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The Transformation of Condé Nast

How a media mogul defined class and invented the modern magazine

Condé Nast was actually a person—a fact that might come as a surprise to readers who know the name only from the magazine publishing corporation, a company so monumental that it’s practically synonymous with twentieth-century periodicals. The man who established the high-end glossy as we know it today, who personally presided over the rise of VogueVanity Fair, House & GardenGlamour, and more, Condé Montrose Nast, was born in 1873 in New York City. He was a social-climbing gentleman who lived for a time as Manhattan’s most famous, fabulously rich bachelor in a 30-room penthouse on Park Avenue. Beyond his impeccable taste in fashion, parties, and even politics, he was known for selecting the young female editors of his society bibles for their looks and breeding as much as for their writing ability. His second marriage was to a 21-year-old when he was 55.

by Susan Ronald
St. Martin’s Press, 448 pp., $32.50

Despite the company name, the figure of Nast himself gets lost in the history of his magazines. By all accounts, he was a relatively quiet guy, at least for a Bloombergian tycoon of the 1900s. Yet his personality left its imprint not only on the company he founded, but also on the entire magazine publishing industry for more than a century. In her new biography, Condé Nast: The Man and His Empire, Susan Ronald describes his ambitions and excesses, and the simultaneously fashionable and intellectual world he inhabited. Crucially, she illuminates his major breakthrough: his attempt to create a series of what he called “class publications,” magazines that “aimed at a well-defined socioeconomic group.” (These days, we call them “lifestyle magazines.”)

Of course, the greatest profits were to be made by marshaling and defining the tastes of the upper class, in order to sell advertisers access to them through the magazines’ pages. As Nast said in 1915: “The publisher, the editor, the advertising manager and the circulation man must conspire not only to get all their readers from one particular class to which the magazine is dedicated, but rigorously to exclude all others.” (Emphasis in the original.) In other words, not just attracting the wealthy but also consciously alienating the not. 

The equation of upscale readers and upscale brands with profit, projecting an aspirational image of the ideal consumer through both editorial and ads so that vulnerable readers would chase it, made Nast’s fortune many times over. His company established the template of the editor as a heroic, godlike figure casting down commandments from a print Mount Olympus, a status that continued after Nast’s death through the twentieth century. As recent eulogistic memoirs from iconic Condé editors, including Tina Brown and Ruth Reichl, demonstrate, the aspirational model worked pretty well—paying for private cars, lavish launch parties, and personal office renovations—until it ran squarely into the internet in the 2000s and, even worse, played catch-up to image-heavy social media in the 2010s. 

Suddenly print magazines and editors-in-chief were no longer the arbiters of aspirational taste nor of class-based advertising. Google’s algorithms took over the latter and Instagram influencers the former. Many of Condé’s magazines, including the old Glamour, are now shuttering, getting sold, or cutting down their print schedules. At a moment when the media industry is less glamorous than ever, the story of this man and the empire he built is not simply a story about the power of magazines to define the style and mood of an era. The elitism that ensured Condé’s long reign over taste has lately also brought about the company’s precipitous decline.

A certain amount of drama ran in Condé Nast’s blood. His father, William Frederick Nast, was a young diplomat in Stuttgart who seems to have dabbled in gambling and extortion before he married into wealth with Condé’s mother, Esther Benoist, the daughter of a cultured French family that rooted itself in Canada in the eighteenth century. The young Nasts moved from St. Louis to New York and had four children. When Condé was three years old, William fled to Europe, where he attempted (and failed at) various quick-money schemes, including manufacturing paper from straw and manure. He wouldn’t return to the United States for 14 years. 

In Ronald’s telling, a good part of Condé Nast’s later character—paternal, responsible, levelheaded, budget-minded—came from his father’s absence. He attended Georgetown University, where he took over the athletic association, and befriended the publishing scion Robert J. Collier. Nast attended law school for a year, but in 1897 he made a fateful choice to help out with a printing firm that his family had invested in and became a traveling salesman of advertising to be displayed in conjunction with the St. Louis Exhibition, an elaborate county fair. He succeeded immediately and drew the eye of Collier, who needed help rebooting Collier’s Weekly, a general-interest magazine out of New York, which, despite its 250,000 readers, had grown irrelevant. Nast’s job was to sell more ads.

