THE TRUMAN DOCTRINE
Byline: Lisa Lockwood
NEW YORK — “The 14 years I’ve lived in New York, one’s always known there’s a mythology about Conde Nast,” said James Truman, editorial director of Conde Nast Publications. “All I know is I walked into an avalanche of it.”
Since the British-born Truman assumed his new role four months ago, the company has been plagued by widespread rumors ranging from Anna Wintour’s departure from Vogue to the merger of Mademoiselle and Self. The pace of the rumors, however, has intensified in the last three weeks.
“I feel I should set the record straight,” said the 35-year-old Truman in an interview this week. “Gourmet is not turning into a fashion magazine; Conde Nast Traveler is not going to be targeted to Generation X, and I am not going to be Paige Rense’s seventh husband.”
Getting serious, Truman categorically denied the biggest rumor — the one that has Wintour moving to London to take a job with Conde Nast International, and Linda Wells, editor of Allure, replacing her.
“To me, Anna is the most brilliant fashion magazine editor in the world,” said Truman. “Vogue is the biggest and most important magazine in the world. There is no wisdom in separating the two of them.
“Most rumors have a grain of truth to them,” he added, “but these didn’t.”
Furthermore, he said, “Anna is my best friend at Conde Nast. She’s my mentor, and she brought me into the company. It’s very upsetting to me.”
Rumors were flying earlier this month that Truman and Linda Wells had a clandestine meeting in France — where Wells was vacationing — to discuss the Vogue position. Truman said that was absolutely untrue. He said he went to St. Tropez after the men’s wear collections and attended a dinner party given by Andre Balasz and Katie Ford; Wells was also at the party. “I spoke two sentences to her, neither one about Conde Nast,” said Truman.
Despite the daily deluge of rumors following his ascension, Truman said, he’s becoming acclimated to his new role and believes he’s making some contributions.
“I think it’s going well. I always knew it was something I would need to move into slowly. My effect would be felt over years — not weeks.”
Truman described his new job as an advisory one — giving the editors a second opinion when they ask for it. “If I give advice and it’s not taken, it’s fine,” he said. “In most cases it has been, and I think I’ve made useful suggestions.
“I don’t think [the editors] should be that dependent on me. They’re appointed because they’re good editors. Having been an editor, it’s an extremely lonely job. It’s good for someone with an editorial background to be able to be called upon.
“The fact is, none of the magazines is in trouble. Some need a little help on the newsstand. Some need to get ad pages back. None are floundering. I’m a doctor with a bunch of healthy patients,” said Truman.
That’s debatable. Ad pages at several of the Conde Nast magazines have continued to tumble. According to Media Industry Newsletter, Vanity Fair’s 1994 ad pages are down 20 percent through August, Mademoiselle’s are off 24 percent and Vogue’s are off 5.6 percent.
Glamour, the cash cow in the Conde Nast stable, showed an 8 percent decline in ad pages through August, while GQ’s are down 12 percent.
Allure and Self, on the other hand, continue to show gains through August. Allure’s ad pages are up 14 percent, while Self’s linage moved up 10 percent, according to MIN.
Truman said that when he became editorial director, he asked his predecessor, Alexander Liberman, what the job consisted of.
“He said, ‘I’m not sure,”‘ Truman recalled.”I asked Si [Newhouse, chairman of Conde Nast], and he said, ‘I’m not sure.’ It’s very much what I make of it.
“There’s an immediate task at hand to maintain the health of the magazines and to work with the editors on doing that. And beyond that, there’s a world still to be invented,” he continued. “At this point I’ve only worked with people who’ve wanted to work with me.”
So far, that list has included Wintour, Alexandra Penney of Self, Tom Wallace of Conde Nast Traveler, Elizabeth Crow of Mademoiselle and Wells at Allure. His involvement in Self, however, may have backfired.
In what has become an oft-repeated story, Truman asked that some of the August pages of Self be redone at the last minute. Some observers think this might have caused the abrupt — and aborted — resignation of Alexandra Penney two weeks ago. Penney returned to her post within a week.
“What had happened is [the July issue] came back from the printer as August was being finished. I felt, and Si felt, the look wasn’t as evolved as it should be. We added more typefaces, we revved up some layouts and we improved it.”
