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Demise of Mirabella Was Greatly Exaggerated

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES. He is a columnist for Newsday

At last year’s National Magazine Awards--the Oscars of the industry--a buzz that passed through the crowd had nothing to do with the pending honors for feature writing, photography and design.

Whispers had it that Mirabella was folding. The stylish women’s magazine, which former Vogue Editor Grace Mirabella launched for publisher Rupert Murdoch in 1989, was not expected to last much beyond dessert.

Wrong.

Mirabella battled onward, refined its editorial product, weathered the loss of some key staffers and next week will introduce a subtle redesign as evidence that the magazine is here to stay--at least for now.

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“We have refreshed the look and renewed a commitment to substance and visual sophistication,” said Catherine Viscardi Johnston, who left New York magazine to become publisher of Mirabella in May.

Lowercase is in, boldface in the text is out. A lengthy fall preview of the arts (rock veteran Marianne Faithfull, balladeer Jimmy Scott, playwright Eduardo Machado) underscores the magazine’s already keen and discriminating interest in books, music and performance.

Fashion spreads find the models away from the white-cloth backdrops and out in the real world. Beneath a slightly smaller logo, the image for a cover story about American beauty is the photographer Hiro’s striking computerized assembly of one woman made from many ethnic portraits.

According to Johnston, reports of Mirabella’s imminent demise stemmed from the knowledge that Murdoch was considering offers to buy the magazine. After all, his selloff of New York, Premiere and other publications to K-III Communications Corp. had emptied Murdoch Magazines of all but TV Guide and Mirabella.

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Unloading Mirabella so that a buyer might merge it with another woman’s mag made sense at the time.

However, as Johnston has heard the story, Murdoch was persuaded by his advisers to retain Mirabella and work to fulfill its potential of reaching women of accomplishment in the highly competitive women’s field--a field that will become tougher as Hearst Magazines launches an American edition of Marie Claire next week.

Mirabella, which has a more mature target audience and is less fashion-driven than Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and Elle, trails those magazines in circulation and ad pages. But its own numbers would appear to encourage Murdoch.

Ad pages, which were up slightly in 1993, declined in the first half of this year only to rebound nicely since June. Circulation increased 24% during the past three years--to about 610,000 copies a month--and an impressive two-thirds of the 475,000 subscribers pay a full price of $24. This subscriber loyalty makes it a lot easier to alter the look of the magazine.

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“We attract new readers through our newsstand sales, but our base (of subscribers) is solid so that we’re not dependent on the newsstand,” Johnston said. “We know our readers are committed to reading the magazine.”

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An Insider’s Tale of Pirates: One approaches a self-published book with the kind of caution typically triggered by a TV infomercial. But even given Stephen Kiesling’s solid credentials--he wrote “The Shell Game” (Morrow) in 1982, was an editor at American Health and has contributed to the New Yorker and Sports Illustrated--it’s easy to see why he had to go it alone this time.

Major publishers were unlikely to publish a book that shines such a harsh light on some of their esteemed colleagues as well as on leading news organizations. “Walking the Plank” is Kiesling’s first-person, often hilarious account of how he set out to ghostwrite the adventures of deep-sea treasure hunter Barry Clifford but was bounced from the project after he came to learn that they don’t call it “fool’s gold” for nothing.

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Clifford’s discovery in the mid-1980s of the 18th-Century pirate ship Whydah lying beneath Cape Cod waters was hyped as a $400-million find.

The giddy prospect of bringing all that gold and treasure to the surface prompted Silver Screen Inc., a Wall Street bankroller of Hollywood films, to form a partnership with Clifford designed to salvage the loot. What’s more, a public-stock offering raised millions of dollars toward that end.

But years later, all investors have to show for their excitement are the hundreds of coins and other artifacts from the Whydah now quietly tucked away in a maritime museum--a haul that pales in value alongside the much-hyped visions of Midas. Kiesling says the investors were suckered; Clifford has denounced “Walking the Plank” as a “book of lies.”

Kiesling hooked me with his salty account of pirates, Cape Cod and the sea and also because he argues time and again that Big Media, including Parade magazine and Walter Cronkite, seemed all too willing to trumpet the significance of Clifford’s “treasure.”

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Kiesling, who also weaves in his own concurrent tale of a disintegrating marriage and a yuppie life-style on the Upper West Side, is betting $15,000 in printing costs that “Walking the Plank” will find an audience big enough to spur a New York house to publish it after all.

Until the book gains wider distribution in stores, it can be ordered directly from his Nordic Knight Press, in Ashland, Ore., by calling (800) DEEP SIX.

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First Woodstock, First Novel: By the time we got to Woodstock (again), Bruce Palmer’s first novel was offering what may be the only fresh fictional take on the original rock festival and its aftermath.

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“The Karma Charmer,” newly published by Harmony Books, tells the story of Howser, who remained at Woodstock long enough to need looser-fitting jeans for his now-fortysomething form.

He falls in love with a college student and tries to keep her from heading south to a lucrative Wall Street job.

Palmer, who used to earn his living as a creative director on Madison Avenue, was at the first Woodstock and plans to be in the crowd this weekend.

“In the ‘80s, I spent a few summers in the area, and I got to know the town of Woodstock,” he said. “I was pleased and fascinated by the fact that the old ‘60s culture is very much alive there. You can see old hippies hanging around all the time.”

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Mary-Ann and Philip Hobel (“Tender Mercies”), who acquired the film rights to “The Karma Charmer,” called “an entertaining, romantic tale” by Publishers Weekly, have made a deal with TriStar.

Dustin Hoffman is reportedly attached to the project.

* Paul D. Colford’s column is published Fridays.


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