Moderator’s note: Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti was first in her family to go to college. Wouldn’t this happen a little oftener if more library books were free online, TeleRead-fashion—to entice the young with just the right titles? Meanwhile sympathies to Sadi over the death of Steven T. Florio, who helped her break through “the blue-collar barrier.” – D.R.
Were it not for Steven Florio, I would not be in book publishing or publishing in any way. I always knew I would be a writer, but I never for a minute believed I could succeed as a publisher, as an editor, editorial director, acquisitions editor and more—the myriad jobs I have held so far in my career. Never did I think I could publish my work with some fair measure of success that could please Steven. It was Steven who first got me interested; or, rather, it was Steven who noticed my interest and watered it until it grew such that it became for me an ambition.
Rose fast, oversaw magazines reaching 70M readers a month
Steven T. Florio, was, at the time, the editor of GQ (Gentlemen’s Quarterly), having started at Esquire. He was still in his early thirties and had worked his way up from research assistant to editor in a short span of approximately nine years. At Condé Nast, as reported in the New York Times, he was president and chief executive and “oversaw all 16 of the company’s magazines, which then included Glamour, Architectural Digest, Self, GQ, Gourmet, Bon Appétit, Condé Nast Traveler, Allure, Wired, Lucky and Teen Vogue, as well as Vogue, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. The magazines reach more than 70 million readers each month” (hyperlinks added).
In short, Steven Florio took a small-to-medium-sized publisher of magazines and made Condé’s magazines—such as Vogue, where I was placed—a force to be reckoned with in their respective industries. He was a whiz ad man, selling hundreds of pages of ads and thickening the magazines to more than twice their sizes at times. It was a gift—a gift of gab, for Steven was definitely a talker, although straightforward and down-to-earth. He didn’t screw around; he came not from Harvard Business School but from Jamaica, Queens (New York) where he was born in 1949.
Steven and the babysitter-journalist
I remember Steven asking me one day when I first left the U.K. for the States if I would watch his children. Not knowing (or particularly caring) who he was, I went to his house with my typewriter (which was a portable Olivetti in a black case) and my notes for my article for the local town newspaper.
Right away Steven noticed the clunky machine and asked, “Are you a journalist?”—to which I said, in my youth and bravado, “Yes.” Later that night, when driving me home, he told me a bit about what he did, which at the time still meant very little to me, as impressive as it was. I was still too young to fully comprehend the measure of his success and the weight of where he had pulled out from, and pulled now into a whole new place.
Smashing the blue-collar barrier—as the first the first the fist
Steven took that blue-collar barrier and smashed right through it, just as I was trying to do at the time. I wanted to be the first in my family to go to college, the first to hold a white-collar job, I hoped, the first the first the first, and when you are that One, there is tremendous familial pressure on you as the front-runner, the horse on whom everybody bets their money, even if they don’t understand what you are end up doing. If nothing else, you’re an oddity, a kind of black sheep or dark horse. The family is proud of you. But in some weird way all that they have hoped for your entire life—since you knew, just knew, when you were a little kid that you would be The One—suddenly becomes both a mystery and a threat. They don’t understand how you earn your living. When you write articles discussing cultural comment or generational issues, your family sees it as a waste of time, when you could be, as my grandmother said to me one day, “bagging groceries at the market.”
Writer vs. grocery-bagger
Nothing wrong with grocery bagging, but it’s not what I spent so long studying for; and it was not what Steven Florio, who fast became my mentor, wanted for me, either. Steven strongly encouraged me to apply to Conde Nasté, which I did, and I was certain I had failed. And yet—no—by some miracle I did get the job, and at Vogue, where I worked for Grace Mirabella, then for Anna Wintour (photo), as an assistant.
Everyone says to me, “Why didn’t you write The Devil Wears Prada?” It never would have occurred to me just as it does not occur to me now to speak any of the things that happened in that place, in those curved walls of white, there in the Condé Nast building when it was still on Madison between 44th and 45th. So it seemed to me. Perhaps I was too much of a convert—because I was just truly grateful for the opportunity—to discuss those things.
What Lauren Weisberger wrote is true to a large extent, but Lauren Weisberger wouldn’t have a name at all were it not for the fact that she worked for Anna Wintour, for whom I also worked for awhile when she took over after Grace Mirabella. This isn’t to say that my loyalty is only toward Condé Nast or that I drank the Kool Aid and became a convert or “clacker,” the term for the other assistants and assistant editors and rovers there (Weisberger). But I did and do feel that I owe a great deal in my life and my career to my experiences at Condé Nast and specifically at Vogue.
His shark survival lessons
Though the the years, Steven taught me many things, advised me on which jobs to take, which internships would be worthwhile, and so on, but what he told me at the very beginning is what I will never forget—perhaps the most valuable piece of information anyone ever gave me. We were driving into Condé Nast one morning, and I, only fifteen years old and totally overwhelmed being the youngest person the company had ever hired, felt that there was no way I could compete, especially in the sharky waters of the fashion industry. I was chum, bloody raw meat that just drew the sharks to me.
