Susan Magrino Dunning Classically Influential

May 7, 2021

Susan Magrino Dunning runs MAGRINO PR, her powerhouse public relations firm, with about fifty trusted and loyal staff, from corporate offices on Park Avenue South. She’s been Martha Stewart’s go-to public relations person since Martha’s second cookbook back in 1983, and has a bevy of impressive clients in lifestyle divisions including luxury consumer goods, travel, real estate, food and beverage, and special events. To name just a few, MAGRINO represents: 

Cuisinart, California Closets, Sur la Table, Drew Barrymore’s brands, Scout Bags, and Fortnum & Mason; Casa de Campo Resort, The Fontainebleau in Miami, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, and other hotels; Moet Hennessy USA and Whispering Angel, and many other fine wines and spirits, including Bruno Mars’ SelvaRey rum; Christie’s International Real Estate; the Kips Bay Show House, Literacy Partners, the Alzheimer’s Association, the James Beard Foundation Awards, and Grace Farms Foods; MAGRINO even handles public relations for The New York Public Library! And they’ve started to venture into the CBD space with Canopy Growth products.

BY: CASEY KAPLAN

Photos: Julia Dags

Hair & Makeup: Jean Neubohn

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Susan was ‘leaning in’ before Sheryl Sandberg got out of college, and has been a major influencer since long before influencers were even a thing.

Susan shattered the glass ceiling of the previously male-dominated world of public relations, and she’s been the model of a powerful, positive, and successful business woman ever since. …And Susan is a New Canaanite!

Magrino grew up and went to public school in West Orange, New Jersey, then went to Skidmore College, focusing on English and Art History. As Magrino recalls, “It was the beginning of the boom-boom 80’s, junk bonds were the new thing and the stock market was going wild, and there was a sense – or at least I had a sense – that a lot of the old constraints were off, and that you could do bold things and achieve great success. I’ve always been a big believer that you have to be yourself fully, and apply yourself fully…and you can make anything happen. I recognized that just about everything I would do in business would be a first-woman-this or first-female-that milepost, and that my generation of young women would be defining the new post-Gloria Steinem workplace, but I really have always just thrown myself into it – without really thinking about being a woman doing it.”  Magrino landed a job at Crown Publishing, and spent nearly a decade there, learning the ins and outs of the public relations trade. “It was really a special time. Nancy Kahan at Crown was a true leader, and gave me tremendous responsibility right out of the gate. One of my first assignments, in 1986, was running the national book tour for Patti Davis’ not-too-flattering portrait of her parents, the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, and First Lady Nancy Reagan. Patti had gone rogue and had no secret service protection, and we were swamped at every stop by eager reporters and an angry mob. I learned early on that a lot of the business of public relations was ultimately going to be based on the relationships I had to build and earn with book editors, the media, news rooms, and, well, just about everybody involved in getting out your message.”

Magrino reflects,

“It’s all about knowing the right opportunity when you see it, and never looking back. I came to work interested and able. I had a real drive and a need to prove my independence. And I was all-in. But what I realized early on was to recognize the enormous opportunity I had at Crown, and then I did everything I could to make the most of it. I built relationships. And, most important amongst them, Martha, who has been my friend, supporter, mentor, ‘sister’…and client, since I started working on her very first cookbook tours at Crown.”

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Committed to owning her own business before hitting the age of 30, Magrino took a $10,000 loan from her father, a successful Wall Street lawyer turned successful commodities trader, got her sister Allyn to join her, and started the Susan Magrino Agency – now simply called MAGRINO PR (with Susan as CEO and Allyn as President). “I had Martha, who gave me the plain-and-simple Martha-like advice about naming my business to ‘just call it your name’, 

and then we signed Charlie Rose, and Frederick Fekkai, and Chris Blackwell, and I was quickly pretty busy. I paid that loan back in less than six months! And the business has grown pretty steadily ever since; with about three-quarters of all our new business coming from referrals! We will be celebrating thirty years in business in 2022, and I couldn’t be prouder of what we can accomplish for our clients and the great people we have on staff making it happen! We continue to have amazing momentum in both PR and digital, and we are actively recruiting for a number of positions.”

