Monday 23 April 2018

Obituary: Bernie Leser

Refugee from Nazi Germany who became a leading figure in the Conde Nast publishing empire

Schmoozer: Bernie Leser Photo: David Leser
Schmoozer: Bernie Leser Photo: David Leser

Bernie Leser, who has died aged 90, was a refugee from Nazi Germany and former shoe salesman who became a key figure in the international publishing empire, Conde Nast, founding Australian Vogue, serving as managing director of Conde Nast UK for a decade and later becoming president of US Conde Nast, then chairman of Conde Nast Asia Pacific.

One journalist described Leser as a man who "knows everyone, drops names like Debrett's (which he is in), talks like an airline route crossed with job descriptions, never utters nasties, owns up to a squint behind dark glasses and turns on charm like an oil well".

During his time at Conde Nast he schmoozed his way around the globe and was on first-name terms with the chief executives of most of its advertisers.

He purchased Tatler, with the young Tina Brown as editor, and The World of Interiors. He launched German Vogue in Munich and, while in New York, played an important role in the purchase of Architectural Digest and Bon Appetit, as well as presiding over the launches of Conde Nast Traveller, Allure and Details. One observer described his contact book as verging "on the celestial".

Leser's admirers included 'Si' Newhouse, joint owner of Conde Nast's parent company, and a group of loyal female editors who became known as 'Bernie's Girls'. But he was not everyone's cup of tea. In 1971 he famously fired Sheila Scotter, the spiky but stylish editor of Vogue Australia, who observed that Leser "didn't have instinctive style and he hasn't got it now".

"I terminated her career with Conde Nast, which she thought could not be terminated," Leser recalled. "She thought she was running the show when I was."

He also crossed swords with Ron Galotti, a rebarbative publisher thought to be the model for Sex and the City's Mr Big. Galotti was behind the financial success in the 1980s and early 1990s of Conde Nast Traveller and later Vanity Fair, and was widely tipped to succeed Leser as president, but he made no secret of his disdain for Leser, describing him later as "the worst CEO I ever worked with".

"One day," Galotti claimed, "they came to my office to shoot a corporate film... And they ask me what I want to see for the company's future. I said, 'I want to see Bernie Leser walk out of the building and get hit by a bus. I don't want him killed, just hurt so he has to go back to Australia or New Zealand or wherever the hell he came from.' "

Galotti was fired a few months later for lack of "people skills".

Born Bernd Leser to a Jewish family in Berlin on March 15 1925, he was the son of a knitwear manufacturer who had won a military honour for saving the life of another man during the First World War. The man kept in touch and in the 1930s emerged as the head of the Gestapo in the area where the Lesers lived.

On Kristallnacht, he arranged to meet Leser's father in a park. "You once saved my life and I'm going to do the same to you," he told him, "on the condition that you leave everything and flee Germany." The family moved, first to Canada, and then to relatives in New Zealand.

Bernd, who anglicised his name to Bernard, studied business at night school before taking a degree in Economics at the University of Auckland. In 1947 he moved to Sydney, where he found work as a shoe salesman. Five years later, he moved to a firm which manufactured shoes and sportswear under licence from overseas firms.

His globetrotting energy caught the attention of the Newhouse family, which in 1958 headhunted him to launch the Australian edition of Vogue. The magazine had a slow start, Australian advertisers proving resistant to the concept of an upmarket fashion magazine, and in 1972, perceiving a poor return on investment, Conde Nast sold Vogue Australia to Leser and his business partners, only to buy it back in the 1980s. "We all did well," Leser admitted. "Not telling how well."

In the meantime, Leser rose through the ranks of Conde Nast, from which he eventually retired in 1997.

In 1962, he married Barbara Davis, with whom he had two sons and a daughter. Bernie Leser died on October 12.

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