James Truman: Home, James

His job as Condé Nast's editorial director came with kudos, glamour and a fat salary. So why is he selling up and moving to Spain aged 46? Edward Helmore talks to James Truman about why he left Britain, the mystique of the Newhouse empire and the decline of American culture
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Last month, James Truman, the editorial director of Condé Nast, went to see his employer, the chairman Samuel "Si" Newhouse Jr, and told him he was leaving his post. The news came as a surprise: the 46-year-old Truman had been prince to Newhouse's king for the past 11 years in a job that was bestowed on him for life and gave him, in theory at least, editorial authority over every US glossy magazine the world's pre-eminent glossy magazine company published.

Last month, James Truman, the editorial director of Condé Nast, went to see his employer, the chairman Samuel "Si" Newhouse Jr, and told him he was leaving his post. The news came as a surprise: the 46-year-old Truman had been prince to Newhouse's king for the past 11 years in a job that was bestowed on him for life and gave him, in theory at least, editorial authority over every US glossy magazine the world's pre-eminent glossy magazine company published.

His role was also to come up with new magazines, fix broken ones, appoint editors in chief and art directors, and act as an advisor and a general attaché to the chairman, with whom he could often be spotted lunching in the Condé Nast canteen. Considering that the publications under his command include The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue, GQ and a dozen or so others; that the job came with a reputed $2m yearly salary, a town-car on 24-hour call, a lifestyle largely picked up on expenses, and imbued him with the power of a cultural seer in city dazzled by the sheen of glamour that Condé Nast confers, it was courageous to give it up.

The former Melody Maker writer was known to be restless - the screensaver on his computer quoted the mythologist and adventurer Joseph Campbell: "We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us", so Truman, who was plucked from Details magazine, aged 35, to be editorial director, packed up his office and said his farewells.

"I've lived a very structured life for the last 11 years, knowing exactly what I was going to be doing this week, next week, next month," he explains while sorting out CDs in his Greenwich Village apartment. "I grew bored. I felt I'd achieved what I could in the job, and didn't see it changing much going into the future, so I decided to step out of the picture."

When he was appointed editorial director in 1994, Newhouse gave him a silver Porsche, a fitting ride to go with the most enviable jobs in magazine-land. In leaving, the billionaire publisher might want to pass him a Spanish phrase-book: he's selling up and moving to southern Spain with his girlfriend, Leanne Shapton.

Of the triumvirate of British editors - Tina Brown, Anna Wintour, and Truman - who were hired in the mid-Eighties to energise what was then a sleepy company, only the formidable Wintour remains in place. Truman's exit is unusually graceful. At least in the US, Condé Nast is company energised by intrigue, and nothing creates more excitement - titillation, really - in the chic corridors of its towering headquarters at 4 Times Square than a dramatic firing.

Typically, under-performing editors arrive back from holiday to find their pass-keys revoked and offices locked. But there hasn't been an execution for some time, or even a public flogging. By leaving the media altogether, he avoids the fate that often befalls former editors. Without title, the fact and aura of power evaporates (ask the former New Yorker editor Tina Brown); and so, sometimes, does life itself (soon after being nudged into retirement, the longtime GQ editor Art Cooper suffered a stroke and died).

Truman seems more than a little relieved to be off. "Condé Nast has many qualities the court used to have: of being in and out of favour, of paying obeisance, working from the margins up to the top," he says. "Si, as a businessman, encourages competition. He's a Darwinist. He believes only the strongest should survive."

Without neuroses and vanity, New York publishing would simply cease to exist - and that's just the employees. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Condé Nast, where Newhouse's mercurial temperament informs the company culture. He likes editors to live out grand roles in the public eye and they, in turn, require their employees to carry their particular brand characteristics.

But the risk of falling out of favour is ever-present and it's often for illogical reasons, creating endless suspense and questioning in the culture of the place. "It's not just for Si's entertainment," Truman points out. "It's part of his business plan and image of Condé Nast - that it should be the most looked at and extravagant (not just in money, in terms of style and self-presentation). The advantage is that it appears the company is living larger than its competitors and that, in turn, gives a premium to the value of the magazines." Of course, there's a price to be paid: "One of the energies of public glamour is the anxiety and fear of losing it. However it looks on the outside, it can always be turned off or superseded by a newer model."

