Brand building through storytelling

When McCall’s sang the praises of togetherness

Although I’m not among those feel personally stricken by the death of Gourmetmagazine after 68 years, I’ve been thinking these last few days about defunct magazines—the absent friends at the newsstand. I was going to celebrate each one, but the first ran away with this post.

When I was 14 and saw the certainties of life exploded by JFK’s assassination—my idol Jackie numb with grief in her blood-stained pink suit, Walter Cronkite weeping on TV, my voluble parents reduced to anguished silence—I waited for the reassuring thump of the Christmas McCall’s through our big brass mail slot. I was waiting for tall cool blondes in red velvet dresses, for glittering trees bedecked with colour-coordinated angels, for cookie houses and full-throated carollers singing of peace on earth under a sky alight with stars. Other women’s magazines served up the same seasonal imagery, but with nowhere near the panache of McCall’s—the Jackie of women’s titles, reducing all the rest to pin-curled Mamie Eisenhowers. I counted on McCall’s to dream Christmas into being as it had always been before November 22, 1963.

McCall’s seemed eternal to me, along with soda fountains, station wagons and mothers who welcomed their kids home from school with fresh-baked cookies. My own mother had hoped to be teaching university English, but was waylaid by the strictures of her time. While her cookies turned crisp and fragrant, she cranked out articles for magazines like McCall’s (so did another writer named Betty Friedan). Every year or so my mother’s clothes began to pinch and she dropped a size on the McCall’s Miracle Diet. With movie reviews by Pauline Kael and a column by Eleanor Roosevelt, the magazine salved the egos of educated women who longed to be addressed as thinking readers. But it didn’t push the boundaries of gender equality as Chatelaine did in Canada. And unlike Chatelaine throughout most of its history, McCall’s didn’t have a woman at the helm. The self-proclaimed “magazine of togetherness,” it mostly celebrated women in their roles as helpmeet and consumer.

The creative brain behind McCall’s as I remember it, legendary art director Otto Storch, went on to a career in advertising. No wonder so many of the layouts had the lofty, cerebral inventiveness of ad campaigns launched by real-life Mad Men. Even as a child cutting out the monthly Betsy McCall paper doll, I aspired to a piece of American prosperity as seen in the double-page spreads of McCall’s. The autumn I turned 11, my sister and I begged our mother for Victorian-influenced dresses like the ones we’d just seen in McCall’s. Mother would drive out of her way to save a few pennies on a can of tuna, but she broke down and paid full price for our dresses lest her girls miss out on the look of the season.

By the time I launched my magazine career in the mid-70s, McCall’s was already fading into genteel irrelevance. I went to see a long-time senior editor there, a woman with weary eyes and a gentle smile. We sat in her chintz-curtained office; she nodded as I told her why the magazine needed an overhaul if it hoped to attract my generation. Why did McCall’s still project the assumption that its readers were at home making Halloween costumes? Where were the articles about working mothers? The recipes for women with neither the patience nor the time for chicken cordon bleu? The columnists with bite and vision? At the editor’s suggestion, I wrote a letter—at least two pages, single-spaced—for her to show the man who ran McCall’s. I hoped he might exclaim, “We’ve got to hire this Rona Maynard!”

Silence.

McCall’s died a slow and humiliating death. Like a patient who embarks on a disastrous makeover after medicine has failed to reverse a mortal illness, it was renamed Rosie in 2001, with Rosie O’Donnell as editorial director. Why did anyone think this would work? You might as well ask why the desperately ill are known to blow their savings on quackery. At the end of 2002, while I was editing Chatelaine,Rosie fell victim to a poisonous dispute between O’Donnell and her publishers.

You have to be a reader of a certain age to remember the heyday of McCall’s. All the more reason why something compels me to remember. It’s certainly not that I miss the magazine, or ever recognized so much as a glimmer of my life in the pages. Of the defunct magazines I have waited for—MademoiselleHippocratesNew Woman and that titan of my childhood, Life—it’s far from the closest to my heart.

Yet after a lifetime of reading magazines, and more than 30 years of shaping them as an editor or writer, I know there are precious few titles that encapsulate the spirit of their time as McCall’s used to do with such finely engineered conviction. It held out the promise, month after month, of an unchanging world where everyone in every family was beautiful, beloved, abundantly fed and dressed to the nines. I knew better, of course. How could I not, with a father who drank, a mother who fervently wished she could be working and fighter planes flying overhead from a nearby air force base, ready to defend us when the Russians declared World War III? When McCall’s arrived, I forgot all that. Turning the glossy pages, I believed.

Maybe someday I’ll write about Life’s formative influence on my imagination. What a magazine! I’ve told part of this story in a post about Anne Frank, whom I first encountered through a cover story in Life.

 

 Posted by Rona

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