Photo: Eric Ray Davidson. Courtesy GQ.
In February 2003, S.I. Newhouse Jr., the chairman of Condé Nast, called Art Cooper, the longtime editor of GQ, into his office. “Art,” he said, “I think it’s time for you to retire.” In a matter of weeks, Jim Nelson was put atop the masthead. Nelson, only 40, hinted at his plans. “I do think we spend a bit too much time in that kind of timeless nostalgic thing,” he said. “And my inclination is to make it more of the moment, to be engaged in the culture.”
By most measures, Nelson succeeded: GQ went in-depth on a vast number of topics, including a Gulf of Mexico oil spill, a Russian serial killer, a resurgent Axl Rose, and suicide chat rooms. There were National Magazine Awards nearly every year since 2007 and a Pulitzer Prize for Rachel Ghansah’s portrait of Dylann Roof.
In September, Nelson announced that his tenure at the magazine was coming to an end. Condé Nast lost $120 million last year, and has forced the departure of numerous employees as it faces an uncertain financial future. Recently, Nelson and I met at the Bowery Hotel to talk about the last fifteen years—his professional regrets, the diversification of the magazine’s staff, and stories that made his life a living hell.
The Daily News, March 26, 2003: “Nelson, 40, dismissed an expectation that the 800,000-circulation men’s magazine, owned by Condé Nast, would try to copy the bawdier—and far more popular—Maxim.” What does it say
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