With 'Cargo' Closed, the Truman Era Comes to an End

All That's Left of the Wunderkind's Legacy Is a Cafeteria

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Oh, gosh, this is a bit awkward: Just as James Truman is ramping up at his new job -- as editorial czar of the boutique art-mag publisher behind Art&Auction and Modern Painters -- he has to endure one more nail in the coffin of his Conde Nast-era reputation: the death of Cargo, the insipid men's shopping magazine.

Cargo, of course, was part of Truman's legacy as Conde's editorial director, where, during the early days of his long tenure (1994-2005), he was mostly famous for seemingly not doing much. (Architectural Digest Editor Paige Rense joked early on that if Truman actually tried to supervise her, she'd give him "a good spanking.") And so he served mainly as Conde Chairman S.I. Newhouse's million-dollar (two mil in the end) consigliere. Truman landed that gig because, as editor of Details from 1990 to 1994, he helped transform the scrappy, stylish, Manhattan indie title it was when Newhouse bought it into a (briefly) fast-growing national men's glossy. Truman, a Sex Pistols fan from Nottingham, England, was Newhouse's link to youth culture.

As editorial director, his first notable accomplishment, years into the job, was overseeing the interior design of Conde HQ: clinical, blue-gray partitions and sliding office doors -- dental office chic -- and the Frank Gehry cafeteria. At the same time, he hired Bonnie Fuller from Cosmo to dumb down Glamour -- only to end up firing her. And he panicked during the great lad-mag scare of the '90s, hiring Mark Golin from Maxim to replace Details Editor Michael Caruso, who had replaced Joe Dolce, who had replaced John Leland -- a cluelessly farcical game of musical chairs which signaled that Truman's early success had possibly been just dumb luck. And then Details got handed to another division. (Full disclosure: I'm a contributing editor at the current incarnation of Details, which was reabsorbed into Conde Nast post-Truman.)

He also presided over other stuff, like the launch and closure of Sports for Women. And the dumbing-down of Mademoiselle (the venerable 66-year-old monthly that once published Truman Capote and William Faulkner) -- and then its closure. And the $80 mil purchase of Wired -- but not, astonishingly, wired.com, which continues to be owned by Lycos. And, of course, the launch of Lucky -- the blockbuster shopping title -- which was followed by Cargo and Domino.

I've written in the past about how Lucky and its imitators represented the "soul death" of the American magazine industry. And I really feared that Truman, in vulgarizing Conde to pander to Attention Deficit Disordered shopaholics with no time for extravagances like paragraphs and narrative, had ruined magazines.

But now that Truman's gone, and Cargo is dead and buried, it's become increasingly clear that with Lucky, he may have had just a touch more of the sort of one-off luck he had with early Details. His Big Idea was actually a pretty small idea that was made (surprisingly) good by incredibly effective Lucky editor Kim France -- which is why Lucky's imitators (like Hearst's Shop Etc.) haven't exactly set the world on fire.

Truman, arguably, was just doing what he had to do at newly profit-conscious Conde. But in being so erratic and baldly consumerist, he betrayed the core brand values of the company; he forgot that Conde Nast was supposed to rise above it all. Other publishers were expected to grovel, to cheapen themselves, but not Conde.

Post-Truman, under his successor Tom Wallace, Conde Nast is back, mostly, to focusing on what it does best: presenting all-around gorgeousness and often brilliant editorial, thereby offering the coolest possible environment for ads. (Tone-deaf Cargo always seemed less cool than its ads. Advertisers figured out the limitations of a magazine that existed mostly to suck up to them. In the end, it's embarrassing to be seen hanging out with a suck-up.)

Truman, you may recall, tried to redeem his legacy in his final days at Conde by pitching a fine-art magazine. In light of that, it's poignant to reminisce about his predecessor, the visionary Alexander Liberman, who commissioned projects by the likes of Chagall and Duchamp for Conde titles, and was himself a painter, photographer and sculptor whose works are in the permanent collections of the Met and the Tate. (To Truman's credit, before him there had probably never been a man who could make both Alexander Liberman and Sid Vicious spin in their graves.)

Anyway, Newhouse said no to the art mag. So Truman quit. And at the time, he uttered these famous last words -- tinged with classic Trumanesque faux self-awareness -- to New York Magazine: "I was somewhat fearful of how it would play in real life, with a scent strip next to the Goya painting, and advertorials of young artists wearing expensive wristwatches."

Um, yeah.

The Media Guy's column appears weekly on AdAge.com and in the print edition of Advertising Age. E-mail him at [email protected]

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