(The following article first appeared in the 9/9/92 issue of the now-defunct Lower East Side alternative weekly newspaper, Downtown.)
The Hearst Corporation’s Cosmopolitan editor for most of the 30 years prior to 1992 was Jaws and Star Wars movie producer David Brown’s wife—Helen Gurley-Brown. After Mr. Brown came across some copies of old letters his wife had written to a former boyfriend, he “encouraged her to attempt a book on a subject she was well-acquainted with: the life of a single woman,” according to Contemporary Authors. Ms. Gurley-Brown—whose father was an Arkansas state legislator—then wrote the Sex And The Single Girl and Sex In The Office books of the early 1960s.
After making a bundle from her Sex And The Single Girl, Gurley-Brown “and her husband worked out a format in the Summer of 1964 for a magazine to be called Femme," according to Current Biography 1969. The publisher of Gurley-Brown’s books—a man named Bernard Geis—arranged a meeting with another man—then-Hearst Corporation President Richard Deems—and interested the Hearst Corporation president in Gurley-Brown’s 20-page dummy for Femme magazine. Deems then appointed Gurley-Brown as the new Cosmopolitan editor in March 1965.
After William Randolph Hearst I purchased Cosmopolitan for $400,000 in 1905, it had continued to be a muckraking magazine for a few years prior to World War I. But, following World War I, although its circulation was around one million, it was no longer such a magazine. Its editor between 1918 and 1931 was a man named Ray Long of the Algonquin Round Table literary set that included writers like Dorothy Parker. Four years after the new head of Hearst’s magazine division, Richard Berlin, had Long replaced as Cosmopolitan’s editor in 1931, Long committed suicide by shooting himself in the mouth with a rifle. As Cosmopolitan editor, Long had been paid $185,000 per year [in 1930s money] in 1931.
Under Berlin’s management during the Great Depression, Cosmopolitan and most of the other Hearst magazines remained profitable ventures, while the newspapers of Hearst’s media empire were losing so much money that the whole company was in danger of going bankrupt. But in 1939 Berlin was able to secure an $8 million loan from the president of Bank of Italy, A.P. Giannini, which enabled the company to survive until the increased World War II demand for newspaper ad space by U.S. business restored the profitability of Hearst’s newspaper chain.
By the early 1960s, however, Cosmopolitan’s circulation had dropped to below 800,000 and its income from ad sales had dropped by 20 percent. So the men who managed the Hearst Corporation’s magazine division were willing to authorize Gurley-Brown to change the format of Cosmopolitan in accordance with her Femme magazine proposal, in an attempt to increase the magazine’s marketability among 18-to-34-year-old women office workers.
The decision of Hearst’s male managers to let Gurley-Brown alter one of their magazines proved to be a quite profitable decision. After Gurley-Brown and her husband put together her first Cosmopolitan issue in July 1965, Cosmopolitan’s newsstands sales grew between 1965 and 1969 by 300,000—despite the cost of a copy of the magazine also increasing from 35 to 60 cents a copy [in 1960s money]. Since 98 percent of Cosmopolitan’s distribution in the 1960s came from newsstand sales—in which money is made on every copy sold—and not from being mailed to subscribers—the combined increase in both mass circulation and newsstand cost-per-copy proved to be exceptionally lucrative. By the 1970s, Cosmopolitan’s readers and its advertisers were providing about $30 million [in 1970s money] in profits for the Hearst Corporation each year; and its monthly ad space was selling at $15,000 per page. In the early 1990s, copies of Cosmopolitan were purchased by about three million readers each month. [But by 2007, newsstand sales of Cosmopolitan had apparently decreased to 2 million copies each month].
Next: Feminists and Cosmopolitan Historically
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