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Magrino and her sister, Allyn

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Over the years, Magrino has keenly navigated the onset of the internet and the digital age of communications, and stayed at the forefront of social media and influencer marketing. She says, “I’ve always challenged myself to be a forward thinker. You just can’t compete with the reach. You have to make social media a part of every program and you almost always want to involve Instagram and influencers who can move huge audiences.” But, Magrino is also mindful that, “Ultimately, it’s really more about the message than the media. Clients have to appear real, and that’s all about credibility, trust and integrity. We assess each client’s objectives and study the long and short-term messaging that will get them there.
We design an integrated media and communications plan, and we have the know-how, technology and relationships to get that message broadcast to the intended audience. It’s a tough business, there’s a lot of blocking and tackling, and yet there’s a bespoke nature to the communications machine. It takes a team and, I believe, a team incentivized with the opportunity of responsibility – like I was back at Crown. I love the process of mentoring all my people. I’m so happy when we can promote someone who starts as an assistant to move up through the ranks, or when someone who has grown up with us gets a desired position elsewhere or goes out on their own. I think it’s critical in business to quickly recognize your strengths and weaknesses, and build a team designed to help. My team at MAGRINO is the best in the business.”
But beyond MAGRINO’s methods and practices, Susan’s effectiveness is rooted in an almost unique ability to establish and stay on message. Susan knows how to set the narrative, avoid distraction, and deliver.
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It requires experience, confidence, perspective, preparation, patience, knowing the reaction before it comes, and, sometimes, self-sacrifice. As Instagram becomes more and more a vehicle for short blasts by and about people and products, Magrino remains the kind of traditional, no-nonsense, unflappable, one-stop-shop influencer, who never stops having your back, can best bring about epic long-term results, and who you want in your corner when the going gets tough.

On the personal side, Susan’s singular focus on business may have played a role in her waiting until 2004 to get married – to James Dunning Jr., a former investment banker and media CEO, and a youth focused philanthropist. James is a longtime New Canaanite and a long-time benefactor of the New Canaan public schools and of St. Luke’s, 

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and a supporter of their athletic programs. James has two sons from a previous marriage, who were raised in New Canaan and attended the New Canaan Country School and St.Luke’s, before heading off to boarding school. (And, his son, James III, now lives in New Canaan, with his wife Katie and their 3 children.)

Susan and James have an apartment in New York City and homes in Jupiter, FL and Orient, Long Island, but spend as much time as they can at their home base in New Canaan. The New Canaan home is designed in a comfortable country style, with a pool and plenty of spaces for entertaining. Susan’s favorite space in the house is the sunroom off of her kitchen – that gives the feeling of being outside, while still being able to enjoy a supremely plush sofa. The entire house is designed for pleasure – open and airy, with one room flowing to the next, and the entire home being a grand entertaining space, perfect for the holidays or for time alone. The interior is at once perfect without appearing to be too decorated, and that mark of a great decorator is the work of New Canaan based Krista Fox Interiors. Every aspect of every room has been completely thought out and carefully designed and there’s an abundance of cozy places to sit – with friends or a good book. The house is minimal, clean and sleek, but also filled with momentos, prized items (each with their own story), and photos. 

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Susan pulled-out one such item and reminisced, “I went to a book party for Slim Aarons at Kaufmann de Suisse on Madison Avenue. I was invited by Sirio Maccioni, the famous restaurateur of Le Cirque, and I had purchased this vintage first edition copy of A Wonderful Time – Slim Aarons’ very first photobook after becoming well known as the photographer for Town & Country. His tagline was: attractive people, doing attractive things, in attractive places. I brought the book to the party and Slim signed it for me, and it’s one of the things that I really treasure.” 

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“Although we spent many months during Covid here, this home was intended, when we built it, to be a weekend getaway and a place of relaxation outside of the City. So we wanted the master suite to reflect that; and we completely reimagined the space to be luxurious and retreat-like.” And, it is indeed like something you’d find at the most luxurious Parisian hotel; an overly plush carpet, custom bedding, a travertine stone fireplace across from the bed, chaise lounges, an over-the-top marble and bathroom suite with Waterworks fittings, and an even-more-over-the-top closet. “Jim just didn’t have any space before, so we decided to do an addition onto the house to create my dream closet that I had always wanted – although, thinking about it now, Jim is still not getting much space!”, Susan explained. She’s a fashionista to say the least; although it’s clear that Susan values relationships far more than things, she has quite the impressive collection of couture and an abundance of clothes for any occasion or season. 

