David Laventhol, Ben Bradlee, and the Rise and Fall of Style

By Jack Limpert

fp_styleJournalist David Laventhol died on April 8—here’s the lede on today’s Washington Post obit:

David Laventhol, a onetime publisher of the Los Angeles Times and Newsday, who had a major role in shaping the development of the Style section as an editor at The Washington Post in the 1960s, died April 8 at his home in New York City. He was 81.

The Post obit went on to say:

Mr. Laventhol came to The Post in 1966 as one the first newsroom hires of then-managing editor Benjamin C. Bradlee. In 1968, Bradlee asked Mr. Laventhol to rework the section then known as ‘“For and About Women.”

“The new section was Ben’s idea, with Dave Laventhol the chief implementer,” former Post publisher Katharine Graham wrote in her 1997 memoir, Personal History. “Dave had outlined what it should include — people rather than events, private lives rather than public affairs — and to whom it should be addressed: Washingtonians of both sexes, black and white, suburbanite and city dweller, decision-maker and homemaker.”

The result was the Style section, which became the prototype for daring, literary-minded newspaper feature sections throughout the country.
In April 1969, the Washingtonian ran a story, by Helene Melzer, about Bradlee’s changes at the Washington Post and the killing of the women’s section. The story’s head: “Ben, Where Are You Hiding the Post Women’s Section?”  The opening of the Washingtonian piece:

Ben Bradlee was named managing editor of The Washington Post in August 1965, and the former Navy officer quickly took command of the newspaper’s sprawling editorial operation. First there were format changes, starting with page one. Then a number of young Ivy League types, preferably from Harvard, were added to the staff, and a number of over-65 veterans were subtracted. Bradlee completed his takeover by bringing in a cadre of his own kind of newspapermen as assistant managing editors in the various editorial sections.

After several attempts to change the women’s section, Bradlee pushed out two longtime female editors and hired Laventhol, an editor from the late New York Herald Tribune. The Herald Tribune, the Washingtonian story said, “near the end had put out an impressive and often startling women’s section.”

More excerpts from the Washingtonian piece after the two women editors had been pushed out:

Lavanthol and his fellow male executives now had free reign to create the new section, finally called “Style.”

What a shock! The new section’s first big story was a boldly splashed tale of the FBI’s hunt for the woman accomplice of a Florida kidnapper, and to women’s page watchers, Style came on like a missing crime page from the main news section. Next came a piece on the family of new Maryland Governor Marvin Mandel. This was soon referred to as the medicine cabinet profile, since the in-depth study compiled by Style compiler Michael Kernan included detailed observations of the Mandel bathroom.

Weddings were cut to Sunday only, and engagements were buried in the back of Thursday’s food section. VIP, the gossipy pride of the women’s section, was trimmed in size and run under a skimpy head. Diplomatic parties got one paragraph, sometimes as part of a miscellany-around-town column called “Happenings.” Culture chieftain Nicholas von Hoffman roamed freely in the corner he shared with Maxine Cheshire. First he ridiculed a group of wives whose husbands were serving in Vietnam, then came a tasteless profile of fat black “Aunt Jeminas” who sit around all day and do nothing. Movie and play reviews had new authors, all sharing a common sarcastic wit.
The Post’s Style section went on to add big talents such as Tom Shales, and Sally Quinn came on to do hit pieces on unwary Washington personalities until marrying Bradlee. In the 1970s and ’80s it had a lot of impact on Washington.

Now, under executive editor Marty Baron, Style seems barely hanging on, without much space and with a lot less talent than in the Bradlee days. It mixes the occasional good profile with lots of arts coverage and a gossip column.

A suggestion to Baron: The Post’s Metro section is important to the city—Metro needs more space and talent. Merge Style into Metro, keeping the best of Style’s arts coverage and dropping the often lame trend pieces. A really good Metro section would make the Post a much better newspaper.


  1. http://www.washingtonpost.com/pr/wp/2015/04/08/washington-post-executive-editor-martin-baron-on-journalisms-transition-from-print-to-digital/

    I spent about 30 years of my life (last segment of time ended 1996) reading the paper paper. For about 15 years (except for visits) I have only read The Washington Post online. I live far from the D.C. area. I recall the paper paper sections I was used to: front, metro, style, sports. Sundays had Real estate and Potomac Magazine. But online “sections” don’t really exist online anymore, if they ever did.

    On the home page today, there are hyperlinks to “LIFESTYLE” at the top right and bottom left of the page. Clicking the top right “LIFESTYLE” link brings you to a drop-down menu of 12 topics, one of which is indeed “STYLE.” Can’t tell if it is a digital “reprint” of the paper paper Style section. Basically though, online STYLE is already gone, it looks to me.

    In case you missed it, above is a link to Mr. Baron’s recent speech about newspapers. Paper is on the way out, in his view. Is WaPo going to spend time and financial resources on realigning “sections”?

  2. Mike Feinsilber says

    This piece is fine except for one thing: You’ve hyphenated the name of the Herald Tribune. At great insistence, the Trib made a big deal of the lack of a hyphen in its name. I don’t know why. In his 745-page book, “The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune,” published in 1986, Richard Kluger makes no mention of the missing hyphen. The Washington Post, in its Laventhol obit, got it right: Herald Tribune, no hyphen.

  3. Cragg Hines says

    What a treat to see Jack Limpert and Mike Feinsilber in such close proximity.

  4. Tom Shales says

    Dear Editor
    A “big talent”? L’il ol’ me?!!? Me?!? Well, thanks for not saying “a big, FAT talent.” In fact, thanks for mentioning me at all. Whether I do qualify or not, it’s sadly clear that talent is a commodity not much valued any more at that house of ill repute on 15th Street Northwest — or have they moved to appropriately cheaper quarters by now?

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