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<i> Au Revoir </i> to an Icon

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Sylvia Plath immortalized it in “The Bell Jar.” It helped launch the literary careers of Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Carson McCullers and Paul Bowles. Joan Didion worked there, albeit briefly, as did Diane Johnson, Betsey Johnson, Tama Janowitz, Ann Beattie and Ali MacGraw. Most important, it created an archetype--the young, educated career woman who wanted style and substance--that became the industry standard. The demise of Mademoiselle magazine with its November issue is not a small thing.

For six decades, Mademoiselle shaped and reflected America’s ideas about young women. It offered visions of glamour and opportunity to generations who flipped through its slick pages in search of the future. Committed to providing a venue to unknown writers and editors, Mademoiselle’s poetry and fiction were as serious as any literary journal’s. Through its guest editor program, hundreds of college students, among them Plath, Didion and both Johnsons, were given their first taste of life in the big city.

Well before the crest of the modern women’s movement, founder Betsy Blackwell, a former editor of Charm magazine, took young women seriously. She offered them fashion and beauty that acknowledged the economic reality of her readers--Mademoiselle was the first magazine to include midrange styles in its coverage, and to print the price of the clothing it featured. But more important, Blackwell insisted on stories of journalistic substance--including one of the first stories on the new birth control pill--a feat that seems beyond many women’s magazines today.

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“Betsy Blackwell started [it] in 1935, and no one thought in the midst of the Depression it would take off, but it did,” said Edie Locke, who took over the editorship in 1970 from Blackwell, who died in 1985. “Her vision was a magazine that combined fashion and beauty with feeding the mind. She really felt there was more to life for women than what they wore and how they made up their faces. They were hungry for other things.”

Although the literate sophisticated reader is indispensable to modern women’s magazine mission statements, she seems to have all but vanished from the actual pages. As Mademoiselle flailed about for an image that would address the current canonical themes of sex, fashion and a culture of consumption, it no longer commanded the percentage of the readership it once had. In the past year, circulation fell slightly, returning to the 1.1 million it claimed almost a decade ago--less than half of Cosmopolitan or Glamour but about 300,000 more than Marie Claire.

“I found it very surprising that a magazine of its reputation would go under,” said Bryce Nelson, a professor of journalism at USC, “especially since it is part of a specialty area that is regarded as very profitable. It shows a larger decision that for magazines just holding their own, or losing money slightly, the attitude is ‘cut your losses, get out now.’ I’m sure it sent shivers throughout the magazine industry.”

Mademoiselle has been floundering financially and psychologically for almost a decade. The proliferation of fashion magazines aimed at young women seemed to narrow the range of expression rather than broaden it. InStyle, Allure, Jane, Lucky, Oprah, Rosie--every year another competitor bumped spines on the newsstand. Within the Conde Nast empire, Mademoiselle dueled Glamour, which competed against Allure, which stood against Vogue.

In 1993, former Parents editor Elizabeth Crow was hired to give Mademoiselle a makeover; the first thing she did was create a Cosmo-like cover image of an impossibly slender model swarmed by headlines and sub-headlines and three-tiered decks. In 1999, Conde Nast purchased Fairchild Publications, adding Jane, Women’s Wear Daily and W to its already overstuffed fashion portfolio. With almost a dozen magazines competing for essentially the same readers, industry insiders predicted something would have to go; equal odds went to Jane and Mademoiselle. That same year, Crow stepped down, replaced by Mandi Norwood, former editor of British Cosmopolitan, who began aggressively modeling her version of Mademoiselle on the increasingly popular Marie Claire. Last year she hired away several Marie Claire staffers. Editor-swapping is de rigueur in the women’s magazine trade, but the sight of a former industry flagship so obviously raiding an upstart was, to some, the last desperate flare before darkness.

“You can only have so many face lifts before it starts eating into the core personality,” said Samir Husni, a magazine analyst and professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. “You look at Rolling Stone, which has changed a lot over 40 years as its audience has changed. But you don’t see articles in it about how it’s changed. Every two years Mademoiselle was screaming, ‘We’re changing, we’re changing.’ That was for the advertisers, not the audience. And so they lost their audience.”

And while ad pages at other competitors, including Jane and Marie Claire, rose more than 10% since January, Mademoiselle saw an 18% drop, according to Conde Nast.

“Mademoiselle had been limping for a while,” said Locke. “It tried to get younger, and I’m not sure that worked. This seemed to be the perfect moment [to fold].” Locke, who is on the board of the trade group Fashion Group International, Los Angeles joined the staff of Mademoiselle in 1950 as “an assistant to an assistant” and left 20 years ago because Conde Nast wanted changes she could not deliver. “The management wanted to change the direction away from being an intellectual magazine to more in the popular mode, the kind of stuff other magazines were running. I was considered not capable of doing that, and I probably wasn’t.”

