Grace under pressure

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Date: Sept. 15, 1995
Publisher: Red 7 Media
Document Type: Biography
Length: 2,309 words

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About this Person
Born: June 10, 1930 in Maplewood, New Jersey, United States
Nationality: American
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Grace Mirabella reigned as editor of Vogue for 17 years, from 1971 to 1988. This selection from her new book, In and Out of Vogue (Doubleday, 1995), recounts her scandalous dismissal from the crown jewel of the Newhouse empire and the subsequent birth and death of her eponymous title under Rupert Murdoch. Mirabella, purchased in March by Hachette Filipacchi, will relaunch this month as a bimonthly. Mirabella will serve as a consultant.

I am not a fashion maven. I never have been and never will be. You'll never catch me saying things like "Think Pink," and you'll never see me wearing dark sunglasses during lunch at the "21" Club. I don't play the fashion game; I don't lunch, wine-and-dine with the fashion-y crowd, and I've never perfected the art of going backstage after a bad fashion show and telling the designer that it was "fabulous." I'm not a Diana Vreeland, or a Carrie Donovan, or an Anna Wintour, playing the movie version of a fashion editor a la Lady in the Dark.

The charge that I am not, somehow, a real fashion person has dogged me throughout the greater portion of my professional life, through my years as editor in chief at Vogue and through my tenure as founder and director of Mirabella. It's a criticism that I have always claimed as a badge of honor. I don't like glitz and I don't like trendy things and I don't like slapdash and silly fashion games. All of which has, at times, led some very influential people to conclude that I don't like or appreciate fashion at all.

And that's a point with which I beg to differ.

To me, fashion has always been a vehicle--a fascinating, sometimes magnificent vehicle--for helping women enjoy and delight in their lives. Fashion to me isn't, and never has been, an end in and of itself You'll never find me getting excited about shoulder pads or caring deeply, one way or the other, if hemlines go up or down. And you won't find a magazine that bears my name going on about it either.

Magazines like Harper's Bazaar and Vogue took a real beating on the newsstand in the late 1960s and early 1970s because women weren't interested in reading about or buying clothes that served no purpose in their changing lives. That moment of women turning their backs on the old rules of fashion was my moment. I was selected as editor in chief to bring Vogue in step with that change, to make the magazine appeal to the free, working, "liberated" woman of the seventies. We showed her clothing that moved, that breathed, wonderful, handsome clothes from Bill Blass that swaggered, and the Saint Laurent pants suits and Emanuel Ungaro shawls. We beefed up the magazine with text, with interviews and arts coverage and serious health pieces because we knew we were publishing for a new kind of woman, and we didn't want her to think that we couldn't keep up with her. And when that woman fell out of favor in the 1980s, in a fashion moment captured all too perfectly in the pouf skirts of Christian Lacroix and his imitators, I fell out of fashion too.

On June 28, 1988, my husband, Dr. William Cahan, was home from a day of surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering when the telephone rang. It was Marie Fauth, a dose friend for almost three decades. "Bill," she said, "Turn on Channel 4. Liz Smith is saying something about Grace."

Bill raced over to the TV, tuning in to "Live at Five" just in time to hear a pained and uncomfortable-looking Liz Smith (who, after all, is a dear friend of ours) announce that I was to be replaced as editor in chief of Vogue by HG editor Anna Wintour.

Her full comments, I later saw, had been this:

"Ever since Anna Wintour, the editor of British Vogue, was brought to New York by Conde Nast to take over the remake of their House and Garden there have been rumors that Miss Wintour would become the editor of American Vogue, replacing the veteran Grace Mirabella. Well, now the hot publishing story is that this probably will happen on September 1. Don't ask me why Conde Nast would want to replace Grace Mirabella. Vogue is one of the healthiest, heftiest magazines in the Conde Nast chain. You know, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, but they're going to anyway."

Not broke! Vogue had never been stronger. Its circulation, which stood at 400,000 when I took over in 1971, was now holding strong at an unrivaled 1.2 million; our advertising revenues were $79.5 million; our nearest competitor's, Elle's, were just $39 million. In the course of my 17 years as editor, we had revolutionized the magazine's tone and contents. What was once a magazine for society had become a magazine for all women who wanted a little style in their lives. We'd brought Vogue into the real world. And 1.2 million women wanted to keep us there.

There had to have been some mistake.

Bill picked up the phone and called me. "Grace, this is ludicrous," he said. "What's it all about?"

"I have no idea," I said. I promised to call him back.

I sat at my desk thinking for a moment, and then headed upstairs to the office of Alexander Liberman, editorial director for all the Conde Nast publications, and Si Newhouse's alter ego. Alex was my direct boss at Vogue; he had the final word on content and layouts, hirings and firings and article assignments, and he had a wonderful creative vision that had become indispensable to me over the years. He was also a dear friend. Alex had been a mentor to me in the years before I'd become editor in chief at Vogue. He'd groomed me for the job and kept me on my toes once I was in it. He also, I realized, had been issuing veiled warnings about my handling of fashion and Si Newhouse for the past few years. But now the veil had fallen, could he really be so brutal?

I found Alex seated at his desk. Uncharacteristically, he appeared to be doing next to nothing. He seemed simply to be waiting.

"Grace, I'm afraid it's true," he said in his great, melodious voice that spoke of czarist Russia, English boarding school, and Cole Porter's New York.

"I'm sorry, Grace. I'm simply too old."

"What's that supposed to mean?" I said.

