A Powerful Combination

Author: Laura M. Holson
Publication: The New York Times
Publication Date: May 4th, 2012

Click here to read the full article at The New York Times. 

"Are you twelve?"

A plump middle-aged woman in a flower-print dress was standing in front of Chris Hughes at The Paris Review's spring gala at Cipriani 42nd Street on April 3, mocking his youth. Mr. Hughes, a founder of Facebook who bought a majority stake in The New Republic the previous month and then appointed himself publisher and editor in chief, had earlier given a toast in which he joked about buying a copy of the Review in college because he thought it was about Paris.

The evening was his debut in New York's clubby literary society. Robert Silvers, the longtime editor of The New York Review of Books being honored that night, offered Mr. Hughes a warm hello. Ken Auletta, an author and New Yorker writer, nodded approvingly as he passed Mr. Hughes on the way out.

The woman in the dress, though, like many others in the crowd, didn't seem particularly reverential.

"Twelve times two plus four!" Mr. Hughes, 28, replied cheerily. Despite his blond, good-looking boyishness, he had as much if not more confidence as any pinstripe-suited aging editor drinking Bellinis at Cipriani that night, and why not? His résumé includes not just Facebook, which he left in 2007 with a fortune estimated by Forbes at $700 million, but his stewardship of online organizing for President Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. It wasn't the first time someone would question whether Mr. Hughes was old enough to take on an ambitious enterprise, and he knew it wouldn't be the last.

Since moving to New York in 2009, Mr. Hughes and his even younger fiancé, Sean Eldridge, 25, an investor and political activist, have emerged as a significant force in political circles, becoming enthusiastic fund-raisers for the progressive issues they support, which include gay civil rights.

They own a 4,000-square-foot sparsely furnished loft with 12-foot ceilings on Crosby Street in SoHo, where they have held several events in the last year for, among others, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the latter attended by Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader.

"In a short period of time, Sean and Chris have had a big impact on the political life of New York," said Richard Socarides, a Democratic political strategist and former White House aide during the Clinton administration. "They are very generous with their money and time. They are young, rich, smart and good-looking. It's a pretty powerful combination."

Now, after buying The New Republic from its embattled longtime editor, Martin Peretz, Mr. Hughes has an opportunity not only to influence public attitudes and foster awareness of everything from education reform to economic inequality, but to become a player in old as well as new media. That is, if he wants to.

ON a cloudy Sunday in March, Mr. Hughes and Mr. Eldridge were relaxing at their estate in Garrison, N.Y., a quiet, countrified enclave 50 miles from the city where Jacob Weisberg, a former New Republic editor who runs the Slate Group, also has a house, as does Roger Ailes. The couple acquired 80 acres in 2011 for an estimated $5 million, after buying the SoHo loft for $5 million a year before. While they enjoy city life, Mr. Eldridge said, Garrison is where "we put down roots, where we want to have a family"; the community reminded him of Toledo, Ohio, he said, where he grew up playing outside and visiting neighbors unfettered.

Their property includes a former farmhouse built in the 1800s that was inhabited a century later by Vanderbilt Webb, a descendant of the industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt, who held lavish society parties there with his wife, Aileen Osborn Webb, a patron of the arts. They enjoy hiking in the Catskills, an hour away.

Mr. Eldridge opened the front door of the house to greet their guest, as Lucy, the couple's 6-month-old Rhodesian Ridgeback, bounded down the bluestone walkway. Mr. Eldridge, the taller of the two men, wore a snug sweater that revealed a body toned by weights and daily runs in the hills behind his house. He flashed a polite smile that faded as he turned to go indoors. Mr. Hughes, who earlier that day had spoken on a panel at the local library about the future of books, seemed more at ease, sweetly grinning as he offered a guest a glass of Pellegrino and a brief tour.

The estate, among a grove of trees and manicured fields, consists of a 5,000-square-foot main house with eight fireplaces. (There is a separate 2,800-square-foot guesthouse where Mr. Eldridge keeps an office.) It is a study in matte black and faded amber, with accents of crimson in the carpet in Mr. Hughes's office, where a drawing of Atlas holding the world was hung. The wood floors are painted charcoal, and several rooms have large-paned windows that, from the den, overlook an unfinished swimming pool. A chandelier made of deer antlers hung in the foyer, where a vintage typewriter was placed on a table near another pair of antlers, which Mr. Eldridge said he found outside.