It was in 1980 that Mademoiselle discontinued its short story and poetry contests; the guest editorship program had been cut in the late ‘70s. While many magazines were forced by declining ad revenues to forfeit their fiction pages, for Mademoiselle, the loss was especially significant.

“It was a very important literary magazine for a time,” said Didion, who was a guest editor at the magazine during the summer break before her junior year in college. “But then somewhere along the line, that went by the board.” Didion, who says she has not looked at the magazine in years, remembers well how exciting it was to be working with Mademoiselle’s then-literary editor Rita Smith, even just for a month. “It was the first time I’d ever worked in an office,” she said, “except for the Sacramento Union, which wasn’t a real office because it was the Sacramento Union. And Rita Smith was wonderful. [Writer] Terry Southern was always calling her, and there were always these little crises. Carson McCullers was her sister, so it was just very exciting.”

Like Plath and subsequently Esther Greenwood, heroine of “The Bell Jar,” Didion and her fellow guest editors were put up at the Barbizon Hotel for Women.

“I thought it was very glamorous,” she said. “I had never been to New York. So there I’d be walking down the street and see signs for stores I’d only heard about. They got us makeovers at Helena Rubinstein. We had our pictures taken at [Columbia University’s] Baker’s Field. I had always had a vision of living in New York,” she added, “but after that month, it seemed quite possible.”

Gloria Jacobs, senior editor of Ms., remembers longing to be a guest editor at Mademoiselle. “When I was in high school, Mademoiselle was such a presence,” she said. “It was a vision of smart sophisticated beautiful rich girls living these meaningful lives. It had a huge impact on me.”

That impact decreased during her college years in the mid-'60s when the antiwar, civil rights and women’s movements made such visions seem trivial and archaic. Women who once saw the writer-editor life as the one of only a few career paths open to them were suddenly overwhelmed with choices. “I got involved in politics, and suddenly Mademoiselle and that whole ideal had much less relevance. Suddenly there seemed to be more options,” Jacobs said.

In the ‘70s, she said, many women’s magazines were trying to reposition themselves in the wake of the women’s movement, in response to new magazines like Ms. and Mother Jones. “When Grace Mirabella was at Vogue, there were a lot of smart women writing for Vogue,” said Jacobs. “And Glamour was looking around saying, ‘We’ve got to be more serious.”’

But there was also the newly tarted-up Cosmopolitan to contend with. Taken over in 1965 by “Sex and the Single Girl” Helen Gurley Brown, Cosmo had gone from a feminized Saturday Evening Post to a cleavage-bearing, take-no-prisoners warrior of the sexual revolution whose coverlines promised the secrets of the bedroom and the boardroom.

“Mademoiselle got caught between Ms. and Cosmo,” said Husni. “They fell into a black hole, and never got out.”

According to Brown, Norwood was, in fact, trying to turn Mademoiselle into a “baby Cosmo,” but there just wasn’t room in the market--Bonnie Fuller had already turned Glamour into Cosmo, said Brown, who left Cosmo in 1997. “Mandi didn’t think of anything new for Mademoiselle.”

Norwood might have done better, some suggested, to stick to the magazine’s original image, to target its original readership.

“Mademoiselle had this classiness that was abandoned,” said Myrna Blyth, editor-in-chief of Ladies’ Home Journal and More magazine. “I’m not so sure there isn’t a young woman out there today with the same classiness--God knows we have the best-educated, most ambitious women in history today. The magazine may have abandoned their readers instead of their readers abandoning the magazine.”

According to Jacobs, too many editors are trying to make over their readers rather than their magazines. “They’ve chosen the mass market rather than the niche where people still feel things. And they seem to not be in much contact with what women are actually like. Women’s lives have changed,” she said. “But there is still a market for magazines that combine content with style, in a smart way. Marie Claire is a good example. It takes women seriously, acknowledges real life and always has some story of substance.”

Mademoiselle, Jacobs said, seemed to go in the other direction. “Toward the end,” she said, “it just degenerated into this sort of Abercrombie & Fitch ad.”

That’s a disturbing image when one remembers that Mademoiselle was one of the first mass-circulation publications to address the women’s movement, that the February 1954 issue was devoted to Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood,” that its many journalists (including Didion) began their careers in its pages, that the table of contents from “40 Best Stories From Mademoiselle” reads like a “Who’s Who of American Fiction.” For all that it lauds the smart, sassy, successful woman, the women’s magazine industry does not seem to hold her intellect in as high regard as it used to, as high as, perhaps, Betsy Blackwell did way back in 1935.

“When they switched gears, everything became about sex and relationships,” said Locke. “Nowadays, there is the occasional article in Vogue or Bazaar that takes you beyond. But the kind of magazine that Mademoiselle was in its heyday, I don’t think exists today.”


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