mccarthy

The McCarthy Era

Patrick McCarthy, newly anointed boss of Women's Wear Daily and W, learned everything he knows from his gifted, capricious, spiteful mentor, John Fairchild. And the fashion world wonders, Is the new boss the same as the old boss?

By Michael Gross
Originally published in the August 4, 1997 issue of New York Magazine

HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD AND SEVENTH AVENUE cross at the annual AIDS Project Los Angeles fund-raiser, held last month at the Santa Monica airport. After cocktails and a fashion show, some 1,100 boldfaced names (Uma, Salma, Demi) and fashion figures (Tilberis, Talley, Truman) flowed into a giant dinner tent to honor Gucci’s Tom Ford. Ford was seated at the center of the room, along with Jack Nicholson, Ellen Barkin, Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Rosanna Arquette, Geena Davis, and Renny Harlin. Not everyone at the table was so recognizable, though. Take. the guy with the wry baby face, blackIrish Dennis the Menace hair, shrewd smile, and braying laugh. He sat next to Barkin, bantering over the sea bass in a voice that slid from glissando to glib confidence. “Can a long thin thing like me be a fashion model?” she teased.

“No, no, no!” he cried.

Nicholson barely noticed him. But the fashion flock did. His name is Patrick McCarthy, and this spring, he became chairman of New York’s Fairchild Publications, publisher of Women’s Wear Daily and W, the two most powerful publications covering the multi-billion-dollar international fashion industries. He’s survived two decades of what some would call apprenticeship-others would call it hazing-to succeed the legendarily fearsome John Fairchild as the scariest man in fashionable society.

“Patrick understands it, and he lives it,” says Fairchild, who chose him. “It’s his life, and it’s sensational to find somebody like that.” So meet the new boss. And come along as fashion has a moment, wondering-and worrying-if he’ll be the same as the old boss.

Arbitrary. Capricious. Vindictive. Petty. John Fairchild has been called many names since he took over Women’s Wear Daily (now called WWD) back in 1960. His pit-bull fights with designers and socialites are legendary, sometimes overshadowing his considerable journalistic achievements. Writing a column as the Hungarian countess Louise J. Esterhazy, he’s also one of fashion’s most acerbic observers. And for the past 22 years, McCarthy has been Fairchild’s star pupil. What outsiders saw as capriciousness, “internally we saw as his genius,” McCarthy says. He’s amused Mr. Fairchild, dressed like him, talked like him, collected the scurrilous gossip he loves, fought his battles, and,-in exchange for these services, learned everything from him.

And at times, he has seemed to be doing his job just like his predecessor, going overboard for favorites (“Talent,” McCarthy says, “that’s what we go with. It’s Mr. Fairchild’s legacy”) and trashing those who displease him. When the Wall Street journal broke the 1994 story of a government investigation of model rates, and Fern Mallis, the executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, was quoted in it, McCarthy apparently held her responsible for WWD’s not having it first-even though she wasn’t the paper’s source-and soon enough ran a particularly negative profile of her. The chill continues. “I hope not forever,” she says.

“People never, never, never understood [Fairchild's] theory,” McCarthy says. “WWD kicks everybody in the balls eventually.” In other ways, however, he has broken his mentor’s mold. In his years as the firm’s No. 2, McCarthy expanded WWD’s traditional designer-centric focus to encompass the beauty business, fashionable media, and mass-market clothing; rid the gossip pages and fashion reviews of their recklessly vicious edge; and remade the multisectioned broadsheet W, which celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary this month, into an oversize, news-driven fashion-and-lifestyle magazine stuffed with provocative fashion pages and writing that can be both journalistic and incisive. He and a core group of young Fairchild editors have raised production values at Fairchild’s once notoriously cheap publications. Fern Mallis notwithstanding, McCarthy has also ended most of Fairchild’s famous feuds. From Cristobal Balenciaga in the fifties to Mollie Parnis and Geoffrey Beene in the sixties to Giorgio Armani in the seventies and a pantheon of greats ranging from Azzedine Alaia to Yves Saint Laurent in the eighties, Fairchild fought with them all at one point or another, whenever he felt they’d failed to give WWD its due as the Voice of Fashion.

In the McCarthy Era, that sort of feuding is as Out as those designers were when they were cast into the Fairchild gulag. “When things got childish, [McCarthy] would be fair,” says editor Katherine Betts, who left WWD for Vogue. McCarthy’s admirers are as legion as Fairchild’s many enemies; even WWD defectors praise him. Designers are even more fulsome. “He has wit, great talent, and is a marvelous friend,” says Karl Lagerfeld. Adds Giorgio Armani, “Patrick understands the difference between the obvious and the truly refined, and it’s a subject on which he can be quite funny. For some people in the social or fashion world,- it makes him quite dangerous.” Donna Karan feigns anger that McCarthy doesn’t wear her suits but has high praise for W, which she describes as “a brilliant publication.”

