Si Newhouse, who died September 30, was best known as the owner of Condé Nast, but he was also a major force in book publishing for almost two decades. Newhouse owned Random House from 1980 until 1998, when he sold it to Bertelsmann. We asked Nicholas Latimer, who joined Random in 1983 and is now v-p and director of publicity at Knopf, to recall what it was like working for Newhouse.
I started at Random House in 1983, in the publicity department at Knopf, the highly regarded publisher’s tonier imprint. It was a small department of five people and one part-time employee. The vice president and director of publicity was an incredibly dapper man named Bill Loverd, who retired in 2002. Bill also served as the director of corporate affairs for all of Random House, and it was when he was wearing his corporate affairs hat that I came into contact with Si Newhouse.
No, we never had lunch at the Four Seasons, and I never attended a one-on-one official meeting with him. But I often walked the few blocks from our Random House headquarters on 50th Street in Manhattan to Newhouse’s office in the Condé Nast building on Madison Avenue to deliver by hand an important pending announcement or to fetch a donation check for what I surmised was an unimaginable sum of money.
Money was something I don’t think a lot of people at Random House ever really worried about, thanks to the Newhouses. The book publishing side didn’t involve much of the wardrobe allowances and the use of private cars that Newhouse was known to lavish on employees in his magazine empire. But it was fairly clear that many of the high-priced writers who populated our various publishing lists were lured there with the understanding that, even if their books failed to earn out, they would never be expected to return any of their handsome advances. And anytime a Random House employee picked up the check after a lunch or a drink date, he or she usually said, “It’s on Uncle Si.” Yes, Newhouse was a businessman who obviously kept an eye on the bottom line. But he was also quite proud of the literary clout he was able to underwrite, and he didn’t mind spending money to maintain and expand it.
Unlike today, book parties were routine occurrences during the Newhouse years. And we were always mindful to invite Si and his wife, Victoria, as well as his brother, Donald; his wife, Susan; and their son, Steve—who we were comforted to know was also interested in this part of the family business. And despite Si Newhouse’s reputation for arriving at the office at an ungodly hour each morning, he not only had the stamina to attend these cocktail parties but he always seemed genuinely happy to be at them.
To the public at large, Newhouse was the Howard Hughes of the media world. To us, he was Si. On one occasion, he and Victoria generously offered to host a reception in their home. It was a spectacular apartment located near the UN, with a remarkable collection of contemporary art. My boss was nervous that a large crowd would be in such close proximity to the priceless works of art, so he drafted several assistants to stand watch near a number of the most important pieces. But the Newhouses seemed perfectly content to welcome the curious guests into their private quarters, and even their two tiny white dogs were amiable and well behaved.
Newhouse and his nephew, Steve, also attended the semiannual sales conferences that were usually held in places like Arizona or Florida. I’m sure you can appreciate how difficult it is for any editor to present a forthcoming book in front of a large gathering of sales colleagues, but imagine how nerve-wracking it must have been to know that the owner was also sitting in the back of the room. But between sessions, Newhouse would inevitably seek out an editor or cozy up to a head of house and talk enthusiastically about the new titles. Looking back, it was gratifying to know that our owner took such interest in our lists.
When the Newhouses sold Random House to Bertelsmann in 1998, I didn’t think I would be seeing much of Si any more. But I was wrong. I ran into him a number of times afterward, invariably outside of an art gallery. Out of courtesy, I would re-introduce myself each time, and he would smile in return and thank me for saying hello. The last time I saw him, he said (in what I recall was a conspiratorial tone), “They were interesting times.” And indeed they were.