HOW CAN ANYONE describe a man who had a life as incredible as that of our beloved Bernie Leser. Born Bernd Leser in Germany, an only-child Jewish boy growing up in the terrifying shadow of Nazi Germany. A man who escaped and created himself anew, employing keen intelligence, hard work and the biggest heart in the world to make a life that encompassed continents. Over a career of 36 years he led Condé Nast to heights of excellence on four continents. As the founder and president of Condé Nast in Australia from 1958 to 1974, then 10 years running Condé Nast Britain, then president of Condé Nast International, in which capacity he founded our German magazines and then many years running the parent company in the US. And did I mention that he also started Condé Nast’s first Asian magazine, Japanese GQ? That too.
Bernie made a connection to us, and touched our hearts. He changed us. He made us better at what we do and better people as we did it. For me, he was a mentor, a guide, an example and a true friend. Our paths crossed continually as we pursued – first he and then I – the establishment of Condé Nast as the world’s foremost international publisher.
Three events [in particular] represent something important about Bernie and set him apart. The first occurred before I worked with him. It was 1983, and I had just married (for the first time) and was taking a honeymoon in Europe. In London I decided to pop in on Bernie for a cup of tea. As I entered his office he was deep in a serious phone conversation. He hung up the phone and said: “Tina Brown has just resigned as editor of Tatler. I think the only editor who can succeed her is Mark Boxer, who used to be art director of Queen magazine.”
Here’s what happened: Bernie wanted to appoint Mark Boxer, but was prevented from doing so by his boss, Daniel Salem, chairman of Condé Nast International. Another editor was appointed and she only lasted six months. Then Mark Boxer was named and he became a great editor at Tatler as well as editorial director at British Condé Nast until his death years later. So Bernie was right in this case, as he usually was.
And this is what I observed about Bernie. When a crisis arose, he did not become emotional. He did not lose his temper, pound the desk or swear. With his vast knowledge of the industry and what it took to succeed, he knew instinctively what to do. He was prevented from achieving it immediately, but he did so in the end. He possessed finesse and shrewdness in the best sense of the words, and he employed them to bring the magazines to success.
The second fact is notable for the oddity that Bernie wasn’t actually present. But his achievement was.
When I took over as president of Condé Nast International at the start of 1990, one of my responsibilities was to look after Condé Nast Australia, which Bernie had founded. I arrived for the first time on a rainy April day, which turned out to be the 75th anniversary of Anzac Day, the newspapers filled with photos of the few surviving veterans of Gallipoli. The Australian company at that time had 95 staff, and 94 were women. The only man was a chain-smoking driver named Tony.
And this was truly remarkable. Remember this was the close of the 80s. A thriving publishing enterprise composed entirely of females. Thus, Bernie was kind of a revolutionary. And I think not because he was driven consciously to champion the female cause but because he deeply respected women and selected them for their ability to do the job. Today Condé Nast International has several markets with women presidents. But I have never seen, in publishing or any other industry, an operation where women were given the opportunity to rise and become pre-eminent to such an extent.
The third fact was Bernie’s incredible talent for making friendships and connections all over the world. It happened all the time that I would meet someone, and when I introduced myself as a Condé Nast executive, the other person would respond: “Oh yes, I know someone from your company I met years ago. We exchange Christmas cards.” It was invariably Bernie. In a high-rise apartment in Hong Kong a beautiful Chinese cosmetics company executive practically swooned when she recalled Bernie. A hotelier in Pontresina, Switzerland. Fabric-makers in London. A few years ago I stopped into Budd, a shirtmaker in London’s Piccadilly Arcade, and the store owners said: “Oh yes, we used to make shirts for one of your executives …” Of course, it was Bernie.
Some of these people who remembered Bernie met him only once. Yet many years later they recalled him clearly and with fondness. How much more meaningful were those friendships, contacts and relationships forged through the daily contact of work and social life. He regularly performed kindnesses for others. My own father used to say that a gentleman was someone who thought of the other fellow first, and this was Bernie’s way. His capacity for friendship cannot be said to have been a unique talent, but Bernie possessed it to a unique degree. And it found full flower in a career where relationships mattered a great deal. In today’s vulgar business parlance, his gift for relationships was monetisable. But that was not Bernie’s purpose. He was just being his loveable self.
While relationships were Bernie’s forte, the relationships that absolutely mattered the most were his own dear family – his wife of more than 60 years, Barbara, a gifted musician, and his three children: David, Deborah and Daniel. He was one of the best men I have ever known. I feel very lucky to have been his friend.