Susan calls the dream closet, the ‘closet of all closets’ and her ‘fashion laboratory’.

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 “I wanted everything to be open. If I can’t see it, I don’t know what I have and just don’t wear it. There are no bulky doors, I have closet sticks so I can easily move things around, and I get to look at all of these amazing pieces that each bring me joy. I worked with California Closets to customize every aspect of the space; they have such knowledgeable professionals and they customize everything and make it fit your needs and your wardrobe. Working with them was a joy, and all their work turned-out to be beyond my expectations. From the vintage Heywood Wakefield vanity painted a high gloss white, to the showcase hanging racks, the cupboards, and of course, the massive island filled with drawers for undergarments, casual clothes and jewelry – I love every inch of the room.” The closet is clearly one of Susan’s happy places, and every item in the closet has a story of its own just like the momentos around the rest of the house – from the Gucci skirt suit that Susan was eyeing at Roundabout in Greenwich for months, to the linen dress that she got on vacation in Italy with Jim, or the tweed Chanel coat that she says was her first major splurge piece after starting MAGRINO – Susan lights up talking about every piece. In fact, Susan is known for her fabulous clothes and impeccable looks. Her personal Instagram @susanmagrino7 boasts a following of almost 8k, where she regularly posts photos of her daily outfits – always styled to the nines from head to toe.

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Susan and James are members of St. Marks Church, and Susan is a member of the local Hannah Benedict Carter Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Susan sits on the Advisory Board of the Glass House, and is active in philanthropies supporting art, design and food. Her sister, Allyn Magrino Holmberg, also lives in New Canaan, and sits on the New Canaan Tourism & Economic Development Advisory Committee, and Susan’s niece and nephew went to the New Canaan public schools. Susan’s mother, Mary Cross, lives in New Canaan, too. Susan Magrino is, indeed, a local!
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And, ironically, three of Susan’s top-four most admired people in business are also locals! Of course there’s Martha Stewart, about whom Susan declares, “Very few people get to grow up in business with a mentor like Martha. She’s been in my corner 30+ years and counting, and I’m eternally grateful for her friendship and support.” Then there’s Ralph Lauren, because, Susan says, “No one is more clear and disciplined in their vision than Ralph, and it’s been an honor over the years to have worked with him and his family.” And Philip Johnson, who Susan admits to admiring from across the dining room at the Four Seasons Restaurant, when she took her power seat at her power table and he took his, back in the day when lunch in the iconic dining room was the citadel of big movers and big moves in the business world. “Johnson achieved incredible success in business, and was lucky to live long enough to see most of his designs and projects realized. He changed our view of architecture and was the original modernist and minimalist. Although, I don’t think I could ever have the discipline to live in The Glass House! …And I bought my table and chair from the Four Seasons at the auction when the restaurant closed, and now use it for my own power lunches and as my desk – where it sits in my office in New Canaan!” The only out-of-towner in Susan’s group of four most admired businesspeople would be Sacha Lichine, the Creator of Chateau d’Esclans and Whispering Angel Rose, who Susan admires for singularly redefining the meaning of rose wine – with the validation of LVMH acquiring a majority stake.

 

Though she’s nowhere near the end of her career, and in fact probably just hitting her stride as MAGRINO prepares to celebrate its 30th Anniversary, Magrino has herself reached a point of accomplishment which warrants comment. In 2019, Susan was honored by New York Women in Communications with their prestigious Matrix Award, recognizing women in the media in support of their mission of female empowerment. More recently, Squawk Box on CNBC dubbed Magrino, the ‘Queen of Public Relations’. And it’s important, and right, to take note of the barriers Magrino has broken as a female, her female perspective of the business community, the world’s view of her as a woman in business, particularly useful lessons particular to being a woman in business that she may wish to impart, and the great things Susan is doing to pay it forward with a focus on things she does for women. Magrino is indeed a vanguard of female corporate chiefs.

 

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But as and when Magrino’s real measure is taken, it may be that she has so smartly and successfully performed, as to transcend being judged as a business woman versus a business man, and instead become one of the first of a newest generation of women who’ve come to be seen only as a business person, and evaluated absent gender-based criteria. And it’s interesting that Susan’s champion, Martha Stewart, would be one of the other premier women who might be similarly viewed. By any and all standards…it should and must be simply said that Magrino is a giant, a titan, on top of her game, and does it all with confidence and grace

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