When Amelia Lester was made managing editor of The New Yorker, the announcement made her Australia’s best-known young media export. Here she talks about keeping America’s most illustrious weekly magazine on track.
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There was a time when Amelia Lester’s heart would beat faster at the sight of the New York area code 212 showing up on her mobile phone display. “I would be ludicrously excited,” she announces.
It was 2005 and Lester was in her senior year at Harvard and on the job hunt. As a liberal arts student, though, she wasn’t even sure what she wanted to do. Or what anyone would hire her to do.
Lester laughs in memory, “The possibility of going to New York and actually having a job interview was … incomprehensible!”
Four years later, she had one of the most prestigious 212 telephone numbers in Manhattan, courtesy of landing the plum role of managing editor at The New Yorker.
She was just 26.
That’s less than a third of the age of the magazine, an American cultural institution published by Condé Nast, with a circulation of over a million copies every week. There are few great writers who haven’t appeared or aspired to appear in its pages since it began in 1925.
Today’s contributors include the world’s most respected and famous journalists, photographers and cartoonists, with writers like Seymour Hersh, Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Gopnik, Ken Auletta, Ariel Levy, Philip Gourevitch, Connie Bruck and Calvin Trillin.
Lester, now 28, marvels at the weekly magazine’s rigour: “The amount of thought and money that goes into a single word is pretty dramatic and striking. Those pages have been thought about and they have been debated and they have been agonised over and scrutinised. I mean each word has been deeply thought about by five people.”
It’s Lester’s job, as managing editor, to trouble-shoot and ensure the magazine works; that it comes out on time, in the best possible shape, and with the minimum of stress to everyone involved. She is a bridge, she says, between editor-in-chief David Remnick and the different departments.
“I’ve always loved organising people,” she says, “and I love planning.”
As for how scary the job might be, given a big world event like Osama Bin Laden’s death or the Japanese tsunami can mean the entire magazine has to be reshaped and reworked to the wishes of the editor-in-chief, and given that Lester confesses to being a person who can naturally stress out, she says, “Scariness doesn’t enter the equation. David doesn’t create a work environment of panic or disorder. “He is clear with people about what he wants … He is a very measured, organised, disciplined person and that trickles down.”
Still, one of her former bosses, Philip Gourevtich, former editor of The Paris Review, a longtime contributor to The New Yorker and a multi-award winning journalist whose reporting of the Rwanda genocide is legendary, says with humility of Lester’s managing editor job: “I could never do it; it would be a catastrophe … Amelia doesn’t radiate tension; she’s just super-organised. She knows how to keep things going, to keep things from sliding.
“She is very strong and clear about who she is without coming across as an overwhelming presence. There’s a certain kind of direct confidence, a firmness of intent and character.”
It’s the kind of praise that is repeated by seemingly every person who comes into contact with Lester. Powerful Manhattan literary agent Andrew Wylie, so feared in publishing circles that his nickname is The Jackal, emails to say what an admired colleague Lester was when she worked at his agency as his assistant. It was her first job out of college. Remnick says simply, “Amelia is sensational… I have never seen her drop the ball.”
News of her appointment as managing editor in 2009 made headlines in the United States and in Australia especially because Lester’s first job at the magazine, just three years earlier in 2006, had been as a fact-checker.
Her friend from college, Salon.com staff writer Irin Carmon, says, “People don’t understand how important it is to be a fact-checker at The New Yorker. It is a very serious job.”
Indeed, that’s how Lester convinced Remnick her age wouldn’t be a problem in the role of managing editor. In late 2008, she had already made the career leap from fact-checking at The New Yorker to editing under Gourevitch at the The Paris Review, a literary quarterly. She says now, “As a fact-checker I had to become comfortable telling very important, accomplished people who are the top of their game precisely where they went wrong.
“You begin a lot of sentences with, ‘Well actually …’
“So I thought I would have no problem applying those skills to being managing editor. That is, I would adopt a little bit of that same cheekiness. Talking to David Remnick about the job in the first place was a cheeky thing to do.”
Remnick, who remembered her as an “extraordinarily smart, but also very, very persistent” checker, explains what happened next. “I confess it didn’t occur to me to have somebody [in that job] who was at the time 26 years old.
“There were some awfully good people up for it, people with immensely more experience, both here and at places like The New York Times and,” he pauses, “she wanted it more. And I don’t mean in an obnoxious way; she made it very plain what she could add to the magazine and she made good on that claim immediately.
“I think she felt ‘I’m younger, I’m much more of a citizen of not only the print magazine’ – which she knows very well – ‘but also the web’. And that was very appealing because we’re now going through a transformation.
Lester is one of the few Australians ever hired to the staff of the magazine. (Regular Australian contributors have included novelist Shirley Hazzard and travel writer and former World War II correspondent Alan Moorehead.)
