Though his publications are well known worldwide — Vogue, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker — S. I. “Si” Newhouse usually remained in the background, wielding a remarkably far-reaching impact on American media during the past half-century.
Newhouse, one of America’s wealthiest tycoons who spent summers on Long Island, died Sunday at his Manhattan home after a long illness. He was 89.
The Newhouse family’s privately owned empire, with an estimated worth of as much as $12 billion, included the tony Condé Nast collection of magazines and a chain of daily newspapers. The family holdings at one time included the Long Island Press, cable television franchises and Random House, America’s largest book publisher.
At his height during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Newhouse’s influence was considerable in New York’s literary, art and cultural life. In particular, his glossy Condé Nast magazine spotlighted the latest celebrity trends, helping to define the nation’s tastes in entertainment, fashion, politics and business.
As owner of Random House in 1987, Newhouse helped make local real estate developer Donald Trump nationally famous by publishing “Trump: The Art of the Deal,” a bestselling memoir by Trump co-written with Tony Schwartz at Newhouse’s urging. Trump often cited that book during his successful 2016 campaign to the presidency.
“If the great Si Newhouse were still running @CondeNastCorp,” Trump yearned in one 2013 Twitter exchange, acknowledging Newhouse’s fading health, which his family later described as dementia. In 2015, Newhouse formally stepped down from his once-powerful position, becoming chairman emeritus of the Newhouse parent company, Advance Publications.
But a generation ago, Newhouse presided over one of the world’s most fascinating media empires, known for its gossipy internal intrigues as well as its stylish print offerings. Though known for his demanding management style, often resulting in the firings of editors out of favor, Newhouse was described by employees as a quiet, shy man of few words.
“Si, as a businessman, encourages competition,” recalled former editorial director James Truman in 2005 about his former boss, comparing Condé Nast to a Medici court. “He’s a Darwinist — he believes only the strongest should survive.”
Samuel Irving Newhouse Jr. was born Nov. 8, 1927, on Staten Island, the grandson of Russian Jewish immigrants. He grew up as the uncertain oldest son of newspaper baron Sam Newhouse, a brilliant dynamo who built their family enterprise in the mid-20th century from ownership in small papers in New Jersey and Staten Island to one of America’s largest chains. Friends and former colleagues remembered Si Newhouse as an awkward lad who didn’t seem to like newspapers.
Newhouse attended the elite Horace Mann high school in the Bronx, where his classmates included controversial attorney Roy Cohn, a lifelong friend. Newhouse had a tough time at Syracuse University, dropping out in his junior year.
In 1959, Sam Newhouse bought the Condé Nast collection of magazines as what he jokingly described as a gift to his fashionable wife Mitzi Newhouse. Rather than newspapers, Si Newhouse soon found his own voice running the Condé Nast magazines, adding new titles to its mix and most notably in the 1980s reviving Vanity Fair, which had been defunct since the Depression. During this highly publicized Reagan era, Newhouse’s editors such as Tina Brown of Vanity Fair and Anna Wintour of Vogue became as well known as their writers and many of the subjects that they covered.
After the death of Sam Newhouse in 1979, Si Newhouse became chairman of the family’s parent company, Advance Publications, a power he shared with his younger brother Donald, who oversaw the newspapers and cable properties as company president.
Behind the scenes, Si Newhouse’s friendships had a subtle but substantial impact.
Cohn at times worked for the Newhouse organization and helped introduce Newhouse to Trump. And at Condé Nast, Si depended greatly on another friend, Alexander Liberman, its sophisticated editorial director. He introduced Newhouse to New York’s art world, the haute couture of fashion as well as the distinctive “look” of Condé Nast’s trendy magazines, which featured some of the world’s best-known photographers.
Though the Newhouses were known as cautious spenders at their newspapers, Si Newhouse was a generous owner at his magazines. During its heyday, Condé Nast paid top fees for its writers and luxurious expenses for its editors as they traveled around the world or across Manhattan by limousine.
“It’s about time I had a patron,” quipped novelist Norman Mailer, who signed a big deal with Newhouse in the early 1990s. In recent years, the Newhouse company has faced cutbacks like other print-oriented firms.
On Long Island, Newhouse spent summers at his place in Bellport, on the South Shore. His family once owned The Long Island Press — Newsday’s biggest competitor — until Newhouse closed down the Press in the late 1970s.
But it was in Manhattan where Newhouse was best known, and sometimes feared, as a media power broker who came into his own during the 1980s.
“He’s a very modest man, but I think he’s having the time of his life now,” said Tina Brown in a 1993 interview, recalling Si Newhouse, whom she had met a decade earlier when he was still quite unknown. She reeled off the list of magazines he created, purchased or revived, such as Vanity Fair.
“And when you think of that, they’re all success stories,’’ she said. ‘‘That’s tremendous. He’s now the only show in town.”