“Patrick understands what is the fashion of today,” says Pierre Berge, chairman of Yves Saint Laurent. “The time of haute couture is completely over. It’s another time. It’s not my time. It’s not John Fairchild’s time. Surely not. It’s Patrick’s time.”

* * *

W’S OFTEN RAUCOUS STAFF meetings are held in a conference room lined with green-and-ecru awningstriped sofas. In June, Mark Ganem, the deputy editor, was walking the group through the last details for the anniversary issue before turning to plans for September and October. Someone asked about a story on insulin. “We killed it,” Ganem said. “Because it was incomprehensible,” McCarthy added. “That’s collagen,” beauty editor Dana Wood corrected him. “Insulin, collagen, I’m sorry,” McCarthy pleaded.

As entertainment editor Merle Ginsberg joined in via speakerphone, the group turned to the movie business. “Gary Oldman?” McCarthy asked. Ginsberg snapped, “I’d like to take a gun and kill him,” and started ranting about his P.R. man and manager. McCarthy killed the story instead: “He’s not worth it. Move on.”

“Louise?” McCarthy asked a few minutes later.

“Louise has chosen to write about Lysol this month,” said an editor.

“Yes,” McCarthy said primly. “I spoke to Louise. I had no reaction. Louise doesn’t like no reaction. He said it’s gonna be funny! Louise is getting another Legion d’honneur. I said, `You have one.’ He said, `I have the one they give cupcake manufacturers. I’m getting the other one.’ Good line.” Then he turned to me. “You know who Louise is, don’t you?”

* * *

TO KNOW MCCARTHY, YOU must first understand his mentor. But that task can confound. “You’re asking, `Who is Charles Foster Kane?’ ” says James Brady, WWD’s sixties publisher turned novelist. “I can’t tell you.”

The clues are contradictory. Although McCarthy and Fairchild CEO Michael Coady (and until recently Fairchild) all have private offices, they are usually found at desks in the newsroom. But under Fairchild, at least, that newsroom resembled Mount Olympus, where Zeus shone like a sun on those in favor and tosses thunderbolts at those who displease. “You were always being rated,” says an ex-employee. “Nothing was better than being in the glow, and then he’d take it away and it was awful.” In an incident that’s become legend, one editor was fired by Fairchild as they rode an elevator to a fashion show. When she got back to her office, her replacement was already at her desk.

Humiliation and ridicule were nothing new. Forty years earlier, Louis Fairchild, John’s father, posted his son’s stories on a bulletin board at the office, annotated with critical comments. “He thought he was making John a better man,” says a longtime observer of the family. “It ricocheted.” Barbed teasing remains the order of the day. “Shall we tell Michael Pete’s nickname?” McCarthy says, walking past the desk of WWD’s beauty-business expert, Pete Born. Born cringes and colors as McCarthy rushes by “It’s Uncle Peaches.” McCarthy’s laugh cuts across the office, and as heads bob up out of cubicles, he continues: “I gave it to him. And he loathes it!”

Corporate cultures are often described as dysfunctional families, but Fairchild’s was more familial-and more dysfunctional-than most. Though he already had a wife and four children, Fairchild regularly “adopted” favored staff members, giving them roles that blurred the line between child and protege. “It was very familial, for good and ill,” says Ben Brantley, the chief drama critic of the New York Times, once WWD’s Paris-bureau chief. “You were protected, but there could also be a sense of betrayal.”

“John Fairchild cultivated a very personal dynamic,” says one writer. “You lived for the guy because you loved him. It’s seductive and enticing. But there was also something sinister about it. There were no boundaries. It was hurtful because they act like it’s a family, it shouldn’t be, and then it’s not.”

Michael Coady thinks Fairchild saw himself in his proteges: “He liked the idea of being surrounded by attractive people in his own image.” Others have it that Fairchild’s favorites completed him, and Fairchild himself seems to agree. “Patrick is much more aggressive than I am, much more gregarious than I am,” he says. “He’s not rooted in family life. He is much more comfortable with designers than I ever was.”