Truman's course has been an interesting one. In 1980, in London, he joined Melody Maker just as IPC was hit by a six-month strike. "I didn't know what to do. I didn't fit in in London: I wasn't a punk, I couldn't do tower-block, Londoner, toff. I didn't think my strength was as a hard-boiled reporter; at the Hampstead & Highgate Express [his first job] they took me off news and put me on the culture page." So he moved to New York and found what he was looking for. "New York was the most exciting subject I'd ever seen. Downtown was still like Scorsese's After Hours, a William Burroughs outer-zone of freaks, artists, drug addicts and transvestites. People were looking for publicity and they were trying to make a scene, but no one was interested."

With his subject identified, he wrote to The Face, asking if he could be their US correspondent. "No one else offered so they said yes," he recalls. He busied himself with his subject as The Face developed a small but dedicated US readership. It caught the attention of Newhouse, who bought a 40 per cent stake with the notion of launching a version of it in America. "Si has amazing antennae," Truman says. "He could see there was something going that wasn't feeding into his magazines."

By then, Truman had diverted to LA to make it in the film business, but arrived just as a screenwriters' strike shut down production on all new movies. "I should have taken it as an omen," he says. Still, he hooked up with Malcolm McLaren, who was taken with the idea that Oscar Wilde invented rock and roll. "He'd pitched it to Steven Spielberg and allegedly Spielberg was very excited. He and I were going to write it together." But that, too, came to nothing. Who knows if Spielberg was truly interested. "If you get pitched by Malcolm you have to say 'yes' because a) it's probably a good idea, and b) you need him to stop talking."

Anna Wintour, newly installed as the editor of American Vogue, invited him back from LA to be her features editor. Eighteen months later, Newhouse installed him as editor of Details, a failing downtown nightlife magazine that was to be re-launched as a magazine that incorporated many elements of The Face. Details turned out to be a striking success. But not before it nearly failed. "The first year was a fiasco. It wasn't selling and advertisers hated it." Almost by accident, Truman put Keanu Reeves on the cover and 100,000 teenage girls bought it. Newhouse decided to keep it going and it soon took off. "I met Keanu years later and told him he'd saved my bacon," Truman recalls. By the good fortune of timing, the United States in the early 1990s was going through a cultural upswing, one signified by Bill Clinton's incoming Democratic administration, the rise of grunge, and independent film-making. What had been on the fringe was moving to the centre. "The edge of culture could still be caught in magazines," Truman holds. "It was the last gasp before it moved to the internet."

When, in 1994, Newhouse picked the young editor to implant his personality, ideas and sensibility on the company, Truman ran into resistance: one aging editor said she'd spank him if he interfered with her food magazine. Others, such as Steve Florio, then the CEO of Condé Nast and one of the bean-counters who had set about making the company profitable, were hostile. And the New York media critics were not kind to him, dwelling on occasional mis-steps (a sports magazine for women failed and Details, the vehicle upon which he ascended, was eventually abandoned by Condé Nast in the face of the "lad mag" invasion and given to Fairchild Publications to fix.)

Truman, who had never worked in a corporation before, felt boxed in. "The first three or four years was a miserable experience. I was blissfully naive about corporate politics, and was unprepared for the scrutiny that comes with a high-profile job. I certainly went through some years of angst about whether the talents I thought I had as an editor could weather that storm and find some form of expression."

He did find expression, but perhaps not the kind he had expected. He departs leaving a Frank Gehry-designed canteen and a series of shopping magazines judged by US critics to be the foremost claims to a legacy. It's hard to know whom the joke is on. As an astute interpreter of culture, are Truman's foremost creations - Lucky (the women's shopping title), Cargo (for men) and the forthcoming Domino (for the home) - revolutionary, profoundly cynical or funny? Or are they all three?

"They have a kind of punk-rock quality of rebellion to them," he says, "and I felt they were a truthful reflection of what was going on in the culture. Everything is for sale. There is no point in pretending otherwise. So let's just put the address, the phone number and the website under the item and not try to make a hoop-la about it signifying this or that. You don't have to get through articles on politics and serious issues. Here's the merchandise..." (Both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal published op-ed pieces praising their de Tocqueville-esque embodiment of American democratic values.)

