Obituary: Samuel ‘Si’ Newhouse, billionaire media mogul, chairman of Conde Nast, the prestigious magazine publisher

Billionaire media mogul Samuel 'Si' Newhouse has died at the age of 89. Picture: AP
Billionaire media mogul Samuel 'Si' Newhouse has died at the age of 89. Picture: AP
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Samuel ‘Si’ Newhouse, media mogul. Born: 8 November, 1927, in New York. Died: 1 October, 2017, in New York, aged 89

SI Newhouse Jnr, the low-profile billionaire media mogul who ran the parent company of some of the United States’ most prestigious magazines, has died at the age of 89.

The chairman of Conde Nast since 1975, Si Newhouse, bought and remade the New Yorker and Details magazines and revived Vanity Fair. Other magazines in the Conde Nast stable included Vogue, Wired, Glamour, W, GQ, and Self.

“Si Newhouse really loved quality content,” said his nephew Steven Newhouse, who is the chairman of Advance Publications. “He was passionate about journalism and he supported journalists and editors and he set an example of caring about the right things in media, which is great stories, great design, great magazines, great websites.”

Before selling the Random House book publishing empire, he spotted a magazine profile about a rising young real estate mogul and was inspired to commission the first book of a future president, Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal.

Newhouse brought in buzz-obsessed Britons Anna Wintour and Tina Brown as editors, who became celebrities in their own right, while abruptly firing staffers who fell from his graces. Grace Mirabella learned she was being axed as editor-in-chief of Vogue in June 1988 when her husband saw it on TV.

Conde Nast under Newhouse was famously extravagant, paying editors huge salaries, throwing lavish parties and rarely sticking to budgets – if budgets existed at all. Its expense accounts were legendary, with dresses flown from Paris to New York on Concorde and elephants brought in to menace models at fashion shoots.

“There’s no place on Earth like this,” Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter told New York magazine in 2009. “There’s no place where you’re given the resources you need to do what you want to do and also given complete freedom to do it.”

“Our magazines represent a certain tone and audience,” Newhouse told the New York Times in a rare interview in 1988. He said the company that his father bought in 1959 for $5 million was following in the tradition of its founder, Conde Montrose Nast. “It was that initial orientation of Conde Nast,” Newhouse said. “He invented the form of the specialised magazine. He didn’t want a large audience. He wanted one in which everyone counted.”

But the company has struggled in recent years with the advertising meltdown, being forced to close several titles. .

Forbes said in March 2009 that the downturn had sliced Newhouse’s fortune in half, but his estimated net worth of $4 billion still left him the world’s 132nd richest man.

Newhouse and his brother, Donald, owned Staten Island, New York-based Advance Publications Inc, the owner of Conde Nast, daily newspapers in about 20 cities and a cable television company.

Unlike other media moguls who seemed obsessed with building a media empire to make money, influence opinion or bask in the spotlight, Newhouse seemed to have no grand plan. He rarely gave interviews, had no discernible political views and imposed few cost controls on his magazines. Associates said he simply enjoyed the magazine business and rubbing elbows with the cultural elite.

“He loves magazines, meaning the whole and all of it, the variety of things published, the business details, the visions and actions and personalities of his editors, the problems, the problem-solving, the ink and paper…the all of it,” New Yorker editor David Remnick told New York magazine in 2009.

“He likes the buzz, there’s no question,” Wintour told the Times in 2008. “If you have lunch with a celebrity or political figure, he’s thrilled to hear about it.”

A short, mild-mannered man who usually arrived at his 22nd floor office around 5am in grey slacks and beat-up loafers, Newhouse was often described as shy and socially awkward. That notoriously made for messy dismissals.

Louis Gropp learned he was being fired as editor of House & Garden in 1987 while on holiday in California. Newhouse called and asked if he’d been reading Women’s Wear Daily while on vacation.

When Gropp said no, Newhouse got to the point. “There have been a lot of stories in WWD that Anna Wintour is going to become the editor of House & Garden,” his boss told him, according to Carol Felsenthal’s 1998 book, Citizen Newhouse: Portrait Of A Media Merchant. “Well, is that true?” Gropp asked. “Yes,” Newhouse replied.

Many hands were wrung when Newhouse bought the New Yorker in 1985. In 1992 he brought in Brown from Vanity Fair, who transformed the idiosyncratic literary journal into a more newsy read with shorter stories, a staff photographer and splashier colour.

Newhouse lived with his second wife, Victoria, an architectural historian, in a Manhattan apartment near the United Nations and in a house in Bellport, Long Island. Newhouse had two sons and a daughter by his first wife, Jane Franke.

A former member of the board of the Museum of Modern Art, Newhouse had a major collection of modern art including works by Picasso, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. He was also a movie buff and enjoyed theatre and opera.

Samuel Irving Newhouse Jnr was born on 8 November, 1927, in Staten Island, the grandson of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father, Sam Newhouse, bought the Staten Island Advance in 1922 and used its profits to purchase more papers, eventually including the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, the (New Orleans) Times-Picayune, the (Portland) Oregonian and two papers he merged to create the (Newark, New Jersey) Star-Ledger.

The elder Newhouse loved to tell how of how he bought Conde Nast for his wife as a 35th anniversary present.

“She asked for a fashion magazine – so I went out and got her Vogue!” he would say.

The purchase was not a whim but a considered business decision, according to Citizen Newhouse and Maier’s biography, Newhouse: All the Glitter, Power and Glory of America’s Richest Media Empire and the Secretive Man Behind It.

Newhouse attended the elite Horace Mann high school in the Bronx, where his classmates included Roy Cohn, a lifelong friend. Cohn went on to become a New York powerbroker and aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Newhouse had a tough time at Syracuse University, dropping out his junior year. He then worked at his father’s newspapers for a time but never very seriously. He married, divorced, and seemed to enjoy the playboy lifestyle.

But by the mid-60s Newhouse made his way into Conde Nast, the one place in the family business where his father had shown little interest, and found his niche.

DEEPTI HAJELA