S.I. Newhouse Jr., the owner and longtime chairman of Condé Nast, rarely wore anything to the office other than a ratty New Yorker sweatshirt.
Known as Si usual mode of transport was the subway, his favorite cocktail was black coffee, and he preferred seeing his dogs frolic with friends at Pug Hill (a conglomerate of Pug enthusiasts) over going to lunch at Michael’s or the Knickerbocker Club.
When Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue and Condé Nast’s artistic director, began hosting the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Costume Institute Gala, she practically had to beg him to come to it.
“‘Do you really need me to go?’” Ms. Wintour recalled him saying, at a memorial on Monday at Jazz at Lincoln Center in the Time Warner Center. “Somewhere there are pictures of him scurrying apologetically up the red carpet, never to be seen by the cameras again.”
But the same thing that made Mr. Newhouse an unlikely steward for the world’s most glamorous publishing company also served him well in that role.
Not really caring about being invited anywhere can be a good thing when fielding angry phone calls from all the glittery powerful people who got scorched in (or snubbed by) his magazines, which in addition to Vogue included Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, GQ and Glamour.
Leonard Lauder, another speaker at the memorial, described once receiving a phone call from a friend desperate to have a story in one of Mr. Newhouse’s magazines killed.
“I said, ‘I don’t think we can,’” Mr. Lauder said. “He said, ‘Please!’ So I called Si and Si said, ‘You know, I’ve had a lot of experience with this. If the story is worth keeping, you can’t kill it. If the story’s not worth keeping, I won’t do it anyway.’ That was the nicest way to say, ‘No, Leonard. Thank you.’”
Consciously or unconsciously, self-abnegation added to the myth around Mr. Newhouse.
So did truly loving the things his magazines covered — film, books, art, architecture, theater and restaurants — said Graydon Carter, the outgoing editor of Vanity Fair. “The thing about Si was, he loved magazines. It was the reason that Condé Nast flourished,” Mr. Carter said. “Si loved magazines the way someone like Jack Welch loved light bulbs and G.E. jet engines.”
Which is one reason it came as no surprise that many of the luminaries who appeared in his magazines came for his final send-off.
In addition to the editors of his publications, those in attendance included the designers Ralph Lauren and Diane von Furstenberg, the artist Jeff Koons, the book publisher Sonny Mehta and the architect Rem Koolhaas.
David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker since 1998, spoke after Mr. Carter and described the process of being hired there less like an arrival than an arrest.
“I received a call from Si’s far less reticent lieutenant, the late Steve Florio, a mustachioed cigar-wielding boulevardier of the executive suite, who put matters to me in approximately these soothing terms: ‘Would you kindly direct yourself to the office in 10 minutes and please don’t make a hash of it.’” (Of course, Mr. Florio put it somewhat more coarsely than that, but Mr. Remnick is from North New Jersey. He got the gist.)
So Mr. Remnick jumped out of the chair, his hair shorn jagged “like an abandoned hedge,” and high-tailed it over to Madison Avenue, where Mr. Newhouse sat behind a paperless desk and spoke so plainly but so softly his new hire wasn’t sure if he was being “offered the greatest job in journalism or a glass of water.”
But in time, he came to see Mr. Newhouse not just as his boss, but as his biggest booster.
It started with the sweatshirt he wore every day.
“This was very inspiring,” Mr. Remnick said. “I never noticed Katharine Graham wearing a Washington Post sweatshirt to vouchsafe her loyalty. I’m just saying.”
But it went beyond that.
“He was also the magazine’s most ardent reader,” Mr. Remnick said. “He had bought the magazine with the same spirit he brought to works of art. He bought it because he loved it. He bought it because he aimed to rejuvenate and nourish it, to support it in the way the previous proprietor no longer could. Despite a great deal of scrutiny and criticism, he stayed focused not merely on the fiduciary success of the magazine, but on its ethos and its highest aspirations, its best possible version of itself.”