"Don't talk to me. It wasn't my idea. I had nothing to do with it. Talk to Si."

Leaving his office, riding numbly back down the elevator to my own floor, I was reminded of a line that Diana Vreeland, after her own rather brutal firing from Vogue, had passed off to Liz Smith: "I have known White Russians; I have known Red Russians. I have never known a yellow Russian."

Of all her bon mots, this was undoubtedly the best. Better than "Pink is the navy blue of India," anyway.

I had a moment of self-doubt. Should I have been more like Vreeland, after all? Should I have let myself think like Vogue's new editor, the British import and reputed ice queen, Anna Wintour? That would have been impossible. Perhaps I, too, was just too old. Perhaps they'd just decided to put me out to pasture, at age 59. It would not have been the first time that such a thing had happened at Vogue. I'd only become editor after Vreeland was summarily fired. She hadn't even seen it coming--one day, the men upstairs just called her in and told her that "it wasn't working out." I, at least, had known there'd been rumors for the better part of a year about Anna Wintour's taking over. But there are always so many rumors in the magazine industry. I had believed what I wanted to believe.

Before leaving Alex's office, I had told him, "You're going to regret this. Not because you fired me, but because of how you did it." And, sure enough, when I got back to my office, the phone was ringing. It kept ringing for months. Newspapers, magazines, television stations. Book offers. Scores and scores of friends and supporters.

Was I shocked? Was I broken? Was I furious? Would I sue?

None of the above.

My story caught the imagination of the press, which ran with it for weeks. In the magazine community it inspired a mass outbreak of schadenfreud. There were hopes of fireworks, of recriminations, of confirmation of the rumor that Anna Wintour had been having an affair with Si Newhouse, and had slept her way to the top, after all.

I allowed for no such thing. Instead, I simply told The New York Times, "For a magazine devoted to style, this was not a very stylish way of telling me." The quote caught on like wildfire. It was cited as an example of my "grace under pressure." And I felt that I'd had the last word.

Throughout the late 1980s I was told, time and again, in vague and not-so-vague and charming and not-so-charming terms, to make Vogue more like Elle, and I couldn't. Or wouldn't. And that, more than any other reason, I believe, is why I was fired.

The firing turned out to be the best thing that ever happened in my life. The outpouring of support I received afterward, support not just from friends but from strangers, proved to me that despite all the flak I'd been getting from the big boys at Vogue, women still stood behind me. For years, in arguments with Alex, I'd felt like I was toiling in a wilderness, alone in my vision but for the few loyal editors I'd assembled dose to me during my years at the top. I'd been told I was out of style, out of date, out of touch with not only the youth of America (not that Vogue, even in its youth-worshipping days under Vreeland, ever was a magazine for the young), but with the women of America in general. And now I saw, for the first time, how many women truly shared my vision. Their letters and phone calls and comments on the street brought that home to me in a way that our readership numbers had never been able to make real.

About two days after it was in the press that I had been removed from Vogue, Ed Kosner, then editor of New York, called me and said that Rupert Murdoch wanted to have lunch with me.

"Do I want to have lunch with Rupert Murdoch?" I thought. In my mind, he was a tabloids man. (That's how much I knew!) I couldn't imagine what he or I could have to offer each other. But then, I thought, what did I have to lose? I told Ed that I would love to meet Mr. Murdoch.

We had lunch at the Cote Basque, a wonderful French restaurant in midtown Manhattan. As we made small talk under the dining room's murals of southern France, Rupert surprised me suddenly with a question: "Do you think there's a woman without a magazine? A woman who's been left out by other magazines?"

And I, warming immediately to the topic, said yes.

Who is she? he asked.

She's a very smart woman, I said, who isn't necessarily 23 anymore, and doesn't want to be. She's in her mid-thirties, or maybe even older. She's a woman who's too smart to be spoken to the way most women's magazines today do. She's a woman who's sick of being talked down to and has stopped buying women's magazines because of it. And I, I said, am tired of ignoring her.

Rupert listened intently and said that he agreed. Then we passed on to other subjects and finished our lunch. And as we were preparing to say good-bye and leaving the restaurant, he said to me, in what I came to realize later was his typical way of saying a thousand large things in one small sentence, "Let me go over the figures."

A few months later I had a magazine. Murdoch put up the money. I found the talent. The women were ready and waiting. I thought the rest would be easy. Although Murdoch had, early on, sent me the message: "Tell Grace that she doesn't have to reinvent the wheel," I really thought that with enough hard work and enough passion and commitment, we could revolutionize fashion magazine publishing overnight.

It wasn't so easy, after all. There were great triumphs--particularly, I felt, in the way we were able to position Mirabella as the premier women's health advocate in the magazine community. There were formidable challenges, too, ones that the "new" Mirabella still has to face. Yet with the sensibility of [Elle editorial director] Amy Gross and the publishing strength of Hachette Filipacchi and the changed woman reader, ready and waiting, an intelligent magazine can make a niche for itself--without focusing primarily on fashion; but, rather, fitting fashion into a thoughtful woman's world.

It's a never-ending drama, this business, with its ins and outs, its flavors of the month, of the day, of the hour. As T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem "Four Quartets": "To make an end is to make a beginning./The end is where we start from." The story continues. The ending is not yet written.

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"Grace under pressure." Folio: the Magazine for Magazine Management, 15 Sept. 1995, p. 58+. Gale Academic Onefile, Accessed 23 Sept. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A17349577