of Vogue] and his brother Mikey. So when we met him out there, we decided we’d go in an Italian style of fishing. We took paint buckets with us, and we all looked like gavones.”

He said they could have easily been mistaken for cast members from Saturday Night Fever.

“Steve looks at us, and he says, ‘What the hell is this?’” said Mr. Galotti. “Stevey was like, ‘I’m not taking those guys!’ He was mortified! Haha! He didn’t want to let us in. And we said, ‘Hey, they know you’re Italian.’”

This was in the mid-1980’s, and Mr. Florio, whose ambition and outsize personality would become legendary, was then the publisher of The New Yorker. When he started there, the famously tweedy New Yorker staffers looked at the bearish, 6-foot, 250-pound Queens native “like he was an alien,” according to Ken Auletta, a longtime writer for the magazine. But by 1994, Mr. Florio would be president of Condé Nast, and his exacting management style, as well as his focus on selling luxury advertising, had come to define the company.

“Everyone around him was measured by performance,” said Tom Wallace, Condé Nast’s editorial director. “If you and your magazine did well, you were rewarded. If you didn’t perform, you got less freedom, then eventually less attention. And if you didn’t figure out a solution to your problem, you got less and less of everything. And then forget about staff and budgets—you couldn’t get oxygen.”

“Steve was about winning,” Mr. Wallace continued. “He could be fun, but he was always a little dangerous. Steve cared about performance, and that’s true of Condé Nast today. That is his legacy.”

“Steve inspired confidence and hope and motivation. He was really an education, to see that kind of leadership,” said Jonathan Newhouse, the chairman of Condé Nast International. “He was an inspiration.”

On New Year’s Eve, the heavyweights of the magazine publishing world put their holiday plans on hold, and convened at St. Ignatius Church on 84th Street and Park Avenue for Mr. Florio’s funeral. Vogue editor Anna Wintour walked arm-in-arm with Condé Nast honcho Si Newhouse; Hearst president Cathie Black was there, as was New Yorker editor David Remnick, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, and Jonathan Newhouse.

“We met 100 years ago,” said Ms. Black after the service. “We would have lunch once a year at the Four Seasons and tell lies and catch up. In the old days, we’d have a martini and then we’d have a pleasant glass of white wine, and laugh and catch up. He was a great guy. He was my fiercest competitor.”

In addition to being a ferocious salesman, Mr. Florio was also known as a loyal ally to those on his magazines’ editorial side. “He was very good to editors,” said Mr. Carter. “He understood if you hire decently talented people and give them a reasonable amount of freedom to produce a great magazine, then every once in a while they do.”

Mr. Remnick agreed. “Even as he was telling me that The New Yorker was the only magazine he read, I knew, and even hoped, that he was telling Graydon the same thing about Vanity Fair, or telling Anna the same thing about Vogue,” he said.

Mr. Galotti, for his part, acknowledged that his relationship with Mr. Florio had had its ups and downs—in 2003, Mr. Florio fired Mr. Galotti from his job as publisher of GQ—but he said that, in the end, those bumpy spots didn’t matter.

“Times are not always perfect,” he said. “A lot is always written about myself and the Steve Florios. But I would hope you understand that when you get older, you forget the bad. You just do. You really try to focus on the good. And my memories of Steve Florio are all good. And I’m lucky to have had him as a friend.”