Remembering Condé Nast’s Holiday Lunch: Fake Smiles, Blowouts, Social Terror

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The Four Seasons. Photo: Chris Goodney/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Back in my former, fancy life as the editor-in-chief of a Condé Nast fashion magazine, I spent a lot of time putting in command performances. Mostly they had to do with advertisers: lunching with them, accompanying them to black ties at the Waldorf (always the Waldorf), meeting with their offspring to discuss internships, which were always theirs for the asking. But there was one event, this one in-house, that loomed so far above the rest in terms of importance that it wasn’t even fair to put it in a league with the others. You would not dare claim a scheduling conflict: Heavy-stock “Save the Date” cards went out via interoffice mail months in advance. Editors whose magazines were based on the West Coast flew in for it. I cannot imagine a circumstance, barring labor or death of an immediate family member, that would have prevented anyone on the guest list from showing up. The holiday lunch was that important.

The holiday lunch was held, as it had been for years, at The Four Seasons, in a private dining room off the pool room, right before Si Newhouse, the company’s chairman, flew off to Europe to begin his winter vacation (in Vienna, always, for the opera). Many of the company’s senior executives attended, but it was most notable for being the only time all the editors-in-chief and publishers were in the same room at the same time the entire year, and was therefore employed as an opportunity to let the seating arrangement speak to one’s  —  and one’s title’s  —  current standing in the company.

This rendered the event the subject of a great deal of anticipation and fascination  —  not only among those of us in the room as we all strained to see how we’d made out in comparison to our rivals (and how others had made out in comparison to their rivals) but by the New York media world at large. The Post’s media columnist would always run a postmortem the next day that included enough surprisingly accurate details about what was said and done there to assume that at least one person in attendance had to be leaking choice bits. (At least I always assumed the leaks were multiple  —  everyone had an interest in making sure Keith Kelly shined his light kindly upon them, and sharing information about the lunch was a pretty low-stakes risk.) Still, the paper always managed to botch the seating chart, so one year, Condé Nast’s PR department started just sending it over so they’d get it right. Which only made sense, really. No other publishing company had a ritual that incited nearly so much fascination and chatter among media watchers.

Lip service would be paid each year by the bosses as to how irrelevant seating at the lunch was, but everyone knew better. How could that be when the boldface editors never failed to get prime spots? And why would there be a large poster board erected at the entrance to the room  —  comically, I always thought, as there was a place-card table rendering it redundant not three yards away  —  with a diagram of all the tables and its exact seating configuration, if we were we not supposed to take more than passing note of it? In fact, it was tough not to stand there and openly study it, as one might an oversize copy of one’s Oscars office pool.

The golden ring, of course, was a seat at Si’s table. The other two key tables were Steve Florio’s  —  he was the CEO  —  and editorial director James Truman’s. A place with one of the other top 11th-floor guys was nothing to be ashamed of for all but the most pathologically competitive among us. Anywhere in the front half of the room, really, was reason to not fear for your livelihood. But be seated in the back half  —  particularly if you were the editor of one of the bigger titles  —  meant that lunch couldn’t end soon enough.

Siberia didn’t necessarily mean trouble  —  somebody had to sit there. It definitely meant the Post was going to take note, though. But as long as at least one of your dining companions was a person you knew the company considered a valued player, you could console yourself that you were in decent company. Still, one never knew. You didn’t necessarily have to make your numbers every year to stay in favor at Condé Nast  —  that was a wonderful thing about being at a company that took the long view and valued creativity, which Condé Nast really did in those days  —  but if you weren’t making your numbers, Siberia meant that at the very least the 11th floor was watching.

I always anticipated the holiday lunch with dread. Sweating the seating was part of it, but the very least of it. Never was my inability to fully get it together as a member of the Condé Nast community more apparent to me than it was there. The expression “not a hair out of place” could quite literally have been invented to describe all the assembled women, and a great number of the men. I could show up with a manicure, a blowout, possibly even professional makeup, and still have regretted not making time for the eyebrow wax and oxygen facial. There was simply no way to ever feel polished enough.