It is the type of home typically owned by successful investment bankers in their 40s, not the hard-partying twentysomething digerati set in New York or the nouveau riche in Silicon Valley. "Chris and Sean are fairly serious for their age," said Mr. Socarides, who is friendly with the couple. They often work until late in the evening, and because neither really cooks, eat out at local restaurants, often sharing a bottle of red wine. Both like "Downton Abbey" as well as "The Daily Show."

Like many of their technology peers, including their former Facebook colleagues Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker, neither was to the manner born.

Mr. Hughes grew up in Hickory, N.C., the son of a traveling paper salesman and a schoolteacher. He left home at 15 to attend Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., which he researched on the Internet; it offered him the most generous financial aid of all the places he applied to, he said. The moneyed environment there did not feel entirely comfortable.

"When I was 17, I went to India for six weeks and had what, at the time, was a very challenging trip," Mr. Hughes recalled while sitting in his office. "You walk down the street and you see lepers and beggars, and there were several of us, a group of Americans. I remember we were just trying to park one night somewhere and people were just sleeping in the parking lot."

The experience did not spark a spiritual awakening, said Mr. Hughes, who was raised an evangelical Lutheran, but something more cerebral. "It was sort of like, why should one person have so many challenges and another person not?" he said. "To me the dissonance between the levels of opportunity, it just doesn't make sense."

In the fall of 2002, Mr. Hughes enrolled at Harvard and was assigned to share a dorm room with Mr. Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz, who, along with Eduardo Saverin, founded Facebook their sophomore year. For Mr. Hughes, a history and literature student with no programming skills, it later seemed to outsiders a lucky break.

"He is fortunate he found himself in the same room," said David Kirkpatrick, a journalist and author of "The Facebook Effect," who spoke with Mr. Hughes for the book. But Mr. Hughes had something his roommates lacked. "He is more socially adjusted than the rest of them," Mr. Kirkpatrick said. "He's more smooth."

Mr. Hughes was essentially Facebook's first spokesman. He was a liaison with other universities, drumming up positive press in student newspapers. He also answered phone calls and e-mails. "I would help out with customer support and anything that would later become product," he said. But when Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Moskovitz quit Harvard and moved to Silicon Valley in 2005, Mr. Hughes stayed behind. His studies, he said, "were a prism to better understand and see how the world works today."

Mr. Eldridge, meanwhile, the son of two physicians (he has two older sisters) went to public high school in Toledo. He resists revealing personal details in conversation or online, particularly on his Facebook page, which consists mostly of bland political posts and is, according to Mr. Eldridge, "a professional thing." Even friends and colleagues of the couple said they did not know Mr. Eldridge well.

"I think having been close to Facebook from the beginning, it makes you a cautious person," Mr. Eldridge said. "I've always been like that." He is such a cautious type, he added later, that he bought extra home fire extinguishers for all the fireplaces.

His wary nature could also be explained in part by his political ambitions. In 2004-5, he spent a year at Deep Springs College, an exclusive two-year all-male school in California's high desert that combined rigorous academic study with life on a cattle ranch. It was a monastic existence, with the school's 26 students expected to herd cows, scrub toilets and, after chores, engage in political discourse and debate social justice. (Past attendees include William vanden Heuvel, a former American diplomat.)

There, Mr. Eldridge worked hard on public speaking, one of the school's required courses. "He was interested in learning those skills," said David Neidorf, Deep Springs's president.

But he also left college for a while to work for a moving company outside Boston. He met Mr. Hughes at a brunch in Harvard Square, after a college acquaintance of Mr. Eldridge's suggested they might become friends. "A week later I asked him out on a real date," Mr. Eldridge said. (It was a dinner in November 2005 at Temple Bar in Cambridge, Mr. Hughes recalled, during which they talked about philosophy and politics.) "Our relationship became serious pretty quickly," said Mr. Eldridge, who later transferred to Brown and graduated with a degree in philosophy in May 2009.

Back in Garrison, it was dusk, and he was staring out his office window at 12 deer grazing on a grassy hill, near where the couple plans to exchange wedding vows in June (after which they'll have a party for 400 at Cipriani Wall Street). "This is one of my favorite things," he said, his voice trailing off.

The lives and the interests of the couple seem so closely intertwined, they might well be the Brangelina of the political/new-media set.

When Mr. Hughes entered to remind Mr. Eldridge it was dinnertime, he tried to sit on the arm of his chair, but didn't comfortably fit and moved to a high-backed chair five feet away.

"I'm so far away from you!" Mr. Hughes said mournfully.