Even if Collier’s wasn’t doing well, the industry Nast had just entered was flourishing. The aftermath of the Gilded Age brought social upheaval: More of the economy was industrializing, more immigrants were arriving in the United States, and women were taking on more public roles. “Magazines were seen as the popular informers and interpreters of this ever-changing contemporary world,” Ronald writes. Magazines offered readers a form of community, as people across the breadth of the country read the same articles, followed the same fashions, bought the same advertised products, and to some extent communicated with one another through letters to the editor. At first focused on professional associations, such as groups of farmers, lawyers, or nurses, American magazines expanded to bring together social and then economic groups, as Nast noticed.

Nast turned Collier’s around by bringing it upmarket, producing special issues themed around automotives and yachting, then selling ads to the makers of those products. By 1907, he was the highest-paid executive in the country (media!). When he then decided to leave Collier’s, he had two goals. The first was to leverage his sense of aspirational taste to start a media company that made even more money. The second was to establish himself in Manhattan high society—“the 400,” so named for its tiny population. The two were interdependent and mutually reinforcing: Who else but a peer could tell the elite how to act, what to like, and what to buy?

Vogue covers before (1907) and after (1913) Condé Nast revamped the magazine.
Stuart Travis/Condé Nast/Getty (left); Helen Dryden/Condé Nast/Getty (right)

In 1902, Nast married Clarisse Coudert, socialite and heiress of the Coudert Brothers law firm fortune. The couple had two children, but in 1906 Clarisse escaped to Europe, with Nast’s blessing, to work on her somewhat questionable singing. (There she got to know Rilke, Rodin, and Gertrude Stein, but never got involved much in her husband’s business.) Nast kicked off his entrepreneurship in the field of dress patterns, where he pioneered the creation of clothing sizes with the Home Pattern Company. The media business started in earnest with his purchase in 1909 of Vogue, an embattled New York society magazine founded in 1892 that featured interior decorating and theater gossip alongside fashion. The problem with the magazine was simple, Ronald writes: “Vogue did not appeal to a moneyed, aspirational readership.”

The Condé Nast formula emerged in his makeover of the magazine. Nast changed Vogue’s frequency from weekly to bimonthly; upped the number of pages, newsstand price, and ad volume; installed a new art director, Heyworth Campbell; and embraced photography, one of Nast’s personal passions. Nast also kept on Vogue’s matriarch, Edna Woolman Chase, who remained there through 1952. The result was a commercial and cultural success.

Nast emerges as the first great connoisseur of editorial talent on an industrial scale. He was a curator of publications, editors, writers, photographers, and illustrators, picking up one creative after another and adding them to his collection, keeping them satisfied with promotions and ostentatious perks, which included paying off one editor’s mortgage. Most of his biggest titles were those he acquired and renovated, like decrepit houses with good bones, rather than started from scratch. In 1913, he acquired the small magazine Dress and the rights to the title Vanity Fair and combined them; he bought House & Garden the same year.

Dress and Vanity Fair initially bombed, but then Nast brought in Frank Crowninshield as editor-in-chief, “the quintessential Edwardian gentleman,” Ronald writes, a Boston Brahmin whose friends called him Crownie—Manhattan’s arbiter of elegance. “There is no magazine that is read by the people you meet at lunches and dinners,” he suggested. “Your magazine should cover the things people talk about—parties, the arts, sports, theater, humor, and so forth.” Indeed. Crowninshield shortened the name to just Vanity Fair and put out a manifesto in his first issue affirming “the progress and promise of American life” as well as feminism and the intelligence of women. Crowninshield shepherded stars like Dorothy Parker, Aldous Huxley, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and Djuna Barnes into his pages, mingling high society concerns with the artistic avant-garde, social moralism with luxury consumerism. It was the birth of a lifestyle-magazine format that persists today in much smaller twenty-first–century print magazines like Monocle and Kinfolk.

