Ed Driscoll

Vanity Fear

“The Gilded Age of Condé Nast Is Over”, the New York Observer observes:

Three weeks after McKinsey & Company slipped its foot into the door of the emerald tower, Condé Nast staffers continue to ask what fresh hell they find themselves in.

“I saw Graydon in the cafeteria this week!” said one business-side insider, last Friday. “In all my years here, I’ve never seen him in my life there. He was behind me in the line at checkout with his little swipe card. He was milling around uncomfortably with the commoners.”

When our source first walked into the Frank Gehry–designed cafeteria at 4 Times Square, Mr. Carter was studying the options available at the stir-fry station. It wasn’t clear whether he actually sat down to eat lunch, but the sight of him put our source into a bit of a panic.

“That whole feeling of working here and it being cushy and other people loving it and being jealous? That’s kind of gone now,” said the source.

Well gosh; if only Condé Nast’s mass media publications hadn’t thoroughly alienated half their potential audience. More from the Observer:

“We just got new computers, and there’s still film in the camera and we’re more than able to do the most important thing, which is to publish the best possible work and pay well for it,” said New Yorker editor David Remnick.

You still use film? Have you heard about the new digital cameras? They’re all the rage these days. And just try finding a Fotomat in downtown Manhattan…

“I think the reality is that every successful magazine editor has had his or her eye on the bottom line for a long time,” said Glamour editor Cindi Leive. “The stereotype, even at the most glamorous fashion magazines, of the editor who has three-hour lunches and whisks away on a private jet every weekend is probably just a stereotype. We’ve all been thinking about budgets for quite a long time and probably wouldn’t be able to keep our jobs if we weren’t.”

Speaking of photography and excess, there’s at least one Condé Nast employee who sounds like she’s hasn’t quite internalized all the budget-tightening memos. The Wall Street Journal’s Robert Frank diagrams Annie Liebovitz’s cashflow –or lack thereof — and asks, “How does a celebrity photographer earning more than $2 million a year go broke?”

It is a question that runs through all the recent coverage of Annie Leibovitz’s financial collapse. As the New York Times reported in May, and New York magazine reports this week, the famous photographer — known for her naked shots of Lennon and Yoko and a pregnant Demi Moore — is in hock for $24 million. If she doesn’t honor terms of the loan, from Art Capital Group, she could lose her homes and the rights a large body of her life’s work. (Ms. Liebovitz’s spokesman claims Art Capital has been dishonest in its representations. The New York magazine article quotes an Art Capital spokesman as saying, “Ms. Leibovitz and a small army of her lawyers and financial advisers understood the terms of the deal.”).

This is despite a “lifetime” contract with Conde Nast reportedly valued at $2 million to $5 million a year and more than $100,000 a day stipends for commercial shoots.

Where did the money go? The New York Times reported that Ms. Liebovitz didn’t have “a taste for luxuries” and wasn’t an “expensive liver” who went to parties.

Apparently, owning a penthouse and sprawling townhouse in Manhattan, along with the former Astor compound in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and a place in Paris (not to mention the Range Rover, trips to Paris, chef, housekeeper, live-in nanny and personal yoga instructor) don’t count as “luxuries.”

Instead, most publications have chalked it up to poor financial judgment on the part of a brilliant artist. (Why is it that when a hedge funder or Wall Streeter spends big they are described as “lavish” or “excessive,” while artists are simply victims of their own generosity?) [For much the same reasons why the booming economy of the ’80s was considered “greedy” and the booming economy of the ’90s…wasn’t .– Ed]

Let’s be honest. Annie Leibovitz succumbed to the same leverage-and-live-large lifestyle as the rest of rich and famous over the past 10 years. No matter how much money they were earning, it was never enough to support the hunger for yet another house or car or household staffer.

For several years in the mid-naughts, Vanity Fair published an annual “Green” issue (for which Liebovitz shot at least a couple of the covers) that urged less consumption — in a magazine that, like many of Condé Nast’s publications — is the very essence of conspicuous consumption. (All of which of course begs the question: wouldn’t printing less paper be a good first step to helping protect the environment?  Perhaps potential subscribers are already way ahead of the curve in that department.) By late last year, as Virginia Postrel noted, numerous elite publications had moved on to “Depression Porn” — almost drooling over the prospect of prolonged FDR-style poverty. Sad to say, those journalists are now experiencing what they puritanically wished on the country as a whole.

Update: James Lileks has some thoughts on a very different publication that’s also lost its way — and likely not coincidentally, its readers.

Related: A new documentary explores the excesses of another fashion-oriented magazine just before the icebergs were spotted.