AT 7 p.m. on Feb. 24, 2011, nearly 100 guests arrived at the couple's SoHo loft for a fund-raiser Mr. Hughes and Mr. Eldridge were hosting for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. She had met them a year earlier at dinner, where they had discussed a shared interest in legalizing same-sex marriage.

"I said, ‘I'd love for you to introduce me to your friends,' " Senator Gillibrand recalled in a recent interview. The crowd was a mix of prominent, wealthy gay New Yorkers, including the playwright Tony Kushner and the investment banker Charles Myers, as well as politicos like Andrew Tobias, a personal finance author and treasurer of the Democratic National Committee.

The mood was mellow (by contrast, Lady Gaga was a guest at a Silicon Valley fund-raiser for the president hosted by Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, last September). But most of the couple's fund-raising events are low key. Guests say they rarely stay more than two hours. Few celebrities attend, and there is little coverage among the tabloid party press.

Still, what the event lacked in celebrity wattage, it more than made up for in donations and access to the two young men. Said Brian Ellner, an activist for same-sex marriage who was at the event, "They have emerged as one of the leading couples and hosts for important political events and fund-raising in New York."

That, for the most part, is by design. The couple say that when they moved to New York in 2009 they decided to use Mr. Hughes's fortune - and the political clout that came with it - to promote causes they cared about. "We can always write a check," Mr. Eldridge said, "but we thought it was more important to get our friends to support issues."

They exerted their influence in other, more public ways, too. Mr. Eldridge joined the same-sex marriage advocacy group Freedom to Marry in January 2010 as communications director to help promote the passage of a same-sex marriage bill in New York in 2011. He was later given the title political director because, along with his fund-raising ability (he and Mr. Hughes recently donated $250,000), he was a credible spokesman, said Evan Wolfson, who founded the organization. "He became our prominent face and voice," Mr. Wolfson said.

After the same-sex marriage bill passed in New York last year, Mr. Eldridge lessened his involvement in Freedom to Marry. His new area of interest is campaign finance reform in New York State, he said. And he has set up a venture capital firm to invest $50,000 to $500,000 in companies located in the Hudson River Valley. Those endeavors could help him if he decides to run for elected office, but for now, Mr. Eldridge said he had no plans. "I'm young," he said. "I'm 25. I'm having a great time being an activist. I think that is the right role for me."

While Mr. Eldridge focused on same-sex marriage, Mr. Hughes started the social networking Web site Jumo in November 2010, which was designed to connect people with nonprofits and charitable organizations. The endeavor failed, though, and merged last August with Good, a media company focused on social causes.

Then Mr. Hughes began mulling the idea of owning his own magazine, in the mold of Mr. Peretz, David Bradley (The Atlantic and National Journal) and Mortimer Zuckerman (U.S. News and World Report) before him - all men who used their fortunes to buy an instrument of intellectual influence. "Maybe it is because of Facebook or something else, but I have been interested in journalism for a long time," Mr. Hughes said. He decided against the clicks-driven ethos of new-media sites like the Huffington Post ("too horse-racy," he said), and wanted to invest in something he perceived to be less cacophonous and more substantial, journalism that he hoped would influence political decision-makers.

He zeroed in on The New Republic, a liberal political and arts magazine founded in 1914 that has lost some popularity after a series of controversies in the 1990s. Mr. Hughes said he spent hours at the New York Public Library last fall reading past issues on microfiche. And before the announcement of his buying a majority stake in March, Mr. Hughes said he met with some of the staff, including the longtime literary editor, Leon Wieseltier.

"We had a long audition of each other in my living room," Mr. Wieseltier recalled. "We asked each other the most basic questions about politics and culture, not just, ‘Who did you vote for?' "

Later, Mr. Wieseltier said Mr. Hughes consulted him about whether the couple's political fund-raising would pose a conflict. "As long as you are upfront about what you do, it won't," Mr. Wieseltier said he told him. After their meetings, the literary editor added: "I permitted myself to be hopeful. We needed relief and support."

Sitting in his home office in Garrison, Mr. Hughes had been editor in chief for only two weeks. His plans for The New Republic, though, were more pragmatic than idealistic: making it free online, hiring writers and making content more accessible on electronic tablets like the iPad, as well as a coming redesign. He has also been approached to sponsor several parties, including one at the recent White House Correspondents' Association dinner, he said, but has thus far declined those opportunities.

"Politico needs buzz and Bloomberg is sponsoring every party you can find," Mr. Hughes said. "I'm not interested in that for The New Republic. Buzz is not what I am looking for."