Magazine nerds, here we go: A starter collection of behind-the-scenes stories from some of your most beloved magazines, including The New Yorker, Time, Entertainment Weekly, Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair and the New York Review of Books, plus now-defunct publications like Might, George, Sassy and Wigwag. Share your favorite behind-the-magazine stories with us on Twitter or Facebook: #longreads.
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As word leaked out that the company was pumping more than $10 million into the magazine, the sniping began. An enterprising Chicago Tribune reporter tracked down Clare Boothe Luce, who had been a V.F. managing editor in the 30s, and asked her what she made of the relaunch. “I do wish the new magazine could be as wonderful as the old,” she said, “but I don’t see how it can.” New York magazine also weighed in, long before the debut, with a skeptical piece reporting that Locke’s job was in jeopardy. Newsweek joined the fun, too, calling the prototype “aggressively ugly” and averring that there was an “uncertainty about Vanity Fair’s editorial focus.”
The New Yorker
S.I. Newhouse’s contentious appointment of Robert Gottlieb as the editor of The New Yorker in 1987, and what Gottlieb did to bring the magazine into a new era:
“Orlean was an early Gottlieb-era hire. ‘She came in off the street,’ said McGrath, her Talk of the Town editor (though, she noted, Gottlieb was often her second reader). ‘She came into my office and, in the space of a twenty-minute conversation, she had about a hundred ideas for stories, and about eighty of them were good.’ “Orlean laughed about this. ‘By the standards of The New Yorker I was being brought in off the street. I had a book contract; I was writing for Rolling Stone and The Boston Globe, so that’s hilarious. That’s so classic of The New Yorker to feel that if you weren’t at The New Yorker you were essentially homeless and living hand-to-mouth on crap.’”
“At one point I said, Mr. Shawn, you have this whole enterprise going, a magazine is printing this weekend, and you’re the editor of it, and you sit here talking about these commas and semicolons with me—how can you possibly do it?”
Mademoiselle, which published its last issue in November 2001, was known for more than just fashion and advice. One cover, in February 1954, boasted only two, telling headlines: “Romantic fashions, for spring, for brides, for tall girls”; and “Dylan Thomas’s ‘Under Milk Wood.’ ”
The magazine published an astonishing array of literary work (mostly fiction) by writers including Truman Capote, Albert Camus, William Faulkner, Carson McCullers and James Baldwin, and later, Alice Munro and Barbara Kingsolver. Its list of college competition winners was stellar, too: not just Plath, but also Joan Didion, Mona Simpson, Ann Beattie, Francine du Plessix Gray and Diane Johnson.
Ultimately, nobody at Esquire tried to stop Harold Hayes from running the cover. After all, under his leadership, the magazine was clearly thriving and would hit an all-time high circulation of just under 900,000 that fall. More important, Hayes didn’t second-guess himself. “He had the exact thing that all of the great editors and producers and studio heads and politicians have, which is that he absolutely trusted his gut,” says Nora Ephron, who worked with Hayes when she was a columnist and feature writer for Esquire in the early 70s. “He knew what he wanted. He acted on it.”
“[Magazine covers] are very carefully researched. They test them: ‘Do you like this line better than this one?’ If you have to depend on blurbs to have people buy your magazine then you’ve got a piece of shit! You don’t have a brand! You don’t design a magazine for your audience; you create a great magazine for yourself. I’ve had this discussion with editors like Graydon Carter. He could do great Vanity Fair covers. Graydon said, ‘We have very intelligent readers.’ And I said, ‘Of course you have very intelligent readers, and you insult them with every cover!’”
EW’s rise, scattered identity, brilliant heyday and slow, gradual decline mirrors the same journey of Time Warner’s conglomerate hopes and dreams. The leading magazine company weds a film and television giant? It all looked so great on paper. But here we are with the EW of today, and it’s clear: Just because it looks pretty in a business plan doesn’t mean it’s a good idea at all.
By the end of that year, Might was out of business. Dave Eggers was writing A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and on his way to becoming the voice of a generation. And I was an intern at The New Republic.
