Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Bring Back the Mlle. Guest Editor Contest!

In the April issue of Vanity Fair Magazine there was an article about the fabled Barbizon Hotel for Women, which served as a protective place for single women to stay in Manhattan. I wrote a letter to the VF editors about my brief stay there when I was a Mademoiselle Magazine guest editor back in 1961. Part of my letter is published in the current (June) issue of VF on page 62. But since they only printed the beginning, I wanted to share the whole letter (below) because there was a point that I’d like to make: There is no opportunity for young women today to get a foot up the ladder of success in the arts like the now-dead Guest Editor contest (and other, similar contests). Instead there are only reality shows which encourage bad behavior and drama instead of actual talent.

To: Vanity Fair letters

Reading the article by Michael Callahan about the Barbizon Hotel brought back memories of the day in June 1961 when I walked into my closet-sized room there, fresh from sophomore final exams in Appleton, Wisconsin, to find on the narrow bed a single red rose and a list of the month of activities that awaited me as a Mademoiselle Magazine Guest Editor.

They included interviews with celebrities whose work we admired (mine was artist Larry Rivers), silly photo shoots in Central Park, a makeover, a movie premier, a champagne airplane dinner flight over Manhattan as the sun set, fashion shows and P.R. breakfasts, many featuring caviar, which I had never seen before.

As we headed from the Barbizon toward the Mlle. Magazine offices each day, we Guest Eds smirked at the Katie Gibbs girls who were forced to wear white gloves, heels and stockings to their lessons in shorthand and typing.

That month-long taste of New York sophistication and glamour threw many innocent young women for a loop—just as it drove Sylvia Plath’s character, in The Bell Jar to toss her fashionable clothes off the hotel roof, suffer a nervous breakdown and ultimately attempt suicide.

(When I was there, Plath’s book hadn’t yet been published, but I heard rumors of how her 1953 crop of Guest Eds suffered food poisoning in the Good Housekeeping Test Kitchens-- an episode recreated in The Bell Jar.)

While I was there, I saw Guest Editors change their names to sound more sophisticated, pursue the divorced son of Editor Betsy Talbot Blackwell in hopes of scoring a job, try to talk themselves onto the Today show and desperately volley for a place on the masthead (even though you pretty much needed independent wealth to pay for the necessary wardrobe.)

We were received by Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden. There was always a de rigueur cocktail party at BTB’s apartment overlooking Central Park with a strolling accordionist. (One of the Guest Eds. later told me, “Every time someone started speaking French, I’d dig my heels harder into her cork floor.”)

The young man who was assigned to escort me to the Mlle. Dinner Dance (with Lester Lanin’s orchestra) later asked me to meet his parents at their Long Island country club on the weekend. (He also taught me to eat an artichoke and introduced me to my first Communist—at the White Horse Bar.)

With my Midwestern naiveté, I dressed in “slacks”, but when he arrived to collect me, the Barbizon fashion police at the desk would not allow me to walk the several yards from the elevator across the lobby to the exit. I was sent back to my tiny room to don something more appropriate.

Yes the Barbizon’s rules were insulting and repressive to the women who stayed there. It’s fun to regale my daughters with tales of the bad old days for young would-be career women. But in the Mademoiselle Guest Editor Contest, we had something that is no longer available to ambitious young females. (The program ended in 1979, the magazine folded in 2001.)

We were judged strictly on our talents, not our looks, wealth or personality.

We won the Guest Ed spots, through a series of try-outs—three as I recall, rating our work in art, photography, writing, cartooning, or poetry—unlike Glamour’s Best Dressed College Girls—who were chosen on the basis of how they looked in photographs of three outfits.

Among the women who got their first break through the Mlle. Contest were: Betsey Johnson, Joan Didion, Gael Greene, Carol Brightman, Francine du Plessix Gray, Ann Beattie, Mona Simpson, Linda Allard, and of course Sylvia Plath.

Today, ambitious young women have no opportunity to be judged on the basis of their talents. Their only options are American Idol and reality shows which promote appearance, sexual attraction and outrageous behavior over actual talent in the arts.

So in this enlightened era, despite all the hurdles I faced trying to get a foot into journalism back in the early sixties, I remember the Barbizon, with its parietal rules and the Mlle. Guest Editor contest with nostalgia.

And I have a plea on behalf of young women in the hinterlands of the U.S. who would like a first step up the ladder: bring back something like the Barbizon and the Mlle. Guest Editor contest!

Joan Paulson Gage


Anonymous said...

You were in some very fine company, Joan! And I agree--bring back the Mlle. Guest Editor Guest Contest.

lactmama said...

100% correct in your plea to bring back something like this talent based job. See, you were a star way back when and just kept on going up.

HEY- they have been dumbing us down for decades. Don't think, buy the toys that do nothing, watch tv, eat junk, etc. I just hope there are enough smart young people around to keep the world going after we are gone.