An Interview With GQ's Retiring Art Cooper

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Art Cooper, editor in chief of Conde Nast Publications' GQ, walked into his boss' office Feb. 24 at 7 a.m. and emerged with a retirement date of June 1, almost 20 years to the day he took
After 20 years at the helm of 'GQ' Art Cooper is retiring from a much-changed publishing scene.
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Art Cooper to Step Down in June

over what was then an obscure men's fashion title. While some say he was pushed, he insists the decision was his. But as Conde Nast seeks a successor -- candidates are said to include the editor of British GQ, Dylan Jones -- it seems clear GQ has to change to compete in a men's field now dominated by laddie titles such as Maxim.

Talk of Mr. Cooper's departure began to swirl in January, around the same time he climbed the stage in the grand ballroom of New York City's Waldorf-Astoria to accept a lifetime achievement award. But denials were issued by Conde Nast President-CEO Steven T. Florio as well as Mr. Cooper right until that meeting with S.I. Newhouse Jr., the mercurial Conde Nast chairman. Mr. Cooper discussed the state of the men's category, the role of magazines and his future plans, including his wish to be a TV talk-show host.

ADVERTISING AGE: So after last week's denials, you surprised us all.

MR. COOPER: Well I had been talking about this for a while. I brought it up two years ago.

AA: To Si?

MR. COOPER: No, to my wife. ... I talked to Si last summer about setting the date, about setting an exit strategy and he didn't want to discuss it at that point.

AA: Had it come up again before the Henry Johnson Fisher lifetime achievement award?

MR. COOPER: No, I didn't talk to him about it from last summer until Monday. ... Si was very sweet when we were talking and he said, "You've accomplished everything you possibly can. You've gotten every honor you can in this business," which is almost true. The only thing that has eluded us is the National Magazine Awards General Excellence award. We've gotten six nominations but we've never got the prize.

AA: What made you look at GQ, which was

The Jennifer Lopez 'GQ' cover. Click to see larger, full image.

then this small men's fashion magazine, and think I can make it the GQ it is today?

MR. COOPER: As I started my career, [Chris] Whittle and [Phil] Moffit bought Esquire from Clay Felker and turned it into a service magazine. On my first date in 1979 with Amy, who shortly thereafter became my wife [Art and Amy worked for Charter Communications, she as articles editor of Ladies' Home Journal and he as editor of Family Weekly], the talk was about what you wanted to do when you grew up. I said I would love to get my hands on GQ. If I could get that magazine, I could put Esquire out of business. The way it was going it had moved away from its franchise of irreverent humor and really, really good reporting and journalism. A year after we were married, Amy was hired by Si to be editor in chief of Mademoiselle. I was elated because our joint income soared, but also depressed because there was a company policy then that husbands and wives were not hired. So I figured that I could never, ever get GQ. A couple years after Amy was hired, I had gotten to know Si through Amy. It was Friday and there was a message on my desk that Si Newhouse called. We made an appointment to meet. I walked into his office and on the floor were a whole bunch of GQs. And he asked me what I thought. And I told him what I thought the magazine could be, and I got the job. So we made the world safe for Harry and Tina because we were the first married couple in here.

AA: You worked with former Esquire editor Harold Hayes at CBS after it acquired Family Weekly ...

MR. COOPER: I always looked to Harold as a mentor, because even though I never worked on his Esquire, believe me, I knew his Esquire better than Harold did. We spent a lot of time talking about it. When I left CBS to come over here, I took him to lunch and we had a five-hour lunch. I said, "I'm going to pick your brain, and I want to know particularly what mistakes you made." I probably learned more about magazines at that lunch than everything I had learned up to that point.

AA: What were some of your greatest mistakes?

MR. COOPER: My greatest mistake was not following my own instincts. There is nothing that I have ever published that I regret. What I regret is not doing some of the things that I should have done. When my gut said do this, go with that, allowing other people to talk me out of something. ... What an editor has to do is really follow his instincts. And by doing that you're taking

The 1988 Cary Grant 'GQ' cover is one of Mr. Cooper's favorites.

chances. But that's what this is all about, taking a risk and taking chances. Otherwise you're not going to accomplish anything.

AA: Is there one GQ cover you want to keep on your walls?

MR. COOPER: I love the J. Lo cover as one of the classic sexy covers we've ever done. I love the first time we had Pat Riley on the cover and it was an Avedon picture. I love the Cary Grant cover because it was last cover he ever did. It was '88 ... right before he died."

AA: There's this idea that women showing up on the cover of GQ is something you're doing to react to the Maxim's of the world. Has the number of women stepped up?