And I had nothing that came even close to fitting the rather narrowly-defined-but-unspoken dress code for the occasion. The holiday lunch called for something that toed the rather tricky line between unimpeachably stylish and yet completely work-appropriate. Not a touch of sexiness; not precisely trendy, but, in the parlance of fashion caption copy, completely on-trend. This wasn’t so easy to pull off, and yet, these enviably composed women, in their sharp color-paneled Narciso Rodriguez sleeveless shifts that revealed (inevitably) perfectly toned arms; their military-themed YSL suits with just a touch of froufrou; their thoughtfully belted arty-corporate dresses from Marni — they managed it. Some came by their good style naturally; others paid stylists and personal shoppers to wheel rolling racks into their offices and endow them with it for a price. Either way, the effect was flawless. At home the night before, I would attempt to mimic them. And would almost invariably fall dramatically, hilariously, short.

I had plenty of clothes, but they were the wrong clothes. I relied far too heavily on the color black, which was viewed upon by upper-tier fashion editors as a sign of weakness and lack of imagination. I was allergic to belts and other finishing touches. I preferred a big flat boot to a sharp high one, a cardigan over a jacket, and a pair of dark tights over bare legs (which these ladies  —  all of whom I have long thought could handily survive a month in the frozen wilderness  —  routinely pulled off in any weather).

Some years, after emptying the entire contents of my closet onto my bed the night before and trying and retrying everything repeatedly, I would manage to compose an outfit I did not view as a complete humiliation. But most years I’d just throw myself at the mercy of the fashion closet. (I can not count the number of times the fashion closet  —  and its endless racks of designer samples; its embarrassment of handbags; its sub-closet of shoes  —  had saved my ass in similar circumstances. But there were many.)

And yet. Even with a passable outfit, even with a good table  —  and I’d always done reasonably well, always in the front half of the room  —  I was miserable. Because for me, the great misery of this event was the event itself. It was preceded by a cocktail hour, and this was the keenest source of my horror. I was being paid to display some mastery of the social graces. A reasonable demand, given the nature of my job. So I wanted to negotiate this moment with some degree of grace, and yet feared that I failed terribly. I could never understand why this was, and loathed this about myself and viewed it very much as my own shortcoming.

In my personal life, I could handle pretty much any room; in my previous professional life I’d never had any problem. I had interviewed celebrities and rock stars  —  some of whom I’d worshiped since adolescence  —  and had never been at a loss for words. Even after having to give up the handy social lubrication a few glasses of wine could provide, I found that I could chat up almost anyone. But in a room full of these colleagues or advertisers; whether at a work-related benefit, black tie, or perfume launch, I skied the bunny slope. Poorly.

This was one tough room — I always felt a distinct spirit of exclusion the moment I walked in the door. I could remind myself in advance of the handful of other editors I actually liked and would make a point of seeking them out, and that there were other corporate types who could be relied upon to fill a few anxiety-neutral minutes. But the rest of the time was a nerve-jangling reminder of the yawning gap between myself and the other people in the company; how much they thrived on this intense internal rivalry, and how much it ate away at me. I’d be certain to say hello to the other editors in my peer group, even my closest competitors, who always displayed a kind of glossy, well-calibrated warmth that for years I mistook for the real thing.

I was acutely aware that no matter how eager anyone was to talk to you, they were equally eager to move on to the next person, or whatever little power huddle they spied just beyond you. Indeed, they all seemed to possess unnaturally superior peripheral vision that rendered them capable of sizing up whoever was about to enter their field of vision without appearing to move even the faintest of facial muscles. Whether or not they’d turned to look at you at all as you walked past was no indication of whether they’d seen you. Whether you’d been snubbed was a question best left to ponder on the ride back to the office.