The growing company also established the concept of magazines as replicable brands, further expanding their reach. A British version of Vogue launched in 1916, in part due to difficulty shipping American copies through the World War I German blockade in the Atlantic, and French Vogue in 1920. The international editions, partnerships between the mothership and local agents, further represented a shift in the center of global taste from London and Paris to New York and Hollywood. Where American Vogue was once an importer of taste, now it was an exporter.

Condé Nast’s magazines were a mirror for the early twentieth century’s café society, composed of the wealthy socialites, premade celebrities, and upwardly mobile bohemians whom Nast hosted at sloppy parties in his penthouse, even through Prohibition (though he preferred to retreat behind closed doors with a few people while his soirées raged on). The pages gave this class a self-consciousness and also displayed them to the reading public, projecting what might have been fame only within the realm of the 400 to an audience of millions, who learned to desire what they had. This group provided both a subject and a business model. “Class publications” were literally predicated on economic inequality—they just made it look good.

The company had its ups and downs, including a brush with bankruptcy when Nast overinvested with friends at Goldman Sachs just before the Great Depression. Vanity Fair was folded into Vogue in 1936, not to be resurrected again until the wealth-worshipping 1980s. But the empire remained aloof from its competitors, higher-brow than Harold Ross’s New Yorker (then owned by the yeast millionaire Raoul Fleischmann) and smarter than the magazine stable of its archrival, Hearst (Cosmopolitan, Town & Country, Good Housekeeping). Nast’s philosophy of aspiration never changed. Budgets weren’t a concern as long as the image the magazines projected was so irresistible that readers and advertisers just had to take part.

Glamour, launched in 1939, was Nast’s last personal creation. He died of a heart attack on September 19, 1942, after a long struggle with his blood pressure. The kingdom lived on, though Nast’s possessions were auctioned off to service debts from the crash. In 1959, the newspaper magnate Samuel I. Newhouse bought the entirety of Condé Nast, the story goes, because his wife, Mitzi Epstein, liked Vogue. Samuel and then his son Si (who passed away in 2017) expanded the company to the form we know today, acquiring yet more titles, including The New YorkerGourmet, and GQ, and relaunching Vanity Fair. Si was another quiet editorial curator, arranging or sacrificing his deputies like so many chess pieces to maintain the company’s sparkling image: forever new, fresh, modern.

Reading the recent memoirs of Condé Nast editors recounting the Si Newhouse boom years can induce an eerie nostalgia. Executives blissfully squander their budgets, unaware of the specter of banner ads, like beachgoers before a tsunami. Is it even possible that the media industry once functioned this way, and that the personal and editorial luxuries they describe were not only feasible but profitable? You want to cry out to warn them.

On January 1, 1984, a British woman in her early thirties named Tina Brown was appointed editor-in-chief of Newhouse’s reboot of Vanity Fair. The wunderkind editor of the London society magazine Tatler, Brown did a stint of consulting with Condé Nast but was soon convinced she had to wrest control of the magazine to make it relevant. (“I will do a good, jazzy job for you, Si, if you want me,” was her all-or-nothing pitch to Newhouse.) Brown did readers and media historians a favor in 2017, when she published her diaries from the decade, during which she turned the magazine into one of the most visible in the world. The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983–1992 is like one running tabloid headline: snappy, smart, and suspenseful (not rarely alliterative), caught in the moment of never knowing what’s coming next, success or failure. To her, New York was the “white-hot center” and the Condé Nast empire, “like ancient Rome with all the politics and secrets, everything revolving round Si as Emperor Augustus,” the tastemaker-in-chief.

Brown revered the corporation’s eponymous founder and his “class not mass” approach to audience. For her new Vanity Fair, she revived the old mandate to cover things that rich people talk about at parties. It was high-end general interest, executed by writers like Gail Sheehy and Dominick Dunne, with photography from Annie Leibovitz and Helmut Newton. Over her first issues, Brown found an editorial formula, or what she patented as The Mix. It embraced both highbrow and lowbrow, and it was always expensive to produce: “Celeb cover to move the newsstand, juicy news narrative … A-list literary piece, visual escapism, revealing political profile, fashion. If we nail each of these per issue it’s gonna work,” she summarizes. The essential element of her aspirational magazine is something instructive, “a satiating story, the one that tells you, the reader, who you are or who you want to be.” 

