THE OTHER ICONS
Jay Fielden brought an entirely new vision to Town & Country magazine when he came on as Editor-in-chief two years ago. A longtime icon in the publishing industry, Fielden has worked with notable luminaries like Anna Wintour, Grace Coddington and Tina Brown. All has come full circle as he now sits at the helm of a lifestyle magazine that’s managed to stay relevant since its start in 1846. Fielden is one of those perfect editors who – personally and professionally – embodies many different industries, rather than just one. This makes him a master of lifestyle, especially the classic American one his magazine represents. We sat down with him to talk about changes in publishing, people he’s always admired and just who would attend his dream dinner party…
Could you take us through your ideal food day? Where would you go? What would you eat?
I’m going to take the liberty of thinking I could hop around the world. I’d start at Dean Fearing’s place [Fearing's Restaurant] in Dallas; I’d have biscuits and gravy. I’m from Texas so I can’t resist that. Then I’d go to Los Angeles to The Apple Pan for a hamburger for lunch. I’d finish up in Paris at Aux Lyonnais for dinner. That would be pretty tasty stuff for a day. A little fattening…
What’s the process behind creating content for Town & Country?
Oh my, my. Well certainly there’s blood sweat and tears. If you’re not crying, you’re not doing the right thing. Also, I have great people here. I have to be grateful to the staff because they’re the best and it’s very much a collaborative place. It’s not really about one person having a silver bullet idea. It’s the way that kernel of an idea gets developed and grows into something great. That’s what I appreciate about the magazine. It’s also about tuning your ear into what really meets the definition of the title and what we think Town & Country has done in the past and what it can do in the future. We’re tying back to the essentials which are: One, being very American. Two, being a magazine with great photographs with audiences also paying attention to the writing. And, three, though it has a sense of the exclusive, it’s also inclusive. Those are some of the things we use to keep our wits about us.
Were there things you wanted to change about Town & Country in coming onboard?
Yes. There were. I wanted to make it a co-ed magazine. It has a mix of men’s and women’s articles and ideas; it brings in both sides of the equation in that way. I wanted it to be more ambitious about its place as a magazine that obviously has a front row seat on the zeitgeist and on what’s going on in the country politically, philanthropically, in fashion, in food etc. And to really be a magazine tuned into the moment we’re living in – socioeconomically with the haves and have nots, the very rich, the middle class. This is a magazine that understands all that because it has a sense of history about the story of money in America. We’ve covered all this for so long. In a nutshell, I wanted to amp up the photography and to see just how ambitious we could make it.
So are you constantly trying to be relevant and current?
Not necessarily. I think Town & Country has to strike a tone of relevance. It had lost its way for these new times; it had become maybe what people thought was a fashion magazine, perhaps even a bit snobby or exclusionary. To me, it’s a magazine about living a certain exceptional kind of life. Fashion and good things are a part of that, but it’s also an attitude about life in general and how best to live it. Town & Country stories are everywhere. They’re out there all the time – the taxing the rich question, the latest tycoon in trouble, the American obsession with status and status symbols. Just look at Downton Abbey – What’s more Town & Country than that? There are a lot of things out there, and we try to be relevant and current, but at the same time there’s a nice clicking of what we’re doing at the magazine and what’s going on in the world.
How has the industry changed since you started?
Since I’ve been in this wretched business or since I took over Town & Country?
Since you started in the business…
Massively since I was at the New Yorker - so I’m no longer sharpening peoples’ pencils or looking at a rolodex for a phone number. Somebody dropped a nuclear bomb called the Internet, then a nuclear bomb on Wall Street and that’s had such a massive outcome – in some ways positive – on what we are doing. In the industry now, making money is more difficult. You have to work hard to know what it is you’re doing and why you have a reason to exist. Town & Country goes back to 1846; it’s stood the test of time, so it has in its bones the ability to do all that. It’s hard work. You’re in the same business. It’s a business where you have to give everything you’ve got to get people to notice. The changes through time have made everyone work harder, so it’s a positive. It’s weeded things out in a good way – it makes us think about why we are here and why we matter.