On a normal year, this was all too dispiriting to contemplate. This year  —  it was December 2003, and I was in a depression so thick and so resistant to medication that I felt less hopeful of a cure by the day  —  the very thought of it flattened me. In some respects, the distastefulness of the event couldn’t help but be diminished in the wake of my current state of mind: whether or not I would be ignored on the way to the bar for my Pellegrino-and-lime scarcely mattered when it was a struggle to even contemplate getting across that room. I could barely bear to be around my closest friends at this time, and was in the habit of retreating up to my bedroom when my husband and I had guests over, because the pressure of trying to engage in normal conversation was just too much to stand. When we visited my mother’s house with my brothers and their families for Sunday dinner, everyone would head to the living room after arriving, and I’d take my coat off and slide directly off to the guest bedroom and get under the covers. How I’d carry on even the simplest conversation with my professional peers when I could barely manage such a thing with my best friends and closest family members was the central concern.

Predictably, the morning of the lunch found me in a very dark place: the task of getting out of bed had become, in those days, challenging on a level that felt almost physical. Bed was the only place I felt safe; the only place my life knew any grace, and trying to get out of it was an especially ugly undertaking on those days when I knew I had no other option but to do so. I laid there with the dog curled up close  —  unlike the humans who surrounded and worried over me, she wasn’t the least bit concerned over the amount of time I spent in bed; she’d prefer if I stayed there all day. Her look of alarm when I did get up was so impossibly sweet, and so much more appealing than anything the day had on offer, that I’d often lose what tiny bit of resolve I’d managed to muster and just crawl right back under the sheets and hang on to her for dear life, like she was my blankie.

Eventually I slunk off to the shower and got on with things. Because the odds were actually quite good that I’d be seated at Si’s table  —  the magazine had had a pretty excellent year, not that I’d allowed myself to enjoy a minute of it  —  I’d gotten a reasonably suitable outfit together the night before: a skinny bouclé skirt suit that looked retro-y and cool and kind of French and expensive even though it was DKNY; Prada Mary Janes that might ideally been some color other than black, given that the suit was brown, but kind of worked anyway; and a top that probably wasn’t entirely right, but that the fashion closet would be able to fix if the editors I polled for a reaction deemed that it wasn’t. Under the circumstances, I was not entirely displeased with my efforts at styling.

The morning passed like sludge. I read pages without concentrating, left them on the desk to approve later. The half hour before I was scheduled to leave saw me sitting in the office with my door closed, staring down the sofa and willing myself not to cross the room, lay down and feel the wave of relief that I knew simply closing my eyes would bring. But getting up once I did would have required a more heroic effort than I had in me.

I was pretty sure there’d be some stale cigarettes under my bathroom sink, and was wildly tempted, but stopped myself: I was just two weeks out from surgery to remove a minuscule but quite definitely malignant growth in my left breast, and its discovery had propelled me to kick the habit I’d picked up again when the depression entered its current, brutal phase. Plus, practically speaking, it would not do to reek of tobacco today. So I swiveled my chair away from the desk, crossed my arms around myself and bent over with my head in my lap for a while, hoping to gain just a nominal amount of relief from the unbearable ache in my chest that was the constant companion to my sadness.

Eventually my assistant knocked on the door to give me the five-minute warning. I stood up, checked myself in the mirror, dotted some concealer on my puffy eyes  —  by then I was only ever two or three hours away from my last or next crying jag  —  applied something bright to my lips and cheeks, and headed downstairs.

By the time I got to the 43rd Street entrance there were only a few town cars left. Everyone was either on their way over or already there. Most years, I aimed to time my arrival for the last 15 minutes of cocktail hour  —  just respectful enough, not a second longer  —  but I was pushing it today. As the car crept up 52nd Street, I tried to comfort myself with the thought that the anticipation of certain events is almost never as bad as the event itself — I generally believe this to be true, but today the words washed over me like so much noise.

By the time I arrived, the room was completely full, as I’d figured it would be. My plan was to proceed to the bar immediately, without making eye contact with anyone  —  just quickly get some sense of the room and how I’d manage it. This immediately proved impossible, however: from the moment I entered, a variety of other guests, were giving me air kisses, patting me on the back, congratulating me on my year. Everywhere I turned, it seemed, was somebody who wanted to say hi, to put in a kind word. Publishers who’d never thought to do more than say a quick hello now lingered to chat for a moment. The room opened itself up to me in a different way. Lucky’s stock at Condé Nast had risen to the point where nobody could ignore its success, and this seemed to have earned me a few points toward membership at the holiday lunch.