The diaries are a litany of dinners, good and bad, parties, good and bad, and real estate, mostly good. Just as Nast embedded himself amid the 400, Brown got her editorial ideas from the people around her. “It’s funny how I always dread going out and then get so much out of it when I do. Social life is the trigger for all the best stories I have ever got,” she writes. Her tablemates became the subjects of covers, profiles, and reviews, which caused some conflicts but ultimately increased the sense of coherence with which she projected her cultural class to the world. “It’s pretty hairy when the best stories right now are attached to a group I also socialize with,” she admits.

There was a hopefulness in Brown’s desire to define a single, prevailing cultural agenda, as if a cover photo of a pregnant Demi Moore could heal national wounds. (“This is what a celebrity looks like in the nineties. Not just natural but au naturel!”) The amount of time she spends dwelling on proper page order and compelling captions—magazines as holistic objets d’art—is staggering for anyone who entered the industry in the digital era, when those elements of magazine-making are either nonexistent or meaningless in the face of search-engine optimization. “The more fragmented we become as a culture, the more the media holds us together,” she writes in 1989. “Americans have less and less in common as a people, but we all watch the same TV shows and the same movies.” Or we did until we hit the Streaming Wars. It’s hard not to reflect that Brown’s domination as a tastemaker was allied with the near-monopoly major corporations had on America’s viewing, listening, and reading habits, which has broken down of late. Newhouse, for example, also happened to own Random House from 1980 to 1998. Media has moved from a top-down model to something slightly more crowdsourced. 

Brown’s book ends around the time she left Vanity Fair in the hands of Graydon Carter and took over The New Yorker in 1992. Its previous editor, Robert Gottlieb, who replaced the uber-literary William Shawn, had failed to interpret Newhouse’s Sphinxlike wishes. The industry was still looking pretty good; Brown’s New Yorker successor, David Remnick, brought the magazine into the black. Save Me the Plums, a 2019 memoir by Ruth Reichl, who edited Gourmet from 1999 to 2009, is less rosy. Called to a meeting with Condé Nast’s then-editorial director James Truman at Dorothy Parker’s historical hangout the Algonquin and hooked with an offer of six times her salary as The New York Times’ restaurant critic, Reichl took on the job of leading the magazine out of decades of fustiness. She achieved it by making the recipes friendly for home cooks (rather than private chefs) and sending writers like David Foster Wallace to consider lobsters, simultaneously lowering the barrier to entry and elevating the discourse around food.

Vanity Fair’s June 1985 cover, photographed by Harry Benson, marked a reversal of fortunes for the title, which had been close to shuttering.
Harry Benson

Leaving behind her bohemian West Coast roots and her adventurous outer-borough eating at the Times, Reichl also gets integrated into the Condé Nast lifestyle cult: driver, clothing allowance, enormous office, and private dining room. As Nast knew, you have to have it in order to flaunt it. “I’d let Si tie me up in golden strings,” Reichl writes. “He kept us so thoroughly insulated from ordinary life that for ten years I never balanced a checkbook, made a reservation, or knew where I was meant to be at a given moment.” (The memoirs themselves sometimes function as lifestyle porn.) Surrounded by conspicuous consumption, Reichl refers to the quadrumvirate of other powerful Condé magazine editors as “AnnaGraydonDavidPaige.” 

Reichl, at least, seems to have sensed that this life of excess and luxury couldn’t last forever. Explaining her controversial decision to put unfancy cupcakes on a cover, she writes, “Throughout human history, food trends have come from the top, slowly working their way down from royal tables to the modest homes of the hoi polloi…. For the first time in history, food trends began to work their way up from the street.” The rise of the internet, where eventually anyone could post their food photos instead of finding them in a glossy, had something to do with this reversal. Reichl wanted to build a Gourmet web site early on, but New­house wouldn’t cede ground that was already taken up by another one of Condé Nast’s properties, the digital-only Epicurious, where all the recipes from Condé’s food magazines were published. By the time he agreed, it was too late.

