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The Improbable First Century of Cosmopolitan Magazine

James Landers

Publication Year: 2010


Today, monthly issues of Cosmopolitan magazine scream out to readers from checkout counters and newsstands. With bright covers and bold, sexy headlines, this famous periodical targets young, single women aspiring to become the quintessential “Cosmo girl.” Cosmopolitan is known for its vivacious character and frank, explicit attitude toward sex, yet because of its reputation, many people don’t realize that the magazine has undergone many incarnations before its current one, including family literary magazine and muckraking investigative journal, and all are presented in The Improbable First Century of Cosmopolitan Magazine. The book boasts one particularly impressive contributor: Helen Gurley Brown herself, who rarely grants interviews but spoke and corresponded with James Landers to aid in his research.


            When launched in 1886, Cosmopolitan was a family literary magazine that published quality fiction, children’s stories, and homemaking tips. In 1889 it was rescued from bankruptcy by wealthy entrepreneur John Brisben Walker, who introduced illustrations and attracted writers such as Mark Twain, Willa Cather, and H. G. Wells. Then, when newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst purchased Cosmopolitan in 1905, he turned it into a purveyor of exposé journalism to aid his personal political pursuits. But when Hearst abandoned those ambitions, he changed the magazine in the 1920s back to a fiction periodical featuring leading writers such as Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and William Somerset Maugham. His approach garnered success by the 1930s, but poor editing sunk Cosmo’s readership as decades went on. By the mid-1960s executives considered letting Cosmopolitan die, but Helen Gurley Brown, an ambitious and savvy businesswoman, submitted a plan for a dramatic editorial makeover. Gurley Brown took the helm and saved Cosmopolitan by publishing articles about topics other women’s magazines avoided. Twenty years later, when the magazine ended its first century, Cosmopolitan was the profit center of the Hearst Corporation and a culturally significant force in young women’s lives.


            The Improbable First Century of Cosmopolitan Magazine 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. This book will be of interest not only to modern Cosmo aficionadas but also to journalism students, news historians, and anyone interested in publishing.

Published by: University of Missouri Press


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pp. 2-5


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pp. 6-7

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pp. 8-15

By all rights, Cosmopolitan should not have survived its first hundred years.Born in March 1886, it nearly died during summer 1888 when it suspend-ed publishing for two months. A publisher of a religious magazine revived it, then sold it to a wealthy adventurer-entrepreneur from Colorado who saved it. It was dying again by summer 1905. William Randolph Hearst rescued it. ...

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1. Creation

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pp. 16-50

At noon on a Tuesday late in the month, twenty-eight men met for a hast-ily scheduled conference at the downtown Powers Hotel. They sat at tables in an ornate reception room adorned with candlesticks and chandeliers for fes-tive occasions, but these local businessmen had convened to learn the extent of their financial loss from the sudden bankruptcy of Schlicht & Field Com-...

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2. Salvation

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pp. 51-85

Elizabeth Bisland awoke in the bedroom of her apartment to the usual sound of her maid bringing a tray on which breakfast, newspapers, and mail were ti-dily arranged. Bisland opened the mail, “read the papers leisurely, made a calm and uneventful toilet,” and readied herself for work. At ten-thirty, she received “a hurried and mysterious request . . . that I would come as soon as possible to ...

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3. Competition

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pp. 86-118

Commuters aboard trains that pass through Irvington to and from New York City to the south can see the big building on a small hill nearby. It is quite im-pressive, a faded white beaux-arts relic that stretches the length of a football field alongside the railroad tracks. Irvington residents call the old landmark the Trent Building, but for many years after its construction during the late 1890s ...

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4. Distraction

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pp. 119-139

William Jennings Bryan visited New York City during early summer 1897. It was a chance to thank important city Democrats for their support the previous year, and perhaps to let them know that despite his loss to William McKinley he might try for the presidency again in 1900. At age thirty-seven, Bryan planned to be a political figure for a long time. He relied on a coterie of staunch believ-...

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5. Sensation

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pp. 140-186

Of the eleven biographies written about William Randolph Hearst, two de-scribed him as something of a saint: generous, honest, idealistic, kind, loyal. The first was written by the wife of a former Hearst editor, the second by one of his own sons. Nine other Hearst biographers agreed the man had some positive traits, but their descriptions of less than saintly characteristics established his ...

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6. Consolidation

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pp. 187-225

It was December 1932. A letter from the Manhattan office of the general manager of magazines bluntly stated the financial situation to William Ran-dolph Hearst at his castle in San Simeon, California. Cosmopolitan, the flagship among nine magazines published by Hearst, was beset by common and un-common circumstances: national economic conditions at the start of the De-...

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7. Transition

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pp. 226-239

At age eighty-two, William Randolph Hearst was eager to resume authority for his newspapers and magazines in the closing months of World War II. A ro-bust wartime economy had revived most remnant publications (eleven news-papers had closed, merged, or were sold), his businesses were creditworthy again, and his goal was to restore luster to his favorite publication. “I would like to ...

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8. Transformation

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pp. 240-283

Helen Gurley Brown first mentioned her idea for a nude male centerfold to executives at Hearst Magazines during autumn 1968. “I wanted someone fun, frisky,” Gurley Brown said. Executives were not thrilled. Cosmopolitan already had endured ridicule and scorn from national magazines and network televi-sion programs for its seemingly obsessive preoccupation with sex since Gurley ...

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9. Celebration

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pp. 284-309

The visitor walked into the Hearst Tower in midtown Manhattan and stood for a moment in the lobby to admire the gentle cascade of water from far above that shimmered in sunlight. At the reception desk the visitor received a cod-ed electronic card and directions to Cosmopolitan. An escalator passed between twin streams of the waterfall to carry the visitor to a vast plaza atrium on the ...

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10. Continuation

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pp. 310-313

The first decade of the twenty-first century accelerated a revolution in com-munications begun in the last decade of the twentieth. The World Wide Web matured, making accessible to an individual with a computer all matter of in-formation and entertainment at all times. The development of wireless mode freed computers to receive information and entertainment anywhere a signal ...


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pp. 314-343


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pp. 344-359


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pp. 360-369

E-ISBN-13: 9780826272331
E-ISBN-10: 0826272339
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826219060
Print-ISBN-10: 0826219063

Page Count: 368
Illustrations: 34 illus
Publication Year: 2010

Edition: 1