The Improbable First Century of Cosmopolitan Magazine by James Landers
Cosmopolitan is known for its vivacious character and frank, explicit attitude toward sex, yet many people don’t realize that the magazine has undergone many incarnations, including family literary journal and muckraking investigative journal. This book explores how Cosmopolitan survived three near-death experiences to become one of the most dynamic and successful magazines of the twentieth century. Landers uses a wealth of primary source materials to place this important magazine in the context of history and depict how it became the cultural touchstone it is today.
Q: What made you decide to write a history of Cosmopolitan?
It has had a fascinating life. Cosmopolitan is so completely, unbelievably different from how it began, and the fact that the magazine changed its identity completely several times over the years made me wonder who was responsible for the decisions and why those transformations happened.
Q: How do you write a 100-year history of a magazine?
You look at as many issues of the magazine as you can find. I read more than a thousand issues of Cosmopolitan published from March 1886 to March 1986. I would have read more, but dozens of copies were vandalized or otherwise destroyed, especially those from the 1960s and 1970s. I relied on college and university libraries around the country to loan me volumes of Cosmopolitan, and sometimes I had to request the same volume from two or three different libraries just to obtain a complete six-month set to read. It was sad to see that covers and pages were ripped out, something I rarely saw prior to the 1960s.
Reading all those issues let me see patterns – the types of articles that ran during a certain period, the types of fiction stories, what illustrations and photographs were like, what the advertisements were like, what products were advertised. It gave me a sense of shifts in the magazine’s editorial format at specific times.
Q: Once you’ve read the magazines, then what?
Then I needed to learn who changed the magazine’s formats and why. A historian hopes to find letters, memos, and other written material from key people. Their thoughts, their rationale for switching format, and other factors often are mentioned in such correspondence.
Usually the changes were a matter of money for Cosmopolitan. The magazine went through cyclical periods of losing readers and advertisers, then recovered, then slid again. Editors and publishers had to find a way to survive.
In this case, material from William Randolph Hearst’s archives at the University of California–Berkeley was quite interesting and helpful. Historians have ignored the magazines he owned because his newspapers were so outrageous and presumably important early in the twentieth century up until the 1920s. It turns out Hearst was proud of Cosmopolitan from the time he bought it in 1905 until he died in 1951. Plenty of telegrams, memos, letters, and business documents pertained to Cosmopolitan.
Also, material from Helen Gurley Brown was stored at Smith College in Massachusetts —memos, circulation reports, letters to advertisers and writers.
Of course, my interview with Mrs. Brown was invaluable. She remembered details about several important incidents, and she explained her goals and methods for transforming Cosmopolitan after being hired as editor in 1965.
Q: Any surprises?
Many. My first surprise was that Cosmopolitan was such a respected and popular magazine during the 1890s. I learned this after I had changed careers and was a middle-age graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. I was taking a history seminar on war policy and researching what magazines had written about imperialism after the Spanish-American War. A fierce debate raged whether the United States should keep Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico—all of which we took from Spain—and what should be done with Hawaii, which had been “annexed” during the war. I was amazed at the range of articles in Cosmopolitan—science, politics, international events—and was impressed by the caliber of contributors—diplomats, professors, well-known intellectuals, and public officials, including Theodore Roosevelt. Also impressive was the list of fiction authors: Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, Jack London, Tolstoy, Willa Cather, William Dean Howells.
Another surprise was what Hearst did with Cosmopolitan early in the 1900s. It was an exposé magazine with the “Treason of the Senate” series on corruption, also a very graphic series on the hazardous conditions where children worked in factories, and with numerous articles on corruption in cities and states across the nation.
Then a big surprise was the complete switch from serious exposé articles to fluffy fiction and romance and adventure stories by the 1920s. It was a smart decision, because Cosmopolitan was more popular and profitable than ever.
The final surprise was the way Helen Gurley Brown took over a mediocre, dull magazine without any specific identity and created a controversial, popular magazine with an incredibly loyal readership. My conversation with her persuaded me that she was not at all surprised by the success of Cosmopolitan. She knew what young women of that era wanted.
Q: What lessons can be learned from the survival of Cosmopolitan?
Leadership makes a difference. An individual makes a difference. Be bold, be daring.