“Yes,” Steven more or less said, “you will be as long as you see yourself that way.”
“So,” I asked, “what do I do? What do I do if I am vulnerable and young and learning but that’s not ‘allowed’ at this place?”
With his eye on the road, Steven told me, “You fake it.”
” Fake it?”
“Everybody’s faking it,” he said as best I can recall. “Everybody. Nobody knows what they’re really doing and everybody is just making believe that they do and that’s what you do too. You fake it until you know it and then you have earned it and then you damn own it.”
Best advice in my life
I have yet to receive better advice in my life that can be applied to all manner of subjects, through my work in the present.
No, Stephen wasn’t saying “be a fake”—not at all, for he was the farthest thing from a phoney and wouldn’t want me to be one or learn as one. What he was essentially saying was that everybody else is phoney, and with that knowledge, you can essentially move in these circles knowing that you are smarter, faster, harder working, and willing to put in ten times the effort.
Because of where he came from, because of where I came from, we were each of us perfectly balanced with a chip on both shoulders.
No silver-spooned Westchester bitch was going to snatch my success out from under me and I can apply that to my life now as well. Nobody can take away from you what you have already earned. It’s untouchable and unreachable and undeniable. A thing either is or is not, and what Steven taught me is that the things that are mine are fully mine and not to be taken away by someone else because they feel some privilege.
A mentor on her own
How can I tell you, then, how it felt when I found out that Steven died at age 58 of a heart-attack? Words do not come easy, and I feel rather lost without a mentor. I myself am a mentor nowdays—to my own students, for I am also teaching (as Steven also did—he at New York University for awhile). It’s at Emerson College‘s Graduate School of Publishing, and he would like that, but he’s not here anymore; and at age 58, that’s awfully young to be taken away.
What I remember about Steven is his moustache and his olive skin. I remember how he was insistent that his name be spelled with a “V” and how he got really ticked off when it was misspelled with as “Stephen.” No doubt, he felt one more pretentious than the other. He never denied having a chip on his shoulder and moving up as high as he did, all the way to CEO of Advance and Condé Nast Publications—including CEO of The New Yorker—I think he had a bit of a laugh on that one. I can’t tell you why because I’m not Steven, but perhaps I can relate. It’s like storming the castle and somehow getting in and “passing”; it is a thing you both hate and love.
A love-hate thing
Crossing the blue-collar barrier is a love-hate thing and always will be. You want and treasure your roots, and you have worked hard to cross a line into a group of people against whom you held perhaps some irrational grudge or had preconceived notions just as many of them likely held or hold preconceived notions of you. Just what to make of the first person in her family to break the blue-collar barrier? I can’t say what goes on in other people’s minds, only that outwardly anyway, if I ever let it be known, then it has only been a good thing in my experience. I think of Steven, too, in that respect. He was respected because he didn’t come from Harvard Business School like everybody else—he triumphed on his own and at such an accelerated pace.
Steven’s death from a heart attack, then, in December 2007, was no surprise. You can’t put in the time he did, which is like doing “hard time” and not have it catch up with you; and I know, too, that he had a heart condition just as I do (the kind you have to take antibiotics for before you head to the dreaded dentist, which in his case, after one root canal one time, left him in a coma for three months). When I last spoke with him, he had just come out of a coma and was back on the job already. But that was Steven. He never wasted time in any way.
Pin-striped, and proud of it
He might dismiss this essay as a waste of time, and perhaps it is, because since I found out about Steven’s death I have been unable to put any feelings down on paper about his passing and the loss of this colossus in my life. The only one, my only true mentor—which leaves me hanging and alone and feeling reedy and nervous. He would probably admonish me and tell me instead I ought be working on my book right now. I don’t know.
I can still see him there in one of his pin-striped suits, his suspenders, his white shirts (but never button-down oxfords, I never saw those). He was more of a cufflinks guy. He was dapper—from another era, it seemed, when things mattered and the alliances we formed actually meant something and promises were kept. I can and do carry the flame forward and pray that to those I mentor, they likewise do the same.
It is the most I can hope for.
Moderator’s additional thoughts: A podcast will be along soon. Again, sympathies to Sadi. Let me also add a reminder that books are just a start. Young people need the right inspiration, too, whether from family, teachers, librarians or friends; and that she had from Steven Florio, who “noticed” her interest in editorial work and helped her realize her ambitions. By the way, I’ve asked Sadi to mention some Florio-recommended books—stay tuned for her comments in the next day or so.
Update, 5:45: The comments are here. Excerpt: “Steven one day talked a lot about the book ‘Passages’ by Gail Sheehy, which at the time, being as young as I was, meant little to me, but as I got older, I began and begin more and more to understand the passages of life that we DO go through. He had also noted my interest (even then) in Nabokov, Evelyn Waugh, Milan Kundera, Robert Musil, Marguerite Duras who Steven told me about, F. Scott Fitzgerald whom Esquire had been among the first to publish (among many great authors).”