Lester’s older brother Ashley, 35, who has also made the leap to New York, working as an executive director at Morgan Stanley where he is global head of market risk analytics, says with precision, “Amelia has always been determined and quite focused on defined interests.”
She was encouraged early by her parents, Michael and Jill Lester, globe-trotting, high-flying economists. As a six-year-old, when the family was living in the Australian High Commission compound in New Delhi – Michael was an Australian trade commissioner, Jill was First Secretary (Economic) at the commission – Lester was putting out a newsletter titled STE (Save The Earth) in crayon, and setting serious editorial tasks for the whole family.
By 11, with the family settled back in Sydney, she was busily rewriting Shakespeare, simplifying The Merchant of Venice so she could produce, cast and direct it with her Grade Six class.
Small wonder then that at 17, in her senior year at the selective school North Sydney Girls High, and about to score 99.95 in her Higher School Certificate, she was judged by her teachers to be the girl most likely to make a difference in the world.
Pamela McCarthy, deputy editor of The New Yorker, interviewed Lester for that first breakthrough job as fact-checker at the magazine. She saw Lester had a liveliness of mind and spirit, she says, but there was something else remarkable. “It became very clear, very quickly, that she, she whom I was interviewing, was herself a great interviewer. She had a very disarming directness so she could ask the most pointed questions imaginable, without ruffling any feathers at all. And it was clear this would be very useful. She could ask: ‘Why did you embezzle a million dollars?’ as if she were asking, ‘Do you think it will rain today?’”
Lester is keenly interested in politics, and as a fact-checker, she was soon working on key stories like one about the Bush administration’s plans in Iran by Pulitzer-winner Seymour Hersh – re-reporting Hersh’s investigation and talking to unnamed confidential sources whose very existence, she says, was later questioned by the White House.
But she was also chatting to actor George Clooney, after he called her on the phone from his private plane so she could fact-check a profile of him. “He was lovely, exactly how you would imagine George Clooney to be. He’s a professional.”
Two years ago, Lester met her partner, Joe Rospars, the co-founder of a digital strategy agency, Blue State Digital. And, wait for it. He is currently working on President Obama’s re-election campaign as chief digital strategist, having been new media director on Obama’s presidential campaign.
If all of this is making Amelia Lester and her life sound far too good to be true, it helps that she laughs a lot, unabashedly admits to being terrified on her first day as managing editor – it would have been completely petrifying, she says, if she hadn’t already known where the bathrooms were – and has a lightness, approachability and warmth that is mentioned often. She also insists, “I think professionally I am fairly unflappable but that was a learned characteristic.”
Lester also runs most days, saying: “I did catch the bug. I think it has made me a calmer person. I really like food too, so running is not negotiable.”
“It would be wrong to think of her as focused only on her work and burning the midnight oil,” says her brother, Ashley. “She goes on regular pilgrimages to the museums and galleries. She runs; she enjoys food. She’s a good listener. People are very happy to be around her.”
Brother and sister are close. They eat lunch together, once a week, often in the Condé Nast cafeteria or maybe at a favourite Szechuan restaurant on 39th Street. Lester is known for her keen nose for good food and up-and-coming restaurants and also writes reviews for The New Yorker’s ‘Tables for Two’ slot.
Does she pinch herself that she has found herself where she has?
“Absolutely! I never thought I would stay in New York this long.”
When she, Joe, and rescue cat Jupes recently moved from a small one-room apartment in the West Village to two floors of a brownstone in Boerum Hill in South Brooklyn, she was shocked – but pleased – to see how many possessions she had acquired. “When I moved to New York, my Dad drove me down from Boston the Monday after I graduated, with basically a suitcase. I did feel proud to have formed a life here.”
Her current credo is: be fearless. “I always felt because I moved to the other side of the world and I was away from my family and a lot of things that I loved about Australia, I’d continue to try and approach things with a sense of, well, better make the most of this because I’m not here for fun! I mean, there are opportunities here that I need to max out on.”
She concludes, “I think that my Australian-ness was probably one of my best qualifications for my current job … I think Australians tend to be quite straightforward and not concerned with hierarchy, so the perceived order of things was not something that I was psyched out by.”
As to future ambitions, she says the media landscape is changing so fast it’s difficult to predict where or even what her next job might be. She contributes to the magazine’s story meetings, loves radio and has hosted the magazine’s on-line discussions. Her brother is sure she’ll end up as an editor-in-chief.
And even after seven years in New York, she’s still not over the frisson of the magic 212 prefix.
“I had such a New York experience recently,” she says. She had gone with a friend, a graduate student in art history, to I Sodi, an Italian restaurant in the West Village that specialises in Negroni cocktails. The friend was a fan of New Yorker contributor and humourist Calvin Trillin. “She was telling me how for Christmas she got three of his books and she carries one around with her at all times to read.
“Then two people walked in and sat down at the table next to us and out of the corner of my eye, I saw it was Calvin Trillin … And so she leaned across and got him to sign her book.”
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