“Mr. Fairchild and I are friends, but it’s not that easy a professional relationship,” McCarthy says. “It’s paternal; it’s not paternal. It’s about, first and foremost, getting the story. If I didn’t get the story I was history. With your father, whatever happens and however you screw up, he’s still your father. That’s not the case with Mr. Fairchild.” And although Mr. Fairchild may have retired, Louise hasn’t. She’s still writing for W. (“I’m the only one who gets my copy in on time!” Fairchild crows.) “Louise hovers over Patrick like a ghost in the attic,” says someone who knows them both.

McCarthy is by all accounts married to his work. “It’s like, `What private life?”‘ says his friend the columnist Billy Norwich. Like Norwich, McCarthy’s other intimates are either fellow Fairchildren or else peers in fashionable society. In New York, his circle includes Blaine Trump and Pat Buckley (with whom he plays bridge every Wednesday); designers Carolina Herrera and Calvin Klein; Gabriella Forte, who’s Klein’s right hand; hotelier Ian Schrager; and fashion flack Paul Wilmot. In Europe, where his rise at Fairchild began, he is especially close to designers Lagerfeld and Armani, Chanel couture director joy Henderiks, and Balmain’s Georgina Brandolini. “You don’t fool Patrick,” Brandolini says. “He won’t be friends with people who pursue him because of who he is.”

Despite his swarming exterior, McCarthy is contained; he never reveals himself-a rarity in fashion. “My private life is my private life, and I prefer to keep it that way,” he says simply. “He’s not aloof, not distant, but quite calm,” says Henderiks. “Very often he doesn’t say what he thinks. He asks questions. He has a mind like a computer. He listens and the next day he has it all, with many more details than he heard at dinner. There’s a lot he knows and will never print.”

* * *

JOHN FAIRCHILD SAYS HE’D BEEN trying to quit his job since 1968. But it wasn’t until fall 1996, a year after Fairchild’s owner, Capital Cities/ABC, was annexed by Disney’s Magic Kingdom, that he first talked retirement. He also says he’s never had a contract, but he signed one in ’68 with a ten-year term (later extended) to serve as Fairchild’s CEO.

Fairchild’s carefully orchestrated departure began, symbolically enough, with his absence from January’s couture shows. Fairchild had already let McCarthy in on his secret. “I couldn’t believe it,” McCarthysays. “I love Mr. Fairchild; I really do. And he created me. So I was very sad that day. Very sad. I, of course, said, `You’re going to still write Louise, aren’t you?’ Because the one thing he is proudest of is his writing.” He stayed away from the couture, McCarthy continues, “because he wanted the light to shine on me.”

While the fashion world was in Paris, the announcement was made that McCarthy was taking over, effective in March. But two weeks later, on January 28, Disney announced its plan to sell, swap, or otherwise dispose of almost all its publishing properties, including dozens of newspapers, Institutional Investor, and Fairchild. McCarthy got the news in a C A.M. summons to an S A.M. meeting for the heads of the affected properties. “It looked like I would never actually be chairman,” he admits. “People said, `Gee, that was quick.’”

Nine days of anguish followed, “because there’s lots of people in this world you don’t want to work for,” McCarthy says. “And they’re a fussy bunch out there,” he adds, gesturing toward the newsroom. The magazine market is volatile; W’s stars might jump ship. “And the rumors were daily,” McCarthy says. “Five times daily! But the numbers looked great. So if you had to be sold, this was the time.”

After a week, Disney did an about-face; it was hanging on to Fairchild and folding in Los Angeles, the troubled city magazine. What happened? “I believe they never intended to sell,” says McCarthy. “They put out the package because that was how the bankers wanted it. The bankers want to put you into play. But they realized the people cost was too great.” The explanation from McCarthy’s boss, ABC president Bob Iger, is similar. “We hedged slightly” he says. “We announced that we were selling all or some of our publishing properties. In the back of our minds, we never intended to sell Fairchild, but we thought it bad form to say that immediately. In retrospect, we could have been more sensitive.”

Rumors flew: Disney didn’t know Fairchild’s value, and once it realized, it pulled Fairchild off the market. John Fairchild called his friend Sid Bass, a Disney investor, and persuaded him to make an appeal to its chairman, Michael Eisner.. Most intriguing, maybe Disney didn’t really plan to keep Fairchild but rather wanted to build it into a force in consumer magazines and eventually trade it away, perhaps to the Hearst Corporation, in exchange for Hearst’s 20 percent of the cable cash cow ESPN or its one-third share of Lifetime. (Disney owns the rest of ESPN but only a third of Lifetime.)