Luce and Hadden shared a contempt for what is now called the mainstream media, both the sensational tabloids and the serious dailies, which they regarded as dull and bloated. Brimming with precocious self-confidence, they conceived a weekly digest of news and analysis culled from other publications. The journal that was initially to be called Facts (but morphed into Time before its debut in 1923) promised to scour close to 90 periodicals and amalgamate news from every sphere of life. Its declared mission was to serve “the illiterate upper classes, the busy businessman, the tired debutante, to prepare them at least once a week for a table conversation.”
Huey is giddy about People’s success. But then he volunteers, unsolicited, a summary of the difference between his two most important magazines. “Time magazine is about everything that matters. People is about things that don’t matter but everybody cares about.” If I worked at People, I’d be wincing now.
Kate White’s likable directness is one of her magazine’s defining characteristics. Cosmo has a cheerful, girlfriendy tone (“When Your Period Makes You Cra-a-zy”) and a much racier reputation than its newsstand competitors (“Eeek! You’ll Die When You Read What These ‘Normal’ Guys Wanted Once Their Pants Hit the Floor”). Its covers rarely fail to feature at least one bold, all-caps rendering of the word “sex.” The August issue, for instance, offered “52 Sex Tips” and “When Your Vagina Acts Weird After Sex.” A sampling of 2012 headlines includes “50 Sex Tips,” “50 Kinky Sex Moves,” “99 Sex Questions” and “His Best Sex Ever.”
Newsweek had dozens of correspondents in bureaus around the country and overseas, some of them quite talented. They—we—would pick up the magazine every week to see if we had managed to get in a phrase or a quote from one of our files, though a whole sentence was too much to hope for. If you’re interested, here’s a concrete example of the distance between input and output: The story about the San Francisco music scene occupied one page of the magazine, around seven hundred and fifty words of text.
As a member of the board of the Washington Post Co. when it sold Newsweek to Harman, Diller knew just how much trouble the magazine was in, but he warmed to the idea. Harman would carry more of the losses on his books, and Newsweek, despite an operating loss of nearly $40 million in 2009, was still able to generate $165 million in revenue from advertising and newsstand sales—cash that would conceivably allow Diller to pretty up the Beast’s balance sheet and keep analysts off his back.
“Everybody was stunned. None of us saw this coming. You know, we knew that ads were bad. They have been—it’s been a hard time industry-wide, and, you know, there was no arguing that the ad picture was really—had been really dismal. But I still thought that, you know, this is a magazine that had a circulation of almost a million and—devoted, devoted readers, and, you know, it has been an icon.
“I mean, this is a magazine that’s been around since 1941 and is a very different animal than most of the—than any of the other epicurean magazines out there. But I just couldn’t imagine that the magazine itself would go away.”
“The next thing we knew, [Frank Deford] was out of the building and trying to hire our people. Monroe felt betrayed. I felt betrayed. The editor-in-chief, Jason McManus, felt betrayed. We’d gone way out of the way to get the guy his money and now we all felt stabbed in the back. We had to fire him because he was on our payroll and trying to hire our people for a competing venture.”
“It was not a likely name for a magazine. A kid’s magazine, maybe, but a bold attempt to supplant the New Yorker? Eyebrows were raised. And yet Wigwag was launched anyway, in the fall of 1989. Editor Alexander Kaplen wrote in his introductory note: ”The word isn’t made up, and the name’s no accident. This magazine has a lot to do with home—who lives where, what they do there, what they do there.“ The definition, according to Kaplen, is, ”to signal someone home.“ Kaplen launched the magazine as a response to the ousting of long-time editor William Shawn in 1987. If Eustace Tilley was going to be co-opted by some outsider, then Kaplen was going to re-imagine that eminent magazine as one no longer the Talk of the Town (and you know which town), but rather the talk of all the towns, even the one in which you may live, be it Iowa City or Akron or Winnemucca.”
New York Review of Books
“We felt we could do anything we wanted—we always thought we had control. The first issue came out of a very small group, to whom it was absolutely unthinkable that anyone would tell any of us what to do. We could do anything we wanted as long as we could pay the printer. From the first we had articles and political commentaries either on the Kennedy administration, say, or on totalitarianism in Cuba.”
