The Talk of the Town

updated 03/25/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/25/1985 01:00AM

If a pirate had scaled the garden wall and seized all the crumpets at the tea party, the effect could not have been more dramatic. The New Yorker, perhaps the most influential and respected literary magazine in America, had been sold. Behind ramparts of arcane procedure, the stately weekly had long been the showcase for such authors as John Updike, John Cheever, I.B. Singer, J.D. Salinger, James Thurber and John O'Hara; such cartoonists as Saul Steinberg and Charles Addams; and such social commentators and reporters as Rachel Carson and John Hersey. For the entire 60 years of the magazine's existence, that bastion had been protected by the family of yeast baron and founding publisher Raoul Fleischmann. Early this month, however, the pirate in the tale appeared in the unlikely form of shy, diminutive Samuel Irving New-house Jr., 57, heir to a publishing empire, who paid $142 million for the magazine's outstanding shares. The sale quickly became the talk of the town.

Though Newhouse guaranteed the New Yorker's continued editorial independence, its writers and artists were skeptical. The venerated William Shawn, the magazine's editor since 1952, pointedly told staffers that the editorial department had not been consulted about the sale and had not approved of it. Other writers fretted and worried about the future.

While those anxieties bubbled at Manhattan cocktail parties and on the front page of the New York Times, Newhouse attracted rare—and unwelcome—headlines. The New Yorker acquisition represented a flagship addition to a family-owned business that includes 29 newspapers, the Condé Nast magazines (House & Garden, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Vogue, Self, Bride's, Mademoiselle, Glamour, Gourmet and Vanity Fair) and the thriving Random House publishing company. Newhouse, or Si, as he is called, manages the magazines, and his brother, Donald, 55, handles the newspapers of the $2 billion conglomerate, a mighty oak of the publishing world that could not have sprung from a less promising acorn. That was the Staten Island (N.Y.) Advance, purchased by their father, S.I. Newhouse, in 1922.

The eldest of eight children born to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Newhouse père was a 17-year-old office boy for a lawyer when he was given control of the Bayonne (N.J.) Times by his employer, who had acquired the paper in lieu of a legal fee. Newhouse put the paper in the black and used his earnings to buy the Staten Island daily. While building a newspaper chain that would one day rival that of William Randolph Hearst, New-house Sr. kept no regular office, worked out of a briefcase and shunned publicity like bad news.

By the time Newhouse died in 1979 at the age of 84, Si had inherited his father's penchant for privacy and hard work. He rises usually at 4 a.m. and settles into his midtown Manhattan office by 5 to begin his 10-hour workday. An unobtrusive boss who seldom tampers with his magazines' editorial content, he has nonetheless mastered his father's seat-of-the-pants style of management. Robert Bernstein, Random House chairman, recalls suggesting to Newhouse that they build a warehouse. "I said, 'It will cost $8 or $9 million.' He said, 'Start right away and give me the details later.' We had that warehouse going in a few months."

At lunchtime Newhouse enjoys his regular table at the tony Four Seasons restaurant. An avid movie fan and a voracious reader who zips through three or four books each week, he seldom socializes in the evening and usually retires by 10 p.m.

Though he and his second wife, Victoria, keep a home in Palm Beach, he rarely ventures there during the socially active winter season. His shyness is legendary. Says lawyer and longtime friend Roy Cohn: "At my annual birthday party, it is my favor to him never to call upon him to make a speech." New-house's retreat is an East Side double town house (once owned by Condé Nast), where a 24-hour guard protects his valuable collection of modern art. The home is like "a gallery," says a former Vanity Fair writer. "It's neat, modern and quite comfortable but designed around the art, not the people. You never know where to put the ashes." On weekends Newhouse visits the SoHo art emporiums downtown; occasionally he jets to Europe for a tour of the galleries. Traveling light, he usually packs only carry-on luggage "because he can't stand to wait for baggage," says a Vanity Fair editor.

For all his successes, Newhouse faces some thorny business problems in the months ahead. The IRS is seeking $914 million in disputed taxes and penalties from the Newhouse estate. Although Random House has doubled sales since Newhouse engineered its purchase for $65 million from RCA five years ago, Vanity Fair reportedly has lost almost $30 million in the two years since it was resuscitated to become, actually, a more stylish challenger to the New Yorker. There is speculation that Newhouse plans to fold Vanity Fair and add its subscription list to the New Yorker, thereby increasing the latter's 500,000 circulation and ad rates.

It is not money, however, but new management that has many New Yorker contributors worried. With only one owner and two editors in six decades, the magazine regards change the way Newhouse regards publicity. Everyone wonders what will happen to Shawn, the courtly editor who helped establish the journal's powerful intellectual voice. Though greatly respected by his staff members, he is now 77, and his eventual replacement may be New-house's first big editorial decision. Longtime writers hope that meddling from the new owner remains as nonexistent as it had been under the Fleischmanns. "I think the nicest thing you can say about them is that we didn't know them," says author Calvin Trillin of the previous owners. Judging by the new proprietor's standoff style, the New Yorker's scribes may soon be able to say the same nice things about Si.

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