Owen's premise is that "there's a big difference between possession and ownership." He was under the illusion that he owned American Health, Psychology Today, Mother Earth News, Smart and other magazines he started or acquired in the '80s. But he lost them all due to his own excesses and a downturn in the economy, and looking back he realizes he was only taking care of them for a short while, sort of like his license.
In a book Owen and an editor friend, Alfred Meyer, wrote together, chronicling the rise and fall (and resurrection) of the publishing enfant terrible, they pull no punches and spare nobody's feelings about what went wrong. The book, titled, "A Truant Disposition. Trust, Betrayal & Adventure in the Magazine Trade," hasn't been published yet; when it is it should cause at least as many ripples as Fortune's article on Steve Florio.
Here's what Owen says about his time in the publishing business. "The first time around, I thought I owned the magazines, which I did, but only in a legal and financial sense. It was not enough, in retrospect . . . During the last stint, I `owned' much less on paper, but became a hands-on editor. Then, for the first time, I felt as though I possessed the magazines truly, and they me. That recognition was both a revelation and a clarion call to move on, and right now. After all, I've lost much in my life. But I've also found much."
Owen and Alfred take turns writing chapters. In one, Alfred describes Owen's runaway initial success. American Health made him "a magazine luminary, a cafe society celebrity, a minor media star and a multimillionaire"-at least on paper.
He then bought Psychology Today and Mother Earth News. "On approaching the volatile late eighties, however, Owen launched another magazine, Smart. He now freely admits it was the dumbest move he ever made; dumb because it led to the collapse of his mini-empire. It forced him to sell American Health to the Reader's Digest Association for a fire-sale price," according to their manuscript.
In the fall of 1990, Owen was forced to stop publishing and lost about $10 million in the process-on top of another $10 million he lost on the Digest deal by not signing a binding agreement before the rest of his business turned south. "From one of publishing's Wunderkinds, he quickly became virtually its only black sheep, not counting Larry Flynt of Hustler, of course." He ended up flat broke, forced to stiff his employees out of their salaries.
"Yes, I have problems, I will have problems for the rest of my life," Owen told Advertising Age in 1991.
"It's astonishing to me that the media still find it interesting to talk about something that's so far in the past and so irrelevant in the present."
Maybe he hasn't had a whole lot to talk about for most of the decade, but now, in his own way, Owen Lipstein is back on the media scene.
This time he's producing Shakespeare-and finally getting favorable reviews. His friend Alfred Meyer suggested he build an open-air stage on his property along the Hudson River in the Catskills, so just 400 years after Shakespeare began building his own Globe Theatre, Owen last year announced his Shakespeare on the Hudson summer series.
All last week the cast performed "Romeo & Juliet" and July 24 through Aug. 9 they will present "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (call 1-877-2McDuff).
Owen's other project is what he calls an "incubator" for startup magazines. He's got three publications in mind, and the idea is to give fledgling magazines the care and feeding his own magazines never had a chance to get.
If he had it to do over again, Owen told me, "I would meld a little caution with my daring. I always had plenty of courage, but not as much judgment in trusting people.
"But I have no intention of driving off the road again."