After a few slabs of buttery monkfish, he confirmed my hunch. “Matt, I think we are close to a deal with Kennedy.” He gulped his wine. The whole town was buzzing with John F. Kennedy Jr. sightings as he went from publishing house to publishing house looking for a partner to launch his political magazine. “If you like, next week you can meet him, and if he likes you, maybe you can work with him.” Feeling that this was a long shot, I guess, I didn’t look sufficiently excited. Jean-Louis began to tease, “Imagine, Matt: ‘I am working with John Kennedy,’ ” trying to get a reaction. He wiped his mouth with his napkin and raised his eyebrows, saying, “My boss, John,” and then, “My friend John … ”
New York Magazine
“The first time I laid eyes on Clay, he was yelling on the phone. Something unusual. I dared to walk down the back stairs at the Herald Tribune Women’s Department, which was a flamingo-pink ghetto. But I had a story idea. And the only way to do it was to go and talk to Clay. So I was quite terrified. But then when I heard him and saw him, he was very big. And he had a huge voice, which just, you know, sliced right through me. And he was yelling at somebody about tickets to Dinner at Eight for Senator Javits and his wife. He was just like a creature from another planet to me. But totally intriguing. It wasn’t like, you know, I fell madly in love with him. I was just magnetized by him and scared of him.”
The New Republic
Nothing in Charles Lane’s 15 years of journalism, not the bitter blood of Latin America, nor war in Bosnia, nor the difficult early days of his editorship of the fractious New Republic, could compare with this surreal episode. On the second Friday in May in the lobby of the Hyatt hotel in the Maryland suburb of Bethesda, near Washington, nothing less than the most sustained fraud in the history of modern journalism was unraveling.
Bonus: Read more story notes from Deborah Blum.
When I had been out of work, I imagined starting an adult magazine that would be a showcase for iconoclastic humor, featuring people like Lenny Bruce and Ernie Kovacs and Bob Newhart, who were beginning to crack the establishment with their humor. When Bill asked me to take over Mad, I immediately started to get name-people like Ernie Kovacs to write for me. I hesitated at Lenny Bruce. [Laughs.] I didn’t want to get into trouble again.
LR: John wanted to call it Digit. Digit–dig it–get it?
JM: I just immediately threw up. Then I felt this huge responsibility to come up with a name. We came up with Wired, and everything fell into place. It set the tone. It captured the punch—the edge—and the double meanings were rich.
The problem with Playboy was that its editorial content has never been strong enough for it to be only a magazine. It also had to be a lifestyle. And here is where Playboy’s legacy is more ambiguous. The best part of Fraterrigo’s book concerns the unthinking–indeed, almost innocently utopian–manner in which Hefner sexualized the acquisitionist ethos of the American middle class.
An excerpt from a book about the history of SI:
There was real doubt whether there would be enough activity in the world of sports to justify a weekly. Within the society as a whole sports were more compartmentalized, regionalized, marginalized. In 1954, the football season ended on January 1, and there were more hours of game shows on television than actual games. Baseball attendance had dropped markedly since World War II, and Major League Baseball’s westernmost team was the St. Louis Cardinals. There were six hockey teams in the National Hockey League, and the National Basketball Association still had a franchise in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
“Understanding Sassy’s importance begins with a chronicle of the early days of the magazine and how it distinguished itself. Sassy’s story is intricately tied to the societal transformations that occurred in the late eighties and early nineties. As teen-pregnancy rates soared, AIDS became a very real threat, and debates over what kids should be taught about sex in school raged, the magazine heralded a new way of thinking about girls and sexuality; we will discuss how this led to a battle with the religious right—then just becoming a force to be reckoned with—that almost put the magazine out of business.”
Pratt foresaw “the beginning of the Facebooking of our culture, the dawn of the age of oversharing,” says Bill Van Parys, executive editor of Jane, Pratt’s bit-more-grown-up second magazine, which she started in 1997. Van Parys describes Pratt’s editing technique as the opposite of what a traditional news edit goes for. “She was always interested in the emotions and the insecurities,” he says. And “she was also willing to do something that was totally wrong.” They put a cover line on Jane that said, based on a study mentioned in that issue: “Yet another reason to not give up smoking: You could get acne!” he remembers. “We were eaten alive.” As another ex-Jane staffer put it, “She understands and accepts you being crazy because she is crazy. And that makes you feel close to her.”
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