Massive Portfolio’s Platinum-Plated Debut

So here it is at last, the distinguished thing.” Thus spake Henry James when the old boy with the hooded

So here it is at last, the distinguished thing.” Thus spake Henry James when the old boy with the hooded cloak and scythe cocked a bony come-hither finger from the foot of the great novelist’s bed. And exactly my sentiments when into my trembling hand was pressed a copy of the premier issue of Condé Nast Portfolio, the new magazine about which Manhattan’s media navel-gazers have been in a positive lather since the decision to publish it was made by the Newhouses.

So … ?

Well, I’m disappointed. But let me hedge that statement forthwith by declaring that given who’s putting this magazine out, given the circumstances of its conception and creation and, above all, given the demographic at which it is palpably and unapologetically aimed, I don’t see how it could have been otherwise. I also think it’s not entirely fair to review a new publication right out of the gate, before it has found its footing. The fairest course might be to come back after four or five issues. We’ll have a better idea, in half a year’s time, of whether Portfolio is worth the time and money—the Newhouses’ and ours.

This first number turns out to be exactly what I’d feared and predicted: expensive and vapid, glossy, superficial, stale and, above all, safe. With the exception of an article on Hollywood financier Ryan Kavanaugh, nothing I read engaged me—and I doubt it would engage anyone with any knowledge of finance, Wall Street, economics and so on beyond the level of idle dinner-party chitchat.

Tom Wolfe’s 7,000-word piece on hedge funds reads like a Peter Arno cartoon—you know, the geezer stamping a petulant foot at these newfangled ways while calling for the club steward to bring him another sherry. It’s frightfully smoothly written, peppered here and there with Wolfeian panache, but what’s the point? We already know what Steve Cohen paid for Steve Wynn’s De Kooning. Who cares who did or didn’t get into the Brook, or 740 Park Avenue? What we need to know—and what a magazine with the resources of Portfolio should provide—is a real sense of how the game works, of who knew what when, what coups did they grasp and when and how did they realize them?

You don’t learn much about how these people made all that money, and yet that’s the essence of business journalism, the kind of stuff Martin Mayer used to dish up in his wonderful books on Wall Street and the Fed. Or that Abe Briloff (who could make a company’s financial statements read like The Da Vinci Code—or better) used to publish in Barron’s.

Nowhere in the 335 pages of this first issue is the merest remnant of what we used to call history and the fascinating—and even occasionally instructive—parallels between past and present. It’s as if our present world sprang whole from the brow of Mammon. Perhaps I’m asking too much intellectually, but what troubles me most about Portfolio is how lightweight it is, despite its physical bulk. This is supposed to be a magazine about business, about making money and losing it, about getting and spending, about honor and thievery. About character and the clues it strews. (There’s a great piece waiting for someone on Steve Schwarzman’s syntax.) And speaking of the Blackstone supremo, how come Jimmy Lee, for a decade the Spirit of Christmas Present to Schwarzman’s Scrooge, isn’t a lead underwriter in the Blackstone I.P.O.? What a nice piece that would make.

The biggest story out there now, the subprime-mortgage mess, tracks almost to the second the timeline over which Portfolio has gestated. That too could have been a great piece, deep and rich and flavored with curious characters. What do we get instead? I suppose someone who’s dwelt on Mars these past 10 years might not know who Boone Pickens is, and will find Harry Hurt III’s account of the Pickens family difficulties compelling. But the profile fails to supply what needs to be known about the man’s business persona—the only persona he’s got.

John Cassidy has a piece on the positive aspects of global warming that is silly and unworthy of his talent. Once more into the golden parachutes? The right tennis racquet for me? No, thank you very much. And as for a photo spread of the women of private equity, give me Playboy’s girls of the Big 10!

IT MAY BE POSSIBLE FOR EDITORS who know nothing about business—which on the evidence is the case here—to put out a magazine that will be avidly read and passed around by people who really care about the subject. This is what you get if your idea of publishing is lunch at Michael’s—sufficient if the object of contemplation is Angelina Jolie, inadequate if it’s the Fed. Even the filler feels secondhand. Do we really need another feature on expensive wristwatches! Or million-dollar mitzvahs!

There are aspects of the magazine I like, mainly visual: The pages look good. But it seems that the content is going to be personality-driven, directed toward readers vaguely interested in business (who isn’t?) and keenly interested in themselves—readers who don’t really want to be made to think about tough issues or encouraged to ask tough questions. If you leave consumer goods and other guidance with regard to conspicuous consumption out of the summing-up, the sad fact is that there’s virtually nothing in Portfolio that’s genuinely useful or mind-opening, either from a utilitarian or a philosophical viewpoint. Thi
s is a magazine for event-planners.

It’s a venture on which too much money and time has been lavished. An embarras de richesses can be exhausting to live with, and in this instance it shows. But again, a magazine so richly endowed may yet find its way.

I used to subscribe to all the business journals. As I grew old and tired and (most relevant) poor, I let them expire, keeping only The Economist and Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, the most elegantly written of all. I wish Portfolio well, but I think I’ll limit my engagement with it to time spent in my dentist’s waiting room.

Massive Portfolio’s Platinum-Plated Debut