Star Jones, Henry Schleiff & A Squadron of Spinmeisters

After several back-to-back weeks of a somewhat boisterous SRO crowd at Michael’s, it was a bit of a relief to find a more subdued dining room today. The dreary rain (will it ever end?!) seems to have kept some of the town car set at their desks. But, this being Wednesday, the usual suspects (Star Jones, Henry Schleiff) made their way to their perches to scope out the scene and be seen. Lunch is never just lunch, but you knew that already, didn’t you?

I was joined today by Town & Country‘s editor-in-chief Jay Fielden and Holly Whidden, Hearst’s executive director of public relations. After chatting about our mutual bewilderment about the sometimes ‘insular’ life in suburban Connecticut and the Mad Men season finale — it was agreed we could have lived without seeing Roger Sterling nude in all his LSD-fueled glory — we had a fascinating chat about the reinvigorated and decidedly more engaging Town & Country.

Since joining T&C from Men’s Vogue last March, Jay has endeavored to infuse the book with more wit and insight into the rarefied world of the one percenters while respecting the mag’s storied history (something it had somehow forgotten to do over time). “So many magazines are good at going back and reminding people about what they’re really good at. Town & Country didn’t do as good a job at that as it could have. I admire the modesty, but I also think we have to own what we have,” said Jay. “The magazine been around since 1846, so there’s a reason to be respectful, but I wanted to interpret and channel that richness differently.” And he has. Eschewing the usual route of “a glorified catalog” of conspicuous consumption that defines so many in the luxury category, Jay has chosen to examine the life of America’s rich from the inside, profiling people “who have ascended to prominence based on their achievements and earned their position.” What a concept.

Since his first issue last September, Jay has carefully chosen cover subjects that readers wouldn’t find on any other magazine. Among his most noteworthy choices: Ali McGraw during her Love Story days (with a profile and stunning recent photos of the actress today) as a valentine for February, The Richard girls (as in Keith‘s daughters) and The Hemingways. “There’s a real freedom with not having to pick the same old people that other magazines do,” Jay told me. “We want to take some risks, sharpen our point of view. It might not be for everyone, but we’re not doing a warmed over version of something else. We want to be original.”

Holly Whidden, Jay Fielden and Diane Clehane

Jay has also tapped into the deep generational connection the magazine’s readers have with some time honored traditions like summer camp. The June-July issue features a comprehensive and modern yet charmingly nostalgic look at summer camps around the country with essays from writers about their experiences in Maine, Texas, North Carolina and California. The issue’s “Camp Gazette” features a look at today’s best camps, giving merit badges to those which address the most pressing concerns for today’s parents and kids, including the “best camp for your peanut-allergic child,” the requisite “most expensive” honor for those social strivers, the camp with the “most illustrious alumni.”

Make no mistake about it, this is not your grandmother’s Town & Country. “It’s not a bubble bath for rich people,” Jay told me. “We’re an observer of the landscape — we’re covering the most interesting and the most absurd parts of this world. If something is ridiculously expensive, it has to offer value and, if it doesn’t, we’re going to write about that, too.”

With the median household income of the T&C reader up and the median age down, Jay has more changes in the works. The September issue will feature more menswear, and the magazine’s redesigned website will launch this fall. Interestingly enough, Jay envisions a different reader for the site and plans original content that will enhance the magazine’s image. One thing you won’t see: puff pieces to mollify advertisers (“I don’t think you have to do soft pieces on the luxury market. You have to have an opinion.”) He also doesn’t believe in giving away the magazine’s editorial content online, which does nothing to help newsstand sales. “If it’s good enough for the magazine, it can live again as an App. That sad sack approach of groveling [for readers] really turns me off. It’s a point of pride. I want to do the magazine justice, not sell it beneath its dignity.”