Iger admits that such a swap was explored, but the discussions with Hearst ended with a firm rejection of Disney’s proposal. Which doesn’t mean the idea is dead. “Hearst is not the only company we spoke with,” Iger hints. And sometimes, people change their minds. (A spokesman for Hearst declined to comment.)

* * *

THE MORNING OF THE GUCCI GALA, McCarthy visits Los Angeles magazine, then wheels a rented Mustang ragtop to lunch at Ivy at the Shore in Santa Monica. He wears a very unbeachlike suit, a tie, and brown cap-toe oxfords, just like John Fairchild’s. He stares longingly at the beach for a moment.

Settling in with a salad, McCarthy reminisces about growing up Irish Catholic in the Boston suburbs of Dedham and Wellesley. “Very uneventful,” he says. His father was a lawyer. “Straightforward, pretty difficult, straight-arrow. If he’d chosen my life for me, this wouldn’t be it. My mother did-how do you say this delicately in 1997? — nothing!”

Early on, McCarthy craved urban glamour-the “higher existence” he saw in old movies. “To this day, I’m searching for the New York penthouse,” he says. At Boston University in the early seventies, he studied history. McCarthy howls and starts to stutter when asked about sex, drugs, and rock and roll. “I liked rock and roll! 1 never touched drugs! I was part of my age, of course, you know? I did rock and roll. Of course I did. I grew my hair long. It looked grotesque. I wore bell-bottoms. I mean, I did, you know, you know-I did it all.” I offer him an out: Was he a protester? “I was a little bit into the anti-war movement … as everybody was,” he admits, then retreats. “A Tittle, not much.”

After graduating in 1973, he bummed around Europe on a Eurail pass. Europe represented freedom, cultivation, knowledge, experience, and glamour. Afterward, he applied to journalism school. “I was one of those kids who read Esquire when I was 16, who knew about Willie Morns at Harper’s,” he says. Admitted to Stanford, he was a grind. He had his first byline with a story in the Stanford Daily about a children’s cancer ward. “I spent a week with children dying of cancer,” he recalls. “So horrible. They were all bald. It was the saddest thing I’ve ever done. And they put it on page 1, and I thought, `Ahhh! I will never have that feeling again.’”

That was a serious story. “I’ve always been serious,” he claims. “I mean, one frolics, but I’ve always been work-oriented; I get defined by my work. I probably think about work more than anything else in my life. I was goal-oriented when I was 10.” His voice turns serious. “I think my father did that to me.”

A friend arranged an introduction to Steve Stoneburn, head of the Fairchild News Service (FNS), then one of the largest specialized news services in the world. It primarily fed Fairchild Publishing, which put out about 30 trade newspapers, Women’s Wear Daily among them.

Fairchild was founded in Chicago in 1890 by Edmund Fairchild, the son of a Dutch Reform minister from Flushing, New York. He’d partnered up with a fellow he met in a rooming house, a printer who owned newspapers that covered grocery stores and men’s clothing. Edmund and a brother bought out the printer and moved home to New York. Women’s Wear began life as a single page in the Saturday edition of Daily News Record, another publication they owned, which covered men’s and children’s fashion. In 1924, Edmund’s son Louis joined the company after graduating from Princeton. Three years later, Louis’s son John Burr was born. He followed his father to Princeton and in 1951 joined the family firm. In 1955, he found his forte as head of WWD’s Paris bureau.

Fairchild thrived by putting journalism’s agenda ahead of fashion’s. When designers snubbed Women’s Wear, or barred it from their showings-it was, after all, just an American trade ragFairchild fought back, disguising reporters as messengers and placing sketch artists in windows overlooking design rooms, in order to be the first to reveal new styles. Ever since, being first in fashion has always been WWD’s priority.

Fairchild and his correspondents also covered fashion customers, the places they went, and what they did; to be truly fashionable, you had to be photographed by the “Eye,” WWD’s gossip page. Soon the people Fairchild covered-powerful, rich, celebrated people-were petrified of him. His penchant for panning collections, punishing uncooperative designers, printing nasty gossip, and lionizing some ladies while lambasting others (Britain’s Princess Margaret was nicknamed Her Drear; others were airbrushed out of photographs) began in Paris and won him the sobriquet Unfairchild. But it obviously impressed his father. “From the moment he started,” the dapper, brolly-toting Louis Fairchild said, “he stirred things up.”

Louis made his cherubic son publisher of WWD in 1960, editor-in-chief in 1964, and president of Fairchild in 1966. Still, John wasn’t free; other family members were always breathing down his neck. So in 1968, he engineered the company’s sale to Capital Cities, a small, well-run owner of television and radio stations. He’d come up with the idea for W, and his family was “deadly opposed to the idea,” he says. “Everybody in the family ridiculed me.” The sale left him in charge. He launched W in 1972.

