A Magazine Where We Were More Than Just the Girls

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 3.13.13 PMBy Jenny Mead

Graduating from Northwestern in 1955, I was surprised when some friends headed west to San Francisco. I never considered going anywhere but New York City—the center of everything.

On the first day of my first adult job I peeked from the elevator at 575 Madison Avenue onto the editorial floor of Mademoiselle magazine. The center of everything was bigger and faster than anything I had imagined. Women buzzed, gals swung around in desk chairs, phones rang, typewriter keys clicked. After a few weeks I got used to the speed of the place and had a desk, phone, and typewriter. And I noticed more. Occasionally there was a stop to things. The editorial department would quiet down, seeming to catch a message. Someone was coming.

There was Truman Capote at the water cooler. He looked so young in a striped t-shirt and sailor pants tight enough to straighten him up. The other gals didn’t seem that interested. If I hadn’t read Other Voices, Other Rooms and loved it, I might have missed the smirky little boy/man.

None of the editors, writers, and gofers like me typed on while Katherine Anne Porter was sighted. She wrote Pale Horse, Pale Rider and it wasn’t fair that she also was gorgeous in a long black diaphanous creation that the fashion department asked her to wear to have her picture taken.

I wondered why Mademoiselle had hired me. I had majored in English but had not taken any courses at the Medill School of Journalism. I had applied for other jobs while in New York over spring vacation. At Newsweek I was told, quite sweetly, that I could never expect to be anything more than a researcher. “They just didn’t.”

The lovely lady at the New Yorker listened but no job offer. The lady at Time offered me a research job because they had had another girl from my high school and she had done her work well. But there were career roadblocks at every magazine except Mademoiselle. There, it seemed, anybody who wanted to work hard enough could jump in. Sylvia Plath had splashed in and out as a guest editor in 1953 and then written The Bell Jar.

Most everyone who worked on Mademoiselle was female. There were some men a floor below: salesmen and accountants for the publisher, Street and Smith. I saw their offices once while getting information for my boss, Mary Cantwell, one of the two writers I worked for. She had asked me to get some facts about an airplane that appeared in a fashion picture. A month later I was at my desk, counting spaces, one space for each letter of every word for the copy Mary had written. It was her job to glorify every sash, every neckline and color. Mine was to make sure all of her adjectives fit into the layout space. Suddenly four serious gentlemen stood over, beside, and behind me. The aircraft I had researched for Mary was or was not a turbo jet and the manufacturer was or was not about to sue. Sue who? Me?

After I got restless counting spaces at Mademoiselle, I got a job as a first reader of unsolicited manuscripts and secretary at G.P. Putnam & Sons, publisher. There I found glamor of the male variety. Norman Mailer lumbered along the hallway, loaded for combat with an elderly gentleman editor. He looked like a soldier in The Naked and the Dead, his best fiction. And Patrick Dennis, Dear Patrick Dennis, who worked with Putnam’s female editor, Lois Dwight Cole Taylor, my boss. Mr. Dennis might have written Auntie Mame with just such a book editor in his sights.

That was my last adult job. I left New York with journalist husband Bill Mead, went to Europe, followed his jobs to Washington and other cities, and had three children.

But I always revelled in memories of Mademoiselle. That was a magazine in those old days. It was a magnet for smart women. Where else was Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood first published, short stories by James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, and Carson McCullers?

Yes, Mademoiselle was a fashion magazine but for a time it was run by remarkable women. Eventually managing editor Cyrilly Abels left for Max Ascoli’s The Reporter, Rita Smith, the fiction editor, taught Dostoyevsky at Columbia, and Mary Cantwell went to the New York Times. But while at Mademoiselle they opened doors for a lot of women.
Conde Nast bought the Street & Smith magazines in 1959 and published Mademoiselle until 2001, when it was merged into Glamour.
Jenny Mead blogs about digital art at jennymead.com.

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