Let Si Get This
The Condé Nast economy--all expenses paid, all the time.
At the top of the masthead, the perks are perkier. His Si-ness (their joke, not mine) does not expect his editors in chief to actually live on their million-dollar salaries. He also gives them clothing allowances (up to $50,000 a year). He buys them cars of their choice and hires chauffeurs to drive them. He offers them low- or no-interest home loans. GQ editor Art Cooper reportedly received two $1-million loans, one for a Manhattan apartment, the other for a Connecticut farm. Tina Brown and her husband, Harold Evans, former president of Random House, reportedly just took a $2-million boost to buy a $3.7-million Manhattan house.
Si's favorite courtiers lead lives of jaw-dropping privilege. When she was editor of British Vogue, Wintour commuted between London and New York--on the Concorde. Another Si confidant decided his office didn't feel right, so he hired one of the grandmasters of feng shui to rearrange it. Some editors prepare for trips by Federal Expressing their luggage to their destination. Why? "So you don't have to carry your bags. No one would be caught dead carrying a bag."
Condé Nast has also created a class of mandarin journalists, writers who live much better than they ever could if they wrote only for normal magazines. One free-lancer tells of building much of a summer traveling with her husband in the West and Europe around a couple of Condé Nast assignments. Last summer, TheNew Yorker sent a staffer to Venice to cover the Venice Film Festival. The weeklong trip, which must have cost thousands, resulted in a short piece.
Writers, of course, are nowhere near as profligate as photographers. Stories of wasteful shoots abound: the matching seaweed that had to be flown from California to the Caribbean for a fashion photo; the Annie Liebovitz Vanity Fair cover shot of Arnold Schwarzenegger that reportedly cost $100,000; the Vogue shoot in Africa in which, an ex-Vogue editor claims, the photographer and his huge entourage wined and dined to the tune of "hundreds of thousands of dollars."
A nd then there are the parties. Last month The New Yorker spent--and this is not a joke--$500,000 on a two-day "Next Conference" at the Disney Institute in Florida, in connection with a special issue on the same theme. In order to get Vice President Gore, who was traveling in California at the time, The New Yorker paid for him and his entourage to fly Air Force Two from California to Florida and back. And vice presidents are not the only things that Condé Nast flies in for parties. The New Yorker once shipped silverware from New York to Chicago for a dinner. ("What, they don't have silverware in Chicago?" asks a New Yorker staffer.) Vanity Fair toted food from New York to Washington for this year's party on the night of the White House Correspondents Dinner. (What, they don't have food in Washington?)
That annual Washington do has grown from an after-dinner gathering for drinks at a contributor's apartment to two huge blasts--before and after the dinner itself--at a rented embassy. VF's annual Oscar-night party has become a similar institution in Hollywood. In addition to the parties themselves, Si also naturally pays to fly in VF staffers and to put them up at top hotels. (What, they don't have editors in Washington or L.A.?)
Some Condé Nast parties are so ridiculous that even other Condé Nasties make fun of them. This week's New Yorker, for example, mocks a recent Vogue party in honor of food writer Jeffrey Steingarten. According to TheNew Yorker, Wintour so detested the carpet at Le Cirque 2000 that she ordered the florist to cover it with autumn leaves (handpicked, of course).
The apogee of party absurdity is Vanity Fair's sponsorship of an annual London dinner for the Serpentine Museum in Hyde Park. As one observer puts it, "Vanity Fair, an American magazine, pays more than $100,000 to a British art museum solely so that it can sponsor a dinner where Graydon Carter gets to sit next to Princess Diana." The princess was the museum's patron.
Actually, paying $100,000 for face time with Princess Di may not have been a foolish investment for a magazine so dependent on peddling her image. And Condé Nast's excess has other plausible justifications as well.
Some top editors may earn their perks. Vogue and GQ make millions, according to industry analysts. Vanity Fair is enjoying banner years, and while it probably hasn't made back the millions Newhouse lost in starting it up, it is certainly in the black. TheNew Yorker loses money--how much may even surpass perks as a topic of Newhouse gossip and speculation. On the other hand, TheNew Yorker is the most talked-about magazine in America, and Tina Brown is the most talked-about editor. That is worth something.
Public media companies such as Time Warner (or, for that matter, Microsoft) can entice and hold journalists with stock options. Advance is private, so Newhouse uses other golden handcuffs. He runs a lifestyle prison. Top editors stay because they could never afford to live in a house as nice as the one Si's interest-free loan bought them, or to host parties as nice as the ones Si's party planners throw for them.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.