* * *

McCARTHY ISN’T HAPPY WITH HIS SALAD — it isn’t the one he wanted. But he eats it anyway and is delighted, in a low-key way, that Charlie Sheen is at the bar as he does. It’s another reminder that he’s come a long way from his first job in Fairchild’s bureau in Washington, D.C. He took it because he knew that FNS had offices in Europe; he was desperate to go back. Within days, he’d moved into a motel near Dupont Circle and started writing. He covered legislation, congressional committees, and the Federal Power Commission for Fairchild publications like Electronic News, Energy User News, and Supermarket News. “The notion is that if you can cover the SEC, then you can cover the wealth of the nation, the style and the privilege that come with the acumen that accumulates wealth and power,” says Susan Watters, Fairchild’s Washington-bureau chief. Women’s Wear had its own writers in Washington, so there were no dinners at Kay Graham’s for McCarthy. Still, he did learn that most people took his call when he mentioned WWD. “You didn’t get into Metalworking News,” he jokes.

McCarthy’s best friend in Washington was a young lawyer, Laughlin Barker, who later became the lover of the designer Perry Ellis as well as president of his company. “Laughlin had spent his Navy career in Italy, and he urged me to get out of town at the first opportunity,” McCarthy says. He started badgering his bosses to go to Europe. He needn’t have bothered; John Fairchild had noticed him. “Patrick had a certain confidence and sophistication that distinguished him,” says Steve Stoneburn, now CEO of a medicalpublishing company. “John spied something that probably eluded most, and stole him away.” In 1978, McCarthy was made head of the FNS bureau in London.

Just after he arrived, WWD’s London writer quit and the editor of “Eye” started offering McCarthy assignments. His first was to cover the London premiere of Saturday Night Fever. Soon enough, he says, “no other paper ever saw me again.” WWD editor Coady liked him. “He was a real star, a real pro,” Coady says. “His writing was excellent, nuanced, well balanced. He was one of the best hard-news men I’d ever seen.” Soon enough, Etta Froio, WWD’s fashion editor, was offering assignments, too. “I’ve never been to a fashion show!” he told her. “I don’t know what to do.”

Froio explained: “You call up the major designers and take pictures of what they’re going to show. We’re Women’s Wear Daily. We have to have it first.” “I had not a clue what I was doing!” says McCarthy. “It was all false, my veneer of fabrics, colors. If they said it was circular combined with square, I would have written it.” Though he knows more about fashion now, “I don’t think he really enjoys it,” says his friend Georgina Brandolini. “That’s why I like him.”

Fairchild had long wanted an interview with the eccentric, stylish socialite Lady Diana Cooper. Cooper had turned down all previous requests. But they’d been made by women. “She hated girls,” McCarthy says. He was invited over. “She greeted me in bed with her little doggie, this horrible dog, and she gave me a wonderful interview.” But when he asked her to pose for a photograph, she balked. “Editor calls back in five minutes. He says `Mister Fairchild says’ — this is my first indirect contact `no picture, no story’ ” Finally, he agreed to pay her £200 out of his pocket, which she accepted as model’s rates. McCarthy ended up with the cover of W and a wire from John Fairchild. “What a magnificent first effort,” it said. “We must meet.”

On the day they met in Paris in July 1979, Fairchild took McCarthy to his first couture show. Yves Saint Laurent was the favorite, the dauphin; for twenty years, he could do no wrong. McCarthy knew this meant something, and it changed him. “Patrick is a self-invention,” says a Fairchild vet. “He reinvents himself according to his ambitions. He modeled himself on John Fairchild to the point of wearing his watch on his right wrist just like Mr. Fairchild. He even began to look like Mr. Fairchild.”

“John, who’s your clone?” Gerry Dryansky, who’d worked for WWD in Paris years before, asked Fairchild at another show. Sitting between them, McCarthy turned beet-red, and, he admits with a laugh, he’s “loathed Dryansky from then on.”

Fairchild soon offered him the best job at WWD, heading its Paris bureau. McCarthy knew what that meant. Paris was Louise Esterhazy’s adopted home. “I had it all,” McCarthy realized. But he kept his mouth shut about it. “You will never find anybody I discussed that topic with,” he says. “Talking about succeeding someone is not the way to succeed. It’s not as calculated as it appears. But nobody’s gonna believe that.” True in all respects.

