The Lost World: Remembering Condé Nast When It Sizzled

conde103108 The Lost World: Remembering Condé Nast When It SizzledAs John Koblin reported yesterday, Condé Nast is implementing across the board budget cuts. Men’s Vogue was forced to reformat itself down to a glorified supplement to its big sister publication; Portfolio is dramatically scaling back its Web site and limiting its run from 12 issues a year to 10.

Like the natty yet faceless figure in the opening credits to Mad Men, Condé Nast editors could be forgiven for feeling like their world is collapsing around them and their lives—not to mention their lifestyles—are in a state of free-fall.

How good was it at Condé Nast before the fall? Very, very good, according to Slate’s David Plotz, who offered a snapshot of life in Si Newhouse’s gilded aerie in a piece from December 1997 headlined Let Si Get This.

Read now, Mr. Plotz’s essay is like a dispatch from a lost world, where from the moment editors wake up:

A Lincoln Town Car is waiting outside your door in the morning to take you to work. The car, which costs $50 an hour, is written into your contract. First stop, breakfast with a writer at the Four Seasons. The check may be as little as $40. When you reach the office, you realize you’re out of cigarettes. No problem—you send your assistant to buy a pack for you. She gets reimbursed from petty cash ($3). (Could be worse for the assistant: She could be forced to pick up her boss’s birth-control pills, or her boss’s pet from the vet, or presents for her boss’s children—regular duties for Condé Nast underlings.)

You’ve forgotten to return the video your kids watched yesterday, so you have a messenger take it back to Blockbuster. Si spends $20; you save a $1.50 late fee.

And that’s all before lunch! (Mr. Plotz also noted that the editors’ homes, in some cases, were bought with the help of "low- or no-interest home loans" from the company.)

During the reporting of his article, Mr. Plotz heard some only-at-Condé Nast stories about $50,000 clothing allowances, a cover shoot that supposedly cost $100,000, liberal use of the Concorde, an editor expensing a "$20,000 weeklong trip to Paris," and one Vogue editor who allegedly "furnished her summer house from items purchased for fashion shoots—beautiful furniture, designer pillows, coffee-table books. Vogue assistants have nicknamed the house ‘Petty Cash Junction.’"

Need more examples? The New York Times‘ Alex Kuczynski (an Observer alum), wrote in a profile of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter on March 15, 1999 that:

Mr. Carter and the Vanity Fair staff photographer Annie Leibovitz recently renegotiated her salary. When Mr. Carter reported to Mr. Newhouse that he was hesitating over the small matter of an extra $250,000 for a five-year contract, Mr. Newhouse reportedly told Mr. Carter not to ‘nickel and dime’ Ms. Leibovitz. Vanity Fair writers are also well paid; Mr. Carter would not confirm the salaries of some of his higher-paid writers, but he said it was more than $400,000 and wriggled his eyebrows dramatically to emphasize that no Vanity Fair writer was getting, well, nickel and dimed.

Ms. Kuczynski also wrote on August 20, 1999 of the "no-expenses-spared ethos of Condé Nast, a company that will send luggage overnight by Federal Express if a fatigued fashion editor does not want to carry it on a flight."

In June 1996, three years before Condé Nast moved its operations to 4 Times Square, John Tierney wondered in New York Times Magazine:

Can this insular culture, nurtured in Condé Nast’s discreet old East Side building, be safely transplanted to a glass-and-neon skyscraper at 42d and Broadway? Can the fashion editors maintain their composure surrounded by tourists wearing ‘Cats’ T-shirts? It won’t be easy, but we shouldn’t give up all hope.

If anything, Condé Nast has grown more elite, sitting atop ESPN Zone and a handbag’s throw from Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. than it was, in Mr. Tierney’s words, with "the two men’s stores flanking the entrance, Brooks Brothers and Paul Stuart, [which] have been compared to sentinels at the Temple of Aphrodite and to a couple of tuxedoed gents balancing Marlene Dietrich on their shoulders."

For one thing, the new headquarters features the ultra-elite Frank Gehry-designed cafeteria, which never fails to attract interlopers and gawkers. And who can forget that novel, which became that movie (and was nominated for those awards)? Or that memoir that also became a movie. Not to mention another novel that preceded both and this Web satire that had them all beat, all of which portrayed Condé Nast as the place for young, ambitious writers and editors who wanted a piece of the good life even as they pursued a profession that had been historically under-paid and unglamorous. Seen from outside, who wouldn’t want to work at Condé Nast, even if those who did sometimes felt like slab rats who lost friends and alienated people by making deals with the devil?

Nowadays, they’re probably just hoping they can find a new job or get into law school.