(Looking for an illustration for this post, I googled for images from the great 1959 film --and novel by Rona Jaffe-- “The Best of Everything” about young women who work in a NYC publishing firm—The diva editor is played by Joan Crawford. They suffer terrible fates until they realize that they will be happier in quiet domesticity as housewives instead of living a miserable life as career women.
I was thrilled to find the image above—our heroine Hope Lange standing on Park Avenue in front of Lever House, because that was where I worked at my very first job. For six months after grad school I worked in PR for Lever Bros. I quit six months later after my (male) boss in P. R. kept taking credit for my work, including the coup of getting a news article positive to our company in the NY press.)
After the month as a MLLE. guest editor, having developed a taste for caviar, I revised my plans for the future. I’d return to the Midwest, finish college, and then head straight back to New York City and a magazine job. Maybe they’d even hire me at MLLE! I wanted more Lester Lanin dances, Central Park photo shoots, strolling at night in the Village with Peter S., the young man who introduced me to my first Communist (in the White Horse Bar) and taught me how to eat an artichoke.
I had not yet realized that the women on the staffs of Vogue, Glamour, Mademoiselle-- all the Conde Nasties-- had to have trust funds in order to pay for food, rent and expensive clothes. No one was making a living wage. (And no one, let’s be honest, is ever allowed to dress in the clothes from the Fashion Closet despite what you see on “Sex and the City” and "The Devil Wears Prada". You can borrow a dress for a working night out, but you have to return it.)
Three years later, in 1964, I was back in Manhattan looking for a job, armed with my Master’s in journalism. I tried out for a post as fiction-reader at the Saturday Evening Post and my written tryout was labeled “brilliant”, but when the legendary fiction editor Rust Hills met me and learned that I had neglected to read "Henderson the Rain King", I was out the door in minutes. So I settled for a post as editorial assistant in the Ladies Home Journal food department and considered myself lucky.
I was paid $80 a week and worked with two other young women in a windowless room next to the LHJ Test Kitchen. Shortly after the Beatles invaded New York in 1964, our kitchen became a popular gathering spot because word got around that you could scrape the insides of banana peels, toast the result and get high smoking it. Mellow yellow! We tested, but it didn’t work.
My boss was a celebrity food editor—Poppy Cannon. She was known for many things including "The Can-Opener Cookbook" and her multiple husbands, among them Walter White, the founder of the NAACP and Chef Phillipe of the Waldorf. Her sister was the designer, Anne Fogarty. (Since we’re talking the Pleistocene era here, I don’t expect you to recognize any of those names.)
Poppy was, as she often told us, the first woman elected to the Chevaliers de Tastevin. She would occasionally organize wine-tastings in the LHJ food kitchens, and I would assist. She would take a mouthful of wine, roll it around in her mouth like the connoisseur she was, then spit it out into a silver cup before cleansing the palate with a little bread and going on to the next wine. My job, which did not really require a master’s degree or a Phi Beta Kappa key, was to hold the cup into which Poppy spit.
Poppy was a glamorous and, yes, Amazonian woman who liked to wear long, sweeping dresses and matching turbans which increased her height to well over six feet. She often displayed various medals on her ample chest, pinned to sashes like royalty. She was, in fact, very sweet and not intimidating like Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly, but Poppy was rather needy and helpless.
She often didn’t feel like coming into the office, so I would have to go to her Park Avenue home. While she reclined on a chaise longue, wearing one of a dazzling wardrobe of peignoirs and muumuus, she would dictate her column for the magazine while I took notes. During the whole time I knew Poppy, the stove and oven in her kitchen did not work, so she would send me out to get lunch for both of us. And usually she had no cash on hand, so she’d tell me to expense it.
In the end, I wrote many of her articles myself, because, after a while, I got the hang of her uniquely florid style. Poppy also once invited me and a colleague out for a weekend at her house in Danbury. We were driven by a car and chauffeur, but it turned out that we were there to clean the house and serve at the table.