He was 29, handsome, a wit. Regine gave him a welcome party. “Everybody comes, not because of me but because WWD has a new bureau chief and they’re interested to see what exotic creature is taking over from Andre Leon Talley,” the former chief, a flamboyant six-foot-seven-inch African-American man, “because y’know, Andre was exotic. I was a horrible disappointment. I can remember Kim d’Estainville saying to me that day, `You are after Andre?’”

McCarthy fell in with a crowd of beautiful young people that included the bisexual man-about-town d’Estainville, a pack of pretty, intelligent fashionettes, and the best-connected couturier in Paris, the man Louise dubbed “the Kaiser,” Karl Lagerfeld. “I instantly bonded with Karl,” McCarthy says. “Pierre Berge. Claude Montana to an extent. I started getting to know the people I was covering. It was easier than it is now. It was about long dinners and getting bombed and talking and weekends. There were no palazzos. It was a totally different industry.”

“We were big night people. We went out like crazy” says Brandolini. But Elle Decor editor Marian McEvoy, another old Fairchild hand, says McCarthy never lost control: “Patrick had to be aware, had to be stable, had to be somewhat sober.”

Coady was only nominally McCarthy’s boss. “Michael left Paris to Mr. Fairchild because that was his specialty,” McCarthy says. “The first time I met Michael, he said, `You know, you’re not Paris-bureau chief.’ I said, `What do you mean? 1 am!’ I thought they were taking my job away.

He said, `John Fairchild is Paris-bureau chief, always has been, always will be.”‘ McCarthy served him well. “He knew exactly what John wanted and gave it to him,” a colleague says. “They were on the phone every day. John lived vicariously through whoever was in that seat. Bringing back the dirt is part of the job. Patrick could always come up with the goods, even if it wasn’t his instinct. I was aware of Patrick tense, worried, and scurrying. He never let his guard down.” He had fun, though; it was a great time to cover fashion. “You’d see people go from rather modest income levels to staggering chateaux, staggering yachts,” McCarthy says. Some crumbs reached his table, too. He had to turn down the minor painting by a major artist that a fabric manufacturer tried to give him, but, he adds, “when I did a story on Valentino’s yacht, I had to spend a weekend on it. Karl’s chateau, Versace at Lake Como.”

After five years, McCarthy tired of Paris. He’d interviewed the same designers too many times. He asked Fairchild for a change, suggesting a move to Los Angeles. “Los Angeles?” the boss answered. “Are you crazy?” So not long afterward, McCarthy succeeded Coady as editor of WWD. “I think there’s a perception that I was vying,” McCarthy says. “And of course there was vying. There’s always vying in any corporation.”

* * *

ARRIVING BACK IN NEW YORK IN MARCH 1985, McCarthy was met with suspicion and competition. He had no experience in New York fashion, and he was supposed to take on the Times, the Wall Street journal, new magazines like Details and Elle, and powerful old stalwarts like Vogue. “We’re like Israel in the middle of the Arab states,” says Coady, “on a war footing all the time.”

“They were all clearly watching me,” McCarthy says. “I stumbled badly” A Louise-like gossip column, bylined T. S. Smithers, went out of business quickly. “I decided we weren’t going to cover certain things because I didn’t think they were very interesting,” he says. “I didn’t have a clue about the Liz Claibornes of the world-I mean, the real industrialstrength leaders.”

McCarthy’s first good move was to eat lots of lunches with major fashion figures. The most memorable of these was with Halston — addled on cocaine — in his glassed-in Olympic Tower aerie overlooking Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Halston kept going to the bathroom and coming back with sales projections. “The sales figures got ever larger,” McCarthy says. “Two hundred million dollars, and then a billion, and then $2 billion. Actually, I did a story on Ralston. He was out of business within a month or so.”

Halston wasn’t the only one under siege. AIDS had just hit fashion. McCarthy’s first contact with the disease came when a friend from a Paris disco died of pneumonia. Then Laughlin Barker-who’d welcomed McCarthy to New York at a dinner with Perry Ellis-died early in 1986. The subject of AIDS was an uncomfortable one, and still is. As he talks about Barker and others who died, McCarthy’s eyes briefly well with tears. Barker and Ellis “got sick about six months after I got here,” he says. “And I didn’t see Laughlin because he didn’t want anyone to see him after he got sick.” Several WWD employees got sick simultaneously. “We covered it,” McCarthy says. “Were we out in the vanguard? No. Everybody in fashion was very scared of AIDS. They were very scared that it would damage the industry. Perry Ellis called me up the day Laughlin died and said, `Would you please not say the cause of death?’ We didn’t.”

