The Improbable First Century of Cosmopolitan Magazine

The Improbable First Century of Cosmopolitan Magazine

The Improbable First Century of Cosmopolitan Magazine

The Improbable First Century of Cosmopolitan Magazine


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.


By all rights, Cosmopolitan should not have survived its first hundred years.

Born in March 1886, it nearly died during summer 1888 when it suspended 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. Hearst Corporation executives were ready to kill it early in 1965, but they took a chance on an editor who promised a dramatic transformation. Helen Gurley Brown kept her promise.

Cosmopolitan survived because it transformed itself: from a family literary magazine to a general magazine filled with articles on national and international topics and fiction; then to a sensationalist magazine that emphasized exposé articles and political commentary from 1905 to 1912; then to a quality fiction magazine that published the most popular and highly paid authors, and enlivened their stories with fine illustrations from the most popular and highly paid artists of the 1920s; and, finally, to a magazine for younger women, either married or single, who liked its mix of articles on careers, celebrities, relationships, sex, and various topics the traditional women’s periodicals had not presented in such a lively and occasionally risqué style.

From a floundering publication at its start to its centenary stature as the centerpiece of the Hearst publishing empire, Cosmopolitan was alternately mediocre, admirable and respectable, sensational, literary, mediocre again, and sensational again.

It might seem obvious that a magazine, or any business, must be dynamic to survive. Yet many dynamic magazines that competed with Cosmopolitan during its first hundred years failed—some because they changed editorial format too quickly and alienated loyal readers while not attracting new readers; some because they blended old and new formats, thereby losing a specific editorial identity and purpose; some because they chose a new format in a category already occupied by dominant magazines. Consider this list of magazines . . .

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