It was torture. For each person who came by to offer the same hello, the same congratulations, I had to manufacture the same smile (could they see horrible effort it required? I was certain they could) to repeat the same thanks, to make the same pale attempt at small talk. I felt paralyzed.

Eventually I made my way over to the place card table and opened the envelope with my name on it. Table 1. Which could only mean one thing. I went to the poster board. There I was. Right next to Si.

I felt punchy with fear and excitement. This was a very good moment, a very big moment, and certainly one I’d never banked on having any version of, even five years ago. How weird life was! I might have hated the holiday lunch, but I knew what an honor it was to have made it to this room; what it meant to have been given this magazine. What a wild thing it was that Lucky was such a success. And of course I wasn’t so entirely uncompetitive as to not to be happy at the thought of how much this would displease my rivals.

And then, in a second, all that excitement, and the sliver of happiness it generated, was gone. Just like every other moment when I tried to truly feel proud of what I’d done at Lucky, or to feel any joy it might generate. It existed at a distance from me now, on the other side of a thick, glassy wall. All I was left with was a walloping dose of fear. The other side of the reality  —  that I would now have to actually engage in a couple of hours’ worth of conversation with Si  —  had kicked in.

I did my best. I ate enough of my chicken pot pie to not appear as though I had an eating disorder and attempted to engage my boss on a variety of topics, but in the end just had to give in and let his other dining partner take over. She was an editor-in-chief of roughly my age, the protégé of a very spit-and-polish member of the Condé Nast community, impeccably dressed on all occasions and so far my superior in this sort of endeavor that it wasn’t even fair to have us attempt to charm an important person at the same time. I had seen her in action before and she was unstoppable. So I engaged the person to my left, the publisher of one of the company’s biggest titles. He was exceptionally affable  —  the best publishers are gifted in their ability to talk to anyone. It was like scaling a mountain, but it was the far simpler of the two propositions.

The way it worked, generally, was that nobody left before Si did, and then pretty much everyone left immediately, except for a few stragglers who stayed behind for bourbon and cigars. I couldn’t get out of there soon enough. I negotiated the logjam at coat check as gracefully as I could and dashed to the car.

I felt taxed beyond belief, and recalled something I’d overheard once. I was doing a story for Spin and was on a chartered jet that was on the runway in Oslo, about to take off for Paris, with a rock star and her entourage. The publicist was saying that her sister was terrified of flying, and that at the end of every flight, she was exhausted from the pure exertion of keeping the plane in the air.

I would return to that notion again and again during that horrible time; when I was in meetings, or out with family, when friends came over to visit. Maybe at some boutique, trying on clothes and having to deal with a chatty shop girl. Really, just being in the world of human interaction, having to show up and exist. When you’re not depressed, all of this is as simple as breathing air. When you are, there is no greater trial, nothing more downright bone-wearying, than keeping the plane in the air.

The next day, when I arrived at work, the Post was waiting for me along with all of the local papers, stacked neatly on my desk. I flipped right to Keith Kelly’s column, saw the layout they did every year of the seating chart, with my disembodied head floating on the page right next to Si’s, and skipped ahead to the accompanying copy, which read: “Few were surprised to see Lucky editor-in-chief Kim France at Si’s left hand.” I read it again. I couldn’t ask for much better than this, and in truth I wasn’t displeased. Here, in print, was hard evidence that I had succeeded  —  at something big, even. But as for the feeling of outsize triumph I might have expected myself to experience, that eluded me entirely. Instead, I felt a huge emptiness, one that I would refuse for years to acknowledge had anything to do with the job itself. Being the editor of a fashion magazine was never my dream, and it’s the type of job that should only belong to somebody who’s never wanted anything else. I wished, not for the first time, that this was all happening to somebody else  —  not quite realizing that that wish, too, would come true soon enough.

This essay was originally published on Medium.com.

Condé Nast’s Holiday Lunch: Fake Smiles and Social Terror