Friday, December 6, 2013

The Way We Were Etc. Part Three


Time Marches On
Magazine time runs months ahead of the real world. If it's August it must be Christmas. You were never quite in sync with what was happening when it really did. Every year had two Christmases— the real one and the one you created on paper. Summer clothes had to be shot in January in sunny climes (don't cry for me Argentina); models sweltered in winter coats on city streets in July.

June 1965... a little one-sided?

The Cover
By far THE most important single item in the canon was THE COVER. That can be said for every magazine. The fear! The panic! The formula! To me that big head with type running down the left side was boring boring boring. Why not mix it up? First, the magazine must be recognizable. The cover couldn't look radically different every issue or else the reader wouldn't know you. Because issues on (big city) newsstands might be fanned overlapping, you only wanted type on the left so as not to be covered. As far as the formula? If it worked one month it would work again. I've always wondered just how important the image or the words were. If I loved Glamour magazine, I was going to buy it anyways or— better yet— subscribe.

We would make 20+ photostats for each cover image, a percentage or two different from each other, vary the crop ever so slightly, mount each cut to actual size on cardboard and prop them up against the wall. Once the image was decided the same process would ensue with cover lines, written and set in type, photostated on acetate, cut out and pasted in place. Statistics were kept from month to month on which covers sold the best. You would think the entire reason for buying an issue was based on the cover. Maybe it was.

Alex and Me
I never said a word to Alexander Liberman in the 25 years I worked at Conde Nast. At first that made sense as I was only ever someone in the background. He was "Alex" to a privileged few and "Mr. Liberman" to the rest, but he terrified everyone. Except me. We had never been introduced. Thus I considered myself an observer and not a victim.

Liberman exuding charm 
The Liberman family exuding charm, 1948

Alexander Liberman, Editorial Director of Conde Nast since 1962, played the part of major domo. He was the tasteful eyes and ears of the owners, the Newhouse family, specifically Sy, the Newhouse in charge. He had the imperious air of old world elegance. He was described by some as a "White Russian", the nobility which had fled Mother Russia after the Revolution.

In fact his father, a wealthy Jewish Marxist, had decided it best to get the family out of the country when the Bolsheviks took power. Alex was educated in England and worked as a magazine designer in Paris before making it to America in 1931. He and his wife Tatiana, who had her own millinery boutique at Saks, cut quite a swath in New York society. Biographies neglect to mention that he had been art director of Glamour for many years, but he had, and Mrs. Denhof was his assistant. They were the same age, but she looked up to Alex as her mentor and teacher.

The air was thick with tension when word came that "Alex is coming! Alex is coming!" He was always called in to sign off on the cover but could show up randomly. While I never saw him as anything other than low-key and charming— no fits or diva behavior— his word was the last word. And if it was "Change this" no one ever asked why.

As a young staffer I didn't travel around in town cars or have a clothing allowance. Nothing was ever given away. That scene in "The Devil Wears Prada" when Stanley Tucci takes Ann Hathaway into the fashion closet and outfits her? Would never happen. Everything went back to the manufacturer at the end of the season. Years later there would be mad free-for-alls by the freight elevators for discarded cosmetics or random accessories, but this was still the civilized '60s.

Besides free coffee, the only other perk was the on-staff in-house infirmary with the famous Nap Room. There was a nurse on duty and a doctor who checked in during the week. I never took advantage of their services other than to be reassured my self-inflicted tattoo wouldn't kill me (had poked my pinky finger with the tip of a needle-sharp croquil pen dipped in black ink). The Nap Room could be very popular. It was always kept darkened, but it did look as if it held three beds, often occupied by young ladies resting or— I suspected— sleeping it off.

My services were a perk for the editor in chief, Kathleen Casey Johnson. She found out I sewed (at the time almost everything I wore) and had me fixing hems for her out of the office at $5 a pop. She also paraded me around the fashion department one day. Evidently she had been on a tear with her editors that the clothes they were calling in were too expensive for the readers. She was in the art department and asked where I got my two-piece Banlon leopard print top and skirt (bateau neck top, pencil skirt, could wear it today). It happened I didn't sew that but bought it at Bloomingdale's Basement (yes they had a basement store) for $10. She took me out of the art department, into the fashion department and marched me from desk to desk with, "See, look what she found for $10; why can't you do that?" Yes, I was embarrassed but a little flattered too.

That was the way she was... 1967

I was a model a few times in the early days. Things were more "fashion-y" under Mrs. Johnson. The era that followed brought Glamour a lot of respect— the Best Dressed College Girls eventually becoming Glamour's Women of the Year— but were a little less fun. I have searched all over for copies of the magazines I was in, but I must have tucked them away really well. This picture is a favorite (mostly because it doesn't look like me) from an out-take of a hair feature. The shoot was set up in Kenneth's (the society hairdresser [Jackie was a regular]) townhouse salon. My hair was cut so short they added fake side pieces so I wouldn't look like a boy. I had been trying to grow back my over-plucked eyebrows, but the makeup artist plucked them again, and they never did grow back. For years I have had no eyebrows. He also told me I had rare double rows of eyelashes like Elizabeth Taylor's. I guess that's some compensation. The photographer was a charming Frenchman named J. J. Bugat, one of Mrs. Denhof's imports, but he didn't stay long.

Happy Endings
This would be nixed from the script if life were a movie (too trite), but I met my husband (of 45 years) in the Graybar building lobby coffee shop. It was a rainy Friday in early spring. I just felt like treating myself to lunch and was at the counter eating an egg salad sandwich when a young man sat next to me. We started talking about how bad the service was. Before I knew it I had given him my name and phone number, and he had promised to call. He was— and remains— the only man I have ever given my number to. I later found out he was a legend among his friends for being able to pick up any girl anywhere. Let's say I was his last...

I continued to work at Glamour until 1989. I left once for a bit, thinking it was time to become a "serious" graphic designer but was easily lured back. I made it through several regimes and a move to Madison Avenue. The last shake-up was particularly jolting but took me to Woman's Day. I saw us going from single coat to double coat rubber cement then to using hot wax but never witnessed the closing of the Conde Nast photostat studio or so many staffers losing their jobs as technology crept its way into my business.

No one could have predicted— then— that typesetters, retouchers, photostat makers, film developers, plate makers, mechanicals men (and women) and coffee carts would become extinct. Today we may ask, "What is the future of magazines?". Then the future meant, "Who will be on next month's cover?"


  1. This is a brilliant post - my, how technology has revolutionized the industry.That photo is fantastic and it does look like you! I recognised you instantly, Michelle. Love the story of how you met your husband too. Hope all's well, very best, Alyson x

  2. Thanks, Alyson. I'm so glad you got a chance to read this (and perhaps the two previous?). As a former magazine person I'll bet you recognized some of that "let's put on a show" spirit. I love reading your posts and feel like we're "staying connected" a little bit. All the best for a joyful holiday season!

  3. Is a glamour column in your future? !! I like this series of posts.

    1. Thanks for your nice words. It was fun looking back.