Thursday, November 5, 2009

Those Fabulous Magazine Divas –A Memoir

(A trip to Manhattan last weekend and a week on the West Coast starting tomorrow have played havoc with my plan to post the third part of my Ghost Extravaganza —but it is coming soon—a summary, based on 100 letters from people who live in haunted houses, of what a ghost really is and how you know there’s one around. Meanwhile, I’m going to post –in three parts--something I wrote as an homage to the legendary magazine editors I worked for long before Meryl Streep took on the role of Anna Wintour avatar Miranda Priestly)

I’ve read the book The Devil Wears Prada and seen the film—two rather different stories, but both about abused and self-pitying young female editorial assistants—and I want to tell any fledgling fashionistas struggling on the mastheads of glossy magazines: it used to be worse. In my day, we editorial assistants found ourselves serving cocktails, ironing our bosses’ linens and even collecting their spit. And in those days, it didn’t occur to us to complain, much less write a get-rich-quick tell-all.

When I set out to find a magazine job in New York, armed with a B.A., a Phi Beta Kappa key and a Master’s degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, I, like Andrea Sachs in TDWP, considered myself a Serious Journalist. So naturally I applied at the Time/Life empire. A nice, not-at-all haughty woman in Human Resources told me in confidence, “If you really want to write—to be a reporter—then you shouldn’t apply for a job at Time/Life because women here cannot get higher on the masthead than researcher.”

I did not protest in outrage nor hunt for a lawyer, because this was 1964. I gathered up my resumé and my portfolio and thanked her for her honesty and went to look elsewhere. Eventually I ended up in the Food Department of Ladies’ Home Journal although, also like Andrea, I always thought The New Yorker was more my speed.

My first glimpse of the heady world of women’s magazines was in June of 1961 when I won Mademoiselle magazine’s Guest Editor Contest and was transported, along with 19 other coeds from around the country, to the Barbizon Hotel (no men allowed above the ground floor), where we found a red rose on the bed in our tiny rooms with a month-long schedule of events that bore no relation to a real job.

The editor of MLLE was the legendary Betsy Talbot Blackwell, the mother of the makeover. She was one of the last of what I call the Pleistocene Era of magazine editors--a group of eminent women who, early in the 20th century, ruled their kingdoms with the proverbial iron hand in a velvet glove. (I suspect that very few of these early triple-named lady editors would fit into a size six, much less size zero dress.) They dictated to the women of America what to wear and cook and how to behave, and the women of America took their word as gospel. (I have a very early issue of Ladies Home Journal magazine that warns its readers sternly: if they dye their hair they will go insane.)

After our arrival at MLLE, each guest editor was given a personal welcome by BTB in her cavernous office. We were warned, before we entered for our few moments of personal face time, that if BTB should suddenly be seized by a fit of apparently terminal coughing, we should simply keep on talking as if nothing was happening. I did as I was told, but it was BTB who keep asking me if I was all right. Evidently the strain of having to take my final exams a week early, cramming all night while living on cigarettes, coffee, Mars bars and Dexedrine (a kind of speed, children, but it was legal) had saved my straight-A average but taken its toll on my gray complexion and stick-thin body.

Every year BTB threw a cocktail party for the guest editors in her magnificent apartment. All I remember is that she had champagne and caviar (I had grown to hate the sight of it), a strolling accordion player, a view of Central Park, a side chair once owned by Lincoln that no one was allowed to sit on and a cork floor that was badly scarred by the spike heels we wore. In her bedroom, free books sent for BTB’s perusal were in three-foot high stacks on the floor. That really impressed me—all those free books!

We stood in a receiving line at the cocktail party and my jaw dropped as the guest ed next to me suddenly decided to introduce herself with a French name. This same fiercely ambitious young woman also set her cap for BTB’s divorced son—something that evidently was as much a guest editor tradition as the strolling accordion player (who the following year, I’m told, accidentally sat on the Lincoln chair, reducing it to kindling.)

The great and, I would soon learn, totally anomalous thing about the Guest Editor contest was that you were chosen for your talent in various fields (writing, photography, art, cartooning, poetry, etc.) rather than for your physical beauty and fashion sense. This was the opposite of Glamour’s “Best Dressed College Girls” contest, which Martha Stewart won. Some now-famous women who were guest editors at the beginning of their career include: Betsey Johnson, Ali McGraw, Joan Didion, Gael Greene, Carol Brightman and of course Sylvia Plath in 1955. In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, the protagonist’s month as a guest editor drives her to throw all her stylish clothes off the roof of the Barbizon (Sylvia called it “the Amazon”). Then she goes home and tries to commit suicide.

Like Andrea in The Devil Wears Prada, most guest editors were dramatically changed by their exposure to a glamorized, surreal world. It can spoil you forever. Or it can traumatize you to learn that there are people smarter and more sophisticated than yourself, who speak three languages and went to finishing school. “Every time someone would start talking French, I’d dig my heel a little harder into her cork floor,” one guest ed confided.

Every morning some company threw a fancy breakfast for us, often featuring caviar. which I had never seen before. During the day we each were assigned to an editor at MLLE, but we never had to do any real work. Instead, we lived as if life was a movie montage. We got makeovers and were dressed alike to be photographed in locations around Manhattan. There were dinners and theater, a movie premiere, a bird’s-eye-view flight over Manhattan at dusk, and the chance to interview VIPs in our field of special interest (I got to interview artist Larry Rivers – who said I reminded him of his sister! Others met with Edward Albee, Oleg Cassini, Edward D. Stone, Philip Roth and Walter Kerr).

There was a formal dinner dance. The Lester Lanin orchestra played, and we were each provided with an escort scrounged for us by the staff of the magazine. Mine was very nice—stockbroker, lived in the Village. He asked me to the country on a weekend to visit his parents. I put on khakis, but the fashion Nazi in the lobby of the Barbizon would not let me cross from the elevator, seven yards to the front entrance, while wearing pants. She made me turn around and go upstairs and put on a skirt.

Next: From Mlle Guest Editor to Real Life Magazine Jobs—the party’s over!

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