Citizen Newhouse: Portrait of a Media Merchant

Media mogul S.I. ”Si” Newhouse — the shadowy Godfather of magazines like Vogue, The New Yorker, Glamour, and GQ and onetime owner of the venerable Random House publishing empire — probably wasn’t worried when he heard that biographer Carol Felsenthal was writing a book about him. New York media types are reluctant to offend the powerful Newhouse, and when a 1994 bio of him came out, not only was it ignored by the press, but no New York publisher would even bring it out in paperback. And when Penguin Putnam dropped Carol Felsenthal’s Citizen Newhouse: Portrait of a Media Merchant, no one would touch it except tiny, independent Seven Stories Press.

The good news for Newhouse here is that anyone familiar with the high-stakes world of Manhattan publishing already knows much of the dish in this book. The story of how Newhouse capitalized on his father’s second-rate but profitable newspaper company to conquer Condé Nast, one of the biggest names in magazines, as well as Random House, is a familiar one. So are the tales of his most famous hirings (Diana Vreeland, Polly Mellen, Anna Wintour, Tina Brown) and firings (Grace Mirabella, Ruth Whitney, William Shawn).

But the bad news for Newhouse is that Felsenthal got a lot of people in the tight-lipped publishing world to go on the record. Though the book often reads too much like dry social history, those fascinated by the internecine battlefield of publishing will appreciate Felsenthal’s ability to get major players like Anthea Disney (former editor of Condé Nast’s Self), Joni Evans (former Random House publisher), and Wendy Wolf (former Pantheon editor) to talk candidly about their tussles with Newhouse. Felsenthal also managed to penetrate the barricades around the venerable New Yorker.

After 14 months running Self and clashing with Condé Nast’s temperamental editorial director, Alexander Liberman, Disney, for example, wryly recalls Newhouse’s phone call asking if he could stop by her country home in Litchfield, Conn., one weekend afternoon. Disney, who’s now head of HarperCollins, says she put the phone down, turned to her husband, and said, ”I’m going to be fired tomorrow.” Sure enough, she was. Newhouse also fired Joni Evans in 1990 but gave her a ”consolation prize”: her own imprint, Turtle Bay Books, which he then shut down in 1993. Evans says she is still ”cordial” with Newhouse in her current position as literary agent and senior vice president of the William Morris Agency, but minces no words when giving her opinion of him. ”I just won’t be close to him, that’s all,” she tells Felsenthal. ”I just can’t stand this monstrous part…knowing that loyalty doesn’t mean a thing. Just knowing his way of doing things just keeps me at a distance from him.”

But firing practices aside — Joni Evans herself told Si he was wrong for booting Grace Mirabella from Vogue after 37 years without so much as a retirement party — Felsenthal paints Newhouse as someone who rarely screwed up during a long career in such an often brutal business. He brought his father’s bottom-line ethos to the sheltered, pampered world of Condé Nast and turned it into a profit machine (with the notable exception of The New Yorker). Random House, on the other hand, probably never made the money Newhouse expected, and he sold it to Bertelsmann in early 1998 for more than $1 billion.

Ultimately, however, Citizen Newhouse is no Citizen Kane. Yes, he’s a cold, competitive workaholic, but there’s nothing else to nail him with. He may not be a likable guy, but he’s not the flamboyant villain Felsenthal sets him up to be. The people around Newhouse are intriguing; unfortunately for biographers, it seems Newhouse himself is not. B-

Citizen Newhouse: Portrait of a Media Merchant
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