Was it costly?
“I didn’t ask. My job is to get the product right.”
Truman said he would advise any editor to change a cover at the last minute if it was deemed necessary.
“If I had a weak cover of Details, I’d walk past the newsstands a whole month feeling like a loser,” he said.
Truman said he was not even in the country when Penney said she was leaving as Self’s editor for a Conde Nast corporate post.
“I was in France when the first act occurred. In retrospect, [Newhouse and Penney] made rush decisions complicated by the fact that they’re close friends. Alexandra was not sure she wanted to continue ….They decided when I was away. I don’t think it was a decision they both really liked. They agreed she would do something else. I came back, and we talked a lot. I talked to Si and her.”
And, just as suddenly, Penney changed her mind and resumed running Self. Truman feels he was instrumental in helping Penney reach that decision. “My biggest contribution so far was to persuade her to come back,” he said. “I thought she was leaving for the wrong reasons.”
Truman thinks the magazine has tremendous potential.
“Self, after Vogue, is probably the best magazine title in the world, and is now starting to jell,” he said. “I liked August better than July.”
Observers say Truman’s been doing a lot of tinkering with the pages of Vogue, giving it a “Detail-ized” look. It seemed especially evident with the July issue. “Oh yeah,” he said. “I did work on the story with the fall collections. A couple of times a year, you have the job of making 10 or 12 interesting pages of runway shots. There’s ‘cool and cold’ or a collage as Fabien [Baron, creative director of Harper’s Bazaar] does.”
Truman admits that he used computer-generated images behind the photos, an approach associated with Details, but he insists that such a technique is not identified only with his former publication.
“The more interesting thing is, does it work?,” he said. “Is it good? Details’ design was never original. Everyone is working with the same elements and typeface.
“I learned an enormous amount from Alex [Liberman],” he continued. “Alex’s thing was always, ‘Give the page vitality, and don’t let it be a museum piece.’
“Anna [Wintour] and I talked when I first got the job. She’d been there six years and she felt it was time to shake things up a bit. I recommended some people in terms of features.”
In fact, he brought Joe Dolce, who was a senior editor of Details, over to become features editor of Vogue.
As for Truman’s involvement in Vanity Fair, he said, “I see Graydon [Carter, editor in chief] once or twice a month. There are some changes he’s working on in design. The last three issues have been terrific. What you hear about Vanity Fair not being what it was is people’s nostalgia for that moment it came to life.”
As for Mademoiselle, a magazine that has had three editors in two years, Truman said, “I think it’s been a terrific evolution. It’s got a very clear idea who the reader is — a girl in her early 20s who’s interested in relationships and fashion.”
Since Truman formally took over on April 1, he has had little to do with either Glamour or GQ, both of whose editors have strong, independent styles. He has met with Ruth Whitney, editor in chief of Glamour, and Art Cooper, editor in chief of GQ, only once each, over lunch.
As for Details, Truman said, “I thought the best favor to the magazine and John [Leland, editor in chief] was to let him go on with it and not be in his face. They’re planning a redesign in October.”
Truman also noted that he hasn’t met with the editors of Architectural Digest or Bride’s yet. “Since I can’t even find a wife, I didn’t know what I could contribute to Bride’s,” he joked.
Truman denied that he’s trying to focus each of the magazines on readers in their 20s.
“People may jump to conclusions that I was going to turn everything into Generation X. Nothing was further from my thoughts. I always felt uneasy being a spokesman for Generation X. I was way too old. My job is to help the editor express his or her vision. I don’t want to express myself through Glamour or Mademoiselle; I would be foolish. I have no makeup tips to offer.”
Is the job more difficult than he imagined?
“At this point — no. But I want it to be more difficult than it is. I want to start new magazines and explore opportunities in TV for original programming.”
Although Truman’s tenure has so far been marked by rumor and controversy, he says he feels satisfied with the way things are going.
“I’ve been able to move into this job while maintaining an equilibrium in this company — while from all outside evidence all I’ve done is create gossip,” he said. “I’m very pleased with the relationships with 90 percent of the editors. The remaining 10 percent can only improve.”