In those days, I was at an editorial luncheon when some of the women began reminiscing about the "Delineator". What, I asked, was the Delineator? That was like Amanda in The Devil Wears Prada saying “Can you spell Gabbana for me?” The journalists fell about laughing and sneering (“She’s never heard of the Delineator!”) and informed me it was one of the finest magazines ever published for women. When I looked it up later, I learned that it was published between1873 and 1937 and went out of business four years before I was born. In my early years on MLLE and LHJ, I met a number of glamorous, larger-than-life women from the post-Pleistocene generation whom I call the Best of Everything editors-- because they are the ones Rona Jaffe was writing about in her book. Their names belong on the roll of visionary, intelligent, glamorous and sometimes impossible women who carried the torch in an era when Ladies Home Journal staff members were given aprons with the slogan “Never underestimate the power of a woman.”
There was Bruce Clerke, my personal editor at MLLE, who suffered my Midwestern naiveté with great good humor and tact, as when I tried to drink the shrimp cocktail at La Fonda del Sol during our first lunch. Bruce was a beautiful southern belle, (a college Azalea Queen, if I remember correctly). Perhaps her trademark silver hair inspired Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Miranda Priestly.
The fiction editor at LHJ was Phyllis Levy, a slender and vivacious woman who entranced a series of men but, to my knowledge, never married. (Her good friend Rona Jaffe wrote about Phyllis’s chameleon personality in the story “Rima the Bird Girl.”) One morning, as I was answering reader mail in my closet off the test kitchens, Phyllis dashed in clutching a bottle of champagne and a tin of caviar. “Put this in the refrigerator,” she commanded. “I met the most fabulous man and he’s flying me to Paris tonight.”
And the late Lois Benjamin Gould was the first editor to stride into the office wearing a pants suit. She looked thin, tragic and beautiful. Our jaws dropped. Anything that Lois did, we knew, must be the Next Big Thing. I believe this was after Lois’s husband had died and she dropped out of sight for about a year while she wrote Such Good Friends about discovering her husband’s adultery, another “fiction” book, like The Bell Jar and The Devil Wears Prada that was really faction.
At this time I was sharing an apartment on 14th Street with three young women, all in some form of journalism. Two were researchers on news magazines and, it’s true, the female researchers were expected to travel with the reporter, to help, research, support and socialize with him, but never to write. In those days, believe it or not, nobody got by-lines on the articles in Time, except for columnists. Nowadays, everybody who has anything to do with a piece gets his/her name at the end. Which is only fair.
We had fun, living in that sordid apartment with cardboard furniture and orange-crate shelves. We each chipped in a dollar a day for food. When Time closed on Friday nights, there was always a big buffet on the top floor and our Time/Life researcher roommate would often bring home leftovers. There was no swag for magazine assistants-–certainly not the way there is today--but I remember one Christmas when Restaurant Associates sent me a box made of chocolate with my named spelled out on the lid. Once in a while the Fashion Department would sell off clothes at a bargain-basement price and I snagged a dress that was originally worn by Twiggy in a fashion spread. When there was a subway strike, we’d compete to see who could walk to mid-town on time without stopping for a Chock Full O’Nuts doughnut on the way.
No doubt we were abused, underpaid, overworked and discriminated against because we were women, but that was before we’d ever heard terms like “glass ceiling” , “women’s liberation” and “car service” or read manifestos like TDWP. We didn’t even realize that we were storing up fodder for future exposés.
Footnote about Anna Wintour: I’ve never met her, but when I first had an article published in Vogue, she sent me a handwritten note saying that she liked it. I thought that was a very gracious thing to do. #
After 40 years as a journalist, I turned 60 and decided to return to my first love--painting. I’ve exhibited watercolors and photographs in Massachusetts and have a slide show of paintings below. My photo book “The Secret Life of Greek Cats” can be purchased by clicking on the cover below.
I collect way too many things, but my great passion is antique photographs, from the earliest—daguerreotypes (circa 1840) up to 1900 (cabinet cards, tintypes.) I approach each one as a mystery to solve, and in unlocking their secrets have met some fascinating historic figures. For some of the stories, check the list of “The Story Behind the Photograph”.
My husband Nick and I live in Grafton, MA and recently celebrated our 41st anniversary. We have 3 children, now amazing adults. And on Aug. 26, 2011, we greeted our first grandchild, Amalía-- world’s cutest baby. But this blog isn’t about grandparenting (although photos of the grandkid sneak in). As it says up top, it’s about travel, art, photography and life after sixty. And crone power.