Initially, the fashion establishment hated Lucky. "I think they were appalled by its lack of pretension - no high-concept fashion shoots. No consideration of the shoe as art-object. It was about fashion as people actually consume it." Magazines like Lucky are reflectors and interpreters of larger themes. "Reagan began a huge cultural shift toward the business culture being absolutely dominant," he says. "It's been an amazing 24-year sweep that has dramatically changed the country in ways that make the culture less interesting. "Business no longer runs parallel to culture. It has subsumed it. Still, he shrugs, "it's a hit-driven culture and if you don't have hits, you're out of the game".

Last summer Truman announced his intention to launch and edit an arts magazine. "I needed to be engaged in something that was meaningful and would excite me," he says. It was also an opportunity to redress the balance. Nearly 60 million Americans visit museums and galleries each year, and contemporary art is perhaps what music used to be - surprising, energetic, international.

But it also tends towards tedious pretension and the publishing that surrounds it could do with some airing out. "I believed you could have a dialogue about art, and tap into what people actually like about art without being impenetrable to the rest of the world," says Truman. Newhouse rejected the idea, or at least put it on hold, and so Spain beckoned.

Which leaves time for reflective thought. Among the packing in his apartment, Truman found some old issues of Details. He says he was surprised to find how much writing they contained. An equivalent magazine now, he estimates, has 40 per cent as much. "Storytelling is a luxury in journalism now. The things New Journalism (the writing of Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and Ken Kesey) introduced, of using great writing and fictional devices to tell non-fiction stories, has certainly been eclipsed by the art of the cleverly written caption."

There can be few better places from where to observe the commodification of culture than from the editorial director's crow's nest. "We've reached the stage where there is no lifestyle before it is a commodity," he says. (He may mean there's no magazine lifestyle before it is a commodity but the point is understood - that culture has to have literal value to be considered worthwhile.)

"Arthur Miller gave an interview to The New York Times Magazine a few months ago, in which he said the only two thriving arts are advertising and publicity. There's a certain truth to that. Publicists and advertisers once tried to keep up with what was happening culturally. Now they drive it."

Truman is not downcast by his assessment. Six years ago, he told an interviewer, "Downtown is dead." It was a typically elliptical statement but everyone knew what it meant. On the day of our meeting, the same paper published a story about how, at fashionable weddings, departing guests are now given a bag of sponsored gifts by which, presumably, they can leave with even warmer feelings toward the newly-hitched. The goody bag, he judges, is a fine expression of all this.

Of course, the same shift has given advertisers greater influence at big publishing companies and, by extension, given the business side of publishing the upper hand over editorial. It's a sensitive subject and the pretence of editorial independence when it comes to subjects that affect big advertisers, or that big advertisers feel sensitive about, is barely maintained. "I found the qualities that drew me to magazines - surprise, ground-breaking ideas, the unveiling of new cultures and positions - to be in shorter and shorter supply," he says.

"We're in Wal-Mart period," he continues. "Advertisers don't like magazines that rock the boat, especially in America. If you do something shocking it will have dire business consequences." A small number of well-organised people can now wreak havoc. "They go to retailers and say 'we're going to boycott your store'. Thirty or 50 letters of protest will stop a store carrying a magazine with a million distribution. It's totally illegal and totally effective." (Illegal in the sense that the first amendment, guaranteeing free speech, is still in effect.)

One hopeful sign is that the internet is drawing people to magazines rather than taking them away, as was always feared. During the boom of the late 1990s, Condé Nast held back from sinking money into web ventures. Now it is investing to make its sites deeper and more interesting, since it has become clear that the internet is the best way of attracting subscriptions, the lifeblood of US magazine publishing. Soon, a GQ-sponsored site, MenStyle.com, will join a CondéNet line-up known for the women's fashion brand Style.com, the food site Epicurious.com and the travel site Concierge.com.

But Truman's departure from Condé Nast still comes as a surprise and has left many at the company nervous about the direction it will now take. After all, with Truman there to hold the proprietor's hand, to keep him informed and youthful in aspect, a certain aesthetic judgment derived from known values was assured.

And, while liked within the company, his successor is an administrator who speaks of "serving the reader' - publishing code for the kind of journalism dictated to by focus groups and market-testing.

With no arts magazine, Truman was left in the role of administrator for the foreseeable future, his days spent tinkering with Domino, making decisions about geraniums and offering advice to throw out the dead-looking ficus plant. And then what? A magazine about shopping for and with pets?

His job, he thinks, is done. "The British are very good at coming in and infusing things with new ideas but I don't think you've got to be a Brit to keep a system going. Americans are better at that."