It’s also multigenerational – hopefully we kind of break out of that feeling that everything has to be about one little demographic, one age group. Life is not about that. Life is not about that just as life is not about simply being a woman or being a man – or being a woman in a man’s world. Our worlds are mixed together. A magazine about American life should be something that encompasses all those things. That’s what makes it very fun to work on.
Who are some people you’ve admired throughout your career?
Well certainly the people I’ve worked for. Tina Brown [EIC of the Daily Beast and Newsweek] I admire a great deal. Anna Wintour [EIC of Vogue], who really sat me on her knee. And then people I got to know along the way here and there. Irving Penn and Grace Coddington – the way they went about their work and what they stand for. There are many writers I look up to – many that I don’t know, some that are no longer living. The stylish ones: Robert Hughes, V.S Naipaul, Saul Bellow and Mary Mccarthy. Even a designer, like Ralph Lauren. I worked at the Ralph Lauren shop in Texas when I was in high school. It taught me a lot about the things we are talking about – about how style could appeal to both men and women, so that men could be just as interested in clothes or interior design. And how those things connect to the way you live your life. They’re ideas we take for granted now, but he really pioneered that. Harold Ross – the old editor of The New Yorker – was a genius. It seems I’m always going around collecting another hero or two.
What’s always on your desktop?
A picture of my three kids. A pitcher of water – always be well hydrated; editing makes you sweat. Sharp pencils and something kind of sweet. A lot of candy comes through the door and a lot of it ends up on my desk.
Where are your favorite spots to travel?
Every night I take the train back to my house in the woods in Connecticut; it’s the best trip I can take. I also love to go to Paris and Milan and everywhere in between.
What will you never travel without?
A book, a roll of mentos…I feel like all I do is pack in my life but I can’t really answer that. You don’t want to forget a book though [on a plane] and just end up looking out the window, bored and having to eat the airplane food.
What are you reading now?
Well, I’m a bit of a person going backwards, feeling like I should read things now that I should’ve read in high school and college. I like to read things that may seem serious. Periodic Table by Primo Levi, Paul Theroux’s memoir of being in Africa called Sir Vidia’s Shadow…and there’s always People magazine.
What’s are some restaurants that will never go out of style for you? Why?
I kind of like the old ones in the way that they stand the test of time. La Dolce Vita and La Coupole in Paris. Viand on Madison Avenue across from Barneys. I like the ones that are not worried about being too flashy or about keeping you there for four hours, that have a great atmosphere and sense of tradition and that serve great food.
Is there a trend going on in the publishing industry you simply don’t get?
Yes. Calling magazines ‘brands’ and referring to the creative people that produce them as single subject multi-platform content providers, rather than editors.
What’s one you like?
That websites here and there seem to be making money. What a fantastic thing. Finally.
Where did you get many of your holiday gifts?
There were various toy stores. If I were buying a fantasy shopping spree, I would go to Bergdorf Goodman.Then I’d jump over to Louis Vuitton and go to Taffin for my wife (she loves the jewelry James [de Givenchy] makes. Then I’d buy myself an antique Berkel meat slicer, which is the Ferrari of meat slicers. They’re the red, old amazing looking objects that you see in all the restaurants in Italy. They’re expensive but very beautiful.
What do you always put out when hosting a dinner party?
The wine is key to me because I love wine. I try to share the very best. Red preferably.
You didn’t like X till you had it at X?
Recent experience. Monkfish liver, until I had it at Bouley.
If you could have a dinner party, with any 5 people living or dead who would be there? What would you have?
Mother Teresa, Humphrey Bogart, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leonardo Da Vinci and Jane Austen. Catered by In-N-Out Burger.
*Photo by Danielle Kosann