Then the press declared open season on Fairchild’s editorial judgment, not over AIDS, where WWD was hardly alone in its willful blindness, but because fashion people were sick of Fairchild’s feuds. Though he’s ended most of the squabbles, McCarthy defends Fairchild. “Every feud,” he says, “every feud … had a legitimate beginning. I know no one wants to hear this, because they really do want to think of him banning Geoffrey Beene and banning Azzedine AlaTa.” Beene, for instance, earned his treatment by refusing to show his collection to a WWD reporter he deemed insufficiently important-Ben Brantley. “Mr. Fairchild objected to that,” McCarthy says. “And then … it escalated!”

More feuds started — they still do — when WWD thought its prerogatives as the primary source of fashion news were threatened. “No one else could get the story, and if anyone else got the story” McCarthy explains, banging the table in time to his words, “someone had to pay! You can’t make the New York Times pay, so make the poor little designer pay-or the big rich designer. Mr. Fairchild instilled it in me. I’m like the abused child that is now abusing. I will kill for the story, and if I don’t have it, I will get angry. -A lot of the punishment meted out was for giving the story to someone else, which to us wasn’t arbitrary.” Some punishments were arbitrary, though. “Absolutely” McCarthy admits. “Bite the hand that feeds you. Never stop biting it. And you know what? It will feed you more.”

* * *

MCCARTHY’S APPOINTMENT — from the outside, at least — was never a sure bet. The first favorite he faced was Ben Brantley. But Brantley dropped out of the running and quit. McCarthy, Brantley says, “seemed to thrive on it in a way the rest of us didn’t.” Then there was Michael Coady. Fairchild says he, Coady, and McCarthy were “a team, like the Three Musketeers,” but Coady was clearly the No. 2. Then came Spy’s December 1989 expose that described him as “lordly, irresponsible, gross, cruel,” given to excess drinking, adulterous model-chasing, apoplectic rage, repellent quivering, shameless denigration, and terminal self-importance. “Despite rumors of Mr. Fairchild’s impending retirement,” Spy said, “arrangements for his succession remain messy.”

Though the Spy story probably helped him, McCarthy thinks it was unfair. “A lot was made up, a lot was just hearsay” he says. “It was bad. But you know what? We weathered it.” Indeed, many think it proved to be a wake-up call for Coady, who soon settled down away from the scene with a highly regarded second wife. Fairchild makes a point of stressing Coady’s continuing role: “Michael is essential to the equation.”

Coady proved that in the next several years. Fairchild’s numbers had been dicey since 1985, when ad revenues at many of its publications dipped. Profits fell steadily through 1989, when WWD was often thin as a waif model. WWD fought back with special advertiser-friendly sections, a redesign, and reorganization. By 1991, Coady and his Cap Cities/ABC bosses had entirely reorganized the company.

At the time, another rival was rising. M’s longtime editor, Kevin Doyle, had moved to Paris in 1991 to launch a bold experiment-W Fashion Life, a tabloidsize perfect-bound fashion magazine, published simultaneously in English, French, German, and Italian. The fashion world soon started putting down bets on Doyle vs. McCarthy. But after three and a half years, W Fashion Life was shut down-killed by translation costs-and Doyle went to work as the head of P.R. for Giorgio Armani.

Translation costs weren’t the only problem. The fashion business was shrinking, and so was fashion-ad spending. It was a scary moment. “Oh, yeah,” McCarthy says. “Worse than scary. Scary I can deal with. Depression, constant.” W had to adapt to the new reality. “There just wasn’t enough interest anymore to buy a weekly fashion newspaper. And we had to have a product that the newsstand dealers in Chicago and Cincinnati recognized. What was W? It was this strange animal. It was all over the place-all over the floor. We had been too long in this netherworld. We had to get into [the fashion magazine business].” Coady suggested it was time to change W.

In the mid-nineties, McCarthy assumed more of both Coady’s and Fairchild’s responsibilities, and WWD also started changing. There were still stumbles. In 1993, for instance, McCarthy admits, he was “desperate to invent my own star.” He picked a handsome young designer from California, Mark Eisen, and gave him a WWD cover and two pages inside in the midst of the New York fashion shows. McCarthy was mocked. “I learned you cannot will the story if it’s really not there,” he says softly. “He wasn’t the second coming. Very few people are.”

More typically, McCarthy’s judgments have been sound. “The recession was in many ways a great boon to Women’s Wear, because it clearly delineated our future role,” McCarthy says. “If we were to cover fashion, it couldn’t just be Calvin, Oscar, Bill, Ralph, Yves, and Giorgio. You have to be a much more broad newspaper.” And although Women’s Wear is still Fairchild’s defining publication, the engine that drives the company, “W has become much more important,” McCarthy says. “It’s a different kettle of fish.”