MR. COOPER: There would have been more women on the cover if I could really make the case that women sell better than men. Our biggest seller in the past three years was Vin Diesel, who was a nobody when we put him on the cover. It had more than a 65% sell through and the average sell through these days is 36%. The timing was right, the image was right, and he was the right person.

AA: In this age of Maxim, reality TV and the general crassness that seems to dominate the culture, what is the role for a magazine with the title Gentlemen's Quarterly?

MR. COOPER: I never thought I'd live to see the day when an editor is criticized for trying to do good work, trying to promote elegant writing and sound journalism, and sophisticated, classy fare in a magazine. To say, well if that's what he wants to do, he certainly is really out of place with the zeitgeist, since clearly what everyone wants is babes and boobs and bad jokes. I'm sorry, I don't agree with that at all. GQ has been the gold standard for what it does, and I hope it continues to be. I don't think everything should be mass. There is room in this culture for a very classy, sophisticated magazine for men that want to live that kind of life. At a party, a young [film] director came up to me, he said, "You are the one guy I wanted to meet at this party." He said, "I have been reading GQ for 15 years and I have read every issue for the past 15 years ... cover to cover and that magazine more than anything else taught me how to be a man." And well, that's what you want to hear. I do not think the editor of Maxim is ever going to hear that. Is there a place in the culture for GQ and what GQ does? Of course there is.

AA: You managed to survive the grunge movement of the '90s.

MR. COOPER: We never did anything on grunge. I hated it and said I'm not going to do it. With our long lead time, I felt if we were going to do something on it, it would be over by the time

The Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman 'GQ' cover. Click to see larger, full image.

we did. And I was right, it was. It will come back again. Everything comes back, but fortunately I won't be here to have to deal with it.

AA: What do you think the next editor of GQ needs to do?

MR. COOPER: I have no idea what direction Si and James [Truman, Conde Nast's editorial director] want to go in. Who the next editor is will determine a lot of that. I mean if it's an editor that comes from a laddie book that's one thing. But right now I have no idea.

AA: But what would you like the next chapter to be for GQ?

MR. COOPER: It should publish the kinds of reporting and journalism that we do. The magazine is successful on many fronts. But the one thing that has made me the happiest is the reputation we've got for the reporting and elegant writing and nurturing of writers. People like Alan Richman who came here from People and has turned into the best food writer in the world. Tom Junod who did great work here and then went over to Esquire. Liz Gilbert, Lucy Kaylin, Peter Richmond, Peter Mayle, turning James Ellroy into a magazine writer. The list goes on and on.

AA: Have you seen a change in what advertisers expect?

MR. COOPER: I always want as many pages as possible, because the more ad pages we get, the more editorial pages I get. But you work with your publisher to create as much as you can to help them. I've always felt an editor should do presentations and work with the publisher and I've done that my entire career. A lot of our advertisers are companies we also cover. I can have lunch with Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein and it's not just a PR lunch with the editor. I can find out what they think is going on in the fashion business and that's important. I'm almost a reporter in that case.

AA: Your anti-war remarks at the Henry Johnson Fisher caused a stir ...

MR. COOPER: Well, it didn't create a stir, except in the Murdoch press. We all know [Rupert] Murdoch would love to go to war now. What I was saying was really not that radical. I was concerned about Bush's headlong rush into this. I felt that was wrong. If there is a war, then this most secretive of administrations should not prevent the press from covering it. Now you've got a room full of press people. What stunned me was how many people in that room did not agree with me. They own magazines and publications, did they want the war not to be covered? Did they want to restrain their own reporters? And people were saying it was inappropriate at that place. Well, where is a better bully pulpit? Am I supposed to go to a book party at Elaine's and talk about it there? This is the audience you want to hear it.

AA: What are your plans post-GQ?

MR. COOPER: I'll do at least one book. But I've been thinking about it and you have to admit, I am much cuter than Tina Brown and I have a better voice. Aren't I made for TV?

AA: So American Idol?

MR. COOPER: (Laughs) OK, let's start with that.

AA: You're going to have your own talk show?

MR. COOPER: I'm waiting for somebody to call me on it.

AA: Who would be your first guest?

MR. COOPER: That's a good question. If I had a talk show and I had a whole hour to devote to one person, Si Newhouse.

AA: Really? Do you think he would ever do it?

MR. COOPER: No. (Laughs)

AA: What would be your opening question?

MR. COOPER: I wouldn't want to reveal that because it might happen. So if you print that, no one is going to tune in.

AA: OK, what would your second question be?

MR. COOPER: Why didn't you answer my first question?

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