There was a tough side to Mr. Newhouse, too. One doesn’t run the most storied magazine publisher in America for five decades without occasionally breaking a few eggs.
Jonathan Newhouse, the chairman and chief executive of Condé Nast International, alluded to this in his speech when he described his cousin’s frank (and not always rosy) estimations of the work of publishers on memorandums he scrawled on legal pads with a black felt tip marker.
Those notes came to be known throughout the company as “yellow snow” and included lines such as ‘Why did the advertising rate decrease in November?,’ ‘How did this promotion perform?’ and once, ‘Do you think it’s smart to put an overweight man on the cover of British GQ two months in a row?”
(That was in 1993, when Danny DeVito appeared in April and Robbie Coltrane appeared in May.)
Another time, Mr. Newhouse questioned Ms. Wintour about whether she really wanted to put a supermodel on the cover, swimming with a dolphin. ‘You know, Anna, I just hate fish,” he said.
She scrapped it in favor of something else.
In keeping with the Condé Nast ethos, Mr. Newhouse’s tastes were catholic to the core.
He read turn-of-the-century Russian novels but also ventured eagerly with friends to see films that ranged from blockbusters (“Lethal Weapon”) to pulp fiction (“American Psycho”).
He also became one of the most renowned art collectors of his day, scooping up works by Andy Warhol, Lucian Freud, Robert Rauschenberg and Jackson Pollock well before they came to be other collectors’ staples.
Part of his success on that front, David Geffen said, was that he approached collecting the same way he approached magazines, putting concerns of cost beneath those of quality.
“He had a better collection of post-World War II pictures than the Museum of Modern Art,” Mr. Geffen said. “If you went to that townhouse, wherever you looked there was a masterpiece.” (Mr. Newhouse later gave up his townhouse, and sold most of what was on the walls, when his dog became too old to climb the stairs.)
In 1980, Advance Publications, Condé Nast’s parent company, purchased Random House, one of the country’s most storied book publishers. That was how he met Robert Gottlieb, an editor at Knopf, who ran The New Yorker from 1987 to 1992.
In his speech, Mr. Gottlieb recalled a person whose curiosity, both personal and intellectual, was awe-inspiring.
“He was eager, never jaded,” Mr. Gottlieb said. “He was a personification of David Riesman’s inner-directed man. Certainly open to influence and education but always secure in his own impulses. If he was proved right, he was undoubtedly gratified, but I always sensed that his true gratification came from the doing of things, not the rewards. When something didn’t work out, no doubt he was chagrined, but he would shrug and move on. There was no living in regret. In the same spirit, he never seemed to resent or even mind the negative things said about him. His friends might see them, but he just brushed them off. This was not a narcissistic personality, nor a self-indulgent one.”
In his final years, Mr. Newhouse was felled by dementia, and it broke the hearts of everyone around him to see this curious, kind and erudite man lose his memories, his ability to exercise and analyze, and then, finally, to walk and speak.
“Losing someone to a slow decline is hard on people left behind, and I was in awe of the strength with which Victoria supported Si all throughout his final years,” said Ms. Wintour, her voice breaking as she described Mr. Newhouse and his wife, Victoria Newhouse. They married in 1973.
In a video tribute, the actress and animal rights advocate Isabella Rossellini spoke of Mr. Newhouse coming to her farm for a visit toward the end of his life.
“He was in a wheelchair,” Ms. Rossellini said. “He came with his nurse and with Victoria, and we didn’t know if he was aware or not. And I lifted up a chicken and I said, ‘Look, Si,’ and he said, ‘Chicken.’ Both Victoria and I had tears in our eyes. He hadn’t spoken in many months.”
The next time he came back, words eluded him, Ms. Rossellini said. Mr. Newhouse simply sat there without much expression, petting a goat. But Ms. Rossellini knew that at that moment he was content.
She felt as though she had given him back a little of the joy he had given her.
“The end was bad, but there aren’t many good endings,” Mr. Gottlieb said. “He’s a man to be mourned, but he lived a life to be celebrated.”