Memories of a Fantastic Four: Carter, Leive, Myers and Gibbs
A retrospective on the careers of four editors who are starting new chapters.
Editor’s note: We reached out to 30-year min vet and former editor-in-chief, Steve Cohn, to give us his take on the exodus of four of the magazine industry’s most well-known editors last week. Below are his thoughts, as only somebody who followed these editors for most, if not all, of their careers could offer.
“The torch has been passed to new generation,” John F. Kennedy’s famous line from his 1961 inaugural address, has long applied to veteran magazine media executives when they leave after lengthy tenures and fresh faces succeed them. But it was more of a blowtorch, when Graydon Carter, Cindi Leive, Robbie Myers and Nancy Gibbs—four editors with decades of experience and acclaim—stepped down all within a week.
They left at a time of vast change from print to digital and beyond. Although magazines have adapted to various degrees, the once plush print bottom lines from advertising and circulation have yet to be fully replaced by digital, mobile, events or licensing. Many publishing companies have either been battered or, in the case of Rodale and Wenner Media, put up for sale.
That is why four iconic editors became expendable, even if the decision to leave was theirs. Yet in my having followed their careers, I recall their starts being challenging, and in Carter’s case being rocky.
He was a star in the 1980s, along with Kurt Andersen. They put Spy on the map with the witty “Separated at Birth” and such news-making profiles as an early and unflattering exposure of Donald Trump. But Tina Brown was a megastar at Vanity Fair, with her biggest buzz came from the August 1991 cover of the nude and pregnant Demi Moore. One year later, Condé Nast chairman Si Newhouse acceded to Brown’s desire to become editor of The New Yorker and he gave Carter the VF job.
The problem for Carter was that Brown took the VF advertisers and writers with her to TNY. Further, Carter’s first publishers were hostile: Ron Galotti wanted to reunite with Brown (they did, in 1998, at the short-lived Talk) and 1993 successor Kathy Leventhal wanted him fired. I recall a 1993 breakfast with VF communications director Beth Kseniak (she’s still there) when she implored me to “write something nice about Graydon.”
That fall, he announced plans for an event at the Academy Awards in April 1994, even though the Oscar afterparty had long been the domain of agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar. But Carter got an opening with Lazar’s death in December 1993. His first party was modest, but it impressed Newhouse who gave his support by suggesting VF’s “Hollywood” issue, which has been a fixture since April 1995, and replaced Leventhal with a very supportive Mitch Fox, who told me that “I just let Graydon be Graydon.”
As has every VF publisher since, and the rest was history.
Cyndi Leive was a lifer a Glamour, but in August 1998 the deputy editor was bypassed for Bonnie Fuller after editor Ruth Whitney resigned because of the ALS that took her life in May 1999. Leive became Self editor as a consolation, but she would get the Glamour job after Fuller was ousted in May 2001 for running a Catherine Zeta-Jones cover two months ahead of one scheduled for Vogue, and angering Anna Wintour in the process.
Leive’s debut issue was set for November 2001, and the release was to be accompanied by a reception on September 20. But the September 11 attacks changed everything, and what was to be a night of celebration turned out to be an all-nighter for Leive and her staff as they overhauled the issue to include coverage of the female heroes of 9/11.
She shared the experience with me at a breakfast in an empty Condé Nast cafeteria on September 21 (the building had several bomb scares that week), and over the next 16 years Leive would enhance Whitney’s legacy by expanding “Women of the Year” while building her own.
Robbie Myers was Mirabella editor-in-chief when then-Hachette Filipacchi Media president Jack Kliger moved her to the Elle flagship in May 2000. That came two years after HFM finally got editorial autonomy over the U.S. Elle, which had been run by its French parent since its 1985 launch. It worked for a while (Elle’s early success was a reason why Wintour became Vogue editor-in-chief in 1988), but throughout the 1990s Elle had lost market share to Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar due in part to the revolving door of editors.
Myers changed all that. Under her direction, Elle became a voice for women beyond fashion in honoring those in many sectors (Hollywood, music, technology, politics, etc.). Proof came in 2011, when she was an asset in the Hearst acquisition, and in 2015 with a combined celebration of Elle’s 30th anniversary and her 15th.
Myers’ 17 years at Elle surpassed all of her predecessors combined.
As with Leive, Nancy Gibbs was a lifer at Time, and her “apprenticeship” included writing 100-plus cover stories (including the National Magazine Award-winning September 11 issue) and coauthoring with deputy managing editor Michael Duffy the best-selling The Presidents Club on the bond among U.S. presidents. Her 2013 promotion to Time editor came shortly after the book’s release, and Gibbs’ four-year reign will be remembered for her breaking the “glass ceiling” as the first woman to edit Time and for guiding the nearly century-old brand through the corporate turbulence. In spite of the many staff reductions, Time’s journalistic reputation remained intact with a highlight being Gibbs’ selection of 2016 “Person of the Year” Donald Trump accompanied by the biting “President of the Divided States of America.”
Gibbs leaving Time after four years to return to writing maintained a three-decade tradition of editors serving no longer than five years. Only her predecessor Rick Stengel exceeded it in serving six years.
The one conclusion for the four successors (Time’s Edward Felsenthal and Elle’s Nina Garcia have already been named) is that their reigns will be much different than their predecessors—and all before them.