One of last week's activities was reading James Landers' The Improbable First Century of Cosmopolitan Magazine (Columbia: The University of Missouri Press, 2010), and one could make the case, I suppose, that no American magazine of any genre or combination of genres has gone through as many changes as Cosmo. Founded in 1886 as a literary magazine, Cosmopolitan went so far as to transform itself into an institution of higher learning:

A free correspondence school modeled on the Chautauqua School self-education method, Cosmopolitan University promised a "course of studies with reference to the real needs of men and women in the various walks of life." To enroll, applicants submitted a statement about prior education, the reason for further study, and the courses they wished to take. "All instruction blanks, examination papers, official circulars, etc. will be furnished free."

In August 1898, one year after the introduction of the University, enrollment stood at 21,000, far more than the magazine could afford to support; eventually students would be charged a fee of $5 a quarter, and the experiment wound down in the early 1900s. The magazine was acquired by William Randolph Hearst in 1905 and turned into a companion for Hearst's sensationalist newspapers.

Once Hearst figured out that he was not going to be either mayor of New York City or governor of New York state he did serve two terms in the House of Representatives he scaled back the shrillness a smidgen. The Depression brought a forced reorganization to the Hearst empire and a merger with the failing Hearst's International magazine; Cosmopolitan had returned to its roots, sort of, publishing contemporary fiction and essays, though in this version, it was competing, not with the Atlantic and its ilk, but with mass-market publications like Reader's Digest.

After World War II, the magazine was floundering, and nothing Hearst could throw at the wall seemed to stick. In 1964, Helen Gurley Brown, author of the successful manual Sex and the Single Girl and, not incidentally, the wife of former Cosmo managing editor David Brown approached Hearst and several other publishers with a proposal for a new publication, to be called Femme, based upon the notions in her book. Hearst liked the idea of Femme, but hated the idea of startup costs for a new magazine, so in 1965, they signed Mrs Brown to a two-year contract to reshape Cosmo into the magazine she wanted. She was still there in 1997, when Hearst kicked her upstairs to the International Editor slot.

Helen Gurley Brown in 1964The cover of Improbable First Century incorporates this fairly well-known photo of Helen Gurley Brown from 1964. I'd read Sex and the Single Girl when I was in high school, and rather a lot of it stuck. The picture, it occurs to me now, is probably the perfect evocation of Brown's idea of the Cosmo girl: she's not necessarily the prettiest on the block, but she knows how to work what she's got.

And I was reading a fair amount of Cosmo in the 1980s. Did I miss the 100th-anniversary issue? There wasn't one: in the March 1986 issue, says Landers, there was "not a word from the editor to commemorate a century of transformation and survival by Cosmopolitan." Then again, how many Cosmo readers in 1986 remembered the magazine before Helen Gurley Brown? Not many, I suspect. I certainly didn't.

We are assured by the magazine industry that the magazine industry isn't going away any time soon. It may even be true. I'm pretty sure that Cosmo's audience described in a META tag on their Web site as "millions of fun fearless females who want to be the best they can in every area of their lives" isn't going away any time soon.

The Vent

  8 March 2011

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 Copyright © 2011 by Charles G. Hill