Patrick McCarthy, the former editor of W magazine who died this past Sunday at 67, was by all accounts a charming, often devilish, wickedly smart man about town, first in Paris, where he was WWD‘s bureau chief and resident social swan, and then later in New York, when he took over as chairman and editorial director of Fairchild Media from his mentor, John Fairchild. But McCarthy was also a little unknowable, even to many who knew him well. “I’ve always been serious,” he said in a 1997 New York magazine profile. “I mean, one frolics, but I’ve always been work-oriented; I get defined by my work.” And one of the defining achievements of his career was to transform W from a biweekly broadsheet into a monthly glossy publication in 1993, and to re-conceive its identity as a celebrity- and fashion-driven magazine that continues to evolve today. Here, a few of his former W colleagues remember McCarthy the best way they know how.
Kevin West: I was a cub reporter on the Eye desk and went downtown to cover an event at Cipriani Wall Street. It must’ve been 1998 or ’99, and I can’t quite remember which event, because there were so many, but on this particular night Patrick was also there. That was unusual. Obviously, he wanted to be anywhere else, so someone must have twisted his arm. I think Puff Daddy was on the invitation and maybe Fairchild had bought a gala table that required Patrick’s presence. At any rate, after the event, he offered me a lift to my apartment on his way back uptown.
We talked shop on the way. Which meant that I, terrified of boring Patrick, emptied my pockets of every scrap of gossip I could recall. I told him the unprintable stuff about the Miller girls, recounted who had been at Kal Ruttenstein’s table at Balthazar the night before, and tittered that China Chow was really, truly dating Marky Mark, then still an underwear model only recently reborn as the actor Mark Wahlberg thanks to Boogie Nights.
Patrick loved gossip—the sheer wicked joy of getting the goods first—and he cackled uproariously at the best bits. His was an appreciative audience. His eyes literally glittered. But it was hard to tell him something he hadn’t already heard. Patrick seemed to me, back then, to be all-knowing, brilliant, and only occasionally cruel.
As the car approached my apartment, a sort of far away look came over him, as is he were seeing the drama of New York unfurl from a great distance, the way a novelist must imagine the sweep of a narrative he also knows in its smallest details.
“One day you’ll look back,” Patrick said to me, “and tell people you lived in New York during the Boom-Boom Nineties.”
He was right, of course. Patrick’s pronouncements usually were. That was his genius. He took in everything, intently aware of “the layers upon layers,” as he called it once, the sub-text and sub-sub-text of ambition, glamour, material desire, and lusty yearning. Patrick listed to the babble around him—a nervous cub reporter in the back of his limo—and snatched from the air a kind of truth that, when you heard it, seemed obvious and inevitable, even if somehow it had never occurred to you before.
Dennis Freedman: It is the dream of all creative directors to work with an editor like Patrick McCarthy. However, the truth is there was only one Patrick. He was unfailingly loyal. He had courage. He gave me extraordinary freedom. It was not always easy. We challenged the norm. We took risks. In order to take risks, you have to be willing to fail. And there were times when we failed.
But there was one thing I always knew: his trust was unshakeable. I will forever be grateful to have had the opportunity to work alongside him. It is a common saying that everyone is replaceable. Patrick McCarthy is the exception. He is irreplaceable.
Alex White: Walking in to the offices of W back in 1994 as a young British editor felt like walking onto the movie set of Citizen Kane. That was the first time I met Patrick McCarthy; it was an exciting time at Fairchild with the launch of W magazine—and it worked. W became one of the most successful fashion magazines at the time, with great journalism to boot. I remember how supportive he was of new ideas and concepts for fashion shoots—even the idea of styling elephants in couture! He was an editor you felt proud and confident working for. He had a vision for W and created the team around him to execute it. It was a memorable experience, and a privilege to work under a such a unique man.
Joe Zee: They say you are lucky to have those few mentors in life that define you, and Patrick was always that to me. The fact that W captured the zeitgeist in the 90’s was because of Patrick’s leadership. He was always inquisitive and curious and kind. He loved learning about the new and the next, and you could see it in the magazine. I could always just wander up to his desk, early in the morning—because we were morning people—and discuss details of a party that might have happened the night before. He always listened intently and excitedly.
And mornings, before the newsroom went into full gear, were always the best time to get story ideas to him—crazy or not—and Patrick would see the passion behind it. He’d just smile and say, “Go for it!”, especially if it felt farfetched or different. One morning, armed with some research, I pitched him on shooting the lead singer of this girl group for the cover, because I know she would hit it big one day, and we should be first; she may not be so well known now, but we’re W, we should be telling readers what’s next and Patrick agreed. “Yes, let’s do it!”, he said. “Let’s make it something people will remember.” And we would become the first American magazine to give Beyoncé a cover.