So too the world they cover, which no longer includes in-and-out lists or slavish attentiveness to “society.” W and WWD have “pretty much abandoned society,” McCarthy says. “Nobody knows these people’s names anymore. They don’t care. They don’t exist. It used to be you wanted to see Babe Paley in your clothes. The big story of our time is the entertainmentfashion complex: Let’s get Uma Thurman to wear our dress.”

Fairchild wants into that hot new nexus as much as Disney wants a presence in magazines. They plan to cut a wide swath with Los Angeles (or L.A., as it may be renamed in the Fairchild tradition) and Jane Pratt’s Jane, a Glamour-like lifestyle magazine for young women that will debut this fall. Nobody’s talking about Jane yet, although McCarthy and Pratt are talking to advertisers; the day after Gianni Versace’s death, they had a long lunch with big spender Tommy Hilfiger. In Los Angeles, there’s a wait-and-see attitude. The assumption is that McCarthy will take exeditor Michael Caruso’s Vanity Fair manqu6 and turn it into something more like W with movie listings. It will certainly be a softer publication. Under Disney’s ownership, it’s unlikely to offer no-holdsbarred coverage of the movies. And McCarthy isn’t opposed to printing a fib on behalf of the home team. Though he fired Michael Caruso himself, WWD printed that Caruso resigned.

But success in L.A. is as much about style as about substance. New editor Spencer Beck has boasted of finding an apartment that lets him walk to work. “So unhip,” a staff member at the competing Buzz snipes. “Sooo New York.”

The McCarthy Era WWD is more evenhanded to designers than it’s been in the past, and it no longer prints self-serving “reviews” of collections from retailers. But it still has teeth, even if its jabs are couched in code known only to the cognoscenti. “Generally speaking, when Women’s Wear describes clothes, Women’s Wear doesn’t like the clothes but feels the need to describe them,” McCarthy says dryly.

McCarthy stoutly defends his coverage of designers and favored social figures and says his relationships with some of them never affect the way they are covered. “You find out pretty quickly who your friends are, and who wants you to get their name in the paper, and who doesn’t talk to you after something is in WWD that they don’t like,” he says. His friends-most of them people WWD covers-say he never confuses work and friendship, but neither will they tempt him. “There are probably things I wouldn’t say,” Ian Schrager admits, “just to not put it to the test.”

But Schrager may be overstating McCarthy’s menace. “He’s a corporation man,” one less-than-admiring type snipes. So it’s possible McCarthy now needs to be a little less careful. He avoids controversy the way Fairchild once courted it. His WWD is more responsible but less fun than Fairchild’s was. It is too often a hometown booster and less frequently as critical as it might be. House favorites like Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, and Schrager are often defended when they’re attacked in other publications. McCarthy says Karan, she of the lagging stock price, should get to spend as much money as she wants in pursuit of creative excellence. Though WWD doesn’t always break the news on Calvin, it gets the next best thing: the interview. When Calvin Klein was rumored to have AIDS, he denied it exclusively in WWD. And, of course, Klein never did get sick. “What I like most is that Patrick is always correct,” says Gabriella Forte, now the president of Calvin Klein. “It’s a tightrope,” McCarthy sighs. “But you walk it.”

* * *

“I’M STAYING FOR TWO MINUTES; IT’S THE enemy camp,” McCarthy warns as we taxi uptown to a CondŽ Nast party for his friend Billy Norwich, who’s just joined House & Garden. Entering the party at Nica’s, the new restaurant in the Stanhope Hotel, he turns down a martini (“No thanks, too early” he says), whispers in the ear of Donna Karan’s P.R. person, and then greets Norwich. “You came,” the guest of honor says proudly. “You’ve broken your rule.”

“I had to be here,” McCarthy replies, whispering for a moment before taking a quick dip into the room. He greets a Ralph Lauren P.R. man and the writer Brad Gooch, and he shares moments with embattled climber Sandy Hill and socialite Carolyne Roehm. “I always feel like the mayor at these parties,” he says. On his way out the door, he lingers for a minute with socialite Nina Griscom. She suggests McCarthy join her in a game of bridge with designer Isaac Mizrahi: “He’s really hot.” “Then let’s not,” McCarthy demurs. His guard drops for an instant. “I hate to lose.” Then he’s out the door, alone again in the light.

©1997 Michael Gross