Nicholas Coleridge once worked out that he had eaten at the storied London restaurant Le Caprice 560 times, but had never read to the bottom of the menu. He eats the same thing almost every time — a duck and watercress salad — because he believes the point of lunch is not the food, it is “to buy 70 uninterrupted minutes of my guest’s time”.
Coleridge, the urbane nabob of the Condé Nast empire, has published his deliriously entertaining life story The Glossy Years: Magazines, Museums and Selective Memoirs (Fig Tree) which chronicles the three golden decades of the industry, from the ’80s until the advent of the digital age.
He led a starred life in a starry world, and though it is hardly a rags-to-riches story — he was Eton- and Cambridge-educated — he was a good journalist first and a Savile Row suit second. He’s also a best-selling novelist in his own right, and chairman of the V&A Museum.
The rarefied, empyreal world of magazines often bordered on the mad. With a keen eye for anecdote, Coleridge writes, for instance, about Isabella Blow, the fashion director of Tatler and “a key voyager in the darker fens of fashion. She frequently wore a hat with a giant pink lobster on top, a corset or medieval armour”. One night she arrived at a dinner wearing a full black burqa, with a veiled slit for her eyes, and a pair of stag’s antlers on top. “I asked, ‘Issie, are you going to be able to eat anything under that?’ ‘I’m not here to eat’ came her muffled reply.” Tragically, Blow eventually died by suicide.
Coleridge had himself started as a junior journalist on Tatler under the valkyrie Tina Brown, who would go on to reinvent Vanity Fair. One of his jobs was to secretly flog review copies of art books to a secondhand dealer. The cash would be slipped to Julian Barnes, then the magazine’s restaurant critic, to pay for his meals.
Coleridge’s first taste of royalty came when he disguised himself and snuck into the “chauffeur’s party” in Windsor Castle, held for the drivers of the guests attending Prince Andrew’s 21st birthday party. He picked up enough gossip from them to fill a column for his newspaper.
Cut to a day in 1991, when Princess Diana was dropping in to a supposedly clandestine lunch at Vogue House. She was, he says, unexpectedly tactile, touching his arm, covering his hand with hers, and speaking with a disarming frankness. She told him that William had called her from Eton. “‘Poor boy, he’s only fourteen. Some of the other boys were teasing him, saying my tits are too small.’ She held on to my elbow. ‘Nicholas, I want to know your real view. Are my breasts too small?’” He blushingly reassured her and then walked her to her car, where a handful of paparazzi leapt out. He discovered that she had tipped them off herself to her whereabouts.
Now, he and Prince Charles work closely on such projects as the Campaign for Wool, which encourages designers and buyers to choose wool. The individual butter pats at dinner at Clarence House, Coleridge reports, are embossed with the prince’s feathers.
In Vogue House, where magazines occupied their own floors, the drama was endless. A Tatler editor running to throw herself out of the window when he fired her; a staffer’s dachshund called Alan Plumptre crushed to death in the famous revolving door; the GQ editor who died, high on drugs and drink, in the bed of a prostitute.
John Travolta pilots himself to a GQ awards ceremony, but his “toupée assistant” flies separately with the star’s wigs as hand luggage. Philip Green and Mohamed al Fayed are repellingly awful.
Now retired from Condé Nast, Coleridge glosses over contentious issues, such as the industry’s lack of racial and social diversity and the size of models. And one expects more analysis of the freefall of magazines other than a comment about former readers staring “Moonie-like” at smartphones.
He’s convinced that stronger magazines will survive in print for many years to come.
“So far, nobody has invented a digital way to replicate the gloss and sheen of the printed glossy,” he writes, “or the way that ink shimmers on the page, like moonlight on the surface of a lake.”
Still, he admits that the glossy years of magazines are gone. My, that was fun while it lasted.
• This book is available on Kindle.
• From the April issue of Wanted 2020.