Brand building through storytelling

How did we get to be veterans?

I couldn’t tell you what I wore to work on October 18, 1979, or what kind of mood I was in as I dashed to the subway with my briefcase. I might have been sighing at my eight-year-old’s habit of mislaying homework, or smiling at some funny little saying of his that at the time seemed unforgettably endearing.

Rona FlareThere’s just one thing I know for sure about that day, two days before I turned 30. In my office at Flare, I dictated the letter that gave a young journalist named Antonia Zerbisias her first magazine assignment. I had high hopes for Antonia, who’d just sent us one of those rare pitch letters that have editors asking, “Why has no one else discovered this writer and how fast can I connect her with my readers?”

Antonia and I didn’t work together very long. But I’ve followed her career off and on, as she has followed mine. We’ve had one of those distant yet still vaguely satisfying connections that are perfectly suited to Facebook. Which is where, a week ago, she messaged me to say that she’d been cleaning out her files and had found my letter.

I had taken great pride in the letters I composed back then. I used to see myself as the Max Perkins of fashion magazines for the under-35 set. Yet I hadn’t thought to save even one of those letters. That Antonia had (along with the entire dossier) seemed almost too good to be true. And so, within hours, I was face-to-face again with my young self, and hers.

These days few editors bother with detailed assignment letters. Instead they send contracts designed by corporate masters to head off expensive copyright disputes. When I sit down to write a magazine piece and review the marching orders, they’re just that: length, deadline, a few terse lines of summary. I rarely feel that I’m engaging with a sympathetic reader who understands the power of the word. We’ve entered an era in which many young writers have never experienced the surge of motivation that an editor’s letter can unleash.

Rereading my letter to Antonia, I can’t suppress a certain wistfulness. It had authority, clarity and warmth; in fact, I couldn’t have done much better in my career-defining job, Editor of Chatelaine. I didn’t consciously aspire to such a lofty position, and yet my letter pointed that way. The story at hand was a nuts-and-bolts career profile, but I suggested Antonia look ahead to “witty and rueful personal essays on life, love and the passing scene—your letter suggests you’d have a deft touch.”

That it did, to say the least. I knew Antonia had written a standout pitch. I just couldn’t have foreseen that of the thousands upon thousands of pitch letters I’d later see at Chatelaine, where I spent a decade as Editor, not one would surpass Antonia’s.

Here’s how she introduced herself: “I am probably your advertising manager’s dream-come-true. I am 28 years old, have a terrific career in television, make a lot of money and, unfortunately, spend even more….As a result of my addiction to magazines, I have acquired an insatiable desire for clothes, cosmetics and all the other goodies that pay your bills and increase mine. I would like to augment my income so that I may continue this reckless spending.

“My bank manager has cautioned me to stay out of stores. Hence, I find myself with a great deal of free time. Enough to propose a few stories to Flare and even write them.”

Antonia addressed her letter to my boss and mentor, Keitha McLean. In a postscript she recalled admiring Keitha’s early fashion and beauty pieces for the late Montreal Star (“I wanted to be just like you”). But I, the unknown and underpaid number two with a single good silk jacket to her name, was in charge of the slush pile and the $300 assignments dispensed to first-time contributors. Shortly after I got Antonia started, Keitha followed up with a personal note of encouragement to this neophyte she called “a person after my own heart.” It was just this sort of spontaneous gesture that attracted young talent to Keitha, no matter how little she paid.

In January, 1981, just after John Lennon was shot, I moved on to another magazine for a 50 percent salary increase. Antonia, meanwhile, switched from broadcast to print, and from magazine pieces like “Confessions of a Sex Object” to the butt-kicking feminism of her longstanding column for The Toronto Star(where she also writes a blog, Broadsides). On the face of things, it was a total reversal from the spendthrift, fashion-crazed persona she’d adopted in her pitch to Flare. Then again, maybe not. At 28, she already had the assured voice of a columnist, and a knowingness that played with her own self-mockery.

Antonia likes to say she used to be punished for being “rude, obstreporous and bold,” but now makes it pay. As for me, I’m giving these words away. Yet Antonia and I do have one thing in common besides the $300 story that briefly united us, back when we were bright up-and-comers. Somehow we’ve evolved into veterans—the kind of people whose letters will one day reside in archives, to be perused by researchers in white cotton gloves.

We have practical reasons to gather old correspondence, but the personal remains front and centre. Keitha McLean died years ago of cancer at 53. I took none of her whimsical, large-hearted notes when I left her staff, but at least I have her note to Antonia. Keitha’s signature is just as I remembered—the emphatic, looping, barely legible scrawl of a woman on the run, hurtling toward her next discovery.

Keitha McLean, who inspired a multitude of young writers, visual artists and stylists, is barely visible online. No Wikipedia entry exists for her, although I did find one of her articles here. She’s a pivotal figure in my memoir, My Mother’sDaughter; I’ve also referenced her here.

Posted by Rona

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