S.I. Newhouse Jr., who as the owner of The New Yorker, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest and other magazines wielded vast influence over American culture, fashion and social taste, died on Sunday at his home, a family spokesman said. He was 89.
Mr. Newhouse, known as Si, and his younger brother, Donald, inherited an impressive publishing empire from their father, Solomon I. (“Sam”) Newhouse, and built it into one of the largest privately held fortunes in the United States, with estimates of the family wealth running over $12 billion at the turn of the 21st century. While Donald led the more profitable newspaper and cable television operations, Si took charge of the more glamorous magazine division.
Much of that glamour was created under Si Newhouse’s direction. Though himself a shy man often painfully awkward in public, Mr. Newhouse hired some of the most charismatic magazine editors of the late 20th century, among them Tina Brown at Vanity Fair and Diana Vreeland and Anna Wintour at Vogue, and encouraged them to behave like the celebrities they extolled in his publications. It helped that he rewarded them with salaries, expense accounts, clothing allowances and housing loans that were the envy of their peers. Newhouse editors also enjoyed spectacularly generous budgets at their magazines, which often ran deep in the red for years before turning profits.
“I am not an editor,” Mr. Newhouse told The New York Times in 1989. “I flounder when people ask me, ‘What would you do?’” His philosophy, he said, was to let his editors run free. “We feel almost that whichever way it goes, as long as it doesn’t do something absolutely screwy, you can build a magazine around the direction an editor takes.” But when Mr. Newhouse deemed a magazine’s direction “screwy,” he didn’t hesitate to fire editors, sometimes so maladroitly that they first found out about their dismissals on television or in the gossip columns.
Newhouse magazines were criticized for exalting the rich and famous through articles that gave equal importance to their personal foibles and professional exploits. But as circulation and advertising revenues at his periodicals soared, other publishers took up the glitz-and-scandal approach to journalism. By the end of the 20th century, even the most serious newspapers and magazines offered profiles of entertainers, businesspeople, artists and politicians that balanced weighty accomplishment with juicy gossip.
His magazines came to stand for a golden era of publishing, and became an integral part of the culture they were covering. Two Hollywood movies, “The Devil Wears Prada” and “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,” were made based on accounts of life at two of Mr. Newhouse’s flagship publications, Vogue and Vanity Fair. In 2007, Meryl Streep was nominated for an academy award for playing a character based on Ms. Wintour in the former. After the ceremony she attended the annual Vanity Fair Oscars party.
Mr. Newhouse himself largely stayed out of the limelight. He did own a famed modern art collection that at one time was valued at over $100 million. He and his second wife, Victoria, occasionally threw lavish parties at their Manhattan townhouse. And their dog was feted at an annual birthday bash at which Evian water was served to canine guests while their owners enjoyed caviar.
But Mr. Newhouse was better known as a workaholic who arrived at his Midtown office before dawn and sometimes convened staff meetings at 6 a.m. He claimed to read every one of his magazines — they reached more than 15 — from cover to cover. “I was brought up and trained in a very personal business by my father and his brothers, and they were all very personal operators and close to what they were doing,” said Mr. Newhouse in a 1993 article by Mediaweek.
Solomon Isidore Newhouse Jr. was born on Nov. 8, 1927. His father, the son of an impoverished Russian immigrant, was a lawyer who in 1922 invested his earnings in a failing newspaper, The Staten Island Advance. Under the name Advance Publications, Sam Newhouse and his brothers slowly built up one of the largest newspaper chains in the country, including, among more than a score of others, The Long Island Daily Press, The Newark Star-Ledger, The Cleveland Plain-Dealer, and The St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Though always profitable, Newhouse newspapers weren’t revered for quality. More, a respected journalism review, once listed three Newhouse publications among the country’s 10 worst dailies.
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