“We survivors danced on the edge of the volcano, unwilling to admit that anything had changed,” Reichl writes. The internet took up more and more space. The financial crisis cratered luxury advertising. Despite Reichl’s attempts to turn the magazine and herself alike into a brand, with Gourmet TV shows and cookbooks, Newhouse decided to shut the entire publication down in 2009, after a McKinsey review. Called into the office from a far-flung stop on her book tour, Reichl thought she was just getting replaced. Instead she found “they had murdered the magazine.” Along with Gourmet went Elegant BrideModern Bride, and the parenting magazine CookieBon Appétit survived because its advertisers were more food-centric and its budget presumably smaller. The economics of aspiration stopped working.

Interviewed on a recent podcast from the food web site Eater, Rei­chl said that she thought the figure of the elite tastemaker-editor was gone for good. On the internet, the algorithm wins over the editor: Equations make decisions faster and take more data into account than even the most decisive and perceptive editor. The other winners are our new tastemakers, the influencers, whose job is essentially the same as the old celebrity editor’s—to project an image of a better, more luxurious, more stylish life and convince us to buy in—but different in its form and business model. Individuals, maybe with a few assistants, post on their own accounts, which are seen as more intimate and authentic precisely because they lack the size and corporate slickness of a Condé-style media empire.

The advertising business model that Condé Nast relied on to make up and exceed the gap between the subscription fees and the magazines’ huge production costs no longer works. Facebook (which owns Instagram) and Google (which owns YouTube) can attract advertisers without the lure of expensive photo shoots. They don’t need splashy cover stories to gather a specific audience; they already know your economic class, employment status, age, and gender from tracking your online interactions. They also make life easier for the brands, who no longer have to deal with ad departments or picky editors-in-chief; they just check the demographic boxes on the tech companies’ platforms and upload their assets. It’s as if beautiful flowers lost the ability to attract bees because we invented robots to put pollen on them instead.

It may be that “class publication” elitism was never what mainstream audiences wanted. It was just an easy mistake to make if the only people you ever spoke to were penthouse-dwellers and Paris weekenders. Search and social media broke down the barriers between readers and content so that it became simpler for consumers to find exactly what they want. The vaunted monoculture might be over. We don’t watch the same TV and movies anymore, as Tina Brown wrote—unless it’s Star Wars, superheroes, or Game of Thrones. Celebrity profiles are the digital-media currency of the day. Otherwise it’s puppy GIFs and sunset selfies. Even if we’re not influenced by influencers, we’re still influenced by what our friends post, a kind of user-generated, aggregate aspiration beyond the control of any editor.

Condé Nast has ceased printing some of its minor, less enduringly iconic lifestyle titles like SelfDetails, and Lucky magazines, contracting to focus on its core offerings, the magazines with name-brands strong enough to sustain revenue streams beyond print. The media companies that are thriving online right now are the ones that offer paywalled hard news and in-depth reporting, like The Washington Post and The New York Times, which has a larger newsroom than ever before.

Magazine editors today tend to be quieter, tasked with survival instead of rebirth. GQ and New York magazine both recently appointed new editors-in-chief, two men who were stable veterans of their respective companies. Teen Vogue looked set to produce superstars until Phillip Picardi went to the smaller Out and Elaine Welteroth to television, where the money is better. Vanity Fair replaced Graydon Carter with Radhika Jones, the low-key former editorial director of The New York Times’ books department, with a rumored quarter of Carter’s salary and a mandate to cut staff.

It might be Remnick’s New Yorker that is now closest to the original Condé Nast vision. With a fast-paced web site and a weekly radio show, it projects a new image of aspiration that has less to do with material consumption than with cultural or social cachet. Its new cohort of contributors—including Jia Tolentino, Isaac Chotiner, and Helen Rosner—drives conversation on the internet the way Dorothy Parker once must have whispered into Manhattan’s ear at the original Vanity Fair. These writers leverage their individual online presences in tandem with their publishing perch, defining the memes, delights, and scandals of the week with articles that convert into organic marketing and profit for the title. Even as ad pages dwindle, print disappears, and social media absorbs more of our attention, the highest and most Condé-esque goal of glossy media is likely to survive: creating a club that you want to be part of.