Let Si Get This
The Condé Nast economy--all expenses paid, all the time.
During a typical lunch time at the Royalton Hotel restaurant in midtown Manhattan, The New Yorker's Tina Brown might be installed at her usual table, and Vogue's Anna Wintour might be at her usual table (chewing on her usual meal--a $25 hamburger). Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter might be there too, although he has transferred his main allegiance to a place called Patroon. Filling out the room are other editors, publicists, and writers from these magazines and GQ and House & Garden and so on. And one man, who probably isn't there himself, picks up every tab. Some of the lesser fry may even utter the Condé Nast mantra--though it is hardly necessary at the Royalton--as they grab for the check: "Let Si get this."
S.I. "Si" Newhouse Jr. and his younger brother, Donald, control Advance Publications, one of America's largest privately held companies. (Estimate of their combined wealth: $13 billion.) Donald tends to Advance's hugely profitable newspaper, radio, and TV holdings. Si runs the less profitable but more glamorous properties. These are the 15 Condé Nast magazines, including (in descending order of fabulousness) Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Condé Nast Traveler, House & Garden, Allure, Details, Self, Mademoiselle, and Glamour;; and Random House.
The expense-account lunch is a hallowed journalistic tradition. But consider a day in the life of an editor working for Si Newhouse. (Donald's editors are a different story, as they will be happy to tell you.) It's a closed economy where almost all human needs and desires can be gratified with a miraculous, unlimited currency called the Si.
A Lincoln Town Car is waiting outside your door in the morning to take you to work. The car, which costs $50 an hour, is written into your contract. First stop, breakfast with a writer at the Four Seasons. The check may be as little as $40. When you reach the office, you realize you're out of cigarettes. No problem--you send your assistant to buy a pack for you. She gets reimbursed from petty cash ($3). (Could be worse for the assistant: She could be forced to pick up her boss's birth-control pills, or her boss's pet from the vet, or presents for her boss's children--regular duties for Condé Nast underlings.)
You've forgotten to return the video your kids watched yesterday, so you have a messenger take it back to Blockbuster. Si spends $20; you save a $1.50 late fee.
Then there's lunch. The magazines account for more than a quarter of daytime revenues at the Four Seasons and the Royalton. A modest lunch for two at the Royalton (no fancy wine or anything) might cost $80. But Si's generosity extends to even assistants and sub-sub-editors, dining on sushi at their desks. If you spend $10 or less on lunch, and claim you were working, Si pays. At Vogue and Vanity Fair, almost everyone has a "working lunch" every day. An editor at Allure says that "working lunches" there are limited to 10 a month.
Back at the office, you hear that a friend at another Newhouse magazine has been promoted, so you send flowers. The tab: $100. Si pays. (One of my favorite Condé Nast stories is of an editor who had just been promoted to an extremely senior job. His office was jammed with congratulatory flowers and cards. All had been sent by fellow Condé Nast staffers. All had been billed to the company.) Four o'clock, and it's snack time. Your assistant joins the mob in the lobby newsstand. She bills your candy bar, juice, and cigarettes (as well as her own candy bar, juice, and cigarettes) to the magazine ($15). After all, it's a "working snack." Later, there's a birthday party for your assistant. You order champagne and a cake--on the company, of course, and present her with your gift--a Prada wallet ($200). Later, she submits the expense sheet for it. Finally, after a Random House book party at Le Cirque 2000 (estimated cost to Si: $35,000), your car ferries you home.
Newhouse expense stories are a staple of New York literary-journalistic conversation. Stories about the $10,000 in expenses that a New Yorker editor billed for a single month. About the interior-decorating costs for the fashion-magazine editor who likes to have her office photographs rearranged every few months. About the hotel tab for the big-name New York writer who spent three weeks in Washington's Hay-Adams (basic room: $285 a night) researching a Vanity Fair story that will never run. About the Vogue editor who has furnished her summer house from items purchased for fashion shoots--beautiful furniture, designer pillows, coffee-table books. Vogue assistants have nicknamed the house "Petty Cash Junction."
N one of the 39 past and present Newhouse employees I spoke to for this story would talk on the record, for. And the nature of the subject makes it hard to separate apocrypha from the truth. Did Condé Nast pay, as sources insist it did, hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes on behalf of an editor who didn't bother to file tax forms? Did an editor really expense $20,000 in a weeklong trip to Paris? The people who pay the bills are not talking. But every example of excess cited here was told to me by at least one source (and usually more than one) in a position to know.
Need a facial? Treat yourself and bill it to Si. This is what is called "scouting." It is also a great way to get free haircuts. To be fair, Si doesn't pay for all such treats. There is also a much-honored tradition of accepting tribute from companies that Condé Nast magazines cover. One magazine exec reportedly got so much loot last Christmas--Cuban cigars, "crates of wine," designer suits ("It was like a Spanish galleon")--that he needed three cars to cart it home. At yuletide, even midlevel fashion-mag writers and editors are inundated with "cashmere sweaters, Versace pillows, coats ..." recalls one ex-Vogue staffer wistfully.
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.