NEW YORK —In a surprise move, Condé Nast said Thursday morning that Ronald Galotti, the well-known publisher of GQ and the basis for the Mr. Big character on “Sex and the City,” was exiting the title.

He will be replaced by Peter Hunsinger, who had been president of the Condé Nast bridal group since February 2002. Hunsinger will be replaced at the bridal group by Nina Lawrence, publisher of the group’s two flagship magazines, Bride’s and Modern Bride.

A spokeswoman for Condé Nast called Galotti’s exit a “resignation,” but several sources inside the company and in the men’s magazine industry insisted that he was fired.

Galotti, they said, had been in the middle of a sales trip in San Francisco Wednesday when he was abruptly summoned back to New York. According to the sources, he knew almost immediately that his time was up.

Just after 9 a.m. Thursday, Galotti assembled the ad staff of his magazine and with a cigar in his mouth, tearfully told them that he was “departing.”

It was a short but eventful trip.

Galotti returned to Condé Nast in February 2002 after famously jumping ship in 1998 from Vogue to start Talk Magazine with Tina Brown. But almost as soon as he stepped off the elevators at 4 Times Square, there were signs he would not accept just being the magazine’s publisher.

While the job of selling ads went smoothly enough, his relationship with the magazine’s late editor, Art Cooper, began to fray almost immediately. GQ’s newsstand sales had been slipping — from 336,000 in 1997 to 188,000 in 2002. In the months preceding Cooper’s retirement, word leaked out that Galotti was complaining to Condé Nast brass that Cooper was the problem. But the announcement of Cooper’s departure in February did not seem to assuage the publisher. As late as this May, he was still telling friends that he was unsatisfied with his role.

“He was not happy,” said a person who knows him well. “Ron had been the publisher of Vogue and it made him crazy that Tom [Florio] had gotten that job and that he was back to selling space at GQ. He’s the best space-seller, but he blew moving up when he left the last time.”A colleague at Condé Nast who described Galotti’s exit categorically as a firing, concurred.

“Ron came from Talk where he had a very entrepreneurial role that is beyond what a publisher at Condé Nast has,” the insider said. “I think it’s been a hard fit for him.”

As Galotti became more frustrated, his relationship with Condé Nast chief executive Steve Florio began to sour. Last month, the two attended the men’s fashion shows in Milan, and according to a source, did not get along “all that well.” At several shows, other sources said, Galotti was seen sitting behind Florio, looking annoyed. (A spokeswoman for Florio denied this account and read a statement from Florio given to reporters, saying, “Ron is an extraordinary talent. As my friend and colleague I wish him well.”)

Where the veteran publisher is headed next is unclear. With his outsized personality, companies like Time Inc. or Hearst might not be a good fit for him. There were rumors that he might head to American Media to join Bonnie Fuller, but friends of the publisher said at press time that they have yet to hear this from him.

His successor, by contrast, is a mild mannered and less flashy executive with a long (if less public) history at Condé Nast. In addition to his work at the Bridal Group, Hunsinger has been the publisher at Gourmet, Architectural Digest, and Vanity Fair.

Galotti’s financial situation is not likely to be a problem, though. His contract was written by top entertainment lawyer Allen Grubman and the former publisher privately told people that he would be “just fine” if things did not work out with Condé Nast. And if he does want to work again, a job will likely materialize somewhere.

“Ron is the best publisher in the business,” said one person who has seen him at work. “He is smart and funny and he completely lacks the grating sense of desperation that publishers often have.”

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