- The Improbable First Century of Cosmopolitan Magazine
Cosmopolitan is one of a handful of American periodicals that have had a continuous existence for more than one hundred years—at least the name has been around that long. Over that period, the magazine has undergone many incarnations, from a general family magazine to a crusading progressive voice to a sensationalist outlet for muckraking to a quality popular fiction magazine before its last metamorphosis appealing to young, often single women making their way in the world of careers and sexual experimentation. James Landers's history covers the magazine's first hundred years thoroughly, using much archival material. There is some justification for his labeling the magazine's continued existence as "improbable," although he attributes its survival (it is 126 years old as of this writing) more to the "primacy of individuals who create something new, something worthwhile" (298). The individuals in question are John Brisben Walker, the magazine's second owner; [End Page 113] William Randolph Hearst, who purchased the magazine from Walker; Ray Long, its editor from 1918-32; and Helen Gurley Brown, who took over the moribund title in 1965, completely transforming it from what it had been for most of its lifespan.
Some of the early history is well known to scholars of late-nineteenth-century magazines. Landers traces Walker's taking a failing magazine and making it into a leader in its category, transforming it into a vehicle for his progressive and pro-business views. New rivalry (especially from McClure's) in the turbulent period of magazine competition in the mid-1890s dropped it to second place. By the early 1900s, the ever-restless Walker had new interests (automobiles) and the magazine, as Landers says, "lost vitality." Walker sold the magazine to newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst in 1905. Under Hearst, Cosmopolitan became more overtly political, its often-sensational campaigns against child labor and political corruption defining muckraking more than the more scholarly articles of McClure's (and later Collier's and the American) in this unprecedented period in magazine journalism. After the end of the muckraking era, Cosmopolitan was transformed again, especially after Hearst hired Ray Long in 1918 to become its editor (and the overseer of Hearst's other magazines). Long was a workaholic editor with a keen eye for what was popular, and under his editorship, the magazine became a premier outlet for popular fiction.
Drawing on Hearst's papers at the University of California, Berkeley, Landers's narrative moves into new territory in recounting the next phases of the magazine's existence, which have never been told in such detail. Through the early 1920s, its circulation was over one million, composed mostly of affluent middle class readers, and consequently it was attractive to advertisers, generating healthy profits for Hearst, both the company and its leader, personally. The only bump in the magazine's successful journey under Long was competition from its corporate sibling, Hearst's International, which "The Chief" founded in 1911 as an eponymous vehicle for his political ideas and interests. Over the years, Hearst's International and Cosmopolitan came to resemble each other in content and design. In 1925, Hearst merged the two periodicals under the ungainly title of Hearst's International Combined with Cosmopolitan. Although Long tried to keep the quality of the new magazine up to his previous standards, the publication occasionally veered toward the inconsequential formulas of some of its rivals. By the end of the decade, Long was at odds with his corporate bosses, and as the Depression affected the magazine business along with all other businesses, he was forced out. The magazine limped along through the Depression, the war years, and the 1950s, a shadow of its former self. In the post-war period, when magazines, now in competition with television for advertising dollars, thrived or died on specialization, Cosmopolitan had no clear identity. The venerable magazine was on the verge of extinction in the mid-1960s when it found an unlikely savior in the person of Helen Gurley Brown, [End Page 114...