Hypocritical Oafs

After declaring the book void of a single insight, the Observer's reviewer, a freelancer named Scott Sherman, proceeded to argue that it is the readers of Condé Nast magazines, not Newhouse, who bear the true responsibility for the editorial content thereof. (Which job do you think Sherman would rather have: associate editor at Details, or contract writer for Vogue?)

Actually, Felsenthal is a solid reporter, and while hers may not be the most sophisticated analysis, she is not afraid to write about the bizarre mix of corruption and fantasy that is the fin de siècle magazine world. Her last book, a Katharine Graham biography published by Putnam in 1993, was excerpted in Vanity Fair and positively reviewed in the Washington Post. Felsenthal recalls that after Graham wrote an angry letter to Putnam, which the author answered point by point, the book generated little further publicity.

That same year, Nan Graham, then an editor at Viking, was looking for someone to write a Newhouse biography. Felsenthal was chosen, she recalls, because of her Kay Graham bio and because "all the people with the stature they wanted had contracts with The New Yorker or Vanity Fair or Random House."

Felsenthal did her interviews in 1994 and 1995. "People didn't greet me with open arms," she says. "They greeted me as if I were Typhoid Mary." She sent letters to the likes of Harry Evans and Tina Brown, then the top editors at Random House and The New Yorker, and followed up with phone calls, but with the exception of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, who wrote her a note, hardly anyone acknowledged her letters. From Newhouse, she received "no response at all." (A Newhouse spokesperson declined to comment.)

She proceeded to interview some 500 people, of which she estimates 100 have current ties to Newhouse. On-the-record sources include Harper's publisher Rick MacArthur, Sunday Daily News editor Ed Kosner, and former New Yorker writers Calvin Trillin, Jonathan Schell, and Ian Frazier. The book's first anecdote is attributed to New Yorker cartoon editor Lee Lorenz; Felsenthal's guide to this netherworld was gardening writer (and former New Yorker fact checker) Patti Hagan.

By the time Felsenthal finished the manuscript, Nan Graham had left Viking for Scribners, Viking had bought Putnam, and former Putnam editor Phyllis Grann had risen to power at Viking. In 1997, the manuscript was accepted and edited by Viking's Al Silverman, who sent it on to the legal department. Then in January 1998, Felsenthal recalls, Grann invited Felsenthal's agent to lunch and told her, "I love this manuscript, but we can't publish it, because there's a friend of mine on every page." Grann also let on that her husband was about to go skiing with Alberto Vitale, who was then chairman of Random House, says Felsenthal. (A Viking spokesperson did not return calls for comment.)

Eventually, Viking paid Felsenthal the balance of her rumored six-figure advance and released her to sell the manuscript elsewhere. That's how it ended up at the lowly Seven Stories Press. And that's how Felsenthal's big debut in New York turned out to be a little talk on Tuesday at Revolution Books. It's safe to guess there was not a pooh-bah or a tuxedo or a cocktail in sight.

A sampler of the outsider's opinions:

  • On Si Newhouse: "You would think that if you were a billionaire, and you could amass a list of magazines, you might have a vision. It might be to promote a political or a social philosophy, or to boost cultural awareness of values. I don't think Si gives a hoot about that. He wants the magazines to be in the news."

  • On why Newhouse hires Brits: "He likes their accents."

  • On why Newhouse bought The New Yorker, paraphrasing Newhouse: " 'Vogue and Glamour and Mademoiselle are all chickens, and only another chicken can tell them apart.' "

  • On Tina Brown's reign at The New Yorker: "She delivered attention, but she didn't deliver a distinguished magazine. The magazine that she produced was really Vanity Fair, except it was weekly and the chances for losing money and making big mistakes were much greater."

  • Example of a mistake Tina Brown made: "Running an article by Daphne Merkin about liking to be spanked."

  • Best line she ever heard about The New Yorker: "Calvin Trillin said that if he could ban two words from the magazine, they would be Barry Diller."

  • On the Newhouse ethic: "What I call a conflict of interest, they call synergy."
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