In recent weeks, as two thirtysomething editors were hired to
replace two fiftysomethings at Condé Nast Publications (CNP), some observers saw the news as a baleful sign for aging employees. Or, as one framed the issue, “Where do Condé Nast women go when they’re postmenopausal?” ‘Self’ editor Rochelle Udell and ‘Mademoiselle’ editor Elizabeth Crow have insisted that they quit of their own volition, but published rumors that they were “eased out” seem more logical. Upon resignation, neither had immediate plans, and both spoke to reporters as if reading from a script. (Crow: “It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.” Udell: “I’ve wanted to do this for a long time.”)
Words like talent and accomplishment are associated with both the older women and their successors, but youth appears to be the new trump card. In July, Udell, 54, was replaced by 32-year-old Cynthia Leive, a former deputy editor at Glamour. Then last week, Elizabeth Crow, 53, was replaced by Mandi Norwood, the 35-year-old editor of British Cosmopolitan. Crow is said to have resigned as a “preemptive strike” when she heard that CNP was courting Norwood.
So why the change? Of course, a conglomerate must be profitable. In July, the New York Post reported that Self and Mademoiselle were among a half-dozen CNP magazines with falling ad pages, leading to speculation that heads would roll. GQ led the pack, with a 20.6 percent decline in ad pages in the first six months of 1999. Self and Mademoiselle were close behind, with drops of 18.9 and 15.7 percent respectively. To be sure, the beauty industry has cut back ads at other companies besides CNP.
But when there’s trouble, there is often a fall guy. Consider GQ publisher Jack Laschever, who took a medical leave in March, only to be replaced by Thomas Florio a month later. As the New York Post reported, Laschever took some of the rap for the loss in revenue. And some of the blame for tumbling ad pages at Self apparently fell to executive editor Judith Daniels, according to one source. When Daniels quit this past April, the Daily News reported that Udell dubbed her departure a “sabbatical,” while Daniels said CNP was “shaking out the linens.” “Rochelle dumped Judy suddenly,” according to the aforementioned source, but Udell ended up having to walk the plank herself. (A CNP spokesperson declined to comment on the “fall guy” scenarios.)
Forced retirement is a grand tradition at CNP, and in the old days, chairman Si Newhouse fired les anciens face to face, although it embarrassed him and gave him nightmares. In 1971, when Newhouse replaced legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, then in her early seventies, with Grace Mirabella, then about 41, “age didn’t seem to be a factor,” says Newhouse biographer Carol Felsenthal. “Vreeland was out because she was disorganized and uncontrollable, and Mirabella was more grounded and conventional.”
Over the decades, the retirement window has begun closing sooner (while Newhouse has reached the ripe age of 72). Edith Raymond Locke, a former editor of Mademoiselle, was 59 when she was bumped for 37-year-old Amy Levin in 1980. In her memoirs, Mirabella called Locke’s dismissal “the blow that ushered in the new era of disloyalty, insecurity, and cutthroat competition that plagues the magazine world” today.
Mirabella should know. In 1988, at 58, she suffered the unkindest cut of all. After ignoring rumors of her demise for months, she learned that she’d lost her Vogue job to 37-year-old Anna Wintour from her husband, who heard about it on TV. “When Mirabella was fired,” says Felsenthal, the spin was, “here’s the beautiful, young, sexy Anna Wintour.”
Ten years later, after the rise of CNP editorial director James Truman, who is 41 and a Wintour protégé, the perfect CNP woman has a new image: more bawdy than haughty, more crass than class, the antithesis of the aristocrat. Last year, 70-year-old Glamour editor Ruth Whitney was replaced by Bonnie Fuller, a 41-year-old salary girl who had succeeded in turning Cosmopolitan from a magazine about getting married to a magazine about getting laid.
Clearly, Condé Nast is no country for old women. But there are some high-profile exceptions, including Wintour, who at almost 50 is becoming the Marlene Dietrich of the magazine world, and Ruth Reichl, the newly appointed 51-year-old editor of Gourmet. And CNP codgers do get fired. But the obsolescent men are often treated royally. When Robert Gottlieb was asked to yield the editorship of The New Yorker to Tina Brown, he is said to have received his salary for life.
CNP men also get kicked upstairs. After Thomas Florio was ousted as publisher of The New Yorker in 1998, he resurfaced as a publisher at Condé Nast Traveler and subsequently at GQ. Because he’s the younger brother of Condé Nast CEO Steven Florio, Tom may get picked on, but will likely never be let go.
Meanwhile, CNP’s grand old men are now Vanity Fair‘s Graydon Carter, 50, and GQ‘s Art Cooper, who is about 60, though he never discusses his age. Cooper reportedly has a contract that guarantees full employment at least until he turns 65— the catalyst for which may have been the 1992 replacement of his wife, Amy Levin Cooper, then the 45-year-old
editor of Mademoiselle, by 32-year-old Gabé Doppelt. Cooper’s wife was offered a job as CNP editor at large; she no longer works for the company.
More power to her. But if marrying up is the ticket, isn’t it time for some winsome gal to drag Truman to the altar? That would seem to be the best insurance policy of all.